Aside from a few days in Pondicherry, I spent my first two weeks in India in the state of Tamil Nadu (தமிழ்நாடு – “Land of the Tamils”). This roughly triangular-shaped state occupies the southeastern part of the Indian Subcontinent. Tamil Nadu is home to an ancient culture that has, over the centuries, been ruled by many different dynasties and engaged in trade with many areas of the world (including Singapore, which I visited last month).
The main language of this state is Tamil (தமிழ்), spoken by over 70 million people. As a member of the indigenous Dravidian language family, Tamil is not related to the national language, Hindi (part of the Indo-European language family, like English), and most people in Tamil Nadu do not speak Hindi. Tamil also has its own unique alphabet and is considered a classical language, owing to the fact that it was contemporary with other languages such as Ancient Greek and Latin, and has a rich ancient literary heritage.
As I moved through Tamil Nadu from north to south, I stopped in several cities: Chennai, Mahabalipuram, (Pondicherry), Chidambaram, Thanjavur, Madurai, and Kanyakumari. Moving through the state from northeast to southwest, the landscape varied greatly. The region from Chennai to Madurai is a green coastal plain filled with dense agriculture and many palm trees. South of Madurai, the land becomes a dusty red plain with shrubs, scattered palm trees, and fewer villages. Many of the rivers in this region are completely dry at this time of the year (March), because most of the rainfall occurs during the monsoon from June to November. Approaching Kanyakumari, I rounded the southern end of the Western Ghats mountain range into a lush, rainy region dotted with small lakes and thousands of wind turbines.
The vast majority of Tamils practice India’s primary religion, Hinduism. Hinduism is a complex religion that is more like a collection of related beliefs and traditions than a single unified religion. There are many Hindu deities, and people may choose to worship whichever ones they prefer. In general, the main deities are Brahma (the creator), Vishnu (the sustainer), and Shiva (the destroyer). Another very commonly-worshipped god is Ganesha, the god of wisdom and good fortune who himself had the misfortune of being inadvertently beheaded by his father Shiva and given and elephant’s head as a replacement. The traditions surrounding the worship of the various gods and goddesses vary from community to community and from person to person; however, the most commonly worshipped deity in Tamil Nadu is Shiva, who takes on various forms to emphasize the particular characteristics that the community wants to worship.
A Hindu temple is generally built to serve as a home for the deity it is dedicated to. The centerpiece of the temple is the inner sanctum, a small chamber where the image or statue of the deity resides. Spaces for worship and other activities surround the inner sanctum, and the design of these spaces varies across different regions. In Tamil Nadu, most temples are constructed with a wall surrounding a courtyard. The inner sanctum lies in the center of the courtyard, and there is typically a covered area called a mandapam in front of the inner sanctum for devotees to worship and perform rituals. The most prominent feature of the Tamil temple is the gopuram, a tower over the entranceway to the courtyard. Gopurams are usually brightly painted in great detail, though are occasionally monochrome. Statues depicting various stories related to the deity inside surround each level of the gopuram.
Tamil Nadu is overflowing with Hindu temples both ancient and modern, and they are often the central landmark in cities and villages. At Mahabalipuram, which was the capital of the Pallava dynasty in the seventh century AD, an impressive collection of temples and stone carvings lines the coast. Many of these temples were carved directly out of rock outcroppings, and there are several cave temples that were carved into vertical rock faces. Some nearby carvings depict stories from an ancient Hindu epic poem called the Mahabharata.
In Chidambaram, the Thillai Natarajar Temple is dedicated to Nataraja, an avatar of Shiva as the god of dance. This temple is a pilgrimage site for Hindus because it is one of a series of five Shiva temples representing each of the five elements. The temple at Chidambaram represents the element of space, while the other four temples in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh represent the elements of earth, water, fire, and air. The Thillai Natarajar Temple is surrounded by four large gopurams and five smaller ones. However, as my bus stopover in Chidambaram occurred during the afternoon, I was unable to go inside the temple complex – Shiva temples are closed in the afternoon in accordance with Hindu scriptures.
Thanjavur is home to another huge and important temple, the Brihadisvara Temple, which was built by the Chola dynasty in the eleventh century. This temple is looks different from other Tamil temples because it is no longer painted, and because the gopurams at the temple complex entrance are smaller than the tower above the inner sanctum (called the vimana). The vimana of this temple is over 200 feet tall to accommodate the 29-foot-high sculpture of the Shiva deity inside, one of the largest in India. The other landmark that I visited in Thanjavur is the Maratha Palace, which was the home of the rulers of the last Thanjavur kingdom before it was engulfed by the British Empire in 1799. The palace is a rather sprawling complex of various halls, temples, and other buildings containing a wide variety of artifacts ranging from Hindu sculptures to paintings of London.
One of the most significant Tamil temples is located in Madurai. Meenakshi Amman temple has existed in one form or another for nearly two thousand years, and the current complex consisting of twelve huge gopurams was built in the sixteenth century by the Vijayanagara and Nayak dynasties. This temple is a major pilgrimage site for Hindus, and the line to enter the inner sanctum (off-limits to non-Hindus) snaked a long way through the 14-acre complex, with people waiting patiently with bowls of fruit to give as offerings to the goddess Meenakshi. In addition to the main sanctum, there are shrines to a few other deities, as well as a large temple pond within the temple walls, and a beautifully-painted hall where flower vendors sell garlands. I visited the temple just one month after a major fire (possibly arson) broke out at the temple, causing significant damage. Because of the fire, the usually-tight security was even tighter, and all visitors were required to scan and store their phones, cameras, bags, and shoes, and pass through a metal detector before entering. Like Thanjavur, Madurai also has a palace. The Thirumalai Nayakkar Mahal is an impressively grand structure with huge pillars surrounding a central throne room and several similarly beautiful rooms around the periphery.
After leaving Madurai, I took a six-hour bus ride down to the southernmost point of India, Kanyakumari. I stayed in a guesthouse in a village called Thuckalay, about thirty kilometers from Cape Comorin. Compared to the other, larger cities I had visited in Tamil Nadu, Thuckalay was rather quiet and peaceful. This is in spite of the fact that Kanyakumari District is actually one of the most densely-populated regions in the state; nearly every country road is lined with closely-built houses, giving the countryside a semi-urban feel, minus the noise and traffic. However, as the district is also one of the most affluent regions of the state, many of the houses are beautiful and modern, and are often creatively painted and decorated with a wide variety of colors and motifs. Though Christians are a small minority in India, many of them are concentrated in the south and southwest of the country; nearly half the population of Kanyakumari District is Christian, and churches can be seen throughout the towns and countryside. I woke early on Sunday morning to the sounds of Masses, songs, and prayers coming from the churches and Hindu temples on loudspeakers, as if competing with each other.
The town of Kanyakumari comes to an end at the point created by the joining of India’s east coast and west coast, a peninsula called Cape Comorin. Here, three great bodies of water converge; the Arabian Sea to the west, the Bay of Bengal to the east, and the Indian Ocean to the south. Because of strong winds and choppy seas, Kanyakumari is no port town, but it has some spiritual significance to the country. Along this final stretch of mainland India, several monuments line the shore. Among these are the Kamarajar Memorial, dedicated to a beloved former leader of Tamil Nadu, and the Mahatma Gandhi Mandapam, built on the spot where a portion of his ashes were placed before being scattered into the three seas. A few rocky islands lie just off the mainland extremity, and two of these also contain memorials. One island, which has long been home to a pilgrimage temple for Hindus, contains a memorial to Vivekananda, a 19th-century Hindu saint who, among other accomplishments for Hinduism and India, introduced Americans to Yoga. On the other rock, there is a 133-foot-tall statue of Thiruvalluvar, a famous Tamil poet known for his vast collection of philosophic seven-word poems.
So, after a week-and-a-half in Tamil Nadu and making it as far south as you can get in India, the only way to go is north. I had a good stay in Tamil Nadu – I saw many interesting places, ate a lot of great food, met several wonderful people, and I am starting to get used to the difficult aspects of traveling in India (I’m sure I’ll talk more about that in a later post). Next, I will proceed up the Arabian Sea coast to the west of the Western Ghats range, into the state of Kerala, a state known for its beauty and laid-back pace of life.