The Allure of the South on India Tours

Asia

Colourful gopura in the Hindu Kapaleeshwarar Temple, Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India

Exploring the very popular destinations seen in the north of the country on India tours, it’s time to get to know the south.

You might easily assume that India is India and there are no marked differences between various parts of the country. Ask anyone who is conversant with India if the south is different from the north and I’m sure you will be told there are vast differences. In my opinion, the climate, the culture, the scenery, and the cuisine all contrast with that of the north. This article’s intent is not to detract from the north’s attractions, as they are many, but to make sure the south gets its due as a travel destination on India tours. Let’s look at some, but by no means all, of the many places very much worth visiting in the south of India.

Chennai

Formerly known as Madras, Chennai is the largest city in southern India. Although a busy and noisy city, there are certain attractions well worth visiting. The Kapaleeswarer Temple is one of Chennai’s oldest temples dating back to the 8th century, although the present structure was erected in the 17th century. It is noted for its highly detailed entrance gate (gopura). The San Thome Church is one of 3 built over a tomb of one of the Apostles of Christ. This one is built over the tomb of St. Thomas who, at one time, came to India. The museum displays artefacts connected with St. Thomas and the theatre is used for screening a short video on the life of the Apostle. Another religious building of significance is the Big Mosque (also known as the Wallajah Mosque). It is architecturally imposing with extensive grounds that contain the tombs of several Islamic scholars.

View of colourful gopura in the Hindu Kapaleeshwarar Temple, Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India
Colourful gopura in the Hindu Kapaleeshwarar Temple, Chennai

An attractive part of Chennai on India tours is Marina Beach, 12 kilometres/7 miles long, offering the opportunity to walk along the shore of the ocean. Watching the sunrise here is an experience to remember. For culture buffs, the Government Museum of Chennai consists of 46 galleries featuring everything from archaeology to zoology. The National Art Gallery features exhibits of handicrafts, sculptures, and paintings.

Aerial view of Kamarajar Promenade and Marina Beach from Marina Lighthouse in Chennai, India
Aerial view of Kamarajar Promenade and Marina Beach from Marina Lighthouse in Chennai

Mahabalipuram

Mahabalipuram is 60 kilometres/38 miles south of Chennai and is home to several temples from the 7th and 8th centuries AD which are UNESCO World Heritage sites. One is known as the Shore Temple. The design is simple and innovative. The structural design has been called “poetry in stone.”  It reaches a height of 18 metres/60 feet.

Shore Temple at Mahabalipuram, Tamil Nadu, India
Shore Temple at Mahabalipuram

Arjuna’s Penance is another magnificent monument and one of the largest open-air rock reliefs in the world. It dates back to the mid-7th century. It is a monolith carved onto the face of two huge adjoining boulders making its length around 28 metres/96 feet. The subject of this huge structure is scenes of the natural and celestial worlds. The Mahabalipuram Dance Festival takes place for four weeks in December/January dedicated to Indian classical dance forms as well as folk dances. It is held on an open-air stage at Arjuna’s Penance.

Arjuna's Penance, a large rock relief carving in Mahabalipuram, Tamil Nadu, India
Arjuna’s Penance, a large rock relief carving, Mahabalipuram

Pondicherry

Pondicherry is a popular destination in South India, 160 kilometres/100 miles south of Chennai, again on the ocean. It was the largest French colony in India and is a city with a long and interesting history. It is also a city which has many colonial buildings, churches, temples, statues, and planned French-style avenues. The colonial ambience is still very prevalent. Known as “The French Riviera of the East,” you might well be surprised when you discover French architecture and restaurants. There are a number of old and large churches in Pondicherry, most of which were built in the 18th and 19th centuries. A popular venue is the Pondicherry Botanical Gardens situated 8 kilometres/5 miles away from the centre.

French Colonial architecture in Pondicherry, India
French Colonial architecture in Pondicherry

There are several beaches at which to stay on India tours, all scenic and, to a degree, unspoilt, with names such as Paradise Beach (only accessible by boat), Serenity Beach (good for both swimming and surfing), Promenade Beach (the most central and full of eating options), and Auroville Beach (family-oriented), each one with its own character.

Pondicherry Beach, Pondicherry, India
Pondicherry Beach,

Cochin

Moving to the west coast, Cochin (now known as Kochi) in the state of Kerala is a fairly laid-back city with a certain charm to be experienced on an India vacation. It is also a major port. Known as “The Queen of the Arabian Sea,” Cochin was an important spice trading centre and was a Portuguese colony for many years. There are many unique features about Cochin. Two that struck me were the giant-size cantilevered Chinese-style fishing nets attached to fishing boats in the harbour (very much photographed) and the very tiny synagogue in the centre which has a congregation of a handful of Jews emanating from the Sephardic Jews from Spain. The synagogue can be visited. Adjacent to it is the Mattancherry Palace, originally built in the 16th century, combining European and Kerala architectural styles. The major attractions are the royal bedchamber’s well-preserved Hindu murals from the 17th to 19th centuries which depict scenes from Indian legends in intricate and colourful detail.

Chinese fishing nets in Cochin, Kerala, India
Chinese fishing nets in Cochin

The St. Francis Church, constructed in 1503 by Portuguese friars, is said to be India’s oldest European-built church. The famous Portuguese explorer, Vasco da Gama, who died in Cochin, was buried here before his remains were taken to Lisbon. You can still see his tombstone in the church. The Kerala Folk Museum is well worth a visit. It is a family-run folklore museum which has a priceless collection of more than 5000 artefacts. The theatre has an 18th-century wood-carved ceiling depicting Hindu gods as well as colourful Ramayana and Mahabharata murals. Another interesting venue is the Hill Palace Museum, an impressive 49-building complex formerly the residence of the Kochi royal family. It features a collection of paintings, sculptures, and jewellery. The latter includes a 1.75 kilogram/4 pound diamond-studded gold crown, a gift from Portugal.

St Francis Church, the oldest European church in India. Cochin, Kerala, India
St. Francis Church, the oldest European church in India. Cochin

The Backwaters of Kerala

The Backwaters of Kerala are a network of 1500 kilometres/900 miles of canals, both manmade and natural, 38 rivers, and 5 large lakes which extend from one end of Kerala to the other. The Backwaters can be explored on India tours by renting a boat for one or several days. If you sail for more than a day, the boat usually comes with a navigator and a cook. Boats vary in style and run to luxurious houseboats. This network of lagoons, lakes, canals, estuaries and deltas flows into the Arabian Sea. The backwaters are one of the largest fresh-water sources and are rich in marine life as well being known for their natural beauty.

The most beautiful and accessible part of the Backwaters is Ashtamudi Lake, the second biggest in Kerala. It is home to several endangered marine species and has a rich bio-diversity. A major attraction is the views of everyday life as you sail by typical, authentic local villages. The Backwaters are great for bird watchers as you are able to spot some magnificent native birds like kites and kingfishers.

Cruising Kerala backwaters, India
Cruising Kerala backwaters

Kovalam

Kovalam is approximately 12 kilometres/7 miles south of the city of Trivandrum in the south-west corner of India. I include Kovalam because not only is it a great place to unwind and relax after an India tour but its beaches are among the most pristine in the country. There are 3 beaches linked in a crescent and separated by rocky promontories along a stretch of a 17 kilometre/11 mile coastline. It is a popular place to spend time due to its shallow water and low tidal waves.

The beaches consist of Lighthouse Beach (the largest and known, naturally, for its lighthouse), Hawah Beach (which was famous for topless bathing, now banned), and Samudra Beach (where the sight of the waves lashing on the rocks is amazing). There are plenty of excellent hotels to choose from with a wide range of classification.

Aerial view of Lighthouse Beach in Kovalam, India
Aerial view of Lighthouse Beach in Kovalam

Mysore

Moving inland, we come to Mysore. It served as the capital city of the Kingdom of Mysore for nearly six centuries from 1399 until 1956. The Kingdom was ruled by the Wadiyar dynasty which was a patron of art and culture and contributed significantly to the cultural and economic growth of the city and the state. Mysore is noted for its heritage buildings and is called the “City of Palaces” because of several ornate palaces to be found in the city. The most notable are Mysore Palace (more later), Jaganmohana Palace which also serves as an art gallery, Rajendra Vila also known as the summer palace, and Lalitha Mahal Palace which has been converted into a hotel. The most visited is the grandiloquent and striking Mysore Palace (and the second-most visited site in India after the Taj Mahal). It was actually destroyed by fire in 1897 but rebuilt in 1912. The main building is three storeys high and is made of stone granite, pink marble domes, and a five-storey tower with a gilded dome. Carved wooden doors, mosaic floors, and a series of paintings depict life here during the Raj era. There is also an elephant seat made with 84 kilograms/185 pounds of gold and the palace precinct has 12 Hindu temples dating from the 14th to the 20th centuries. The exterior of the building is stunning, especially at night when it is lit by 97,000 lights!

Mysore Palace lit up at night, Mysore, India
Mysore Palace lit up at night, Mysore

Madurai

Staying inland, Madurai is a city with a long history going back to the 3rd century AD. The city has a number of historical monuments. The most prominent are the Meenakshi Amman Temple and the Tirumalai Nayak Palace. The Meenakshi Amman Temple is a historic Hindu temple and one of the most prominent landmarks in the city. The complex houses 14 gateway towers ranging from 45 to 50 metres/148 to 164 feet in height. The temple is a significant symbol for Tamils and has been mentioned since antiquity in Tamil literature. There are an estimated 33,000 sculptures in the temple.

The Tirumalai Nayak Palace is said to be only a quarter of its original size. The building, which can be seen today on India tours, was the main palace in which the king lived. The original Palace Complex was four times bigger than the present structure. In its heyday, the palace was considered to be one of the wonders of South India. From one entrance, a large courtyard surrounded by tall, thick columns topped with fancy stucco work leads to the grand throne chamber. Two stone-carved horses are located on the steps up.

Meenakshi Amman Temple, Madurai, India
Meenakshi Amman Temple, Madurai

Periyar National Park

For those “templed-out” on India trips, let’s head to Periyar. A combination of a national park and a tiger reserve, the Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary has a beautiful lake in the middle which provides drinking water for the wildlife. Along the sides of the lake is marshy tall grassland where sometimes you can see langurs and macaque. It was declared a tiger reserve in 1978 to protect the tiger population under the project, Tiger Plan, an initiative taken by the Government of India to save ever decreasing numbers. Not only tigers but herds of elephants can be seen as well as deer, mongoose, egrets, and civet cats. For the ornithologist, there are roughly 260 species of birds and 100 varieties of butterflies that can be seen. The National Park has rich and diverse flora including tropical forest and savannah grassland. About 2000 species of flowering plants belonging to 160 families have been identified. Accommodation includes the Spice Village Hotel located outside the sanctuary, the Taj Garden Retreat, and the Lake Palace Hotel.

Lake at Periyar National Park, Kerala, India
Lake at Periyar National Park

So there you have it – South India, a very viable and varied part of the country which can be thoroughly enjoyed on India tours.