Tamil Nadu is the homeland of one of humanity’s living classical civilisations, stretching back uninterrupted for two millennia and very much alive today in the Tamils' language, dance, poetry and forms of Hinduism.
Some of the temples here are among India's finest, from the sculpted stonework at Thanjavur (Tanjore) to the sprawling halls at Madurai. Across the state, pulsing urban centers rise like concrete islands amid a landscape of palm and banana plantations, rice fields and rugged sandstone scarps. Among them you'll find renowned yoga and meditation retreats, ancient forts and French colonial buildings turned into bohemian B&Bs.
When the heat of Tamil temple towns overwhelms, escape to the southernmost tip of India where three seas mingle; to the splendid mansions sprinkled across arid Chettinadu; or to the cool, forest-clad, wildlife-prowled Western Ghats. It’s all packed into a state that remains proudly distinct from the rest of India.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Tamil Nadu.
Come here twice: in the morning, when the honey-hued granite begins to assert its dominance over the white dawn sunshine, and in the evening, when the rocks capture a hot palette of reds, oranges, yellows and pinks on the crowning glory of Chola temple architecture. The World Heritage–listed Brihadishwara Temple was built between 1003 and 1010 by Raja Raja I (‘king of kings’). The outer fortifications were put up by Thanjavur's later Nayak and British regimes.
The colourful abode of the triple-breasted warrior goddess Meenakshi (‘fish-eyed’ – an epithet for perfect eyes in classical Tamil poetry) is generally considered to be the peak of South Indian temple architecture, as vital to this region's aesthetic heritage as the Taj Mahal to North India. It’s not so much a 17th-century temple as a 6-hectare complex with 12 tall gopurams, encrusted with a staggering array of gods, goddesses, demons and heroes (1511 on the 55m-high south gopuram alone).
So large it feels like a self-enclosed city, Sri Ranganathaswamy is quite possibly India's biggest temple. It has 49 separate Vishnu shrines, and reaching the inner sanctum from the south, as most worshippers do, requires passing through seven gopurams. The first (southernmost), the Rajagopuram, was added in 1987, and is one of Asia's tallest temple towers at 73m high. Non-Hindus cannot pass the sixth gopuram so won't see the innermost sanctum, where Vishnu as Ranganatha reclines on a five-headed snake.
With three separate hilltop citadels and a 6km perimeter of cliffs and thick walls, the ruins of enormous Gingee Fort rise out of the Tamil plain, 37km east of Tiruvannamalai, like castles misplaced by the Lord of the Rings. It was constructed mainly in the 16th century by the Vijayanagars and was later occupied by the Marathas, Mughals, French and British, then abandoned in the 19th century. The fort's sheer scale, dramatic beauty and peaceful setting make it a very worthwhile stop.
The crowning masterpiece of Mamallapuram’s stonework, this giant relief carving is one of India's greatest ancient artworks. Inscribed on two huge, adjacent boulders, the Penance bursts with scenes of Hindu myth and everyday South Indian life. In the centre, nagas (snake-beings) descend a once water-filled cleft, representing the Ganges. To the left Arjuna (hero of the Mahabharata) performs self-mortification (fasting on one leg), so that the four-armed Shiva will grant him his most powerful weapon, the god-slaying Pasupata.
In the foothills of the Nilgiris, this newly enlarged 765-sq-km wildlife reserve is like a classical Indian landscape painting given life, with chital deer, wild boar, gaur (Indian bison), peacocks, langurs, jackals, Malabar giant squirrels and wild elephants concealed between thin, spindly trees and light-slotted leaves. Also here are over 60 tigers – though you'd be incredibly lucky to see one. Overall, Mudumalai is Tamil Nadu's top wildlife-spotting place.
The temple at Gangaikondacholapuram ('City of the Chola who Conquered the Ganges'), 35km north of Kumbakonam, is dedicated to Shiva. It was built by Rajendra I in the 11th century when he moved the Chola capital here from Thanjavur, and has many similarities to Thanjavur's earlier Brihadishwara Temple. Its beautiful 49m-tall tower, however, has a slightly concave curve, making it the 'feminine' counterpart to the mildly convex Thanjavur one. Artistic highlights are the wonderfully graceful sculptures around the tower's exterior.
With a forest’s worth of intricately carved rosewood ceilings and polished-teak beams, this labyrinthine palace, 35km northwest of Kanyakumari, near the Kerala border, is considered the finest example of traditional Keralan architecture today. Asia’s largest wooden palace complex, it was once capital of Travancore, an unstable princely state taking in parts of both Tamil Nadu and Kerala. Under successive rulers it expanded into a magnificent conglomeration of corridors, courtyards, gabled roofs and 14 palaces. The oldest sections date to 1550.
This 10-hectare temple is one of India's largest. Its oldest parts date to the 9th century, but the site was a place of worship long before that. Four huge, unpainted white gopurams mark the entrances; the main, 17th-century eastern one rises 13 storeys (an astonishing 66m), its sculpted passageway depicting dancers, dwarves and elephants. During festivals the Arunachaleshwar is awash with golden flames and the scent of burning ghee, as befits the fire incarnation of Shiva, Destroyer of the Universe.