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Murals on walls along Anna Salai/Mount Road in Chennai, India | ©Mckaysavage/Flickr
Murals on walls along Anna Salai/Mount Road in Chennai, India | ©Mckaysavage/Flickr

A Design Lover's Guide to Chennai in a Day

Picture of Arun Venkatraman
Updated: 22 December 2017

Chennai is one of the few cities in India that truly epitomises the country’s culture of confluence between modern and traditional. While this character reflects in every aspect of Chennai from its pop-culture to music and literature, it is perhaps nowhere more prominent than in the city’s sense of design and aesthetic. With towering skyscrapers sharing space with tall medieval Gopurams, Chennai truly is a design lover’s paradise.

Handicrafts at Poompuhar on Anna Salai

If you are interested in the traditional handicrafts and design works of Tamil Nadu, then there is no better destination in Chennai than Poompuhar. The emporium has performed the laborious task of collecting all of the state’s design specialties for more than three decades now and remains the most popular destination in Chennai for getting your hands on handicrafts. It is located bang on Mount Road, or Anna Salai and the fairly conspicuous red structure it is located within is hard to miss. From exquisite wood-carvings and paraphernalia to the iconic bronze ‘Natarajas’, Poompuhar has it all. And it is government-owned, making it a fairly safe bet to shop at since all items go through multiple quality and authenticity checks. A visit to this emporium is a must for any design lover.

Shop for boutique silk at Alwarpet

T Nagar might be the more popular shopping destination for silk sarees in Chennai, but it is Alwarpet, the neighborhood located on the other side of Mount Road to T Nagar, that boasts more niche boutiques that cater for your designer silk cravings. While some stick to exquisite traditional designs and silver jari work of the craftsmen in Kanchipuram, other boutiques don’t shy away from experimenting and cater to more modern palates. Head to places like Aavaranaa or Sarangi, the Kanchivaram Silk Sari Store, to satisfy all your sari needs.

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Kanchivaram Silk Sarees are known for their exquisite Jari  design work made with silver | ©Rahmanuddin/Wiki Commons

Experience South Indian design at DakshinChithra

This cultural museum on the scenic East Coast Road is basically a repository of nearly all things associated with south Indian culture and design. A visit to Dakshin Chitra is basically a shortcut alternative to taking a lengthy design tour of the region’s four (now five) major states. From traditional and ethnic jewelry to furnishings, sculpture-work, and handicrafts, Dakshin Chitra has it all. And apart from being a great shopping destination for design-lovers, a visit to the museum is also an extremely educational experience for anyone fascinated with South Indian culture, tradition, and design.

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Pottery decorative items on display at Dakshina Chitra in Chennai | ©Destination8infinity/Wiki Commons

Shop for traditional and ethnic jewelry at T Nagar

Chennai’s shopping district T Nagar is as mainstream as it gets and apart from fashion, the most popular merchandise here is jewelry. However, hidden behind its reputation is a treasure trove of ethnic and traditional jewelry that can be found at most major gold emporiums with a little searching. Tamil Nadu’s tradition of gold jewelry design goes back centuries and is nearly unrivaled in terms of attention to detail. And the shopping district’s success and popularity can often be construed as a testament to the region’s traditional craftsmanship.

Marvel at colonial design at St Andrew’s Church, The Kirk

The northern parts of Chennai are home to several exquisitely designed architectural marvels of the British era. But as far as interior design is concerned, the St Andrew’s Church (The Kirk) stands tallest among them. The Scottish church was built with a lavish budget and was one of the costliest constructions of British era architecture in Chennai. While its architecture is just as much worth praise, its primary highlight is the interior which features an exquisitely decorated dome, stained glass windows and several antique pieces such as a 19th-century pipe organ. The dome is of particular note as it features a brick framework lined with pottery cones, and decorated with crushed sea-shells and lapis lazuli, a semi-precious stone, that gives the dome its distinct blue shade.

A lesson in design history at Government Museum

The Government Museum in Chennai is one of the oldest British museums in India and boasts of being a repository of this region’s changing design sensibilities spanning over two millennia. From ancient stone sculptures to exquisite design-work dating back several centuries, the museum is the closest a design lover can get to experiencing Tamil culture first-hand through its design. Apart from invaluable trinkets, jewelry, and other items, the museum also boasts a massive collection of coinage, belonging to both British India and earlier eras.

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Government Museum Complex in Egmore, Chennai | ©L. Vivian Richard/Wiki Commons

Visit Spencer Plaza

The heyday of Spencer Plaza as a mainstream shopping mall may be long past. However, this complex, which also has the distinction of being India’s oldest mall, has kept up with the times by focusing on design-oriented merchandise, antiques, and handicrafts that you won’t find in any other major mall in the city. The absence of major fashion retailers has been filled with several boutique shops, antique emporiums, and shops that sell authentic Indian design work such as Pashmina. A walk through its narrow corridors is a design tour in itself and you never know what you might find here. But if you’re in the mood for shopping, make sure to brush up on your bargaining skills before visiting!

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Spencer Plaza is popular for being India’s oldest operational shopping mall | ©L. Vivian Richard/Wiki Commons