A journey along its Coromandel Coast between the historic cities of Chennai (Madras) and Puducherry (Pondicherry) makes a stimulating contrast to the beach life of neighbouring Kerala, argues Caroline Eden, but still has that languid south Indian pace of life.
Coromandel colours in Tamil Nadu
With its glorious temples and traces of forgotten trading empires, the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu has much to engage the culture-seeking traveller.
Chennai may be the Tamil Nadu state capital, and home to seven million people, but this east coast Indian city has mastered the art of unwinding. Unlike in fast-paced, Bollywood-obsessed Mumbai – where citizens are glued to the Bombay Stock Exchange, allegedly the world’s quickest – come the weekend, down-to- earth Chennaites know how to relax, putting finance, politics and trading aside to focus instead on family, food and worship.
This plays out most obviously on the 10-mile stretch of Marina Beach, India’s longest. In the frothy surf, girls dressed in Quality Street-coloured saris splash in the waves while boys chase kites and play cricket in the sand. Everyone gorges on ice-cream and pink candyfloss. Even the salty, lunghi-wearing fishermen seem to slow down, sorting their catches and mending their nets on the beach. It is a languid and relatively sleepy introduction that sets the pace for a slow jaunt through Tamil Nadu, and its tantalisingly rich history.
Many of Chennai’s main sights are clustered along the beach and auto-rickshaws shuttle up and down the adjacent road, making visits easy. Starting at the southern end, the first port of call is the triumphalist, neogothic San Thome Basilica, originally built by the Portuguese in 1504, inside which white lace and red silk roses decorate the pews, and fans rotate. The congregation prays beside signs in Tamil and English that read: “Priests are available for blessing, counselling and confession.”
A couple of miles north up the beach, towards the port, is the whitewashed Fort St George, built by the British East India Company in 1653. This was Britain’s first base in India, and remained so, until Kolkata took the limelight around 100 years later. Its curious Fort Museum showcases fascinating colonial memorabilia. Letters, silverware and paintings are on display, and a decorated palanquin – a human-carried box-car. Visitors are met at the entrance by a giant statue of Lord Cornwallis, hand on hip, immortalised in white marble. Best known as one of the leading British generals in the American War of Independence, he is remembered here for leading the British against the Mysorean ruler Tipu Sultan (‘Tipu’s Tiger’, a wooden mechanised tiger mauling a European soldier, is one of the most famous objects in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum).
Also at the fort, St. Mary’s Church is the oldest Anglican Church in India, and the oldest British building in the country. It is, somewhat ambitiously, known locally as the ‘Westminster Abbey of the East.’ If it’s late afternoon by the time you’ve seen all that, then a stroll on the beach as the sun starts to set, with some warm roasted peanuts wrapped in newspaper, or some freshly-roasted corn on the cob, is obligatory.
If not, then there’s time for the star of Chennai – the kaleidoscopic Kapaleeshwarar Temple, whose rainbow-coloured sculptures will enliven the most temple-weary traveller. Dedicated to Shiva, its 40-metre gatehouse tower, called a gopuram, is covered with ornate, multi-coloured scenes from Hindu mythology, and it dominates the streets around it. On the ground below, multi-coloured mandala-like kolams are sketched in chalk by devotee artists and believed to bring prosperity to the temple. Tucking yourself into a shady spot to watch barefoot devotees chant and pray is a magical experience.
Just as interesting are the ancient alleys of the Mylapore neighbourhood, which snake around the temple. This oldest part of Chennai, where locals once traded fine cloth with the Romans in exchange for gold, today offers a glimpse of traditional Tamil street culture. Women swing garlands of creamy jasmine from their hair, children nibble on orange pretzel-shaped jalebis in doorways and the smell of freshly roasted south Indian coffee wafts over it all. Understated yet remarkable all at once, it’s not hard to see why Chennai, formerly Madras, is also known as the ‘Queen of the Coromandel Coast.’
You would need months to see the many dozens of historic attractions of Tamil Nadu, but even a week or two exploring its rich temple culture of pilgrims, puja rituals and ancient sculptures will further an understanding of south Indian beliefs and traditions. It makes a great accompaniment to the chilled-out beach culture of neighbouring Kerala, and Goa. And it’s not all about temples. Some of its most wonderful experiences include riding the miniature train to the hill station Ooty (now called Udhagamandalam), and spotting wild elephants in Mudumalai National Park.
That said, the incredible 7th- and 8th-century temples of Mahabalipuram, two hours’ drive south of Chennai, are not to be missed. Some are cave sanctuaries, others are built in the shape of chariots, and there are giant open-air reliefs with thousands of sculptures carved out to the glory of Shiva. Together, they form a riot of dancing and warring gods beside the town’s golden sands, and all along the beach, women carrying metal buckets of fruit on their heads sell sustenance to the faithful.
What really captures the imagination, though, is Krishna’s Butterball – a giant granite ball set precariously on a slope 600m back from the sea at Mahabalipuram, which is said to have been dropped by the gods. Families pose by it, giggling as they pretend they’re trying to push it down the incline.
The soul of Tamil Nadu is said to reside in the city of Madurai, the state’s third largest. One of the oldest in India, dating back 2,500 years, it traded with ancient Rome. It is home to the Meenakshi Amman Temple, one of the most important in southern India, a six-hectare complex of gopurams covered in goddesses, demons and heroes. Every night at 9pm, there is a spectacular parade in clouds of incense, as a statue of Shiva is carried to the temple of his lover, Meenakshi, to spend the night.
Another wonderful city to visit lies 60 miles straight down the coast, edging the Bay of Bengal. The French may have left their old settlement of Puducherry, formerly known as ‘Pondicherry’, or ‘Pondy’, in the 1950s, but traces of Gallic charm linger on. In the old quarter, boulevards spill over with pink bougainvillea and are lined with a mish-mash of Franco-Tamil and colonial architecture, much of it painted a sunny lemon colour. Streets have names like Rue Romain Rolland and bakeries proffer freshly-baked croissants and baguettes.
In recent years, gentrification has seen the blossoming of the sort of design-led, wellbeing-focused scene you find in other global capitals with the arrival of ventures such as Villa Shanti, on Rue Suffren, whose smart grey interiors hide a bar serving fresh juice-based cocktails, a restaurant creating modern versions of street food, and a lifestyle shop selling Indian wines and crafts. Janaki, on Romain Rolland Street, is an eco-living store showcasing pottery, aromatherapy products and indigo saris. Pondy’s must-buy snack for fuelling further temple visits is some locally-produced Mason & Co single origin dark chocolate. Founded by a vegan Australian yoga teacher, the company works with organic cacao farmers in South India.
While lifestyle shops and organic chocolate might be recent additions to Pondy, there’s nothing novel about the ‘New Age’ atmosphere. The world-famous Sri Aurobindo Ashram here dates back to 1926. Founded by the philosopher, yogi and Nobel Prize nominee Sri Aurobindo, the ashram’s daily collective meditations, open to all, are still wildly popular.
Another place to unwind is the lush 200-year old Le Jardin Botanique de Pondicherry. In its Japanese garden and glasshouse, bats roost, royal palms spread out and bright-red bottle brush trees bloom. There are lovely shady spots to relax in, and dancing fountains. Fans of the Oscar-winning Ang Lee film The Life of Pi (based on the Yann Martel novel set partly in Pondicherry) may recognise these gardens, as several sequences were filmed there. An older story about the importance of the ocean to this part of India is that of the Chola Empire, which thrived 1,000 years ago, and built more temples than any other Indian kingdom.
Mastering the waves and navigation, with their sea-faring expertise and skilled naval campaigns, the Cholas exploited trading opportunities to become one of the longest-ruling dynasties in the history of southern India. At the height of their powers, between the 9th and 13th centuries, they governed territories within India, Sri Lanka and the Maldives.
Thanjavur (formerly Tanjore) was their capital, and today this laid-back town, wedged in the agricultural ‘rice bowl’ of southern India, is still dominated by Chola-era temples. The granite, Shiva-dedicated Brihadeeswarar is world heritage- listed and one of India’s largest temples, with a 13-storey tower, beautiful frescoes and a 25-tonne statue of Shiva’s sacred bull Nandi standing guard. Legend has it that when completed in 1010, the Cholas celebrated their ‘big temple’, by bestowing 500 tonnes of gold and jewels upon it (though there’s no sign of them now). Those who yearn for a Chola carving, in the inimitable style of those found as far away as Sumatra, Bali and Java, will have to content themselves with a small statue or some temple-inspired folk art from Poompuhar, a government-run, no-barter, fixed-price shop in Thanjavur.
The thrill of acquainting yourself with lost civilisations continues a little further south in Chettinad, where the fabulous palaces of another Tamil dynasty, the Nattukottai Chettiars, remain. This migratory community of merchants traded in south-east Asia, most actively during the latter half of the 19th century, and ploughed their spoils into the creation of magnificent mansions back home. These buildings may not be quite the opulent ‘ghosts-of-the-Raj’ palaces of Rajasthan; nevertheless they are just as interesting as their northern counterparts, and far less crowded.
One fine example has been turned into a glorious heritage hotel, Chidambara Vilas. Its elegant rooms feature a mishmash of Italian tiles, Belgian glass, Burmese teak, and Victorian furniture, all under gothic domes and arches, yet are built with the art of vaasthu in mind, a kind of Indian Feng Shui that encourages the free-flow of energy and cooling breezes.
It could be said that the Chettinad mansions sum up Tamil Nadu: a dreamlike mixture of history, architecture and off-beat curiosities – ingredients for a truly memorable holiday, all taken at that definitively south Indian slower pace.
Recommended C&K tour: Treasures of Southern India / 14 Days & 12 Nights from £2,550
This journey travels through hill-stations, tropical backwaters and temple-laden towns, while staying in some of the region’s very best hotels. Stay in the heart of the French quarter in Puducherry and experience the night ceremony at Meenakshi temple in Madurai.
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A visit to India is always a gastronomic experience, and in the south it’s all about rice, coconut, lentils and stews. Dosas - super thin and light fermented crepes stuffed with lightly-spiced greens, paneer or potatoes - make a brilliantly spicy start to the day, as do spongy idli, steamed lentil rice cakes topped with spicy vegetables. Try them at no-frills Sree Ariya Bhavan restaurant in Thanjavur. Punchy saaru (tomato and lentil soup) which riffs on the key south Indian tamarind flavour, and sambar, a spicy lentil and vegetable stew are other staples to try. Pondicherry’s Cafe des Arts in an old townhouse, does a fine French-style crepe. And if you’re flying home from Chennai, be sure to try the famous local filter coffee at the old-school Madras Coffee House in the airport.