THE NILGIRI MOUNTAIN RAILWAY
Chugging along from Mettupalaiyam in the plains to Ooty, deep inside the Nilgiri Hills, the Nilgiri Mountain Railway is a unique line. The track was laid in 1899, taking officials of the Raj away from the summer heat, and it was recognised as a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2005. The railway passes through the charming towns of Coonoor, Lovedale and Wellington and the journey is a breathtaking one, as the train traverses over 200 bridges, 10 tunnels, forests, ravines and tea plantations, covering the 48-km journey in about five hours. There are two trains from Maettupalaiyam every day, at 7.10am and 1.15pm.
In Chennai’s backyard stands a monumental testament to history, art and architecture. Mamallapuram, aka Mahabalipuram, is a coastal cluster of temples built between the sixth and ninth centuries by the Pallava dynasty, and now a Unesco World Heritage listed site. The town itself was a major historical seaport. Some of the temples are carved out of caves, some out of monolithic boulders of granite; the sculptures on many are considered to be among the best in the country. The astonishing bas-relief, ‘Arjuna’s Penance’, and the ‘Govardhanadhari’ panel are both intricate and subtle. Continuing excavation has brought to light more structures from the same period. A must-do when in Chennai. Mahabalipuram is a 1.5-hr-drive from Chennai along the East Coast Road.
How can you not want to visit the ‘Land of the Singing Waves’? Tharangambadi is a sleepy fishing hamlet on Tamil Nadu’s Coromandel Coast, a tiny Danish outpost also known as Tranquebar, though it also had spells of British and Dutch rule. Unlike other colonial enclaves, not much remains by way of built heritage. And the few structures that stand, such as the Dansborg Fort, the Pandya-era Masilamaninathar Temple and the Town Gate, all suffered the ravages of the tsunami of 2004. A major development project is underway. Meanwhile, if staying in a heritage hotel, taking long coastal walks, enjoying the sun and sand, interacting with the peaceable locals and buying local crafts sounds appealing, Tranquebar awaits you. Tranquebar is a 290km drive from state capital Chennai.
Elsewhere in this magazine, a writer declares that if there’s one place to be visited in Tamil Nadu, it’s Thanjavur. We can’t disagree, but here’s the second place: Chettinad. This is a storied land, the home of the Nattukottai Chettiars, the Tamil community that made its wealth in the early 20th century through trade with Southeast Asia. With this wealth they built fabulous mansions, and with a new cosmopolitanism, outfitted them with pillars of Burma teak, chandeliers from Europe and art from around the world. Veritable palaces. World War II scattered the community, which left behind a ghostland dotted with beautiful structures. Visit for splendid heritage, a world-famous cuisine and sophisticated crafts. Karaikudi is the main town in Chettinad, 2hrs from Madurai.