You’ve been to Agra. You’ve been wowed by the Taj Mahal, and dazzled by the Rajput princes and their romantic forts and palaces. Possibly you’ve taken a rice barge and pottered through Kerala’s tranquil waterways. In short, like many before you, you’ve fallen in love with India. Smitten by the light, the colour, the chaos, the noise, the bazaars, the beauty and the poetry, now you want to know where to get your next fix. That’s easy – Tamil Nadu.
Tamil Nadu is quite unlike its glitzier regional rivals. It doesn’t have Rajasthan’s stirring warrior history nor Kerala’s watery beauty, but what it does have are temples. It has so many temples you’d need a lifetime to see them all. It also has the Chettinad, an area of some 75 villages deep in the dusty interior, inhabited by the Chettiars, a community of prosperous bankers and businessmen who became rich trading across the globe in the 18th century and built vast country houses back home, which still remain their ancestral base. Some of them have been turned into small, charming hotels, others are open to visitors; all offer a glimpse into the way of life in this off‑the-beaten-track part of Tamil Nadu. And then, of course, there’s Pondicherry, these days called Puducherry (Tamil Nadu for “new village”), which was run by the French until 1954 and which, neither wholly French nor wholly Indian in feel, is a wonderful amalgam of the two.
Puducherry is a good place to start your journey. It is just under three hours from Chennai, and if you drive, on no account should you miss Mamallapuram on the way. It’s a little fishing village that just happens to have some of the most beautiful stone carvings in the world, including Arjuna’s Penance, thought to tell the story of the descent of the River Ganges to earth with attendant gods, humans, elephants and monkeys. In a nearby cave, some smaller carvings show a pastoral scene: Krishna sheltering a group of herdsmen and their cows and calves. The tsunami of 2004 uncovered another small temple, which is right by the windswept Shore Temple to the Hindu god Shiva – as romantic a temple as you’ll find anywhere.
Puducherry itself is one of those languid, decidedly tropical places where you should amble around at a leisurely pace. Wander along its boulevards and cool down in the evening with a walk on the sea front. Check out the fascinating combination of Tamil-meets-Cluny architecture, drop into its restaurants, take in a bit of retail therapy (La Maison Rose has some lovely jewellery and clothes, as does the Via Pondichery Art House). There are also some enchanting hotels, small and intimate with pleasant food. The Palais de Mahé hotel is one of the best, with just 18 rooms overlooking a courtyard and pool (ask for a room on the first or second floor, away from the noisy swimmers). Also in the French Quarter, there’s the Hotel de l’Orient, one of Francis Wacziarg and Aman Nath’s projects (they created Neemrana, one of the first boutique hotels in India). Each room is different (ask for the Karileal for a private terrace), and there’s a lovely open courtyard restaurant. Visit the Cluny Embroidery Centre in the Rue Romain Rolland where, if you can persuade the nuns to open their doors, you can buy hand-embroidered tablecloths, napkins, pillowcases and the like. Do take in the extraordinary Golconde building at 7 Rue Dupuy. Designed by renowned architects George Nakashima and Antonin Raymond, it is made almost entirely from concrete, including the slatted blinds. Many consider it India’s finest 20th-century building and it’s on the study list of almost every architectural school in the world.
You can’t spend much time in Puducherry without being aware that it’s a place of pilgrimage, a mecca for those seeking spiritual enlightenment. The noticeboard in our hotel greets us with an invitation to “transform your life through sacred geometry” and offers yoga classes and workshops. Everywhere there are references to the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, founded by Sri Aurobindo, a scholar-turned-revolutionary, poet and visionary, and his collaborator, “The Mother”, who believed spiritual regeneration was necessary for the rebirth of India. The Ashram should be visited, as well as Auroville, a few miles outside Puducherry: a utopian experiment in community living, attracting people from all over the world who wish to live in “peace and progressive harmony”.
From here, you can take in the three 11th- and 12th- century Great Living Chola Temples at Thanjavur, Gangaikondacholisvaram and Darasuram, all filled with charging elephants, strange gods and dancing girls.
The Chettinad is some five hours by road from Puducherry, but is well worth the trip. A strange, little-visited area, it is inhabited by the Chettiar clans, who are thought to have made this region their home when they were driven away from the coast by a huge tsunami in 1750. Stay at the Visalam in Kanadukathan to get a real feel for the Chettinad way of life. Once a private home built by a Mr Ramnathan Chettiar for his daughter, it has been lovingly restored and turned into a hotel with just 15 rooms, a gorgeous swimming pool and a pretty courtyard. It offers proper Chettinad fare – spicy vegetables, fish and chicken served on a banana leaf and always accompanied by rice and yoghurt. It is often suffused with kalpasi, a fragrant sort of lichen, exclusive to Chettinad cooking. Wander through the nearby villages of Karaikudi and Pillayarpatti to discover some astoundingly grand houses, often filled with extraordinary souvenirs from abroad – chandeliers, gilded mirrors, lots of marble, statues, pictures and ornate furniture. Some are falling into sad disrepair, some are kept in a weird state of readiness for the rare visits home by their far-flung owners. Lunch at The Bangala hotel in the nearby village of Senjai is stupendous.
After the Chettinad and just before a serious assault on temple visiting, it’s worth cooling off in the forests and coffee estates of the Palani Hills, where there is a little gem of a mountain retreat – Rajakkad Estate. An intimate place with just seven rooms, it is carved out of what was once the 18th-century Pallam Palace, which, overseen by its English owner Jeremy Fry, was transported piece-by-wooden-piece from its original setting in Kerala. Here you can explore the verdant 100-acre forest and coffee plantations, then come back to home-grown organic food.
Time now for some temple visiting. The dynasties that built the temples – the Pallavas, the Cholas, the Pandyas – have long since vanished, but their monuments live on, visited daily by the devout and the curious. All over India the holy and the mundane are intertwined, but somehow in and among Tamil Nadu’s towering temples, the contrasts seem more colourful than anywhere else. Some people muse devotedly upon their thousands of gods, while others, side-by-side in the shadows, sell gaudy charms, tika powder and postcards; rickshaw drivers ply their trade; and beggars ask for a few rupees.
Base yourself in Madurai, one of the greatest of the temple cities and one of India’s oldest. It’s where Gandhi put away his suits and donned a dhoti. The city boasts The Gateway Hotel, which, while it can’t match the Oberois for decorative theatrical pizzazz, makes a cool and restful base away from the heat, dust and bustle of the town. Despite the sad and dingy reception area, the bedrooms are large, air-conditioned and charming; there are vast gardens of some 62 acres, a large tree-shaded swimming pool, spa and gym, and great local food. They’ve had the brilliant notion (which Taj does in most of its Indian hotels) of tracking down a speciality cook, who recreates the regional and street food of the area in the hotel kitchens. Rick Stein cooked here on his India tour. There’s a fantastic view over the city that makes eating out at night a particular pleasure – and as the lights down below begin to twinkle and the sound of the music from the temples begins to rise, you know then that you couldn’t be anywhere else but India.
The Meenakshi Temple, where Shiva married Parvati, seethes with life from dawn till dusk, its vividly painted gopurams (towers) visible from any part of the city. Each day, something like 10,000 pilgrims come to pray and to gawp, and if you happen to hit one of the many festival days, there will be ceremonies, processions and even more crowds of devotees. Every night between 9.30pm and 10pm, there is a small ritual when an image of Shiva is carried to Parvati’s bedroom. The temple site is like a mini-city, around which you could easily spend a day or more.
But the other great reason for basing yourself at The Gateway Hotel is that Madurai is close to a host of other temple towns worth visiting – Alagar Koyil, for instance, some 35km away, where there is a celebrated Vishnu temple dedicated to Lord Alagar, which has some intricate carvings; and Thirupparankundram, one of the six residences of Lord Subramanya. But too many temples can easily blend into one great melange; so intersperse them with some real R&R – either round the pool at The Gateway Hotel or at Rajakkad. Then if temple-visiting grabs you, remind yourself that they aren’t going anywhere; you can always come back.