I'll be going to the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu next month. I am keen on signing up for a comprehensive temple tour. What are the must-visit sites? Can you recommend a reliable local operator?
January to March, when the weather is mild, is the best time of year to visit Tamil Nadu. Things get too hot to handle from April onwards and the stifling humidity can take quite a toll on unacclimatised visitors.
The temples of Tamil Nadu - built mostly by the Pandyas, Cholas and Nayakas - are renowned for their elaborate architecture and complex floor plans. They share many architectural details in common, mainly tiered, carved roofs and tall, elaborately sculpted and painted gopuram, or towers.
If you're going to be based in Chennai, it's not difficult to find local operators who conduct temple tours. While some offer tailor-made itineraries, others, such as Southern Travels (www.southerntravelsindia.com; it has several awards of excellence from the Tamil Nadu Ministry of Tourism) have comprehensive tours that cover all the major temple cities and sites.
Southern Travels is currently offering a six-day trip around the state that includes Rameswaram and Madurai, two very important pilgrimage sites.
The tour starts and ends in Chennai with a visit to Kapaleshwar temple, built in the seventh century and the city's oldest Hindu temple. The next stop is Tanjore, once the capital of the Cholas dynasty (prolific temple builders who ruled from the ninth to the late 13th century), and home to Brihadeshwara, part of which is a Unesco heritage site. Built in 1010 CE, the temple is dedicated to Shiva and is famous for its massive stone Nandi bull, the second largest of its kind in India at nearly five metres long and four metres high. Also in the itinerary is a visit to the Vishnu temple on Srirangam, a 242-hectare island-town in the Cauveri River, Trichy, the Ramanatha Swamy temple in Rameswaram, and the famous Meenakshi temple, with its 14 elaborately carved gopuram, in the 2,500-year-old city of Madurai.
The tour costs Rs17,999 (Dh1,455) per person (a minimum of two people per tour), and includes transport in an air-conditioned (AC) vehicle (a tour in a non-AC car costs Rs12,999; Dh1,050), meals, accommodation based on two sharing, all taxes and parking fees. It does not include entry to the sites.