South India - A Heritage of Centuries

The delightful south; almost untouched by invasions throughout its history, the Indian heritage is more intact here than in other regions of the country. This is a land of temples, a land of the devout where new wonders await - the profusion of orange flowers, the shade of the banyan tree, and the soft beat of distant drums as yet another festival starts...

Kanya Kumari (Cape Comorin) in Tamil Nadu, India's Lands End, washed by three seas, where at the time of the full moon it is possible to watch the sun set and the moon rise at the same time, a popular pilgrimage town, the end of the railway line ... from here to Jammu and Kashmir is over 3,300 kilometers, and the railway journey will take three days, passing through the whole staggering diversity of India – the great plains, towering mountains and rich forests, the serene temple towns and lively resorts, thriving cities, tranquil hill stations and tiny villages, the people, the history, the wildlife, the cultures... such a wealth of beauty and mystery and laughter in this graceful and gentle land. An experience both indescribable and unforgettable as only India can be.

A Myriad of Temples

The devout Dravidian people of the south live and breathe their ancient religion. Nothing, however, can really prepare a visitor for the temples, where images of the quiet bustle of the vast halls, the huge gopurams completely covered by coloured sculptures of gods and goddesses, the sight of bare feet walking across cool slabs, the heady smell of incense and the chime of the temple bell rung by priests and the faithful leave entrancing impressions.

Rustic carts drawn by oxen with their brightly coloured painted horns, smiling villagers harvesting the hay at the side of the road - these will be some of the memorable features of the short journey from Chennai to the famous temple town of Mahabalipuram. A swim off the glorious beach will refresh you after absorbing the wonders of the romantic shore temples and of Arjuna's Penance, the huge rock carvings of animals and gods, There are so many impressive temple towns in South India - nearby Kanchipuram with its spectacular gopurams, ' visible from miles away, or other magical sounding places - Chidambaram, Tanjore, Tiruchirapalli, and, most of all, the pilgrim centre of Madurai - one of the oldest cities in Southern India - with its dramatic and lively Meenakshi temple, dedicated to the fish-eyed goddess.

In the neighbouring state of Karnataka lie the stone-carved temples of Belur and Halebid. Relive the exciting era of the Hoysalas, who flourished around the 12th century, by examining the endless stories which the sculptural detail portrays the war, the hunt, the animals, the dancing girls and, of course the gods. Situated on top of a hill in Sravanabelagola is the massive statue of Lord Bahubali, dwarfing the landscape. Lose yourself in the strange and beautiful ruins at Hampi. Further delights are waiting in the gracious sandalwood city of Mysore, where it is possible to stay in the one-time home of an ex-Maharajah, now the Lalitha Mahal Hotel of gleaming white beauty. Incense is manufactured in the city, and the sweet and fragrant smells of jasmine and rose and musk will linger in the air and in the memory.

Suggested Itineraries

Program 1: Coast to Coast

Program 2: Culture and Nature of Southern India


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ANDHRA PRADESH

Andhra Pradesh's capital city, Hyderabad has the atmosphere of an Arabian Nights fairy tale. Whimsical palaces, erstwhile stately homes and crowded bazaars filled with shops selling Hyderabadi pearls, incense and copper utensils characterise the city, while in the distance looms Golconda Fort. The city's historical connection traces itself to the rulers or Nizams whose wealth was legendary. Rooms full of jewels and currency notes, a garage full of gleaming Rolls Royce's are all now part of history, but a unique culture lives on, colouring the city with its distinctive charm. The Epicurean tastes of this most exalted royal house of princely India gave rise to a fabled cuisine based on painstaking preparations and slow cooking. Much of Hyderabad's old town can be covered on foot. The city's important landmarks include Charminar, a 16th century gateway; the Salar Jung Museum which exhibits priceless treasures alongside trivia that made up the personal collection of the owner; Mecca Mosque and Golconda Fort. Nagarjunakonda is the site of ongoing excavations which have revealed Buddhist temples, stupas and monasteries.

LAKSHADWEEP

Just off the coast of Kerala are a widely scattered group of coral islands – 36 of them – collectively known as Lakshadweep. They form part of the Union of India and are one of the country's newest tourist destinations. Ten of the islands are inhabited by simple, peace-loving folk whose language is close to that spoken in Kerala. The islanders have lifestyles and occupations that revolve around coconut cultivation, coir matting and fishing. Even today, nothing is actually produced in the islands themselves, and everything comes from the 'mainland', as India is somewhat quaintly referred to there. Tourism's major focus is on water sports, as each of the islands are surrounded by a coral reef providing large areas of crystal clear water for everything from snorkeling to wind surfing. The five islands which are open to tourists have simple accommodation in the shape of beach cottages. Permits to visit Lakshadweep can be obtained from the Lakshadweep tourist office in Cochin. Regular flights operate from Cochin to one of the islands, as well as modestly priced ship cruises which stop at all the islands open to tourism. These cruises begin and end at Cochin.

While equipment for water sports is available at the islands themselves, not much in the way of shopping and entertainment is possible as yet. Lakshadweep is the perfect holiday for those who want to get away from the artifices of the world and enjoy a few days in simple yet stunningly beautiful surroundings.

KARNATAKA

Karnataka, with its capital at Bangalore, is home to a fascinating legacy of richly carved temples, imposing mosques and trappings of a royal past. Bangalore, with its many hotels and fine restaurants, is a good base for exploring the state. At once a modern industrial city, a shopper's paradise and a gracious legacy of the British, Bangalore is renowned as much for its industrial plants as for its silk saris, and for the sprawling Cubbon Park which lies at the heart of the city, as also its prestigious race course. Mysore, the capital of the erstwhile princely state, has a profusion of palaces and museums. Nearby Srirangapatnam is linked to the memory of one of the old state's best known rulers – Tipu Sultan. Somnathpur, a few miles away, has a magnificently carved temple. Belur and Halebid have between them a series of carved stone temples. For perfection of finish, wealth of detail and sheer artistry, they are unrivaled specimens of the art of temple sculpture. Hassan, with a comfortable hotel, makes the perfect base from which to explore the riches of Belur and Halebid. Also a short distance away, Shravanbelagola is famous as the pinnacle of the sculptor's art. A figure 120 metres tall has been carved out of a single piece of granite in 183 AD. Every 12 years, the figure of Gomateswara is ritually bathed by priests and witnessed by millions of devotees in one of the most colorful festivals of the austere Jain religion

KERALA

With foreign influences as disparate as Chinese and Portuguese, Arab and Dutch, Kerala is the spice coast of India. Edged by a thread of unbroken beachline, the state's heart is composed of intensely green paddy fields and a unique network of rivers and lagoons. Upland Kerala, relatively little visited, is composed of hills thickly wooded with teak and rubber. It is here that Kerala's most precious spices are grown in carefully nurtured plantations: cardamom, pepper and nutmeg.

Thiruvananthapuram (Trivandrum), the state capital, an international airport, has an exceptionally fine museum set in an amusement park. 16 km away is Kovalam, one of the most popular beaches in the country. Many visitors stay at Kovalam, driving into Thiruvananthapuram for sightseeing trips, rather than the other way round. Sri Padmanabhaswamy temple in Thiruvananthapuram, and Padmanabhapuram Palace, a short drive away, are important monuments.

Cochin, with a fine natural harbour, has been Kerala's center of maritime trade for innumerable centuries. Along the harbour, rows of antediluvian Chinese fishing nets indicate Kerala's trade with China, just as buildings along the water's edge testify to the erstwhile presence of Dutch and Portuguese colonisers. Jewtown, complete with an immaculately preserved synagogue, has a flavour all its own, while Tripunathura, at the other end of the city, has many traditional houses with central courtyards. Kerala's multitude of faiths – Islam, Judaism, and a host of sects of Christianity and Hinduism – all coexist harmoniously in a state that is known for its Marxist inclinations! Kerala's traditions of dance forms, which originated from temple worship, can be witnessed at regularly held performances. Lecture-demonstrations of the most spectacular of these – Kathakali – are held daily at many centres in Cochin. Teyyam, at once an act of worship and visual feast; temple festivals complete with caparisoned elephants; Kalaripayata, the indigenous art of self defence; all are a part of Kerala's remarkable heritage of performing arts, and can be witnessed at various centres in Cochin and Thiruvananthapuram. A five hour drive from Cochin leads into thickly forested hills, past rubber and spice plantations, and into southern India's tea growing district headquartered at the charmingly old world Munnar. From Kottayam to Alleppey is a world of palm fringed waterways, a route which is covered by motor launch. Elderly sailboats, long barges transporting tons of coconuts and tiny skiffs used to transport children to school are common sights on these backwaters.

PUDUCHERRY

Situated on the Coromandel coast, about 160 kms south of Chennai, lies the Union Territory of Pondicherry. The French ruled this territory for 300 years, and today, it stands as a living monument of the French culture in India. It is bound on the east by the Bay of Bengal and on the other three sides by the South Arcot District of Tamil Nadu. About 150 kilometres south of Pondicherry, on the east coast, liesKaraikal, while Mahe is situated on the Malabar coast. Yanam is situated in the adjoining East Godavari district of Andhra Pradesh.

Pondicherry traces its origin to Saint Agasthya, the revered sage of the south. The excavations near Pondicherry reveal, that a Roman settlement existed here, 2000 years ago. It was also the site of many a battle between the British and the French, and was the capital of French India, before it attained its independence. This restored, attractive, former French colony, exudes a Mediterranean aura with its chic streets, elegant houses, ornamental gardens and the Hotel de Ville. Being a small and quiet enclave of Tamil Nadu, it has imbibed the Tamilian culture. Apart from the charming atmosphere, excellent restaurants and cheap beer, what attracts most travellers to Pondicherry is the Sri Aurobindo Ashram and its offshoot, Auroville, 10 km outside town. The ashram, founded by Sri Aurobindo in the year 1926, has brought international reputation to this coastal town. The ashram, the spiritual tenets of which combine yoga and modern science is quite popular within India and abroad.

Festivals of Pondicherry differ from the rest of India, for the French influence still persists prominently here. Masquerade, held in March - April, is a popular mask festival, during which brilliantly costumed and masked people of Pondicherry, dance down the streets to the music of trumpets and accordions. During the Eve of the Bastille Day, retired soldiers parade the streets in war finery, singing the French and Indian National Anthem. French is still widely spoken, and the seaside villas and the cobbled streets are more reminiscent of the south of France than the south of India!! A french colony upto 1954, Pondicherry is a living monument of French Culture in India. The Aurobindo Ashram and 'Auroville' the international township are famous all over the world.

TAMIL NADU

For the visitor wishing to explore southern India extensively, Chennai, the capital of the state of Tamil Nadu, is the most convenient point of entry. Chennai has an international airport, a sea port and a rail and road network that links it to all major towns and cities of the region. It also has several deluxe hotels and others to suit modest budgets. Tamil Nadu is a bastion of Hinduism, whose past endures into the present. Temples with towering spires called gopurams are a common feature of this state, seldom seen anywhere else in the country. Temples in Tamil Nadu were the fulcrum of society and even today art forms that have their origin in religious worship continue to colour daily life. Notable among these are splendid bronzes of deities, painting on glass and Bharatnatyam, an evocative dance form.

Mahabalipuram, Kanchipuramand Thanjavur are good examples of temple towns where within the temple fortifications grew a multi layered society that preached faith and grew from social harmony. Kanchipuram, also called Kanjeevaram, is famous throughout the country as the center where lustrous silk sarees are woven. Likewise Thanjavur is an important center for bronze figure casting. Mahabalipuram, with its wealth of sculptures, is located by the seaside and has excellent resorts.

The towns of Tiruchirapalli and Madurai also contain famous temples.

Quite a contrast to the temple heritage is provided at Pondicherry, for long a French colony. French is still widely spoken, and seaside villas and cobbled streets are more reminiscent of the south of France than the south of India! Yet another facet of this surprisingly diverse state is two hill stations,Ootacamund and Kodaikanal. Both are little patches of England, being much loved by the expatriate population of the Raj. Both places provide delightful relaxation during an extended tour of the south, having a wide range of hotel accommodation. The cuisine of Tamil Nadu, more or less totally vegetarian, has become enormously popular all over the country, and few towns do not have at least one eatery serving popular snacks from the state's extensive repertoire