In keeping with the deeply religious moorings of those who live around temple towns, the people of Tamil Nadu proudly wear their caste symbols on their foreheads. Called ‘naams’ and ’tilaks’ these symbols are made of ash, vermilion or sandal paste in a U-shape or horizontal lines.
However, modern Tamil Nadu is much more than temples and prayerful people. This sunny stretch of land on India’s southeastern coastline has exquisite beaches, a booming film industry and film stars who change overnight into stars of a political firmament. The Integral Coach Factory that keeps the railways supplied with its wagons, and the Kalpakkam Nuclear Power Station, which also has the only U-233 fuelled operational reactor in the world, Kamini (Kalpakkam Mini Reactor), are all located here; so are some of the finest educational institutions which date back to the British period.
South India’s nightingale, M. S. Subbulakshmi, and India’s “missile man” APJ Abdul Kalam, who have been honoured with the country’s highest civilian award, the ‘Bharat Ratna’ (Jewel of India order), both hail from this State.
Tamil Nadu represents the nucleus of Dravidian art and culture. The Chola, Pandya and Pallava dynasties ruled in relative isolation in this region and Hindu architecture evolved vigorously under them. The renowned Meenakshi Temple in Madurai with its nine gopurams, the tallest and most-gaily decorated one being 48 metres high, is visited by nearly 15000 people every day. Other temples at Rameshwaram Temple in the far south, Thanjavur, Srirangam, Chidambaram and Kancheepuram have their own history and unique features.
Proud of their rich cultural heritage, the people of Tamil Nadu do everything possible to preserve their culture. Ancient customs and traditions, going back 3000 years, still thrive. Their mother tongue, Tamil, is the oldest living language in the world. The classical dance of the ‘devadasis’ (temple dancers), Bharatnatyam, which had gone into decline during British rule after flourishing in southern India for centuries, was revived by the setting up of Kalakshetra at Chennai in 1936, and is now famous throughout the world. Bharatnatyam combines melody, rhythm, facial expressions, hand gestures and postures of the body to portray narratives of devotional themes. A visit to Chennai is not complete until you have attended a performance of this dance.
Wax-moulded bronze icons were introduced by the Cholas in the 9th century for worship in their temples. Replicas of these icons, and granite sculptures of Hindu deities, are still made by skilled artisans and adorn homes all across India. The most commonly seen is Nataraja, Lord Shiva as the celestial Lord of Dance. The rare artistic appeal of this icon has made it a symbol of Indian art throughout the world.
A unique form of painting was developed at Thanjavur (Tanjore) during the 16th century. Made in relief form on canvas or glass, the paintings used gold & metal foil and semi-precious stones to simulate the ornaments of the deities portrayed. The art form is still flourishing, and Tanjore Paintings are considered prized possessions.
The ‘city of a thousand temples’, Kancheepuram, has preserved its age-old tradition of weaving exquisite silk sarees. The clack of handlooms is still heard amid the ringing of temple bells.
The warm coastal plains in the East gradually rise to the Nilgiris (the Blue Mountains), in the Northwest, and the Palani hills in the West. Lying at the junction of Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, the Nilgiris have their own ambience – eucalyptus covered hill slopes, tea gardens, hill stations, teak & sandalwood forests and wild life.
Udhagamandalam (Ootacamund or ‘Ooty’), the erstwhile summer headquarters of the British government in southern India, offers a cool retreat, as do Coonoor and Kotagiri the other hill stations nearby. Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary lies in the thickly forested Nilgiri foothills.
Celebrated with festivity and joy in January every year, the harvest festival, Pongal, is the most important festival in the State, during which people worship the sun, the earth and cattle in thanksgiving for a bounteous crop.