Tamil Nadu is a state in southern India renowned for its temple heritage. It is home to some of the most imposing temples that have 1000+ years of history, are of great significance in Hinduism and are considered ultimate masterpieces in temple architecture. There may be hundreds, perhaps thousands, of such temples in Tamil Nadu. However, as we discovered during our recent trip, there is plenty more waiting to be discovered.
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We explored Tamil Nadu for its experiential character. We found craft heritage, ethnic cuisine, villages and old city heritage, along with some of the most architecturally awesome temple sites. We visited Chettinad region, Thanavur (Tanjore), Kumbakonam and Madurai, collectively considered as the cultural heartland of Tamil Nadu.
Heritage Villages of Chettinad region
Chettinad region comprises 74 villages that are home to large mansions where rich Chettiar community families lived in the 19th and early 20th century. Chettiars left their villages for urban areas in India and South East Asia, and for many decades these villages remained semi-abandoned, only to be discovered by heritage travellers in 21st Century. Chettinad region is now a living museum and part of the provisional list for UNESCO world heritage site classification.
Taking a relaxing walk for a couple of hours is a good way to get glimpse of the rich heritage of the area. Visit mansions for a look inside and glimpse the wealth and architectural finesse of the region. Antiques (many imported) from these mansions are on sale at Antique Bazaar in Karaikudi (the base town of the area) and just a visit to these antique shops is an awe inspiring experience.
The Craft Heritage
Athangudi tiles are handmade tiles made at Athangudi village in Chettinad. They’re popular for giving homes a heritage character. Chettinad region is also renowned for its colorful Saris. You may visit the Sari weaving units and interact with craftswomen involved in Saree making.
Thanjavur region is renowned for its Tanjore Painting and musical instrument Veena making units. Here you may visit the workshop and interact with craftsmen whose families for many generations (over 1000 years) have preserved and protected the craft. Thanjavur is also renowned for its “Thanjavur Dancing Dolls”, the most popular souvenir for travellers to the area.
Kumbakonam area is home to Lost Wax Bronze Casting and Silk Sari weaving units. You may interact with artisans and directly purchase craft items that can be shipped anywhere in the world.
Entrances to every village in this region of Tamil Nadu are “guarded” by terracotta horses, considered “Village God” and one that protects from evil forces from entering. There are craft centres where these horses are made. These horses are a sought-after souvenir for travellers to the area.
Great Living Chola Temples
No visit to Thanjavur – Kumbakonam would be complete without a visit to its UNESCO heritages sites – Great Living Chola Temples i.e. Brihadishvara Thanjavur, Brihadishvara Gangaikonda Cholapuram and Airavateshwara Darasuram. These temples are in worship till date and here Lord Shiva Lingam has been worshipped for over 900 years. The facades of these temples are most impressive and imposing, and represent the finest Chola temple architecture.
Note: Non-Hindus are not allowed entry inside sanctum sanctorum of temples in Tamil Nadu.
Real India Experience
“Real India” lives in its villages and countryside areas. Kumbakonam region is where you experience that. The region is characterised by green countryside, farms and villages, with every village having its little grocery shop, tea shop, a small fruits / vegetable shop and an impressive temple. A village walk can offer an insight into the daily chores and rituals of the local communities. On festival days these villages come alive with fanfare and festivities.
Old City Heritage Walk
Heritage walk is a great option to get a quick insight into history and heritage of a city. Madurai is one of India’s oldest cities with a weath of history. Our walk was made even more engaging as it was rendered in form of a story. Three hours were spent in crowded markets around Meenakshi Temple, talking about Goddess Meenakshi presiding deity of Madurai, Lord Shiva in form of “Sundareshwar” and mythologies connecting it with British Colonial rule and eventually Madurai of Today.
Madurai has a walk for foodies, exploring its vegetarian and non-vegetarian street food and speciality cuisine. The walk beautifully connects cuisine with the rich history and heritage of Madurai, making it a thoroughly insightful and fulfilling experience.
Temple festivals such as Chariot festival at Thyagaraja temple (During April or May every year) at Tiruvarur near Kumbakonam has its principle deity ferried around the town on a large temple chariot (weighing 300 tonnes and measuring 90 feet tall) and such festivals attract thousands of devotees from nearby areas who arrive to pay their respect to the presiding deity of the town.
Madurai also is home to “Chithirai Festival” during month of April when there are festivities around temple for over a week, all culminating into the day when presiding deities Meenakshi and Sundareshwar are ferried around the Old city area in a large Chariot.
Condiser planning a trip to coincide with one of these festivals in order to enjoy a grand spectacle and create memories that will last a lifetime.
The Plantain Leaf Meal
No travel in Tamil Nadu can be considered complete without experiencing a meal served on a plantation leaf (banana leaf), offered at restaurants during luncheon hours across the state. A Rs 100 unlimited vegetarian meal in old city bylanes around Meenakshi Temple in Madurai offered us the most awesome and experiential plantain leaf meal ever.
Chettinad and Thanjavur also served its own versions of local cuisine in a fixed meal version (popularly known as Thali across India), where you realise that cuisine, its flavors and ingredients vary with every district in Tamil Nadu (a fact that is true for most parts of India). While most of Tamil Nadu Thalis essentially are vegetarian, Chettiar’s connection with South East Asia brought meat into their cuisine and now integral part of what is popularly known as “Chettinad Cuisine”.
Cuisine across Tamil Nadu is a definitive experience and represents a mix of vegetarian and non-vegetarian food, reflecting the cuisine from strictly vegetarian Brahmins (Priest community) and meat eating non-Brahmins.
Heritage Hotels and Countryside Retreats
Experiencing Chettinad through its heritage walks and craft centres is one thing, but staying in a Chettiar home and literally living history for a couple of days takes the experience to another level. Kanadukathan village in Chettinad has many such Chettiar homes that are now fine heritage hotels.
Kumbakonam is one to offer countryside experience. CGH Mantra Koodam extends the experience further by offering a stay right in the heart of villages and pristine countryside where you can spend a relaxing couple of days enjoying superb cuisine while exploring the local area.
Madurai is home to the erstwhile British Club which was redone by renowned architect Geoffrey Bawa and is now the charming Heritage Madurai. The hotel is spread over 17 acres in heart of Madurai, offering a refreshing heritage retreat experience. The Gateway Hotel in Madurai is spread over 62 acres in heart of Madurai. Once the British Collector’s residence, it’s now a charming retreat offering superb views.
At the end of a weeklong trip, the only thought that crossed our minds was that we could have happily spent a few more days more exploring. We also felt that Tamil Nadu does present a compelling option for travellers returning to India looking for unique ‘real India’ elements and experiences that are unlike those to be found anywhere else in India.
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All images provided by Holxo.