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5 Reasons To Travel To India’s Tamil Nadu

A Canadian’s perspective on India’s southernmost State.

Sunrise bird watching along the Muttukadu backwaters

Whether you are from North America or northern India, I’m pretty sure that India's southernmost state of Tamil Nadu does not appear on your travel bucket list. I’d like to suggest that you take a moment and cast your gaze towards this state whose historical wonders and natural beauty will leave you dumbstruck.

Tamil Nadu, formerly referred to as Madras State, has a population of almost 76.7  million people who are primarily concentrated in a handful of large urban centers. Despite these bustling cities, the rest of the state has a more layback feel with expansive forests interspersed with seemingly endless swatches of farmland. The language and culture of Tamil Nadu is very different from India’s Hindi speaking majority. Just like all of India cannot be painted with the same brush, even within Tamil Nadu there are significant distinctions to be made from region to region.

For whatever reason, Tamil Nadu seems to be off of the world’s travel-radar. While tourists flock to the Golden Triangle in India’s north, the south remains largely undisturbed. I personally think you are missing out on the hidden gem of India!

I have been happily settled in Tamil Nadu since 2018 and I am doing my best to hike, trailrun, wander and explore throughout this beautiful state. I post photography of my adventures daily on my Instagram account ( @dawned_onme ) with the goal of showcasing to the world the beauty of Tamil Nadu. Needless to say, I have developed a deep love and respect for my new home.

West entrance of the extensive Meenakshi Amman Temple complex in Madurai.

I don’t want to come across as one of those people who lives somewhere for a couple of years and instantly feels that they are an expert on the place. I still have much to learn about Tamil Nadu but nevertheless, I humbly present to you 5 reasons why you should put Tamil Nadu on your travel bucket list:

1. FREAKING AMAZING CULTURAL HERITAGE

My mind was blown when I first started seeing the archaeological wonders in Tamil Nadu. The Pandya, Chera and Chola dynasties ruled South India for centuries. Tamilians are part of a long line of poets, architects, scientists, mathematicians, agriculturalists, artists and explorers who were traveling this globe pre-Columbus. Evidence of their influence can be seen over to Indonesia, up to Korea, down the coast of East Africa and over to the Middle East. If that weren’t enough to impress, Tamil is the oldest language on the planet still actively in use. Call me ignorant not knowing all of this before coming here, but in my defense, somebody skipped this chapter when they were teaching me world history.

One of Mamallapuram’s many monolithic carvings named: Arjuna’s Penance

Of course Tamil Nadu boasts elaborate temple cities and impressive monolithic sculptures where an entire stone hill has been carved out to depict great historical events, but there are also small everyday wonders. There are tiny quaint hilltop temples where people have been coming to worship continuously for thousands of years. 

When I first arrived here, I kept noticing small crescent-shaped ponds in the forests and wondered what natural forces had repeatedly created these identical moon-shaped water bodies all throughout the region. I soon learned from my Tamilian friends that this is an ancient agricultural technique, employed for thousands of years and used to retain water in low-lying areas during the dry seasons. Standing alone by these small pools, tucked away in the forest, I am in awe of the fact that I am witnessing evidence of an ancient civilization whose agricultural practices are still relevant today. 

Middle section of a crescent pond tucked away in the forest.

Tamil language, music, art, fashion and festivals are bright and colorful and creative. It’s something you don’t want to miss. My experience is that Tamilians are genuinely happy and eager to share their culture and traditions with visitors to their state.

2. REALLY REALLY REALLY DIVERSE LANDSCAPES

Tamil Nadu has everything! It boasts 1076 km of continuous coastline. This one state alone is home to 13% of India’s coasts. In the span of just a few hours you can go from surfing in the Bay of Bengal to paragliding over densely forested hilltops. 

Fishing boats off of Pamban Island in the south of Tamil Nadu

You can visit Mudumalai Tiger Reserve in the west where you can see an abundance of wildlife, including elephants and tigers in their natural habitat and by the end of the day you can be enjoying fine dining and city life.

Family of Black-faced Langur in Mudumalai Tiger Reserve.

There are parts of Tamil Nadu that are almost dessert-like and other regions that are incredibly lush and green with tropical plants piggybacking and vying with each other to reach the forest canopy. 

Early morning trek in Yercaud Hill Station.

You can do a sunrise kayak through the second largest mangrove on the planet and enjoy the sunset with a croissant and coffee in a town by the sea that was a former French colony (now a Union Territory). In a few rare cases it has even been known to snow in the hill station of Ooty. Like I said…it’s really really really diverse.

3. THE BEST FOOD IN INDIA (Ssshh…don’t tell the north I said that)

My first experience of food here was like a tsunami of colors and flavors and textures in the best possible way. Every meal was a party in my mouth. Dosa, Pongal, Idiyappam, Uttapam, Sambar, Vada, Chutneys….yum! In any city in Tamil Nadu you can find a huge selection of local, regional and international cuisine available from simple street vendors all the way up to luxury gourmet dining. My favorites are the small foodie hotspots that only locals know about. 

Everything on this plate was grown and prepared on a small family farm for Idlers Farm.

There are countless establishments where they will spread out a large banana leaf as your plate and load it up with a rainbow of tasty treats. The food keeps coming until you tell them to stop and in the end you pay just a dollar or two. These eateries are not designed to lounge about and have good conversation with friends. They make their money by sheer volume of sales- so you are in, chow-down and get out. There are plenty of other choices if you want to relax and chill but the banana leaf restaurants are something you should not miss while in Tamil Nadu. 

Typical breakfast in Tamil Nadu: Pongal Vada

I have experienced that every region of Tamil Nadu has its own cuisine that is well worth exploring. Even something as simple as sambar is prepared differently from place to place. (Sambar is kind of like a vegetable stew that accompanies most meals.) 

One of my favorite beach restaurants in Mamallapuram, the Fisherman's Restaurant. 

Food is one of the best ways to get to know a place. I have nicknamed Tamilian cuisine the “Soul Food of India”. 

4. SAFETY…especially as a chic

I really have not had any serious safety issues since I moved to India in 2015. Saying that, when I shifted to Tamil Nadu in 2018 I will say that I felt an instant change. Tamil Nadu has a different vibe. I find that the catcalling, teeth-sucking and sideways glances from men never happen to me here. I’m not naive. Every place on earth has good hearted people and those with ill intent. I’ll just say that it certainly appears that in Tamil Nadu it really is not socially acceptable to harass visitors, especially women. I feel like if a guy started to bother me out in public, there would be ten other guys ready to thrash him. I often go walking or trekking alone. The only time that I get stopped is when someone asks if I’m lost. I find people very keen to help when I need assistance.

I am very comfortable traveling solo through Tamil Nadu

I’ve been mugged 3 times in my hometown of Vancouver. I’ve never had anything stolen from me in Tamil Nadu. Yes, anything can happen anywhere but if we want to use sweeping generalizations… Tamil Nadu just feels safer than most places that I have lived before.

5. FEWER TOURISTS = A UNIQUE EXPERIENCE

With Tamil Nadu not being on very many people's bucket lists, you get to have very real authentic experiences here. I’ve found that in more touristy places in India your experiences can often be orchestrated despite the fact that they may at first appear like natural interactions. If you speak to other travelers, you will often see that they have had the same cookie cutter experiences as you at each of the big tourist attractions.

Vedagiriswarar Temple in Thirukazhukundram. I’ve only ever seen local visitors in this magnificent temple town.

In Tamil Nadu it’s hard to find a place that has been overwhelmed with international tourists. This allows you to travel in a very raw and real manner. I’ll give one simple example. In many parts of India when you visit a temple or a historical site you may be approached by someone casually wanting to chat with you. They will befriend you and tell you all about the history of that place and their connection to it. It feels like you have just made a new friend. There is no mention that you are actually on a tour, and it’s only when you go to leave that you find out that there is a charge for this conversation. I have witnessed this exact scene play out over and over again, in city after city and watched as the confused tourists try to figure out what is going on.

I have never seen this in Tamil Nadu. People are keen to tell me about the places I am visiting. I have generously been invited to sit for refreshments and had wonderful conversations. If I chose to give a small donation to a temple it is accepted but nothing has ever been requested of me. Of course tour guides exist here, especially at the bigger historical sites, but my experience has been that expectations are clearly communicated beforehand.

Boating down the river and beneath the falls at Hogenakkal.

I could write a book on all the amazing adventures that I have had in Tamil Nadu thus far, from swimming with dolphins to riding under waterfalls in a wicker-basket boat. I have climbed mountains and stood near wild elephants. 

Enjoying the rewards of a 6AM trek. Overlooking the valley towards the city of Salem.

I’ve gaped in awe at the foot of ancient temples and walked as far as my feet could take me through backroads and bushtrail. I have wandered through tiny tribal settlements and elbowed my way through the heart of bustling cities. 

Famous shopping area in Chennai.

With each step I can’t help but think one thing…..How the heck is somewhere this beautiful not on the world’s travel-radar? Where is everyone? Agra? Really people? Okay fine, go see the Taj Mahal… but there is much more to India than that.

One of countless temples dotted across the backroads and villages of rural Tamil Nadu. Hanuman Temple.

I suggest that you visit Tamil Nadu with an open mind. Be ready to experience the traditions and history of this beautiful state and at the same time open your eyes to the incredible modern accomplishments that help shape Tamil Nadu today.

Here is a shortlist of places in Tamil Nadu that I encourage you to visit:

Chennai, Dhanushkodi, Hogenakkal, Kanyakumari, Kodaikanal, Madurai, Mahabalipuram, Mudumalai Tiger Reserve, Ooty, Tiruvannamalai, Top Station, Vedanthangal Bird Sanctuary, Yercaud…and so much more. 

Credit: Catalyst

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