A satellite's view of Chennai at night. Credit: NASA

Landing over Chennai

Chennai is my favourite city to land in an airplane over.

The runway at its Meenambakkam Airport is oriented such that planes often have to land after manoeuvring themselves over the Bay of Bengal, approaching the city over the Marina beach. As a result, especially at night, it becomes evident how Chennai ‘originates’ from its port, growing from there like a seed into a tumultuous urban jungle.

The port has a pair of pincer-like structures jutting into the bay, into whose folds massive container ships – anchored offshore in the dozens – wait to arrive, conduct business and depart. The Marina, a 3.5 km long stretch of beach that abuts the port to one side, is not that brightly lit and is difficult to make out as such. However, you know you’re looking at the Marina because of the Kamarajar Promenade: 4 km long, wide, from Santhome Cathedral to the University of Madras.

Being very well lit with white LED lamps, it appears like an eidolon keeping the placidity of the beach, and the pelagic deep beyond, apart from the chaos of the city. V. Sriram, Chennai historian, writes on his blog:

The road that runs parallel to the Marina has been in existence from the mid-nineteenth century. Known earlier as South Beach Road, it was renamed Kamarajar Salai, commemorating a much-loved Chief Minister of the State. On the opposite side of the Marina came up several landmark buildings and institutions – The Madras University, Senate House, Presidency College, Chepauk Palace, the PWD Buildings, the University Examination Hall, the Ice House, Lady Willingdon Institute, Queen Mary’s College, the office of the Director-General of Police and the All India Radio. This row can be termed the cradle of the Indo-Saracenic form of architecture for it was here that, beginning with Chepauk Palace (1750s), that style was conceived, and perfected with Senate House (1860s). …

The beach also became the venue for public meetings, especially during the Freedom Struggle. Remembering this, a statue of Mahatma Gandhi sculpted by DP Roy Chowdhury, then Principal of the Government College of Arts and Crafts, was erected here in the 1950s. Another of his works on the Marina is the Triumph of Labour, inspired by the landing of American troops at Iwo Jima. In 1968 the second World Tamil Conference was held in Madras. To commemorate this, the statues of several Tamil poets, writers, literary characters and scholars were put up along the Marina. Several statues also dot the pavement opposite and one of these is of Swami Vivekananda. He stayed for a week at the Ice House – the building in which, ice, a precious commodity in hot Madras, was imported from America, stored and sold, from the 1750s till 1860! It was while walking on the Marina that Vivekananda received an inner call urging him to travel to the Parliament of Religions at Chicago. Two Chief Ministers of the State, CN Annadurai and MG Ramachandran are remembered with grand memorials on the beach. K Kamaraj, is also commemorated here by way of a statue, as is Annie Besant the Irish woman who became an Indian patriot.

There are distinct roads emerging perpendicularly from the Kamarajar Promenade and taking off into the west, away from the shore. They remain discernible for a few hundred metres or so before they dissolve into the mass of buildings around them, lost completely to the bird’s eye.

They haven’t ended, however. Some parts of Chennai were planned but most of it is not. Roads exist but they aren’t easy for the eye to follow from a metal container flying at 250 km/hr a few thousand feet up in the air. They are best followed with legs as they turn this way and that, feeding all parts of an old city with people and goods.

For example, though I don’t go out much, I was able to identify at least four roads that Google Maps didn’t know were there in the few months I lived in Chennai last year.

Bangalore and Delhi, on the other hand, because they’re not coastal, offer something much less sudden and also much less sublime. The lack of sublimity is especially true of Bangalore, a city surrounded by hundreds of lakes. As you come within some 500 km of it, numerous lakes dot the land, and you know the city is about to begin when they appear to shrivel up like dried grapes. It’s an ugly sight.

Delhi is an urban sprawl that begins and ends, from the aircraft’s perspective, in the middle of nowhere. However, window-side passengers do catch a glimpse of the anaemic Yamuna to one side of the city, its surface changing from a deep blue one minute to a murky brown the next.

This isn’t to say Chennai has not uglified the land and ecosystems around it. The serenity of ships off of the Marina is a thin veil over a neritic zone ravaged by trawlers. The Adyar river is barely visible and fares worse than the Yamuna. Landfills to the north and south have destroyed marshland and almost all of the city’s south has been built over a natural drainage system.

In fact, a view of Chennai at night masks these concerns because what you see is effectively an economic map of the city – a map of what deserves to be lit at night and what is lit more brightly than others. In the 21st century, cities are conceived as economic engines, and they are exposed best when everything uncommercial around them has retired for the day.

However, Chennai was born in the 17th century. So when you land over it at night, the darkness may not be a void as much as a part of the city that has endured for almost 380 years. On my next trip, I’ll look out for those spots.

Featured image: A satellite’s view of Chennai at night. Credit: NASA.