Women's safety is often a major concern for female travelers visiting India for the first time, especially those traveling solo. Horror stories are common. However, the reality is that not all of India is the same. While sexual harassment is prevalent in north India, it's noticeably less so in the south. And, in Tamil Nadu, it's almost absent.
Tamil Nadu doesn't usually feature on the itineraries of first-time visitors to India, who prefer to head north and see the famous attractions there. However, if you're a solo woman traveler who's worried about safety and how you'll cope with the challenges in India, Tamil Nadu is recommended as the best place to start your travels.
My Decision to Travel Around Tamil Nadu
"You should spend more time traveling in south India", a number of people told me. "It's different there."
I was no stranger to south India. After all, I'd lived in Kerala for eight months while I was managing a guesthouse in Varkala. I'd also visited quite a few places in Karnataka, Chennai a couple of times, and infamously drove an auto rickshaw from Chennai to Mumbai. In Chennai, I had noticed that people rarely gave me a second glance, unlike many other places in India where I was often leered at and photographed by groups of men. It was refreshing.
So, on a whim, I decided to embark on a solo trip through Tamil Nadu. I wanted to see some of the state's temples and my husband wasn't interested in joining me. Plus, I wanted to experience what it would be like as a single, white, female traveling alone there and on a budget. I'd already explored most states in India, so I had a lot to compare it to.
Planning the Trip
I planned a whirlwind itinerary: six destinations (Madurai, Rameshwaram, Tanjore, Chidambaram, Pondicherry, and Tiruvannamalai) in 10 days. Apart from flights there and back, I would travel to each destination by bus or train, and stay in hotels priced from 500-2,000 rupees per night. I researched, planned and made all my travel arrangements myself -- so I really would be alone. There wouldn't be any tour company or travel agency looking after me. And, I didn't know one word of the language (Tamil), so I wouldn't have any real advantage over other travelers who were new to India.
However, knowing that Tamil Nadu is one of India's more conservative states, I made sure I packed accordingly -- Indian clothes only and all with short sleeves (unlike the sleeveless kurtas I commonly wear at home in cosmopolitan Mumbai).
It was with some trepidation and the usual touch of paranoia that I arrived at Madurai airport, my first destination, wondering what to expect. How would people treat me and how hard would it be to travel around by myself?
My First Impressions
I threw myself into my adventure by going on a four hour guided walking tour with Madurai Inhabitants the next morning. It gave me a fabulous introduction to the city. The friendliness of people was quickly apparent, including women. They were outgoing and called me over to take their photos. In addition, women could commonly be seen in places usually dominated by men, including sitting by the roadside drinking chai. Some other places I found women were working along side men in restaurants and behind the front desks in hotels.
Within a couple of days, I felt myself relaxing and all tension dissolving. Even though I was alone, I felt secure, safe, and confident. It was a strange and unexpected feeling. People spoke good English and were helpful. I was easily able to find my way around bus stations, which had been one of my biggest concerns. People also tended to mind their own business. They seemed simple and dignified. I felt like I had some dignity too. I wasn't constantly being hounded by shopkeepers or having to keep my guard up against sexual harassment. At one destination, Chidambaram, I didn't see another foreigner the whole time I was there. Yet, I wasn't overtly stared at or bothered.
Did men approach me during the trip? Yes, a few times. Although, more often than not, they wanted to pose for a photo by themselves. Elsewhere in India, I'm used to finding cameras pointed at me instead of the monuments. If the men of Tamil Nadu did photograph me, I didn't readily notice or feel uncomfortable about it. On the whole, they were very respectful towards me.
Why is Tamil Nadu Better for Women?
I carried out a bit of research to try and discover the reason why Tamil Nadu seemed to be a better place for women. Apparently, it can be attributed to as far back as the Sangam era of Tamil literature, from around 350 BC to 300 AD. This literature championed the education of women and their acceptance in the public sphere. They had considerable freedom to choose their own partners, and participated actively in the social life and work of the community. Although there has been a decline in the status of women since then, clearly Tamil Nadu is still well ahead of many other places in India.
I do realize that other women travelers may have a different experience of Tamil Nadu to what I did. However, there were a number of other things I really liked about the state, which all contributed to me enjoying my time there immensely. On the whole, the roads are in excellent condition, and buses are a very convenient and economical way of getting around. The hotels I stayed in were clean, efficiently managed, and represented good value for money. Compared to some parts of India, Tamil Nadu is laid back and uncrowded. The temples are magnificent as well, and their sprawling grounds are peaceful.
I'm looking forward returning! (The only drawback is that I'm not a fan of south Indian breakfasts, but that's a different matter)!
Where to Go in Tamil Nadu
If you are a woman who's planning on visiting India and aren't familiar with the culture, also do read this very informative book on women's safety in India.