South India Tour – Best of Tamil Nadu and Kerala (15 days)

South India Cultural Tour – Best of Tamil Nadu and Kerala – Temples, Traditions, Bazaars,
Backwaters, Tea & Spice Plantations, Wildlife, Beaches

  • Your dream of seeing the real India -the exotic and enchanting India is about to come true with our South India tour packages. Experience the people, the kaleidoscope of color, the culture and ancient temple complexes. You will transcend time and go back to the ancient days as you travel through the countryside rich with palm trees, rice fields and tea plantations and explore medieval buildings and temples on this South India Tour!
  • Begin your South Indian tour in Chennai, capital of state Tamil Nadu on the west coast of India.
  • See the sights of the rock cut pillars of Mahabalipuram and the centuries -old temples of Kanchipuram, the best kept ancient sites in South India.
  • Take in the distinctive Franco-Indian style of Puducherry (Pondicherry).
  • Be awe struck by the splendor of Chola architecture at the Great Living Chola Temples of Gangaikonda Cholapuram, Darasuram’s Airavatesvara Temple, Thanjavur’s Brihadishwara Temple.
  • Discover the charm of the Chettinad region. Stay in a glorious mansion belonging to an original trader. View the earliest Burma teakwood pillars, Belgium glasses and granite flooring
  • Admire Madurai’s breathtaking temples the greatest cultural, symbols of Southern India.
  • Look out for the wild elephants among the fantastic scenery at Periyar Tiger Reserve and learn how the world’s most popular spices are grown at the 500 -acre Spice Plantation in the beautiful Western Ghats
  • Visit India’s first European colony, Fort Kochi on the Malabar Coast, settled by the Portuguese, Dutch and eventually the British.
  • Mingle with the local farmers in Munnar and explore their tea plantation and the factory where the world famous tea is made!
  • Enter “God’s own country” the Allepey Backwaters. Relax, and Enjoy the scenery in your private houseboat on the Allepey Backwaters.
  • Be entertained by the exotic performances of the Kathakali dance in Kochi, with pulsating music and extravagant costumes and make-up
  • Laze about the grand beach resort of Mararikulam and enjoy some fun in the sun.

Travel Route: Chennai – Kanchipuram – Mahabalipuram (Mamallapuram) – Pondicherry (Puducherry) – Tanjore (Thanjavur) – Trichy (Tiruchirapalli) – Chettinad Region – Madurai – Munnar – Thekkady (Periyar) – Alleppey (Houseboat) – Kumarakom – Mararikulam Beach – Kochi – Chennai

Daily Itinerary

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When you arrive at Chennai International airport you will be welcomed with a reception and afterwards transported the hotel!

Chennai was at one point a set of villages in the midst of paddy fields surrounded by palm trees. Then Andrew Cogan and Francis Day, two English merchants from the East India Company set up a factory-cum-trading post here. This post was finished on 23rd April 1640, St George’s Day and was named Fort St George. Chennai has now become one of the four largest cities in India, where millions of Indians travel to find work .You can also find a thriving Japanese population here -actually one of the largest in the country. Also called the “Detroit of India” because of a car industry that is quite successful this walled city continues to move forward. Overnight stay in Chennai!

Close up view of temple tower in Kapaleeshwar temple, Chennai

Today, our South India tours begin with a healthy and invigorating morning stroll along the Marina Beach which is 3km-long on the main stretch. As we enjoy our walk through the sand we will pass people going about their everyday lives; men playing a game of cricket, some hauling in their boats with the catch of the day, families and friends enjoying the breeze along the shore, kites flying, people telling fortunes while others have theirs told, fish markets and corn-roasters.

We will view the immaculately kept traditional architecture as we venture on this one day tour of Chennai in Fort George, India’s oldest fortress that was founded in 1640 by the British, when the East Indian Company was formed. You will learn how it has since become the headquarters for the legislative assembly of the Tamil Nadu state. We will tour the Wellesley House, St Mary’s Church and the Fort Museum where you will see several remnants from the British reign. Included in those relics are coins, weapons, medals and uniforms. Major-General Robert Clive who set up the political and military reign of the East India Company in Bengal was married here at Asia’s oldest Anglican Church.

Take a look at the other side of town; you will set your eyes on the elevated Catholic Cathedral of St. Thomas in its glorious white. This church was built initially in the 16th century by the Portuguese over the tomb of the Apostle Thomas a follower of Jesus Christ. Further on we go to the Government Museum which is also known as the Madras Museum. It bears an Indo-Saracenic style and is India’s second oldest museum. This site is home to the biggest collection of Roman artifacts in the world, with the exception of those in Europe. Here you will walk among an exclusive collection of contemporary and traditional sculptures, paintings, coins, archaeological findings, manuscripts made of palm leaves, Amravati paintings and very rare art done by some of India’s famed artist in the likes of Raja Ravi Varma. It was between the 9th and 11th centuries that sculpting from bronze came to the fore. Make sure to look for the magnificent Chola bronzes of the 10th to 13th-century with images of the three-armed Ardhanarishiva which personifies the male and female figures, Shiva, known as the Lord of Dance and Nataraja spinning in a ring of fire.

Go into the 400 year old Temple of Kapaleeshwar and observe the Brahmin priests, the ones that interpret the Hindu texts, as they perform their daily tasks. Listen as you are told about the Hindu gods and understand why the queer ritual of walking clockwise around the temple is done by locals.

It’s time for lunch and you will be treated to a feast of delicious food at the finest restaurant in Chennai, Dakshin. This restaurant specializes in Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu cuisine.

After your break for lunch we take a drive to Kanchipuram (70 Km) also fittingly called ‘The City of Thousand Temples’. It is the place both Indians and Hindus consider to be one of the seven most sacred cities in India. The compound is made of sandstone and it’s a great place to explore and be amazed by the intricate carvings of half-animal deities which were very popular in the days of early Dravidian architecture. Accompanied by our guide we will make stops to various temples and hear about the significance of Vishnu and Shive, the Hindu gods. Travel around the city’s largest temple Sri Ekambareswarar which is one of the five main Shiva temples with each representing part of nature. This particular temple was constructed sometime round 600 AD and symbolizes the earth. We go over to the Kailasanatha Temple, which was constructed in the early 8th century and is the oldest of all the temples in Kanchipuram.

We will spend at least 45 minutes at each and then visit Kanchipuram, the silk shop close by- well known for selling the finest in hand woven silk saris. Here you will be given a silk-weaving demonstration as the very talented artisans take pure mulberry silk with a variety of stunning colors and make some of the loveliest saris decorated with fine gold thread.

Finally we make a drive to the UNESCO World Heritage-listed city to Mahabalipuram, (65 Km). It’s most recent name is Mamallapuram. In this city you will find several 7th and 9th centuries rock-cut monuments.

Overnight stay in Mahabalipuram!

Marina Beach, Chennai

13th century Buddha figure in Government museum, Chennai. The museum also displays the largest collection of ancient bronze artifacts in the world

Traditional meals on Banana leaves! The ‘Madras meals’ is a wholesome platter of rice, sambar, pulses, vegetable curry, appalam and a sweet. The variety offered makes it one of the best dishes to have for lunch

Ancient stone carvings in Varadaraja Temple. Kanchipuram, Tamil Nadu, India

On this day we will explore the medieval sites of Mahabalipuram where the majority of structures were built in honor of the Hindu gods and display some of the oldest reminders of Dravidian architecture that still exist. Your guide will walk you through numerous cave temples and sculpted pillars. Amongst them are the Arjuna Penace, Shore Temple, Five Rathas, Krishna Butterball and Krishna Mandap .You will be enlightened about the Buddhist aspects of these remarkable constructions, along with their importance historically. Have a look at the prized feature of the stonework of Mamallapuram. It is a mammoth carving and one of the greatest medieval artworks in India. The Arjuna Penace is replete with images of the everyday life of the South Indians and Hindu myths adorned on two gigantic rocks. Plumb in the middle are nagas or snake-beings which go down on crevices that were once water-filled and is symbolic of the Ganges. On the left there is Arjuna, who is a hero of the Mahabharata as he carries out fasting on one leg or self-mortification in order that Shiva with the four arms would give him the Pashupatastra or the god-slaying weapon that is extremely powerful. Additionally, there are a plethora of animals carved out from the rocks such as a comical scene of a cat imitating Arjuna’s penance to several mice and a herd of elephants.

Along the road on the South from Arjuna’s Penance are the Panch Pandava Mandapa (Caves Temples), which are incomplete these are; the Krishna Mandapa, a famous portrayal of Krishna elevating Govardhana Hill in order to offer protection to the villagers and cows from a storm that was sent by Indra to destroy them. Clustered together on Mamallapuram’s southern end, the Five Rathas which means chariot in Sanskrit, vehicle for gods. They have the look of a building but were really amazingly carved from single large rocks. Every one of these temples from the 7th-century were devoted to a Hindu god and each is named after one of the Pandavas who were five brothers considered to be heroes in the classic Mahabharata, or their shared wife, Draupadi. The Rathas were unearthed from their hiding place in the sand some 200 years ago by the British. The Arjuna’s stone chariot which is dedicated to Shiva is the prized feature of all here with columns, small shrines on its roof and an octagonal dome. It was indeed the forerunner to the temples that would be built later on. A large Nandi which is, Shiva’s vehicle, stands aback of it and on the exterior are depictions of Shiva and other gods.

Our last stop for the day will be the well-known Shore Temples constructed in the 8th century by Narasimhavarman II. It has two towers and is a perfect example of Pallava architecture and the determination of the Pallava kings. Despite its size it contains carvings of superior quality. Some however, over time, have worn out and are now traces of the carvings that were there. Known as the earliest and most important free-standing stone temple in India it is a superb show of a brilliant rock carving looking over the sea. In a village renowned for stone carvers, don’t be surprised that even after a thousand years the chisel and hammer still play a vital role. Here you will still find some of the most creative pieces of all kinds; from small paperweights to monuments of Lakshmi, Buddha, Ganesh, Vishnu, Durga, Shiva and Krishna – in all sizes. Overnight in Mahabalipruam!

Bas-relief in Mamallapuram, India, depicting a scene of the famous Indian epic Mahabharata. Carving was made in the 7th Century.

Krishna Mandapam Bas relief, Mahabalipuram

Seashore Temple, UNESCO heritage site, Mamallapuram, near Chennai, India

We drive from Mahabalipuram to Pondicherry which takes about two hours. Pondicherry is a former French colony on India’s East Coast. Independence was won in 1954 from France but there are still a few hundred French families who remained on the Coromandel Coast. It is quite different to other travel destinations in India which can become noisy and crowded with people looking to get business. Actually it is the opposite; here there is an atmosphere of serenity and friendliness. Pondicherry is the place where the French offloaded their cargo over 300 years ago to conduct business. However, the end-result was a mix of French and Indian lifestyles. The scenes are very French, greetings are made with a “bonjour”, roads are called “rues”, gendarme’s kepis are worn by the policemen and there are pastel colored French colonnades and villas that come to life past the Indian houses. Both the locals and French travelers mingle and chat with each other easily. By the way French is still a language taught in the schools. Pondicherry is really the point where the East and West meet and is a prime example of what colonization produces; a remarkable fusion of cultures.

When we arrive we go to the hotel that looks over the Bay of Bengal and its popular boulevard!

We take a short break and then visit the Aurobindo Ashram, which extends all through the French part of town. It is an interesting place, for it is here that Indian nationalist, philosopher, guru, poet and yogi, Sri Aurobindo Ghose wrote, meditated and left his body. His spiritual partner, Mirra Alfassa born in Paris France with that name but more so known as The Mother also lived, worked and left her body here. Their remains were buried at the Aurobindo Samadhi the spiritual heart of the Ashram.

When lunch is over we will take an excursion to Auroville, which is located some 10 km off Pondicherry. It is a universal city instated on February 28th, 1968 with a mission to have a place that transcends nationality, politics and religion where all humanity can live in unity. The city was intended to hold 50,000 people however, as of May 2014, the actual population was 2,345. It is separated into 4 zones:, cultural, international, industrial and residential with over 50 production units in Auroville participating in a variety of activities like the manufacturing of cheese, production of candles, incense, clothes, jewels, potteries and articles of tanning which can be purchased from the shops of Auroville and Pondicherry and even outside of India. In the center of the amphitheater, placed in a marble urn which has the shape of a lotus flower is a bit of earth from every state in India and over 175 nations of the world. The amphitheater is a striking representation of a city that was birthed for the purpose of the unity and integrity of all mankind. Before 1968, this city was just uncultivated land, since then the dwellers have planted two million trees of varying species and origins. There have also been a lot of experiments in terms of forestation, water conservation, solar energy, organic agriculture, ground preservation and social integration on these 2000 acres of land.

Walk along the seafront promenade at twilight which is like a seaside town in the Mediterranean. There is a large statue of Gandhi and in the cafes on the beach-side, you can enjoy a spicy chicken curry and coq au vin or whatever suits you’re fancy. Overnight in Pondicherry!

French colonial architecture, Pondicherry

Beach Promenade, Pondicherry

The Matrimandir meditation centre at Auroville – photo by Frankcom

Our drive from Pondicherry to Tanjore southwards unveils an extraordinary landscape with the greens of the paddy fields, golden expanses of harvested corn spread out on the road and coconut and banana trees extended to the skies. This fusion of nature creates a glorious sight. The rivers are occupied with women washing their linens while others balance the pots and baskets laden with sugar cane on their heads. Imagine this spectacular blend of color, people, animals and plants, bullocks, goats and monkeys making their way through the traffic – perhaps you may even spot a baby elephant.

On our way there, we will visit Gangai Konda Cholapuram Temple and Airavatesvara Temple at Darasuram. These along with Brihadeswara Temple of Tanjore have all been designated as UNESCO World Heritage Sites of India under the group Great Living Chola Temples. These are three stonework temples devoted to Shiva which showcase the progression of Chola architecture and art, exemplifying the Chola civilization throughout the period of the 10th and 13th centuries, which succeeded the Pallavan empire responsible for Mahabalipuram in South India.

We stop first at the Heritage Temple of Gangai Konda Chola Puram, a temple that showcases some of the finest architecture in India and has a 9 story vimanam (temple tower) that reaches a height of 185 feet. Built in 1012-1044AD by Rajendra Cholason of the Rajaraja-I, it is believed that it was a memorial to his triumphant march to the river Ganga. The temple itself was constructed in 1020 AD and has been kept in good condition. Like other temples there are several images of the legends of Vishnu and Shiva. On a whole the temple abounds with splendid detailed carvings that are distinctively Chola styled. As part of its collection of stone sculptures there is a large stone lingam (Shiva phallus), a dancing Ganesha, a decorated well covered by a lion’s head and a beautiful band demonstrating King Rajendra Chola being enthroned by Shiva and Parvati. The temple at Gangaikonda Cholapuram no longer operates as the Airavatesvara Temple of Darasuram, Brihadeswara Temple of Tanjore do.

Heading a little further southward we go to the Airavatesvara Temple at Darasuram, the third of three exceptional Cholan Temples that are World Heritage sites. It was constructed in the 12th century by Raja Raja Chola II an offspring of the Raja Raja who erected the Brihadeswara Temple at Thanjavur. On the exterior you will often find locals offering flowers and food to the shrine of Ganesh which is the elephant god and son of god Shiva. This is one of the most popular places of worship and there is a distinct difference between this temple and the Gangaikondacholapuram and Thanjavur, in that this tower over the sanctum or the vinama is only 24m high. Even though this is a smaller complex it has several remarkable features, for instance the quality of the intricately carved sculptures, striking murals on the exterior walls of the main temple and depictions of musicians and dancers as well as the regular deities. Added to that there are scenes of medieval warfare carved into the walls and a very interesting enactment of a pregnant lady with an appearance of Lord Shiva demonstrating to the people the right position in childbirth? Yali, a legendary animal with a lion’s face, the trunk of an elephant, the tail of a bull and the body of a sea horse that is said to stop evil is also found here. The mandapa, a hall constructed to look like a chariot pulled by a horse is one of the most alluring aspects of this temple.

We continue our drive to Tanjore. And on arrival we transfer to the hotel. The channel of the Cauvery (Kaveri) River is a huge and fertile area for growing rice. It is the busiest part of Tanjore.

Spend the rest of the time as you wish! Overnight in Tanjore!

Indian rural women works at rice field, Tamil Nadu

Ancient Hindu Shiva temple built in the 11th century in the town of Gangai konda cholapuram, Tamilnadu

Huge Nandi (bull) statue at ancient Hindu Shiva Airavatesvara Temple in darasuram built in 11th century in Tamil Nadu

As we continue to tour South India we will visit Brihadeshwara Temple after breakfast .It is another testimony of the outstanding architectural skills that existed in ancient India.

This temple was constructed by the mighty King of Chola Raja Raja 1 between 985 -1012 A.D.A look at it immediately attest to both the architectural and engineering brilliance of Chola and it is a remarkable input to the actual Dravidian temple architecture. The temple continues to stand strong against the test of time and its 64.8m tall vimanam (tower over the sanctum sanctorum) in addition to its 80 ton stone dome are marvels to those who look on. There is no doubt that you will be fascinated by this huge temple site and the peace and serenity that is here. No wonder it has been considered the most valued architectural site of India and is part of UNESCO’s World Heritage Site and Great Living Chola Temples. The entrance to the shrine is protected by a colossal Nandi which is a holy bull carved out of a single rock and the stone walls are bedecked with several amazing carvings. In the shrine of the temple there is an enormous Mahalingam” (Shiva Phallus) with a height of 4 meters. Every inch of the temple is made of stone and has the title of being the first temple in the world to be made completely of that material. The irony of it is that to this day no one has been able to determine where the granite came from, as it is nowhere to be found in the environs of the city. There is a widespread belief that at midday, the temple’s shadow disappears and that the14 tier (tower over the sanctum sanctorum) never falls on the ground at noon no matter what time of the year it is because of the way it was designed. One of the features of this temple that is different to the others is that it has idols of “Ashta-dikpaalakas” (Guardians of the directions) — Indra, Yama, Agni, Nirṛti, Īśāna , Varuṇa, Kubera and Vāyu, Life- sized statues were initially used to represent each of these idols. However only four, Varuṇa (Water), Agni (Fire), Īśāna (aspect of Shiva) and Vāyu (Air) have been preserved.

Inside the temple complex you will see a tamarind tree that is garlanded with scraps; pieces of saris which the local girls tie onto the branches in belief that they will get pregnant. As you pass along the sides of the road, there are also rags hanging from trees filled with the placenta of cows to ensure the health of the newborn animals. You may find it unusual. However, most everyone here is strong believers in the power of their gods. The Cholas were important patrons of the arts and often ordered exclusive bronzes, with many of them being dancing Shivas circled by rings of flames. Time has not changed the way that these bronzes are done, as the same method used thousands of years ago are still employed today.

After feasting on a tasty lunch, we will go on an excursion to Tiruchirappalli, universally known as Trichy or Tiruchi (45 km from Tanjore). It was a major capital of the Nayak rulers in the 17th century.

Go to the spectacular Srirangam Temple Town, which is believed to be the largest temple in India. What it is really, is a compound of temples which lead to each other through gates somewhat like the Forbidden City. Spanning an area of about 156 acres, Sri Ranganathaswamy is said to be the world’s largest temple that functions, whereas the temple in Angkor Wat is considered the biggest non-functioning temple. With 49 different shrines all of them devoted to the god Vishnu, in order to get to the inner sanctum from the south, you have to pass through the temple towers or seven gopurams. If you are not a Hindu you are not allowed to pass the sixth gopuram, therefore non-Hindu’s will not be able to see the innermost sanctum with the image of Vishnu as Lord Ranganatha, resting on a snake with five heads.

These 21 gopurams or temple towers are filled with epic sculptures of humanity, statues of bulls, gods, Hanumans, many Ganeshas, animals and demons, all climbing on top of one another, reproducing, at times dying, destroying, etc. You may be surprised at the numerous scenes of sex on the gopurams, with lots of erotica and phallic symbols; short, fat, tall, skinny and some reaching even as far as the ceiling. As you will hear from your guide, Krishna was a naughty playboy who had over 16000 girlfriends. On one of the largest sized gopurams, you will see a mural of him actually watching women bathe. It’s a vivid scene; when these women removed their saris and left them on the river shore to bathe, Krishna stole them and he had a perfect view of several naked women.

There is another side to this little town of Srirangam. Visit the busy bazaars with gorgeous fabric shops clothing, religious items, jewelers, tea and drink and plastic toys for sale. See Brahmin’s houses, Brahmin priests clothed in white, offering a blessing in exchange for a little donation, learning centers, schools, holy tanks etc. The temple elephants roaming about with their riders (mahouts) also add to the life of the charming town as they also offer to bless the pilgrims.

As it gets close to sunset we visit the Rock Fort Temple, a world famous temple that sits some 83 m high on a huge ridge and stands imposingly over Trichy. To get there you will climb 400 steps all carved out from a single rock, said to be dated back some 3,800 million years. You will not climb alone as several pilgrims take the trek through the rocks with you, also aiming to reach the top. It will not be a boring climb as you will pass temples on either side with lovely carvings including the Pallava cave temples from the 6th century. Enter for a moment and take a look at the well-known Gangadhara panel on the left with a depiction of Shiva holding back the Ganges waters with one strand of his hair. And, when you reach the top, take a deep breath and enjoy the expansive view of Trichy all around. Not forgetting the Deity Ganesha on the peak of the temple. It’s in the cool of the evening that we will make our climb upward to the temple, where we will also be in time for the beautiful sunset over Trichy. This will be an amazing trek for both Hindus and non-Hindus alike.

Return to Tanjore. Overnight stay in Tanjore!

Along with chutney and sambar, the idli platter makes for a delicious breakfast

Brihadeswara Temple Complex, Tanjore

Temple Elephant at brihadeshvara temple, tanjore

Rangoli is a folk art from India in which patterns are created on the floor in living rooms or in temple courtyards

Little Brothers in a village in Tamilnadu

Today, we drive to the rural area of Tamilnadu in the Chettinad region and you are sure to enjoy the ride from Tanjore to Chettinad. Along the way your eyes will behold the most wonderful landscape and you can take a bite of a roasted cashew purchased from a family by the roadside.

There are 75 villages in the Chettinad region in an area of about 9 square miles. You will easily recognize the differences between this region and the Tamil Nadu temple towns that we visited earlier. Here, you will find elaborate mansions, bustling bazaars and villages. Chettinad, which was the established home of the Chettiars, a group that was very prosperous in business and banking in India, still has remnants that reflect their rich art ,architecture and cultural heritage and a slow paced lifestyle.

After a bumpy ride on the country roads we arrive at our Visalam hotel in Chettinad. It’s going to be a unique experience, with style and glamor from the thirties in an airy Art Deco mansion. Your stay at Visalam will be memorable. It is a spectacular hotel with a main courtyard in the open skies, uniformed tiled floors, extravagantly carved teak doors and stone pillars. To add to the ambiance there is a tranquil pool area and dinner is served on a balcony with only the light from the silvery moon and candles. The hotel is situated in the middle of the Indian village.

We will take a walk through the village in Chettinad and view the architectural trinkets that are quite unusual. In the latter part of the last century the Chettiar sub-caste were very successful in the areas of banking and business across Asia from Sri Lanka to Burma and they remitted the monies back home so that they could build these impressive palaces. Massive mansions were constructed from the profits derived but they are now dilapidated. Even so when you go beyond the exterior to the inside you will find classic Italian marble interiors, Japanese tiles, teak from Burma and English steel, from courtyard to courtyard . You will also see rooms that are packed as high as the rafters with cooking pots passed on from generation to generation. Though worn you can still imagine the past splendor of the villas, wedding hall and colonial style cottages, with some of them being Art Deco works, others elaborate in style and covered in urns and statuettes.

Further we travel through the roads of Chettinad either in ox cart or by bicycle. Browse through the antique shops and take a look at the paintings and furniture of the Chettiar families. Observe the hand loom weavers making saris in ancient local designs with the legendary traditional wooden handlooms. Then we will pay a visit to the tile makers as they skillfully create and decorate the tiles by hand. The Chettiars loved their food just as much as their homes and the cuisine from Chettinad is becoming more and more famous all over India. The Chettinadu mansion is the ideal place to experience this cuisine with ; pepper chicken, tomato prawns, banana leaf, pomegranate raita (yoghurt) and two varieties of mango chutney (sweet and spicy), along with other delightful cuisines.

Overnight in Chettinad!

Courtyard in Chettinadu palace

Top view of Chettinad chicken which is a spicy chicken dish from India made with chicken cooked in spicy masalas

We drive to Madurai today, which is Tamil Nadu’s second largest city and is spoken of in Tamil’s literature for over 2000 years. It is home to the historic Meenakshi Temple.

We take a guided tour of Madurai after transferring to the hotel!

A must see in Madurai South India is Sri Meenakshi Temple. You will be amazed at this place. It is here that you will find a plethora of Hindu gods out of their 330 million. There are jam-packed everywhere sitting on each others heads, kings and warriors tightly packed together and images of deities. Legendary monsters and animals cover the tall gopurams in a kaleidoscope of colors. Home of Meenakshi the warrior goddess with three breast (‘fish-eyed’ – an epithet for perfect eyes in classical Tamil poetry ), the temple is a striking example of the architecture found in Hindu temples in South India, when it comes to their size and the numerous amounts of gods and goddesses covering the 14 mammoth towers. Legend has it that the beautiful Meenakshi (a version of Parvati) was born with three breasts and according to prophecy her extra breast would disappear after meeting her husband. When she met Shiva and became his wife the prophecy was fulfilled. The temple that now exists was constructed when Tirumalai Nayak ruled in the 17th century, but its roots date some 2000 years back.

A step over the threshold of the temple will take you into what you may think is another world. The whole complex is unbelievable, somewhat like its own town. There is a network of columned halls and courtyards bursting with followers. Rising from the grubby streets of Madurai are 12 multicolored towers looking like pyramids with flat pinnacles. When you go inside you will be greeted with the abundant smell of incense, the clanging of bells, the chanting sounds of priest with their breast bare, wedding market stalls and, young priests being given teachings in the Vedas and a mass of worshipers. On top of that, there is the covering of deities with bright red vermilion paste and crushed marigolds. Dancing gods have butterballs thrown at them and elephants give out blessings.

If you truly want to experience the culture on your tour in South India, then this expansive temple complex is a great place to do so. Many of the traditions here have been kept intact; this is reflected in their way of dressing for example. Here, you will seldom find men in shorts or women in anything other than their saris. Western styles of dressing are not popular. Most Tamilian women braid their hair and decorate it with jasmine flowers clipped behind. They love wearing toe rings, bangles, gold necklaces (or taali) and to show that they are married they wear red vermilion paste in the part of their hair.

Why not spend the afternoon taking a city on foot adventure –On the opposite side of the temple you will find the market jam-packed with small stalls, very affordable crafts, housewares made by hand (like the iron tava griddles) and votive materials like candles and flower. The streets are also lined with men foot-treadling their sewing machines and making garments. Here’s the fun part- you get to choose whatever style and fabric you like, the tailors take your measurements and you come back in just two hours and collect your finished outfit. Talk about convenience and service! Take a break from the traditional tea loved by Indians and enjoy a cup of coffee suited to your taste at one of the local stalls. Then in the evening if you wish, you can go to what is called the “ going to bed ceremony’” which is quite an unusual affair; plenty noise and upheaval and the goddess with the fish eye and her husband are removed from their individual day- time abode into the inner sanctum and placed together so that they can enjoy a night of good loving.

Overnight in Madurai!

Meenakshi temple – one of the biggest and oldest Indian temples, Madurai, Tamil Nadu. The 14 gateway towers called gopuram ranging from 45 to 50m

Smiling schoolgirls in uniform are standing in Sri Meenakshi Amman Temple

Indian women selling colorful flowers and garlands at street market place for religion ceremony or fashion decoration

Today, we begin our journey to Periyar (Thekkady) and make our entrance into what is known as “God’s Own Country – Kerala”. This title refers to the rich heritage, history and culture of Kerala. It also embodies the beautifully green landscape and socio-political stability. If you “yahoo” the question what is “God’s Own Country- Kerala?” here is what you will find “Nestled between the pristine waters of the Arabian sea on the west and the lush Western Ghat mountains on the east, its intense network of rivers and lagoons, thick forests, exotic wildlife, tranquil stretches of emerald backwaters and a long shoreline of serene beaches make it a traveler’s paradise.”

After you have enjoyed your breakfast, we will make our way to the remote areas of the Western Ghats, the boundary between Tamil Nadu and Kerala. As we travel on a zig-zagged road our eyes and minds will be pleased by the beautiful sights of lush green forest and a quick glimpse of the grassy valleys beneath. We cross the border into Kumily (Thekkady) with a myriad of spice plantations and the Periyar Tiger Reserve.When we arrive we will transfer to the hotel. Here you will feel the change both in humidity and temperature from what you experienced in Tamil Nadu.

The main attraction of Thekkady is the Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary which is about 777 sq km with about 360 sq. km of dense evergreen forest. It is situated by the side of the large 15 square kilometers man-made lake which was built in 1895 by the British as a source of water for the areas around Madurai. The sanctuary was named a Tiger Reserve in 1978. It is also seen as a natural treasure, housing several rare types of flora and fauna. The park’s flora includes grass species, orchids, over-flowering plants and the Podocarpus Wallichianus, the lone South Indian conifer.

In the afternoon hop on a small boat and cruise on the lake in the middle of the Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary. Experience the serenity, the green scenery everywhere, animals coming down to the edge of the water, elephants, wild boars or the Sambar Deer known as the rusa unicolor, which is a large deer indigenous to the subcontinent of India. Also keep a look out for the Nilgri Langurs and the large Gaur (Indian Bison).

You will have lots of time to explore the bazaars and visit several shops where you can purchase vanilla, chilies, turmeric, cardamoms, peppercorns and other spices. In the evening watch the performance of Kalaripayattu, which is a traditional type of martial arts. It is an Indian Martial Art performance that will amaze you! Precise! Action Packed! A perfect display of medieval Indian culture that takes years of dedication training and discipline.

Overnight in Thekkady!

Indian rural man rides on a car with coconuts. India, Tamil Nadu, near Madurai.

Jack fruit on tree

Wild Elephants crossing the periyar river in Periyar Tiger Reserve

We have our breakfast and then drive up to Thekkady to Munnar.

Our trip takes us through rough and rocky mountain terrain to Munnar. Above the clouds you can watch the mist snugging on to the mountain tops. Look around at the scenery of the tropical mountains, with fields of emerald green tea plantations. Take in the refreshing mountain air mingled with the aroma of the tea leaves.

On our way we go to the local spice plantation and our guide will explain the importance both culinary and medicinal of cloves, pepper, turmeric, curry leaves, vanilla, cardamom nutmeg, and cinnamon and several other herbs and spices. It is a lesson that will benefit you for a life time and you will be surprised at the many uses of these magical products of nature. When we arrive we will check-in to the resort hedged in by tea plantations.

Late afternoon we take a, half-day guided tour of Munnar!

This guided tour will stay etched in your memory forever as you visit the origin of the world’s favorite beverage. It is in the high areas of Kerala that you will find the most industrious tea plantations in the region, where your favorite tea is grown. Munnar is the commercial center for some of the highest tea-growing estates in the world, with over 120,000 hectares of tea plantations. Corporate magnet Tata operates most of the plantations here, along with the local co-operative Kannan Devan Hills Plantation Company (KDHP).

The culture and lifestyles of this region will be explained by your guide. In Munnar life is focused mainly around the tea plantations and the people are able to maintain a relatively quiet and modest lifestyle. You will find the women harvesting the tea with their sprightly fingers and a look over the fields presents a kaleidoscope of brilliant colors that blend in beautifully with the mass of green on the plantation. Visit the Nallathanni Estate in Munnar and go to the Tata Tea Museum that houses an extensive collection of interesting artifacts like the 1905 Rotorvane. Old items of machinery and photographs are also on display and give an excellent idea of the old- fashioned way of processing tea. You can learn how it is produced, its taste and the impact that this simple beverage has on the lives of people. The room for demonstrations is specifically designed and you can have a taste of a variety of teas. Overnight in Munnar!

Women tea pickers in Munnar

Kerala Paratha – a layered flatbread from South Indian state of Kerala