One look at VR Chennai from afar and I knew I was in for a lot of learning that day. Unlike other glitzy commercial centres, VR Chennai had that something extra about it, about the way it stood towering above all in the form of a glorious gopuram adorned with the iconic Madras check. Located in Anna Nagar in Chennai, VR Chennai is the city's latest hub. The shopping centre with the finest of brands, entertainment and great F&B options promised me an experience I wasn't so easily going to forget. I wondered how different it would be from any other retail places. A very different one, as it turned out. I was there for the Kathai, Kalai, Parampariyam walk, curated by Virtuous Retail and conducted by historian V. Sriram.
Before the walk with Sriram even began, I could see it right in front of me that it was special. The entrance was a large gopuram in iconic technicolour Madras check. The Centre took its inspiration from the temples of Tamil Nadu, made obvious by the soaring gopurams, stonework, artworks and the sheer size of it. The inside was a different story altogether. Perfect place with high-end stores, entertainment centre and F&B outlets, VR Chennai looked just like any other commercial centre where you come to have fun and spend time with family and loved ones. Yet something stood out at VR Chennai. Apart from the happy shoppers, all around VR Chennai I could see colourful murals, pots hanging from ceiling, earthen bells making music, a ceremonial lamp and Nandi the bull. Nandi? At a shopping centre? Yes and that's how my day started at VR Chennai.
Our guide, V. Sriram took charge to tell us all about how history of Tamil Nadu was woven into the architecture of VR Chennai. Chennai is one of the most culturally rich places in India, VR Chennai is inspired by that aspect. Inspired by the communities that make Chennai unique and inspired by the rich heritage that the people of Chennai proudly call their own.
As we walked to our next section of the Centre, we came across a huge mural of Narsimha, a work of art done by the artists of Cholamandala village. It's hard to look down while exploring VR Chennai. There was a section with metal artworks hanging from the ceiling, all depicting the fine art of metal carving from the Chola Empire. Did you know that the Cholas fine-tuned the lost wax process and the art of the 8th century bronze metalwork? And in a heartbeat, from Cholas we reached Steve Madden. A reminder of where we were, lest we forget and actually believe that we were at some temple town in Chennai studying art and architecture.
VR Chennai is big on traditions. In the midst of all glamourous stores stood the mahadeepam. Every day at sundown there is the ceremonial lighting of the lamp, complete with oil, wick and a matchstick. Did you also know that in Tamil Nadu, they light a lamp for almost everything, every occassion big or small. Sriram told us stories behind that too. In case you are curious, you know where to be for these stories. Next as we moved on to Kalimangopuram, our guide regaled us with the story of Neelakantha Nayanara and the significance of terracotta in Tamil culture. Terracotta bells hung from the ceiling creating a gentle and soothing acoustic with the gentle cool breeze coming in from the many AC vents and the opening and closing of the glass doors. A step outside the cool comfort of the Centre brough us to the sweltering Chennai heat and gorgeous murals of Parashurama on one side and Chennai's timeline in its most informative way. Right from the Palaeolithic Age (by the way, did you know that Chennai was the first Palaeolithic settlement in whole of Asia to be discovered?) to the arrival of St Thomas, arrival of the Portuguese and the Dutch, to the coming of newspaper and the Madras Zoo (did you know that the Madras Zoo is the oldest one in the country?)
Stories continued as we moved along, bringing us next to the most imposing structure inside VR Chennai--Nandi the bull. Considered to be the guardian of VR Chennai's entire premise, the 350kg installation of Nandi stood big and proud. The installation is made entirely by the local artisans.
Something incomplete can put anyone at unease, but not at VR Chennai. Here at VR Chennai, an entire section is dedicated to that, the incomplete gopurams of the Vijayanagara Empire. Once back inside in the cool confines, we came face to face with a giant mural, hugging wall to wall, of rakshashas and the devas. This was the story of the samudra manthana narrated in the Bhagavata Purana, the Mahabharata and the Vishnu Purana, now beautifully depicted in artform by local artists.
Not a dull moment during the entire walk, the experience did fill me with a lot of added knowledge about the region's culture, tradition, art and architecture. But we couldn't just leave it at the temples and the stories, after all we were in Madras, the land of the iconic Madras house (with the unique architecture to keep the house cool during summer days) and Madras checks. Did you also know that Madras checks were also known as Bleeding Madras? The talk around town is that the famous checkered cloth got its bleeding name from the amount of colours it gave away while washing.
With a bit of laughter, mild sunburn and a lot of knowledge, my time at VR Chennai came to an end. It's not just about shopping, experience VR Chennai for the wonderful Tamil culture and tradition it represents.