Secret Backpacking Trail - Ghost Towns, Mangroves, Dravidian Temples, Utopian City & Francolandia


Credits: Wikimedia Commons

Photo of Credits: <a href="">Wikimedia Commons</a> by Varun Suchday

Tamil Nadu is often overlooked by backpackers and travellers despite the fact that this South Indian state hides many marvels in plain sight. Home to four UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Tamil Nadu has a distinct style of architecture dating back to 700AD. It also guards a secret in the form of world's second largest mangrove forest. And, India's only ville française, technically a union territory, is still within reach. A multicultural Utopian town is bubbling with knowledge of art, architecture, music, dance, languages, agriculture and numerous other subjects for those who seek to dive deeper. At last, an eerie ghost town, flanked by two seas, sits at the site where Lord Rama initiated the bridge to Lanka all those years ago.

This 9-day itinerary will you take to relatively popular as well as little-known places in the southeast of Tamil Nadu.

Getting there

The itinerary starts in Madurai and ends in Chennai. But, it can easily be done in reverse.

By air: There are direct flights to Madurai and Chennai from all the major metro cities of India.

By train: There are trains to Madurai and Chennai from all the major metro cities of India.

By bus: Madurai is overnight bus away from Kochi, Coimbatore, Mysore and Bangalore. Chennai can be reached overnight from Bangalore, Mysore and Hyderabad.

What to see and do

Day 1

Madurai's air, rail and bus connectivity makes it an ideal place to start Tamil Nadu backpacking trip. It is often referred to as 'the Athens of the East', it boasts some of the best Dravidian temples, an Indo-Saracenic palace and a Romanesque cathedral. And, it is the right place to explore the flavours of Chettinad cuisine.

Credit: Arian Zwegers

Photo of Credit: <a href="">Arian Zwegers</a> by Varun Suchday

Meenaxi temple is the epitome of Dravidian temple architecture. The temple complex, spread over 14 acres, has been built as a mandala according to the laws of symmetry and loci. The colourful multistory gopurams (gateways) display thousands of mythological characters and their stories. It is highly recommended to take the services of temple guides as they can explain different characters and their stories.

Credits: Wikimedia Commons

Photo of Credits: <a href="">Wikimedia Commons</a> by Varun Suchday

The same goes for numerous sculptures that resonate interesting legends in the hallways of the temple. The hall of thousand pillars has 985 finely carved pillars and is the most magnificent site within the temple. The beauty of the temple lies in the thousands of legends and mythological stories carved in its walls, hallways and gopurams. Wherever one looks, there is an interesting tale immortalised in stone.

Insider Tips

Witness reenactment of Goddess Meenaxi's celestial wedding with Lord Shiva during the Chithirai Thiruvizha festival celebrated at the Meenaxi Temple in the month of April or May, based on Hindu calendar.

Shopaholics can look for jewellery, fashion accessories, scarves, fabrics and handicrafts at Puthu Mandapam market near the temple.

Entry: Free

Timings: Open all days from 5am – 12:30pm & 4pm – 10pm

Located one and a half kilometre from Meenakshi Temple, Thirumalai Nayakkar Palace provides an incredible and rare opportunity to see Indo-Saracenic architecture. Built by King Thirumalai Nayak in the year 1636, it was an erstwhile residence of the king. At present, only one-fourth of the actual structure stands with renovation efforts taking place to restore it to its glory days.

Entry: Free

Timings: Open all days from 9am to 5pm

End your day by paying homage to the Father of the Nation at the Gandhi Museum. Madurai inspired Gandhiji to wear khadi. The museum, built in 1959, visually retells Gandhiji's biography. The library in the museum has a rare collection of books by items belonging to Gandhiji. A special exhibition depicts the freedom struggle in 265 illustrations.

Entry: Free

Timings: Open all days from 10am–1pm & 2pm–5:45pm

End your day with dinner at Murugan Idli Shop, an authentic Chettinad restaurant with a religious following. Thayir vadai, mirchi bajji, white paniyaram, and of course idlis with a wide range of chutneys are some local specialities. Open untill 1130pm.

Day 2

Take a bus or train from Madurai to Rameshwaram (172km/3.5hours) in the morning. Rameshwaram is an island city connected to the Indian mainland via a cantilever bridge (more on that later). Its Dravidian styles temples are less crowded and ideal for meditation. There are numerous sacred ponds dotting the temples where one can take a dip to wash away their sins. It also has a fair share of secluded beaches where you can escape the crowds.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Photo of Credit: <a href="">Wikimedia Commons</a> by Varun Suchday

Ramanathswamy Temple is the southernmost of the char dhams and also one of the 12 jyotirlingas. Legend has it that the linga at the temple was installed by none other than Lord Rama after he won the war with Ravana. The temple is one of the finest examples of Dravidian architecture with its white gopurams and carved-pillar corridors. It is in fact home to world's longest corridor 197m long and 133m wide.

Entrance: Free

Timings: 5am to 1pm & 3pm to 9pm

Afterwards, you can walk (2km) or take an auto to Ram Zarurkka Temple, located on a hilltop, to click some sublime panoramic photos for your social media feeds.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Photo of Credit: <a href="">Wikimedia Commons</a> by Varun Suchday

Bridges often evoke romanticism in writers, poets and travellers. They are seen as links to erstwhile unreachable places. The bridges have their own diversity from the ancient stone ones to the modern mechanised ones. Pamban Bridge falls into the latter category. This engineering marvel is India's first sea bridge and also the first one to connect Rameshwaram island to the Indian mainland. Its cantilever nature allows it to be raised to allow ships to pass. This bridge is a photographers' delight and will leave road-trippers in glee.

Day 3

Dec 23, 1964

The boats were back. The fish nonchalant. Christmas carols quietened. A distant murmur of fishermen drinking. The last train broke the dark silence of the moonless night. And, then the storm came to town. The ocean became a graveyard of 1,800 people. The humble village, an eerie town of ghosts.


The 1,800 ghosts of Dhanushkodi

That is the story of how a storm turned a fishermen village into a ghost town. Today, the church, post office, railway station and some other ruins carry the scars of that dark December night. You can walk along these ruins made of corals and relive that fearful night. The aforementioned church, post office and railway station ruins are the highlights.

The journey to Dhanushkodi is a remarkable one as you sit in rickety old buses that struggle through the sandy beach to get you there. Dhanushkodi is flanked by the Bay of Bengal on one side and the Indian Ocean on the other. You can see the clear difference in the colours of the water bodies as they meet here. You can also visit the southern most tip of Dhanushkodi to see the mythical Ram Setu Bridge that Lord Rama built to cross over to Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka is only 14km from this point.

How to get here

Start early in the morning from Rameshwaram so you can catch an evening train to Thanjavur (read below). You will have to rent an auto or taxi from Rameshwaram to Dhanushkodi boarding point. From the boarding point, you can get into one of the rickety old minibuses for about ₹300 per person to get to Dhanushkodi ghost town.

After you return to Rameshwaram get on any of the six evening trains to Thanjavur. There are no direct buses from Rameshwaram to Thanjavur. You can get a direct bus to Tiruchirappalli and get another bus for the 60km journey to Thanjavur. Night stay in Thanjavur.

Day 4

Thanjavur is considered by many as the centre of art, architecture and religion of South India. It was the capital of the mighty Chola Empire for four centuries. It later fell under the Marathas and Nayaks. They too left a mark on its architecture that is regarded as the finest in South India.

Credit: Imagenesis Photographers

Photo of Credit: <a href="">Imagenesis Photographers</a> by Varun Suchday

UNESCO World Heritage Site Brihadeeswara Temple is given the title of the 'Great Living Chola Temple'. This thousand year old temple dedicated to Lord Shiva was built by Raja Chola I in 1010AD. On completion, it became the first granite temple in the world. The temple has the world’s tallest temple tower and a 20 ton single rock cut statue of Nandi the bull. The frescoes on the walls depict Shiva in different poses.

Entrance: Free

Timings: 6am to 9pm

Airavatesvara Temple, together with Brihadeeswara and Gangaikonda temples, is UNESCO World Heritage Site. Located 40km away in Darasuram, this Shiva temple was built in the 12th century. The stone temple has a chariot structure with stone horses pulling the wheels. The temple has singing steps that produce a musical note when stepped upon.

Entrance: Free

Timings: 6am to 8pm

Day 5

Take the 1045am Cholan Express from Thanjavur to Chidambaram. From Chidambaram, you can either hire a taxi or take a bus to Tamil Nadu's biggest secret.

Pichavaram Mangrove Forest, world's second largest mangrove forest, is a heaven in hiding. Thousands of natural canals, numerous islands, backwater gullies, tribal women catching snakes, 200 species of birds, and many varieties of marine life await those who sail into this secret piece of paradise. A visit to this off-the-beaten-path destination is a rare chance to understand mangrove forest ecology.

Government run row boats and motor boats take you into the heart of the mangrove forest. A 2-hour boat trip is recommended to see different aspects of the forest. Only row boats can take you deep inside the narrow canals and the boatmen will demand a tip to do so. The tip is totally worth it since it will take you into canals where even the sunlight rarely reaches. November to February is the best time to see the birds and take a sunset boat ride for increased bird sightings.

Timings: 8am to 530pm

Accommodation options around Pichawaram are limited. Thus, it is best to return to Chidambaram for night stay.

Day 6

Leafy plazas, tranquil boulevards, colonial buildings, joli cafes, belle restaurants and the splendid promenade. Puducherry - A French secret gone wild!

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Photo of Credit: <a href=",_Pondicherry.jpg">Wikimedia Commons</a> by Varun Suchday

The Puducherry photos you have been seeing on Instagram are of White Town. This is the French part of Puducherry with leafy plazas, colourful houses, cute cafes, continental restaurants and art galleries. Stepping in to White Town is like stepping out of the Indian subcontinent and in to the Old continent. Walk along the tranquil boulevards and get lost in the Old World charm. Stroll down the promenade as the sun begins to set in the sea.

Visit the Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, one of the finest examples of Gothic architecture in India. Attend a mass to witness the real charms of the French church. Pay tribute to freedom fighter Aurobindo Ghosh at the Aurobindo Ashram. Head to postcard perfect Paradise Beach to relax those travelling limbs. For adventure seekers there are plenty of water sports at the beach. End your day by dining at one of the French restaurants in White Town.

Day 8

Credit: Wikipedia

Photo of Credit: <a href="">Wikipedia</a> by Varun Suchday

Auroville, a Utopian dream come true (somewhat), is a multicultural town 14km from Puducherry. Also known as the City of Dawn, it has a population of around 50,000 with people from over 50 different countries living here. Auroville is a place to be rather than a place to see. Multiple events, activities, workshops, talks and performances take place throughout the week.

There is something for everyone here since various disciplines like art, architecture, music, dance, languages, agriculture among others are pursued. Solitude Farm, Adishakti Theatre performances, Savitri Bhavan and Culture Pavilions are some of the highlights. The Visitors Centre organises music and dance performances on the weekends. There are also plenty of volunteering opportunities in different fields. One can easily spend a week in Auroville. More information about different events, activities and workshops can be found here.

Day 9

The large golden sphere that appears almost extra-terrestrial is the 'soul of Auroville'. Twelve themed gardens surround Matrimandir with their own variety of flowers, shrubs and trees. Inside, minimalist white chambers emit a radiant energy that inspires visitors to look within via meditation. Matrimandir is not a 'tourist' site and strict rules have to be followed by visitors.

How to get Matrimandir Passes

Matrimandir passes cannot be obtained online or on the phone. The free passes can only be acquired in person at the Visitors Centre. For more info please check Matrimandir official website. The passes have to be obtained a couple of days before the actual visit. Thus, plan your Auroville visit accordingly.

When to go

November to March is the best time to go to Tamil Nadu with temperatures 20 to 30 Celsius and low humidity. During these months you get to see migratory birds as well.

Where to stay

The Lost Hostel

Navanna Residency

For more options, check here.

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