Adventures in Tamil Nadu: India’s most underrated state

Tamil Nadu, a sprawling state in southern India, is laced with intricate temples, thrumming cities and diverse wildlife. But, for all its charms, it’s often overlooked in favour of well-trodden states like Goa and Kerala. Here’s why you should give travel in Tamil Nadu a chance.
Meenakshi Amman Temple, Madurai. Photo: NV Studio/Shutterstock
Meenakshi Amman Temple, Madurai. Photo: NV Studio/Shutterstock


Top cities in Tamil Nadu

Chennai is Tamil Nadu’s throbbing capital, situated in the northeastern reaches of the state. This hectic metropolis is often written off as little more than a stopover city, but it’s worth lingering a little longer.

A handful of interesting museums can be found here, including the Government Museum, an ornate rust-red building filled with Indian art and archaeological finds. The museum includes a vast collection of bronze figures – these bronzes are Tamil Nadu’s most famous craft and can be found across South India’s temples. Once you’ve had your cultural fix, head for Marina Beach, a seemingly endless stretch of sand known for being one of the longest urban beaches in the world.

Around 150km south of Chennai, you’ll strike Puducherry, a former French colonial capital better known as Pondicherry. Though the French haven’t ruled here since 1954, remnants of the colonial era remain. Architecture buffs should look out for the salmon-pink Notre Dame des Anges church built by Napoleon III in the 19th century, as well as the grand buildings of Government Place square. The city’s seaside promenade is also a popular place for a sunset stroll.

The most enchanting of all the cities in Tamil Nadu can be found a further 350km southwest of Puducherry. Madurai is one of the oldest cities in India and it brims with historic and sacred sites. The Thirumalai Nayak Palace, a sumptuous 17th-century royal residence built for its namesake king, is a good place to start your journey into the past.

Thirumalai Nayak Palace, Madurai.Thirumalai Nayak Palace, Madurai. Photo: ImagesofIndia/Shutterstock

 

Exploring temples in Tamil Nadu

Tamil Nadu is best known for its slew of sacred sites, and Madurai’s crowning jewel is the Hindu Meenakshi Temple. Dedicated to the goddess Meenakshi, the mammoth complex is made up of 12 towers, or gopuras, each one lavishly decorated with colourful sculptures of deities and demons. Inside, it’s a labyrinthine tangle of passageways and shrines, all adorned with icons, frescoes and ornate columns. While some areas are off-limits to non-Hindus, highlights for visitors include Ayirakkal, the 1,000-pillar hall, which now supports the Temple Art Museum.

Beyond Madurai, the city of Thanjavur is home to another of Tamil Nadu’s most striking temples. Built during the Chola dynasty in the 11th century and dedicated to Hindu god Shiva, Brihadeeswarar Temple presides over the city majestically. The site boasts an imposing main tower and two intricate gopuras at the entrance. Once inside, you can drink in elaborate murals adorning the temple walls. 

Other incredible temple towns in Tamil Nadu include Mamallapuram, with its crop of UNESCO World Heritage Site monuments, and Kanyakumari, way out on India’s southernmost tip. Mamallapuram is best known for its rathas (carved temples like chariots) and its incredible rock-hewn cave temples like Varaha Cave.

Kanyakumari, meanwhile, draws visitors with the Kumari Amman Temple, dedicated to virgin goddess Devi Kanya Kumari. The town is also the sacred meeting point of the Bay of Bengal, the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea. Cape Comorin, Kanyakumari.Cape Comorin, Kanyakumari. Photo: Saurov Nandy/Shutterstock


Wildlife and the Western Ghats

While the state is rich in historical sites, there is certainly no shortage of natural wonders and wildlife in Tamil Nadu. The state is home to a portion of the lush Western Ghats, a vast UNESCO-protected mountain range lauded for its biodiversity. 

A popular stop in the Ghats is Ooty (or Udagamandalam), one of the hill stations, or high-altitude resort towns, left over from the British colonial era. You can reach the town via a miniature railway from Mettupalayam – the journey grants breathtaking views of the terraced tea plantations and verdant ravines below.

Animal lovers should make time for the Mudumalai National Park too. A huge expanse of dense forestland and elephant grass, the reserve is home to tigers, elephants, panthers and hyenas, plus more than 260 species of bird. Safari rides are operated through the park and visitors can stay overnight in one of the comfortable lodges.

A tiger at Mudumalai National Park, Tamil Nadu. A tiger at Mudumalai National Park, Tamil Nadu. Photo: Sriram Giridharan/Shutterstock


Traditional food in Tamil Nadu

 South Indian food is known for being rich in spices and emphasising vegetarian dishes, and Tamil Nadu’s cuisine is no exception.

For a true taste of Tamil Nadu, try a thali or 'meal'. You’ll be presented with a tempting selection of dishes arranged on a banana leaf, with favourites including sambar, a kind of kicking lentil stew, or poriyal, a punchy mix of sautéed veg. The curried dishes are served with a generous pile of rice and usually a sweet treat too.

Also popular is a spice-dominated style of cooking originating in the state’s Chettinad region. Visitors can feast on Chicken Chettinad, a curried dish alive with chilli, fennel seeds and curry leaves.

Other South Indian dishes you’ll find in Tamil Nadu include crowd-pleasing dosas, a kind of savoury pancake often filled with spicy vegetables or potatoes, and savoury steamed rice cakes called idli.

Idli rice cakes with chutney.Idli rice cakes with chutney. Photo: Indian Food Images/Shutterstock


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