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 is a good 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. 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.