Twelve destinations in Tamil Nadu you must visit
Twelve destinations in Tamil Nadu you must visit
My hometown, Tamil Nadu has been listed in New York Times’ list of 52 destinations in the world to be seen in 2016. In fact it is the only Indian destination that has made it to the list. Temples, beaches, wildlife, rivers, culture, cuisine – the state has it all. The historic destinations here take you to the era of Cholas, Pandyas and Pallavas and the colonial period. Tamil Nadu is one of the few states in India where all the erstwhile colonial powers had their settlements – the Dutch, the Danes, the French, the British and the Portuguese. The cultural capital of India is known for its traditions, art, architecture besides heritage. And if you are a foodie, this is not just the land of idli, dosai and sambar. From Tirunelveli halwa to Chettinadu curries, let your taste buds be in for an experience.
Chennai or Madras as we know it is the capital of the state and is one of the four metropolitan cities of India. It is the city I call home. I have waxed eloquently about the it as well. Here are some posts.
However, there are several destinations beyond Chennai that are my favourites in the state. Here is my list of 12 destinations in Tamil Nadu that you must visit and maybe revisit as well.
KMTR – Kalakkad Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve
Deep down South in the Tiruneveli district of Tamil Nadu is a land rich in bio diversity . The Western Ghats are carpeted with dense evergreen forests where the Indian tiger roams. This is where the River Tambiraparani flows and splits into tributaries and tumbles as waterfalls. Dams and reservoirs fill the landscape. The Kalakadu Mundanthurai Tiger Reserves is one of the lesser known wildlife sanctuaries in India. Virgin and untouched by tourism, this region is the land of my ancestors as my native village is on the foothills at Kallidaikurichi in Tirunelveli District. The neighbouring towns are famous for heritage and culture, filled with temples and churches. Tiruchendur, Tuticorin are in the vicinity . Birders flock to Koonthakulam Bird Sanctuary. Courtrallam and Manimuthar falls beckon tourists. Manjolai atop the mountains is known for its tea plantations. This year, do visit this visit this part of Tamil Nadu and take in the beauty of this landscape.
How to reach – Trains connect you to Tirunelveli and you can hire a vehicle from here. Permission from the Forest Department is required to visit KMTR.
At the Southern most tip of India , where the three oceans meet is Kanyakumari or Cape Comerin. You may have seen sunrises and sunsets in all over the world, but if you have not seen it here, then its time to change that. People travel all the way here just to get a glimpse of it. If you are lucky, you can catch the moon rising as the sun sets on a full moon night. But Kanyakumari tells her own story – legends about a virgin goddess who was stood up by her groom, Lord Shiva on her wedding night. The temple stands here, right in the heart of a kitschy bazaar.
Swami Vivekananda came here to soothe his restless mind by sitting on a rock amidst the sea. A meditation centre is built here as well. There is a memorial for Mahatma Gandhi here , built at the place where his ashes were kept in an urn before immersion. Spend a day here, collect shells and visit some of the quiet fishing hamlets in the region. And while you are here, do visit Nagercoil and Suseendran for the temples and Vattakottai for a fort.
How to reach – There are trains that connect you to Kanyakumari. It is also close to Trivandrum and Tirunelveli.
Madurai is the seat of culture, literature, history, traditions and culture. The ancient city, apparently one of the oldest in the world. built on the banks of the River Vaigai is synonymous with the goddess Meenakshi or Parvati and her temple stands right in the heart of the city. The land of the Pandyas, the town resonates with literary works written in Tamil since the Sangam era. Many dynasties have ruled over Madurai as you can see from the Tirumalai Nayak Palace here. The old Jaina caves is one of the sites I want to visit here. There are several temples here dedicated to Muruga. But your Madurai experience is not complete if you have not sipped the famous Jigar thanda.
How to reach – All trains connect to Madurai or there are flights from Chennai.
Rameshwaram and Dhanushkodi
Madurai is the hub to visit Rameshwaram where you can follow in the footsteps of Rama and go on a Ramayana trail. Rameshwaram is many things to many people. A mythical and a mystical destination, it is the setting of the grand epic, Ramayana which pervades the entire landscape. And I am not just referring to the temple, but to the many tanks or wells here, referred to as Theerthams that surround the town. . It is like following in the footsteps of Rama’s journey as every drop of water here has a story to narrate.
Dhanushkodi, located just 15 kms from Rameshwaram tells the tragic tale of a ghost town. Five decades ago, a natural calamity had wiped Dhanushkodi into oblivion, but the ruins still remain, narrating a story of this erstwhile flourishing town, that has the only land border between India and Srilanka. . Life came to a standstill here in December 1964 , when a cyclone robbed the town of all its inhabitants.
In the heydays, Dhanushkodi connected the two countries – India and Srilanka with a railway and ferry service. It was called the Boat Mail . A train used to leave Madras (now Chennai) and reach a pier near Dhanushkodi town from where passengers boarded a ferry to Srilanka. The railway line also connected Dhanushkodi to the main Pamban railway station. The last train was seen on the night when the storm surge stuck the town, swallowing it and all the 150 passengers on board. All of Dhanushkodi lies submerged under the waters.
How to reach – Trains connect to Rameshwaram or you can drive from Madurai. Dhanushkodi is accessed from Rameshwaram and you will have to go on the vehicles organised by the tour operators, as private vehicles are not allowed.
75 villages form one of the richest architectural and cultural wealth of Tamil Nadu in a region, colloquially referred to as Chettinadu . And almost every home in these villages is a mansion or a palace with an opulence that is larger than life. The region is home to the affluent Chettiyar community, primarily the Nagarathar, a mercantile community who traded in everything from spices to jewellery with South East Asia, since the 10th century it was around the 19th century that most of them migrated to Malaysia, Myanmar, Vietnam and Sri Lanka among other countries.
Their mansions referred to as “naatukottai” or regional forts of these men were a display of the wealth that they had brought in from the world. In these obscure villages in Tamil Nadu, lie precious display of splendours from the world Each house is adorned with Belgian mirrors and chandeliers, Italian marble , Japanese and Spanish tiles and Burmese teak. The world itself seemed to be nestled in every acre here. While today there are hardly any Chettiyars in Chettinadu, their homes — more than 10,000 of them — spread over these villages of Pallathur, Kottayur, Devakottai, Kothamangalam and the capital town Karaikudi remain cultural symbols of their lives. Its not just their homes- visit this region to experience culture, traditions, cuisine and crafts, unique only to them.
How to reach – Chettinadu is easily accessed by road from Madurai or Trichy
My childhood haunt, I visited Kodai as we call it fondly during my school excursions. The land of the mountains, dense shola forests, water falls, lakes, Kodai is one of the most popular hill stations in Tamil Nadu and it remains even now pristine in some parts. My favourite memory is a trek up hill to look for the Liril Falls – referring to the waterfalls where the old Liril soap commercials was shot. Lakes inside the shola forests are still shrouded in mystery. Caves beckon you. Some of the sights may be tourist traps, but step away from the popular circuit and go on treks or look for homestays in the forests. Another getaway is a small little village called Manavannur with a lake, which is downhill. Run away this summer to foggy and misty Kodaikanal and lose yourself in the woods.
How to reach – Most trains heading to Madurai stop at Kodai Road or buses are available from most cities. You can drive from Madurai too.
While we are speaking about hill stations, how can we forget the Queen – Ooty ? I have been here every summer holiday during my childhood thanks to my dad, an old Lawrencian from Lovedale. From the toy train to the tea plantations, from home made chocolates to cups of tea, Ooty, Coonoor and Kotagiri have been my favourite haunts. Even today, the Nilgiri or the Blue Mountains have a spell over me. But there is more to Nilgiris than just Ooty. The dams and the lakes tucked away in the hills, the shola forests that are rich in wildlife and birds, the cultural heritage of the many tribes that live here, the pretty flowers that bloom here – I can go on..
Mudhumalai Tiger Reserve on the foothills along with the town of Masinagudi is a wildlife haven for those who are beckoned by tigers, elephants, leopards, sloth bears and many other creatures from the Jungle Book. The call of the wild cannot go unheeded, so do plan a trip to both Nilgiris and Masinagudi this year.
How to reach – Coimbatore is the closest town or you can go from Mettupalayam to Ooty through the toy train. Alternatively drive from Bangalore as well via Masinagudi and Mudhumalai.
One of India’s bio diversity hot spots, this little piece of land is known for several endemic flora and fauna which are now facing threats. The journey is beautiful surrounded by mists and waterfalls and a man here even claimed to have “Seen God” in this area that the place is named after him. Valparai is a plantation town, a hill station, a bio diversity hotspot and a tropical rain forest – all rolled into one.
Located in the Anaimalai Range of the Western Ghats, this is one of the most pristine spots in Tamil Nadu. Look out for some of the endangered species like the primate lion tailed macaque to the nilgiri tahr, to the great hornbill among several others. The journey here is the destination. Mists furl and unfurl revealing one of the breathtaking landscapes with dams and reservoirs. You cannot but help fall in love with Valparai, a wet and a wild destination where if you are lucky, you can spot leopards as well.
How to reach there – Coimbatore is the hub and Valparai is a couple of hours by road from here via Pollachi.
If Madurai is defined by the Pandyas and the Meenakshi temple, then Thanjavur, the Rice Bowl of South India is the land of the Cholas and the Big Brihadeshwara temple. Thanjavur is one of the most ancient cities in the world as well and was the capital of the Chola Dynasty who built temples that are now part of UNESCO World Heritage Site . My favourite is the unfinished temple at Gangaikondacholapuram besides the Airavateshwara temple at Darasuram.
But it is the Big Temple in Thanjavur that takes your breath away. It is larger than life At a height of 216 feet the towering Vimana is the tallest of its kind in the world dwarfing the Gopura, or the outer tower. Elephants were apparently used to draw this single granite block on a 6 km ramp to place it on top. Life size representations of Gods and Goddesses fill the sculptured panels and the temple is a repository of records for posterity . 108 Bharatnatyam dance postures are depicted here and the corridors and ceilings are a colourful blend of fresco and mural paintings –unique to this dynasty.Architecturally the temple is the most ambitious structural granite temple to be ever built in the world. If there is just one place that you have to visit in 2016, then let that be Thanjavur.
And while you are on a Chola trail, do not miss the famous Chidambaram temple . While it is 110 kms away from Thanjavur, a trail is not complete if you do not visit this ancient temple dedicated to Shiva where the form of the deity as the cosmic dancer, Nataraja originated. And while you are there, ask the priests to show you the Chidambara Rahasya or Secret.
How to reach Thanjavur – Trains and buses connect to Thanjavur while the closest airport is at Trichy, an hour away
Kumbakonam and Thanjavur are almost like twin towns, barely an hour away by road from each other. The land of temples – the guide books say over 100 is steeped in antiquity, Kumbakonam dates back to the Sangam era and has been ruled by every dynasty from the Early Cholas to the later Cholas, the Vijaynagar kings, the Nayaks and the Marathas . Spread over six acres with 21 wells and 16 shrines around it, Mahamaham water tank is the nucleus of Kumbakonam.
Legends say, that the mythical pot (kumbha) of Brahma containing the seeds of life was destroyed during the dissolution of the universe at the end of the epoch and the nectar flowed into this tank – hence its name, Kumbakonam. Once in 12 years, a kumbha mela of sorts is celebrated here at the Mahamaham Festival, where millions of devotees and the deities of the temple come here to have a ritualistic holy dip in the tank. The next Mahamaham Festival is said to be in this year. Go on a temple trail and visit as many as you can as most of them are over 500-1000 years old. And while you are there, try the famous Kumbakonam degree kaapi.
How to get there – Kumbakonam is well connected by road and rail .
Trichy – Srirangam
I call them the trilogy . You must visit Kumkabonam, Thanjavur and Trichy and Srirangam at one go. One of the oldest cities in the world, Trichy or Tiruchirapally was part of the Chola dynasty and is rich in culture, temples, forts. The rivers Kaveri and its tributary Kollidam flow here and one of the oldest dams in India – the Kallanai or the Grand Anaicut built in the 2nd century by Karaikal Chola across the River Kaveri is very close to the town. The British built the Upper and Lower Anaicut modelled on the Kallanai much later.
Besides Trichy is the island of Srirangam created by the two rivers where the most famous and largest functioning Hindu temple in the world – the Ranganatha Swamy temple dedicated to Vishnu. Built in an area of 156 acres with 21 Gopuras or towers, one of them covered with gold, Srirangam should be visited at least once in your lifetime.
How to reach there – Trains, buses and even flights connect you to Trichy
We have talked about the Pandyas and the Cholas, but the Pallavas another ancient dynasty has made Kanchipuram its capital town. Several other kingdoms have ruled over the town but the Pallavas have left their stamp behind starting with the 1500 year old Kailasanatha temple, the oldest temple in the city The city which was an ancient learning centre is filled with temples but its also an ancient Jaina and Buddhist centre. The land of the silk sarees, the industry here dates back to the Chola period during the era of Raja Raja Chola. During the French siege in 1757, the city was burned down but the art did not die. Like a phoenix, it raised itself from the ashes of colonial rule to establish itself in this heritage city. But according to the legend of Kanchipuram, the weavers believe that they are descendants of the celestial weaver of the Gods, sage Markanda. Vishnu, they say, likes to be draped in silk while Shiva prefers cotton. I wonder about the goddesses and their preferences.
How to reach there – Its barely a couple of hours by road from Chennai at about 90 kms away
A favourite weekend haunt since childhood, I have been to Mahabalipuram since I was four years old. Also known as Malai or Mammalapuram, it was a thriving port during the Pallava regime between the 3rd and the 10th centuries . It is said that there was evidence of trade with Romans as well .Amidst the casuarina trees and the sandy shores, are strewn rock cut temples and monolith sculptures . Stories from Hindu mythology were carved out in rocks and caves and each one has its own tale.
The Shore Temple, which is now a World Heritage Site is the lone survivor of the seven pagodas which are believed to be submerged in the ocean. The 1400 year old temple that lies today on the shore has three temples- two dedicated to Shiva and one to Vishnu. But there is more to Mahabalipuram than the Shore temple- the mandapas, the rock cut caves, the monolith raths named after the Pandavas, the Tiger’s Cave, the old lighthouse- you would need more than a day to see this Pallava piece of architectural marvel carved in stone.
How to reach there – Just 50 kms from Chennai, its an hour away by road, through the ECR or OMR
And finally the Coromandel Coast, which to me is an essential part of Tamil Nadu. It stretches from Tamil Nadu to Bengal but the route all the way from Chennai to Kanyakumari should be on every traveller’s itinerary, especially for those who love road trips. I did a shorter version of the trail, driving along Chennai to Tranquebar to trace the ancient settlements of the erstwhile colonies .
But there is more to it than just these old colonial towns, fishing hamlets, beaches and ruins. There are temples, churches, ancient ports, dargahs to be visited. There are birding haunts, mangrove forests and estuaries. The latter especially where the Cauvery meets her destiny in the sea is the most poignant at Poompuhar, a rich port called Kaveripoompattinam of the Cholas, which has now vanished from the face of the earth. This is where I would end this journey of Tamil Nadu.
How to get there – The journey starts from Chennai and depending on the time that you have, you can plan the trip along the coast.
Read – Coromandel Colonies – 1