Things to Do in Tamil Nadu
The British East India Company constructed Fort St. George (their first fortress in India) in 1640. The 20-foot (6-meter) thick outer walls surround a complex of white colonial structures, known historically as ‘White City,’ including St Mary’s, the oldest Anglican church in Asia.
The ghost town of Dhanushkodi sits at the southeast tip of Pamban Island in India’s Tamil Nadu state, just 30 kilometers from Talaimannar in Sri Lanka.
According to Hindu mythology, Lord Rama built a bridge between the mainland and Sri Lanka in order to bring his army across. After the war, Rama was said to destroy the bridge with one end of his bow, hence the name Dhanushkodi, which means 'end of the bow'. Hindu pilgrims come to bathe in the waters here before completing their pilgrimage to the city of Rameswaram.
Visitors can hire a jeep or join a minibus to traverse the beach, visiting the Kodanda Rama Temple, which juts out into the ocean, along the way. The beach is a stunning strip of white sand and, since there is little commercialism here, it remains clean and picturesque. The tour vehicles will navigate the sand and water up to the ‘ghost town’ resettlement colony, which was destroyed in a devastating cyclone in 1964, with only the remnants of railway platforms, the church, and an old post office remaining.
A complex of stone temples are all that remain of the eighth-century Pallava dynasty that once thrived at Mahabalipuram (Mamallapuram), on the coast south of Chennai. Learn the history of this UNESCO World Heritage Site, visit the charming town, and relax on a sandy stretch of shore—all accessible on a day trip from Chennai.
Known alternatively as Besant Nagar Beach, or “Bessie” for short, Elliot's Beach sits at the south end of the Marina Beach shore. A former expatriate enclave during Chennai’s colonial era, today the beach attracts throngs of twentysomethings, as well as families looking to avoid the crowds at the more popular Marina Beach.
Stretching around 8 miles (13 kilometers) along Chennai, Marina Beach is India’s longest natural urban beach. While not an ideal swimming beach, Marina Beach makes an excellent spot for people watching in the cooler hours of the morning and evening, when the main stretch near Triplicane becomes a flurry of activity.
Chennai’s most famous temple, the 7th-century Kapaleeshwar Temple honors the god Shiva with shrines dedicated to many other deities in the South Indian pantheon. The working temple offers a good example of classical Dravidian architecture, with a stepped pyramid design blanketed in colorful statues of gods, demons, warriors and royalty.
The Royal Palace of Thanjavur was built by the Nayak rulers after they took control of the city in 1535 but was added onto by the Maratha rulers during their rule from 1676 to 1855. The result is a sprawling complex in various states of upkeep. Several areas of the palace are open to visitors in three different ticketed areas.
Just past the ticket office lies the Royal Palace Museum, where ceremonial costumes, weaponry and a few sculptures are on display. The Maharaja Serfoji Memorial Hall commemorates the Maratha scholar-king of the same name, while the Mahratta Dharbar Hall was where the Maratha rulers gave audience — you can still see their portraits behind the dais.
Two of the highlights of the palace complex are the Sarawasti Mahal Library Museum and the Art Gallery. The former displays pieces from Serfoji II’s collection of books, manuscripts and naturalist paintings of Indian plants and animals, while the latter houses a magnificent collection of bronze (mostly Chola) and stone carvings.
Spread across six structures with 46 galleries, the Government Museum houses Chennai’s best collection of scientific and artistic artifacts. It also houses the most impressive collection of Pallava and Chola bronze sculptures (dating back to the 10th and 13th centuries) anywhere in the world.
Located within the walls of Fort St. George, St. Mary’s Church is the oldest masonry building within the fort. This small church was consecrated in 1680 and was likely the first Anglican church in Asia. It’s also the oldest remaining English church in India. Work began on the church in 1678 on Our Lady’s Day, giving it its current name.
The 16th-century Sao Thome Cathedral, built by the Portuguese and later rebuilt by the British, is said to house the bodily remains of St. Thomas, who came to India in 52 AD, in a tomb below the white neo-Gothic structure. Interior highlights include a series of stained glass windows inside the basilica depicting scenes from St. Thomas’s life as well as carved wooden panels of the Stations of the Cross.
More Things to Do in Tamil Nadu
Established in 1885, the Arignar Anna Zoological Park (Vandalur Zoo) is the oldest public zoo in India. It’s been transformed and relocated over the years, and today the zoo can be found in Vandalu, just over 30 kilometers from Chennai. It’s home to hundreds of species of wild animals, many of which are considered endangered, and serves as a wildlife sanctuary and center for rehabilitating rescued animals.
The Arignar Anna Zoological Park is a large and well-maintained space with plenty of plant and wildlife out in the open. Visitors can tour the expansive grounds on bicycles or by using one of the zoo’s electric vehicles to zip around. Most of the main attractions are located along the park’s inner pathways, where the large animals such as tigers, panthers, and elephants live. There are a whole host of other mammals, reptiles, birdlife, fish, and butterflies to visit throughout the rest of the park too.
According to legend, St. Thomas, a disciple of Christ, lived out the remainder of his days in a rocky cave, known as Little Mount (Chinnamalai). Today, Little Mount is home to a Portuguese church dating back to 1551, as well as a small altar to St. Thomas and a palm print believed by some to be left by Thomas himself as he fled.
Built in the Indo-Saracenic architectural style, the Ripon Building serves as the headquarters of the Corporation of Chennai, the oldest municipal body of the Commonwealth outside Great Britain. The highlight of the structure is the 8-foot (2.5-meter) clock, known as the Westminster Chiming Clock, on the building’s central tower.
Founded in 1936, the Kalakshetra Foundation is the leading academy of the arts in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu, with a focus on the traditional dances and music styles of the region. Rukmini Devi Arundale, the school’s founder, studied dance under Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova. The word “kalakshetra” means “holy place of the arts.”
Nicknamed the “Golden City of 1,000 Temples,” Kanchipuram was the capital city of the Pallava Dynasty in Tamil Nadu and boasts numerous intricately carved shrines, most dedicated to Vishnu or Shiva. The city’s buildings also offer an excellent chance to admire examples of Dravidian architecture.
The heart of cultural life in Chennai, Mylapore is a charming neighborhood characterized by broad, tree-lined streets coupled with narrow roads and myriad temples, churches, and restaurants. Its star attraction is the Kapaleeshwarar Temple, though it's also home to the San Thome Basilica, which houses the tomb of Thomas the Apostle.
Just south of Chennai, the heritage village of DakshinaChitra, was established to help preserve the folk art and cultural traditions of southern India. Artisans trained in traditional techniques work right on the property, making pots, baskets, woven silk pieces, puppets and stone carvings that visitors can purchase directly.
Inaugurated in July of 1892, the Madras High Court is one of only three (along with Mumbai and Kolkata) in modern India that was established by royal charter under Queen Victoria. Architecturally, it’s one of the city’s most stunning examples of the Indo-Saracenic aesthetic, displaying Moorish, European, Islamic and Hindu elements in its red sandstone facade.
The domes, minarets and other decorative elements of the building’s exterior are matched in grandeur within, where guided tours take visitors through the various court rooms, many appointed with stained glass windows and exquisite works of art.
An interesting note: The Madras High Court is one of the few buildings in India to have been damaged by a German attack during the early years of World War I.
Valluvar Kottam was constructed in 1976 as a shrine in memory of poet Thiruvalluvar, author of Thirukkural, a collection of more than a thousand rhyming Tamil couplets that expound simplicity of life and set a moral code for his followers. Thiruvalluvar lived and wrote during the first century BC in what is now Chennai.
Situated in Chennai’s Mylapore neighborhood, this temple was constructed in 1952 by a devotee of Shirdi Sai Baba, a 19th-century saint who preached compassion, love, and religious tolerance. It's but one of many temples to the saint across India and the oldest Sai Baba temple in Chennai.
Built for Armenian traders in India in 1712, the Armenian Church, also known as the Church of the Holy Virgin Mary, is among the oldest churches in the country. Though it no longer functions as a house of worship, the church is still maintained as a historical attraction and is funded by the Armenian Apostolic Church.
The National Art Gallery, one of six individual museums comprising the Chennai Government Museum, is one of the oldest art galleries in the country. The red sandstone Indo-Sarasenic building was designed by architect Henry Irwin and completed in 1906 as part of Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee. The gallery was closed in 2002 when its deteriorating state threatened both visitor safety and the art, but after an extensive renovation in 2013, the gallery re-opened to the public.
The National Art Gallery is subdivided into four smaller galleries: the Tanjore Painting Gallery, Decorative Art Gallery, Indian Traditional Art Gallery and the Ravi Varma Painting Gallery. Besides paintings in various mediums, the gallery also showcases a small collection of sandalwood sculptures.
Situated near Elliot's Beach, the colorful Ashtalakshmi Temple was constructed in the mid-1970s to honor the Hindu goddess of prosperity, Lakshmi. The multitiered structure features images of the goddess in her eight forms, with shrines spread over four floors accessible by steep and narrow staircases.
Auroville was birthed in the late 1960s by Mirra Alfassa, known to her followers as The Mother, as a universal town where unity and spirituality would be celebrated. Today, the town has a population of over 2,000 people from 45 different countries and a range of age groups, backgrounds and social classes.
At the center of Auroville sits Matrimandir, the gold-domed Temple of the Mother, where residents come to meditate. The Auroville Visitors Centre offers an introductory video about the project, and travelers willing to spend more than a day passing through can sign up to participate in meditation, yoga, dance, martial arts and inner healing workshops. Many projects happening around town welcome volunteers, some for as little as a day and others for a week or month at a time.
- Things to do in Chennai
- Things to do in Thanjavur
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- Things to do in Northern Sri Lanka
- Things to do in Kerala
- Things to do in Central Sri Lanka
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