Tamil Nadu Temples

If your idea of India is one of ancient temples thick with incense and chanting masses worshipping dimly lit deities covered with vermilion paste and crushed marigolds, then Tamil Nadu is where your mental images will be replaced by vivid memories. Occupying a long stretch of the Bay of Bengal coastline known as the Coromandel Coast, India’s southernmost state is dominated by a rich cultural and religious heritage that touches every aspect of life. For many, this is the Hindu heartland—home to one of India’s oldest civilizations, the Dravidians, who pretty much escaped the Mughal influence that permeated so much of the cultural development in the North. Ruled predominantly by the powerful Chola, Pallava, and Pandyan dynasties, Dravidian culture flourished for more than a thousand years, developing a unique political and social hierarchy. In spite of globalization and the political dominance of the North, Tamil Nadu has retained its fervent nationalist sensibility—an almost zealous pride in Tamil language and literature and in its delicious and varied cuisines. Thanks to heavy summer downpours, Tamil Nadu is green and lush—particularly in the Cauvery Delta toward the west, where the great Dravidian kingdoms were established and some of the finest temples built, like the 11th-century Brihadeshvara Temple, situated in Thanjavur, the Chola capital for 400 years. By contrast, Chennai (or Madras, as many still refer to it), the capital established by the British in the 17th century, exudes no such appeal. It’s primarily of interest as a gateway to some of the region’s best attractions, like nearby Kanchipuram, one of the seven sacred cities of India, and Sri Venkateshvara Temple (in Tirupati, just over the border in Andhra Pradesh), said to be the wealthiest temple in the world. There, devotees line up for hours—even days— to hand over an annual 1.5 billion rupees to help Vishnu settle his debt with the God of Wealth. Just 2 hours south of Chennai lies the seaside village of Mamallapuram, where, right near the water’s edge, the Pallavas built the earliest examples of monumental architecture in southern India during the 5th and 9th centuries. From here it’s a relaxing 21⁄2-hour drive farther south to charming Pondicherry, a former French coastal colony. Although the French officially left years ago, Pondicherry’s Gallic spirit is still very much alive—traditional Indian snack joints feature signs proclaiming MEALS READY; BIEN VENUE; locals clad in lungis (traditional Indian clothing) converse in French; and gorgeous antiquesfilled Indo-French colonial mansions have been restored as hotels—the kind of “temple” that will appeal to the lazy hedonist in you. Having caught your breath in the wide boulevards of Pondicherry, you can either travel to Tiruchirappalli, exploring the holy temple town of Srirangam and nearby Thanjavur, or head to Sri Meenakshi-Sundareshwar Temple at Madurai. A place of intense spiritual activity, this temple is where 15,000 pilgrims gather daily to celebrate the divine union of the goddess Meenakshi (Parvati) and her eternal lover, Sundareshwar (Shiva)—one of the most evocative experiences in all of India.

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