Ready to explore South India? We just finished an amazing 2-week tour – sharing our itinerary and highlights below.
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India is a mélange of various ethnic groups, cuisines, folk art and religious festivals. There is an India that is a subcontinent of over a billion people, bound together by the world’s largest democracy.
There is the India where geographical diversity allows for sun-kissed beaches, arid mountains, tranquil backwaters, deserts and lush jungles. There is an India of the present where silicon valleys, high-rises and economic development are making the world sit up and take notice. There is an India of the past whose royalty has stamped the world with its hedonistic appreciation of all things fine and whose history is as ancient as civilization itself.
There is an India of the haves and the have-nots. And, there is an India where everyone is equal in the world of mysticism, yoga, karma, epics, Upanishads, mythology and many of the world’s greatest religions. India’s beauty though, lies in the fact that all of this exists together at the same time and place.
It is not uncommon to see an elephant mahout in Mumbai’s cosmopolitan surrounding. Or to see a café dedicated to the Beatles in Varanasi, one of the holiest and oldest cities of the world. And it is this fusion, this beautiful combination of chaos and calm that defines your incredible experience in an otherwise indefinable place.
Day 1 – COCHIN
In Hindu mythology, King Parasurama, one of Lord Vishnu’s ten incarnations, threw his battle-axe in to the sea to atone for his killing of thousands of warriors. The sea forgave him and receded, unveiling a fertile land, today known as Kerala.
So refreshingly vibrant, slightly smaller than Switzerland, Kerala is a cluster of islands and peninsulas where picturesque lagoons and canals take the place of main roads. The state is divided into three parallel strips: the coastal area with lush vegetation almost to the water’s edge, the middle strip of rubber, tea and spice plantations and a hilly region with tropical forests sheltered by the Western Ghats. For many centuries, these mountains acted as an impassable barrier guarding the coastal state. The sea, however, provided an excellent gateway.
Meet with our representative outside the arrival hall and transfer to Fort Cochin.
The Dutch surrendered to the British in 1795 and Fort Cochin became a centre of England’s trading interests. Streets crowded with merchants and warehouses stored with goods from every part of Asia. Today, trading houses from the days of the British Raj still deal with spices, coir, rubber and tea. Though they are now Indian owned, their names reflect their British Empire origins. Carrit Moran, Pierce Leslie, J. Thomas, Forbes Ewart and Figgis, Matheson Bosanquet… to name a few.
We spend the next 2 nights at Brunton Boatyard, a CGH Earth property.
Once a boatyard of Geo Brunton & Sons, this leisure hotel with its stately architectural style and views across the water, blends with the flavor of Fort Cochin and its ever present influences of the Portuguese, Dutch and the British.
Day 2 – KERALA
Day trip on the backwaters of Kerala. After a leisurely breakfast, we drive around 1.5 hours to the Alleppey jetty and board a Xandari Riverescapes Houseboat, called the Kettuvellom in the local language.
The crafting of a ‘kettuvellom’ is an interesting process – the boat is constructed from a range of materials, which include jack wood, bamboo poles, beaten coconut fiber and coir rope and then smearing the surface with resinous black substance made by boiling cashew nuts.
Sail along palm fringed canals and lakes, passing little creeks where tiny settlements of thatched houses nestle below palm trees on diminutive patches of land. The waterways are seething with dragon shaped dugouts with graceful sails and covered boats transporting copra (dried coconut) and cashew nuts from local villages to the ports. Witness coir making, toddy tapping, fishing and rice growing along the palm fringe banks. You shall also see papaya, jackfruit and cassava (tapioca) growing. Local temples and churches are encompassed on this interesting cruise.
Relish the traditional cuisine made on board. After afternoon tea, we disembark back at the Alleppey jetty and return to Fort Cochin.
We proceed to the local theatre to watch a Kathakali dance performance. Kathakali is a unique dance form that combines dance, yoga, ballet and traditional Indian medicine.
Kathakali has a five hundred year old history with more than a hundred different ‘mudras’ or gestures depicting deities, demons, heroes, heroines and kings each based on episodes from the Mahabharatha and the Ramayana, the two famous Indian epics.
Day 3 – THEKKADY
Early this morning (6.45 a.m.), we cycle with Gully Tours through the picturesque seaside town of Fort Kochi and watch the city start to wake up and stir. Witness the hustle and bustle of the fish market and make your way through alleyways to Mattancherry, Jew Town and Bazaar Road. We join the locals for a hot brimming cup of tea and enjoy a scrumptious local breakfast.
Return to the hotel to freshen up and check out after which we begin our journey to Thekkady, a 4.5 hours drive.
Just beyond the parameters of the Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary, we stay at the Spice Village, a CGH property, a rustic estate dotted with coffee plants, spice bushes and fruit trees.
This afternoon, we embark on a jeep excursion to visit Thekkady’s spice farms growing pepper, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, coffee etc. We also visit a vegetable farm.
Spices have always been an integral aspect of life in Kerala. Here the masters of ayruveda, the science of life, discovered the use of spices for medicinal purposes.
Spices also play an important role in the Kerala cuisine, non-ayruvedic medicine and cosmetics. Periyar, due to its location in the lower mountains around 1000 metres above sea level, is blessed with an abundance of various spices. As a result, the spice plantation tour is an interesting activity a first-time traveler to engage in. It is an opportunity to see why cuisine of Kerala is so different from most other Indian cuisines.
Day 4 – MADURAI
After breakfast, we check out and drive around 5 hours to Madurai, passing tea plantations on the way.
Madurai is situated on the banks of the river Vaigai. The city’s history goes back to the 6th century B.C., when it traded with Greece and Rome. According to legend, drops of nectar fell from Lord Shiva’s locks on this site so it was named `Madhuram’, Madurai or nectar city.
Upon arrival, transfer to the Taj Gateway and check in.
After lunch, we explore the Thirumalai Nayak Palace built by King Thirumalai Nayak in 1636 AD. The palace was designed by an Italian architect and served as the residence of the King. It is divided into two major parts, Swargavilasa and Rangavilasa, which include the royal residence, theatre, shrine, apartments, armory, palanquin place, royal bandstand, quarters, pond and garden.
Later, we ride rickshaws though the fruit and flower markets.
After an early dinner, we visit the popular Meenakshi temple to witness the ceremony of the holy priest putting the gods to sleep. At nine thirty each evening there is a closing ceremony in which an image of Shiva is carried in a procession to Meenakshi’s bedroom and taken back at dawn. Shoes & socks must be removed.
Day 5 – CHETTINAD
After breakfast, check out and drive around 2 hours to Chettinad.
Chettinad is the land of the legendry Nattukotai Chettiars, a very conservative community of traders and financiers with traditions centuries old. They built for their homes fortress like mansions and filled them with the wealth amassed from across the seas, having dominated the coastal business as ship – chandlers, salt merchants and gem dealers. Their influence and business acumen spread to Ceylon, Burma, Indochina and even Sumatra and Mauritius.
Arrive Karaikudi, Chettinad’s largest town and transfer to Visalam, a 70 year old Palatial home, and another CGH Earth property.
After lunch, we explore the town and visit a Santhi, a village market.
Day 6 – TANJORE
After a leisurely morning, check out and drive around 2 hours to Tanjore.
Tanjore was, approximately one thousand years ago, the capital of the mighty Chola dynasty whose empire extended beyond South India and Sri Lanka to the kingdoms of Southeast Asia. The Chola kings were great patrons of the arts which resulted in the construction of innumerable temples.
Spend the next 2 night at Svatma, a serene getaway in a 100 year old restored mansion where tradition and modernity live together in perfect harmony. Exclusively vegetarian in respect of the Hindu doctrines.
This afternoon, an option to visit Tanjore’s famous Brihadeshwar temple built by their greatest king, Rajaraja.
The wonder of Brihadeshwara and “pride of India” has a fascinating origin – King Rajaraja struck by leprosy approached his `guru’ in despair and was advised to build a temple in dedication to Lord Shiva – the god of destruction. 12 years later when this masterpiece of 10th century Hindu art and architecture was complete, the king took a bath in the temple tank and was cured!
Guarding the shrine is a gigantic carving of Shiva’s vehicle, the bull Nandi. The temple is filled with spectacular carvings, colossal sculptures and beautiful frescoes. The soaring
Vimana tower is nearly 65 meters high with majestic carvings at its base crowned with a huge cupola weighing over 81 tonnes which had to be hauled over a ramp of over 3 and a half miles – demonstrating the famous adage that the Chola’s conceived like giants and finished like jewelers.
Later, visit the nearby Thanjavur Palace which has a fine collection of Chola bronzes including the famous Nataraja, ‘The Dancing Siva’.
Day 7: TANJORE
The day is at leisure to relax and enjoy the hotel.
Overnight in Tanjore.
Day 8: PONDICHERRY
After an early breakfast, check out and drive around 1.5 hours to Darasuram. We visit a weaving house and also witness the ancient art form of Kalamkari.
Next, we stop to see the third of the great Chola temples named Airavatesvara. Built between 1146 and 1172, this temple is the perfect example of the evolvement of the decorative style of architecture in the late Chola period.
Onward to Kumbakonam. Nestled between two great rivers of southern India, Cauvery and Arsala, Kumbakonam is a gorgeous temple town in the heart of the Thanjavur district of Tamil Nadu.
We visit the Kumbaeshwara Temple and the Maha Maha Temple Tank. We also have the opportunity to to visit a Bronze Gallery where they make the
Later, we stop for lunch at Mantra Koodam, another CHG Earth property paying homage to Kumbakonam’s legacy.
Our lunch included several thalis, round platters used to serve Indian-style dishes.
After lunch, we drive around 1.5 hours to visit the mesmerizing Gangaikondacholapuram temple from the Chola dynasty.
From 1012 to 1044, Gangaikondacholapuram, ‘The city of Chola who conquered the sacred river Ganges’ was the capital of King Rajendra. These days all that remains is the temple and the 5 kilometer long 11th century reservoir. In Chola style the audience hall and sanctuary are raised on a high platform oriented from East to West and climbed by steps. The whole building is over 100 meters long and over 40 meters wide. Above the sanctuary is a magnificent eight-tiered, pyramidal tower nearly 55 meters high. The carvings in the temple and the shrines around are excellent. While the Cholas built magnificent temples their achievements in figure-sculpture and metal casting were equally great. The builder used statuary to great effect in the temples. Some of the finest bronzes in India are from this period.
Another 1.5 hours to the temples at Chidambaram, one of the most ancient and most celebrated of shrines in India. It is of great religious as well as historic and cultural significance. Chidambaram is associated with Nataraja, or Shiva in his Ananda Tandava pose (the Cosmic Dance of bliss) in the cosmic golden hall and the hall of consciousness (Chit Sabha). Shiva is also worshipped in the “formless form” of the Chidambara Rahasyam, while the temple is known for its Akasa Lingam, an embodiment of Shiva as the formless Space. The word “Koyil” or temple in the Tamil Saivite tradition refers to none other than the Chidambaram Nataraja temple.
After the visits, we continue our journey around a 2 hour drive to the French colonial town of Pondicherry and check into Maison Perumal, a CGH Earth property.
Pondicherry, ‘The French Riviera of the East’ was one of the largest French colonies in India. Today, there is still a strong French influence in the city, especially in the old quarters, with Rues and Boulevards lined with Mediterranean style houses and bakeries but the city remains very much Indian which makes for rather pleasant mix of East and West.
Day 9: PONDICHERRY
After breakfast, we visit the internationally famous Aurobindo Ashram founded in 1926 by Shri Aurobindo the revolutionary turned saint, whose spiritual tenets are based upon a synthesis of yoga and modern science.
Pondicherry is home to several famous Churches. Many churches were built by the French, and its structure and architecture gives a definite French feel. We proceed to visit the Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. This church was supposed to have been erected in 1700s by French Missionaries.
In the afternoon, we take a heritage walk through the old town to experience the spirit of Pondicherry and the nature of its architectural traditions. There are few monumental buildings in Pondicherry, its architectural character is a result of hundreds of French and Tamil houses that create the `milieu’. Pondi has two distinct parts, the French and the Tamil. The French quarter has structures in the European classical style, whereas the buildings in the Tamil quarter are in the vernacular style of Tamil Nadu.
The two styles have influenced each other with the result that many buildings in both parts of town are a harmonious blend of European and Tamil patterns. It is this cross – influence of building patterns that gives the old town its distinct architectural vocabulary, which can be termed “Pondicherryness”.
Best Places to Shop in Pondicherry:
- Via Pondicherry – ask for Vasanty Manet, owner, to introduce you to her beautiful boutique. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Anokhi – clothes, home items made from beautiful India fabrics.
- Meraki Lifestyle Store
- Coromandel Cafe, Restaurant & Boutiques (former La Maison Rose)
- Chintz Boutique
Day 10: MAHABALIPURAM
After a leisurely morning, check out and drive around 2 hours towards the temple town of Mahabalipuram.
Mahabalipuram, also known as Mamallapuram was built by the Pallava king Mahendra Varman as a seaport to connect his empire with Southeast Asia.
Amongst the plethora of Hindu temples built by this dynasty in the 7th century, the major ones are in Mahabalipuram; the graceful shore temple, the cave temple, the single stone granite `Rathas’ or chariot temples and the world’s largest bas relief with themes from Hindu mythology called both `Arjuna’s Penance’ and `Descent of the Ganges’.
Transfer to the Taj Fisherman’s Cove and check in.
After lunch, we visit the shore temples of Mahabalipuram.
The excellent quality of figure sculpture in the Mahabalipuram group of temples set the tone for the development of plastic art in later years. This movement was soon to blossom into the great classic art of Java and Angkor! In the proximity of the rock-cut temples is a huge whale-back rock on which the Pallava artists have chiseled in thick profusion some of the finest sculptures known to belong to ancient India. Monkeys, lions, elephants, deer and a host of wild animals along with ascetics in meditation and mythical serpent gods have been carved with great vigor, realism and charm. Following the rock-cut style, the second phase of Mahabalipuram architecture favored structural temples which provided a larger canvas for display of the sculptor’s skill. The Shore Temple is an outstanding example and the solidity of its masonry has withstood over 12 centuries the onslaught of the monsoons, battering sea waves and the treachery of drifting sands.
Day 11: CHENNAI – MUMBAI
Early this morning, check out and drive around 1.5 hours to Chennai airport for flight to Mumbai.
With a population exceeding 18 million, this one time group of low lying mud flats is now India’s economic power base and her most industrialized city, bustling with activity of incredible diversity and complexity, her color and elegance, her wealth corresponding with her historic struggle against poverty. Certain affluent areas give Bombay an air of mini–Manhattan!
Check in and freshen up before we transfer you to the Churchgate Railway Station for your Holi tour with Reality Tours.
Note: The Holi celebration only takes place certain dates in March. Good to know, 80% of the proceeds from our tour with Reality Tours goes toward local slum communities through educational programs.
Day 12: MUMBAI
After breakfast, we visit Dhobi Ghat, the open air laundry, a unique facet of Bombay. Dhobis (washer men and women) attend to an astounding quantity of washing daily.
We then visit the Gandhi Museum. Located on leafy Laburnum Road, a quiet lane named after its shady trees, Mani Bhavan is the old Mumbai residence of Mahatma Gandhi.
Later, we drive to the Churchgate Railway Terminus to see the `Dabbawallahs’, members of the Bombay Union of Tiffin Box Carriers. They provide a very essential service to the city’s several thousand office goers by delivering fresh meals to them. The service which costs a few rupees a week is a good example of the fine division of labor in India.
The most admirable features of Bombay’s cityscape are the Gothic revival buildings raised in the last century after its original fortifications were removed. Indeed it is because of these buildings that Bombay is often cited as a ‘unique Victorian city ‘. Before lunch, we drive past many such relics including the Asiatic Library, Hornimal Circle, the General Post office, Victoria Terminus and Bombay Municipality. Continuing to the seafront called the Queen’s Necklace, and uphill to enjoy the vistas.
Lunch at popular Trishna located within the heritage section of the city. The restaurant is noted for its seafood and prepares authentic recipes from the west coast of India. The late New York Times gourmand R. W. Apple Jr. declared this spot’s seafood, ‘worthy of hopping a plane for!’.
After lunch, we drive to the Lalbagh market, Bombay’s spice market with its rural color, a quality absent in other city markets! Here one finds shops selling an array of spices, chilies, rustic lanterns, metal trunks and colorful cow bells of various sizes as gifts – articles which the migrant worker might take home on his periodic visits to the village.
Day 13: MUMBAI
Visit the Gateway of India jetty to board a chartered motor launch for an excursion to Elephanta Island, located some four miles from the city, originally called Gharapuri (‘Fortress City’) and renamed ‘Elephanta’ by the Portuguese who found a large stone elephant near the landing place. Within the main rock-cut temple, probably dating from between 450 to 750 A.D. are found large sculptured panels, the most interesting of which is the three headed Shiva shown as the Creator, the Preserver and the Destroyer. Other Shiva panels includes one of the God dancing the ‘Tandava’ and thereby causing the world to shake.
Best Places to Shop in Mumbai:
- Vipul – exclusive contimporary jewelry
- Christina – Apparel and accessories
- Shawl Sons – collecion of shawls
- D. Popli & Sons – jewelry
- Good Earth – Home store and clothing items
- Forest Essentials – Luxury Ayurveda products
- Sabyasachi Mukherjee – Designer Indian wear
- Ensemble – collection of desitner apparel, contemporary and Indian
- Ritu Kumar, Rajesh Pratap Singh, Tulsi – Contemporary Indian and western apparel
- Nicobar – Contemporary apparel & home store
- Artisans – Pop up store supporting India’s indigenous art, craft, and design heritage.
Ventours provided the content in this article.
Photo Credits: Global Adventuress