Next door to my native Kerala and just across the Western Ghats - ‘hills’ that rise to twice the height of Ben Nevis - lies a land best known for its traditional temple towns, colonial ports and vast rural expanses. Rivalling the sacred city of Varanasi in the north, the temples in Madurai, Tanjore, Trichy and Mahabalipuram are highly famed places of Hindu pilgrimage. With a car and driver I set out to explore them. Cochin had provided an inauspicious start to my pilgrimage.
The city is lovely but the rain in India does not fall mainly on the plain. It falls on Kerala - a lot. And this year the monsoon was busily making up for a slow start and was bucketing down even in late August. Driving up from the Arabian Sea to the top of the Ghats was slow going - but stunning views the following morning made it totally worthwhile. As I crossed from Kerala into Tamil Nadu the monsoon receded, the sun came out and the land dropped away (see photograph 1). Below were the plains of Tamil Nadu and the way to the four temples I’d set my sights on. It soon got better. Making headway for Madurai, I made a heart-warming discovery: the highways of Tamil Nadu are amazing. Smooth dual carriageways were a revelation after the monsoon pummelled potholed roads of Kerala.
There are literally thousands of temples scattered across Tamil Nadu, but the four that most impressed me were: Meenakshi Amman Temple in Madurai needs to be seen to be believed. And it needs to be seen up close. Driving through the outskirt of town there is no indication of what lies ahead. In my case I did spot an imposing and very colourful gateway tower from a fair distance but did not realize it was only one of fourteen intricate gopurams surrounding a 45 acre temple complex. Half an hour later I was barefoot, blessed by the temple elephant and much better informed thanks to my excellent guide Rishi, who proudly counted Madurai as his hometown. Peruvudaiyaar Temple in Tanjore provided a very different view of a living holy site. UNESCO control has meant that the gateway remains equally grand but unpainted. This softly coloured, natural sandstone structure opens into peaceful temple grounds with several impressive and intricately carved structures in the inner complex. As I entered, hundreds of devotees sat in the courtyard watching their donated milk, turmeric and rosewater being used by the priests to bathe and anoint a massive stone bull (see photograph 2). Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple in Trichy lies on an islet formed by the twin rivers of Cauvery and Coleroon. The 156 acre temple complex has seven concentric enclosures formed by thick rampart walls which run round the main sanctum. There are 21 magnificent towers in all providing unique and stunning rooftop views. Mahabalipuram has several 7th Century shore temples masterfully caved and carved out of the pliable soft stone found in the area. The tragedy of the 2004 tsunami had a mixed outcome here -relics buried for centuries were uncovered by the waves.
Now I must make a confession: I was not expecting too much from the food in Tamil Nadu. Sure, I’d sampled Dosas and Chettinad Chicken, but I’d also suffered the consequences of a late night Chicken Madras. I thought that the delicately battered baby sweetcorn served in Madurai was excellent but one-off. And I had imagined that the freshest vegetables were only the result of one hotel’s location in the green foothills of the Ghats. However, these were not by any stretch isolated oases of culinary excellence. I never had a bad meal in ten days and was delighted to have been proved wrong, despite adding a few extra pounds to show for my travels. The food I tried was significantly lighter and more varied than in northern India. Seafood was beautifully presented, mildly spiced and always freshly cooked. I even enjoyed some of the best and freshest salads I’d had in years (Nb: most home stays, boutique hotels and heritage properties in India now use purified water to wash fruit and veg, so salads are quite safe here. Likewise for ice, but always ask to see if you’re in any doubt). The Chettinad region of Tamil Nadu is named after a well-known clan called the Chettiars. Their success with money has accorded them many luxuries, palatial homes and a cuisine of their own. Many now ply their commercial acumen abroad but their homeland is well worth a visit. It is not by chance that one of the best hotels in the region, The Bangala, has just published a cookbook. Dinner on my first night at the hotel consisted of cabbage and orange salad, tangy tiger prawns and quail curry with fluffy rice pancakes - brilliant, scrumptious, glorious food!
On the road
Heading east from the temples of central Tamil Nadu, it wasn’t too long before paddy fields gave way to salt pans and fishing villages. The Bay of Bengal runs down the length of India’s eastern coastline, and I knew that the British, French and Dutch all had a strong colonial presence here, but it was still a surprise to come across a historic 17th century Danish fort by the beach at Tranquebar (see photograph 3). It was well worth a visit and a wonderfully peaceful place to watch the sun rise in spectacular fashion over the bay before moving up the coast to Pondicherry. This former French colony, with its pedestrianized promenade, boulevards and patisseries, provided a wonderful contrast and a relaxing end to my journey across Tamil Nadu. When I wasn’t marvelling at the temples and enjoying the food, much of my time was spent in a very comfortable car driven by a very able driver. This is actually time gainfully spent in a country such as India. For millions of people, life really is lived outdoors - and usually beside (or even on!) the roads. Fields are ploughed, village festivals celebrated, traffic regulations colourfully interpreted, and a multitude of produce and artefacts sold from roadside shops and stalls. In many ways, driving through India’s countryside provides a fascinating contrast to the majesty of its temples.
Ayesha visited Tamil Nadu in August 2014.
The help, assistance and hospitality she received was generously offered and very gratefully received.
Special thanks to Rishi (who was on the receiving end of many, many questions) and Pandi (who drove a wonderfully equipped car on the smoothest journey ever had in India).