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Chennai’s fascinating ancient and colonial history is presented in the city’s several breathtaking museums. Each tells part of Chennai’s history and the influences it has encountered through the centuries. Here’s a list of some of the best museums in Chennai, for history buffs and anyone interested in finding out more about the past in this southern Indian city.
This spectacular repository of knowledge is one of the greatest in Chennai when it comes to the wealth and weight of history it contains within its walls. Built in 1851, this complex is the second oldest museum in India, and is itself a structure of great historical importance. The museum complex, constructed in the Indo-Saracenic style, includes rare relics, artworks, and curios of all kinds. It is especially known for its collection of coins, currency, and medals, as well as archaeological remains from ancient Tamil culture. It is also home to some of the rarest and most popular artworks of the great Indian artist, Raja Ravi Varma. The museum complex is also a popular center for the performing arts, and houses within the famous Museum Theatre, which regularly hosts theatrical and cultural events.
📅 Open Monday-Sunday 9.30AM-5PM/Phone: 044 2819 3778
For all intents and purposes, Fort St. George is where the story of Chennai as it exists today actually began. And for anyone interested in learning about the history of Madras under British rule, there is no better place than the museum building located within the Fort’s walls. Originally constructed to house the first office of the Madras Bank in 1791, the museum building now houses some rare artifacts from both pre- and post-Independence India. The collection includes original letters written by Lords Clive and Cornwallis, several British-era coins, weapons and uniforms, and also the first Indian flag to be ever flown post-Independence.
📅 Open Monday-Sunday 10AM-5PM/Phone: 044 2567 1127
This majestic edifice facing Marina Beach was once named Ice House, as it was constructed in the 19th century to hold ice brought in from North America by businessman and ‘Ice King’ Frederic Tudor. By 1880 the ice business folded, and the building was remodeled by a wealthy local and renamed Castle Kernan. However, this structure’s claim to fame came in 1897 when the Swami Vivekananda stayed here for nine days upon his return from the West. The building was renamed in 1963 as Vivekanandar Illam in his honor, and now houses a museum and permanent exhibition on the Swamiji’s life and teachings. It also includes an exhibition of some 43 great and precious artworks from ancient India, and a section on Tamil Nadu’s contribution to the national legacy.
📅 Open Monday-Sunday 10AM-7.30PM/Phone: 044 2844 6188
Constructed in 1886, this complex within the sprawling Theosophical Society campus in Adyar was initially started as a library with a mere 200 books, which were part of founder Henry Steel Olcott’s private collection. Today the ALRC has grown to become more of a repository for some of the rarest oriental manuscripts and books collected from all over the world. Apart from some 250,000 books, this complex also houses 20,000 extremely rare palm leaf manuscripts dating back hundreds of years collected from China, India, Sri Lanka and elsewhere. The complex is now considered one of the most important sources of oriental knowledge in the world.
📅 Open Monday-Sunday 10AM-5PM
While Chennai’s scenic East Coast Road is full of amazing tourist destinations, none come close to the cultural charm of Dakshinachitra when it comes to giving visitors a true taste of South India. A museum of South Indian culture, Dakshinachitra is home to a one-of-a-kind collection of various cultural elements from the five states of South India. Apart from the collection of rare relics and traditional artworks, this nearly 10-acre complex is also a heritage village that includes elaborate displays of cultural identifiers ranging from exquisite models of traditional tools and items to entire replicas of houses fashioned in traditional architectural styles. Dakshinachitra gives visitors a taste of each region’s indigenous culture and its various art forms.
📅 Open Monday-Sunday 10AM-6PM/ Phone: 044-2747 2603
The railways have a rich history in India that dates back nearly 150 years. Chennai has always been a strong bastion for rail connectivity in the country and still houses the headquarters for the Southern Railways. For anyone with an interest in railways and learning about its role in developing India, the best place to visit is the Regional Railway Museum located on the premises of the city’s Integral Coach Factory in Perambur. Opened in 2002, this is one of the newest museums in the city, and houses relics from as far back as the late 1800s. Spread over 6.5 acres, this sprawling campus houses several toy trains, engines from the steam era and coaches built during the British Raj. From trains used for agricultural purposes to luxury coaches, this museum gives visitors a complete taste of what trains looked like back in the day.
📅 Open Monday-Sunday 10AM-6PM/ Phone: 044 2620 1014
Dr. Arun’s Vintage Camera Museum, a new establishment on East Coast Road, exhibits some of the rarest and oldest cameras from this part of the world. Ranging from large format wooden box cameras and 20th-century box cameras to the popular Yashicas and Kodaks of the early ’90s, this museum has an enviable collection of over 1,500 cameras. Inaugurated in 2016 by legendary film cameraman PC Sreeram, the museum’s pièce de résistance is an 8-foot-long, 5-foot-tall extra-large format wooden camera. It also exhibits some other rare types of photographic equipment, including World War 2 aerial cameras, film and movie cameras and early miniature/spy cameras. It’s a treasure trove for photography enthusiasts and students of the art.
📅 Open Monday-Sunday 10AM-8PM/Phone: 098840 42526