Tamil Nadu, the cradle of south Indian temple architecture, is a living museum of styles that originated in the seventh century and matured in the huge temple complexes studded with towering gateways-gopurams-that soar above the markets of almost every town.
Chennai, the capital city, offers some beautiful beach resorts. The best place to start a temple tour is Mamallapuram, a seaside village that, quite apart from some exquisite Pallava rock-cut architecture, boasts a long stretch of beach. Inland, the pilgrimage city of Kanchipuram is filled with reminders of an illustrious past under successive dynastic rulers, while further down the coast is one of India's rare French colonial possessions, Pondicherry, where Auroville has found a new role in the "New Age." The road south from Pondicherry puts one back on the temple trail, leading to the Chola kingdom and the extraordinary architecture of Chidambaram, Gangaikondacholapuram, Kumbakonam and Darasuram. For the best Chola bronzes and a glimpse of the magnificent paintings that flourished under Maratha rajas in the eighteenth century, travelers should head for Thanjavur. The city boasts of almost a hundred temples and was the birthplace of Bharat Natyam dance.
Tiruchirapalli, a commercial town just northwest of Thanjavur, reached its heyday under later dynasties, when the temple complex in neighboring Srirangam became one of south India's largest. Here south India's most profusely carved temple dapples with light that seeps through countless pillared halls, and reflects from shimmering oil lamps onto gods, saints and maidens peeping from every wall, column and gateway.
Rameswaram, on the long spit of land reaching towards Sri Lanka, and Kanyakumari, at India's southern tip (the auspicious meeting point of the Bay of Bengal, the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea) are both important pilgrimage centers, with the added attraction of welcome cool breezes and vistas over the sea.
While Tamil Nadu's temples are undeniably its major attraction, it would take months to see them all, and there is plenty else to distract even the most ardent architecture buff. In the west of the state, where the hill stations of Kodaikanal and Ooty are the premier attractions, sylvan hills offer mountain views and a network of trails winds through forests and tea and coffee plantations. Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary, a vast spread of deciduous forest dominated by teak, offers a good chance of spotting elephants and dholes, wild pack-hunting dogs, tigers and leopards. Annamalai Sanctuary, closer to Kodaikanal in the Palani hills, is better known for its lion-tailed macaques (black-maned monkeys). The wetlands of the coast provide perfect resting places for migratory birds, whose numbers soar during the winter monsoon at Vedathangal, near Madras, and Point Calimere.