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The Temples of Tamil Nadu

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Photo: Frederic Lagrange

We are hurtling south down the east Coast Road from Chennai, going way too fast, on the lam from the so-called Indian Economic Miracle. The first time I rode this highway, there were more bullock carts than automobiles. That was in the ancient days of 1995. Now the country's growth rate is 9 percent yearly, and there are tollbooths along the immaculately paved road, and traffic jams of chauffeur-driven SUV's. Now the jungly outskirts of Chennai are giving way to highway cloverleafs and Hyundai plants.

I was new to India in the 90's, and the country I encountered was fairly new to the globalized economy. Amid the tumult of first impressions, I didn't quite see that a lot of what I found appealing was linked to a certain government-induced economic backwardness. India may already have been a nuclear power, but television stations still played black-and-white Bollywood movies starring the 60's Hindi vamp Helen, and finding a decent bar of soap took work.

There were fewer billionaires then, and satellites had only begun beaming empty entertainment into the homes of India's middle class, already 200 million strong. Not every major city could boast of startlingly garish glass-clad malls. There were almost none of the suburbs that looked as if they'd been transplanted from Orange County, California. There was no Indian edition of Vogue.

In the decade or so since I began traveling in India, the divide between its haves and have-nots, its urban and rural populations, its deeply religious roots and its relentlessly secular trajectory has steadily widened. And as it continues to do so, I find myself instinctively moving away from so-called modernity and toward those places where wealth and progress are less often measured by the standards of the West.

Here, for instance, in the country's southernmost state, in the teeming, hectic, vivid, and touristically untrammeled temple cities of Tamil Nadu, a part of India remains that the hordes have yet to overrun. Here the pace of life is largely dictated by agrarian rhythms unaltered for centuries. Even hardscrabble existence is enriched by belief and a great cultural opulence left behind by the Chola, the Pandya, the Vijayanagar, and other vanished ancient dynasties. To this place—at the tip of what looks on a map like an immense tongue jutting into the Indian Ocean and the Bay of Bengal—can be traced the roots of classical Bharatanatyam dancing and Carnatic music, two of India's essential cultural innovations, and of a highly aromatic cuisine hardly changed in a thousand years.

Here are the cities of Thanjavur, Tiruchirappalli, Mamallapuram, Kanchipuram, and Madurai, and the incomparably snoozy Victorian museums stocked with masterpieces depicting the abundant deities of the Hindu pantheon. Here, too, is one of the oldest European settlements on the subcontinent, a place where locals, none too keen on his efforts to convert them, martyred Thomas, the saint apostle, in the year of his lord 72.

And here, now, out of nowhere, comes a wild procession of sweat-slicked men, beating drums and hauling a bronze idol of Kali atop a painted wood palanquin. Barging through a screen of high reeds alongside a paddy field, they blithely march onto the highway as our driver jams on the brakes and we three passengers are tossed around like dice in a box.

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