Temple towns, picturesque backwaters, spice plantations and more
In my first article “Where to travel in India for the first time, part 1” I talk about how it is impossible to see everything in one visit because India is such a massive country. The best way to see India is by covering one or two regions in a trip.
Most travellers visit north India when they come for the first time, mostly because everyone wants to see Taj Mahal, as well as some of the most iconic structures like forts and palaces in Rajasthan.
South India usually makes up for the second visit but is by no stretch of imagination less breath-taking than north India.
I highly recommend a two-week tour of the south to really take in the beauty and culture it offers. The best part is that you won’t feel like you are repeating anything that you did in north India---so different are the regions form one another!
The most popular states to visit are Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. Combined, these states offer lush green landscapes, tranquil lakes and backwaters, stunning Hindu temples with massive spires, spice and tea plantations in rolling misty hills, sunny beaches, colourful markets and wildlife sanctuaries where you can spot wild elephants.
In this routing I cover the states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu where you start from the west coast and end at the east coast:
The perfect place to start your south India journey, also because it has an international airport. Located on the south western coast in the state of Kerala, Cochin (or Kochi) is a major port city with one of the finest natural harbours.
It was a spice trading centre since ancient times and also attracted European traders and colonists from the 16th century. It even became home to Jewish refugees from the 7th C AD. As a result, Cochin’s culture was enriched by immigrants over centuries.
Here you will see old Dutch and Portuguese palaces and churches, a medieval Jewish neighbourhood with a famous 450-year-old active synagogue and local Kerala style palaces as well. Don’t miss the picturesque Chinese fishing nets which are even now in use.
A must-do here is to attend a Kathakali dance performance. Kathakali is a traditional dance-drama of Kerala, performed by men. Reach the venue early to see the performers have their faces painted, don their masks and get ready for the performance.
Two nights are usually adequate here, but an extra day can be used to visit some places close by like the Kodanad Elephant Training centre where rescued elephants are looked after.
Alleppey for a houseboat overnight
A very short drive from Cochin will take you to Alleppey where you will board your houseboat. These “kettuvallams” are actually the traditional mode of transporting spices and rice for trade but are now being used quite innovatively to provide travellers one the most relaxing and beautiful experiences in India. Made entirely of wood, bamboo and thatch these boats offer comfortable and even luxurious floating accommodation.
Spend the day relaxing in a cane easy chair on the front deck of the houseboat, slowly cruising on placid blue waters and exploring the palm fringed lagoons and backwaters, sipping on fresh coconut water. Meet and interact with the local folk and explore life on the backwaters. Enjoy freshly cooked Kerala cuisine on board, especially the seafood.
One night is sufficient on a houseboat. There are many houseboat operators, but you need to make sure you book one which has all the safety and hygiene standards in place. Contact me to help you get in touch with a reliable and professional houseboat operator.
Located on the waters of the Vembanad lake, Kumarakom is an enchanting, green destination. The idea is to just enjoy the calm, spoil yourself with authentic Ayurveda massages and gorge on absolutely delicious Kerala cuisine.
The Kumarakom bird sanctuary is home to a large variety of local and migratory birds and makes a great day outing.
Two nights are ideal here but choosing the right resort is important to really make the most of your stay in Kumarakom. Write to me to find out which resorts I recommend.
A pleasant 4-hour drive will bring you to the quiet little town of Munnar in the mountains. Munnar is one the most picturesque hill stations in India owing to its dense forests, mountain streams, waterfalls and rolling tea and spice plantations. Spend your days here walking through fragrant plantations, going on short treks, and exploring wildlife in its national parks. A visit to a tea factory is also worth doing.
Two nights are highly recommended here.
Leaving the mountains, your next stop will be in the next state called Tamil Nadu. Madurai is a famous temple town, where life revolves around the Meenakshi Temple, dedicated to the consort of Lord Shiva. The 50-meter-tall gateway towers or gopurams are stunningly intricate and impressive. The temple complex is massive and houses several shrines and pillared halls within. Tens of thousands of tourists and pilgrims come here every day. The rituals of the worshippers and the workmanship of the stone sculptures inside will make a lasting impact.
Be sure to return to the temple for the night ceremony in which the idol of Lord Shiva is carried out in a palanquin to the chamber of his consort Meenakshi for the night. The procession, accompanied by chanting, blowing of horns, drumbeats and incense should not be missed.
Two nights are adequate here.
The town of Tanjoreis three hours away, however a stop on the way in Trichy (short for Tiruchirappalli) is essential.
Here the river Kaveri splits into two to form the island of Srirangam, on which is located the Ranganathaswamy temple. It is one of the largest religious complexes in the world and encompasses numerous shrines, towers and water tanks. Tamil architecture is incredible with its massive gopurams, sculptures and artwork which narrate so many ancient legends.
Further on in Tanjore, the 1000-year-old Brihadeeswarar Temple, a UNESCO world heritage site, is the main attraction. Built by the mighty Chola rulers, this site is truly incredible for its sheer magnitude and architectural beauty. Also visit the state museum to see the Chola bronzes.
One night is enough to cover everything as there is little else to do here.
Situated on the eastern coast of Tamil Nadu state, Pondicherry will give you a break from the theme of temples and kingdoms.
Having been a French colony from the 17th C till after India’s independence, the town still carries its French connection. Visit the French quarter where you can amble down the tree lined boulevards and admire the French colonial architecture. Quaint heritage buildings house hotels and restaurants, and street signs are in French. The Tamil quarter is equally fascinating with its typical local architecture with porticos, wooden pillars and terracotta roofs.
Another main attraction in Pondicherry is the Aurobindo ashram, set up by Aurobindo Ghosh, a nationalist, philosopher and yogi. It attracts thousands of devotees as well as curious tourists keen to learn about his spiritual teachings.
Do visit Auroville, an experimental, utopian township close-by where approximately 50,000 people from 50 nations live a life of harmony and peace together.
Two nights are good here.
Head north to Chennai via Mahabalipuram which you should not miss under any circumstances. Here you will see a range of extraordinary 6th-8th C structures built on the sea side, including one of the world’s largest rock reliefs, called Arjuna’s penance. The stone-cut temples, cave temples, incredible monolithic stone chariots and animals are just some of the things to marvel at.
Continue on to Chennai, the busy capital of Tamil Nadu. As a port city from ancient times, it was also a trade settlement called Fort Saint George by the British East India company. Visit this heritage area as well as the Portuguese era St. Thomas cathedral that predates the British arrival.
Two nights are the norm here however, add another night to take in some other off-beat experiences.
For example, I strongly recommend visiting the Kalakshetra which is a centre for visual and performing arts. It is built over 100 acres by the seashore, has a wonderfully serene atmosphere with its eco-friendly, traditional architecture and open spaces. During a visit here, you can also watch classes in progress, especially of classical Indian dance forms which are so beautiful.
Chennai has an international airport, so you can fly home from here.