A contrast of influences in southern India region

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INDIA-ShoreTempleThe four states that make up southern India -- Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh -- offer a wealth of experiences in a vast landscape separated from the north of the country by the Vindhya mountain range.

Lush, humid jungles contrast with arid plains, and cool hills provide relief from the heat, while the coast is lined with beautiful beaches that are usually deserted, as swimming doesn't appear to be popular with locals.

Fertile farmlands provide crops such as rice, sugar cane and a variety of fruits. Chennai, previously known as Madras, is India's fourth-largest city, capital of Tamil Nadu and rapidly catching up in size and wealth to India's high-tech specialist cities Bangalore and Hyderabad.

Arriving in Chennai

Chennai is the main entry point to southern India. Its history is inextricably linked to the East India Company, which was established there in 1639; it began building Fort St. George a year later. Now the seat of the Legislative Assembly, the fort is tightly secured. Within the complex, St. Mary's Church, built in 1680, is a reminder of the fort's British provenance.

Close by is St. Thome Cathedral, the reputed final resting place of St. Thomas the Apostle, who brought Christianity to India in A.D. 52. Lying in sharp contrast is the nearby Hindu Kapaleeswarar Temple, with its intricately carved and colorful gopuram, or entrance, towering into the sky.

I visited during the wedding season; within a large porch beside the temple, five or six weddings were taking place, with nervous grooms, shy brides and hordes of brightly dressed relatives and well-wishers in attendance.

Around and about Chennai

Kanchipuram, 42 miles west of Chennai, is one of seven sacred cities in India. It's dotted with the soaring spires of 1,000 temples, the most notable being the Ekambareswarar, or "One Mango," Temple. The town is famous for its handwoven silk; many shops and outlets offer the fabric at amazingly inexpensive prices.

South of Chennai lies Mahabalipuram, an ancient seaport of India's medieval Pallava dynasty (circa 300 to 900). The Pallavas left behind an astonishing heritage of Dravidian architecture, in the form of huge monuments carved out of solid rock.

The Shore Temple close to the beach is remarkable, a twin-towered structure within a courtyard that's surrounded by a wall topped with rows of sitting bulls. Equally impressive is Arjuna's Penance and the Descent of the Ganges, a huge bas-relief carved from one enormous monolithic rock between 670 and 715.

Just over 60 miles south of Chennai is Puducherry, formerly known as Pondicherry. From 1763 to 1954, before it was reincorporated into India as a Union territory, this enclave was ruled by France. The French flavor remains: Street signs are in the typical French blue and white, and gendarmes sport red French round caps and, unlike many parts of India, alcohol is readily and cheaply available.

Many historical buildings still stand in the French quarter. Especially noteworthy is Rai Nivas, the official residence of the lieutenant governor.

In 1926, an ashram retreat was founded in Puducherry by Sri Aurobindo, a scholar, mystic, activist and poet from Calcutta; today, it remains a cool respite from the surrounding bustle. The ashram, which owns many buildings across the city, is noted for its production of hand-made paper, perfumes, soaps and incense.

After Sri Aurobindo's death, spiritual authority passed to Mirra Alfassa, a Frenchwoman of Turkish-Egyptian descent known as "The Mother." She was instrumental in founding Auroville, just outside Puducherry, in 1968 with the aim of "creating a city of the future where people from India and around the world could live and work in a spiritual environment."

About 2,000 people live in Auroville, with many more visitors coming for varying periods of time during the year to work or, especially, to meditate in the striking Matri Mandir meditation hall.

The building is shaped like a golden orb, with 1,450 golden panels, and the meditation hall contained within is a serene escape from the outside world.

For more information on Chennai and India, visit www.incredibleindia.org, or call the Government of India Tourist Office at (212) 582-3274 or (213) 380-6111.

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