When Indians refer to “the South”, they are usually talking about Tamil Nadu. While Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh are essentially cultural transition zones buffering the Hindi-speaking north, and Kerala and Goa maintain their distinctive 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 – developed their own religious and political institutions here.
The best travel tips for visiting Tamil Nadu
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, these sites were celebrated in the hymns of the Tamil saints.
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What to do in Tamil Nadu
Tamil Nadu is one of the most visited regions in India, so there is no shortage of things to do.
#1 Visit the stone-carvers’ workshops and long sandy beach at Mamallapuram
Scattered around the base of a colossal mound of boulders 58 km south of Chennai is the small seaside town of Mamallapuram (formerly Mahabalipuram). From dawn till dusk, the rhythms of chisels chipping granite resound down its sandy lanes – evidence of a stone-carving tradition that has endured since this was a major port of the Pallava dynasty, between the fifth and ninth centuries.
Mamallapuram’s monuments divide into four categories: open-air bas-reliefs, structured temples, man-made caves and rathas (“chariots” carved in situ from single boulders). The northeast famous bas-reliefs, Arjuna’s Penance and the Krishna Mandapa, adorn massive rocks near the centre of the village, while the beautiful Shore Temple presides over the beach.
It is only possible to speculate about the purpose of much of the boulder sculpture, but it appears that the friezes and shrines were not made for worship at all, but rather as showcases for the talents of local artists.
#2 Wander around the former French colony of Puducherry
First impressions of Puducherry (Pondicherry, also often referred to simply as Pondy), the former capital of French India, can be unpromising. Instead of the leafy boulevards and pétanque pitches you might expect, its messy outer suburbs and bus stand are as cluttered and chaotic as any typical Tamil town.
Closer to the seafront, however, the atmosphere grows tangibly more Gallic, as the bazaars give way to rows of houses whose shuttered windows and colour washed facades wouldn’t look out of place in Montpellier. For anyone familiar with the British colonial imprint, the town can induce culture shock with its richly ornamented Catholic churches, French road names and policemen in De Gaulle-style képis, and boules played in the dusty squares.
Many of the seafront buildings were damaged by the 2004 tsunami, but Puducherry’s tourist infrastructure remained intact.
#3 See some of the world’s finest Chola bronzes at Thanjavur
One of the busiest commercial towns of the Kaveri Delta, Thanjavur (aka Tanjore), 55 km east of Tiruchirapalli and 35 km southwest of Kumbakonam, is well worth a visit. Its history and treasures – among them the breathtaking Brihadishwara Temple, Tamil Nadu’s most awesome Chola monument and a UNESCO World Heritage Site – give it a crucial significance to south Indian culture.
The home of the world’s finest Chola bronze collection, Thanjavur holds enough interest to keep you enthralled for a couple of days. It’s also a good base for short trips to nearby Gangaikondacholapuram, Darasuram and Swamimalai.
Thanjavur divides into two sections, separated by the east–west Grand Anicut Canal. The old town, north of the canal and once entirely enclosed by a fortified wall, was chosen, between the ninth and the end of the thirteenth century, as the capital of their extensive empire by all Chola kings save one.
#4 Visit Madurai, one of the oldest cities in South Asia
One of the oldest cities in South Asia, Madurai, on the banks of the River Vaigai, has been an important centre of worship and commerce for as long as there has been civilization in south India.
Often described as “the Athens of the East”, when the Greek ambassador Megasthenes visited in 302 BC, he wrote of its splendour and described its queen, Pandai, as “a daughter of Herakles”. The Roman geographer Strabo also wrote of Madurai, complaining that the city’s silk, pearls and spices were draining the imperial coffers of Rome.
It was this lucrative trade that enabled the Pandyan dynasty to erect the mighty Meenakshi-Sundareshwarar temple. Although now surrounded by a sea of modern concrete cubes, the massive gopuras of this vast complex, writhing with multicoloured mythological figures and crowned by golden finials, remain the south's greatest man-made spectacle.
#5 Wash up at Kanyakumari, the sacred meeting point of the three seas
At the southernmost extremity of India, Kanyakumari is almost as compelling for Hindus as Rameshwaram. It’s significant not only for its association with a virgin goddess, Devi Kanyakumari, but also as the meeting point of the Bay of Bengal, Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea, thus regarded as a holy sangam.
Watching the sun rise and set from here is the big attraction, especially on full-moon day in April, when it’s possible to see both the setting sun and rising moon on the same horizon. Although Kanyakumari is in the state of Tamil Nadu, most foreign visitors arrive on day-trips from Kerala.
While the place is of enduring appeal to pilgrims and those who just want to see India’s tip, some may find it bereft of atmosphere, its magic obliterated by ugly concrete buildings and hawkers. Kanyakumari was devastated by the 2004 tsunami, although the seafront and jetty have been rebuilt.
#6 Go trekking through The Ghats
Rising to a height of around 2500m, the Western Ghats are India's second-highest mountain chain after the Himalayas and stretch 1400 km down the west coast of India. The cooler temperatures of the range’s high valleys and grasslands, which attracted the British away from the withering summer heat on the southern plains, are now ideal for hiking and multiday treks.
Forming a natural barrier between the Tamil plains and coastal Kerala and Karnataka, the Ghats (literally meaning “steps”) soak up the bulk of the monsoon, which drains east to the Bay of Bengal via the mighty Kaveri and Krishna rivers. The massive amount of rain that falls here between June and October (around 2.5m) allows for incredible biodiversity. Nearly one-third of all India’s flowering plants can be found in the dense evergreen and mixed deciduous forests cloaking the Ghats, while the woodland undergrowth supports the Subcontinent’s richest array of wildlife.
#7 Seek out wild elephants at the Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary
Set 1140m up in the Nilgiri Hills, the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve covers 322 square kilometres of deciduous forest, split by the main road from Ooty (64 km to the southeast) to Mysore (97 km to the northwest).
Occupying the thickly wooded, lower northern reaches of the hills, it boasts one of the largest populations of elephants in India, along with wild dogs, gaur (Indian bison), common and Nilgiri langurs and bonnet macaques (monkeys), jackals, hyenas, sloth bears and even a few tigers and leopards. The abundant local flora includes the dazzling red flowers of the Flame of the Forest.
The main focus of interest by the park entrance at Theppakkadu is the Elephant Camp show, where you can watch the sanctuary’s elephants being fed and bathed. This is also the starting point for the government safari tour, either on elephant back (which we do not recommend, due to the negative impact this has on the animals) or by vehicle, which is the only way of accessing the official park limits.
It is worth noting that the nearby Nagarhole and Bandipur parks are much cheaper, with the same price for both Indians and tourists.
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Best places to stay in Tamil Nadu
In the northeastern corner of Tamil Nadu on the Bay of Bengal, Chennai is India’s fourth largest city. Taking it's popularity amongst tourist into consideration, finding an inexpensive place to stay in Chennai can be problematic.
With the 24hr checkout system, it’s difficult to predict availability and some of the cheaper places don’t take advance bookings. The good news is that standards in the cheapies are better than in other cities. Most of the mid-range and inexpensive hotels are around the railway station in Egmore and further east in Triplicane.
India’s stone-carving capital, Mamallapuram has dozens of guesthouses and small hotels in the budget and mid-range categories. It suffers badly from aggressive touting by a small number of places. Ignore the touts and walk to your chosen destination – it’s a small place. The more luxurious resorts are dotted along the coast, mostly to the north.
The former capital of French India, Puducherry’s basic lodges are concentrated around the main market area, Ranga Pillai St and Rue Nehru. Trendy boutique hotels now punctuate the French Quarter. Guesthouses belonging to the Sri Aurobindo Ashram offer good value for money but are not overly welcoming.
Accommodation in Rameshwaram comprises a mixture of basic old lodges in the streets round the temple and newer hotels, mostly in the direction of the transit points. During holidays and festivals, rooms are like gold dust and just as pricey.
Kodaikanal’s inexpensive lodges are grouped at the lower end of Anna Salai. It is worth asking whether blankets and hot water are provided (the latter should be free, but you may be charged in budget places).
There are a few decent places to stay in Coonoor but it’s spread over a wide area, so it’s best to arrive early to look for a room; you’ll need an auto-rickshaw to find most of the hotels. Those around the bus stand are either not worth staying in or won’t accept foreigners.
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How to get around
Tamil Nadu State Transport Corporation (TNSTC) operates an extensive bus network connecting major cities, towns, and villages within the state. Both government-run and private buses are available.
Indian Railways has an extensive rail network that connects different cities and towns in Tamil Nadu.
Taxis are readily available in all cities but can also be a handy way of getting between major destinations. Many will make themselves available for multi-day trips.
How many days do you need in Tamil Nadu?
Tamil Nadu offers a diverse range of attractions, including historical sites, temples, hill stations, beaches, and cultural experiences. Ideally, a minimum of 7-10 days would allow you to explore some of the major highlights of the state.
What is the best time to visit Tamil Nadu?
Tamil Nadu can be visited year-round, although by far the most popular time is between December and March. This is when the skies are mostly blue and the weather not as hot as it becomes from April to June, especially on the inland plains.
During the hotter months, the hill stations of the Western Ghats provide welcome respite from the heat but they can be pretty chilly, at least at night, in the winter. Coastal areas, however, only ever vary a few degrees either side of 30°C but humidity levels are consistently high from April through September.
The main summer monsoon largely misses Tamil Nadu but the state does receive plenty of precipitation during the northeast monsoon season from October to early December. At this time violent cyclones can be a threat, sometimes causing floods and wreaking havoc with transport links.
The Christmas and New Year period gets busy and prices are higher then and for local festivals, of which the state has many.
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How to get here
Chennai airport in Tirisulam, 16km southwest of the city centre on NH-45, is comprehensively served by international and domestic flights. The new international and domestic terminals are a short walk from each other, on opposite sides of the old terminal. Facilities at both are much better on the air side than the land side.
Chennai has two main long-distance railway stations – Egmore and Central, both on the north side of the city centre and just 1.5km apart. Egmore station is the arrival point for most trains from Tamil Nadu.
Buses from all long-distance destinations use the huge Mofussil Bus Stand in Chennai, inconveniently situated in the suburb of Koyambedu, more than 10km west of the centre. Mofussil is linked to other parts of Chennai by a host of city buses, which depart from the well-organized platforms outside the main terminal.
Boats leave Chennai every week/ten days for Port Blair, capital of the Andaman Island.
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