Must see attractions in Tamil Nadu

  • Top ChoiceSights in Thanjavur (Tanjore)

    Brihadishwara Temple

    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. You enter through a Maratha-era gate, followed by two original gopurams with elaborate stucco sculptures. You might find the temple elephant under one of the gopurams. Several shrines are dotted around the extensive grassy areas of the walled temple compound, including one of India’s largest statues of Nandi (Shiva’s sacred bull), facing the main temple building. Cut from a single rock and framed by slim pillars, this 16th-century Nayak creation is 6m long. Don't miss the sublime sculptures at the shrine dedicated to Lakshmi, to the right of Nandi when entering the complex. A long, columned assembly hall leads to the central shrine with its 4m-high Shiva lingam, beneath the superb 61m-high vimana (tower). The assembly hall's southern steps are flanked by two huge dwarpals (temple guardians). Many graceful deity images stand in niches around the vimana's lower outer levels, including Shiva emerging from the lingam (beside the southern steps); Shiva as the beggar Bhikshatana (first image, south side); Shiva as Nataraja, the cosmic dancer (west end of south wall); Harihara (half Shiva, half Vishnu) on the west wall; and Ardhanarishvara (Shiva as half-man, half-woman), leaning on Nandi, on the north side. Between the deity images are panels showing classical dance poses. On the vimana ' s upper east side is a later Maratha-period Shiva within three arches. The compound also contains an interpretation centre along the south wall and, in the colonnade along the west and north walls, hundreds more linga. Both west and north walls are lined with exquisite lime-plaster Chola frescoes, for years buried under later Nayak-era murals. North of the temple compound, but still within the outer fortifications, are the 18th-century neoclassical Schwartz's Church and a park containing the Sivaganga tank. Official guides can be hired at the tourist information booth just outside the temple for 90-minute tours (₹500).

  • Top ChoiceSights in Madurai

    Meenakshi Amman Temple

    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). According to legend, the beautiful Meenakshi (a version of Parvati) was born with three breasts and this prophecy: her superfluous breast would melt away when she met her husband. This happened when she met Shiva and took her place as his consort. The existing temple was mostly built during the 17th-century reign of Tirumalai Nayak, but its origins go back 2000 years to when Madurai was a Pandyan capital. The four streets surrounding the temple are pedestrian-only. Temple dress codes and security are airport-strict: no shoulders or legs (of either gender) may be exposed, and no bags or cameras are allowed inside. Despite this, the temple has a happier atmosphere than some of Tamil Nadu's more solemn shrines, and is adorned with especially vibrant ceiling and wall paintings. Every evening at 9pm, a frenetic, incense-clouded procession carries an icon of Sundareswarar (Shiva) to Meenakshi's shrine to spend the night; visitors can follow along. Before or after entering the temple, look around the Pudhu Mandapa. The main temple entrance is through the eastern (oldest) gopuram. First, on the right, you'll come to the Thousand Pillared Hall, now housing the fascinating Temple Art Museum. Moving on into the temple, you'll reach a Nandi shrine surrounded by more beautifully carved columns. Ahead is the main Shiva shrine, flanked on each side by massive dwarpals, and further ahead to the left in a separate enclosure is the main Meenakshi shrine, both off limits to non-Hindus. Anyone can, however, wander round the Golden Lotus Tank, where a small pavilion jutting out at the western end has ceiling murals depicting Sundareswarar and Meenakshi's marriage. Leave the temple via a hall of flower sellers and the arch-ceilinged Ashta Shakti Mandapa – lined with relief carvings of the goddess' eight attributes and displaying the loveliest of all the temple's elaborately painted ceilings; this is actually the temple entrance for most worshippers.

  • Top ChoiceSights in Trichy (Tiruchirappalli)

    Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple

    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. You pass through streets with shops, restaurants, motorbikes and cars until you reach the temple proper at the fourth gopuram. Inside on the left is an information counter selling tickets for the roof viewpoint (₹20), which affords semipanoramic views. Take no notice of would-be guides who spin stories to get hired. Also here, in the southwest corner, is the beautiful 16th-century Venugopal Shrine, adorned with superbly detailed Nayak-era carvings of preening gopis (milkmaids) and the flute-playing Krishna (Vishnu's eighth incarnation). Turn right just before the fifth gopuram for the small Art Museum, displaying fine bronzes, tusks of bygone temple elephants, and a collection of exquisite 17th-century Nayak ivory figurines depicting gods, demons, and kings and queens (some in erotic poses). Continue left past the museum to the Sesha Mandapa, a 16th-century pillared hall with magnificently detailed monolithic Vijayanagar carvings of rearing battle horses and Vishnu's 10 incarnations sculpted on pillars. Immediately north is the 1000-pillared hall, whose recently unearthed lower base is carved into dance positions. Inside the fifth gopuram is the Garuda Mandapa, containing an enormous shrine to Vishnu's man-eagle assistant, posed in semiseated position to show that he's ever-ready to leap up and go to Vishnu the moment he is called to fly the god somewhere. Note, too, four remarkable sculptures of Nayak donors (with daggers on the hip). Take bus 1 to/from the Central Bus Station or the Rock Fort stops just south of the Rajagopuram.

  • Top ChoiceSights in Mamallapuram (Mahabalipuram)

    Arjuna’s Penance

    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. Some scholars believe the carving actually shows the sage Bagiratha, who did severe penance to obtain Shiva's help in bringing the Ganges to earth. Shiva is attended by dwarves, and celestial beings fly across the carving's upper sections. Below Arjuna/Bagiratha is a temple to Vishnu (mythical ancestor of the Pallava kings), with sages, deer and a lion. The many wonderfully carved animals include a herd of elephants and – humour amid the holy – a cat mimicking Arjuna's penance to a crowd of mice. South along the road from Arjuna's Penance are the unfinished Panch Pandava Mandapa cave temple; the Krishna Mandapa, which famously depicts Krishna lifting Govardhana Hill to protect cows and villagers from a storm sent by Indra; an unfinished relief carving of similar size to Arjuna's Penance; and the empty Dharmaraja Cave Temple.

  • Top ChoiceSights in Tiruvannamalai

    Arunachaleshwar Temple

    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. Inside the complex are five more gopurams, a 17th-century 1000-pillared hall with impressive carvings, two tanks and a profusion of subtemples and shrines. There's a helpful temple model inside the second gopuram from the east, where the temple elephant gives blessings. To reach the innermost sanctum, with its huge lingam, worshippers must pass through five surrounding prakarams (compounds).

  • Top ChoiceSights in Thanjavur (Tanjore)

    Royal Palace

    Thanjavur’s royal palace is a mixed bag of ruin and renovation, superb art and random royal paraphernalia. The mazelike complex was constructed partly by the Nayaks who took over Thanjavur in 1535, and partly by a local Maratha dynasty that ruled from 1676 to 1855. The two don't-miss sections are the Saraswati Mahal Library Museum and the Art Gallery. Seven different sections of the palace can be visited. ‘Full’ tickets include the Art Gallery and Saraswati Mahal Library Museum, along with the Mahratta Dharbar Hall, bell tower and Saarjah Madi; other sections require extra tickets. The main entrance is from the north, off East Main St. On the way in you’ll come to the main ticket office, followed by the Maratha Palace complex. Past the ticket office, a passage to the left leads to: first, the Royal Palace Museum (₹2), a small miscellany of sculptures, weaponry, elephant bells and rajas’ headgear; second, the Maharaja Serfoji Memorial Hall (₹4), commemorating the enlightened Maratha scholar-king Serfoji II (1798–1832), with a better collection overlooking a once-splendid, now crumbling courtyard; and third, the Mahratta Dharbar Hall (open 10am to 5pm), where Maratha rulers gave audience in a grand but faded pavilion adorned with colourful murals (including their own portraits behind the dais) and sturdy pillars topped by arches filled with gods. Exiting the passage, the fabulous Saraswati Mahal Library Museum is on your left, through a vibrant entranceway. Perhaps Serfoji II’s greatest contribution to posterity, this is testimony both to the 19th-century obsession with knowledge accumulation and to an eclectic mind that collected prints of Chinese torture methods, Audubon-style paintings of Indian flora and fauna, world atlases, dictionaries and rare medieval books. Serfoji amassed more than 65,000 books and 50,000 palm-leaf paper manuscripts in Indian and European languages, though most aren’t displayed. Hourly audiovisual displays (10.30am to 4.30pm) highlight Thanjavur’s sights, history and traditions in the attached cinema room. Leaving the library, turn left for the Art Gallery, set around the Nayak Palace courtyard behind the bell tower. It contains a collection of stone carvings and superb, mainly Chola, bronzes, including some fabulous Natarajas in the New Visitors Hall; its main room, the 1600 Nayak Durbar Hall, has a statue of Serfoji II. From the courtyard, steps lead part of the way up a large gopuram -like tower to a whale skeleton that washed up in Tharangambadi. The renovated Saarjah Madi is best admired from East Main Rd for its ornate balconies.

  • Top ChoiceSights in Chennai (Madras)

    Government Museum

    Housed across from the striking British-built Pantheon Complex, this excellent museum is Chennai’s best. The big highlight is building 3, the Bronze Gallery, with a superb collection of South Indian bronzes from the 7th-century Pallava era through to modern times (and English-language explanatory material). It was from the 9th to 11th centuries, in the Chola period, that bronze sculpture peaked. Among the Bronze Gallery's impressive pieces are many of Shiva as Nataraja, the cosmic dancer, and an outstanding Chola bronze of Ardhanarishvara, the androgynous incarnation of Shiva and Parvati. The main Archaeological Galleries (building 1) represent all the major South Indian periods from 2nd-century BC Buddhist sculptures to 16th-century Vijayanagar work, with rooms devoted to Hindu, Buddhist and Jain sculpture. Building 2, the Anthropology Galleries, traces South Indian human history back to prehistoric times, displaying tribal artefacts from across the region; outside it is a tiger-head cannon captured from Tipu Sultan's army in 1799 upon his defeat at Srirangapatnam. The museum also includes the National Art Gallery, Contemporary Art Gallery and Children’s Museum, on the same ticket. Some sections may be closed for renovation.

  • Top ChoiceSights in Trichy (Tiruchirappalli)

    Rock Fort Temple

    The Rock Fort Temple, perched 83m high on a massive outcrop, lords over Trichy with stony arrogance. The ancient rock was first hewn by the Pallavas and Pandyas, who cut small cave temples on its south side, but it was the war-savvy Nayaks who later made strategic use of the naturally fortified position. Reaching the top requires climbing over 400 stone-cut steps. From NSB Rd on the south side, you pass between small shops and cross a street before entering the temple precinct itself, where there's a shoe stand. You might meet the temple elephant here. Then it's 180 steps up to the Thayumanaswamy Temple, the rock's biggest temple, on the left (closed to non-Hindus); a gold-topped tower rises over its sanctum. Further up, you pass the 6th-century Pallava upper cave temple on the left (usually railed off); on the left inside is a famous Gangadhara panel showing Shiva restraining the Ganges with a single strand of his hair. From here it's another 183 steps to the summit's small Uchipillaiyar Temple, dedicated to Ganesh. The views are wonderful, with eagles wheeling beneath and Trichy sprawling all around. Back at the bottom, check out the 8th-century Pandya lower rock-cut cave temple, with particularly fine pillars (turn right as you exit the temple precinct, past five or six houses, then right again down a small lane). The stone steps get scorching-hot in the midday sun and it's a barefoot climb, so time your visit carefully.

  • Top ChoiceSights in Chennai (Madras)

    Kapaleeshwarar Temple

    Mylapore is one of Chennai's most characterful and traditional neighbourhoods; it predated colonial Madras by several centuries. Its Kapaleeshwarar Temple is Chennai's most active and impressive, and is believed to have been built after the Portuguese destroyed the seaside original in 1566. It displays the main architectural elements of many a Tamil Nadu temple – a rainbow-coloured gopuram, pillared mandapas (pavilions) and a huge tank – and is dedicated to the state's most popular deity, Shiva. Legend tells that in an angry fit Shiva turned his consort Parvati into a peacock, and commanded her to worship him here to regain her normal form. Parvati supposedly did so at a spot just outside the northeast corner of the temple's central block, where a shrine commemorates the event. Hence the name Mylapore, 'town of peacocks'. The story is depicted at the west end of the inner courtyard, on the exterior of the main sanctum. The temple's colourful Brahmotsavam festival (March/April) sees the deities paraded around Mylapore's streets.

  • Top ChoiceSights in Mamallapuram (Mahabalipuram)

    Trimurti Cave Temple

    At the northern end of the Mamallapuram Hill compound, the Trimurti Cave Temple depicts the Hindu 'trinity' amid guardian figures: Brahma (left), Shiva (centre) and Vishnu (right). A fine carving of elephants adorns the back side of the rock.

  • Sights in Tiruvannamalai

    Gingee Fort

    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. Today, few foreigners make it here, but Gingee is popular with domestic tourists for its starring role in various films. The main road linking Tiruvannamalai and Puducherry cuts between the fortified hills, just west of Gingee town. Of the three citadels, the easiest to reach, Krishnagiri, rises north of the road. To the south are the highest of the three, Rajagiri, and the most distant and least interesting, Chakklidurg (which you can't climb). Ticket offices (with maps) are at the foot of Krishnagiri and Rajagiri. Remains of numerous buildings stand in the site's lower parts, especially at the bottom of Rajagiri in the old palace area, where the main landmark is the white, restored, seven-storey Kalyana Mahal (Marriage Hall). Just east (outside) of the palace area is the 18th-century Sadat Ullah Khan Mosque; southeast of this lies the abandoned 16th-century Venkataramana Temple. Hiking Krishnagiri is a one-hour round-trip; Rajagiri (more than 150m above the plain) takes two hours round-trip; allow at least half a day to cover both hills. Most visitors climb Rajagiri, which makes Krishnagiri quieter. Hill-climbing entry ends at 3pm, so sunsets are out. You'll want to start early to beat the heat. Bring water! Gingee is on the Tiruvannamalai–Puducherry bus route, with buses from Tiruvannamalai (₹37, one hour) every 10 minutes. Hop off at the fort to save a trip back out from Gingee town. A taxi between Tiruvannamalai and Puducherry with a two- to three-hour stop at Gingee costs around ₹3000.

  • Sights in The Western Ghats

    Mudumalai Tiger Reserve

    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.

  • Sights in Mamallapuram (Mahabalipuram)

    Five Rathas

    Huddled together at the southern end of Mamallapuram, the Five Rathas were, astonishingly, all carved from single large rocks. Each of these fine 7th-century temples was dedicated to a Hindu god and is now named after one or more of the Pandavas, the five hero-brothers of the epic Mahabharata, or their common wife, Draupadi. The rathas were hidden in the sand until excavated by the British 200 years ago. Ratha is Sanskrit for 'chariot', and may refer to the temples' form or to their function as vehicles for the gods. It's thought that they didn't originally serve as places of worship, but as architectural models. The first ratha on the left after you enter is the Draupadi Ratha, in the form of a stylised South Indian hut. It's dedicated to the demon-fighting goddess Durga, who looks out from inside, standing on a lotus, and is depicted on the outside walls. Female guardians flank the entrance; a huge sculpted lion, Durga's mount, stands outside. Next, on the same plinth, is the 'chariot' of the most important Pandava, the Arjuna Ratha, dedicated to Shiva. Its pilasters, miniature roof shrines and small octagonal dome make it a precursor of many later South Indian temples. A huge Nandi sits behind. Shiva (leaning on Nandi, south side) and other gods are depicted on the temple's outer walls. The barrel-roofed Bhima Ratha was never completed, as evidenced by the missing north-side colonnade; inside is a shrine to Vishnu. The Dharmaraja Ratha, tallest of the temples, is similar to the Arjuna Ratha but one storey higher, with lion pillars. The carvings on its outer walls mostly represent gods, including the androgynous Ardhanarishvara (half Shiva, half Parvati) on the east side. King Narasimhavarman I appears at the west end of the south side. The Nakula-Sahadeva Ratha (named after twin Pandavas) stands aside from the other four and is dedicated to Indra. The life-size stone elephant beside it is one of India's most famous sculpted elephants. Approaching from the gate to the north you see its back end first, hence its nickname Gajaprishthakara (elephant’s backside). Tour groups tend to arrive around 10am, so do yourself a favour and arrive earlier!

  • Sights in Chennai (Madras)

    San Thome Cathedral

    This soaring Roman Catholic cathedral, a stone's throw from the beach, was founded by the Portuguese in 1523, then rebuilt by the British in neo-Gothic style in 1896, and is said to mark the final resting place of St Thomas the Apostle. It's believed 'Doubting Thomas' brought Christianity to the subcontinent in AD 52 and was killed at St Thomas Mount, Chennai, in AD 72. Behind the cathedral is the tomb of St Thomas. Although most of St Thomas' mortal remains now apparently lie in Italy, a cross on the tomb wall contains a tiny bone fragment marked 'Relic of St Thomas'. The museum above displays Thomas-related artefacts including the lancehead believed to have killed him. St Thomas' Pole, at the beach end of the street on the cathedral's south side, is said to have miraculously saved the cathedral from the 2004 tsunami.

  • Sights in The Western Ghats

    Anamalai Tiger Reserve

    A pristine 958-sq-km reserve of tropical jungle, shola forest and grassland rising to 2400m in the Western Ghats and spilling over into Kerala between Kodaikanal and Coimbatore, Anamalai Tiger Reserve is well off most tourists' radar. On government-run guided hikes or jungle minibus 'safaris', you might well see elephants, peacocks, spotted deer, lion-tailed macaques, langurs and crocodiles. Other elusive, endangered inhabitants include leopards and around 30 tigers. It's been a designated tiger reserve since 2007.

  • Sights in Tiruvannamalai

    Mt Arunachala

    This 800m-high extinct volcano dominates Tiruvannamalai – and local conceptions of the element of fire, which supposedly finds its sacred abode in Arunachala’s heart. Devout barefoot pilgrims make the 14km (four-hour) circumambulation of the mountain, stopping at eight famous linga, especially on full-moon and festival days. The inner path is closed for the foreseeable future, but it's possible to circle around on the main road, or climb the hill past two caves where Sri Ramana Maharshi lived and meditated (1899–1922). The hot ascent to the top opens up superb views of Tiruvannamalai, and takes five or six hours round trip: start early and take water. An unsigned path across the road from the northwest corner of the Arunachaleshwar Temple leads the way up past homes and the two caves, Virupaksha (about 20 minutes up) and Skandasramam (30 minutes). Women are advised not to hike alone, and it's suggested that no one go up after dark due to 'too many drunk boys'. Note that the trail to the top closes a month or two before the Deepam festival, but the caves remain accessible. If you aren't that devoted, buy a Giripradakshina map (₹15) from the bookshop at Sri Ramana Ashram, hire a bicycle from a shop on the roadside 200m east of the ashram (per day ₹40) and ride around. Or make an autorickshaw circuit for about ₹400 (up to double at busy times).

  • Sights in Puducherry (Pondicherry)

    Seafront

    Pondy is a seaside town, but that doesn’t make it a beach destination; the city’s sand is a thin strip of dirty brown that slurps into a seawall of jagged rocks. But Goubert Ave (Beach Rd) is a killer stroll, especially at dawn and dusk when half the town takes a romantic wander. In a stroke of genius, authorities have banned traffic here from 6pm to 7.30am.

  • Sights in Ooty (Udhagamandalam)

    Botanical Gardens

    Established in 1848, these pretty 22-hectare gardens are a living gallery of the Nilgiris' natural flora. Keep an eye out for a typical Toda mund (village), a fossilised tree trunk believed to be 20 million years old and, on busy days, around 20 million tourists.

  • Sights in Puducherry (Pondicherry)

    Sri Aurobindo Ashram

    Founded in 1926 by Sri Aurobindo and a French-born woman, ‘the Mother’, this famous spiritual community has about 2000 members in its many departments. Aurobindo's teachings focus on 'integral yoga' that sees devotees work in the world, rather than retreat from it. Visits to the main, grey-walled ashram building are cursory: you see the flower-festooned samadhi of Aurobindo and the Mother, then the bookshop. Ashram- accommodation guests can access other areas and activities. Evening meditation around the samadhi is for everyone. There are daily weekday ashram tours (per person ₹50), which begin at 8.30am with a film about Sri Aurobindo and the Mother and include visits to various ashram workshops where you can see batik work, hand-printing on saris, handloom weaving and more; enquire online (www.sriaurobindoautocare.com) or at the ashram's Bureau Central.

  • Sights in Kanchipuram

    Ekambareshwara Temple

    Of South India's five Shiva temples associated with each of the five elements, this 12-hectare precinct is the shrine of earth. You enter beneath the 59m-high, unpainted south gopuram, whose lively carvings were chiselled in 1509 under Vijayanagar rule. Inside, a columned hall leads left into the central compound, which Nandi faces from the right. The inner sanctum (Hindus only) contains a lingam made of earth and a mirror chamber where the central Shiva image is reflected in endless repetition. According to legend, the goddess Kamakshi (She Whose Eyes Awaken Desire; a form of Parvati, Shiva's consort) worshipped Shiva under a mango tree here, before the two were married on the same spot. In a courtyard behind the inner sanctum stands a mango tree said to be 2500 years old, with four branches representing the four Vedas (sacred Hindu texts). Also of note, in the temple's northwest corner, is the Sahasra Lingam, made of minilinga.