Tamil Nadu, in south India, is flanked by the Coromandel Coast in the east and the hills of Western Ghats in the west. The plains in between are dotted with some of the finest temples in the country. Tamil Nadu is a Dravidian heartland which was, for most of the time, ruled by the Hindu dynasties. The distance from the north India and the strength of the ruling dynasties kept the region isolated from the external influences. This helped preserve the art, architecture and the culture. Hence, most of the monuments here have retained their original forms and people still possess their traditional culture. The most unique feature of the temples here are the towering and profusely decorated ‘gopurams’ – the gateway towers. There are a few scenic hill stations and lush green national parks in Tamil Nadu.
North Tamil Nadu
Chennai, the capital of Tamil Nadu, is situated near the northern tip of the state. It started taking shape of a city after British established the Fort St George here in the 17th century. Several old churches in the city are reminder of various European settlements of the past. The historical temples in the city and in the nearby towns of Mamallapuram and Kanchipuram speak of the influence of Hindu kings over the region. The Marina Beach here is the second-longest beach in the world. Today’s Chennai is fast, aspirational and a huge commercial centre where traffic snarls are the order of the day. Read More
Location: Chennai is situated on the southeastern coast of India, 350 km east of Bangalore.
Mamallapuram (also called Mahabalipuram), a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was once a port city of the Pallava kings. Travellers from far and wide throng this beach town to explore its monuments. The temples and rock-cut shrines here represent the Dravidian style of art and architecture. The shore temple and the ‘Panch Rathas’ (five monolithic rock-cut shrines) are the chief attractions here. Along with these there are many cave shrines scattered around the town. Few of the cave temples can also be found on a hillock.
Travel Tip: There are a few budget and mid-range hotels in the town, in case you want to stay here.
Location: Mamallapuram is 56 km south of Chennai.
Kanchipuram, popular in India for its silk sarees, was once the capital of the Pallava Dynasty. During their reign, Kanchipuram was a major religious and commercial centre. The magnificent temples they built here represent that glorious era. The most splendid amongst all is the intricately sculpted Kailashnatha Temple. This town is one of the seven sacred cities of Hindus. It is also seat of one of the four ‘Shankaracharyas’. From here, you can visit the Vedanthangal Sanctuary. This sanctuary, 31 km from Kanchipuram, attracts thousands of migratory birds.
Location: Kanchipuram is 75 km southwest of Chennai. Mamallapuram is 67 km southeast of Kanchipuram.
Puducherry (earlier Pondicherry, also called Pondy) was once the capital of the French territories in India. Now it is a union territory, 160 km south of Chennai, situated by the coast. Though many of the elders still speak French, the town now shows more influence of its adjacent state – Tamil Nadu. If you want to get a whiff of its past, you should walk along its French and Indian quarters. You can also stroll along its seaside promenade – Goubert Salai. Sri Aurobindo Ghose, a poet-philosopher and a freedom fighter was sheltered here during the freedom struggle in Bengal. He founded an Ashram here in 1926. His disciple Mirra Alfassa, known as “The Mother”, built a small town, Auroville, nearby. Auroville was conceived as a town where people of different nationalities would live in harmony with each other. Read More
Location: Puducherry is 155 km south of Chennai.
The 16th century fort (called Vellore Fort), surrounded by a deep moat, is the prime attraction here. Most of the old structures inside the fort don’t exist anymore. The Jalakanteshwara temple built in the mid-16th century still stands erect. Today fort has a few government offices including that of ASI (Archaeological Survey of India).
Location: Vellore is 140 km east of Chennai.
This temple town is an important pilgrimage for Hindus. It is said that Shiva appeared here as a column of light on the ‘Arunachala Hill’, which overlooks the town. ‘Arunachaleshwara Temple’, built in the 16th century, has its ‘shivalinga’ covered with gold. Tiruvannamalai is also home to ‘Sri Ramana Maharishi Ashram’.
Location: Tiruvannamalai is 206 km southwest of Chennai.
Gingee must be the most impressive fort in Tamil Nadu. It snakes up and down to encase the structures built on three hills. It has the remains of palaces, temples, mosques, granaries and tanks. The most impressive monument in the fort is the eight-storeyed ‘Kalyana Mahal’.
Location: Gingee is 39 km east of Tiruvannamalai.
Central Tamil Nadu
The region around Thanjavur was fertile enough to produce huge amounts of paddy and inspiring enough to spawn different forms of art. Bharatnatyam dance, Carnatic music, painting, sculpture and literature are deeply rooted in this land. Thanjavur has lived under the rule of the Cholas, the Nayakas and the Marathas. Any of the two dynasties who took the throne after Cholas never tried to destroy the artistic and architectural legacy. Situated in the alluvial rich Kaveri Delta, Thanjavur’s fortune didn’t stay the same after independence. The river waters have often dried up which has disturbed the economy and thus the growth of the art. The colossal ‘ Brihadeeswarar Temple’ built here by the Cholas in 1004 AD is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This temple, along with the Schwartz Church and the royal palace, is enclosed in the 16th-century Shivaganga Fort. Read More
Location: Thanjavur is 57 km east of Tiruchirapalli and 346 km southwest of Chennai.
It is the enormous temple complex, Srirangam, that attracts travellers and pilgrims to Tiruchirappalli. Situated on the island formed by the Kaveri and Kollidam rivers, this temple complex is home to Sri Ranganathswamy Temple. This temple is one of the most revered shrines to Lord Vishnu. Spread over 148 acres, this is one of the largest temple complexes in Tamil Nadu. There are 21 beautiful ‘gopurams’ and 49 shrines dedicated to Vishnu. The temple complex was damaged in 1313 and later on it was renovated in the same century. Also worth visiting here is the Rock Fort which, as per its name, covers the top of a rock. On the top there is a Ganesha Temple. 400 stone-steps are worth climbing for the rewarding views of the city and the river. Read More
Location: Tiruchirapalli is 57 km west of Thanjavur and 334 km southwest of Chennai.
Chidambaram is where Shiva is believed to have performed his cosmic dance called ‘tandav’. Everything that has to be observed and admired in this town is situated in the ‘Sabhyanaka Natraj’ temple complex. Built in the 9th century by the Chola Kings, this temple complex has Lord Shiva as the main deity. Of all the huge ‘gopuras’ surrounding the complex, the eastern one (108 ft) is the most fascinating. It has numerous hand movements of Bharat Natyam sculpted on it. The main sanctum is hut-shaped with gold-plated roof. The complex houses five major halls called ‘sabhas’. The thousand-pillared ‘Raja Sabha’ was the place where many ‘Chola Kings’ were coronated. The ‘Nritya Sabha’ has amazing sculptures.
Location: Chidambaram is 171 km northeast of Tiruchirapalli and 231 km south of Chennai.
Kumbakonam, a small town situated in between the Kaveri and Arasalar rivers, is a sacred site for Hindus. As per the Hindu Mythology, it was here that Shiva’s arrow broke the pot containing the divine nectar. The nectar that flowed out of the broken pot filled the Mahamaham tank situated here. Every twelve years, Mahamaham Festival takes place in which millions of devotees bathe themselves in the tank so as to part with their bad ‘karma’. There are many temples in the town, some of them are centuries old. Kumbakonam is also the commercial centre of Thanjavur district. It is well-known for its jewellery, textiles and betel leaves.
Location: Kumbakonam is 100 km east of Tiruchirapalli.
Ooty (originally Udhagamandalam), situated in the Nilgiri Hills, is the most popular hill station in Tamilnadu. Travellers throng this town to seek the cool respite of the forested hills after exploring the hot and humid plains of the state. Ooty is also a favourite weekend getaway of the dwellers of Tamil Nadu and the surrounding states. Hence, during season it draws huge crowds. Numerous concrete structures have sprung up in the town to deal with the heavy influx. But the surrounding hills draped with green are as inviting as ever. And the climate here is as salubrious as it was when the colonists reached here. Dodabetta peak – the highest point in Nilgiris – is a short drive from the town. Read More
Travel Tip: You can drive to Ooty from Coimbatore. For a unique experience, board the narrow-gauge Nilgiri mountain railway. Book in advance and opt for first sitter to get proper seating space.
Location: Ooty is 88 km northwest of Coimbatore.
The difference between Coonoor and Ooty is too high for the mere distance of 20 km. Coonoor has starkingly different weather patterns and receives lesser tourists. It is surrounded by the hills covered with bushes of tea. From here, you can opt to go out on excursions to nearby viewpoints. Sim’s Park, a lush botanical garden in upper Coonoor, is an ideal place for morning walks. Read More
Location: Coonoor is 21 km southeast of Ooty and 70 km northwest of Coimbatore.
Yercaud is a small hill town in the Shevaroy hills. It is surrounded by tea and coffee plantations. Yerikadu lake and Killiyur falls are the major attractions here.
Location: Yercaud is 30 km north of Salem and 195 km northeast of Coimbatore.
Mudumalai wildlife sanctuary is spread across 322 sq km in the Nilgiri hills, northwest of Ooty. Along with the neighbouring sanctuaries, Mudumalai is a part of the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve. There is a thick population of elephants here. Other residents are sambar, spotted deer, wild dogs, sloth bears, Nilgiri langurs, leopards and a few tigers. The sanctuary has a rich avifauna, more than 120 species of birds have been recorded here.
Travel Tip: Here many tourists satisfy themselves by visiting an elephant camp near the entrance at Theppakkadu. However, if you are more interested in flora and fauna, you can opt for government-run safari tours. It would also be a good idea to hire a private vehicle to explore the fringes of the sanctuary.
Location: The entrance at Theppakkadu is 120 km northwest of Coimbatore and 36 km northwest of Ooty. Most of the resorts are at Masinagudi, which is 8 km east of the park entrance.
South Tamil Nadu
Madurai has been a Tamil heartland for centuries. The enormous Meenakshi Amman Temple complex here is a standing testimony to the glorious past of this city. This temple complex was originally built by the Pandyas in between 7th to 10th centuries. Later on, Nayakas added much to it during 16th to 18th centuries. The two main shrines are dedicated to Lord Shiva and his wife, Meenakshi (Goddess Parvati). Worth observing in this complex are its highly ornate multi-storeyed ‘gopurams’ (entry gates), gigantic pillared-halls and splendid structural art. Around Madurai, there are several Jain caves dating back to the 2nd and 3rd centuries BC. The Thirumalai Palace, built by the Nayak king of the same name in 1636, is a short drive from Meenakshi Temple.
Location: Madurai is 462 km southwest of Chennai and 246 km north of Kanyakumari.
Kodaikanal is a picturesque hill station situated at a height of 6,998 ft in the Palani range. This town of lush green hills and terraced plantations is centered on the Kodai Lake. The amoeba-shaped dam-created Kodai lake is spread over 60 acres. There are many things you can do in Kodaikanal like going on short treks, cycling on the hills, boating in the lake. And when you just want to take it easy, enjoy leisurely strolls around the lake. This town was initially developed by the American missionaries who set up a sanatorium here in the 19th century. Read More
Location: Kodaikanal is 120 km northwest of Madurai.
Chettinad (or Chettinadu) is a region spread over more than 1500 sq km in southeast Tamil Nadu. Karaikudi is the largest town of the region and most of the attractions are around it. This region is native of the enterprising ‘Chettiar’ community of Tamil Nadu. Most of them are prominent businessmen in Chennai and Bangalore. Their forefathers used to travel across many countries in southeast Asia to conduct their trade. The wealth and experience they gathered resulted in building of splendid mansions here. While not all have survived, some of them have been turned into hotels. Others remain closed, opened only for ceremonies and celebrations. There are also a few old temples in the region.
Location: Karaikudi, Chettinad’s principal town, is 87 km east of Madurai.
Rameswaram is a small pilgrim town on the Pamban Island. It is located in the Gulf of Mannar, off the southeastern coast of India. Pamban Bridge, which connects it with the mainland, is nothing short of an architectural marvel. Rameswaram town is a maze of streets around the highly revered Ramanathaswamy Temple. This massive temple is one of the twelve ‘Jyotirlinga’ shrines. It was established by the Cholas and was expanded by the Nayakas. The most impressive part of the temple is the 1212-pillared corridor called ‘Sokattan Mandapa’. An interesting excursion from here is to Dhanushkodi which has a beach and the series of boulders called ‘Ram Setu’ (also called Adam’s Bridge).
Location: Rameswaram is 169 km southeast of Madurai.
Kanyakumari is situated at the southernmost tip of India. This place is where the Indian Ocean, Bay of Bengal and Arabian Sea meet. It is delighting to watch sunrise and sunset here, especially on the full-moon day in April. Its beach, granite hills and seaside temple create a surreal atmosphere but the town itself has turned into a jumble of concrete buildings. The town has received its name from Kumari, the Virgin Goddess, who is believed to have performed a penance here. Swami Vivekanand had meditated here on a small island just off the coast. Today on that spot stands the imposing Vivekanand memorial. On the adjacent small island stands the 133 ft tall stone sculpture of Tamil poet and philosopher – Thiruvalluvar.
Travel Tip: Trivandrum, in Kerala, is the nearest major city and has an airport.
Location: Kanyakumari is 245 km south of Madurai and 92 km southeast of Trivandrum.