CHARM OF CHENNAI; with a New High-End Hotel on the Sandy Beach-Front and an Eclectic Blend of Architecture, India's Fourth City Has More to Offer the Traveller Than Meets the Eye, Discovers Mihir Bose

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Byline: discovers Mihir Bose

I HAD arrived in Chennai, the city formerly known as Madras, at quite the wrong time. The problem was not the hour, 1am, but that there was not a drop to drink in the city.

Chennai not only holds on to Mahatma Gandhi's idea that drink is "haram" -- evil -- but goes further even than the Mormons of Utah to make drinking difficult. In Chennai, the only public places you can drink are hotels with at least 20 rooms.

The Leela Palace, an imposing 11-floor building with 326 rooms which opened in January, boasts that it is the first hotel in Chennai to face the sea. But it cannot conceal its major problem: the only drink on offer was lime soda, as India's slow grinding bureaucracy meant it did not yet have a liquor license.

I did manage to drink but it acquired some of the furtive air of my childhood in Mumbai. Then, back in the Sixties, all of India was "dry" but my father had a liquor permit as his doctor had certified that he needed a shot of whisky every evening for medicinal reasons.

It soon became evident that Chennai, India's fourth largest city, has a claim to be a potentially undiscovered Indian jewel. It may not have a monument to match the Taj Mahal, the exotic wonders of Rajasthan or the bewitching boat rides of Kerala's backwaters. But you do not have to search hard to discover little-known stories that make the city well worth a visit.

Before I could discover these nuggets there were treats to savour in what was described as the best pastry shop in all of south India.

Given that Indians have such a sweet tooth that diabetes is a major health problem, a western-style cake shop seems the last thing the county needs. But for Dharmen Makwana, Leela Palace's chief chef, this is an essential part of Chennai blending history with the best of international cuisine. The location of the cake shop in the lounge further reinforced this.

The lounge is an interesting mix of the past and the present, a combination of the architecture made famous by Chettinad Palace built in 1912 and decorative items and furnishings from East Asian countries and Europe. And just to emphasise that the hotel is keen to go to any lengths to cater for its guests Makwana -- who has come to Leela after some years in Cairo -- says it imports beef, which most Hindus do not eat.

It is in this spirit that the hotel has located this very western cake shop.

The next afternoon I saw some Muslim women, covered from head to toe in burkas, eyeing the freshly baked breads, croissants and macaroons through the slits for their eyes. The chef 's belief that the cake shop could set a new trend seemed not to be misplaced.

Then, having witnessed at first hand how Indian past meets western present I headed for my first real history lesson: Fort St George, the first British bastion in India and the springboard for the subsequent conquest of the country.

The route summed up this land of contradictions. While it took me past an eight-mile long beach, there was no one swimming -- despite the temperature touching 80[degrees]F. The official explanation was that locals do not like salt water, although a glance at the water suggested there might be hygienic reasons.

When I got to the Fort I began to appreciate how Indians have preserved the British past in what is now a very Indian setting. …