Culturally distinct from other Indian regions, this southern state harbors a myriad of astounding ancient Hindu temples and colorful shrines.
In many ways, the state of Tamil Nadu feels like a different country. With its own language, history and heritage, and a wonderful collection of opulent religious architecture, its distinctive identity is immediately obvious to anyone arriving from the north. Marvel at the glorious temple architecture, visit old colonial centers, experience the frenetic energy of dynamic Chennai and sample the deliciously spicy cuisine.
This southern state has been shaped by its Dravidian Hindu majority. It was ruled by three major Hindu dynasties who managed to stave off potential Muslim attacks ensuring the region remained a Hindu heartland. In the 18th century, the British eventually established control of most of the region, while the French still managed to hold onto small pockets. Visit the former French colony of Pondicherry today and you’ll still find French-sounding street names, elegant tree-lined boulevards and a noticeable Gallic flavor.
This state is aptly referred to as “the land of temples” and estimates suggest there are more than 30,000 in total. No matter what part you visit, you’re bound to come across an important religious site. Head to Thanjavur to see the UNESCO-listed Brihadisvara Temple, famous for its 216.5-foot (66-meter) tower and its colorful frescoes. Mahabalipuram in Kancheepuram is another popular holy site, and is known for its detailed stone carvings, in particular its enormous elephant sculpture.
Besides temples, there is plenty more to see and experience here. Admire the vivid displays at the Madurai flower market, lounge on the golden sand beaches on the southernmost Kanyakumari and retreat to the cooler climes of the lush peaks of the Western Ghats.
Be sure to spend a day or two in the lively capital of Chennai, where you can observe the modern urban environment. Here, vendors line the swarming streets and sell cheap local delicacies, including uttapams (lentil and rice breakfast pancakes) and vadas (savory fritters).
Many international airlines offer services to and from Chennai airport. Hiring driver or renting a car is the easiest way to get around Tamil Nadu, although there are good rail connections between major cities too. Arrange to visit between November and February when the weather is at its most pleasant.