Mamallapuram was the major seaport of the ancient Pallava kingdom based at Kanchipuram, and a wander round the town’s magnificent, World Heritage–listed temples and carvings inflames the imagination, especially at sunset. And then, in addition to ancient archaeological wonders and coastal beauty, there’s the traveller ghetto of Othavadai and Othavadai Cross Sts.
For a dusty bazaar town, Vellore feels pretty cosmopolitan, thanks to a couple of tertiary institutions and the American-founded Christian Medical College (CMC), one of India's finest hospitals, attracting both medical students and patients from across the country. On the main Chennai–Bengaluru road, Vellore is worth a stop mainly for its massive Vijayanagar fort.
There are temple towns, there are mountain towns, and then there are temple-mountain towns where God appears as a phallus of fire. Welcome to Tiruvannamalai, one of Tamil Nadu's holiest destinations. Set below boulder-strewn Mt Arunachala, this is one of South India's five ‘elemental’ cities of Shiva; here the god is worshipped in his fire incarnation as Arunachaleshwar.
South of Chennai
Chennai’s sprawl peters out after an hour or so heading south on the East Coast Road (ECR), at which point Tamil Nadu becomes red dirt, blue skies, palm trees, and green fields, sprinkled with towns and villages (or, if you take the 'IT Expressway' inland, huge new buildings).
Auroville, 'the City of Dawn', is one of those ideas that anyone with idealistic leanings will love: an international community dedicated to peace, harmony, sustainable living, and 'divine consciousness', where people from across the globe, ignoring creed, colour and nationality, work together to build a universal, cash-free, non-religious township and realise good old human .
Vedanthangal Bird Sanctuary
Vedanthangal Bird Sanctuary, 55km southwest of Mamallapuram, is a spectacular 30-hectare breeding ground for many kinds of water birds, which migrate here from November to February. Some years as many as 100,000 birds mass at Vedanthangal Lake and its marshy surrounds. The top viewing times are dawn and late afternoon.