Perhaps you’ve already explored Rajasthan, dropped by the Taj Mahal and Varanasi, and given in to the languid pull of Kerala’s backwaters, but your appetite for India remains unsated. At Selective Asia, that’s something we understand only too well, and we’d suggest turning your thoughts to India’s southernmost state - Tamil Nadu.
Begin at the gateway to southern India - modern-yet-traditional Chennai - or on the sweeping Coromandel Coast. Continue to the bohemian streets of Pondicherry and the extraordinary carved temples of Tanjore, before reaching one of Selective Asia’s favourite stops: Chettinad, a small land of palatial houses, temples and cuisine par excellence. From the dusty plains, venture high into the Palani Hills to relax amongst the coffee fields, before culminating your trip in Madurai, sampling the street food and witnessing the ‘night ceremony’ at the colourful Meenakshi Temple.
Tamil Nadu has a distinctive culture all of its own, stretching back almost two millennia and remaining very much alive today, which the Tamil people celebrate proudly. It can be seen across all aspects of life, from the ancient temples numbering in their tens of thousands (don’t worry - we’re only going to recommend visiting a select few!), to the unique forms of dance, literature, religion, festivals and cuisine.
Once you’ve explored some of the region’s highlights, head on to discover even more of India, or return to Chennai and fly to the Andaman Islands for a special slice of beach life.
Although it’s likely that you’ll begin (and more than probably end) your journey by passing through Tamil Nadu’s state capital, Chennai, those wishing to have a gentle start might consider leaving any actual exploration of the city for later. Instead, ease your way into southern India by becoming acquainted with the lovely Coromandel Coast. Mamallapuram, formerly known as Mahabalipuram (and simply called ‘Mahabs’ by the locals) is a popular local beach resort which also boasts a rich heritage of intricately carved temples, including the stunning 8th-century Shore Temple with its dramatic coastal backdrop.
Return to Chennai once you’ve settled in a little, and take time to appreciate this cultural and economic powerhouse. Chennai developed from a cluster of villages along the Bay of Bengal into a vital port city known as Madras during the British Colonial period. What the city lacks in traditional attractions it makes up for in heritage buildings, with modern neighbourhoods still reflecting the styles of the original communities, each contributing to a blend of rich artistic, religious and culinary traditions.
Pondicherry, now officially known as Puducherry, is a bit of an outlier. Although it borders Tamil Nadu, and shares its language and much of its culture, Pondicherry is actually a separate union territory, having remained under French rule until 1954, and still retains a degree of independence. As such, don’t be surprised to find that the tranquil French Quarter has areas of manicured streets and highly decorative villas where many locals still speak French. There’s a distinctly French style to the cuisine, and an atmosphere that feels a world away from much of modern India.
The French Quarter is broadly divided by a canal running through the city from the Tamil Quarter. This area is really worth taking in too, with its traditional Tamil mansions, some of which have now been restored. The local shrines, famous Grand Bazaar - also known as the Goubert Market - and day-long bohemian bustle nicely offset any French colonial hauteur. In general, the bounty of Pondicherry is perhaps best explored on foot, whether strolling through these two contrasting quarters, via some of the many art galleries and antique emporiums, or along the promenade soaking up the fabulous views over the Bay of Bengal.
It’s definitely time for some temples. We’d suggest a short pause at Kumbakonam, one of the oldest towns in Tamil Nadu, set picturesquely between two rivers and home to no less than 18 major temples, before heading on to Tanjore. Now an energetic modern town, the area surrounding Tanjore bristles with history since this was once the capital of the ancient Chola Empire.
In the town itself, visit the intricately-detailed, 11th-century Brihadishvara Temple, known locally as the ‘Big Temple’ and one of the largest in southern India, to view some of the carving, weaving and metal work for which local artisans are famous. Take a day trip to Tiruchirappalli (aka ‘Trichy’) to explore the 17th-century Rock Fort Temple, perched on an 83-metre crag overlooking the town.
A small but fascinating area, Chettinad is a region of around 70 villages which form the traditional homeland of the Chettiars. Legend suggests they were originally Tamil fishermen who moved to this dusty inland area when a tsunami washed away their villages, and having found that the land was unsuitable for farming they turned to trading in salt and gems. Although it’s difficult to ascertain the exact facts of this compelling story, the Chettiars became extremely well-known for money-lending and mercantile pursuits. This enabled them to thrive throughout the period of the British empire, expanding their reach to other British colonies and bringing back huge fortunes to their homeland.
The fruits of their wealth were spectacular mansions, many of which are now sadly decaying. Others are still owned by Chettiar families and used for celebrations, spectacular weddings, or as boutique accommodation, often serving sophisticated local food with some surprising influences. You may even find a meal ending with a local take on a classic British dessert, such as bread and butter pudding!
The rolling Palani Hills are a strikingly beautiful landscape of coarse grassland, plantations of teak, spices, bananas and coffee, and forests concealing isolated waterfalls. It’s a perfect contrast to the dry plains of Chettinad. A stay on a historic estate is an opportunity to pause and take a breather, ideally in a shady hammock suspended beneath the trees. Enjoy exploring the surrounding farm and coffee-drying yard, take riverside walks, climb to panoramic view points, and even indulge in a bit of wild swimming.
Sometimes the perfect end to a trip is a few days on the beach in a true barefoot paradise. For those who are willing to put in a little effort (such as a flight from Chennai to Port Blair and a ferry journey) there’s the chance to discover the Andaman Islands, which are still one of India’s best kept secrets. Stunning beaches, aquamarine coral lagoons, lush rainforests, active volcanoes, and excellent diving are just a few of its draws. Havelock Island is by far the most popular, with a good range of accommodation options and most of the beaches still relatively unspoiled. Your time here can be spent exactly as you fancy, whether relaxing at the beach, making the most of your resort’s facilities, or enjoying a spot of snorkelling.
Madurai is one of the oldest cities in India, with evidence suggesting that early residents traded with ancient Greece and Rome. It’s a Tamil cultural heartland, and a burgeoning industrial centre. With its stretches of rice fields, dusty roads and crowded bazaars, Madurai still feels like an easy place to explore on foot. Wander through it with your guide to learn fascinating tales of kings and ordinary citizens so ancient that they dance the fine line between myth and history.
The numerous colourful towers of the Meenakshi temple are crowded with brightly painted sculptures of divine and demonic figures. Both the physical and spiritual centre of the city, the temple complex covers a vast 14 acres. It includes musical pillars which ring at different tones when struck, a bathing pool for pilgrims complete with a huge golden lotus, and exquisite stone carvings in a 1000-pillared hall. The ‘night ceremony’ is an unmissable event when, accompanied by much chanting, drums, horns and incense burning, the image of Lord Shiva is carried in a procession to the shrine of his wife Meenakshi to spend the night…
To experience the best that the state of Tamil Nadu has to offer, you’ll need to move around rather than base yourself in one spot (it is the size of England after all!). We love to combine coastal and inland parts For the per person price of £2,790US$3,190 (not including international flights) we have suggested a total of 3 night in Chennai spread throughout the itinerary, 2 nights in Pondicherry, 2 nights in Tanjore, a 1 night stop in Chettinad, 2 nights relaxing in Palani Hills amongst coffee plantations, 2 nights in Madurai and 3 nights on the unspoilt sands of the Andaman Islands.
How yours looks is up to you, our tailor-made specialists work with you to create your perfect journey.
Take a pilgrimage north into the foothills of the Himalayas, journeying on the slow road from Delhi to Amritsar, and encountering many facets of India’s spiritual side along the way, including the Ganga Aarti ceremony in Hardwar, the Buddhist heartland of Dharamshala, Dalai Lama’s exile home and finally Amritsar, home to the impressive Sikh Golden Temple.