A profusion of religious architecture spreads over an ancient agrarian landscape in Tamil Nadu, the deep south of India. Guy Trebay takes it in.
Frédéric Lagrange The Temples of Tamil Nadu
| Credit: 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.

"Sorry about that,'' Murugesh, the driver, says mildly. Far from unnerved, the Indian among my traveling companions politely asks him to park on the verge for a moment so that we can all hop out and chase the goddess down the road.

Kali, after all, is a deity not often encountered, at least not outside Calcutta, where the cult of this incarnation of Shiva's wife is particularly passionate. There she is worshipped as a malevolent black-skinned wraith, a gore goddess dripping with blood, her neck garlanded with snakes and skulls. This Kali takes on a more placid and benevolent form: mild-mannered, the Source of Being, the Redeemer of the Universe.

Whatever one's spiritual orientation, it seems only civil to pay one's respects to the local dignitaries, human and otherwise. And so we dart back to the car to grab a bunch of fruit and fist­fuls of rupees, then jog alongside the procession to deposit them at the idol's feet. It is not easy keeping pace with the devotees, who move briskly on small wiry legs, nearly trotting as they cut down a sandy lane to the seashore and then disappear amid drumbeats and the tootling of horns.

Scenes like this are anything but rare in Tamil Nadu, where crumbling ancient temples are so plentiful that some have yet to be inventoried; where the living embodiments of the sacred bull Nandi are omnipresent and typically well fed, unlike the sad bony hulks one so often sees living on road dividers in North Indian cities; and where the animist roots of Shiva worship—the first formal expression of Hinduism—are so naturally entwined with daily life that even a noninitiate can begin to grasp the basics of a profound philosophical system that in the West has morphed into competitive yoga and Madonna chanting Om shanti shanti with her foot behind her head.

My companions and I are undertaking an eccentric road-and-airspace loop through the temple cities of Tamil Nadu, from Chennai (formerly Madras) to Madurai by plane, then on to Thanjavur and Tiruchirappalli (also called Trichy) by car, with a detour into an arid region of clustered villages that together form Chettinad, the homeland of the Nattukottai Chettiar caste. There, over the past two centuries, a close-knit community of traders and bankers erected mansions as opulent as they are unlikely in their setting, which, to put it politely, is the back of beyond.

Before setting off on our circuit I pay a visit to one important outpost of the late Raj, the Govern­ment Museum complex, set north and west of the old seaside fort in a part of the city built on a grid, an early example of urban planning in British India. It would be stretching to attempt here a comprehensive account of the treasures at this little-visited attic of empire; its collection of ancient sculptures is equaled only by that at the Palace Museum at Thanjavur.

Most people visit looking for the famous bronzes of the multi-armed Shiva known as Nataraja, or Lord of the Dance. But whenever I am in Chennai, I find myself drawn here to see the 11th-century statue portraying Ardhanariswara, a dual-sex form of Shiva and his consort Parvati, bisected vertically. One half is lithe and masculine, the other rounded and with a single, lusciously full breast. A wonder of plastic expression, and of insights both anatomical and psychosexual, the statue is just one masterpiece among many. And the room where it stands is but one in a complex of structures that overall provide a survey of 19th-century knowledge—and that unwittingly reveal the discomfort induced in British minds by the expressive artistry of ancient Hindustan, which they tended to disdain as lurid, pagan, and corrupting of Victorian morality.

One could spend days here following around barefoot attendants like the one who explains for my benefit that the taxidermy specimens are "all skin only original, inside cotton stuffing." Having thus educated me, my cicerone records his name in my notepad, and then turns up his hand for a tip. Above his head hangs a stern warning against gallery guards accepting baksheesh. Both the attendant and I understand the sign to be an empty formality. I give him 50 rupees. He gives me a toothless smile and a friendly goodbye.

My companions and I set off on the short air hop to Madurai, where we arrive in late afternoon in furnace heat and the din of temple processions, a sound almost impossible to escape in this legendary temple town. Our hotel, the Taj Garden Retreat, a series of rambling structures on one of the city's four prominent hillsides, was built in 1891 to house a British magnate who ran a global trade in goods from local cotton mills. It is tough to imagine anyone doing business from a place as spiritually and practically labyrinthine as Madurai, a seat of Hindu learning and worship and incessant bell ringing at least since Augustus took Rome.

The Pandya kings are said to have built the city—whose name refers to a drop of nectar fallen from Shiva's locks—in the third century, more or less. Although the Chola kings briefly conquered it, and the Vijayanagar kings followed suit in 1371, it was the Pandya dynasty and their governors, the Nayaks, who are credited with erecting its most prominent landmark, the ecstatically and chromatically exuberant 16th-century temple called Meenakshi Sundareswara.

There are those who refer to Madurai as a power center, claiming that the earth around the old temple emanates supercharged vibrations. I vaguely understand them, having experienced distinct energetic jolts at spots in volcanic Hawaii and at the great Gothic cathedral at Chartres. To the millions of pilgrims who throng there to pray, meditate, prostrate themselves, and perform the ritual offerings of puja, Madurai is surely a power center. Yet, oddly, of all South India's temple cities, it affects me least.

True, the relief sculptures of deities and mythical figures and erotic contortionists and gods and goddesses disporting themselves are eye-popping and riotous. But a nonbeliever can get more or less the same visual hit by visiting the Iskcon Hindu temple in New Delhi, with its high-tech robots of Krishna, Arjuna, and the temple's patron, all made about 10 minutes ago. (Well, 1998.) Like the feather-waving brothers in Wes Anderson's The Darjeeling Limited, I try to arouse some kind of spiritual feeling. The harder I do, the more I feel like a boob. I feel blank or, more precisely, as if I were about to faint. It is so hot here that the pigmented oil from a tilak used by a temple priest to anoint my forehead has melted down my nose.

Notoriously, South India is said to have three seasons—hot, hotter, and hottest. And as my traveling pals and I walk the temple grounds, gawking at the multistory gopuras; the ash-daubed mendicants; the sheds where sacred cows are housed; the fascinating coin-counting thresher used by the temple staff; we find ourselves hopscotching toward whatever shade exists, our tender soles scorching on griddle-hot pavement.

It is dimmer, somewhat, in the temple's inner sanctum but no less stifling. This sensation is substantially augmented by the scores of pillars sculptured with steamy scenes from the soap opera life of a Madurai princess who—among many other feats—shifted gender and miraculously lost the third breast she'd been born with upon encountering the right man, who was, it turned out, a god in disguise. Just following the plotline is enough to raise a sweat.

I am glad to get back to the air-conditioned hotel and, truth be told, glad to leave Madurai and head northeast for the drier and less smothering April heat of Chettinad. On our way to the village of Karaikudi, we stop at a large commercial flower market where garland makers hawk their wares from metal sheds. It's near noon and the tuberose garlands we buy are already slightly limp. They revive a bit in the cool of the car, though, and are a good deal fresher than we by the time we reach our hotel, the Bangala.

We slip off our shoes at the entry, as one does in most private households, and are led by a staff member to a large, square second-floor bedroom that looks out across a modest garden. We take cold showers and then drink cold beers and commence a brief sojourn that, even as it begins, we do not want to end.

Every so often this happens to the traveler. There is a city or a hostelry that one is hesitant to quit. I feel this way at the Oriental hotel in Bangkok, and in New Delhi at the Taj Mahal, and in Berlin, wherever I happen to stay. Now, at the Bangala, it is easy to imagine many mornings of waking up to a steaming cup of South Indian coffee that, as a houseman with teeth of neon Hollywood whiteness explains, "is decocted drop by drop, then filtered and mixed with milk to become highly good.''

The hotel itself is a collection of simple stucco structures, 13 rooms in a former men's club set on the outskirts of the village and owned by a septuagenarian widow named Meenakshi Meyyappan and her relatives. A dignified woman from an important family, Meyyappan is shrewd and gentle, obviously accustomed to running a fine household. The mottled terrazzo floors of the hotel are immaculate and blessedly free of dust. The paneled rosewood doors are polished to a mirror sheen. The staff, almost all male, are dressed in dhotis and crisply pressed shirts and evince a kind of welcome one rarely encounters in an era of "guest relations'' and computer-programmed amiability.

And there is, of course, the food. One is lucky to eat like a Chettiar, they say in South India, and the members of this old banking and money-lending caste are properly proud of their kitchens and cuisine. To the coconut and rice that are staples in South India, the meat-eating Chettiars add quail and chicken and mutton, and fish and shellfish trucked inland from the Bay of Bengal. At the Bangala, the cooks use grinding stones to pulverize regional spices, deploying them in masalas for dishes like a sinus-clearing black-pepper chicken, sour-scented tamarind crab curry, king prawns flavored with spring onions, and, in a nod to the nursery palates of British memory, Raj-era dishes like mint-and-potato croquettes. Meals there are taken communally at a teak dining table and eaten from banana-leaf plates with one's hands. Afterward finger bowls are brought to the table, and it is a good thing that they are.

We range out from the Bangala by car each day in the relative cool of the mornings, driving to villages with unpronounceable names to snoop around the great Chettiar mansions, then returning at midday to nap. At dusk we venture out again to roam through Karaikudi's lanes of antiques dealers, their stalls brimming with bejeweled Thanjavur paintings, chromolithographs of Krishna, lacquerware still labeled with an image of a shopkeeper from Ava, a river port in Burma from which Chettiar brides traditionally ordered their trousseaux.

Among the least known of India's architectural oddities, the Chettiar mansions are so fanciful and hyperbolic as to rival Disney. Crowded together in dusty villages, each seems to have an even more ornate façade than the next, an even grander pillared portico, a cornice even more heavily populated with guardian statuary depicting variations on the goddess Meenakshi or helmeted British police. Each has its own scores of chambers and acres of tile roofing and miles of marble flooring and doors and pillars made from teak. And each is in some kind of peril, as Mrs. Meyyappan's sister-in-law, the preservationist Visalakshi Ramaswamy, points out. "What we saw in the first year was gone by the third," she says, referring to her research for a book about Chettiar heritage.

We had been together to see a small museum she runs in her family home, the Chettinad museum, and also to see Mrs. Meyyappan's imposing residence, which stands a short distance from her hotel off Karaikudi's main road. Vast and multichambered, both are living houses, unlike many of the region's ghostly mansions, deserted by owners who consider them too unwieldy and remote from urban centers to maintain. Amid the frenzy of India's prosperity, scores have been sold to dealers who raze them and strip out precious building materials—in particular the old-growth wood no longer obtainable legally—to sell to decorators serving the newly rich in New Delhi, Bangalore, and Mumbai.

The transition from the arid landscape of Chettinad to the rice delta of Thanjavur seems less subtle than Dorothy's from Kansas to Oz. One moment we are in a monochrome region of barren vistas and stunted trees; the next, we have embarked on a Technicolor acid trip. So much green on the eye has a druggy effect; the landscape radiates fecundity. And it is this same lush and well-watered soil that provided the wealth to fuel Hindu kingdoms of antiquity.

Each successive dynasty seems to have built with greater abandon; temples are scattered everywhere—in palm groves, on hilltops, in caves and rice fields. Some, like the much photographed seventh- century shore temple at Mamallapuram, are poetically intimate in scale. Others are as garish as McMansions in Beverly Hills. On the road to Thanjavur we stop briefly at a pair that, while barely warranting mention in most guidebooks, are examples of what I think of as the Hindu sublime.

In the candlelit gloom of the first is a large recumbent statue of Vishnu, and a priest anointing the idol with oil. The statue was hewn by hand from the live rock of a cave, probably 10 centuries ago. From the look of him, the priest has been in there almost as long. In the second temple is a pillar hall populated with figures of flamboyant sexual ambiguity. Effeminate and swashbuckling at once, they have Kewpie-doll eyes and curled mustaches. Who or what is being depicted is not altogether clear. Who cares?The statues call to mind the Cockettes, a 1970's San Francisco drag troupe, and the biblical aphorism about novelty under the sun.

"Royal families in Tamil Nadu do this," says Babaji Bhonsle, referring to temple maintenance, when we call on the rajah of Thanjavur in his apartment in the crumbling Thanjavur Palace. A barefoot servant brings in a tray of warm bottled lime soda; the electricity flickers on and off.

"Some may have one temple," says the 39-year-old prince, a direct descendant of the Maratha rulers, who was trained as an engineer and who, entering adulthood, came into possession of enormous collections of sculptural and architectural masterpieces as well as perhaps the world's most important library of palm-leaf manuscripts but alas no fortune big enough to maintain his inheritance. "We have 88 temples. It is my spiritual responsibility to maintain them, but this is not a burden for me," says the rajah. "It is my dharma," or cosmic task, he adds with a smile.

Of course, were Tamil Nadu to enjoy the revenues generated by tourists who flock to Agra or the congested Pink City of Jaipur, it would simplify his job of keeping up the temples, building pilgrim shelters, feeding elephants and priests, rewarding the conservators who unfold and oil each of several thousand palm manuscripts by hand. "But there is not very much awareness of us here," Rajah Bhonsle says with a shrug. "People who come to India want to see the Taj Mahal. They don't realize we have a history here in Tamil Nadu that is more than three thousand years old."

It would be a mistake, though, to think of this as a region of relics and repositories. Nearly all the places of worship in Tamil Nadu are active centers where the faithful perform the rituals of birth and marriage and death, and where a visitor can hear chanted Sanskrit verses first set down a hundred generations ago.

In few places is this collapse of the past into the present more vivid than at Tiruchirappalli (its other name, Trichy, is a British improvisation on the Tamil tongue-twister). Thirty-five miles from Thanjavur, this place once called the City of the Three-Headed Demon is famous for its Rock Fort Temple, built around a dizzyingly high citadel—fought over by the Pallavas, the Cholas, and the Pandyas—and the Ranganathaswamy Vishnu temple complex, one of the largest in India.

Because time is short and the April heat brutal, we restrict ourselves to a short walk through the temple city's seven concentric perimeter walls, each traditionally inhabited by a separate caste, and come away with a blur of mostly superficial impressions of the "hall of 1,000 pillars" (there are actually 953). Seemingly hundreds of thousands of pilgrims pray and process and sleep and eat in these rooms adorned with sculptures of snarling tigers and men on rearing horses and bosomy devadasi, or temple maidens, preparing themselves for divine seduction. Unquestionably Trichy would reward a longer visit, perhaps during the 21-day Vaikunta Ekadasi festival, which takes place around Christmastime. But we are eager to return to Chennai, where the season's first mangoes are due to appear at vendors' stalls.

Before taking off from the Taj Coromandel in Chennai, I had obtained a pledge from the chef at the hotel's fine restaurant, Southern Spice, to prepare us a thali surveying the range of Tamil cuisine. This he does over the course of a long and indulgent evening, which begins with motchaikottai soup, a vegetable broth flavored with lablab beans, and moves on to preparations like nandu koduku chettinadu, a dry-marinated crab claw cooked Chettiar style; broccoli and banana flower with lentils; another delicate dish made with a vegetable called lady's finger; quails fried and tossed in a spice mixture typical of coastal Cuddalore; and side dishes of sambar, rasam, and appam, paper-thin pancakes from a batter of fermented rice flour, prepared at the table by a sous-chef with the quick hands of a dealer in Vegas.

As is true of many Indian feasts, the recitation of these delicacies sounds indulgent. And it is. We eat well, if cautious of gorging, because we know what is in store. On the way from the airport to the hotel in Chennai, the driver we hired had taken us to a market known for the quality and variety of its produce. Wandering amid the stalls where merchants had stacked their wares in neat pyramids, we went a little overboard.

For much of the year, mangoes are unavailable in India, and their arrival tends to produce a certain consumer frenzy in the beginning. The highly prized Alphonso, grown around Mumbai, is considered the king of mangoes, but there are others as fine-fleshed and as sweet. We bought smallish green Himsagar mangoes, grown in Bengal, and the tangy Langra variety, trucked in from West Bengal. We bought small football-shaped Ratnagiri mangoes, green and orange tinted, from Maharashtra, and the Banganapalli kind from nearby Andhra Pradesh. All told, we delivered eight varieties to the hotel kitchen. The chef promised an ambrosial conclusion to our evening meal.

To suggest that when the moment of truth comes we are not disappointed at first would be less than truthful. Where imagination had conjured up mango mousse and foam and ice cream, reality delivers a platter of sliced fruit. Sensing our confusion, I suppose, the chef appears at the waiter's shoulder and says he has actually given much thought to dessert. Concepts like regional cooking and Slow Food are not theoretical abstractions in Tamil Nadu, he explains. In increasingly Westernized Mumbai, perhaps, a fine dinner might require a confectionary exclamation point. But in Chennai, where cultural tradition remains strong, and people are less susceptible to that error of judgment that mistakes complexity for luxury, instinct told the chef that a perfect ripe mango required no improvement. Simplicity is wealth, he suggests. We lift our forks and are rich.

Getting There

British Airways, Lufthansa, Air India, and Air France have flights from major U.S. cities to Chennai International Airport via European or Indian connections.

When to Go

Tamil Nadu's weather is best from January to April. In summer, temperatures can rise above 100 degrees.

Where to Stay

The Bangala Great Value . Doubles from $179.

Fisherman's Cove A seaside resort with 88 rooms. Doubles from $253.

Taj Coromandel Doubles from $314.

Taj Garden Retreat Great Value. Doubles from $150.

What to Do

Rules and hours at Tamil Nadu's numerous temples and museums vary. In some cities, the temple is essentially the town. Visit tamilnadutourism.org.

Brihadishwara Temple Thanjavur; 91-4362/31421.

Chettinad Museum Kanadukathan, Chettinad; 91-4573/221-371.

DakshinaChitra Near Chennai, a village of reconstructed houses typical of southern India, where Muslim silk-mat weavers practice and sell their craft. E. Coast Rd., Muttukadu; dakshinachitra.net; 91-44/2747-2603.

Government Museum 486 Pantheon Rd., Egmore, Chennai; 91-44/2819-3238.

Meenakshi Sundareswara Temple Madurai; 91-452/ 234-4360.

Ranganathaswamy Temple Srirangam, Tiruchirappalli; 91-431/243-2246.

St. Andrew's Church A British colonial church built in 1821, modeled on London's Church of St.-Martin's-in-the-Fields. 37 Poonamallee High Rd., Egmore, Chennai; thekirk.net; 91-44/2561-2608.

Shore Temple Mamallapuram; 91-44/2846-1459.

Thanjavur Royal Palace and Museums Thanjavur; 91-4362/31421.

Victoria Technical Institute Opened in 1887 for the Queen Empress's jubilee; particularly fine goods are in the South Indian Women's Work Room. 765 Anna Salai, Chennai; 91-44/2852-3141.