Chennai, IIT-M, and MIT

We took the train and spent a long weekend in Chennai, formerly Madras, on the east coast of India.

 I wanted to visit IIT Madras [location], one of the original five Indian Institutes of Technology. Madras, recently renamed Chennai, is a large city of 6-7 million people on the east coast of India.

Pam boards the train in Chennai.

We decided to try the famous Indian railway system, one of the largest (39,000 miles)  and busiest (18m passengers daily) railway systems in the world.  I booked our tickets online, a fairly easy process once you learn something about the different classes of service.  The only snag was that, 6 days in advance, we were waitlisted for our outbound tickets.  The process is remarkably efficient, bumping us ever closer to actual tickets as previously confirmed passengers cancel their reservation.  In the final two hours on Friday night, we squeaked in and finally had confirmed seats for Saturday morning.  The 6.5-hour train ride was comfortable, though not luxurious, in the air-conditioned reserved-seating coach.  Every few minutes one of the train’s kitchen workers passed by, selling great-smeling dosas, samosas, chips, tea, coffee, bottled water.

Chennai itself is, like Bangalore, a bustling and traffic-congested city.  Although we were lucky to have arrived on a “cool” week (with temps in the high 80s), it was thicky humid and thus very sweaty and sticky. 

There are few sights of interest to the tourist, we discovered, so we headed south along the new East Coast Road to a resort property called Taj Fisherman’s Cove [location].  Wow, what a treat!  We talked our way past the concierge and the kids spent the day swimming in the pool or playing on the beach, and we ate the most fantastic meal we’ve yet had, Tamil-style seafood recipes, in a shady cafe right on the beach. 

A pleasant lunch at the beach on the Bay of Bengal. (Taj Fisherman’s Cove resort)

I walked across the beach to the water, dipping my toes into the Bay of Bengal.  Incredible.  The rip tides here are so fierce that everyone recommends against swimming – the guidebook, the hotel, and acquaintances all warned us about it.  There were red flags along the beach warning against swimming, and indeed the surf looked somehow fierce.  Sure enough, the next morning I read in the newspaper about three swimmers who drowned on a beach near this one.  

A view across the cove at Fisherman’s Cove, outside Chennai.
A fisherman casting the surf along the beach outside Chennai.

I chatted with a local fisherman.  He was casting into the surf, but really he was casting about for passing tourists.  In broken English he explained that he was a fisherman, and that after the tsunami of 2004 there were no fish for months… and that he was poor, and wouldn’t I buy a small trinket.  Sigh.  It is estimated that between 12,405–18,045 people died along the coast of India that day.  Fisherman, out to sea on their simple fishing boats, rode easily over the swell only to return to washed-away homes. 

We spent an enjoyable evening reconnecting with David Grubman ’84, who I knew from my days in the DOC, and his family.  He manages a large group of programmers for A.I.G. in Chennai.

On Monday I visited the Madras Institute of Technology in the morning, and then the Computer Science and Engineering department at IIT-Madras in the afternoon.  Unlike my previous IIT visits, I did not stay on campus, and it was raining, so I have few photos from either campus.  I had wonderful conversations, however, with the faculty and students involved in wireless-networking research.

I visited the Madras Institute of Technology, part of Anna Univ. in Chennai.

If I had a chance to return, I would spend more time in some of the outlying areas: Puducherry (a coastal city to the south) and in Kanchipuram (famous for its silk and for ancient temples).

See my gallery of photos.

This post was transferred from MobileMe to WordPress in 2020, with an effort to retain the content as close to the original as possible; I recognize that some comments may now seem dated or some links may now be broken.

Author: dfkotz

David Kotz is an outdoor enthusiast, traveller, husband, and father of three. He is also a Professor of Computer Science at Dartmouth College.

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