The enduring impression of travelling around Tamil Nadu is of iridescent paddy fields filling the gaps between alluring temple towns. The way to the temples are invariably announced by towering gopuras (temple gateways) coming gradually to focus as they reveal ancient mini-cities within. On a closer look, it unravels that these holy precincts have carefully protected and kept alive traditions stretching back a couple of millennia through the Tamils' language, dance, art and religion. To some, this is the gateway to India’s cultural core. Wondering what they're hinting at?
Ask an outsider about travel in India and few would name anything south of the Taj Mahal - a serious oversight when you consider the lavish architecture, rich history and culture of the South. To redress the balance, we give you twenty reasons why Tamil Nadu should be on your bucket list this year.
But temples aren’t the only cultural hit: the area of Chettinad has more than 40 villages filled with 19th century mansions made of material sourced from all over the globe. There is nothing quite like ‘idli sambar filter coffee’ or the region’s spicy aromatic cuisine served on banana leaves. When the heat and noise of the plains overwhelm, escape to the cool, forest-clad mountain delights, coastal retreats or even the land’s end where the seas mingle. It’s all packed into a state that remains proudly discrete from the rest of India, while at the same time being among the friendliest.
There is no doubt that Tamil Nadu offers the quintessential South Indian experience on many levels. Through this article, we wish to give you a taste of the experience range. We have broadly divided it over five sections, you can directly click and jump to the section of your interest or go with the article flow starting below
Tamil Nadu is India’s true Hindu heartland. It was always under powerful hindu dynasties like the Cholas, the Pallavas and the Pandyas, but never under Muslim sway like the North of India. A temple trail is also about a close interaction with lifestyle around the temples.
Beautifully laid out on the banks of river Vaigai, the ancient city of Madurai is best known of Tamil temple cities. The majestic Meenakshi-Sundareshwarar Temple is considered the magnum opus of the innovative temple builders of this region. The temple’s dozen odd psychedelically decorated gopuras surrounding a maze of inter-connected courtyards, bathing tanks and lively shrines makes it a destination in itself!
If you see only one South Indian temple, the Meenakshi-Sundareshwar temple should be it. The shrine and ancient city of Madurai is considered by many to be as vital to the aesthetic heritage of this region as the Taj Mahal is to North India
The iconic Meenakshi Amman temple at Madurai is special for many reasons. Interestingly, it is one of the few temples that has received the ISO 9001:2008 certification. It also has 2,600 years of traceable history. So if you are thinking South India, temple crawling in Madurai is a must experience. And when your tired feet give way, try Madurai's favourite roadside drink, Jigarthanda.
The Meenakshi temple is just tip of the iceberg in the scheme of things. Tamil Nadu in many ways is a celebration of the divine and offers a captivating journey into a historic world. A good place to get your first taste of the region’s spectacular temples is Kanchipuram. As we travel further, we realise every temple town has its uniqueness. The spiritual town of Tiruvannamalai and the ramana ashram, Chidambaram and its Nataraj dancing in a cosmic wheel of fire are popular in northern Tamil belt.
What makes Tamil Nadu truly special is not just the plethora of temples but the thematic spiritual circuits that criss-cross the land and the strong influence of these consecrated spaces on the life of the locals
The land of temples the south is Kumbakonam, the seat of medieval south Indian power. A short way west is Trichy, with its lofty Rock Fort and the massive Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple. Besides being architectural marvels, it is the living museum of culture that it offers that is the biggest draw. Come during the evening puja at any temple and receive a fire blessing amid clashing cymbals, rasping horns and the cries of devotees.
Beyond the spiritual aspects, temples play the role of a culture hub. The fact that they were envisioned so can be seen from the facilities created at temples like courtyards, prakaras and performing arts theatres. To this date, these ancient cultural art forms, be it dance or music, are nurtured in the temples. It is amazing how arts have been preserved over generations.
Tamil Nadu is homeland to one of humanity’s living classical civilisations. The traditions of two millennia are alive in the Tamils’ dance, music, language and poetry.
For a traveller, a place with deep cultural roots finds its expression in festivals and performances which dot the calendar year. The Chennai music festival, Mamallapuram and Nrithanjali dance festivals are huge crowd pullers. Being central to the Tamilnadu way of life, some performance is always round the corner. Much to the traveller’s delight!
With the opening of food borders and growing appreciation of subtleties and varieties of regional specialities, the world has its taste buds opened to the infinite nuances and signature cuisines of the Tamils.
Ahh…the fragrant flowers in the stall, old Tamil song in the air and clanging temple bell makes an ideal breakfast ambience. Tamil nadu’s culinary delights start with the humble idli – a steamed, fluffy rice cake, dunked into tasty sambar (lentil broth) or coconut chutney. Masala Dosa – rice flour crepe with spiced potatoes is an any time food. Vadas and Uthappams are other worthy tries.
Tamil Nadu keeps many of its riches in its kitchens. Once you have tried the spread, be it the humble idli or a spicy potato-stuffed masala dosa there is no going back!
Chennai city is rightly famous for its elaborate cuisine spread. Try Ratna Café for its signature sambar recipe and Murugan’s Idli shop where they serve idli accompanied with gunpowder and ghee. Yummy! The non-veg scene in Chennai is also good with the Military canteens, street-side sizzling meals and cosmopolitan dining.
As far as simple joys of life go, a good ol’ cup of South Indian filter coffee ranks pretty high up there. The heady aroma rises along with steam as you blow away the foam. The coffee is piping hot, so can’t take a sip yet but you are quivering with anticipation. As they say, you don’t drink the degree/filter coffee, you experience it.
Then there is the famous South Indian kaapi - filter coffee made with chicory, sugar and milk. It is pure emotion in a cup decanted on every street corner of Tamil Nadu
Filter coffee or the Kumbakonam degree coffee is ubiquitously available around Tamil Nadu. The Kumbakonam speciality is that it uses pure cow’s milk without any adulterants and chicory. The best filter coffee never costs more than 20 rupees. The deliciously addictive brew is usually handed to you in a steel tumbler, anything else would be blasphemy!
The Chettinad region’s most famous export, its cuisine, has Chicken Chettinad as its brand ambassador. The cuisine includes a variety of sun-dried meats and salted vegetables adapting to the region’s dry inland location. The Chettiars extended their repertoire to wild game like kaada (quail), muyal (rabbit) and seafood. It has everything to do with the community’s earlier proximity to sea.
A traditionally served Chettiar meal has become an obligatory stop on the global foodie caravan. It boasts of having among the spiciest and most aromatic cuisines in the country.
Meals are traditionally served on banana leaf with the tip pointing left. There is a designated space for every dish and a particular sequence of serving them. More than the meal itself, it is the gracious manner in which it is served is the trademark of Chettinad hospitality. The vaalai yaley meen (banana wrap fish), Pepper chicken and masala Fish fry are not to be missed.
Can we interest you in a trip where we play hosts to the foodie in you? A fascinating journey through South India's open kitchens and culinary landscape.
The Tamils are a passionate lot who have guarded their cultural traditions with pride and woven it into their social fabric. They have also welcomed ideas from around the globe. This is to be experienced in exquisite metal craft, silken textile tradition of Kanchipuram, Chettinad, Puducherry and Chola heritage sites.
The Chola temple complexes form a unique group as veritable repositories of history, art and culture. Unlike other shrines, the entrance gopuram is a squat structure much smaller than inside spires, reserving all the glory for the vimanam or superstructure above the gods. The soaring vimanas, splendid sculpture detailing and monumental scale is the Chola architectural stamp.
Encapsulating a very distinctive period of the Mighty Chola history, the three temple complexes collectively called the Great Living Chola temples are worthy on all counts of its UNESCO world heritage status.
The piece de resistance of Chola temple architecture is without a doubt the Brihadeeswara temple of Thanjavur and its impressive royal palace. Another magnificent edifice is the splendidly rural temple at Gangaikondacholapuram. In between the two is the sublime chariot carved Airavateshwara at Darasuram. These three 10th-12th century marvels are collectively called Great living Chola Temples.
The village reverberates with the story of the Nattukottai Chettiars—a caste of traders and bankers who made it big with global businesses. The wealth created resulted in a building boom between the 1880s and 1920s which remains as impressive as it is confounding. Procuring the best from their sojourns, Chettiars lavishly used Burma teak, Ceylon satinwood, Italian marble, Swedish enamelware, Belgian chandeliers, English crockery and ceramic tiles imported from Japan to create their dream homes.
Temples aren't the only cultural hit: the region of Chettinad has more than 40 planned villages filled with stately mansions made in the 19th century with materials sourced from around the globe.
When the gracious Chettiars opened their homes to global travellers, this luxurious life style is available as an experience. There is also much enjoyment to be derived from spending time among the hospitable and deeply traditional Tamil people. It between all this, let us not forget the food. Chettiar cooking has become an obligatory stop on the global foodie caravan.
The athangudi design on tiles is of a bygone era but they still grace the floors of most chettiar mansions.
Location: Karaikudi town (Chettinad region)
Time: Any time of the year
Duration: 2 hours
You will be surprised by observing tile-making totally handmade using local soil and natural colour to get geometric patterns.
It is a small nondescript village near Karaikudi that’s responsible for the riveting floor spaces found in Chettinad homes. The tradition of Athangudi tiles started over 100 years ago. Unlike mass produced ceramic tiles, Athangudi tiles are cast by hand using local sand, fine gravel and cement.
Available mostly in dark earthy hues with geometric, floral designs, the tiles are locally called pookallu (floral stones). The beauty of Athangudi tiles is that they require no polishing and get a natural shine with regular use. A visit to Athangudi is essential to understand how the tile is made and one of the best places to see it is the Ganapathy tile Factory.
Kanchipuram is a quaint town where timeless 6-yard dreams are hand-woven. Silk sarees produced here are woven on hand-looms by local artisans. The product will last an entire lifetime and the detailing of the work is exquisite. If there ever was a piece of tradition that has remained constantly iconic in the Indian psyche, it is the ‘Kanchipuram Pattu’.
The timeless hand-woven 6-yard dream has been part of every South Indian bride’s trousseau for ages. It makes for a memorable souvenir.
The weaver community moved here some 500 years back. The skill has been passed on over generations and interestingly the art survived even when the city was burned down in 1757. The friendly artisans are more than welcoming when they open their tiny homes for you to see them at work. A piece of this tradition is consider-worthy take home from Tamil Nadu.
Does a mix of heritage sites and immersive local experiences in Tamilnadu interest you? Check out our customisable tour designed on this circuit
A couple of hours down the ECR road, we reach Puducherry where dining possibilities take a decidedly Gallic twist. Its former colonial rulers, the French (until 1954), have left a noticeable architectural mark here as well, at least in the quiet, clean, shady cobbled streets, lined with bougainvillea-draped colonial-era townhouses wedged between the canal and seafront.
Puducherry or ‘Pondy’ is a sea of tranquillity with a vibe which is less a faded colonial era and more a bohemian hangout on the international travel trail.
It is basically a lifestyle that is sold here which attracts the creative types inviting you to enjoy shopping, French food, beer and sea air. The town is also home to Sri Aurobindo ashram and has quite a few yoga/meditation centres. Part of the vibe of the town also stems from Auroville, which attracts a lot of spiritually minded travellers.
Mantrimandir is the spiritual centre of Auroville, a new age community which is built around the idea of universal human unity
Location: 15 km from Puducherry town
Time: Any time of the year
Visit Duration: 4 hours
Auroville is one of those ideas that anyone with idealistic leanings will love: an international community dedicated to peace, harmony, sustainable living, and 'divine consciousness'
Auroville was founded in 1968 on the inspiration of 'the Mother', co-founder of Puducherry's Sri Aurobindo Ashram, and her philosophy still guides it. Matrimandir, the 29m/95ft-high globe with a 36m/118ft diameter is the focal point of Aurovile township and a place for quiet contemplation.
Entry into the Matri Mandir is restricted and guests who obtain prior permission and passes to meditate inside are sent in two batches. A shaded 1 km footpath leads to the Matri Mandir viewing point for all others. The vibe you'll receive on a visit will probably be positive, and the energy driving the place is palpable.
One of the most recognised art works in the world, the bronze casting art reached a level of unmatched excellence and masterful artistry during the Chola period. Being considered a temple art, the work was carried out with extraordinary care and devotion. The sculptures are remarkably sophisticated and can last forever with minimal care.
The world renowned Chola bronze sculpture work involves demanding handwork and remarkable sophistication passed on through generations to create. Astoundingly, the artisans still employ the same ‘lost wax process’ used in the 10th century for creating them!
Today, the traditional artisans of the trade are concentrated around Kumbakonam town. You must visit a workshop where the famous bronze idols are cast and defined. Directly see various stages of the manufacturing using the 10th century Chola school of iconography. It is not every day you get to appreciate such a time-preserved art.
When you fancy a literal breath of fresh air away from the temple trail, Tamil Nadu offers a couple of major hill stations in the Western Ghats, two nature reserves, waterfalls and mangrove forests to experience.
The treasured railways which served as a lifeline for the Nilgiri tea industry in the yesteryears has been in operation since 1899. A century later it continues to inspire offering travellers a scenic ride past hills, valleys, forests and plantations with terrain changing every mile. The train negotiates 16 tunnels, 27 viaducts and 208 curves in its 46 km route. In 2005, the Nilgiri Mountain Railway was added by UNESCO to its list of World Heritage sites.
Experience the fabled old world charm of the Nilgiri mountain rail as its century old ‘Toy train’ whistles its way along a scenic path on the steepest rail stretch in Asia.
The train leaves daily from Mettupalayam at 7.10 am to Ooty and returns at 3 p.m, completing the downhill journey in 3.5 hours. There are also four daily trains each way between Ooty and Coonoor. Despite having computerized ticketing systems, the NMR still issues manually stamped Edmondson railway tickets to retain its old world charm.
There are few more refreshing Tamilnadu moments than leaving the heat-soaked plains and disembarking at a quaint hill station reminiscent of the English countryside. Located northwest of Madurai, ‘Kodai’ is a more relaxed experience than big sister Ooty. Set around a peaceful lake, Kodaikanal affords splendid views across the plains from Coaker’s Walk and treks of varying lengths in the hinterland behind.
Walks showcase Kodaikanal’s natural splendour – thick shola rainforests enveloped in mist, the smell of eucalyptus, pine and the fabled kurunji that flowers every 12 years.
Kodai is popular with honeymooners and groups, who flock to the spectacular viewpoints and waterfalls in and around town. Centred on a beautiful lake, Kodai rambles up and down hillsides with patches of shola forest, unique to the Western Ghats in South India. Another speciality is the kurinji shrub, whose lilac-blue blossoms appear only every 12 years.
Already thinking of a trip to the hills of Tamil Nadu? This tour plan might be of interest to you
The Kaveri river makes its presence felt in the most spectacular way at the Hogenakkal Falls. The richly wooded forest all around, the rocky outcrops in the river and the exhilarating mist makes this one of the most beautiful places in Tamilnadu. The waters here are said to have healing properties as the river has flowed through forests filled with medicinal plants.
Touted as India’s Niagra, the breath-taking hogenakkal falls is worth a visit with a coracle ride added in for some fun adventure
The river Kaveri is silent witness to the spectacular rise and fall of the Chola empire as well as the ebb and flow of centuries of life. It is the lifeline of the region’s agriculture and power. The carbonatite rocks in the area are believed to be among the oldest of their kind in the world. A coracle ride here will be a worthwhile experience!
Also called Masinagudi (nearest town), this 321-sq-km reserve is located in the foothills of the Nilgiris. As we wake up to the multitude of forest sounds, the scenery is like a classic Indian landscape painting given life. Spindly trees, leafy cover overhead concealing spotted deers and wild boar. There are estimated around 50 tigers here, giving Mudumalai the highest tiger population density in India – though you'll be very lucky to see one.
The energy of the wild permeates through the tranquil and serene atmosphere here. Situated in the foothill of the Nilgiris, this reserve is Tamil Nadu's best wildlife-spotting place.
In the reserve you are most likely to spot deer, peacocks, langurs, wild boar, Indian bison, and Malabar giant squirrels. Sighting wild elephants is also very common. Along with Kerala's Wayanad and Karnataka's Bandipur and Nagarhole, Mudumalai forms part of an unbroken chain of habitat connectivity which is great refuge for wildlife.
The Pichavaram mangrove forest is a coastal ecosystem like no other place on earth. The 3000 acres of groves are connected by an intricate web of canals and the only way into the forest is by boat, or on the shallower waterways, by foot. The place is a veritable maze which only local boatmen know their way around. They are happy to point out the wealth of bird, sea weeds, shells, aquatic and floral life.
You can be forgiven if you didn’t know about Pichavaram mangrove forest despite it being the world’s second largest mangrove jungle. After all, it’s not on the tourist trail.
As we get intimately acquainted with the ebb and flow of tides, it is interesting to note that the roots of the trees visible above water. The canopy is dense and deep inside the forest; it is a zone of permanent twilight with the sunlight barely making it through the thick leafy cover overhead. Pichavaram is a popular place for water sports, as well as canoeing, kayaking, eco-tourism activities and rowing.
The Coromandel coast has a chequered history with mighty dynasties and trade with European powers. The exhilarating coastal journey takes us from historic ports like Mamallapuram, past the Danish outpost Tranquebar and magical Rameshwaram all the way to Kanyakumari.
Situated on a hill overlooking the Bay of Bengal, Mamallapuram or ‘Mahabs’ is home to the simple but exquisite twin Shore Temple and its more elaborate rock-carved bas-reliefs that inflame our imagination. This delightful town is still a major centre for the art of stone carving and a great place to pick up unique – if rather weighty – souvenirs.
The monuments in this world heritage site have braved an angry sea and erosive salt air for over 1200 years. This famed and vibrant town is the state’s only real beach hangout.
And then, in addition to ancient archaeological wonders and coastal beauty, it is a backpacker’s hub too. The town is small and laid-back, and its sights can be explored on foot or by bicycle. To get a handle on the rich history behind this once thriving Pallava seaport and the carvings, hiring a knowledgeable tour guide would be worth it.
The 12th century Ramanathaswamy temple reveals a mingling of faiths where Lord Rama worshipped Lord Shiva. The region has a special space in Hindu mythology too as it was from here Lord Rama build a bridge across the sea to rescue Sita from Sri Lanka. Rameshwaram is the only Jyothirlinga in South India making it among the foremost pilgrimage sites in the country.
One of the Char Dham spiritual sites marking the four cardinal directions in India, the conch shaped island of Rameshwaram is special. The awe-inspiring temple also features the longest temple hallway in India with 1212 intricately designed granite pillars.
Apart from the pilgrims, Rameswaram is a small fishing town on a conch-shaped island, Pamban, connected to the mainland by 2km-long road and rail bridges. If you aren't a pilgrim, the temple alone barely merits the journey here. The eastern point of the island, Dhanushkodi, is a ‘lost land’ that add considerably to Rameswaram's appeal.
Has a journey to such unique temples been on your bucket list? Shoot an enquiry and we will help you get there.
The true allure of Tranquebar is its seamless cultural concoction that has been brewing over centuries. Even today, the remnants of this Danish trade hub is predominantly a fortress and the walls of the Danish colony that stands proudly as the most majestic element in this town. The golden citadel of Dansborg (constructed in 1620) houses a small museum detailing the long history of the Danish times in its heydays.
Time seems to have stopped to preserve the antiquity of this quaint coastal town which was once the Danish seat of power in India.
The history of this ‘land of singing waves’ spills on outside when you walk on the beach to find locals selling antiquated Danish coins. Notice a 14th century stone temple being slowly eroded by the sea. With its long ochre tinted stretch of beach, fascinating 17th century buildings and old township, Tranquebar is a magnet for travellers in love with heritage.
There is a sense of accomplishment on making it to the tip of the subcontinent's 'V'. As a holy sangam where the Arabian Sea, Bay of Bengal and Indian Ocean meet, this is a major pilgrimage centre and a fine place to see contemporary Hinduism at work. During full moon days, you can see the sun set and the moon rise over three seas simultaneously.
This is it, the ‘Land’s End’ of India. The sense of surreal with the temple of the Virgin sea goddess, Swami Vivekananda’s legacy and sunrise/sunset is the biggest draw to this edge.
Past the final dramatic flourish of the Western Ghats, Kanyakumari remains remarkably small scale town. The two offshore rock memorials to Vivekananda and Thiruvalluvar are worth visiting by boat. Best of all, head to the stones by the southern beach and join the worshipers for a fine view.
No trip to South India is complete without experiencing a bit of Kerala too. Checkout this trip which also covers Kanyakumari.
Despite a long meandering border with its more lauded neighbour ‘God’s own country – Kerala’, Tamil Nadu has not traditionally seen the same frequency of international travellers. The recent burst of boutique hotels and global awareness of a rich culturally protected is changing that.
This compilation is our way of inviting you to experience something truly different and deep.
Think we missed something? Please share your experiences in the message board below. We'd love to hear from you! If you feel your loved ones could appreciate this read, a share would mean a lot to us. Happy travelling!
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