January 15 - 17: The Pongal festival in Chennai
All four days of Pongal -- a spirited festival to mark harvest and give thanks -- have something to offer visitors. The first day is for cleaning out the home and burning unwanted detritus of the year gone by while boys beat buffalo hide drums and celebrants create fascinating designs on the ground with a paste made of newly-harvested rice.
Day two of Pongal revolves around the worship of the Sun God. Be sure to get your hands on the fragrant 'ven pongal' and 'chakhara pongal', made from rice and jaggery (palm sap sugar), and seasoned with ghee, cashews and other spices.
Animal rights organizations would approve of the third day, 'Mattu Pongal,' when households treat their cattle to a relaxing spa day. Each cow is bathed, decorated with garlands and bells, their horns painted in bright colors.
But it's day four which is one to keep and capture with video or digital cameras as ‘Jallikattu’, the taming of the bulls, is the highlight of the celebration. Decorated bulls are driven into the streets with money bags tied around them. Anyone who manages to mount and ride a bull claims the prize. Cart races and cock fights often round out the festivities.
For a five-star treat, waste no time and head to Le Royal Meridien (1 GST Road, St Thomas Mount. Tel: +91 44 2231 4343) which possesses the largest pillar-less ballroom in Chennai. Average room rates start from Rs 7,500.
Taj Connemara Hotel (Binny Road. Tel: +91 44 6600 0000 Email: email@example.com) is a luxurious treat just 20 minutes from the airport. This hotel boasts colonial-style suites and rooms start from Rupees 6,500.
For budget accommodation, Regent Hotel (Tel: +91 44 2819 1347) has clean rooms just off the chaotic Kenneth Road. Another inexpensive option is Hotel Ambica Empire (Tel: +91 44 2362 1818). It offers a royal, almost timeless ambiance, and accommodation starts from just Rs 3,900. For clean rooms at an affordable price, check out Bava Lodge (Tel: +91 44 4217 1155) or Bhagyam Lodge (Tel: +91 44 2538 0742).
Check out the watering hole Havana at the Rain Tree, (Tel: +91 44 4225 2525) a local favorite with warm wood floors and icy neon lights. A small dance floor, centrally located bar and Cuban cigar lounge complete the set up. Average cost for two: Rs 800.
Another great option is Geoffrey’s at the Radha Park Inn Hotel (Tel: +91 44 2475 7788). This British-American style pub is packed with young adults who balance slugs of draught beer with spicy flavors from the kitchen. Must try items include murg banno kebabs, Prawn wheels, Hong Kong style crispy mushrooms and vegetable wontons.
South Indian treats
When in South India, eat South Indian. Take a break from Pongal’s milk-rice and head to the fine South Indian restaurant Saravana Bhavan (Tel: +91 44 2626 9721), which has several locations in Chennai. Sweet corn soup and Bisibela Bath are must-orders.
Karaikudi restaurant's charm begins at the entrance: Waiters dressed up in typical Chettinad attire will lead you to the main room, a replica of a Tamil bungalow. The 82-seat eatery glows with soft light and stained glass decor.
And when not venerating the Pongal gods...
If you’re itching to try other activities around the city, stop by the Travel and Tourism Fair organized by Tamil Nadu Tourism Development Corporation, every January at Island Grounds. Here, you can enjoy cultural shows and browse 150 stalls selling bargain merchandise and promoting tourist destinations of the region.
Just round the corner is Marina beach, 12 kilometers of soft sandy shoreline and home to an artificial water fountain, park, aquarium and swimming pool.
History buffs can head to Fort St. George, located at Island Grounds. Housed within is St Mary's, the oldest surviving British-made church in India. After marveling at the architecture, visit the Fort St George Museum, with exhibits recalling the days of British rule.
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