When we think of Tamil Nadu, we immediately think of temples. Tamil Nadu has been the cradle of culture for centuries – because of its great dynasties that encouraged arts in all its forms. Hence it is only fair to think that it has to have much more than just temples. This is exactly what this post will do for you. Here, I introduce you to the Top Cultural Experiences in Tamil Nadu – Beyond Temples. Updated 2018.
Things to do in Thanjavur
The Hidden Delights
For years, tourists have been going to Thanjavur to see the Great Living Chola temples. To my surprise and discovery, it has much more than that.
After much enquiry through local contacts and local people on spot, I found the place where they made The Veena. One of the most ancient of all Indian musical instruments – such that in Indian Mythology, the Goddess of Music is always shown playing a Veena.
It never occurred to me, but I later found out that The Veena is also the national instrument of India. This is because of its very special construction. All the strings in The Veena together, provide for both the basic components of Indian classical music – sruti and laya. No other instrument has this quality.
As it always happens in travel, surprises are just around the corner. Behind a narrow alley, was hidden this modest workshop where Veenas were being made.
The resident artist has been making Veenas for past 40 years and was very kind to explain everything as much as he could.
Thanjavur Veenas are the best and are always crafted from the wood of the Jackfruit tree, because of its excellent tonal quality. Also its durability and easy availability makes it fit for the purpose.
There are mainly two types of Veenas – one in which multiple parts are made separately and then joined. Another one is made of a single piece of wood and is more expensive. If one person is making the single piece Veena, it takes at least a month to complete the whole piece.
Veenas come in a variety of looks – the simple ones and the more ornate ones. They even make Veenas with silver motifs pasted on them – only on order.
A Veena can cost between 25000 to 75000, but because of very few people choosing to play them – Veena making is a dying art. Here is a detailed article by Forbes on the subject The last Notes of the Tanjore Veena.
The artist was very kind and enthusiastic in explaining his art and made sure that I sit down and pose with the Veena. He also taught me to play basic notes on it 😊
Do give the artist a decent tip if you make a visit to a workshop. They are kind and living difficult lives, and money would really help and encourage them.
My next stop was a Thanjavur painting gallery which had few in-house artists. I found the contact on the internet and called. The owner of the gallery who is also the main artist himself, was kind and welcoming.
Originally made with gold powder, Thanjavur paintings nowadays are made by pasting gold foil over the embossed motifs drawn with charcoal powder and gum.
Earlier precious and semi-precious stones were used on the paintings, now glass has replaced them. The price range of the paintings vary with size and the intricacy of design. The main subjects, are Gods and Goddesses. You can actually see some old Thanjavur paintings made with gold powder in the Palace Museum.
These paintings are still quite popular in South India and different parts of the country and abroad. Many places also offer workshops where you can learn to make these paintings – sadly not so much in Thanjavur itself but in Chennai, Pondicherry and even Madurai.
You can also call up the artist I met in Thanjavur and request him for a workshop. His contact details are
+91 91592 55429
www.Thanjavurartacademy.com and www.muruganartgallery.com
Local Cooking and Village Walk
In a village just outside the main city, a kind Tamil family have opened their home to people who are interested in learning to prepare delicious Tamil Food. The lady of the house is a graceful, happy-go-lucky woman who loves to cook and share joy through her food.
The place has just started, and I was their second guest. It’s a raw experience that gives you a peep into the local life.
Before joining the lesson for breakfast, the host took me for a morning stroll around the village. An old temple in the middle of nowhere, women weaving palm tree leaves to make their homes, village folk chit-chatting and working in the paddy fields… I was even welcomed in a home where there was a new-born baby.
After the walk, I learnt how to make delicious Dosa with mouth-watering spicy lentil soup called Sambhar and coconut chutney for breakfast.
It was a refreshing change from the temple trail of eastern Tamil Nadu. You can book your cookery class and village tour here Farms and Strolls
Best things to do in Pondicherry
Sita cultural center
Part of the Tamil Nadu circuit, is the Union Territory of Pondicherry. Look no further if you want to have some interactive cultural experiences here. The Sita Cultural Center offers some unique experiences of things to do in Pondicherry.
I just walked into the centre, after stumbling upon their website while searching for a walking tour. This visit turned out to be a great decision, because they had so much going on, other than the walk.
When I entered, a cooking class was in progress and I could see people involved were having awesome fun!
Laxmi, a lovely person has been with the organization for a long time. She laid in front of me a list of the variety of events that would take place in the coming days. I chose ‘garland making’.
Yes! Fresh flower garlands are a BIG thing in Tamil Nadu, from Temple ceremonies to adorning women’s hair – it’s a treat to see the variety and colours of gear available.
I thoroughly enjoyed my garland making workshop and learnt a lot of interesting things about the local culture at the same time.
For example, there are not 1 or 2 but 7 types of Jasmine flowers found in India! Of these, only one specific type is used for devotional purposes, and so it is not to be worn in the hair.
Women start wearing Jasmine as soon as their marriage is fixed and must wear it for at least 6 months post the wedding ceremony. This has multiple reasons – to keep the mind calm, mood fresh and have the husband attracted 😊
Turns out flower selling is also the most profitable business locally, with a minimum investment and maximum return. This is because flowers are used at every occasion and are never out of fashion and necessity.
I learnt to weave flowers in 3 ways, the most special one was the Kanchipuram style which takes more time and skill but has the best look.
Sita Cultural center also offers short workshops and longer courses in
- Indian and French cooking and language
- Traditional Indian painting styles etc.
Check out their website for more information and best yet, walk in there!
Classical Performing Arts of India
Literally ‘Sanctuary of Art’ – Kalakshetra is exactly that, a place where Indian Classical performing and visual arts are nurtured. The brainchild of a great visionary of her times, Kalakshetra was founded by Rukmini Devi Arundale.
I entered the complex and took my visitor’s pass from the reception. Along with the pass came a map, that clearly pointed to various places of interest.
The ‘Dance and Music’ cottages were the nearest, so I just decided to walk in there first. What welcomed me was a sprawling Banyan tree and a courtyard covered with its might. In the middle of the Chennai heat, its shade was more than welcome!
In this lush and sprawling campus, were set classrooms, each filled with a soulful delight. The first was this lone man, back towards the entrance, playing the flute. Engrossed in his practice, he didn’t even notice my presence. Though of foreign origin, he was clad in traditional Tamil attire. I stood there for long and only budged with a ‘Jamun fruit’ falling on me.
It was the season of the Indian gooseberry locally known as Jamun, and the campus was filled with it and trees of other varieties. It totally set my mood for visiting Kalakshetra.
Students coming from various parts of the world including locals – dressed up in these beautiful traditional colours of red yellow and green. Sitting on yellow verandahs, discussing music and dance, walking with their huge black umbrellas.
I spent hours perusing one classroom after the other. Sometimes just watching through the window, while at other times being invited into the classroom by kind teachers.
I watched the graceful movements of students learning Bharatnatyam and other various forms of classical dance. I got lost in groups singing soulful Carnatic music, and the fragrance of Jasmine flowers in the hair of the women present.
I didn’t care to look at the map to go anywhere else. This is where I had to be.
No videography or photography is inside allowed the campus. Both the photographs here are property of www.kalakshetra.in
Auroville, The City of Dawn
Spiritual International community in Pondicherry
Auroville, a spiritual international community is set just outside of the main city of Pondicherry. It has its roots grounded in the spiritual teachings of Sri Aurobindo and The Mother. The aim is to increase individual and group consciousness.
Auroville has a statement of support from UNESCO and the year 2017 marked 50th anniversary of this collaboration.
Founded in 1968 as an International township, it’s really a living Utopia. As The Mother believed herself of no nation, no race and no society – so is the township established by her.
People from all over the world live here, in a cashless and interactive economy.
Everything belongs to the community and not to any individual. Everybody contributes as to their best skill and capability and supported to do so.
Arts thrive as a result, because doing what one loves, is encouraged.
I visited many art and craft centres around the area like that of Papier Mache, Bamboo, Algae farming and The Savitri art exhibition. In every place the community involvement and a sense of relaxation was evident.
Me and another friend hired bicycles and went around Auroville for a full day. Still we were able to cover only a part of it, as Auroville is set in a few hundred acres.
The most interesting part of our visit was the sound garden and the sound therapy at the end of our day. The Sound therapy was organized at the Unity Pavillion by an in-house research organization called Svaram.
Starting with vocational training of the village youth, Svaram has come a long way in applications of sound – from therapy to mediation.
The session was about 60 minutes of pure bliss. Various instruments from all over the world and across time were used to stimulate and calm our senses. The session was rejuvenating for everyone involved and I remember people not wanting to leave, including myself.
The person in-charge at the visitor’s centers is very kind and informative. Talk to him in detail before starting your tour and he can advise you where to go for the most interesting experiences for a day visit.
For a more immersive experience, I have marked it a must to stay in Auroville, for my future visit.
So next time you think of experiencing Tamil Nadu, think beyond temples. There is a world out there to be explored.