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Living in Chennai

Living in Chennai will place you in the heart of a bustling Indian city. This can be a shock for some expats, as the Indian way of life is completely unique. This InterNations guide will introduce you to the city’s culture, as well as the more practical issues of housing and education in Chennai.
The San Thome Basilica is a beautiful example of Chennai's varied architecture.

Expats living in Chennai will be steeped in cultural history. Chennai, or "Madras", as it used to be known, is the state capital of Tamil Nadu. The British established themselves here in the 1600s and there are many monuments in the city referring back to the colonial era.

The town, back then called Chennapattnam, which developed around the British fort, became an important center for international trade and regional politics. Today, living in Chennai has become a multiethnic and multicultural experience.

India’s Fourth Most Populous City and Its People

There are approximately 9 million people currently living in the Chennai metropolitan area. This makes it the fourth most populous city in all of India. Most of the local residents are Tamils, but there are also significant minorities of other demographic groups from South Asia, e.g. Telugu people, Bengalis, Punjabi, and Anglo-Indians.

Most of the population thus considers Tamil to be their official language, with Telugu in a distant second place. If you are an English speaker, though, living in Chennai should not be a problem. This is another lingua franca in the city, especially among white-collar workers, and most people can speak at least a few words.

As far as religion is concerned, you will find some Muslims and Christians living in Chennai, but the vast majority of the population is Hindu. They take their religion very seriously — hundreds of temples are scattered across the city.

This also means that there are plenty of festivals throughout the year, and everyone is encouraged to participate! The biggest of these is Thai Pongal, which is celebrated over a period of several days in January. If you are living in Chennai during this time of the year, you could join the local population in celebrating this Tamil harvest festival.

Sun, Sand, and a Sunday Morning Market

One very enjoyable aspect of living in Chennai is the scenery, in particular its two main beaches, Marina Beach and Elliot’s Beach. Unfortunately, as a result of rapid urban expansion, the beaches’ once pristine state has somewhat deteriorated.

Marina Beach is the largest urban beach in India, and one of the longest in Asia. It lies to the east of the city, just three kilometers from the center, so it can be easily reached by everyone living in Chennai. The drive along the beach, which runs the length of Chennai, is recommended for its lovely palm trees and numerous monuments. The beach itself is lined with street sellers, hawkers, and entertainers, and is usually packed with people trying to escape the city.

Avoid the water, though, as there is a strong undercurrent that can take swimmers by surprise. Most people will bring a picnic and enjoy the bustling atmosphere on the sand. This is also true for Elliot’s Beach (aka Besant Nagar Beach), where it is advised that you remain in the cleaner, northern part of the beach. Elliot’s Beach is slightly quieter than Marina Beach, offering a nice respite from the hectic pace of Chennai.

Try to make it to the Sunday morning fish market on Marina Beach. Shopping amongst the locals and trying to bargain like one will give you an excellent taste of what living in Chennai encompasses. Remember to never settle for their first offer!

A Cultural Scene Fitting Chennai’s Heritage

Although you might be living in Chennai for a long period of time, you should still experience the cultural sights which the city has to offer tourists and residents alike. One of your first stops will probably be Fort St. George. Built in 1640 by the East India Company, this is believed to be the first British establishment in India.

In the fort you can find St. Mary’s Church, one of the oldest surviving churches built by the British in India. To complement this, you can visit various Hindu temples, such as Kapaleeswarar Temple and Vadapalani Temple, to get a truly good grasp of life in Chennai today.

The Madras High Court is also worth a visit. Its impressive architecture is fitting for the world’s second largest judicial complex. If after seeing the city you feel like experiencing something more natural, try the Guindy National Park. Located in the heart of the city, this park provides a pleasant and, given its central location, surprising escape from the noise and traffic of Chennai.

A Low Crime Rate, but Teasing and Traffic Remain an Issue

Chennai is relatively safe compared to other major cities in India. The crime rate of the city is significantly lower. Property crimes like pick-pocketing, scams, and occasional muggings are probably the most widespread crimes involving foreign visitors or residents. So, try not to carry large amounts of cash or important documents with you.

However, if you are an expat woman living in Chennai, you may still have to cope with the South Asian phenomenon of “Eve teasing”. This is a euphemism for harassment — sexual or otherwise — of women on the streets. The police often turn a blind eye to this sort of crime, and it is therefore best to take preventative measures: Travel in groups, if possible; be alert if you are alone; limit your interaction with strangers; and dress conservatively and inconspicuously.

Living in Chennai should not hold any other significant risks — other than maybe the traffic. Be extremely careful when trying to cross a road, and do not drive yourself if you are not used to chaotic traffic and risky behavior on the road.


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