In India’s Vibrant Deep South, Take a Tour of Tamil Nadu
On the temple circuit of Tamil Nadu, ancient rituals and everyday spirituality combine to form an intricate journey of enlightenment.
Any visit to Tamil Nadu is going to include tours of a number of the state's many famous Hindu temples. And it quickly becomes very clear that there’s nothing simple about Hindu cosmology. ‘There’s Brahma, the creator of the Universe, with his wife Saraswati,’ says our guide Charles, pointing to a candy coloured riot of gods and monsters gazing beatifically from Kapaleeshwarar Temple’s facade in Mylapore, old Chennai. He continues at length, describing the powers of the supergods, their animal chariots of choice and the names of their avatars and children.
Some say there are 33 million Hindu gods; others 330 million. There’s a lot to remember and much that needs explaining, and the divine genealogy is only the half of it.
Though Tamil Nadu is a populous state approaching 80 million people, it feels distinctly different to the ‘golden triangle’ tourist circuit of northern India. In the capital Chennai, the traffic jams are more civilised, the touts fewer and less persistent, and the dress code sari-specific. ‘Tamil is the world’s oldest language,’ says one guide, adding that this is one of the few Indian states that doesn’t teach Hindi in government schools. This helps explain the palpable north-south divide that pervades everything from politics to cuisine.
Pilgrimage motivates most visitors to Tamil Nadu, just as travellers flock north to Rajasthan for crumbling forts and desert palaces, and south to Kerala for cruises in the tropics. Although Tamil Nadu is officially the Land of Temples – there are some 33000 of them, many dating back 1300 years – the French left a striking architectural legacy in Puducherry (dubbed Pondy by its residents), about 170km south of Chennai.
The city’s French Quarter is full of colonial-era mansions, while the Tamil Quarter has its own style featuring deep verandas fringed by iron lacework.
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The British left a florid version of Victoriana in their southern stronghold of Madras, renamed Chennai in 1996. Included among these 19th century edifices is the Ice House, named for the huge blocks of ice that were once shipped from New England in crates lined with rice husks and stored here, before chilling the colony’s cocktails.
On the other side of Chennai (which is now the state capital of Tamil Nadu) are the alleys of Sowcarpet market, with their cattle, scooters, wigmakers, bangle stalls and cosmetic turmeric outlets. We stop at a shop that has specialised in bottle-gourd halwa, a Gujarati dish, since 1945. At Novelty Tea House, we try the pav bhaji, a tin plate of lentil gravy sprinkled with red onion and mopped up with bread. And we pass by a stall whose name translates as ‘the little fat shop’. The speciality here is dahi puri: wafer-thin wheat-flour balls filled with potato and topped with a spicy tamarind chutney, diced onion and carrot, coriander, sweetened curd, crushed chickpea noodles and pomegranate seeds.
Dinner at the temple-like Southern Spice restaurant in the Taj Coromandel hotel is a crash course in more refined fare. The 15 courses traverse southern India’s greatest hits, starting with a cup of rasam – a lamb broth tangy with tamarind – and finishing with coconut rice pudding spiced with cardamom and nuts, and sweetened with condensed milk. The side dishes are almost as numerous: a flight of chutneys, flaky parathas and rice – served as idiyappam (string hoppers), sanna (steamed rice cakes) and curd rice, with spiced podi powder and a pot of ghee.
Breakfast becomes a search for the perfect masala dosa, the south’s crisp super-sized rice-flour crêpe, with a spoonful of potato stew and the customary chutneys. The more theatrical morning ritual, however, is the making of filter coffee, performed across southern India. Most notable is the ‘metre coffee’, named for the length of the continuous arc of boiling milk and thick sweetened coffee that’s cooled and frothed as it’s poured between jugs. The speed of the coffee wallahs is astonishing, and the coffee is served in a stainless-steel tumbler inside a dabarah, a deep saucer in which the drinker continues to decant and cool the hot liquid.
Situated 60km south of Chennai is Mahabalipuram, where open-air galleries depict scenes of gods consorting with half-humans, carved into pink granite caves and rock walls. But the stories and temples only grow taller as you head west. The Ekambareswarar Temple in Kanchipuram, for instance, boasts a 59m-high gateway tower and sacred building comprising thousands of pillars and halls lined with 108 stone lingams. The place throngs like a bazaar, full of gold-draped wedding parties and Shiva devotees with ash upon their foreheads, and underfoot are the smudged remains of this morning’s kolam. This ritual is performed every day at dawn by women throughout Tamil Nadu who sketch an array of geometric patterns with coloured rice powder or chalk on the thresholds of houses, temples and shops as a sign of welcome.
Next it’s on to 'Pondy' – the regularly used abbreviation of the names Pondicherry/Puducherry. This is India’s most ‘un-Indian’ city, where reminders of France’s 280-year colonial rule range from the distinct French accents to the Gallic kepi-wearing police officers. The city was razed, laid siege to and rebuilt several times during the long tug-of-war between the French and British, yet its architectural legacy (like that of the rest of Tamil Nadu) is as vulnerable now as it was then. ‘There are no laws protecting all of this,’ says Ashok Panda, pointing to a row of mouldy buildings. As the co-convenor of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage, he advises and lobbies on heritage issues and guides regular heritage walks in the French and Tamil quarters.
A trust survey conducted in 1995 listed 1 807 heritage structures in the city; by 2015, the number had plummeted to 442 – ‘and we estimate 75% were demolished without permission’, Panda says. ‘Whatever we have managed to save is mostly by creating awareness about the importance of preserving heritage buildings.’ Many of the more impressive restorations or ‘facade interventions’, in which new buildings are designed sympathetically with their surrounds, are restaurants and small hotels, but one of the most active forces for preservation comes from a rather unlikely source.
Among the Gallic mansions of yellow and pink are about 400 well-maintained buildings in the French Quarter painted a sober shade I now think of as Ashram Grey. A couple of mystics – Sri Aurobindo and Mirra Alfassa, the latter known to her acolytes as ‘The Mother’ – founded Sri Aurobindo ashram here in the 1920s to worship ‘the divine consciousness’ and study their belief in the evolution of superhumans, and it continues to draw thousands of disciples and visitors.
From Pondy, we drive further south to Chidambaram and stop at the biggest temple yet. Nataraja is devoted to Shiva in his guise as the cosmic dancer, which symbolises the connection between religion and the arts. In fact, every carving and architectural feature here is symbolic: the nine stupas are said to represent the nine orifices of the body, while the 21 600 tiles on the roof represent the average number of human breaths in a day.
There are rose petals and jasmine on arrival in Thanjavur, home of Tanjore painting, classical Bharatanatyam dancing, Carnatic music, bronze casting and of course, lots of temples. We’re greeted with garlands and a red pottu dot on the forehead at Svatma, a heritage hotel that embodies the city’s refinements. The old wing, rebuilt from ruins, holds artefacts, antique veenas and a gold-embossed Tanjore painting; the new wing houses contemporary art, a rooftop bar and a spa.
The city’s premier attraction, however, is the 11th century Brihadeeswarar Temple. A moat and two sets of fortified walls surround palatial gateways leading to five temple complexes covered with stone carvings and topped by a massive central tower. Our guide explains the purpose of dozens of shrines – the most popular today being the ‘Shrine to Pass Examinations’ – and the relationships of the gods and monsters inscribed in stone on towering facades.
Occasionally, he’ll test me: ‘And Ganesh is transported by which creature?’ He smiles when I take a guess (‘A peacock?’). It’s a rat, he corrects me – although concedes that one of the god’s eight incarnations gets around on a peacock – and continues to describe the rat-rider’s various guises. The elephant-headed Ganesh is the remover of obstacles, the god of beginnings, the patron of learning. And, clearly, I have much more to learn.