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South India Travel Guide

| Words by Rachel McCombie |

Visiting southern India is a rather different experience from the more well-trodden north, but, as these highlights show, there are numerous reasons to make the trip.

You don’t need to be a seasoned traveller to guess that there’s a lot more to India than the Taj Mahal. One area that’s less often on people’s bucket lists is southern India. It may not be as frequently visited as other parts of India, but it has a rich culture and history that give it an abundance of interest and charm. If you’ve never been to India before and you’re a bit nervous about it, you’re in luck: southern India gives travellers a more relaxing experience than the chaotic cities of the north, making it ideal for a first-time visitor. In this post, we introduce you to the people, food and sightseeing highlights of this unmissable part of India.

Fishing boats of Cochin, India

The people

Five states make up southern India: Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh. Several languages are spoken, the main ones being Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam. In contrast to the European-influenced culture of the north of India, the predominant culture in the south is Dravidian, with many different religious beliefs peacefully coexisting. South Indian women wear the sari, and men wear a sarong-like garment. The people are laid-back, grounded and cheerful, and generally welcoming towards tourists.

A region of several languages and a number of religions. Southern India is famed for its inquisitive and ever hospitable people

The food

One of the delights of a trip to southern India is the food. Dishes are often served on banana leaves, which is an enjoyable experience in itself. There are culinary variations between different states, but broadly speaking there’s a vegetarian focus, with a lot of rice and lentils (daals), local fruits and vegetables such as the tamarind, and of course plenty of spices, chillies and coconut. Southern Indian cooking is some of the hottest in the country, particularly local dishes from Tamil Nadu. Caffeine addicts will be pleased to learn that coffee is hugely popular throughout southern India. If you’re including the coast on your travel itinerary, expect magnificent seafood.

Expect a vegetarian focus with Dahl’s, lentils and local fruits

The unmissable highlights

Colourful Cochin

Also known as Kochi, the great trading port of Cochin is situated on the west coast and is packed full of interesting things to see. From a 400-year-old synagogue to the heady aromas of its spice trading streets, Cochin is a place where history seems to come to life. Its trading past has given it a fascinating mix of cultural influences from as far away as Holland and Portugal. Don’t leave without a walk around its delightful waterfront, where you’ll see Chinese-style fishing nets suspended above the waters of its picturesque harbour - a particularly impressive sight at sunset.

The beaches and colonial architecture of Cochin

The temples of Tamil Nadu

Southern India’s largest and most stunning temples are to be found in Tamil Nadu. Particularly worthy of a visit is Kanchipuram, known as the “city of a thousand temples”, though actually a small town. This former capital of the Pallava kingdom is a major site of pilgrimage, and has temples that date from Medieval times. Mahabalipuram (also known as Mamallapuram) is another place to add to your itinerary; its complex of beautifully carved shrines, sculptures and caves are UNESCO-protected and are superb examples of Dravidian architecture.

The colourful temples of Tamil Nadu

Colonial Pondicherry

The historic seaside town of Pondicherry is a former French colony that retains much of its colonial charm. It was capital of India’s French colonies in the 17th century, and you’ll notice plenty of French influences mixing with the local Tamil style in the city’s architecture. This is the perfect place to sample the local coffee, stroll the streets and enjoy an atmosphere best described as east meets west. The other thing that makes Pondicherry worth a visit is its famous Sri Aurobindo Ashram, a spiritual community that offers tours and meditation to tourists.

Periyar National Park

Those with an interest in wildlife will relish the chance to see some of southern India’s endangered species at the Periyar National Park in Kerala. Situated in the evocatively-named Cardamom Hills, this National Park is home to large populations of elephants and tigers, as well as bison, leopards and innumerable other species of jungle wildlife.

The leopards of Periyar National Park

Madurai

Another destination for temple enthusiasts: Madurai, one of the oldest cities in southern India (it’s been around since the 4th century BC), has Dravidian temples that are major sites of pilgrimage. The most famous temple, and the primary attraction for most visitors to Madurai, is Sri Meenakshi, which is adorned with colourful images of deities, animals and other mythical figures.

The temples of Madurai

Chennai

Chennai is the city formerly known as Madras. While there aren’t as many famous sights to see here as in some of India’s other major cities, its appeal lies in its friendly people and artistic and religious heritage. Marina Beach is a highlight; at 12km long, it’s the perfect place for an evening stroll by the sea after a day exploring the city’s museums and temples.

The backwaters of Kerala

The state of Kerala is famous for its peaceful backwaters, which are best appreciated by boat. This network of canals, rivers and lakes is a place to enjoy a slower pace of life after the noise and chaos of urban India. A few days on the water, listening to the birdsong and drifting past picturesque riverside villages, will leave you feeling rejuvenated and calm.

The backwaters of Kerala

When to go

With its tropical climate, southern India can get extremely hot and muggy during the summer months. For this reason, the best time to go is in the winter, with peak season falling between December and February. Even then the temperatures are on the hot side of pleasant, ranging from about 22 to 30 degrees Celsius, but humidity is lower, which makes all the difference. If you’re heading for the hills, these higher areas will be cooler and you’ll need a layer or two for the early mornings and evenings.

Elephants at Nagarhole National Park in southern India

If we’ve managed to whet your appetite for southern India, visit this fascinating part of the world on  our Secrets of Southern India tour.