Tamil Nadu is a delightful anachronism. With a rich culture reaching back to the early dawn of history, the land of Temples is also a modern developing state. Tamil Nadu, Jewel of the South, is well known as a tourist destination in India. With a past brimming with superior cultural and artistic achievements, tourists flock to Tamil Nadu mainly for its historical heritage. But there’s more…
Traveling to Chennai, dashing capital of Tamil Nadu, tourists see a modern city, impressive as well as eminently livable. Besides, Tamil Nadu also has its fair share of great beaches, nature, wildlife, good food, festivals and fun.
History of Tamil Nadu
Tamil Nadu’s history reaches back to the earliest annals of pre-Aryan India. The earliest Tamilians were descendents of the Dravidian race and the remnants of their early civilization excavated at Mohanjo Daro and Harappa, in North- Western India testify to a highly developed society and culture. Invading Aryans caused them to retreat further South into Peninsular India in today’s Kerala, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and of course Tamil Nadu. Here they settled and prospered, practiced statesmanship, built temples, pursued academics, wrote literature, composed music and poetry and gave rise to one of the oldest and most refined cultures of India.
Tamil Nadu – Land of Temples
Over 30, 000 temples have earned Tamil Nadu the sobriquet of “The Land of the Temples”. Built over generations, by successive rulers of the Chola, Pallava, Pandya and Chera dynasties, Tamil Nadu’s temples nevertheless bear a close resemble to each other in terms of their physical features. The impressive tower over the entrance, or gopuram, the tower over the sanctum or vimanam and the central hall are common features across diverse architectural styles – a reflection of the highly defined and precise rules governing the building of temples.
Grander and more imposing than their North Indian counterparts, the temples of South India served as more than mere buildings for the worship of the deities housed there. Tamil Nadu’s temples were integral to the social fabric of the towns where they stood. Serving as public halls, schools and centers of learning, they played a role in the commemoration of important religious, social and political events. Besides they doubled as granaries, storage rooms and hospitals… From the perspective of tourism, Tamil Nadu’s temples served as fountainheads of the spiritual and artistic endeavor of the Tamil people.
Dedicated to important deities of the Hindu Pantheon such as Siva, Vishnu, their consorts Parvati and Lakshmi, as also Vinayak, Subramanya or Muruga, the Gods are worshipped with different names according to legends connected with the origin of the temples: Siva is Ramanathaswamy – ‘He who is worshipped by Rama’ at Rameswaram, and Nataraja – ‘Cosmic Dancer’ at Chidambaram.
In Tamil Nadu Siva is worshipped as the five elements: Space in Chidambaram, Water in Tiruvanaikkaval, Fire in Tiruvannamalai, Earth in Kanchipuram and Air in Sri Kalahasti (Andhra Pradesh). Vishnu, often referred to in Tamil Nadu as Varadaraja Perumal and Ranganarthaswamy is worshipped as himself, as also through temples dedicated to his incarnations, Rama and Krishna.
Temples devoted to the consorts of the above Gods include the twin temples of Meenakshi and Sundareswarar at Madurai and the Kamakshi temple at Kanchi. Besides, temples dedicated to the elephant headed Ganpati or Ganesh, also known as Vigneswara or Pillayar, his younger brother Subramanya ‘Lord of the Mountains’ and other lesser deities are also found in Tamil Nadu.
Saivism and Vaishnavism, the two most elemental sects of Hinduism occur in Tamil Nadu, though, as elsewhere in India, this division is becoming more and more fuzzy.
Natural Wonders of Tamil Nadu
Ancient settlers in Tamil Nadu categorized the region into 5 different physiogeographic features: Kurinji or the mountainous region, Mullai or forests, Palai or the arid zone, Marudham or fertile lands and Neidhal or coastal belt.
The Eastern and Western Ghats, ancient hill ranges, meet in Tamil Nadu, bestowing the state with some of the most ravishing hill stations of the South including Ooty, Kodaikanal, Kothagiri and Yercaud.
Denser and enjoying more rain, the Western Ghats are thickly forested besides having tea, coffee and spice plantations. On the other hand, Yercaud, in the comparatively rocky, barren Eastern Ghats also offers fruit orchards and coffee plantations.
Travelers to the Western Ghats can also visit Tamil Nadu’s major wildlife sanctuaries including the Mudumalai and Annamalai Wildlife Sanctuaries, home to elephants, gaur, deer monkeys and tigers. On a different note are Tamil Nadu’s extensive mangrove forests comprising excellent bird sanctuaries such as Lake Pulicat and Vedanthangal.
Besides boosting Tamil Nadu’s tourism, the forests are also home to abundant reserves of medicinal herbs including Cinchona, which gives quinine for treating malaria and eucalyptus whose oil has healing properties. Also, Palmyrah trees grow thickly in Tamil Nadu while rubber is a major crop in parts of Tamil Nadu including Kannyakumari. The Javadhu hills near Vellore yield another highly sought after botanical wonder – the sandalwood tree.
Tamil Nadu’s fertile plains are fed by rivers such as Cauvery, Palar, Pennar, Vaigai and Tamiraparani. The ever flowing Cauvery especially irrigates the Coromandel plains, Tamil Nadu’s most fertile plains; its delta in the Thanjavur-Nagapattinam region is the veritable granary of Tamil Nadu! Palai, or the arid desert region of Tamil Nadu is seen primarily in Tirunelveli district.
Tamil Nadu’s most enjoyable temptations, undeniably, are the beaches. With an extensive coastline Tamil Nadu was famous amongst travelers even in ancient times for its ports such as Mylapore, Poompuhar and Mamallapuram from where India conducted trade with Rome, Greece and the Far East. Today tourists can enjoy wide uninterrupted beaches such as Rameswaram, Kanyakumari and the most famous – Marina beach in Chennai. 12 km of unhindered sea and sand, make it the second longest beach the world.
Festivals of Tamil Nadu
With their artistic and aesthetic sensibilities and a robust sense of fun, it is no wonder Tamilians love festivals. Most of these commemorate events from religious mythology or celebrate the seasons.
Pongal: This most popular of festival of Tamil Nadu’s festivals celebrates the harvest season. The festivities stretching to three days, the first day is dedicated to the family, the second day to the sun and the third to the moon. Rice cooked in milk and jaggery is prepared and shared, with even the cattle and animals getting their share. Much rejoicing attends this festival, which is also traditionally observed in rural areas with community meals prepared by freshly harvested produce.
Thai Pusam: Held in temples dedicated to Kartikeya or Mariamman, devotees demonstrate their faith by walking over burning coal. This over, much singing and feasting follows.
Kavadi Festival: Inspired by the legend of Idumban who carried two hillocks strung on a pole over his shoulders, devotees of Lord Muruga carry a ‘Kavadi’ – flower decoration, as they travel up the Palani hills in Tamil Nadu to a temple at the summit.
Float Festival: Commemorating Tamil Nadu’s version of Vishnu, Lord Alagar’s giving of his sister, the Goddess Meenakshi in marriage to Lord Sundaresa, ornamented statues of the divine couple are taken out on a golden bull from the Meenakshi temple on a full moon night and floated in a tank on a raft with flowers and lamps. Devotees travel along with the procession, dancing and spraying colours
Karthigai Deepam: Beautiful rows of glittering earthen lamps outside every home, and the joyous burst of firecrackers mark Tamil Nadu’s Festival of Lights.
Velankanni Festival: Commemorating the shrine of the Virgin Mary, built by grateful Portuguese sailors who miraculously escaped death when their ship was wrecked, this festival is attended by thousands. The church is called the ‘Lourdes of the East’ on account of miraculous healings experienced by devotees here.
Kanthuri Festival: Dedicated to Quadirwali, a saint who was famous for doing good to people of all faiths, a descendent of the saint is chosen as a peer. On the tenth day Quadirwali’s tomb is anointed with sandalwood paste, which is then distributed to share its healing powers.
Taste of Tamil Nadu
No tourist can claim to know Tamil Nadu till he has also tried its cuisine. For the Tamilian carries his gutsy, if refined ingenuity, to food as much as every other facet of his life. Tamil Nadu is predominantly vegetarian – a reflection of its staunch Hindu faith. While rice, lentils and vegetables are the staple, spices are used to give that unique flavour. Breakfast (tiffin) includes idli (steamed rice cake), dosa (steamed rice pancake), vada (patties made from gram flour) pongal (rice and lentils boiled together and seasoned with cashew, pepper and cumin) and uppma (semolina seasoned with spices). Lunch is usually rice along with vegetables, rasam (a spicy broth) and curd. Non-vegetarians have the option of curries and dishes cooked using chicken, mutton, or fish.