When Indians refer to “the South”, it’s usually Tamil Nadu they’re talking about. While Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh are essentially cultural transition zones buffering the Hindi-speaking north, and Kerala and Goa maintain their own distinctively idiosyncratic identities, the peninsula’s massive Tamil-speaking state is India’s Dravidian Hindu heartland. Traditionally protected by distance and the military might of the southern Deccan kingdoms, the region has, over the centuries, been less exposed to northern influences than its neighbours. As a result, the three powerful dynasties dominating the south – the Cholas, the Pallavas and the Pandyans – were able, over a period of more than a thousand years, to develop their own unique religious and political institutions, largely unmolested by marauding Muslims.

The most visible legacy of this protracted cultural flowering is a crop of astounding temples, whose gigantic gateway towers, or gopuras, still soar above just about every town. It is the image of these colossal wedge-shaped pyramids, high above the canopy of dense palm forests, or against patchworks of vibrant green paddy fields, which Edward Lear described as “stupendous and beyond belief”. Indeed, the garishly painted deities and mythological creatures sculpted onto the towers linger long in the memory of most travellers.

The great Tamil temples, however, are merely the largest landmarks in a vast network of sacred sites – shrines, bathing places, holy trees, rocks and rivers – interconnected by a web of ancient pilgrims’ routes. Tamil Nadu harbours 274 of India’s holiest Shiva temples, and 108 are dedicated to Vishnu. In addition, five shrines devoted to the five Vedic elements (Earth, Wind, Fire, Water and Ether) are to be found here, along with eight to the planets, as well as other places revered by Christians and Muslims. Scattered from the pale orange crags and forests of the Western Ghats, across the fertile deltas of the Vaigai and Kaveri rivers to the Coromandel coast on the Bay of Bengal, these sites were celebrated in the hymns of the Tamil saints, composed between one and two thousand years ago. Today, so little has changed that the same devotional songs are still widely sung and understood in the region and it remains one of the last places in the world where a classical culture has survived well into the present.

The Tamils’ living connection with their ancient Dravidian past has given rise to a strong nationalist movement. With a few fleeting lapses, one or other of the pro-Dravidian parties has been in power here since the 1950s, spreading their anti-brahmin, anti-Hindi proletarian message to the masses principally through the medium of movies. Indeed, since Independence, the majority of Tamil Nadu’s political leaders have been drawn from the state’s prolific cinema industry.

With its seafront fort, grand mansions and excellence as a centre for the performing arts, the state capital Chennai is nonetheless a hot, chaotic, noisy Indian metropolis that still carries faint echoes of the Raj. However, it can be used as a base for visiting Kanchipuram, a major pilgrimage and sari-weaving centre, filled with reminders of an illustrious past.

Much the best place to start a temple tour is in nearby Mamallapuram, a seaside village that – quite apart from some exquisite Pallava rock-cut architecture – boasts a long and lovely beach. Further down the coast lies the one-time French colony of Puducherry, now home to the famous Sri Aurobindo ashram; nearby, Auroville has carved out a role for itself as a popular New Age centre. The road south from Puducherry puts you back on the temple trail, leading to the tenth-century Chola kingdom and the extraordinary architecture of Chidambaram, Gangaikondacholapuram, Kumbakonam and Darasuram. For the best Chola bronzes, however, and a glimpse of the magnificent paintings that flourished under Maratha rajas in the eighteenth century, travellers should head for Thanjavur. Chola capital for four centuries, the city boasts almost a hundred temples and was the birthplace of Bharatanatyam dance, famous throughout Tamil Nadu.

In the very centre of Tamil Nadu, Tiruchirapalli, a commercial town just northwest of Thanjavur, held some interest for the Cholas, but reached its heyday under later dynasties, when the temple complex in neighbouring Srirangam became one of south India’s largest. Among its patrons were the Nayaks of Madurai, whose erstwhile capital further south, bustling with pilgrims, priests, peddlers, tailors and tourists, is an unforgettable destination. The deeply rural area of Chettinadu to the northwest hides many delightful villages with splendid mansions, a fine break from the temple trail. Rameshwaram, on the long spit of land reaching towards Sri Lanka, and Kanyakumari at India’s southern tip are both important pilgrimage centres, and have the added attraction of welcome cool breezes and vistas over the sea.

While Tamil Nadu’s temples are undeniably its major attraction, the hill stations of Kodaikanal and Udhagamandalam (Ooty) in the west of the state are popular destinations on the well-beaten tourist trail between Kerala and Tamil Nadu. The verdant, cool hills offer mountain views and gentle trails through the forests and tea and coffee plantations. You can also spot wildlife in the teak forests of Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary and bamboo groves of Indira Gandhi Wildlife Sanctuary, situated in the Palani Hills.

Brief history

Since the fourth century BC, Tamil Nadu has been shaped by its majority Dravidian population, a people of uncertain origins and physically quite different from north Indians. The influence of the powerful janapadas, established in the north by the fourth and third centuries BC, extended as far south as the Deccan, but they made few incursions into Dravidadesa (Tamil country). Incorporating what is now Kerala and Tamil Nadu, Dravidadesa was ruled by three dynasties: the Cheras, who held sway over much of the Malabar coast (Kerala), the Pandyas in the far south and the Cholas, whose realm stretched along the eastern Coromandel coast.

In the fourth century, the Pallava dynasty established a powerful kingdom centred in Kanchipuram. By the seventh century, the successors of the first Pallava king, Simhavishnu, were engaged in battles with the southern Pandyas and the forces of the Chalukyas, based further west in Karnataka. This was also an era of social development. Brahmins became the dominant community. The emergence of bhakti, devotional worship, placed temples firmly at the centre of religious life, and the inspirational sangam literature of saint-poets fostered a tradition of dance and music that has become Tamil Nadu’s cultural hallmark.

In the tenth and eleventh centuries, the Cholas experienced a profound revival, ploughing their new wealth into the construction of splendid and imposing temples. Subsequently, the Vijayanagars, based in Hampi (Karnataka), resisted Muslim incursions from the north and spread to cover most of south India by the sixteenth century. This prompted a new phase of architectural development, including the introduction of colossal gopuras. In Madurai, the Vijayanagar governors, Nayaks, set up an independent kingdom whose impact spread as far as Tiruchirapalli.

Simultaneously, the south experienced its first significant wave of European settlement. First came the Portuguese, followed by the British, Dutch and French. The Western powers soon found themselves engaged in territorial disputes, most markedly between the French, based in Pondicherry, and the British, whose stronghold since 1640 had been Fort St George in Madras. It was the British who prevailed, confining the French to Pondicherry.

As well as occasional rebellions against colonial rule, Tamil Nadu also saw anti-brahmin protests, in particular in the 1920s and 1930s. Independence in 1947 signalled the need for state boundaries, and by 1956 the borders had been demarcated on a linguistic basis. Thus in 1965 Madras Presidency became Tamil Nadu.

Since Independence, Tamil Nadu’s industrial sector has mushroomed. The state was a Congress stronghold until 1967, when the DMK (Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam), championing the lower castes and reasserting Tamil identity, won a landslide victory on a wave of anti-Hindi and anti-central government sentiment. Power has ping-ponged back and forth between the DMK and the breakaway party AIADMK ever since.

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