Tamil Nadu smells of sacrificial burning camphor and the perfume from jasmine garlands piled up before its beautifully carved granite gods, well oiled with gingelly smeared from the palms of centuries of devotees, then reddened with sandal powder and washed with devotional milk baths.
About 90% of the 60-million-strong Tamil population is Hindu and religious ritual here is lived and breathed: men's entire foreheads are daubed with potash, huge horizontal sweeps or fingernail-thin red edges drawn from the hair's centre-parting sideways, while women sprinkle intricate geometric designs of ground rice powder on their hearths every dawn. It's rare to find a temple that has outlived its religious purpose - seldom the shrine that is mere monument. But nor is worship confined to the feats of architecture that dot Tamil Nadu. Banyan trees are festooned with dangling sacred talismen; tridents are slammed into the ground to create makeshift mounds of worship; village gods in life-size stucco renderings bare their teeth and brandish knives at every roadside, and files of nomads pick their way along baked dirt tracks.
Here, then, is the heady temple trail: Kanchipuram, Mahabalipuram, Chidambaram, Thanjavur, Madurai, the second Varanasi of Rameswaram, and the holy toe-tip of India in Kanniyakumari. Here too, for serious seekers and dilettante yogis, the contrasting ashram atmospheres of introspective Tiruvannamalai, futuristic utopian Auroville, and the industrious urban campus of Si Aurobindo in Pondicherry.
Welcome antidotes to temple fatigue come in the form of Pondicherry's charming French domestic architecture and the crumbling palatial homes of Chettinad, or in big breaths of nature in the blue Nilgiri mountains around the celebrated hill stations of Ooty and Kodaikkanal.
This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF