I remember one of the last evenings spent in South India, after a spectacular dinner. With some travel companions, I sat under the long white porch of the hotel at Tiruchirapalli. to talk about the meaning of these trips. There were those who object to what some people say that experiences change their lives. Finally, who stated that in a journey in some way, you know it or not, our lives change.
I definitely belong to the last line of thought. Every trip I did somehow has changed me and this is definitely among those who have done it with more force. It was a three-week trip throughout the South India region of Tamil Nadu, Kerala, and Karnataka. On one of the last days, I buy a map for a few cents on the street. I then realize that I have covered about 2500 km marked by various tourist stops. It alternated with colorful temples crammed with people, museums, and archaeological parks. I cross traditional ayurvedic centers and villages.
The region of Tamil Nadu impresses with its variety of attractions. Its temples and the beauty characterizes this part of South India. When I planned the trip, I thought I was already prepared, but the impact of South India was different. From vegetation, temples and a huge crowd of people in hero worship, I never found myself isolated. The kindness, friendliness, availability of this population involved me.
I made the trip in a car all to ourselves with a guide and a driver. I slept in hotels, resorts or sometimes homestays. Finally arriving in Madras or Chennai, we met our guide that looked after us in the days to follow. From Chennai, after a few hours of sleep, I get ready for Mamallapuram, a World Heritage site. It is also known as Mahabalipuram, which is a town in Kancheepuram. Here we spend an entire day exploring the temples and rock carvings in the area. The Shore Temple overlooking the sea is pure poetry carved into the rock.
It seems to be the latest in a series of buildings that stretch along the coast, submerged today. I continue to Kancheepuram and tour the Golden City. It is one of the seven sacred cities for Indians. I visit many temples, built in different periods and dedicated to Shiva and Vishnu.
Pancha Rathas are temples with individual blocks of rock dedicated to a deity. Buried for centuries under the sand, they got unearthed 200 years ago. Well if the temples were not enough to arouse your interest, definitely this will do. Here, between 630 and 670, the masons learned the Dravidian style. It dominated throughout the architecture of the South. But it is in the monolith Arjuna's Penance that unfolds all the skill of these artists. It is a bas-relief. On the surface explode countless gods, mythological beings, and animals.
I leave Mamallapuram. I come to Pondicherry, a city that in some parts retains the charm of the time when it was under French rule. with tree-lined avenues, mustard-colored houses. For this Franco-spiritual mix, Pondicherry evolved into a place with a gourmet cuisine. For a taste of French cuisine, I tasted Steak Au Poivre Vert and Bouillabaisse.
From Pondicherry, I move to Chidambaram Nataraja Temple. It is the great religious complex dedicated to Shiva as the cosmic dancer. There are four gopurams. The towers placed at the entrance of the temples has stone sculptures of various deities. The main entrance shows the 108 sacred positions of Tamil ballet. Here I witness the fire ceremony that takes place six times a day. Sounds of drums and bells fill the air. Oil candles under the statue of the deity ensure the continuity of the cycle of creation.
And then it's lunch time. I eat there the rice with vegetables offered by the pilgrims. It gets served in a banana leaf. Then we continue our tour of the day visiting the temples. Among its 74 temples, the most representative temple is the Brihadeshwara. I also visit the Art Gallery which houses a valuable collection of bronzes of the Chola dynasty. In the afternoon we visit the Auroville and the Aurobindo Ashram.
At Tanjore, also called Thanjavur we taken an evening stroll before dinner. Later we go for dinner, where we have the idli and dosa, the typical south Indian dishes made with rice flour.
Sri Ranganathaswamy at Tiruchirappalli or Trichy seems more than a place of worship. It is grandiose, with colored gopuram located on an ancient rock that is 4 million years old. You can admire 21 gopurams and inside are innumerable sacred buildings.
I go past the minor deities to come in the inner sacred area dedicated to Vishnu sleeping on a naga bed. For those not yet satisfied, the 83 meters high Rockfort Temple is one of the temples dedicated to Vishnu. It dominates the city and is home to two temples reachable by a staircase of 540 steps. Needless to say that the effort gets rewarded.
You have to tackle first 344 steps leading to the temple of Vinayaka Temple dedicated to Ganesh. The Ranganathaswamy Temple built in honor of Vishnu on an island in the Kaveri River amazes me. Its 21 gopuram and the seven courtyards extend over 60 hectares.
We are at the end of Tamil Nadu and Madurai also will be full of temples. To discover the cradle of India you must visit this westernmost city. I thought I had already seen the wonderful temples. But the Sri Meenakshi Temple was the ultimate expression of the south! For the visit, you cannot carry bags, backpacks. And above all, you cannot photograph on several occasions.
One thing I've learned on this journey in Tamil Nadu. When you ask a Tamil to take a picture if he shakes his head left and right means that he agrees. Although for us it would be a no, and if they look straight in your eye means that they disagree. In the late afternoon, I witness the impressive ceremony of the puja at the temple.
Meenakshi Sundareswarar is the main point of seduction with a maze of temples. The columns, sculptures, and high walls get dominated by four huge gopurams. But it is at night that it reaches the greatest enchantment. The priests carry in procession the idols of Shiva to reunite him with Meenakshi, the lady with fish eyes. Once outside, the vantage point from the stores allows tourists to climb to the top floor terrace.
At the Cottage Arts Emporium, there are objects from all over India. There is Rajasthan furniture to paintings of Tankha by Tibetans. There are rugs to antique jewelry. In the nearby workshop, there is a wide selection of cotton fabrics, produced here in Madurai. Silk saris are instead the Madurai Silk. The area of Chettinad is about ninety kilometers from Madurai.
Later we visited the Tirumalai Nayak Palace and Gandhi Museum. At the end, I drive to Periyar and stay at a resort located in a natural park. It was a true oasis of peace and tranquility in the midst of unspoiled nature. We take a morning walk in the park.
Then after an exhausting journey, we arrive at Mettupalayam. The alternative to Mettupalayam is the nearest and chaotic Coimbatore. This big village has a beautiful train that boasts of being among the cleanest in India. And it is at one end of a railroad which is a UNESCO world heritage, a steam train dating back to the nineteenth century. It travels 46 kilometers in 5 hours through Coonoor and remote mountainous locations. It climbs along the 2,200-meter long track to Ooty.
The mythical Nilgiri Mountain Railway got built in 1908 by the British. It is part of the Mountain Railways which include the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway. I arrive at Ooty, also known by the name of Blue Mountain. It is due to the blue haze of the eucalyptus, or for Kurunji, a particular flower that blooms every 12 years. They give the slopes a bluish hue. At Ooty, I found a guesthouse with garden and lake view with a nice living room where I met many other travelers.
Ooty is a peaceful resort town in the mountains of the Western Ghats surrounded by forests. There are tea plantations with nice hotels. I see many South Indian families on vacation. I spend the day in a walk with a guide between mountains and woods a few kilometers away from the town. I visit villages of different ethnic groups and tribes through the tea plantations. Here I see the hard work of collectors, as also the Nilgiri langur and large black monkeys.
On our second day, I did a nice hike through a pretty Swiss landscape that is more sub-continental. I passed through the rows and villages, goats and cows. The people are wonderful and friendly. It was nice, despite the inevitable rain. Here you can also have tea and watch monkeys. Walking through the paths I made an interesting discovery at the end of the garden. From an opening in the fence, I reach a small road leading up to an ancient tribal village.
I could not imagine being in a place where time has stopped. At least the structures, including the temple, are those that got built centuries ago! In the square in front of the botanical garden, is the Tibetan Market. I head towards Doddabetta, the highest mountain in southern India. Here I enjoy a magnificent view of the surrounding valleys.
This peak is also home to the Telescope House, where I peer into what the operator wanted. Doddabetta does not end there. Through the trails, I reach the very beautiful observation points. I enjoy the cool mountain breeze and get lost in nature. The next stop is the Houseboat, located in the valley in an artificial lake created in 1823. Inside you can rent a boat or sunbathe on the banks, so it is a step that deserves at least half a day.
In Ooty lies what India has called a miracle of the creative art of the Millennium: the Thread Garden. It is an artificial indoor garden, created using the machine. On the brochure, it says that the show is breathtaking. The latest and by far the most interesting stop of the day was the Mudumalai National Park. This park is home to a remarkable variety of wildlife, including tigers.
The park provides a shuttle service for a half-hour mini Safari priced at 120 rupees. It is impossible to see the Tigers, given the immense territory where they hide. You can spot elephants, wild boar, and deer.
Ooty was an interesting stop, thanks to its cool climate and its unspoiled nature. Valparai is another small paradise surrounded by tea plantations. But we are also happy to head the next day to the golden beaches of Goa.
Tamil Nadu Travel Tips
Defying the laws of physics, Krishna's Butterball hangs in balance on Mahabalipuram hill. It is a natural rock about five meters in diameter that has remained in that state for centuries. Its capricious form is the fruit of years of erosion of the wind. The force has dragged the grains of sand that burned and smoothed its surface.