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Hues of Culture: The Riches of Tamil Nadu

From architectural marvels in the form of its temples to the fascinating culinary spread, Tamil Nadu is a land of infinite cultural richness

The Shore Temple should be an unmissable destination in your Mahabalipuram itinerary
The Shore Temple should be an unmissable destination in your Mahabalipuram itinerary

Rich in history, literature, and culture, Tamil Nadu is firmly rooted in its heritage no matter how modern a state it is. The history of the state spreads over a few millennia, during which  many dynasties ruled the region. Beginning with the Sangam era and nurtured by the Pallava, Chera, Chola, and Pandya dynasties, the region has seen tremendous development in architecture, literature, performing arts, and regional cuisine.

The most prominent example of Tamil Nadu’s legacy is its architectural heritage. From rock-cut caves to intricately carved temples, these speak volumes about the advanced skill of the craftspeople who lived here centuries ago. Not far from Chennai is Mahabalipuram, whose Shore Temple and other monuments have been recognized as World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1984. These rock-cut cave temples, monolithic temples, bas-relief sculptures, and structural temples were built between the 6th and 9th centuries under the Pallava rulers. In 2004, UNESCO awarded World Heritage Site status to what is collectively known as the Great Living Chola Temples which were built between the 11th and 12th centuries. It consists of three temples—the Brihadeeshwara Temple at Thanjavur, the Brihadisvara Temple at Gangaikondacholapuram, and the Airavatesvara Temple at Darasuram. Once at Thanjavur, one cannot miss the famous art and craft that flourishes here which includes the bronze statues, especially that of Nataraj (Dancing Shiva) and the unique Tanjore paintings (known for their gold-coated finish and which are reminiscent of Tamil Nadu’s Maratha legacy).

The Shore Temple in Tamil Nadu
The Shore Temple in Tamil Nadu

The metre-gauge Nilgiri Mountain Railway, operating between Mettupalayam—Conoor and  Ooty, is also part of the UNESCO Heritage-awarded Mountain Railways of India.

A picturesque boat ride in Ooty
A picturesque boat ride in Ooty

Built by the Nayaka rulers (16th -17th centuries), the Meenakshi Temple of Madurai is a splendid example of Dravidian temple architecture. The ancient Ramanathaswamy Temple of Rameshwaram is known for its elaborately built and carved corridors, which rank among the longest corridors in the world. There are innumerable such ancient temples scattered throughout the state. Temple towns such as Kanchipuram, Chidambaram, and Kumbhakonam are also worth  thevisit.

Tamil Nadu’s literary heritage dates back to the BCE era, which includes literature from the Sangam period. While early literature abounds in religious writings and poetic compositions mostly dedicated to Shiva and Vishnu, the Sangam literature includes secular compositions such as court poetry written by the stalwarts of the literary academies. Compositions such as the Thikural (a book containing couplets or aphorisms on virtue, wealth, love, etc.) authored by poet Thiruvalluvar (whose statue is seen on a rock off Kanya Kumari) and Cilappatikaram are considered gems of early Tamil literature. Another famous poet was Kampan, who wrote Kambaramayanam or the Tamil version of the epic Ramayana. Modern Tamil literature and writing owe a lot to Subramaniya Bharathi, who also participated in India’s struggle for freedom.

Temples in Tamil Nadu have also been instrumental in developing the state’s performing arts. The bulk of what is today known as Carnatic music originates here. Rituals and festivals of temples are not complete without the orchestra of various traditional musical instruments. Tamil Nadu is also home to India’s leading classical dance form—Bharatanatyam. According to scholars, the 108 dance poses carved on the eastern gopuram (gateway) of the Nataraj Temple of Chidambaram are among the best sources on the dance form. The town also hosts the annual Natyanjali Festival. Another popular dance festival is the Mamallapuram Dance Festival. Besides, Chennai also hosts many classical dance and music programmes.

An aerial view of the Meenakshi Amman Temple
An aerial view of the Meenakshi Amman Temple

Not quite known beyond the state, Tamil Nadu also has a rich legacy of folk dance and music, usually performed during religious and social functions, which also form part of popular entertainment. Therukothu (street play), kavadi, the dummy-horse dance, the peacock dance, silambattam (a form of martial art) are some of the entertaining forms of folk performances.

The culinary heritage of Tamil Nadu has remained mostly unsung. The state has a rich repertoire of vegetarian dishes, including a range of chutneys and pickles. One of the specialized branches of Indian cuisine that evolved here is Chettinad cuisine, which includes vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes. The cuisine takes its name from the eponymous region, which was home to the Chettiar community of traders, whose food culture was highly influenced by that of the foreign countries and merchants they treaded with. 

One of the best ways to learn about the heritage and culture of the state is to observe the traditional festivals. The harvest festival of Pongal is celebrated across the state. It is the time when people decorate their houses with coloured powder (kolam) and boil the newly harvested rice in milk with jaggery. This three-tofour-day festival is marked by special rituals. One of Tamil Nadu’s traditional spectator sports, jallikattu, is also organized during this time. Although the event has its detractors,  it is very popular across rural Tamil Nadu. Another popular festival is the Chithirai Festival of Madurai, which is an enactment of the divine wedding of Goddess Meenakshi (an incarnation of Shakti) and Sundareshwar (an incarnation of Shiva). The state tourism department also holds various festivals to highlight the cultural and natural heritage of the state.

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