With a glorious past, a vibrant culture, a rich tapestry of history, a nature's paradise of blue beaches and clear skies, Tamil Nadu is a tourist's dream come true. One can revel on the Marina beach, go cruising in the theme parks, or let the mind rest in peace in the midst of magnificent temples. Alternatively, one can relish the mouth-watering dosas, savor the refreshing filter coffee, or enjoy the Bharat Natyam performances. Tamil Nadu makes one forget the humdrum of modern life.
Located in south India, Tamil Nadu is bounded in the north by Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, in the south by the Indian Ocean, in the east by the Bay of Bengal, and by Kerala in the west. The Point Calimere and the Mudumulai wildlife sanctuary mark the eastern and western limits of the state, respectively. The northernmost limit is Pulicat Lake while the southernmost tip, defining the end of the Indian landmass, is Cape Comorin or Kanyakumari. It is the 11th largest state in India, circumscribing the union territory of Pondicherry in the district of South Arcot.
The land can be divided into five major physical divisions-the Kurinji or mountainous region, the Mullai or forest region, the Palai vor arid region, the Marudham or the fertile plains and the Neidhal or coastal region. The Eastern and Western Ghats meet in Tamil Nadu and run along its eastern and western boundaries. The Cauvery River, originating in the Coorg district of the neighbouring state of Karnataka, is the lifeline of the state. The lush Coromandel plains are irrigated by the Cauvery and its Thanjavur-Nagapattinam delta is called the granary of Tamil Nadu. Palar, Pennar, Vaigai and Tamiraparani are the other rivers of the state.
Tamil Nadu was ruled by three major dynasties-the Cholas in the east, the Pandyas in the central area and Cheras in the west. This was during the Sangam Age-the classical period of Tamil literature-that continued for some 300 years after the birth of Christ. The Pallava dynasty was influential particularly in the 7th and 8th centuries, the testimonies to which are the monuments at Mamallapuram. In the 13th century, with threats of Muslim invasions from the north, the southern Hindu dynasties combined and the empire of Vijaynagar, which covered all of South India, became firmly established. However, by the 17th century, due to the disintegration of the Vijaynagar Empire, various small rulers like the Nayaks ruled southern India.
By the middle of the 18th century, there were frequent conflicts between the British, French, Danes, and Dutch due to their interest in these areas. The British were finally victorious, while small pocketed areas including Pondicherry and Karaikal remained under French control. Under the British rule, most of south India was integrated into the region called the Madras Presidency. In 1956, the Madras Presidency was disbanded and Tamil Nadu was established.
Gypsies have had a special place in Tamil history. Many tribes and castes have accepted this iterant way of life. The Tamil deity Murugan's consort was identified variably as a Kuravar (in Tamil Nadu) or as a Veddha (indigenous hunter gatherer tribal in Sri Lanka). The Badagas, Kotas, and Todas are other tribes found in the Nilgiri hills.
The main festival of the state is Pongal, which is a harvest festival celebrated in the month of January. Feasting, music and dance mark this festival. Another festival, Thaipusam, celebrated in the months of January and February in Thanjavur and Palani, is marked by ritual bathing. Several temple car festivals are held throughout the state, the primary ones being at Kanchipuram, Tiruchirapalli, Rameswaram, Chidambaram, and Tiruvarur. Chithirai festival, another major festival, is celebrated in the month of April/May, especially in and around Madurai. The Mahamagam festival is celebrated once in 12 years at Kumbakonam. The Arubathimoobar festival in Chennai is marked by the procession of 63 saints of Lord Shiva. During the Meenaksi Kalyanam festival in Madurai, during April-May, the temple Goddess is wedded to her immortal husband. The Velankanni Festival, held at Velankanni in August/September, is held in honor of Virgin Mary, who is regarded to have miraculous healing powers. Besides these, Navratri, Deepavali, Christmas, New Year's Day are also celebrated with traditional gaiety and fervor.
A truly secular festival is the Kanthuri festival, where devotees flock to the shrine of saint Quadirwali, believed to do equal good to people of all faiths. One of the descendants of the saint is chosen as a peer or spiritual leader and is honored with offerings. On the tenth day of the festival, the Saint's tomb is anointed with sandalwood, and later the holy sandal paste, renowned for its healing powers, is distributed to everyone.
In January, the Tamilnadu Tourist Development Corporation (TTDC) Trade Fair is celebrated in Chennai. The Dance Festival at Mamallapuram is held in the month of January and is famous throughout the country. Lord Nataraja, the 'cosmic dancer', is paid rich tributes in the temple city of Chidambaram. The summer festival at Ooty, Kodaikanal, and Yercaud attracts thousands of tourists every year and is marked by boat races and flower and fruit shows. The Tyagaraja Music Festival at Thiruvaiyaru, in January, attracts music lovers from all corners of the globe. The float festival at Tiruchi, in the month of March, is also famous.
The climate of the state is widely tropical. April and May are the hottest months with temperatures rising to as high as 40°C. During the day, even the coastal regions are warm and humid during the summers; nightfall, however, brings some respite in the form of the cool sea breeze. During the winter season, extending from November to February, the mercury hardly falls below 20°C, except in the hill stations. The winter monsoons of Tamilnadu occur in the months of October to December.
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.