The Shore Temple at Mamallapuram

Located in south India, Tamil Nadu is bounded on the north by Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, on the south by the Indian Ocean, on the east by the Bay of Bengal, and by Kerala on the west. Point Calimere and the Mudumulai Wildlife Sanctuary mark the eastern and western limits of the state respectively. The northernmost limit is the 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.

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, 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 Vijayanagar, which covered all of South India, was firmly established. However, by the 17th century, due to the disintegration of the Vijayanagar 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 pockets like 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.

The climate of the state is 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 Tamil Nadu occur in the months of October to December. Cotton clothing is apt for the entire year.

Chennai, the capital city, offers some beautiful beach resorts. The best place to start a temple tour is Mamallapuram, a seaside village that, apart from some exquisite Pallava rock-cut architecture, boasts a long stretch of sun-kissed 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, Kumbhakonam 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 the Bharatnatyam dance.

Tiruchirapalli, a commercial town just northwest of Thanjavur, reached its heydays under the 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.

Rameshwaram, on the long spit of land extending 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 cool breezes and beautiful beaches along the sea.

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. The 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.

The 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 months at Vedanthangal, near Chennai, and Point Calimere.

Events And Festivals
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 month of January/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, Rameshwaram, Chidambaram, and Thiruvarur.

The 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 Kumbhakonam. The Arubathimoobar festival in Chennai is marked by a procession of the 63 saints of Lord Shiva. During the Meenakshi Kalyanam festival in Madurai, during April-May, the temple Goddess is wedded to her celestial husband. Besides these, Navratri, Deepavali, and Christmas 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 among the devotees.

In January, the Tamil Nadu Tourist Development Corporation (TTDC) Trade Fair is held 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 Thiruvaiyur in January attracts music lovers from all corners of the world. The Float Festival at Tiruchi, in the month of March, is also famous.

With a glorious past, a vibrant culture, a rich tapestry of history, and natural bounty in the form of blue beaches and clear skies, Tamil Nadu is a tourist’s dreams come true.