Tamil Nadu: a spiritual journey into India’s deep south

Ancient rituals, vibrant temples, and 330 million Hindu gods. Tamil Nadu in south India is rich with stories of divine beings and monsters, French colonial architecture and surprisingly good coffee.
The 11th-century Brihadeeswarar Temple, Thanjavur

The 11th-century Brihadeeswarar Temple, Thanjavur (Photo: Alicia Taylor)

Alicia Taylor

There’s nothing quick or simple about a lesson in Hindu cosmology. “First there’s Brahma, the creator of the universe, with his wife, Saraswati.” Charles points to a candy-coloured riot of gods and monsters gazing beatifically from the temple façade at Mylapore, in old Chennai. “Then there’s Vishnu, with blue face and four arms, the preserver and protector, with his wife Lakshmi, goddess of wealth and good fortune, in the red saree, though she changes with Vishnu’s incarnations…”

With royally rounded vowels, our guide continues at length, describing the powers of the supergods, their chariots of choice (eagles, bulls, rats, peacocks) and the names of their many avatars. And their children’s names. Some say there are 33 million Hindu gods; others 330 million. Occasionally Charles will test me gently: “And Shiva is transported by which creature?” He smiles gravely when I answer correctly (“a bull”) and continues describing the bull-rider’s incarnations.

There’s a lot to remember and much that needs explaining in a Hindu temple, and the divine genealogy is only the half of it. In the temple courtyard, a priest wearing a flimsy white dhoti is making an unholy racket on something that sounds like a snake-charmer’s horn, and a long queue shuffles past a little red room full of sweating priests and golden treasures. People lie in front of shrines, daub ash on their foreheads, sit in the shade and chat with their neighbours. A pen of holy calves ruminates. With great deliberation, men smash coconuts violently into a trough, grunting with the effort, then stroll away calmly. Meanwhile, others are doing circuits of a shrine devoted to the planets, though a bigger crowd is gathered around the shrine to the ascendant Saturn. The air smells of incense and cow dung – like the profusion of rituals and observances, it’s a mix of the sacred and the profane that pervades almost everything in India’s deep south.

Kapaleeswarar Temple façade at Mylapore, Chennai (Photo: Alicia Taylor)

Though Tamil Nadu is big and populous, a state approaching 80 million people with the nation’s second largest economy, it feels distinctly different to the “golden triangle” tourist circuit of northern India. In the capital, Chennai, the traffic jams are more civilised, the touts fewer and less persistent, the dress code saree-specific. Several young women tell me they’re safer here than in the north. “Tamil is the world’s oldest language,” says one guide proudly, and points out that this is the one of the few Indian states that doesn’t teach Hindi in government schools. This goes some way to explaining the palpable north-south divide that pervades everything from politics to cuisine.

Visitors at Kapaleeswarar Temple (Photo: Alicia Taylor)

Pilgrimage, the world’s oldest form of tourism, motivates most visitors here. Travellers flock north to Rajasthan for crumbling forts and desert palaces, and south to Kerala for languid backwater cruises in the tropics. Tamil Nadu is officially the Land of Temples, some 33,000 of them, many dating back 1,300 years to the halcyon days of the Pallava dynasty. Kapaleeswarar in Mylapore is the first of several temples we explore on a week-long road trip from Chennai, but Tamil Nadu isn’t just temples and towers. The French left a striking architectural legacy and an anthology of outlandish stories in Pondicherry, since renamed Puducherry (though residents continue steadfastly to call it Pondy), about 170 kilometres south of Chennai. The city’s French Quarter is full of colonial-era mansions in picturesque decrepitude, while the much-diminished Tamil Quarter has its own distinctive style featuring deep verandahs beneath steep roofs and fringed by iron lacework. The British left a florid version of Victoriana in their southern stronghold of Madras, renamed Chennai in 1996. Charles points out the handsome 19th-century edifices of the Madras High Court, Victoria Public Hall, and the Ice House, named for the huge blocks of ice that were once shipped from New England in crates lined with rice husks and stored here, before chilling the colony’s cocktails.

Auto rickshaws in the French Quarter, Pondicherry (Photo: Alicia Taylor)

On the other, less orderly side of Chennai we plunge into the alleys of Sowcarpet market with Lakshmi, a guide and storyteller with a taste for Tamilian chaat, or street snacks. “Follow me and watch for the cows,” she says cheerfully as we dodge free-range cattle and scooters, past wigmakers and bangle stalls and cosmetic turmeric outlets. Most shoppers have garlands of jasmine pinned in their long glossy plaits, and they navigate the chaos with the poise of habitual saree wearers. We stop at a shop that has specialised in bottle-gourd halwa, a Gujarati dish, since 1945. At Novelty Tea House we try the Portuguese-influenced pav bhaji, a tin plate of rich lentil gravy sprinkled with chopped red onion and mopped up with soft white bread (when the Portuguese arrived in India 500 years ago they brought their love of leavened bread – and, an oft-overlooked fact, chillies). And we sit on plastic stools near a stall whose name translates as “the little fat shop”. The speciality here is dahi puri: wafer-thin wheat-flour balls filled with potato and topped with

a spicy tamarind chutney, diced onion and carrot, coriander, sweetened curd, crushed chickpea noodles and pomegranate seeds. It’s a mess of a dish, but tasty and cheap – five for 80 rupees, about $1.50.

Shopping for sarees at Sowcarpet market (Photo: Alicia Taylor)

Dinner at the temple-like Southern Spice restaurant, in the Taj Coromandel hotel, is a crash course in more refined fare. The succession of 15 courses traverses southern India’s greatest hits, starting with a little cup of rasam, a lamb broth tangy with tamarind, and finishing with coconut rice pudding, spiced with cardamom and nuts and sweetened with condensed milk. The side dishes are almost as numerous: a flight of chutneys, flaky parota, and rice – served as idiyappam (string hoppers), sannas (steamed rice cakes) and curd rice, the latter regarded as an essential digestive – with spiced podi powder, and a pot of ghee.

Breakfast becomes a search for the perfect masala dosa, the south’s crisp super-sized rice-flour crêpe, always made to order, with a spoonful of potato stew and the customary chutneys: coriander, coconut and tomato. I love watching the ritual of dosa batter being poured, spread, lifted and folded like a parchment scroll. The more theatrical morning ritual, however, is the making of filter coffee, performed across southern India. I fail to find a “metre coffee”, named for the length of the continuous arc of boiling milk and thick sweetened coffee that’s cooled and frothed as it’s poured between jugs, but several coffee-wallahs come close. Their skill and speed is astonishing, and the coffee is very good, served in a stainless-steel tumbler sitting inside a dabarah, a deep saucer in which the drinker continues to decant and cool the coffee like a juggler.

Thali at Taj Coromandel restaurant, Southern Spice (Photo: Alicia Taylor)

The monsoon is due to arrive within the week, and the heat rises like a wall, a little higher every day. It’s late afternoon by the time we venture to the 7th-century open-air galleries of Mahabalipuram, about 60 kilometres south of Chennai. The setting sun gilds scenes of gods consorting with half-humans, carved into pink granite caves and rock walls. Stallin, our guide, patiently interprets these stories of divine retribution and redemption. There’s Durga slaying a part-human, part-buffalo demon; there’s Vishnu incarnated as the boar-like Varaha, rather suggestively entwined with the earth goddess Bhudevi – his gesture said to represent the dispelling of human ignorance.

Stallin’s explanations become even more complicated at a panel of bas reliefs carved directly into huge boulders, almost 30 metres in length. More than a hundred life-size figures of gods and creatures depict stories within stories from the Indian epics, every character and finely hewn gesture freighted with symbolism. Perhaps the most elegant of all Mahabalipuram’s World Heritage sites is the gracefully tiered Shore Temple, the last of seven pagodas documented by early European explorers sailing past this stretch of the Coromandel Coast. Temple foundations were exposed during the 2004 tsunami, supporting the belief that the other pagodas lie ruined and submerged just offshore.

Shore Temple, Mahabalipuram (Photo: Alicia Taylor)

The stories and the temples grow taller as we head west. The streets of Kanchipuram are packed with the nation’s finest silk shops – some 5,000 families in the region weave silk on handlooms, as they have for generations – but the busiest place in the noon heat is the Shiva temple of Ekambareswarar. Beyond the 59-metre gateway tower is a temple of a thousand pillars, its cool dark halls lined with 108 phallic stone lingams, and a sacred mango tree said to be 3,500 years old. The place throngs like a bazaar, full of dazzling wedding parties draped in gold and wrapped in neon-bright silks, and Shiva devotees with ash upon their foreheads, pacing in accordance with rituals too complicated for Stallin to relay. Under our bare feet are the smudged remains of this morning’s kolam, a ritual performed by millions of women throughout Tamil Nadu. These geometric patterns are sketched with coloured rice powder or chalk on the thresholds of houses, temples and shops as a sign of welcome, a humbling gesture refreshed every day at dawn.

Kolam patterns underfoot at Ekambareswarar Temple (Photo: Alicia Taylor)

At dawn in Pondy, the beachfront promenade is closed to traffic and fills with ladies wearing runners and sarees and chaps power-walking in polyester tracksuits. It’s not much of a beach – most of the sand washed away in a public works project gone wrong – but this is the place to catch the breeze from the Bay of Bengal before petit déjeuner in the French Quarter. We join flâneurs strolling past the Indo-French Notre Dame des Anges church and a statue of the colonial administrator Joseph François Dupleix, whose nose, it seems, matched the size of his ambition, and into a grid of streets lined with mansions of lofty pediments and colonnaded courtyards. In what might be India’s most un-Indian city, accents are French, policemen wear Gallic kepis, and cyclists pedal sur les rues that are wide and shaded by trees.

For much of their 280-year colonial rule, French administrators, soldiers and traders adhered to a dress code better suited to Versailles than the tropics. Our guide, Vivek, tells stories of grand folly and misfortune, with a soupçon of gossip: this street named after a notorious slave trader, that monument after a ravishing courtesan. The city was razed, laid siege to and rebuilt several times during the long tug-of-war between the French and the British. Yet its architectural legacy is as vulnerable now as it was during the Anglo-French wars. “There are no laws protecting all this,” says Ashok Panda, pointing to a row of mouldy buildings with the air of aristocrats fallen on hard times. As the co-convenor of INTACH, the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage, he advises and lobbies on heritage issues and conducts regular heritage walks in the French and Tamil quarters. A trust survey in 1995 listed 1,807 heritage structures in the city; by 2015 the number had plummeted to 442 – “and we estimate 75 per cent were demolished without permission”, Panda laments. “Whatever we have managed to save is mostly by creating awareness about the importance of preserving heritage buildings.”

Cyclists pass Raj Nivas, the colonial-era governor’s palace, in Pondicherry (Photo: Alicia Taylor)

Many of the most impressive restorations or “façade interventions”, in which new buildings are designed sympathetically with their surrounds, are restaurants and small hotels. The trust worked with the Indian hotel group CGH Earth to open Maison Perumal in the Tamil Quarter, a restored 10-bedroom Chettiar mansion built around twin courtyards, and Palais de Mahé in the French Quarter, a new-build hotel with enough Old-World colonnades and arches to please a marquis. Nearby, betel-leaf Mojitos and Ginger Sours are served beneath six-metre ceilings at Coromandel Café, a century-old magistrate’s residence restored with hand-painted murals and traditional Athangudi tiles.

One of the most active forces for preservation comes from an unlikely source. Among the Gallic mansions of mango-yellow and peachy-pink are about 400 well-maintained buildings in the French Quarter painted a sober shade I now think of as Ashram Grey. A couple of mystics – Sri Aurobindo and Mirra Alfassa, the latter known to her acolytes as “The Mother” – founded the ashram in the 1920s to worship “the divine consciousness” and study their belief in the evolution of superhumans in a super society, and it continues to draw thousands of disciples and visitors.

Balconies and courtyard pool at Palais de Mahé (Photo: Alicia Taylor)

The commune of Auroville is another of The Mother’s spiritual ventures. Founded in 1968 as “the city the Earth needs” in desolate bushland about 10 kilometres from Pondicherry, the experimental commune developed on principles of peace, “realising human unity” and a cashless economy. The community survived an incendiary split from its ashram founders in the 1970s, during which the Indian government was forced to intervene, and 50 years later it has about 2,500 residents of 52 nationalities, a curious mix of dreamers, utopians, oddballs and visionaries. Some residents are pioneers in their fields; at the bush studio of Austrian-born musicologist Aurelio (like many Aurovillians, he uses no surname), local artisans and trainees are employed to make musical instruments, and a score of community and music-therapy projects are underway. In contrast, there’s unearthly silence at the Matrimandir, a giant, gold-plated golf ball of a landmark resting on immaculate lawn. Meaning “temple of The Mother”, it’s the meditation chamber that aliens might have designed.

From Pondy we drive further south on country roads shaded by bowers of tamarind trees, past goatherds and clapped-out tractors struggling under enormous loads of hay and timber, and oxen with painted scimitar horns pulling carts of river sand. At the corner of every rice paddy and peanut field is a dusty little shrine, always strewn with fresh flowers and sweets. In the town of Chidambaram we stop at the biggest temple yet, devoted to Shiva in his guise as cosmic dancer. Every carving, every architectural feature at Nataraja is symbolic. The nine stupas are said to represent the nine orifices of the body; the 21,600 tiles on the temple roof represent the average number of human breaths in a day. Inside, in sepulchral halls, women circle shrines associated with child-bearing, the whorls of jasmine tucked into their plaits glowing palely.

The Matrimandir, Auroville (Photo: Alicia Taylor)

There are rose petals and more jasmine on arrival in Thanjavur, home of Tanjore painting, classical Bharatanatyam dancing, Carnatic music, and bronze casting – and, of course, lots of temples. We’re greeted with garlands and a red-powder pottu dot on the forehead at Svatma, a family-run heritage hotel that embodies the city’s refinements. The old wing, rebuilt from ruins, holds artefacts, antique veenas and a grand gold-embossed Tanjore painting; the new wing houses contemporary art, a rooftop bar and on-trend spa. Its vegetarian fine-diner specialises in refined versions of Tamil dishes rarely seen outside homes, and guests can join chamber recitals, classes in Vedic chanting and southern cooking, and lectures on bronze sculpting.

Stunning 9th-century bronzes are displayed in a rather gloomy gallery at the Royal Palace, and an equally poorly lit library nearby holds palm-leaf manuscripts. The city’s premier attraction, however, is the mighty 11th-century Brihadeeswarar Temple. A moat and two sets of fortified walls surround palatial gateways leading to five temple complexes covered with exquisite stone carvings and topped by a massive central tower. Sundar, our guide, knows all the most Instagrammable angles, positioning me in front of stone guardians and at the entrance to long arched arcades. He explains the purpose of dozens of shrines – the most popular today being the “Shrine to Pass Examinations”, crowded with teenage students – and the relationships of the gods and monsters inscribed in stone on towering façades.

Occasionally he’ll test me: “And Ganesha is transported by which creature?” He smiles when I take a guess (“a peacock?”). It’s a rat, Sundar corrects me – though he concedes one of the god’s eight incarnations gets around on a peacock – and he continues to describe the rat-rider’s various guises. The happy elephant-headed Ganesha is the remover of obstacles, the god of beginnings, the patron of learning. And, clearly, I have much more to learn.

A gateway at Brihadeeswarar Temple, Thanjavur (Photo: Alicia Taylor)

Getting there

Singapore Airlines operates 137 direct flights a week between Singapore and six Australian cities – Adelaide, Brisbane, Canberra, Melbourne, Perth and Sydney – connecting with 10 flights weekly to Chennai, with regional carrier SilkAir.

Australians require a visa to travel to India. November to April is the cool – and peak travelling – season in Tamil Nadu. May to July is hot; June to December is monsoonal.

Getting around

Luxury travel company Abercrombie & Kent specialises in private and small-group journeys to southern India and throughout the subcontinent. Its 16-day limited-edition small-group tour “India: The Beautiful South”, for example, travels through Tamil Nadu and Kerala and costs from $9,895 per person twin share, with departures in February and October 2019. This includes hotel stays in Chennai, Pondicherry, Thanjavur, Madurai, Periyar, Kumarakom and Kochi; transfers and transport; a resident tour director; daily sightseeing; entrance fees and most meals.

1300 851 800,

Where to stay

Maison Perumal This restored heritage home in Pondicherry’s Tamil Quarter is the logical bookend to a stay in the French Quarter. A traditional façade opens to two courtyards (with a swing chair) and 10 rooms featuring carved timber details and stained glass.

New No. 44, Old No. 58, Perumal Koil St, Pondicherry,

Palais de Mahé Also owned by CGH Earth, this colonial-style mansion in the quiet French Quarter has a rooftop terrace and

18 elegant large rooms with breezy balconies arranged around a courtyard pool.

4 Rue Bussy, Pondicherry,

Radisson Blu Resort Temple Bay Mamallapuram This seaside resort, with 157 villas and suites, and huge family-friendly pools, is close to the town’s World Heritage rock galleries and walking distance to the Shore Temple.

57 Kovalam Rd, Mahabalipuram,

Svatma A clever mix of heritage restoration and contemporary styling and art creates a hotel full of surprises, much like the oft-forgotten city of Thanjavur.

4/1116, Blake Higher Secondary School Rd, Maharnonbu Chavadi, Thanjavur,

Taj Coromandel One of Chennai’s best-known hotels has understated dark-timber interiors, subdued lighting and a cool, tuberose-scented lobby, belying

its ability to host weddings with up to 1,000 guests.

37 Uthamar Gandhi Rd, Chennai,

Inside Svatma hotel, Thanjavur (Photo: Alicia Taylor)

Where to eat

Aaharam An all-day fine-diner serves outstanding Tamil vegetarian breakfasts, thalis and evening tasting menus based on family recipes and heirloom grains. Don’t miss the finger millet dosas.

4/1116, Blake Higher Secondary School Rd, Maharnonbu Chavadi, Svatma, Thanjavur,

Bread & Chocolate This busy café at Auroville is a joint venture by Chicago-born baker Daniel Trulson and Sydney-born yoga teacher and vegan bean-to-bar chocolate maker Jane Mason. Expect baked goods, seasonal bowls and Mason & Co chocolates, made from organic Tamil cacao and spiced with the likes of chilli and cinnamon.

1115 Auroville Main Rd, Kuilapalayam, Auroville, +91 413 262 3778

Coromandel Café Restored and styled by Chennai retail entrepreneur Kiran Rao, this century-old mansion has a leafy courtyard, dining and drinking spots indoors, and seasonal all-day menus.

8 Romain Rolland St, Pondicherry, +91 413 222 1100

Southern Spice Heavy pillars, mood lighting and wall murals create a temple-like ambience for feasts showcasing traditional dishes from four southern Indian states. Some of them, such as lamb dumplings trussed in banana fibre, have intriguing backstories; ask the obliging waitstaff to tell tales.

Taj Coromandel, 37 Uthamar Gandhi Rd, Chennai,

Villa Shanti Dine indoors or on a colonnaded patio facing a vertical garden at this boutique hotel in the French Quarter, serving French and pan-Indian dishes.

14 Rue Suffren, Pondicherry,

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