Tamil Nadu Temple Towns

While Hinduism has a hold of most all of India, it is most fervently practiced in the state of Tamil Nadu in the extreme south-east of the country. As a result, 8 of the 10 largest temples in India are located in Tamil Nadu. I worked my way down the state and visited 5 temples towns in 5 days: Chidambaram, Tanjavur, Trichy, Madurai, and Kanyakumari. While the towns varied considerably in size and location, they all had spectacular temples and not much else for the tourist.

Chidambaram
Chidambaram

In order to keep moving, I followed strict regimen, which was based around the amazing 24-hour check out policy of Indian hotels. I would first take a public open air bus to the next town. I researched the bus routes through my Lonely Planet guidebook, so I made sure every route I took ran at least every hour. This gave me confidence that I would get on a bus and avoid being stuck in a city. Since all the signs at the bus station were in Tamil, to find the right bus, I would walk around and say the name of the city to someone who looked like they were well dressed and thus more likely to speak some English. After about 3-5 minutes of this, I would end up at a long row of buses where I would then shout out my destination to the bus drivers. Eventually I would get a response. However, my most common response was the Indian head nod (move the top of your head from side to side) which means either yes, maybe, or I don’t know depending on the context. The Indian head nod is the single most frustrating part about getting around India. Once on the bus I would once again shout out my destination and if nobody tried to escort me off the bus, I could safely assume that the bus was indeed going to the right place. The bus rides varies in length from 2-6 hours. I tried to leave around 3pm so I would get to my destination between 5-9pm.

Temple elephant! If you put a coin in its trunk, it will pat you on the head.
Temple elephant! If you put a coin in its trunk, it will pat you on the head.

The bus rides cost between $1-2 and I definitely got what I paid for. They were uncomfortable and very crowded- usually standing room only. This proved to be a problem since I had a huge backpack and the buses had no luggage racks or compartments. Usually, I would have to put the 25 lb pack on my lap and survive. The funniest part of the bus rides were the people, as I was in very close quarters with people, they would often fall asleep on my shoulder or my leg. This happened on all but one of my bus rides. People in India can really fall asleep anywhere. In America, I would say probably tap the person on their shoulder to get them to move, but this was India so I let the smelly grown men fall asleep on me because there was nowhere else for either of us to go. After the person woke up, they would never apologize because this was apparently a normal thing. Despite all of this, I actually enjoyed the bus rides because they are a great way to see the landscape and people of India in a unique way.

Temple priest in Trichy
Temple priest in Trichy

Once arriving at the new city, my first goal was to find a hotel. To avoid rickshaw scams and to give me more flexibility with my departure time, I generally tried to stay at one of the myriad of hotels near the bus terminal. My goal was for anything with WiFi under 1,000 rupees or $16 for a private room without air conditioning. I did research ahead of time on the internet and by reading Lonely Planet, so I knew for the most part which hotels I was looking for. However, about half the time, I ended up at a different hotel than originally planned. To get a hotel room, I would simply walk into the reception and ask 3 questions:

1. Do you have any rooms available?

2. How much does a single, non-AC room cost? (Rooms with air conditioning cost about double the price, so this was a great way to save money. While it was hot outside with highs up to 90 degrees, the rooms did have really powerful fans, so it actually was not difficult to fall asleep. The hotel staff usually showed me a paper with the printed rates, but since this was the off-season, I could sometimes bargain for a cheaper rate)

3. Do you have WiFi? (A preliminary check for this was to stand outside the reception and search for networks on the iPhone. However, this was not 100%. Often, the reception was unaware that the network existed, the network could have been broken, or it could have been a private network for the hotel management. Wifi was incredibly important because was the most up-to-date research tool. The internet was how I figured out how to get to the next town and where to stay. While Lonely Planet was great, it had its limitations and biases. Most of the hotels I stayed in had free Wifi in the lobby)

Masala Dosa- basically a savory crepe with chutneys
Masala Dosa- basically a savory crepe with chutneys

If I got the right response to all 3 questions, I would then ask to see the room. This was more of a formality since I really did not care what the room looks like- as long as there’s a bed and a fan. The bellboy then took me up to the room, I “inspected” it and then I would “decide” to stay by leaving my bag on the bed.

I would then eat dinner in the hotel or nearby at a reputable-looking restaurant (the restaurants were all called hotels and the hotels were called residencies). Dinner was served late in India- most restaurants operated from 7-11pm. Dinners were also the most expensive meal of the day and would generally cost me about $3 including a liter of bottled water. Before going to bed, I would wash my clothes since I only had two pairs. However, I always rode the busses in my black mountaineering guide pants because they have pockets with zippers. The next morning I would get a masala dosa for breakfast and go see the temples.

I would finish my sightseeing around lunchtime (1pm). “Thali meal” lunches were by far the best value in India. These all-you-can-eat vegetarian feasts included a pile of rice, 6-15 curries, and papad bread and are served on a banana leaf. They cost about $1.20-$1.60. After lunch, I would go back to the hotel room to pack and charge my electronics before going to the bus station to do it all again.

Typical $1.50 lunch
Typical $1.50 lunch

The first temple town I went to was Chidambaram. It was only 1 1/2 hours from Pondicherry. The temple is dedicated to Shiva, Lord of the Dance and has a cool story. One day, Shiva and Vishnu had a dance-off for the title of Lord of the Dance. Shiva did this crazy move where he dropped his earring, picked it up with his toe, and put it back on. Vishnu couldn’t compete, so Shiva won the title and got this awesome temple dedicated to him. Unfortunately, the temple was closed after lunch when I arrived, so I didn’t get to walk around or see the god, but the outside was nice. It was here in Chidambaram, that I developed the strategy to see all the temples and avoid any more disappointment.

The next temple town was Tanjavur. While most of the temples were constantly being renovated, the Big Temple was built in the year 1,010 by the Chola empire and hasn’t been updated since. It was made of a beautiful red ochre and had no paint. It was a UNESCO World Heritage site and allows non-Hindus to make darshan (see the statue of the god). Because of its World Heritage status, entrance was free and the people here spoke better English than the other temples. The people at this temple were much friendlier than most of the other temples- probably because the temple was not very crowded. About 600 meters away from the temple, there was a large palace that had a nice art museum.

The Thanjavur Big Temple! Very different from the others.
The red Thanjavur Big Temple! Very different from the others.

The next town was Trichy. Actually, its more like a city than a town since it had 1 million residents and an airport. This was the epicenter of all Hindu worship in Tamil Nadu because it had 3 famous temples. The temples were far from each other- a couple kilometers, so I paid a rickshaw to take me to the temples. After I got into the rickshaw, the driver went to pick up his “friend” who sat in the front with the driver. Having run into this potentially costly situation back in Chennai, I knew how to deal with it. The friend and I negotiated a fair price to take me to the temples. The first temple is the Rock Fort Temple, which wasn’t that spectacular except for the fact that it was built at the top of a huge rock in the middle of the city. It took 400 steps to the top and the views were well worth it. Since this was a Ganesh temple (the son of Shiva who has an elephant head), I got to hang out with the temple elephant.

The driver and his friend then took me to two Shiva temples. One of the temples is the largest functioning Hindu temple in the world. While most temples have an entrance gate called a gopuram, this temple had 22 including one that is 240 ft tall. It felt like its own city. Unfortunately, non-Hindus were not allowed to go past the 6th gate, so I did not get to see the god or all the gold. I was able to find another temple elephant and get a sweet view of the temple from a rooftop viewing area. After visiting the 3 temples, the driver and his friend parked about 50 meters away from my hotel and started asking about the fare. I told them that I wouldn’t discuss anything until I was parked directly in front of the hotel, so they took me there. They then told me that I have to pay the driver more money as a “waiting fee” at the temples because I took longer than I should have and that I needed to give the friend some money as a tip because he talked to me during the rickshaw ride (a city tour). I said okay then walked about 5 feet away from the rickshaw before reaching into my wallet and giving the friend the previously agreed fare plus a really small bill on top to make it look like I agreed to his demands. As he counted the money, I walked away to the safety of the hotel while he chased me and yelled at me to give him more money. However, at that point, I was protected by the armed hotel guard and there was nothing he could do. While I never stopped walking nor looked back, I could hear the rickshaw pull away when I got to the lobby door. Having been in this situation once before, I was not going to fall for the trap again.

Largest gopuram in the world in Trichy
Largest gopuram in the world in Trichy

The fourth temple city was Madurai, one of the oldest cities in India. Records show that Madurai once traded with ancient Rome and Egypt. The temple here was by far the most spectacular of them all. It was dedicated to the fish-eyed wife of Shiva, Pavarti. Fish eyes are apparently the most beautiful eyes in the world, so this temple was dedicated to Pavarti’s beauty. The color scheme certainly reflected that: pinks, greens, and yellows. Additionally, this temple had the most ornate gopuram towers in India. While they weren’t as tall as the ones in Trichy, these towers had hundreds of Hindu gods carved into them making it look like a 150 ft tall human pyramid. Just like in Trichy, non-Hindus were not allowed in the inner sanctum and I had to pay $1 to use my camera. Still, this was my favorite temple. After visiting the temple, I was lured to the Kashmiri crafts store, where I bought a hand-crafted carpet (the sales pitch was applause-worthy).

Madurai's south gopuram. The golden lotus signifies Brahman the Creator.
Madurai’s south gopuram. The golden lotus signifies Brahman the Creator.

The final temple city was Kanyakumari at the southern tip of India. My bus from Madurai broke down on the highway, so I actually had to hitch a ride on another bus while hanging out the side with my backpack on. I had to do this for what seemed like 30  (but probably closer to 10 minutes) terrifying minutes until the next stop when people left and I was able to find a seat. While my goal was to get to town earlier, I ended up arriving very late and scrambled to find a hotel with wifi- it took me 8 tries but I eventually found one. Kanyakumari was dedicated to the goddess virgin (kanya) goddess Kumari who is an incarnation of Pavarti, the wife of Shiva. I actually met the living goddess Kumari back Kathmandu, Nepal. For some reason, men were required to be shirtless in this temple. Next to the temple, there was a place to bathe “where 3 seas meet”: the Bay of Bengal, Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea. This slogan made absolutely no sense to me, because only 1 is actually a sea and they are all part of the same body of water. Still, the seaside views were nice and the town was much more peaceful than the other honk-ridden temple towns. It felt really good to finish the temple-hopping here at such an iconic place on the map.

The southernmost point in India. Swami Vivek meditated on this rock for 3 days before deciding that India is the motherland of spirituality.
The southernmost point in India. Swami Vivek meditated on this rock for 3 days before deciding that India is the motherland of spirituality.

I really enjoyed seeing the temples and all the craziness associated with the traveling without a fixed itinerary. While the freedom given by this type of traveling had its costs and uncertainties, it allowed me to get a real feel for the culture of India that few travelers got to see.

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