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Tamil Nadu: Tamil Nadu--home to one of the world's oldest cultures--abounds with magnificent temples, colourful festivals and tea plantations that hark back to another time. (Incredible India).

Not for nothing is Tamil Nadu known as the Temple State of India--it positively teems with religious architecture, a rich legacy that reflects its unique cultural roots.

Protected from external influences by the kingdoms of the Deccan Plain and sheer distance, Tamil Nadu boasts one of the last classical cultures on Earth. While northern India shows the impact of Aryans, Greeks and Moghuls as well as Buddhism, Hinduism, Sikhism and Islam, Tamil Nadu has remained the home of Dravidian Hinduism. The state was also the principal exporter of silks and spices to the Romans--indeed, one of Emperor Constantine's chefs was from Tamil Nadu.

The best known of the southern temple towns is the bustling, ancient city of Madurai, home to an ancient literary academy, Sangam, which lasted 1,000 years. The city boasts the vast Sri Meenakshi-Sundareshwarar Temple, perhaps the grandest of its kind. Its 12 giant gopuras, or gateways, are elaborately decorated with more than 33,000 brightly painted figures and the temple is a constant hive of religious activity.

There are plenty of other splendid temples in Tamil Nadu. Brihadisvara Temple at Thanjavur, a World Heritage site, is home to the world's best collection of Chola bronzes; at Mamallapuram is the impressive rock-carved Shore Temple; while Ramalingeshwara Temple in Rameshwaram boasts majestic column-lined walkways.

Tamil Nadu's Dravidian traditions come to life in some of India's most spectacular festivals. While there are events year round--the Mango Festival in June, Adipperukku (the monsoon festival) in August, the Silk Festival in October--Pongal, the harvest festival in January, is its most famous. Not surprisingly, Madurai hosts some of the region's most vibrant, including the ten-day Chithirai celebration.

Head for the hills

The Nilgiri Hills in the state's far west lie in stark contrast to the exoticism of traditional Dravidian Tamil Nadu. It was here that British entrepreneurs established coffee and tea plantations in the 19th century and their legacy is still apparent in hill stations such as Udhagamandalam and Kodaikanal, where buildings and street names such as Chafing Cross create a peculiar familiarity. From here visitors can take an unforgettable steam-train journey on the Nilgiri Blue Mountain Railway.

With its Catholic churches, boules pitches and French street names, Pondicherry retains a Gallic flavour from its time as the capital of French India. And no visitor should miss Cape Kanniyakumari, the southernmost tip where the Arabian Sea, Indian Ocean and Bay of Bengal converge, where in April you can witness the sun setting and moon rising simultaneously on the same horizon.

The country that created yoga

As the pace of modern life has moved up a gear, people have begun to seek new ways to unwind. This search for serenity has seen the popularity of yoga extend beyond rainbow-clad hippies to be-suited city execs.

Although a relatively recent revelation in the West, yoga has a history as old as civilisation itself. Archaeological and textual evidence suggest that a religion known as vedic yoga was established in northern India around 3000 BC by the Indus-Sarasvati civilisation, the largest of early antiquity. Vedic yoga revolved around the idea that sacrifice could link the material and spiritual worlds. In order to perform rituals effectively, followers had to be able to focus their minds for prolonged periods.

Over thousands of years, the inhabitants of the subcontinent continued to practise various forms of yoga, based on evolving religious texts. Devotees developed techniques for achieving deep meditative states in order to discover their true nature. Yoga as we know it developed around the 15th century, when yoga masters began to regard the body as a temple of the immortal spirit and created a system of practices designed to rejuvenate it. This precipitated the creation of tantra yoga and its various forms, including hatha yoga, the closest to that which is practised in the UK today.

Yoga is still very much alive in modern-day India. Because it takes so many forms, all kinds of people are attracted to it, and yoga masters draw huge followings. Hatha yoga is based on physical postures called asanas that stretch and relax the body, preparing it for more subtle stages of meditation. Raja yoga involves moral discipline and bhakti yoga, the yoga of devotion, demands a commitment to a guru. Jnana yoga, the yoga of knowledge, concentrates on Hindu spiritual philosophies.

Visitors to India can get involved with yoga at almost any level. Courses of varying lengths and intensities are available in most towns and cities. However, you might want to check into an ashram; if so there is nowhere better than Rishikesh in Uttar Pradesh. Considered the home of yoga, Rishikesh has numerous ashrams offering everything from short daily classes to long-term, residential courses. The latter may have strict rules on clothing, diet and behaviour and should be booked in advance. As well as yoga, some ashrams offer courses and guidance in meditation, philosophy and ayurvedic medicine.

Perhaps the best-known institution in Rishikesh is the Shivananda Ashram. Run by the Divine Life Society, it teaches eight different kinds of yoga and a variety of spiritual philosophies. Although the ashram welcomes anyone at any time, because of its popularity visitors should book at least two months ahead. Other reputable ashrams in Rishikesh that offer yoga classes include Brahma Niwas, Yoga Niketan and Dayananda Vedanta; the Omkarananda Ashram also has classes in Indian classical music and dance.
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Geographic Code:9INDI
Date:Jun 1, 2003
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