Despite having a long meandering border with Kerala that threads its way along the Western Ghats, Tamil Nadu has never seen the same number of foreign visitors that frequent its more lauded neighbour, skillfully marketed as “God’s own country” and now teeming with swanky boutique hotels and expensive yoga retreats. There’s no doubt, however, that Tamil Nadu offers the quintessential South Indian experience on many levels. This is India’s unadulterated Hindu heartland, home to powerful dynasties such as the Cholas, the Pallavas and the Pandyas, but never under Muslim sway.
Although it also offers coastal and mountain delights, the abiding impression of travelling around the state is of endless vivid-green rice paddies filling the gaps between alluring temple towns, the approaches to which are invariably announced by soaring gopuras (temple gateways) coming gradually into focus. On closer inspection, these mighty towers are usually a riot of colourful figures dancing into the sky above the entrances to the holy precincts within. The surrounding dusty streets are crowded with stalls bedecked with garlands and religious paraphernalia, tiny restaurants serving heaps of spicy veg on banana leaves, women selling fruit, and trundling ox carts piled high with sacks of rice and carefully negotiating their way through hordes of bell-ringing cyclists.
Where to start the Tamil Nadu temple trail
Most visitors skip the hot and polluted state capital, Chennai (or Madras as it was once know) and head straight for Mamallapuram, just 60km down the coast. Famed for the simple but exquisite twin Shore Temple and its more elaborate rock-carved bas-reliefs such as Arjuna’s Penance, this delightful village is still a major centre for the art of stone carving and a great place to pick up unique – if rather weighty – souvenirs. It is also the state’s only real beach hangout, with a plethora of inexpensive, super-friendly guesthouses and chilled restaurants.
Dining possibilities take a decidedly Gallic twist a couple of hours further down the fast East Coast Road at Puducherry (formerly Pondicherry). Its former colonial rulers, the French, have also left a noticeable architectural mark here as well, at least in the quaint bougainvillea-splashed streets of white houses wedged between the canal and seafront. The town is also home to the Sri Aurobindo ashram, and you can visit the sprawling New Age community of Auroville a short way north.
Next stop: immersive puja ceremonies
A good place to get your first taste of Tamil Nadu‘s many spectacular temples is at Kanchipuram, easily accessible from Mamallapuram and home to four major places of worship, most notably the massive Ekambareshvara Temple, whose whitewashed gopuras reach 60m in height. Inside, you can make your way through the atmospheric courtyards and join a puja (worship) ceremony at the inner sanctum, open to non-Hindus – as is the custom throughout the state.
Around 75km west of Puducherry, Tiruvannamalai is renowned for the Arunachaleshvara Temple, named after the red mountain of Arunachala, which sits proudly behind the town and is a pilgrimage site in its own right. Halfway up is a cave where the twentieth-century saint Sri Ramana Maharishi meditated for 23 years. A couple of hours south of Puducherry, Chidambaram is home to the star Sabhanayaka Nataraja Temple, whose central deity is the famous bronze image of Shiva Nataraj dancing in the cosmic wheel of fire. Come during the evening puja (from 6pm) and receive a fire blessing amid clashing cymbals, rasping horns and the cries of devotees.
Rock forts and palaces
Further south, the great temple towns come thick and fast. Pick from the splendidly rural temple at Gangaikonda Cholapuram, with its massive statue of Nandi the Bull, the exquisite carving of the Nageshwara Swami Shiva Temple at Kumbakonam or the dark stone contours and manicured grounds of the imposing Brihadishwarar Temple in Thanjavur, which also boasts an impressive royal palace. A short way west is Tiruchirapalli, better known as Trichy, with its lofty Rock Fort and the massive Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple. Its four outer walls measure a kilometre each and enclose a veritable town full of vehicles and shops built around the sacred inner enclosures, dedicated to Vishnu
Several hours further south, bustling Madurai is the best known of the holy Tamil cities, with its magnificent Meenakshi-Sundareshwarar Temple, whose half dozen psychedelically decorated gopuras surround a maze of inter-connected courtyards, bathing tanks and buzzing shrines. The smell of jasmine and marigold blends with incense and burning oil to produce a heady mixture, matched by the palette of colours created by the melee of sarees and the competing sounds of chanting, crying babies and the occasional gong.
From Western Ghats to bathing ghats
When you fancy a literal breath of fresh air away from the temple trail, Tamil Nadu offers a couple of major hill stations in the eastern side of the Western Ghats, as well as two nature reserves. Kodaikanal is a far more laidback and relaxing hill station than more popular Ooty (officially Udhagamandalam), although the latter does have its cute miniature railway. Set around a peaceful lake, Kodaikanal affords splendid views across the plains from Coaker’s Walk and treks of varying lengths in the hinterland behind. Further north, you can get right into the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve, perhaps best enjoyed at the Indira Gandhi Wildlife Sanctuary. Expect to see various birds and species of deer, lion-tailed macaques and perhaps a sloth bear, but catching a glimpse of one of the few tigers is akin to winning the lottery.
No tour of Tamil Nadu is quite complete without reaching India’s southern tip at Kanyakumari. As a holy sangam where the Arabian Sea, Bay of Bengal and Indian Ocean meet, this is a major pilgrimage centre and a fine place to see contemporary Hinduism at work. The temples are brash and more modern than the rest of the state, but the two offshore rock memorials to Vivekananda and Thiruvalluvar are worth visiting by boat. Best of all, just head for the ghats (steps) by the southernmost beach and join the worshippers. Sunset during the full moon is the optimum time, when the sun and moon hang on opposite sides of the horizon in perfect balance.
A taxi from Chennai airport to Mamallapuram costs little over £10, while subsequent journeys can easily be accomplished by bus and/or train. Accommodation costs are low, with rooms in simple lodges starting around £5 per night. Explore more of India with the Rough Guide to India. Book hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.