When I was thinking about South India, it evoked the famous temples in TamilNadu and the backwaters in Kerala.
Both could not be absent from my first trip to India
I chose to go to the South, considered easier for the first time in the Indian subcontinent.
In my next article to prepare for your first independent trip, I will explain that I recommend starting with a popular destination as easy as Indonesia.
For your first trip to India, I recommend you start with the tourist places in TamilNadu and Kerala in the south of the country, where you will be less harassed than in Rajasthan, and perhaps more respected as a traveler.
I first took a flight with my favourite airline, Qatar Airways, to Bombay (333€ incl. VAT for the return flight).
I booked a second flight on the same day for the capital of Tamil Nadu, Chennai, with an Indian airline.
Do you think India is a fascinating but puzzling destination? If that's the case and you're afraid to get started, read this article about my first solo trip to the south in 2010. You will find both practical information to prepare your trip to India and more specifically to Tamil Nadu, but also slices of life through my travel story and photos.
The Tamil Nadu map and my itinerary.
Tamil Nadu State is located in southern India, very close to Sri Lanka.
As its name suggests, it is mainly populated by Tamils.
Chennai, also known as Madras, is its capital.
In the West, we find Kerala, the 2nd destination of this first trip.
You will notice that my route below does not go further down than Madurai.
As I then went to Kerala, Madurai was the best gateway to the Peryar Wildlife Reserve, the first stop on my journey to Kerala.
If I had devoted my entire trip to Tamil Nadu, I would have visited Rameswaram Point for several reasons:
¤ it is accessed via the Pamban Bridge, a bridge connecting the mainland to the island of Pamban where Rameswaram is located. We're crossing it by train!
¤it's a holy city, sometimes nicknamed little Varanasi from the south. The famous temple of Ramanathaswamy is found there.
¤we can go to Danushkodi, the place facing Sri Lanka.
¤the Gulf of Mannar Marine Park - a city in Sri Lanka - consists of a string of islands and coral reefs. From both countries, you can venture there by boat. I tried in 2013 from Sri Lanka but there was no boat due to the lack of tourists.
¤above all, and that's why I wanted to make this visit by boat from Sri Lanka, there is the Rama Bridge, also called Adam bridge.
In Hindu mythology, and particularly in my favorite book, Râmâyana, it was here that Rama crossed the sea to liberate Sita, his captive wife from Ravana, the King of Lanka.
Then I would have gone along the coast to reach the extreme south of India, in Kanyakumari.
Kanyakumari is both an important place of pilgrimage and a magnificent place.
What are the tourist places and famous temples in Tamilnadu.
Below you will find a list of the 7 destinations I recommend you for your next trip to Tamil Nadu, in this order:
- Chennai - Madras.
- Mahabalipuram - Mamallapuram.
- Tiruvannamalai et la forteresse de Gingee.
- Trichy - Tiruchirapalli.
- Tanjore - Thanjavur.
- Madurai et Tiruparankundram.
Why I liked Chennai - Madras: beach and temples.
The atmosphere of its waterfront.
With the seafront and the long beach of the Marina, a typically Indian atmosphere at the rendezvous; first of all, the sales stalls that line up several hundred meters, impossible to escape.
At the water's edge, groups of family or friends sit on the sand.
I sit down, observe and immerse myself in the atmosphere, trying to become one with the crowd.
After a while, I can't resist; the picture of the women bathing in their colorful saris is too beautiful for me to resist shooting videos and photos.
All those smiles and bond glances...
I start timidly, not daring to show that it is the people who make the show here and not the sea.
Very quickly, I was assailed by groups of smiling and laughing women, asking me to take pictures of them.
The saris ballet begins around me, offering me the most beautiful photos of my trip, and a nice moment of sharing.
I walked all over the beach until the battery of my camera broke.
The second one fell into the water.
Yes, I've bathed in the local fashion too!
Engagement at the Temple of Kapalishwara.
The night has already fallen when I arrive at the famous temple of Kapaleeshwara.
Again, I realize how lucky I am after a few minutes.
A wealthy Indian family engaged two young people.
They all dressed in their best clothes.
The fiancee, draped in a magnificent green and gold saree, wears a kind of long and thick braid of flowers that seems to be heavy.
She is covered in gold jewellery, just like one of the young women in the family, who comes to talk to me.
I'm being harassed by questions and invited to share the meal.
I decline the invitation with regret and stupidly.
I thought the hall was in another neighborhood and that I would have to take a bus from an unknown place to return.
Whereas in Indian culture, you don't let a woman go home alone at night!
The young woman insists that I visit her at home the next day.
She'd like to invite me for lunch and offer me a sari.
I will not go as the only contact details I had were those of his cousin, who seemed to be looking for his future wife in me...
My advice: Follow your instincts and be curious!
Indians are no different from other Asian peoples.
Hospitality is a strong value to them.
If you are invited and feel that you are with people you can trust, go for it!
They will always do their best to make you feel at ease and make your trip easier.
Ancient temples, small fishing village atmosphere and beach in Mahabalipuram.
Temples classified as World Heritage Sites.
When we talk about Mamallapuram, we hear about its superb temples by the sea.
These temples have the particularity of being dug directly into the rock.
The sculptures represented an immense amount of work and the result is equal to the effort expended.
Most of these sites are classified by Unesco as the Group of Monuments at Mahabalipuram.
Access to the main site is free.
This is where Arjuna's penance, also known as the descent of the Ganges, is found.
I recommend his visit in the morning light.
Arjuna's Penance is a 29m x 13m fresco, engraved in two blocks of rock.
To know the history depicted by this fresco and other monuments of the city, I invite you to browse this page of Wikipedia on Mahabalipuram.
Nearby are the Krishna's butterball and other temples perched on the rocks.
Another site, Five Rathas, is particularly pleasant in the morning light.
I walked there to enjoy the village atmosphere.
Strolling is one of my favorite activities in Asia because it always allows me to discover less touristic places, observe local life and make nice encounters.
Mahabalipuram was no exception to the rule and gave me some very nice moments.
The Pancha Rathas or five carts are named after the 5 Pandavas, the heroes of the famous Indian epic, the Mahabharata.
These temples, however, have no connection with their history and have never been consecrated since they were never finished.
The late afternoon is perfect for a visit of the Shore Temples.
The graceful silhouette of the main temple standing out on the blue of the sea is very photogenic.
Mamallapuram is also an open-air emporium.
Just walk in the street or on the beach and you will be approached by young men looking to sell the articles of their shop for tourists... or even their bodies...
I confess that I didn't pay much attention to the phenomenon, but it's true that I've seen a considerable number of older women, alone or in the company of young Indians...
The sad law of money...
As for accommodation, I found a pretty guesthouse at a ridiculously low price (300 rupees, about 5 euros), with a beautiful terrace overlooking the beach and its colorful boats, and further away the temple from the shore.
You will find without difficulty one of these guest houses since they follow each other along the beach.
I keep great memories of the small street restaurants near the bus station.
You can enjoy delicious biryanis and other treats.
I also discovered the pleasant surroundings, a landscape of green rice fields, from traditional villages to old houses, sometimes very rudimentary, often colourful, peasants, smiling women and children, cows with painted horns, small sanctuaries, varied temples...
A beautiful countryside with lush vegetation.
You will most certainly get to know local people, especially fishermen.
Thanks to one of them, I was able to visit the surroundings.
Be careful though if you are a woman to be very clear about your intentions.
Again, follow your instincts.
If you feel confident and show off, you will usually attract the right people.
The holy city of Kanchipuram.
Kanchipuram is one of the 7 Indian holy cities and the only one in the South.
It was also the capital of the great Dravidian kingdoms (Chola, Pallava...).
You can visit magnificent temples.
Of the 108 holy temples of Vishnu in India, 14 are located in Kanchipuram!
The biggest of all is Ekambareshwara, where I was able to attend a puja in honor of Kali.
A family, obviously the son, mother and grandmother, brought new clothes for the Goddess.
The priests first removed the old clothes and prepared the statue, while the women had dozens of scented candles all around the sanctuary.
The priests then sat on the floor with the family, singing and praying.
Several priests took turns preparing the coloured water of powder, which they poured on the statue.
I presume that then they made marks of coloured powder after having passed the new tissues, trimmed her with flowers and made offerings of coconut water.
I also visited the beautiful temple of Kamakshi, the only one dedicated to Parvati Goddess in Kanchipuram.
To fully enjoy it, you can go there at... 5am, during the opening puja with the elephants.
I was then joined by a 22-year-old student.
Thanks to him, I was able to get information about the different temples and to walk easily from one to the other.
The magnificent temple of Kailasanathar, dedicated to Shiva and built by the Pallavas, is the oldest Hindu temple that exists.
It is declared an archaeological monument by the Archaeological Survey of India.
It is composed of cells containing sculptures.
Kanchipuram is a traditional centre of silk weaving and handicrafts for the production of Saris of Kanchipuram.
In 2005, Kanchipuram Silk Sarees received the Geographical Indication Label, the first product in India to be awarded this type of label.
The evil eating Mahabalipuram is also rampant here.
At the end of the visit to the temples with the young student, he asked me if I would consider him as my boyfriend on my next visit!
To his amazement, I told him that he was a baby to me, which made him both astonished, laughed a lot and disheartened.
My opinion: It must be acknowledged that the men in the tourist regions of India are generally very enterprising and seriously lacking in discretion.
Nevertheless, I rarely had to suffer from inappropriate gestures (once in a Delhi Jaipur bus), even though I behave in the same way as in any other Asian country, i. e. by keeping a smile on my face and simply talking to people.
This is also one of the reasons why I love Central India so much.
I have never been confronted with this type of behaviour in Chhattisgarh or Telangana.
Tiruvannamalai and the fortress of Gingee.
Shiva and the five lingams.
In the south, five Lingams are worshipped in relation to the five elements.
In Kanchipuram, it's the soil.
In the city of my next stopover, it's the fire.
Lingam is a representation of the Shiva God.
It is an erect stone of phallic form, a representation of the Shiva God and male energy.
It often includes at its base the yoni, representing the Goddess Shakti and feminine energy.
Shiva is indeed both the creator God of all things, and the destructive and regenerative principle.
To get to Tiruvannamalai, we cross beautiful tropical landscapes, where rice fields and small villages predominate.
Near Mamallapuram, French people living here had recommended that I visit Gingee, an hour from my destination.
The bus stop there before continuing on its way finally convinces me to come back the next day...
For the time being, I'm discovering Tiruvannamalai.
It's a much more peaceful little town than anything I've discovered so far, and the owner of the hotel, a very nice old gentleman, is trying to make it easy for me.
I visit the temple of Arunachaleshwara also called Annamalaiyar, whose sanctuary, particularly impressive, is accessible to non-Hindus, which is rarely the case in the south.
It is situated at the foot of the Annamalai hill where, according to mythology, Shiva has transformed itself into a column of fire to give back light to the world.
The hill itself is sacred and considered a lingam.
The temple itself covers 10 hectares, making it one of the largest in India.
To visit the main sanctuary, I stand in line with the Indians, the heat rises more and more.
The walls are made of black granite, which adds to the impression of being in the heart of a volcano.
The closer we get to the saint of the saint, the higher the temperature increases and the narrower the rooms become.
Unfortunately, photos are not allowed.
The priests sweat, the crowds do not empty in this narrow sanctuary.
I arrive in front of the statue and a priest blesses me with a red mark on my forehead.
I have to get out already...
The fortress of Gingee.
The next day, I set off to discover the medieval fortress of Gingee.
A beautiful complex of temples occupies the lower part.
It is then the ascension upwards of the fort.
Originally, the ramparts were 15 kilometres long.
Only a few remain, including the Rajagiri hill, monkey kingdom.
One of them approaches my feet, I get scared and chase him by brushing him with one of my big shoes.
He looks at me mumbling, surprised, and I regret my gesture: he is the most harmless.
The ascent is supposed to take about 45 minutes, but the view is so beautiful that I stroll and take lots of pictures.
The monkeys are quiet and come to me begging for food.
From a platform where a cannon is placed, one dominates the whole old lower town and the gopurams of an old temple nicely complete the decor.
While I thought I would spend only a few hours in Gingee, I spent most of the day there, a nice and quiet walk...
The video below is not in full HD but gives a good idea of the beauty, calm and immensity of the place.
My advice: While I was taking pictures, I was ousted by a monkey who was particularly aggressive towards me.
Even if some of them look harmless, you have to be very careful.
It is not uncommon for tourists to have their belongings stolen, or even worse, be bitten by a monkey.
Of course, they should never be fed.
Trichy or Tiruchirapalli.
My next step was to be Thanjavur.
As I have to change buses in Trichy, I decide to anticipate my discovery of this city, a true Indian city as one imagines it, with its colored houses interwoven in each other, its Hindu sanctuaries, its mosques and churches housed in the most improbable places, the shimmering saris alongside the white Muslim hats, its bazaars with the colourful crowd.
The French guidebook "Guide du Routard" didn't like the city much, I loved it!
I first climbed to Rock Fort, from where we dominate the city, THE Indian city as far as the eye can see.
Only two temples, including the one in Srirangam, which I will visit the next day, are lost in the middle of a halo of tropical greenery.
All around Rock Fort, the peaceful district has both old, well-kept houses and small alleys of simple, but beautifully decorated houses with colours, plants and flowers.
After the tumult of the city, it is very pleasant to get lost there, because the Indian city is also the concert of horns continuously.
It says the Chinese are noisy, it's nothing compared to the Indians!
The temple of Srirangam.
The next day, I head towards the temple of Srirangam, or more precisely the temple of Ranganathaswamy on the island of Srirangam, a part of the city.
It includes no less than seven enclosures to penetrate the heart of the sanctuary, not accessible to non-Hindus, and 21 gopurams (stupas, pagodas, prangs... each country has its own denomination!)
It is the largest temple in India and even the largest Hindu temple in the world after Angkor Wat.
Its particularity is that it offers access to its terrace, from where you can enjoy a view over a large part of the building.
Some of its sculptures are also superb, such as the finesse of women styling or looking at themselves in a mirror.
The many halls have beautifully sculpted pillars, notably with horses mounted by warriors.
My advice: Don't listen the guidebooks and plan a stop in Tiruchirapalli.
You won't regret it!
Tanjore or Thanjavur
The Tamil Nadu Hotel.
Departure to Tanjore, where I will treat myself to the exuberance of a "double deluxe" (with a very snobbish English accent, please...) at the Tamil Nadu Hotel, an ancient princely residence transformed into a hotel.
Seen from the outside, the Tamil Nadu Hotel is a very beautiful white maharaja building.
The large reception hall is impeccably maintained.
The rooms are very spacious, and even have a large private veranda.
With a little refreshment, the place would be beautiful.
My "double Deluxe" cost me 525 rupees, less than 10 euros.
The Temple of Brihadesvara and the ablutions of Nandi.
I'm going to visit the Brihadesvara temple, dedicated to Shiva.
It was built by the Cholas and is in a very different style from everything I have seen so far.
It is neither dug into the rock nor painted with cheerful colors as in Trichy.
Here we're talking about vimana, tower-sanctuary.
The golden walls are covered with beautiful sculptures.
As I go around, I meet again a group of French people I met in Trichy.
Their guide tells me that the same kind of ceremony, but more confidential, as in Madurai, takes place here: one of Shiva's representations, which is in the main sanctuary, is taken each evening on a golden palanquin to the sanctuary of his wife Parvati.
We start with a puja, songs and incense carried on long metal rods.
The music is starting.
Three musicians rhythm the ceremony with traditional instruments.
Suddenly, the big curtain falls, hiding the giant lingam (4 meters high).
The music accelerates, the curtain opens again, revealing a kind of fire chandelier with several floors.
Shiva quickly joins the palanquin which is led to his wife's sanctuary.
The music follows him throughout his journey and installation. The curtain falls, the temple closes its doors...
Shiva is always accompanied by his famous vehicle, the nandi or bull.
As I plan to leave for Madurai the day after my visit to the temple, I learn in the early morning that the nandi's ablutions will take place in the afternoon.
This magnificent ceremony, which lasts more than two hours, is called Pradosham and takes place every two weeks.
So I find a new hotel and extend my stay in the city.
I'm attending a wonderful ceremony, surrounded by an impressive crowd.
I am fortunate to find an excellent place at the top of the steps of the Shiva sanctuary, and I face Nandi.
Ideal location for photography and filming...
Ablutions are done in music and singing.
The Brahmins pour large buckets of coloured water (saffron water) on the imposing black bronze bull.
They continue with coconut milk, sugar cane juice.
The ceremony lasts for two hours, bucket after bucket.
Brahmins later gave him clothes and wreaths of flowers.
The fervour of the crowd is impressive.
Everywhere, people pray and meditate, sing...
I continue to stroll through the temple until evening, admiring ancient sculptures and paintings.
A natyanjali dance show is planned to take place most of the night.
As night fell, the groups followed one another.
They come from across the country.
The costumes are colorful and beautiful.
Some dancers are very expressive in their gestures.
Sometimes, it is the faces that come to life to tell a story, like Kathakali dances.
We're sitting on the floor, my neighbors are all Indian.
One of them keeps asking the other women to push themselves to give me more room and not touch me.
Castes still have a long life ahead of them...
Even though it was extremely sweet of her and she kept smiling at me, I can't help but feel a pinch in my heart thinking that they feel inferior to us...
Madurai and Tiruparankundram.
The swirling atmosphere of the Madurai Temple.
After a beautiful journey through a tropical landscape punctuated by flooded rice fields, palm and coconut trees, small villages and traditional markets, I reach Madurai.
I can't wait to discover his famous temple, in the middle of the center, full of animation.
The atmosphere full of fervour is quite indescribable.
In a maze of more or less closed rooms, a colourful crowd rushes around the stands of trinkets and prayer items illuminated like Christmas garlands.
Then we enter the next enclosure, which is also full of coloured pillars.
In every corner, around every pillar, the same scenes unfold.
Isolated pilgrims or entire families carry out pujas to their favorite divinity: Ganesha, the elephant-headed god for some, Hanuman the monkey god for others, Shiva, Vishnu, everyone is sure to find here the god that suits him.
A couple makes rich offerings to a deity before distributing food to passers-by who rush around them.
As in Bali once the puja is made, the substance of the offerings has been sucked in by the divinity and can be offered to increase the benefit of the puja or eaten.
Whole families sit on the floor and share their meals.
In another corner, musicians settle down in the company of a Brahmin who starts to sing in front of a sanctuary.
Elsewhere, women have pressed lemon halves that they turned over and garnish with scented oil and a wick to make pretty candles. They also draw arabesques with white powder.
A few touches of petals or coloured flowers are added.
In another room at a distance, I see Shiva's illuminated cart, the one that brings him to his wife's sanctuary every night.
A wealthy family has reserved part of the temple to celebrate their ancestors.
I mingle with them to take pictures and as usual, I am greeted by large smiles.
I join my hotel, taking one last look at this world apart...
Meeting of the famous Tamil actress Sneha.
While visiting the palace of Thirumalai Nayak, I had the chance to stumble upon a historical film.
The lead Tamil actress, Sneha, posed nicely so I could photograph her.
Except I totally missed my pictures!
An extraordinary temple in Tiruparankundram.
I'm taking the bus to Tiruparankundram, a small town at a few kilometres from Madurai.
The temple of the city has the particularity of being entirely dug in the mountain, and the statues of the main sanctuary were carved in the rock itself.
Again, I spend long hours admiring the fervour of the pilgrims and walking through the maze of the temple, which is being washed with plenty of water.
The day before, an important feast was obviously held and the statues were sprinkled with coloured water (water with saffron), coconut milk, sugar cane juice and ghee (clarified butter) as in Tanjore for the ablutions of the nandi.
Then I take a path up the mountain.
Other temples have been built there, and I discover the magnificent view of the main temple, the city, the cultures and the lake.
At the top, I visit a Mosque.
On my way back down, I make a detour through a beautiful temple of Shiva, from which we also enjoy a superb view, and which presents beautiful ancient frescoes carved in the rock.
Many Indians have made this ascent a privileged place to walk, and here again the welcome is smiling.
The next day, I will leave Tamil Nadu for Kerala.
I will take the beautiful road that leads to the Peryar wildlife reserve, before continuing towards the backwaters.
My advice: Madurai Temple is a must of Tamil Nadu.
The small town of Tiruparankundram is so easily reachable that I recommend you this beautiful offbeat visit.
When to go to Tamil Nadu? Climate and festivals.
The best time to visit Tamil Nadu is between November and March.
The monsoon is over, the temperatures are a little cooler.
It is also an ideal time to enjoy the many festivals.
The most interesting ones are:
¤ Karthigai Deepam, the Diwali of Tamil Nadu (festival of lights), usually mid-November.
¤ Pongal, the harvest festival, in January (4 days). The houses are richly decorated on this occasion and the ox horns are painted. The cows are adorned with bells, garlands, pearls and flowers, fed and taken in procession.
¤ Thaipusam, usually late January. Penitents wear kavadi, wooden arches decorated with peacock feathers and flowers. Many people pierce their bodies and attach heavy loads to their flesh. Sensitive souls abstain...
¤ Tamil New Year's Day, mid-April. Beautiful kolams - drawings made of coloured rice powder - are made in front of the doors of the houses as a welcome sign. There are religious celebrations and delicious banquets.
And of course, don't miss Shivaratri and Pradosham in Thanjavur.
In 2018, it will be on the 13th of February.
How to prepare your trip to Tamil Nadu and South India.
For the airline company, I recommend Qatar Airways, with excellent value for money.
For your accommodation, I recommend Agoda, for those who are looking for proximity to the locals.
It is also the best-represented group in Asia, with good value for money.
Note: I remind you that by booking through the links provided in this section, you are helping me to make this blog live without any extra cost for you. This also allows me to sometimes offer you exclusive discounts.
Proximity with the locals or luxury hotels at the best price.
An additional advantage of booking via Agoda's website: you earn points on your favourite loyalty programme!
For example: I am part of Qatar Airways' free frequent flyer program - in the many advantages, I am often upgraded and I have used my points several times for free tickets. By booking through Agoda + the Privilege Club of Qatar program, I accumulate points on my Qatar card.
That's great, isn't it?
It's your turn!
I hope that this article will have allowed you to consider your first trip to India more serenely.
If you still have any hesitations, please do not hesitate to explain why in the comments below.
Come back and share your experience with us when you will have gone!
For advice for women who travel alone, I recommend reading a few anecdotes that have come to me, through which I give you advice to ensure your safety
Now you can also read the sequel of my first trip to India, in the state of Kerala.
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