Day Trip to the Sacred City of Kanchipuram
All of Kanchipuram's roads lead to goparums, the unmistakable temple gateways that tower over you as you prepare to enter the sacred temples. This 2,000-year-old city of "a thousand temples" -- also called Kanchi -- is best seen as a day trip out of Chennai, or en route to Mamallapuram, and is (along with Srirangam's temples, and the main temples in Thanjavore and Madurai) the top temple destination in the state. With a rich heritage, it's famous as a seat of both Shaivaite and Vaishnavite devotion as well as for its exquisite silk saris. It was here that the Dravidian style really had its roots, and the sheer profusion of temples makes this an ideal place to get a feel for how South Indian temple architecture has developed over the centuries. The oldest structure in town is Kailasnath Temple (Putleri St.; 1.5km/ 3/4 mile out of the town center; daily 6am-12:30pm and 4-8pm), entered via a small gateway. Built by the same Pallava king responsible for Mamallapuram's Shore Temple, Kailasnath shows signs of evolution from its seaside forebear; it's also less overwhelming than many of the more grandiose Tamil temples.
The 57m (187-ft.) whitewashed goparum marking the entrance to the 9th-century Shaivite Ekambareswara Temple (Puthupalayam St.; 6am-12:30pm and 4-8pm; non-Hindus not allowed in sanctum), Kanchi's largest, was added as late as the 16th century. Through a passageway, visitors enter a courtyard and the "thousand-pillared" hall (though the number of pillars has dwindled significantly over the years). Within the temple, a mango tree believed to be 2,500 years old apparently yields four different varieties of the fruit. Legend has it that it was here Shiva and Parvati were married, and that Parvati fashioned a lingam (phallic symbol) of earth, one of the five sacred Hindu elements. As a test of her devotion, Shiva sent a flood through the town that destroyed everything in its path except the lingam, which she protected from the deluge with her body. (Tip: Be on the lookout for touts who will aggressively try to get a donation out of you at this temple.)
Dedicated to Shakti, which celebrates creation's female aspect, the 14th-century Kamakshi Amman Temple (Mangadu; daily 6am-12:30pm and 4-8:30pm) was built by the Cholas. Apparently, the tank there is so sacred that demons sent to bathe were cleansed of their malevolent ways and the goddess Kamakshi (a form of Parvati) is thanked for luring and marrying Shiva in Kanchipuram (every Feb or March the lover deities are carried here on massive chariots -- a temple festival you will see almost everywhere at certain times of the year). Other worthwhile temples include Vaikunta Perumal Temple and Varadaraja Temple, both of which are dedicated to Vishnu.
Note that, like elsewhere, Kanchi's temples close from 12:30 until 4pm, which means that you'll need to head out rather early or -- better still -- arrive in time for evening puja (prayer). However, traffic into and out of Chennai can get hellish during peak hours. If you're hot and hungry, head for the air-conditioned room at the Saravana Bhavan (there are two outlets, one at 504 Gandhi Rd; the other on Nellukkara Rd near Sri Kusal; both 6am-10:30pm), where you can feast on reasonably priced South Indian dosas (savory pancakes) along with delicious vegetarian thalis (multicourse platter).
Kanchipuram is 80km (50 miles) southwest of Chennai, taking 90 minutes to 2 hours to drive. It has no good accommodation options, hence our suggestion that you do this as a day trip from Chennai, or en route to Mamallapuram, leaving early enough to see the temples in the morning and arriving in Mamallapuram in time for a seafood lunch. Ask about guided tours of the temple town at the tourist office, or arrange for a guide along with a driver in Chennai. Otherwise, guides can be picked up around Kailasnath Temple for around Rs 250 to Rs 350; ask to see certification.
A Shrine to Shakti & Silk
In general, Indian visitors are drawn to Kanchipuram for two main reasons: its famed Kamakshi Amman temple is one of India's three holiest shrines to Shakthi, Shiva's female form, depicted as his consort, and -- with 75% of the population employed in the hand-loom industry -- its superb silk. The city is famous for producing the most exquisite hand-loomed silk saris in the world -- called Kanjeevarams, the bridalwear of choice that become coveted heirlooms. A single Kanjeevaram sari costs anything from Rs 2,500 to Rs 100,000 or more, and can -- depending on the intricacy of the pattern (often taken from temple carvings) and vividness of the colors (zari, gold thread, is often interwoven with the silk) -- take from 10 days to a month to weave. Of course, you don't have to wear a sari to covet the silk; plenty of haute couture designers have discovered its beauty, and any fashionista with international aspirations will include an item made from Kanchipuram silk on her ultimate wish list.
Tamil Temples: What to Wear & When to Visit -- Tamil Nadu's temples teem with devotees, and viewing their carvings and shrines as a non-worshipper is a privilege. Visitors are expected to follow the same dress code as devotees: women must bare neither their shoulders nor their legs -- wear long dresses or skirts (or trousers if you must); shirts or T-shirts must have sleeves, or you may cover straps with a loose shawl. Men may not wear shorts (though dotis are allowed). No one may wear shoes of any description inside the temple; leave them outside, or, if there is one, at the depot you'll find at the entrance (have Rs10 handy to tip the man who looks after them). If you're concerned about leaving an expensive pair of sandals in a stranger's hands, purchase a cheaper pair. Note that all temples close during the midday heat -- between noon and 12:30pm and reopen at 4pm; time your visit accordingly. It is allowed to take photographs but use your common sense and do not intrude on people who are here to worship -- switch your flash off and/or keep it pointed at inanimate objects. Temple elephants may be photographed but usually only if you are donating a rupee and been/being blessed; again, if you use an intrusive flash, restrict yourself to only one photograph.
World's Wealthiest Temple: Tirupati
Situated on a peak of the Tirumalai Hills, overlooking Tirupati (just across the Tamil Nadu border into Andhra Pradesh), is the second busiest and richest religious center on earth (after the Vatican), drawing more than 10 million devoted pilgrims every year. Certainly the richest temple in the world, the Dravidian-style Sri Venkateswara Temple is said to be the heart of Hindu piety, but in many ways it appears to exist expressly for the collection of wealth connected to a legendary loan: Lord Venkateswara, the living form of Vishnu, apparently borrowed an enormous amount of money from the God of Wealth in order to secure a dowry for his bride. Devotees donate generously in order to help their god settle his debt -- the loan must be repaid in full, with interest, before the end of this epoch. Annual donations of jewelry, cash, and gold (along with sales of laddus or sweets and donated human hair) total around 1.5 billion rupees. Much of this goes to the temple kitchens that prepare meals, free accommodations for pilgrims, and various charitable hospitals and schools.
The inner shrine is presided over by a diamond-ornamented 2m (6 1/2-ft.) black idol that stands at the end of a narrow passage. Pilgrims queue for hours, sometimes days, excitedly preparing for darshan -- the extraordinarily brief moment when you're all but pushed past the god by guards to ensure that the sanctum doesn't become clogged with devotees, many of whom succumb to the moment by falling to the ground. Waiting amid the mass of anxious, highly charged pilgrims, you'll get a good sense of the religious fervor of the Hindu faith. By the time you reach the moment of darshan, thousands of excited, expectant worshipers will be behind you, chanting Vishnu's name. Once out of the inner shrine (one of the few in South India that non-Hindus can enter), you'll make your way past a massive fish-tank-like enclosure, where temple clerks count the day's takings -- possibly the most cash you're ever likely to see in one place.
Note: As you're waiting in line, you'll see many shaven heads -- it's common practice for believers to have their heads tonsured before going before the deity as a devotional sacrifice. As a result, a lucrative human hair business contributes significantly to the temple coffers -- Far East and Italian wig manufacturers are major consumers of world-renowned Tirumalai hair, shorn by a fleet of barbers permanently in the service of the temple.
Jumping the Queue -- Wealthier pilgrims can now make use of a computerized virtual queue system that streamlines the darshan experience. Pilgrims buy an armband imprinted with their darshan time, shaving hours -- even days -- off their wait in line. Foreign visitors should bring their passports and appeal to the Assistant Executive Officer or A.E.O. (ask one of the temple police for directions) for a special darshan ticket, which costs anywhere from Rs 200 to Rs 4,000 depending on the kind of speedy access you request (you will also be fingerprinted and photographed at this stage; ask your hotel if you need to book this a day in advance). Paid for at a special counter, it cuts waiting time to around 2 hours. Note that men must wear long pants or lungis; women must be conservatively dressed with long skirts and shoulders covered. Prior to entering the queue, you'll be asked to sign allegiance to the god. Avoid taking part if you suffer from claustrophobia, since you'll still have to spend an hour or two within cagelike passages designed to prevent line-jumping. Temple activities commence at 3am with a wake-up call to the idol (suprabhatham) and continue until 12:45am the following morning. On Sundays the temple closes.
Essentials -- For information you can log on to www.ttdsevaonline.com for tickets, but you'll more than likely find everything sold out -- in which case you can try calling the call center (tel. 0877/223-3333 or 0877/227-7777, ext. 3679). The easiest ways to get here are by plane (the nearest airport, Renigunta, has regular flights from Chennai, Hyderabad, and Bangalore); alternatively travel by train from Chennai (or Hyderabad, Bangalore, or Mumbai). To overnight, prebook a room at the dependable (and popular) Fortune Kences (tel. 0877/225-5855; www.fortuneparkhotels.in; email@example.com; doubles from around Rs 1,900), which is located in the heart of the town, near the temple, and draws the well-heeled devotees. Service is very good, and the hotel is comfortable (but not luxurious).
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.