Southern Tamil Nadu is centered on one of the oldest cities in South Asia, Madurai that has been chronicled as early as 300 BC. The city lies on the banks of the Vaigai River and has been an important centre of worship and commerce for as long as civilization existed in South India. The city is built around the Meenakshi-Sundareshwarar Temple which was first consecrated in the 1st century AD, but was largely built to its current form in the 15th century AD. The massive gopuras (pagodas) of this vast temple complex, writhing with multi-coloured mythological figures and crowned by golden domes, remain the greatest man-made spectacle in South India.
East of Madurai, sprouting out of the semi-arid Chettinad province, is a group of villages that look like Newport, Massachusetts ran out of space. This is the home to the Chettiars, a community of Tamil traders, who migrated to Burma and Malaysia, and made their fortunes there. With their wealth, they built massive palatial homes (some with over 100 rooms!) using teak, stone, ceramic and plenty of kitsch. Visiting the palatial homes and mansions around Karaikudi with a local guide gives you insights into legacy of this vibrant and prosperous community.
North of Madurai in the shadow of the stunning Palani Hills, Athoor is a rural hamlet blessed with mild weather through the year. The surroundings are lush green with forests, interspersed with sustenance agriculture. Staying and visiting here offers the opportunity to see a slice of real rural Tamilnadu – the way that most of South India lives.
West of Madurai, the skyline is filled with the unbroken peaks of the Palani Hills. The hills themselves are a spur of the mighty Western Ghats that run north-south in India, and were first opened up by American missionaries in the mid 19th century as a respite from malaria. The centre of the settlement was in the pleasant 7000feet high hill-retreat of Kodaikanal, built around a lake. As infrastructure improved, land in the Palani Hills was acquired to grow tea, coffee and fruit. Today, for even those with no historic links to Kodaikanal, you will still find the Palani Hills a delightful and scenic respite from the dust of Madurai and the river plains of the Coromandel. Scattered across the Palani Hills are coffee and cardamom plantations that provide unique accommodation experiences.