Intro to India: Tamil Nadu

Tamil Nadu is a large state in the south-eastern tip of India. Its long coastline doesn’t offer much to beachgoers, although most tourist destinations lie near the sea. The main reason to explore the destinations inland are the monumental temples built in characteristic Tamil architecture style. In the far west of the state, the Western Ghats mountain range lures with pristine nature and former British ‘hill stations’. Spiritual seekers will find an abundance of ashrams and spiritual centres in Tamil Nadu.

A set of small, chariot- shaped, stone temples interspersed with large statues of animals stand on the sand in Mamallapuram
Five rathas: one of the most important group of monuments in Mamallapuram

What to see in Tamil Nadu?

Cultural heritage

If you love exploring the monuments and admiring architecture, Tamil Nadu will be a fascinating place for you. You cannot miss the 7/8th century city of Mamallapuram (formerly Mahabalipuram), complete with multiple temples and wonderful sculptures scattered over the arid, rocky area near the seashore. The entire complex has been declared a World Heritage UNESCO site.

A row of bull statues stands in front of a stone temple with double pyramidal tower in Mamallapuram
Shore temple in Mamallapuram

Temples in Tanjavur, Gangaikonda Cholapuram and Darasuram were granted a UNESCO World Heritage status. All were built during the Chola dynasty rule in the 11-12th century in a characteristic Dravidian style and are still important, active places of worship. A monumental Minakshi temple in Madurai, with its fourteen giant gopuras (gate-towers) decorated with innumerable figures of deities, owes his current form to the 16th-century dynasty of Nayaks. Meanwhile, 12th-century Ramanathaswamy in Rameshwaram is one of the four holiest Hindu pilgrimage sites (char Dham). Its vast compound, long corridors and ritual of ablution with buckets of water will leave you with a memorable experience. Rameshwaram lies on an island connected with the mainland with a long bridge.

Colourful figures of gods adorn one of giant tower-gate in Minakshi temple
Colourful statues adorning a gopura of Minakshi temple in Madurai

Last but not least, you can admire the colonial architecture in the coastal, former French town of Puducherry (formerly Pondicherry) and old British hill stations of Kodaikanal and Utakamand (formerly Ooty). Also capital Chennai has a couple of British-time monuments.

Empty, quiet street lined with renovated colonial-style buildings in Puducherry
French colonial architecture in Puducherry

If you’re interested in industrial monuments, you cannot miss the narrow-gauge Nilgiri Mountain Railway built in the early 20th century by the British. It starts from Mettupalayam and ends in Udhagamandalam. Together with its more famous cousin, the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, it is also a UNESCO World Heritage site.

A colourful, narrow-gauge train psses through a forest on Nilgiri Mountain Railway
Nilgiri Mountain Railway

Natural beauty

By far, the most pristine region of Tamil Nadu is the Western Ghats. The large part of this forested mountain range, spanning over three states, is protected as Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve. As it is home to Nilgiri tar (a species of a mountain goat), elephants and other mammal species, you have a fair chance of encountering wildlife.

Mist-shrouded Western Ghats mountain range spreads across the horizon in western Tamil Nadu
The landscape of the Western Ghats

For birdwatching, try wetlands such as Vedanthangal Bird Sanctuary, located conveniently between Chennai and Mahabalipuram or Calimere Wildlife Sanctuary. In Dec-Jan, you can see there thousands of storks, pelicans and flamingos. Wintertime is the best for visiting the national parks and sanctuaries in this part of India.

Spiritual journey

Tamil Nadu is an appropriate destination if you’re interested in yoga as a spiritual practice.
Your first stop should be Auroville, the utopian ‘universal township’ where a few thousand people from all over the world pursue a dream of ‘ human unity and transformation of consciousness’.
You could stay there as a volunteer in one of many sustainable living projects.

A golden sphere serving as a meditation/prayer hall in Auroville
Matrimandir – a huge meditation dome at the heart of Auroville ‘universal township’

Vivekananda Kendra, with HQ in Kanyakumari, is an organisation leading yoga training and Vedic studies. A world-renowned witty and science-loving guru, Sadhguru, has his main ISHA ashram near Coimbatore, on the western border of Tamil Nadu. If you’re interested in combining yoga asanas with philosophy and lifestyle, you could try out the Sivananda Yoga ashram near Madurai. It offers 1-month long residential teacher training.

Simple, thatched-roofed edifices of the Sivananda Yoga ashram near Madurai
Sivananda Yoga ashram near Madurai

Tamil people and culture

Tamils are ethnically and linguistically distinct from the people of North India. Tamils are very proud of their ancient Dravidian language and rich cultural heritage. They developed their style of classical music, called Carnatic music and many forms of classical dance, notably Bharatanatyam. The majority of Tamils are Hindu.The most popular god in Tamil Nadu is Murugan, who is a secondary deity in the rest of India. Likewise, the cult of the mother goddess, Amman, is specific to the region.

A chalk- drawn geometrical kolam pattern adorns a threshold of an old Tamil house, where women sit at a patio
Kolam pattern at the entrance of a house

Most of Tamil women follow two morning rituals. They adorn the floor in front of the door with chalk-drawn patterns (kolam) and wear fresh flowers in their hair. Both are auspicious practices.

Cultural taboos and safety precautions

Tamil Nadu is a great choice for first-timers to India. The cases of aggressive touting or scamming are less prevalent than in the north of the country (with the exception of capital Chennai). South India is safer and more hassle-free for female travellers than the Hindi belt states. Yet, like in most parts of India, women should dress in knee-length, shoulder-covering attire. There aren’t many beaches geared towards Western tourists. It means wearing a bikini isn’t advisable as it could draw a lot of stares. While visiting the temple, both men and women must have their legs covered. Be aware of a prevalent taboo that menstruating women should not enter a temple.

A beach in Mamallapuram with baloon- sellers, fully-dressed locals and an elderly Western couple in beach-gear.
Undressing on a beach in Tamil Nadu might raise some eyebrows

Food

You’d soon notice that most of the restaurants in Tamil Nadu are vegetarian. Even though just high-caste Tamils don’t eat meat, the meat dishes are more of a treat than a staple. Tamil food is lighter and less greasy than north Indian. Most of the dishes are rice-based.

Dosas, pancakes made of fermented rice batter, served on a banana leaf with coconut chutney
Plain dosa – a classic Tamil light meal, served on a banana leaf with coconut chutney

A wide variety of pancakes and steamed cakes made of fermented rice batter (idli, dosa, rava, uttapam) make for a great breakfast or light lunch. They are served with ubiquitous coconut chutney and a sort of watery vegetable and pulse curry called sambar.

South Indian thali: a steel plate filled with rice and small bowls containing different dishes
A typical thali consisting of sweet, sour, spicy and bitter flavours

Typical main meal would consist of rice, sambar, rasam (spicy, sweet and sour vegetable soup), fried vegetable dish, curd (yoghurt), chutney and a milky dessert. The most popular savoury snacks are vada, resembling deep fried donoughts and bonda – deep fried potato balls.

Vadas: deep fried, savoury doughnuts
Vada – savoury, deep fried doughnut

When to visit Tamil Nadu?

Tamil Nadu has two monsoon periods. The first one, passing through the whole of India, lasts from June to September. The second monsoon lasts from October to December. The best months to visit are the dry winter months of Jan-March. From March onwards the temperatures start soaring. Keep in mind the Nilgiri mountains region will always have much cooler temperatures.

The author at a viewpoint near Ooty in Western Ghats
Up in the Western Ghats temperatures are noticeably lower than in the rest of the state. Here, in February.

Several religious festivals (such as harvest festival of Pongal) and cultural ones (eg. dance festival in Mammalapuram) take place in Jan/Feb. This is also best time to visit national parks and nature reserves.

Travelling to and around Tamil Nadu

By air

The capital, Chennai, is the main airport of Tamil Nadu with international connections to Europe (London and Frankfurt), the whole Middle East, South East Asia (Bangkok, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur), and Sri Lanka. The network of domestic flights, including budget carriers, is dense. There are other airports in Tamil Nadu (eg. Madurai and Coimbatore), where you can get flights to the major Indian cities.

By train

For travel within the state on the furthest distances, a train is the best option. For example, you can travel between Chennai and Madurai (8h), Madurai and Kanyakumari (5.5h). For Ooty, you have to change the train in Mettupalayam for narrow gauge Nilgiri Express.
Chennai is also a relatively short distance from Bengaluru in Karnataka (6h) and Hyderabad in Andhra Pradesh (13h). For Kerala, better to start further south: Madurai is 8 hours away from Thiruvananthapuram.

Train of narrow-gauge Nigliri Mountain Railway stands at the station in Tamil Nadu
At the station of Nilgiril Mountain Railway

By bus

Roads in Tamil Nadu are good so travelling by bus is more comfortable and quicker than in some other parts of India. It’s convenient to travel between Chennai and Puducherry, or Kanyakumari and Thiruvananthapuram (in Kerala).

The interior of an old but relatively well kept long distance bus in Tamil Nadu
Interior of a government, long-distance bus in Tamil Nadu

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s