In case the tourists want to begin with the state capital, Chennai, they can head for Kapalishvara Temple. This shrine dedicated to Shiva, probably, dates back to 16th century. The huge (40m) gopuram towering above the main east entrance, plastered in stucco figures, was added in 1906. Surrounding an assortment of busy shrines, where priests offer blessings for Hindus and non-Hindus alike, the courtyard features an old tree where a small shrine to Shiva's consort, Parvati, shows her in the form of a peahen worshipping a litigant.
The next stop for the Hindu pilgrims would be Mamallapuram or Mahabalipuram. A bas-relief, Arjuna's Penance, also referred to as the "Descent of the Ganga," is a few metres north, opposite the modern Talasayana Perumal Temple in Mamallapuram. The surface of this rock erupts with detailed carving, most notably endearing and naturalistic renditions of animals on the right side. On the left-hand side, Arjuna, one of the Pandava brothers and a consummate archer, is shown standing on one leg. He is looking at the midday sun through a prism formed by his hands, meditating on Shiva, who is represented by a nearby statue fashioned by Arjuna himself.
Just north of Arjuna's Penance a path leads west to a single monolith, the Ganesha Ratha. The sculpture at one end, of a protecting demon with a tricorn headdress, is reminiscent of the Indus Valley civilizations 4000-year-old horned figure known as the "proto-Shiva".
Behind Arjuna's Penance, southwest of the Ganesha Ratha, is the Varaha Mandapa II Cave, whose entrance hall has two pillars with horned lion-bases and a cell flanked by two dvarpalas, or guardians. One of four panels shows the boar-incarnation of Vishnu, who stands with one foot resting on the naga snake-king as he lifts a diminutive Prithvi from the primordial ocean. Another is of Gajalakshmi, the goddess Lakshmi seated on a lotus being bathed by a pair of elephants. Trivikrama, the dwarf Brahmin who becomes huge and bestrides the world in three steps to defeat the demon king Bali, is shown in another panel, and finally a four-armed Durga is depicted in another.
Chidambaram, 58 km south of Puducherry, is so steeped in myth that its history is hard to unravel. The site of the tandava, the cosmic dance of Shiva as Nataraja, King of the Dance, is one of the holiest sites in South India and a visit to the Sabhanayaka Temple affords a fascinating glimpse into ancient Tamil religious practice and belief. The legendary king Hiranyavarman is said to have made a pilgrimage here from Kashmir, seeking to rid himself of leprosy by bathing in the temple's Shivaganga tank. In gratitude he enlarged the temple.
Few of the 50 'maths,' or monasteries, that once stood here remain, but the temple itself is still a hive of activity and hosts numerous festivals. The western gopura is the most popular entrance, as well as being the most elaborately carved and probably the earliest (1150 AD).
The importance of dance at Chidambaram is underlined by the relics of dancing figures inside the east, gopura, demonstrating 108 karanas. A karana (or adauu in Tamil) is a specific point in a phase of movement prescribed by the extraordinarily comprehensive Sanskrit treatise on the performing arts, the Natya Shastra, the basis of all classical dance, music and theatre in India. A caption from the Natya Shastra surmounts each karana niche. Four other niches are filled with images of patrons and stahapatis - the sculptors and designers responsible for the iconography and positioning of deities.
On the north side of town, Kanchipuram's largest temple and most important Shiva shrine, the Ekambareshvara Temple - also known as Ekambaranatha is easily identified by its colossal whitewashed gopurams, which rise to almost 60m.The main temple contains some Pallava work, but was mostly constructed in the 16th and 17th centuries, and stands within a vast walled enclosure beside some smaller shrines and a large fish-filled water tank.
The tourists can also drop in at the Kailasanatha Temple, the oldest structure in Kanchipuram and the finest example of Pallava architecture in South India. It is situated among several low-roofed houses just over l km west of the town centre. Built by the Pallava king Rajasimha early in the 8th century, its intimate size and simple carving distinguish it from the town's later temples.
Built during Pallava supremacy and modified in the 14th and 17th centuries, the Kamakshi Amman Temple, northwest of the bus stand in Kanchipuram, combines several styles, with an ancient central shrine, gates from the Vijayanagar period, and high, heavily sculpted creamy gopuras set above the gateways. This is one of India's three holiest shrines to Shakti, Shiva's cosmic energy depicted in female form, usually as his consort. The goddess Kamakshi, a local form of Parvati, is shown with a sugar-cane bow and arrows of flowers.
Dominating the village landscape of Gangaikondacholapuram, the Brihadishwara Temple sits in a well-maintained grassy courtyard, flanked by a closed mandapa hallway. Turning right (north) inside the courtyard, before one can reach a small shrine to the goddess Durga, containing an image of Mahishasuramardini (the slaying of the buffalo demon), there is a small well, guarded by a lion statue, known as Simha-kinaru and made from plastered brickwork. King Rajendra is said to have had Ganges water placed in the well to be used for the ritual anointing of the Ungam in die main temple. The lion, representing Chola kingly power, bows to the huge Nandi respectfully seated before the eastern entrance of the temple, in line with the Shiva Ungam contained within.
On either side of the temple doorway, sculptures of Shiva in his various benevolent (anugraha) manifestations include him blessing Vishnu, Devi, Ravana and the saint Chandesha. In the northeast corner, an unusual square stone block features carvings of die nine planets (navagmha). A number of Chola bronzes stand on the platform; the figure of Karttikeya, the war god, carrying a club and a shield, is thought to have had particular significance.
Meenakshi Sundareshwarar Temple, Madurai is one of the well known pilgrim spots in Tamil Nadu. Although today surrounded by a sea of modern concrete cubes, the massive gopurams of this vast complex, writhing with multicoloured mythological figures and crowned by golden finials, remain the greatest man-made spectacle of the south. Any day of the week no less than 15,000 people pass through its gates; increasing to over 25,000 on Friday (sacred to the goddess Meenakshi), while the temple's ritual life spills out into the streets in an almost ceaseless round of festivals and processions. The chance to experience sacred ceremonies that have persisted largely unchanged since the time of the ancient Egyptians is one that few travelers pass up.
The Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple at Srirangam, 6 km north of Trichy, is among the most revered shrines to Vishnu in South India and also one of the largest and liveliest. Enclosed by seven rectangular walled courtyards and covering more than sixty hectares, it stands on an island defined by a tributary of the River Cauvery. This location symbolizes the transcendence of Vishnu, housed in the sanctuary reclining on the coils of the snake Adisesha, who in legend formed an island for the god, resting on the primordial Ocean of Chaos.
The gateways of the temple lead to the dimly lit innermost courtyard, the most sacred part of the temple, shelters the image of Vishnu in his aspect of Ranganatha, reclining on the serpent Adisesha. The shrine is usually entered from the south, but for one day each year, during the Vaikuntha Ekadasi festival, the north portal is opened; those who pass through this "doorway to heaven" can anticipate great merit.
The core of the Ramalingeshwara (or Ramanathaswamy) Temple in Rameshwaram was built by the Cholas in the 12th century to house two much-venerated Shiva lingams associated with the Ramayana. The lingams are housed in the inner section of the Ramalingeshwara, not usually open to non-Hindus. Much of what can be visited dates from the 1600s when the temple received generous endowments from the Sethupathi rajas of Ramanathapuram.
High walls forming a rectangle with huge pyramidal gopura entrances on each side enclose Ramalingeshwara temple. Each gateway leads to a spacious closed ambulatory, flanked to either side by continuous platforms with massive pillars set on their edges. These corridors are the most famous attribute of the temple, their extreme length - 205m, with 1212 pillars on the north and south sides - giving a remarkable impression of receding perspective. Delicate scrollwork and brackets of pendant lotuses supported by yalis, mythical lion-like beasts, adorn the pillars.
At the southernmost end of India, Kanniyakumari is almost as compelling for Hindus as Rameshwaram. It is significant not only for its association with a virgin goddess, Kanya Devi, but also as the meeting point of the Bay of Bengal, Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea. The place is of enduring appeal to pilgrims and those who just want to see India's tip.
The seashore Kumari Amman Temple is dedicated to the virgin goddess Kanya Devi, who may originally have been the local guardian deity of the shoreline, but was later absorbed into the figure of Devi, or Parvati, consort of Shiva. The image of Kanya Devi inside the temple wears a diamond nose stud of such brilliance that it's said to be visible from the sea. Male visitors must be shirtless and wear a dhoti before entering the temple; non-Hindus are not allowed in the inner sanctum. It is especially auspicious for pilgrims to wash at the bathing ghat here.
Just northeast of Egmore Station, off Periyar EVR High Road, St Andrew's Kirk (Chennai) consecrated in 1821, is a fine example of Georgian architecture. Modelled on London's St Martins-in-the-Fields, it is one of just three churches in India with a circular seating plan, laid out beneath a huge dome painted blue with gold stars and supported by a sweep of Corinthian columns. Marble plaques around the church give a fascinating insight into the kind of people who left Britain to work for the imperial and Christian cause. A staircase leads onto the flat roof, surrounding the dome, from where you can climb further up into the steeple past the massive bell to a tiny balcony affording excellent views of the city.