Palar Valley

Running between the steep-sided northern Tamilnad hill range is the broad, flat bed of the River Palar, an intensively irrigated, fertile and densely populated valley cutting through the much poorer and sometimes wooded high land on either side. The whole valley became the scene of an Anglo-French- Indian contest at the end of the 18th century. Today it is the centre of South India's vitally important leather industry and intensive agricultural development.

Vellore

The once strategically important centre of Vellore, pleasantly ringed by hills, is in the process of converting itself from the dusty market town of old into an unmissable stop on the Tamil Nadu temple circuit, complete with its own airport. The reason for this transformation is the glittering new
Sripuram temple
, www.sripuram.org, which opened in late 2007 with funding from the local Sri Narayani Peedam trust, headed by Sri Sakthi Amma. The central temple building is covered in 1.5 tonnes of gold leaf - more than adorns the Golden Temple in Amritsar - which is laid over sheets of copper embossed with figures of gods. The temple has attracted no small measure of controversy, largely because of the huge sum of money ploughed into its construction - an estimated 600 million rupees - which some feel would have been better spent on poverty alleviation programs. Sri Sakthi Amma has defended the temple on the basis that it will serve as an attraction to people from all over the world, with lasting financial benefits to the area's people - from increased tourism spending as well as from donations to the trust's various beneficent activities - and spiritual benefits to visitors. To reach the temple you have to negotiate a 2-km-long covered walkway, modelled after the star-shaped Sri Chakra and festooned with quotes from the Vedas, Bible and Koran. The inner sanctum contains a granite idol of Mahalaxmi, the goddess of wealth, draped in golden adornments.

Before Sripuram, Vellore was best known for its
Christian Medical College Hospital
, founded by the American missionary Ida Scudder in 1900. Started as a one-room dispensary, it extended to a small hospital through American support. Today it is one of the country's largest hospitals with over 1200 beds and large outpatients' department which caters for over 2000 patients daily. The college has built a reputation for research in a wide range of tropical diseases. One of its earliest and most lasting programmes has been concerned with leprosy and there is a rehabilitation centre attached. In recent years it has undertaken a wide-ranging programme of social and development work in villages outside the town to back up its medical programmes.

Vijayanagar architecture is beautifully illustrated in the temple at
Vellore Fort
, a perfect example of military architecture and a
jala durga
(water fort). Believed to have been built by the Vijayanagara kings and dating from the 14th century, the fort has round towers and huge gateways along its double wall. The moat, still filled with water by a subterranean drain, followed ancient principles of defence: it was home to a colony of crocodiles. A wooden drawbridge crosses the moat to the southeast. In 1768 Vellore came under the control of the British, who defended it against Haidar Ali. After the victory in Seringapatnam in 1799, Tipu Sultan's family was imprisoned here and a mutiny of 1806, in which many British and Indian mutineers were killed, left many scars. In the fort is a parade ground, the CSI church, the temple and two-storeyed mahals, which are used as government offices.

Jalakantesvara Temple
 with a 30-m high seven-storeyed granite
gopuram
, has undergone considerable restoration. Enter from the south and inside on the left, the
kalyana mandapa
(wedding hall), one of the most beautiful structures of its kind, has vivid sculptures of dragons and 'hippogryphs' on its pillars. The temple consists of a shrine to Nataraja in the north and a lingam shrine in the west.

Gingee

Gingee (pronounced
Senjee
), just off the NH45, situated between Chennai and Tiruvannamalai, has a remarkable 15th-century Vijayanagar fort with much to explore. It is well off the beaten track, very peaceful and in beautiful surroundings. Spend the night here if you can. Lovers come here at the weekends; it's on the domestic tourist map because it is often used as a film location. The landscape is made up of man-sized boulders, like Hampi, piled on top of each other to make mounds the texture of cottage cheese.

The fort
 was intensely contested by successive powers before being captured by an East India Company force in 1762, by the end of the century however, it had lost its importance. Although it had Chola foundations, the 'most famous fort in the Carnatic' was almost entirely rebuilt in 1442. It is set on three strongly fortified Charnockite hills: Krishnagiri, Chakklidrug and Rajagiri. In places the hills on which the fort stands are sheer cliffs over 150 m high. The highest, Rajagiri ('King's Hill'), has a south-facing overhanging cliff face, on top of which is the citadel. The inner fort contains two temples and the Kalyana Mahal, a square court with a 27-m breezy tower topped by pyramidal roof, surrounded by apartments for the women of the governor's household. On top of the citadel is a huge cannon and a smooth granite slab known as the Raja's bathing stone. An extraordinary stone about 7 m high and balanced precariously on a rock, surrounded by a low circular brick wall, it is referred to as the Prisoner's Well. There are fine Vijaynagara temples, granary, barracks and stables and an 'elephant tank'. A caretaker may unlock a temple and then expect a tip.

The Archaeological Survey of India Office is just off the main road towards the fort. They may have guides to accompany you to the fort. Carry provisions, especially plenty of drinks; a few refreshments are sold, but only at the bottom of the hill. The climb is only for the fit and healthy; it's cooler in the morning and the views are less hazy.

Tiruvannamalai

In a striking setting at the foot of rocky Arunachala Hill, revered by Hindus across south India as the physical manifestation of Siva, Tiruvannamalai is one of the holiest towns of Tamil Nadu. It is a major pilgrimage centre,
centred around the enormous and fascinating Arunachaleshwar Temple whose
tall
gopurams
stand dazzling white against the blue sky, and for the first half of the 20th century was home to one of India's most beloved saints, the clear-eyed Sri Ramana Maharishi.

One of the largest temples in South India, the 16th- and 17th-century
Arunachala Temple
was built mainly under the patronage of the Vijayanagar kings and is dedicated to Siva as God incarnate of Fire. Its massive bright white
gopurams
, the tallest of which is 66 m high, dominate the centre of the town. The temple
has three sets of walls forming nested rectangles. Built at different periods they illustrate the way in which many Dravidian temples grew by accretion. The east end of each is extended to make a court, and the main entrance is at the east end of the temple. The lower parts of the
gopurams
, built of granite, date from the late Vijayanagar period but have been added to subsequently. The upper 10 storeys and the decoration are of brick and plaster. There are some remarkable carvings on the
gopurams
. On the outer wall of the east
gopuram
, for example, Siva is shown in the south corner dancing, with an elephant's skin. Inside the
east doorway of the first courtyard is the 1000-pillared
mandapa
(hall, portico) built in the late Vijayanagar period. To the south of the court is a small shrine dedicated to Subrahmanya.
To the south again is a large tank. The pillars in the
mandapa
are typically carved vigorous horses, riders and lion-like
yalis
. The middle court has four much earlier
gopurams
(mid- 14th century), a large columned
mandapa
and a tank. The innermost court may date from as early as the 11th century and the main sanctuary with carvings of deities is certainly of Chola origin. In the south is Dakshinamurti, the west shows Siva appearing out of a lingam and the north has Brahma. The outer porch has small shrines to Ganesh and Subrahmanya. In front of the main shrine are a brass column lamp and the
Nandi
bull.

Two kilometres southwest of the centre, the
Sri Ramanasramam
, www.sriramanamaharshi.org
,
was founded by Sri Ramana Maharishi, the Sage of Arunachala
(1879-1950). Aged 16, he achieved spontaneous self-realization and left his family to immerse himself in
samadhi
at the foot of the holy mountain. He spent 20 years in caves, steadily accumulating followers, one of whom was his own mother, who died at the base of the mountain in 1922. Recognized as a saint herself, Sri Ramana chose his mother's shrine as the site for his ashram.

The peacock-filled ashram grounds, which attract a sizeable community of Westerners between December and April, contains a library with 30,000 spiritual books and many photos of Maharishi, the last of which were taken by Henri Cartier-Bresson, who photographed him when he was alive and also the morning after his death in April 1950. Apart from the two daily
pujas
(1000 and 1815) the ashram organizes few daily programs; the focus here is on quiet self-enquiry and meditation. Foreigners wishing to stay need to write to the ashram president with proposed dates.

A gate at the back of the ashram gives access to the hillside, from where you can begin
the 14-km
pradakshina
(circuit) of Arunachala. The hike is done barefoot - no shoes should
be worn on the holy mountain - the hike takes four to five hours, and on full moon nights, particularly during the annual Karthikai Deepam festival (November-December), the trail fills with crowds of pilgrims who chant the name of Siva and make offerings at the many small temples along the way. Another track, branching off to the right shortly after the ashram gate, climbs to Skandasramam, a shady hermitage dug into the rock at which Sri Ramana lived from 1916 to 1922. From here there's a wonderful view over the town, best at sunrise when the temples rise out of the haze like a lost Mayan city. The challenging trek to
the summit of Arunachala continues beyond Skandasramam (allow six hours up and down).

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
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