A suggested itinerary in South India across sacred structures, enchanting beaches and vegetarian gastronomy bursting with colour
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Duration: 4 days, but for a more flexible time frame you can spend up to 7 days, without getting bored
Itinerary: approximately 400 kilometres dotted with unique temples
Equipment: different changes of clothes, raincoat and thermos flask. Also a swimming costume if desired.
Tamil Nadu, the state that draws the South of the enormous Indian peninsula to a close, is a pearl of riches, Bollywood landscapes and unexpected beauty. With a future that exerts pressure on the past in a curious mix of ancient history and modern influences sublimated into a delicious gastronomic tradition. So we’re climbing onto our Vespa and setting off to unhurriedly explore this region, leaving from the capital Chennai.
Early morning is the best time, after a good coffee, to weave in and out of the soaring bookshelves of the stunning Connemara Public Library: a masterpiece of beauty and grandeur, it houses an impressive collection of books. In fact, this colonial-feel library holds all of the books, newspapers and periodicals published in India. The beauty of the books is overwhelming, and the tall columns intertwining with the windows illuminated by the morning sun leave us literally speechless.
We say goodbye to the books and hop back onto our Vespa, making our way through the traffic. We soon dive into the mystical atmosphere of the Sri Parthasarathy Temple, a Vaishnava Hindu temple from the 8th century dedicated to Krishna. The structure is among the most ancient in the city of Chennai. An example of Dravidian architecture, it envelops visitors in a unique atmosphere. Furthermore, between February and March the Theppam festival is celebrated yearly.
Before leaving to discover the city, however, it’s necessary to fill our bellies; just a stone’s throw from the temple we’ll find Bharathi Mess, a truly delicious restaurant with cuisine typical of the south of India. The house speciality is idli, savoury rice cakes eaten with various types of curry. We then head towards the huge Fort St. George, the first fortress built by the English in 1644: St Mary’s Church, found inside, closely resembles Westminster Abbey. With the wind in our hair, we then set off for Marina Beach, an infinite beach looking out onto the Bay of Bengal. Here, “complete relaxation” is a must, maybe even sipping a good cocktail at sunset. It’s the perfect setting to end our first day.
The second day begins with a visit to the famous Broken Bridge: while many recommend seeing the bridge at sunset, sunrise is perhaps the best time. Built in 1967 to help fishermen cross the Adyar River, it collapsed after just ten years due to strong currents. And here it has remained since then, motionless and surreal, shrouded in an air of mystery. We say goodbye while the sun rises and prepare ourselves for the long Vespa journey to Kanchipuram, one of India’s seven sacred cities, dotted with ancient temples and wonders from another time.
Before setting off on our visit to sacred structures, however, we’ll allow ourselves a quick break for some shopping. The city of Kanchipuram, incidentally, is famous for its stunning saris: women from all over India come here to find the perfect dress for their wedding. For lunch we choose the colourful thali of the Hotel Saravana Bhavan: the hues, fragrances and quantity of options on these big mixed platters of vegetarian delicacies are incredible.
The question now, however, is which temples to visit among the city’s countless historical palaces, all rich in wonders? The most highly recommended is undoubtedly the Kamakshi Amman Temple, which pays homage to one of the forms of the goddess Parvati. Although foreigners can’t go into the central part of the building, they are still enchanted by its candour. But let's not forget the Ekambaranatha Temple, the biggest and most majestic in the city, with its Gopuram - the entrance tower - 59 metres tall. At sunset, we take our Vespas and head towards the Kachapeshwarar Temple: a truly peaceful oasis.
The third day of our journey starts with a stop along the Gandhi Road, where we find the Varadaraja Temple. The furthest temple from the city centre, it’s surrounded by impressive walls that isolate the temple from the chaos and car horns. True peace, however, is found exclusively in the 100-pillar hall, or the room of 100 pillars, decorated with various moments of Vishnu’s life.
After pocketing a couple of samosas, the hugely popular, local traditional parcels of mixed vegetables, we leave in the direction of Auroville: a city designed like a utopian project characterised by peace and harmony, that strives to offer its citizens a way of life without money, government, religion or unregulated urban development. Founded in 1968 by a group of hippies devoted to “communes”, it’s a town powered completely by solar energy, that counts 2500 permanent residents and a steady average of 5000 visitors that come and go in their accommodation. A reality to discover. But even in Auroville, we know it well, we need to eat: the strong presence of Italian residents has led to the opening of several pizzerias here and there, but we prefer the generous and delicious plates of Dharma Swasti, before resting after a very busy day. Let’s try, for example, vegetarian momos prepared by the small restaurant according to Tibetan tradition.
Then, on the fourth day, we head towards the coast and, more precisely, towards the fascinating city of Mamallapuram: also called Mahabalipuram, this UNESCO World Heritage Site has ancient origins, its birth interwoven with mythology. Here we find an impressive series of temples to visit, for souvenir photos that will easily take your breath away. Travelling through the “Land of the Seven Pagodas” on a Vespa is also perfect: we can easily get from one temple to the next without the issue of traffic.
So, we head to Arjuna’s Penance: a giant bas-relief sculpted into the surface of a 29-metre long granite block. It is a unique sight. Of course, fully understanding the meaning of the various decorations shown is not always simple: there are those who claim to be inspired by the penance of the epic hero Arjuna and those who are instead inspired by the descent of the sacred water of the Ganges to earth. Being a coastal city, however, you can’t miss a temple by the sea. The Shore Temple looks out onto the Bay of Bengal; supposedly, the temple was once part of a complex of seven sanctuaries, but is now the only one left standing after a tsunami.
It is clearly magnificent, but now comes to time to unwind a little along the extensive beaches of Mamallapuram. These stretches of sand are empty, but the water isn't cold and we can perhaps treat ourselves to a dip. There’s just enough time to dry off, before looking for a table in a local restaurant nearby, like the delicious Searock Restaurant, where you can enjoy freshly caught fish from the beach opposite. Aptly named Fishing Beach. A quick stroll along the seashore, then we set off back towards Chennai, but not before stopping at Tiger Cave, a curious temple carved into granite, decorated with the images of 11 tigers: a real gem and a must-see before finishing our exploration of Tamil Nadu.