If your idea of India is one of ancient temples thick with incense and chanting masses worshiping dimly lit deities covered with vermilion paste and crushed marigolds, then Tamil Nadu is where your mental images will be replaced by vivid memories. Occupying a long stretch of the Bay of Bengal coastline known as the Coromandel Coast, India's southernmost state is dominated by a rich cultural and religious heritage that touches every aspect of life. For many, this is the Hindu heartland -- home to one of India's oldest civilizations, the Dravidians, who pretty much escaped the Mughal influence that permeated so much of the cultural development in the north. Ruled predominantly by the powerful Chola, Pallava, and Pandyan dynasties, Dravidian culture flourished for more than 1,000 years, developing a unique political and social hierarchy, and an architectural temple style that has come to typify the south. In spite of globalization and the political dominance of the north, Tamil Nadu has retained its fervent nationalist sensibility -- an almost zealous pride in Tamil language and literature, and in its delicious and varied cuisines. Outside of Chennai and the coastal stretch south to Pondicherry, it is also a state that remains virtually unchanged despite the tourism boom of the past decade, and exploring it provides a far more textured experience than provided by its popular neighbor, Kerala.
Thanks to heavy summer downpours, Tamil Nadu is green and lush -- particularly in the Cauvery Delta toward the west, where the great Dravidian kingdoms were established and some of the finest temples built, and a road trip through this region, with the wind in your hair, is pretty much a quintessential south Indian experience. By contrast, Chennai (or Madras, as some still refer to it), the capital established by the British in the 17th century, exudes no such appeal. It's primarily of interest as a gateway to some of the region's best attractions, like nearby Kanchipuram, one of the seven sacred cities of India, and well worth the detour, and Sri Venkateshwara Temple (in Tirupati, just over the border in Andhra Pradesh). It is said to be the wealthiest temple in the world, where devotees are prepared to line up for hours -- even days -- to hand over an annual Rs 1.5 billion to help Vishnu settle his debt with the god of wealth. By contrast are the abandoned temples in the seaside village of Mamallapuram, just 2 hours south of Chennai. Here, right near the water's edge, the Pallavas built the earliest examples of monumental architecture in southern India during the 5th and 9th centuries. From Mamallapuram it's a relaxing hour's drive farther south to the former French coastal colony of Pondicherry, which -- with its charming colonial mansions, eclectic community, and bohemian atmosphere -- is perhaps the best shopping destination in southern India. Although the French officially left years ago, Pondicherry's Gallic spirit is still very much alive -- traditional Indian snack joints feature signs proclaiming MEALS READY; BIEN VENUE; locals clad in lungis (traditional Indian clothing) may converse in French; and gorgeous antiques-filled Indo-French colonial mansions have been restored as hotels -- the kind of "temple" that will appeal to the lazy hedonist in you. Having caught your breath in the wide boulevards and air-conditioned shops of Pondicherry, you should travel to Tiruchirappalli, to explore the holy temple town of Srirangam, before moving on to the 11th-century Brihadeshvara Temple, situated in nearby Thanjavur, the Chola capital for 400 years. Or skip Srirangam and head (via Thanjavur) to the Chettinad region, where the wealthy Chettiars built palaces and painted mansions to rival the havelis constructed by the merchants and aristocrats of Rajasthan, one of which is now a fine boutique hotel. Either way, your final and most important Tamil Nadu stop will be the temple town of Madurai, to visit the magnificent Sri Meenakshi-Sundareshwar Temple. A place of intense spiritual activity, this temple is where up to 15,000 pilgrims gather daily to celebrate the divine union of the goddess Meenakshi (an avatar of Parvati) and her eternal lover, Sundareshwar (Shiva) -- one of the most evocative experiences in all of India.
Tsunami Aftermath -- On December 26, 2004, that infamous earthquake measuring 9.0 on the Richter scale struck Indonesia's coast, triggering the tsunami that sped across the Indian Ocean, destroying everything in its path. The Andaman Islands and Tamil Nadu were the worst-affected Indian states, with an estimated loss of 8,000 lives. In Tamil Nadu, the districts of Nagapattinam and Cuddalore suffered most, but the Coromandel Coast's tourist sites emerged more or less undamaged; in fact, a new discovery was made at Mamallapuram when the wall of water receded. The destruction also produced some good initiatives. Besides plans to install an internationally coordinated high-tech tsunami early-warning system, a program called the Loyola Empowerment and Awareness Programme has offered alternative, more secure career paths for hundreds of children on the north coast. Linked to Chennai's respected educational institutions, the program has offered a new generation of kids -- once slaves to their destiny as fisherfolk -- opportunities to pursue careers in diverse new sectors such as catering and publishing.
Rule of the Screen Gods
It's not just temple gods who are worshiped here -- screen "gods" are adored by the local population, enough to elect them to the highest political office: In fact, the majority of Tamil Nadu's leaders have kick-started their careers on the big screen, and nowhere else is politics quite as colorful (Schwarzenegger, move over). Across the state, you'll still see peeling billboards featuring the swollen face of Jayalalitha, the controversial actress-turned-politician who has been in and out of political power for almost 2 decades. Kicked out of office on corruption charges in 2001, she jumped back in to reclaim her position a few years later, tossing her successor in jail in a drama worthy of a high-voltage Bollywood spectacle. Jayalalitha made the headlines again in 2009 when she vowed to support efforts to create a Tamil homeland within the island nation of Sri Lanka. The 30-year Sri Lankan civil war, in which the minority Tamil community was seen to be dominated and discriminated by the Sinhalese majority, was always of importance in Tamil Nadu, but gained international attention during April/May 2009, when the Sri Lankan government finally crushed the Tamil Tigers, a terrorist organization said to have pioneered the use of suicide bombers. Despite her promised strong-arm tactics, Jayalalitha, leader of the AIADMK, was not voted back into power during the 2009 local elections, but posters of the winning DMK leaders (including the actor J. K. Ritheesh) were splashed with milk when the results were announced -- an act of reverence usually associated with worshipping deities in Tamil's temples.