A trip to South India can be dizzying. From ancient heritage and jaw-dropping vistas to unparalleled cuisines and buzzing urban cultures, there’s a lot to absorb. One easy – and entertaining – entry point is film.
The prolific Tamil film industry, or Kollywood, is the perfect lens through which to appreciate South India. There’s no better recent evidence of that than 2022’s international sensation, Ponniyin Selvan. Since its theatrical release, much of India has been under the spell of this grand-scale historical fiction, directed by national treasure Mani Ratnam and featuring an A-list cast. A hotly anticipated sequel is set to be released in April 2023.
The film, an adaptation of Tamil writer Kalki Krishnamurthy’s beloved 1950s magnum opus, follows the ascent of Ponniyin Selvan. The titular character went on to become Rajaraja I of the illustrious Chola Dynasty, which at its height ruled much of southern India, Sri Lanka and the Maldives.
With such a grand time period at its centre, it’s little wonder that domestic and international cinema-buffs are flocking to the villages, lakes and temples that feature in the film.
On your next visit to Chennai or Tiruchirapalli, rent a car and driver and head off on the Ponniyin Selvan trail, and immerse yourself in the grandeur of the Cholas and their art, architecture and maritime excellence.
1. Veeranam Lake
Located in northeast Tamil Nadu, the 16km-long Veeranam Lake is a major source of water for the city of Chennai. But this serene water body is also rich with history and culture.
Prince Rajaditya Chola constructed the lake and named it Veernanarayana Mangalam, after his father Parantaka Chola I who held the title of Veeranarayanan. A testament to the foresight of the Chola rulers is the lake’s 72 sluice valves that still store the floodwaters of the Kollidam River and irrigate vast stretches of lush paddy fields.
Like the film’s sumptuous opening musical sequence, the original Ponniyin Selvan novel opens with army general Vandhiyathevan standing on the banks of Veeranam Lake, captivated by the colourful festive scenes of Aadi Perukku Thiruvizha, a festival akin to Thanksgiving observed in the Tamil month of Aadi (August). The festival is, to this day, held on the banks of the Ponni River that feeds the lake.
How to get there: Veeranam lake is a 130 km drive from Tiruchirapalli airport, and 235 km from the airport at Chennai. The nearest railway station is 24 km away at Vridhachalam.
Just 20km from Veeranam lake, in the hinterlands of Ariyalur district, is Gangaikondacholapuram Village. Although it isn’t technically featured in the film, a visit to this erstwhile Chola capital is a great way to appreciate the patronage of its rulers towards art, architecture and spirituality.
Here you’ll find a glittering pyramid-like structure that rises from the ground, surrounded by beautiful shrines and copses of coconut trees.
Move a little closer and you’ll realise that the pyramid is indeed the main tower of a temple – reverentially known as Brihadisvarar Kovil. The temple was built in the 11th-century by Rajendra Chola, son of the much-loved Ponniyin Selvan himself.
The temple is dedicated to Lord Shiva and considered to be a replica of the Big Temple at Thanjavur. Smaller and more feminine in its architecture, it is often considered the most elegant of the three Great Living Chola Temples, a collective UNESCO term for the Chola temples at Darasuram, Thanjavur and Gangaikondacholapuram.
How to get there: Gangaikondacholapuram is two hours away by car from Tiruchirapalli Airport (110km). Chennai Airport is 250km away.
Thanjavur served as the prime capital of the Cholas including the reign of Ponniyin Selvan. It’s also home to the Big Temple, locally known as Brihadeeswarar Kovil, whose main vimana (tower) reaches a height of 200 feet.
There is a great deal of mystery and wonder around the Big Temple, and rightly so: Ponniyin Selvan initiated the construction of the temple in the early 11th century and dedicated it to Lord Shiva. Constructed with mammoth blocks of granite, and adorned with exquisite sculptures and frescoes, the temple’s brilliance surpasses many others in architectural splendour, even after thousands of years.
While in Thanjavur, it’s also worth visiting the workshops of the veena (a classical Indian stringed musical instrument) craftsmen, as well as the famed Chola bronze foundries located 25km away at Swamimalai Village.
How to get there: Thanjavur is an hour away by car from Tiruchirapalli Airport (65km) and is well connected by direct trains from Chennai (345km).
Kodikkarai headland is located on the shores of the Bay of Bengal, on the eastern edge of Tamil Nadu, in the present-day Nagapattinam district, and shares its name with the town’s presiding deity, Kuzhagar, revered at his namesake 7th-century temple.
Also known as Point Calimere, it is from here that the Chola rulers embarked on their maritime conquests to Sri Lanka. Rightfully, Kodikkarai finds a prominent place in the novel as the hometown of the boatwoman who helps Ponniyin Selvan make the crossing to Sri Lanka and back again.
Having etched a place for itself in the annals of history, Kodikkarai today harbours remnants of a Chola-era brick lighthouse, salt pans and Point Calimere Wildlife and Bird Sanctuary, a reserve frequented by migratory birds like flamingos.
How to get there: The nearest railway station is 60km away at Nagapattinam, which is connected by train to Tiruchirapalli (175km) and Chennai (355km).
Located 250km from Kodikkarai is the island of Rameswaram (also known as Pamban) that welcomes travellers with its emerald-green waters, bobbing catamarans and picturesque sunsets.
Pamban is connected to mainland India by way of a 2.2km-long cantilever bridge built between the expansive waters of the Bay of Bengal and the wild Indian Ocean. Owing to its proximity to Sri Lanka, Rameswaram once served as a gateway for the Chola rulers and soldiers in their conquest of the neighbouring Anuradhapura Kingdom.
While in Rameswaram, take a detour and stop off at Dhanushkodi. While often referred to as a ghost town, it offers excellent vistas of the revered Ram Setu – a chain of natural limestone shoals connecting Pamban with Mannar island in Sri Lanka.
How to get there: Rameswaram is well connected with both Tiruchirapalli (225km), and Chennai (550km) with direct trains and road transport.