While neighbouring Kerala has better 'tourist' beaches, the coastline of Tamil Nadu is nonetheless dotted with interesting towns, culminating at the very southernmost point of the subcontinent at Kanyakumari, India's "Land's End". The first place many visitors to Tamil Nadu will stay is Mahabalipuram, just to the south of Chennai. Mahabalipuram is a small town whose tranquillity and laidback atmosphere give little idea that this was once the capital of southern India; more than 1000 years ago the Pallava Dynasty traded through the port at what is now Mahabalipuram. The major draw cards here are the beach, a plentiful supply of seafood fresh from the Bay of Bengal and the wonderful array of rock carvings and rock-cut temples and structures which are dotted around the town. Its proximity to Chennai airport also makes Mahabalipuram a great place to begin or end your tour of south India- it is less than 2 hours drive and it can sometimes take that long to cross Chennai making it far more appealing to stay outside city.
Excursions from Mahabalipuram include the temple town of Kanchipuram, Vedantangal Bird Sanctuary, Dakshinachitra cultural village and the Crocodile Bank. Kanchipuram is famous as one of the most sacred cities in India and has some truly spectacular temples, as well as a thriving silk-weaving industry.
Vedantangal is best visited in winter as the vast majority of birds here are migratory waterfowl. Among those species which can be seen here include pelicans, ibises, spoonbills, herons and storks. Dakshinachitra is a rather unique project where faithfully recreated village environments support craftspeople, artists and performers from the southern states of India. It is a genuinely 'living' place and project so exactly what you might see there is unpredictable but street theatre, pot-making, weaving and music are all among the mix. Just north of Mahabalipuram is a large centre for research into crocodiles- the Crocodile Bank. Species from around the world have been gathered here- it's a great place for kids of all ages and the crocodiles are kept in well-maintained, spacious enclosures.
A little further down the coast is the uniquely French enclave of Pondicherry. While the British dominated south India in colonial times, there were two small anomalies which afforded other European powers a tiny toehold in Tamil Nadu. Pondicherry truly is a blend of the two cultures with the French Quarter closest to the sea being characterised by leafy avenues, beautiful colonial villas and grand government buildings.
Across the canal the Tamil Quarter is a more typically south Indian scene. The nominal transitional zone between the two is the commercial centre of town and has both superb European-influenced boutique shopping and rather more chaotic (but probably more fascinating!) traditional Indian markets. There is not so much any specific drawcard in Pondicherry- the emphasis here tends to be on walking tours and low-key interaction with local people. Plus if you're ending your tour on this side of Tamil Nadu, Pondy has a great array of cafes, bakeries and restaurants serving continental dishes if you are hanging out for a coffee or even a steak!
Near to Pondicherry is the "international community" of Auroville. Named after the great 20th century Indian sage, Sri Aurobindo, and conceived by his collaborator, The Mother, this unique project has been developing for over 40 years and is a remarkable testimony to the vision, dedication and passion of its multinational population.
Devised as a place where people from all nations could come to create a diverse, sustainable city with a basis in the teachings of Aurobindo, Auroville is a model of environmental and social responsibility. Many genuine cottage industries thrive in Auroville and there are many beautiful, hand-crafted items on sale both in Auroville and at boutiques in Pondicherry itself. Auroville is not a tourist attraction in any traditional sense, but a visit here offers a fascinating view of a singular dream- to quote from the original charter: a site of material and spiritual researches for a living embodiment of an actual Human Unity
The other 'non-British' port/enclave in Tamil Nadu remains little known to this day and despite being close to the major tourist routes few people visit the old Danish port at Tranquebar. A small, walled town Tranquebar is now a sleepy fishing village- one of those great off-the-beaten-track places where tourists are few and locals are very keen for a chat or to share a cup of chai.
Kanyakumari is India's the 'Land's End' of India as well as being another important pilgrimage site. It was here during the late 19th century that the great swami, Vivekananda, came to meditate and contemplate his mission to take Indian thought and understanding of spirituality to the West. The small island on which he lived for several years is located just off shore from the mainland and can be reached by ferry. To stand here with the vastness of the Indian Ocean at your back and the entire Indian subcontinent stretching away into the furthest reaches of the imagination is a magnificent experience and will surely give pause for thought as to the sheer diversity and sense of wonder embodied in the land to one's north. From Kanyakumari heading west it's only a short drive to Kerala and the many fantastic things which that state has to offer.