Living London, Loving Chennai

Sunday, May 07, 2006

TN Cities - Vellore

Vellore (pronounced Way-loor) is a mid-size town in the north of Tamilnadu. With a population of almost 400,000 it is the 9th largest City/UA of the state. Situated on the banks of Palar, on the rail and road route between Chennai (140kms) and Bangalore (220 Kms), it looks like yet another dusty highway town but hides more history and commerce within its small area.
As a city, it may not have the history of a Madurai or Trichy, but has had its importance during the muslim rule and more so during British times. The Vellore Mutiny in 1806 was a precursor to the sepoy mutiny of 1857 (or the first war of Indian independence). The city's pride of historic place goes to the 16th centruy Vijayanagar era fort. Well maintained by ASI, this is the largest city fort in existence in Tamilnadu. Highly visible, as it is on the main highway (alas will be bypassed by the Golden Quadrilateral), sorrounded by a moat that doesn't run dry (touchwood), they have even started a boating service, this is the primary if not only tourist spot in town. The fort compound uniquely has a temple, church and mosque within its walls. Another claim to history and fame in Vellore is the jail. Many a freedom fighter and political leader as well as famous criminals have been incarcerated in Vellore. In fact, 'coming from Vellore' has as much negative connotation (in a making fun sort of way) as 'coming from Kilpauk' (which houses Institute of Mental health).
More than history or geography, what has made this small town famous across India and to some extent internationally is the CMC hospital. Started by an American missionary Dr. Ira Scudder, it is one of the largest and most reputed medical college hospital in India. Accommodation, restauarants and even movie theatres have sprung to service the patients and their family coming from rest of India. Add some international students and doctors visiting CMC for volunteer or exchange work, providing a more cosmopolitan feel to the town. Much of Vellore's economy is tied to this institution and though in recent times other activities have come up, CMC still retains its primacy in the life of Vellore.
The town is notorious for its very hot summer with the temperature hovering in mid 40s Celsius. Although sorrounded by eastern Ghats, the tree-less hills do very little to alleviate the suffering. Of late a reforestration program has helped a little in greening the hills but not enough to keep the temperatures down. The Palar river that runs through the city, is all dry but still is the main drinking water source.
Economically, Vellore is a commercial town with not much industrial activity. Ranipet, just 20 kms away has a large industrial complex including the BHEL boiler auxilliary plant, Greaves, Thirumalai chemicals etc., Once expected to rival Hosur, Ranipet has fallen far behind and is just maintaining the status quo. Vellore district is a major leather exporting centre, accounting for a third of India's leather exports. This is however an activity concentrated more in and around Ambur with a only few factories near Vellore. There is TEL, a state run industrial explosives unit but has become a sick unit (am not sure if it still operating). As a district headquarters, Vellore gets its share of government offices and employment opportunity. CMC is of course another major employer.
Where Vellore has scored well is in education. One institution which has helped this is Vellore Institue of Technology (VIT). Started by a former politician, this private engineering college (a deemed university now) has grown to become one of the biggest and highly reputed college in South India in a less than a decade, with a coverage even in Washington Post. The government has recently started a medical college and Thiruvalluvar University, which have greatly enhanced the educational profile of the place.
Katpadi Junction on the outskirts of Vellore, is well connected with rest of India by train services. With a dozen+ trains to Chennai, 2 hours by rail, Vellore is the farthest commuting station (Season ticket stop) for Chennai. The National Highway NH 46, a part of the Mumbai-Bangalore-Chennai Golden Quadrilateral route, provides the highway link. Vellore depends on Chennai for air transport.
Tourism is Vellore is centred around the fort. The fort deserves to be more than just a local attraction it is today and get Chennai - Bangalore people out for a weekend. This is possible once the GQ is ready and people start driving around. There is also an effort to promote tourism and trekking in the hills around vellore but it is still in early stages. It is a short day trip from Vellore to nearby tourist centres like Yelagiri hills, Thiruvannamalai and Kanchipuram.
Vellore along with nearby Arcot/Ranipet/Wallajah forms a bigger urban centre of more than half a million people. With Kanchi less than 30 Kms away, there is a possibility of increasing urbanisation in this belt. As of now, however, Vellore remains a Tier 3 town of Tamilnadu but with potential.

Saturday, April 29, 2006

London's Tallest

Canada Place
Originally uploaded by slakhs.

One Canada Square, is the tallest building in London and for that matter U.K. It is located in a redeveloped former dockland called Canary Wharf, which for a skyscraper buff like me, is paradise.

Friday, April 28, 2006

Oxford Street, London

Oxford Street is London's Usman Road, the main shopping centre of London. It has huge departmental stores like Selfridges, Marks & Spencers, Debenhams etc and shops of most other major retailers. Bond Street, branching off Oxford street, is for more upmarket and designer shops.
Oxford Street I
This photo was taken a while back (around Christmas)

Sunday, April 23, 2006



Stonehenge is a world heritage site. It is an arrangement of heavy stones (some 7 tonnes, some upto 50 tonnes) in a (sort of) circular form. This pre-historic site's (4-7000 years old) claim to fame is, no one knows who did this or why or how. The British tourism board and the package tourist companies here have exploited (or marketed) this curiosity very well to make it one of the top visitor attractions in UK. For an average tourist, there is not much to see or do here. Due to earlier vandalism,visitors are not even allowed near the stones and are separated by a rope circle. We just walk around the circle, take a few snaps, listen to an optional audio guide and come back. We took a tour package where the guide explained various theories of who, why and how but inspite of all the buildup this is a disappointing place. For me Stonehenge is just one big marketing success story.
More photos in Flickr

Sunday, April 02, 2006

TN Cities - Salem

Salem is the 5th largest city in Tamilnadu with a population of about 750,00. Sorrounded by hills (Shervaroy range of eastern Ghats) on all sides and situated on the banks of ThiruManimuthar river (another sewerage ditch) it does present a pretty picture. It is about 200 kms from Bangalore and 330 Kms from Chennai. Fondly nicknamed 'Steel City" after the moderate sized stainless steel plant, however, it is more famous as a Mango City. The Malkhova Maambazham of Salem is very well known to every kid who grew up on Tamil nursery rhyme. Interesting tidbit about Salem, the name, is quite famous in US but unrelated to the Indian city there are quite few towns in US by that name.
Salem is a city with not much of an history. It doesnt play any role in the famous kingdoms of Tamil past. It has come up in relatively recent times but is one of the faster growing cities of the state. Within Tamilnadu, Salem district is relatively better endowed with mineral deposits, magnesite, a little of bauxite and iron. Handloom and weaving are the main economic activity in the region. The SAIL Steel plant is another important industry here but the expectation and long time wish of the people of this region for it to be converted to an integrated steel plant has not materialised so far. It is the location of a few refractories due to magnesite availability and some sago production. The famous Salem Mangoes are actually more of Dharmapuri (nearby district) mangoes after the various bifurcation of districts. Nearby town of Mettur has quite a few factories (Chemplast, Malco, SISCOL, Thermal and Hydel Power plants etc) as a compensation. Narasu's coffee company, a well known brand of filter cofee powder maker is based in Salem and so is the famous KPN Travels a well managed private bus service operator. The now defunct Modern theaters studio was also based in Salem. I understand a few small BPO companies have setup shop in Salem but it is too small at present to be of significance.

Commercially, Salem is an important regional centre. Its location at the crossroads of major highway networks, NH 7 (Bangalore and beyond - Kanyakumari), NH 68 to Chennai via Ulundurpettai and NH 47 to Trivandrum via Coimbatore has helped in making it a major trading and marketing centre. It is also in the main railway line linking Chennai and north India with Kerala and thus is well connected with most of the country. It is also the district headquarters of Salem district and the largest urban center between Bangalore and Coimbatore. Although there is an airstrip in Salem, unfortunately, its location very near to other major metros has left it lie unutilised so far.

The industrial and commercial activites in the region have made Salem more affluent than the bigger cities of Madurai and Trichy. It can be seen in the bright shopping complexes on the main NH road along the City bus station and the increasing traffic congestion in the city. The Salem bus stand was the largest (not the cleanest) in Tamilnadu until the CMBT came up in Chennai.

Until recently Salem was not amongst the major educational centres in TN. Although it had reputed schools, arts/science colleges and even an engineering college it's lack of of a medical college and university was a major drawback. The opening of Mohan Kumaramangalam medical college and the private Vinayaka mission colleges as well as Periyar university has given a fillip to the educational facilities in the region but it still is rated way behind other centres of Tamilnadu in this regard.
Tourism in Salem is non-existent. The only link to tourism is through the hill station of Yercaud 35 kms away. There is very little potential to grow it either apart from promoting it as a transport and facilities hub for hill based tourist and adventure activities.
The biggest advantage and drawback for Salem in growing further is its nearness to Bangalore and to a lesser extent Coimbatore. Much of the people of this region have hitched their economic future with these two cities and the possibilites of Salem becoming anything more than a big regional urban centre within Tamilnadu looks remote.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Gemini flyover on a cloudy day

Gemini bridge on a cloudy day
Originally uploaded by slakhs.

As the London weather turns warm and rainy at the same time, it is time to dust off a not so old Chennai photo.

Pic: The famous Gemini (Anna) flyover as the clouds gather around the towers of Mount Road

Friday, March 31, 2006


Brighton Beach

Brighton is a sea side town near London, like Mahabs (without the history) for Chennai. Come summer you can see most Londoners and thousands of bikers thronging the beach in Brigton. It is a typical western beach town with a famous pier full of tacky thrill rides, seafood restaurants, casinos abd video game parlors. Think Marina beach, Chennai organised in better looking shops. The beach is not sandy but full of pebbles and the water is too cold for the feet dipped in the warm waters of Bay of Bengal, but it is lot more clean.
We went to Brighton last weekend ignoring the weather predicting light showers, it all started warm and sunny. By the time we reached there it had become gloomy but still didnt rain enabling us to spend a decent amount of time in the beach. The sea is not as rough as in Chennai but we couldnt swim anyway. The rains started soon as we left the beach for the pier. We went thru longingly watching the thrill rides and spent time having coffee and ice creams.
Soon it was time to come back. As the rain intensified, we were just waiting in the entrance of the pier for the rains to stop, when we saw a new drama unfold on the beach below. A man (lets call him madmax) was standing knee deep in the sea in biting cold and rain. He wasn't moving as the waves lashed against him. I even thought it was a log seeing thru my rain splattered specs. After some time he did move a little, by the time some guards came around and pier was filled with onlookers. We couldnt hear anything but it looked like this guy was refusing to come out. He should have been drunk, drugged or plain insane to be able to stand that long in the water. The life-guard called for more reinforcement but he did not enter the water himself. He got a few more assistance but when one of the guards took a step forward, madmax moved further into the sea. He fell down, was totally drenched but got back up. He started walking in the water, none of the guards were getting in. The guy was moving along the beach but still in the water while the guards were moving along the edge. At some point the guards were just a step away from him but still step in the water to reach him. We couldnt hear or understand why. This went on for over 15 minutes. Finally the guy got tired and latched on to the offered hand of a guard (when they were close enough). He couldnt stand in the surface probably his legs were too cold and he was picked up in an ambulance. One more story in my life ended without me knowing what happened or why.