Nestled down near the southern tip of India 280 mi/320 km south of Chennai, the 2,500-year-old city of Madurai is famous for its Hindu and Tamil cultural attractions.
A must-see is the impressive multitowered Sri Meenakshi Temple built in 1560. Actually, you can't possibly ignore it: The temple is covered with brightly painted sculptures and statues, and the effect is practically psychedelic. You can climb a couple of the towers for a good view of the entire complex—make sure you have your camera. You can observe Hindu devotees bathing in the Tank of Golden Lilies and see the Hall of 1,000 Pillars (all but the inner sanctum is open to non-Hindus). In ancient times, the area around the tank was the meeting place for the academy of poets, who are said to have evaluated works of literature by throwing them into the tank—the ones that floated were the only ones deemed worthy of consideration.
Other temples are Koodal Alagar, where Vishnu is depicted in three forms, and Mariamman Teppakkulam, a small temple set in a large tank (the Teppam Float Festival is held in the tank every January or February during a full moon). Also visit the Tirumala Nayak Palace for its stucco arches and domes.
For a glimpse of more modern India, visit the Gandhi Museum, which holds informative displays about Mohandas Gandhi's push for Indian independence. If you're interested in textiles, Madurai is an excellent place to pick up quality silk and cotton, whether raw or as garments. Allow at least half a day to see Madurai.
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