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Treasures of South India – Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka (19 days)

Highlights of the Treasures of South India

  • Experience everything that South has to offer with our South India Tour as we take you through a magical journey covering Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka.
  • Southern India is the true reflection of the rich Dravidian culture, most of which is well preserved even today. Your trip to South will unveil the well-preserved architecture that reflects the penchant for art that the region’s rulers had since time immemorial. You’ll be amazed by the humongous temples ornate with intricate rock carvings that spread across the region. The fact that the Moghul invaders never fully penetrated the southern part of India has meant that, the Hindu and Tamil architecture as well as spirituality here has remained free of external influence.
  • Our South India Tour Package also takes you on a natural exploration covering the serene backwaters of Kumarakom, the pristine beaches of Mahabalipuram and the undisturbed wildlife of Periyar National Park. You will experience the relaxing hilly weather of Udhagamandalam, also known as Ooty. It’s a great experience scaling the mountain on the narrow gauge train in Ooty, which was once a British summer retreat. People throng the place even today for its beautiful plantations and pleasant weather.
  • The journey also brings in a touch of spirituality as we visit several sites of Hindu reverence, not to forget the tinge of royalty as we step foot into the royal courtyards of Mysore Palace in Karnataka. Our trip to Karnataka takes us to architectural wonders of Aihole and Pattadakal. We also take you to renowned Hampi, for which one life isn’t enough to explore entirely. We further visit the temples of Belur and Halebidu amid the Western Ghats as we continue with our Karnataka tour.
  • We begin our tour with Tamil Nadu where we visit some architectural marvels in Madurai and Chettinad. These structures hold a lot of religious significance to Hindus even today. You also course through Pondicherry, which was once a French bastion in the country. We explore the relics left behind by their colonial rule in Pondicherry.
  • You will experience a variety of cultures, cuisines, weather and even colors as we course through each of the southern region, the visuals of which will remain etched in your memory forever. Your exploration of India is never complete until you’ve seen everything that the South has to offer.
Travel Route: Chennai – Mahabalipuram – Kanchipuram – Puducherry – Thanjavur – Chettinad – Madurai – Thekkady (Periyar Tiger Reserve) – Alleppey Backwaters – Kochi (Cochin) – Ooty – Bandipur National Park – Mysore (Mysuru) – Shravanabelagola – Belur and Halebidu – Ancient City of Hampi – Badami via Aihole and Pattadakal – Goa

Daily Itinerary

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Your exploration begins with your arrival at Chennai International Airport where our representative will be ready to greet you. This is the time when you also receive all your travel documents for your uninhibited travels throughout India. You will be escorted to your hotel first.

As you speed towards your hotel, realize that you’re in the fourth largest city in India. Home to some of the most intelligent brains of the country, this city is a perfect blend of the ancient and the modern aspects of India. You will find Chennai culturally rich with undaunted patronage to classical music and dance as well as monuments and museums, and of course the traditions that have been passed on through generations. There is another face to Chennai which has been in sync with modern development. The high rises, industries and cinema are representative of this facet of Chennai. You spend the day relaxing and getting set for the next day here.

Tamil Twin Girls With Pigtails at the Marina Beach, Chennai

We begin with a guided tour of Chennai, the capital of Tamil Nadu. Our first stop is at National Art Gallery (NAG). In fact, NAG is an assortment of 46 galleries! View the timeline of South India here from the times of the royals to the present day. The gallery boasts the biggest collection of bronze statues, mostly from the era of Chola Dynasty that reined over southern Indian between 9th and 13th Centuries.

It’s now time to explore the architectural beauty of Chennai. We begin with Fort St. George, the first British Fort built in the year 1664, which stands as a testament to Colonial architecture here. It is home to St. Mary’s Church, which has the distinction of being the oldest Anglican place of worship in the country. You’ll find quite a few relics of the British of the time such as weapons, coins, silver-wares and the like. The Christian imprint on Chennai is not limited to those of colonial times. In fact, Apostle of Jesus, St. Thomas is said to have visited the city around 52 AD and the San Thome Cathedral Basilica of 14th Century celebrates his presence. It’s a huge 62 x 33 foot structure that chronicles the last days of Christ on wooden plaques.

It’s now past noon and time for a hearty lunch and we head straight to the local favorite, Dakshin, meaning south. Here you relish the best cuisines that the south of India has to offer. The unique thing about this restaurant is that culinary geniuses hailing from all southern Indian states are found here. For you this means, you can try anything from the Aapam of Kerala to Biryani of Andhra. The aromatic spices will enthrall your senses as you suddenly find your stomach making more space than ever for the never-ending list of traditional delicacies.

It’s time for a short Hindu spiritual journey after your lunch and we head to the city of Kanchipuram, which was once the capital city of the Pallavas – the Dynasty that ruled over most of southern India between 4th and 9th century. Through the course of history, Kanchipuram has been ruled by dynasties such as Cholas, Pandyas, Vijayanagara Empire and ultimately the British. The place also holds immense religious significance for Hindus. It is among the 7 holiest places for Hindus. So, it is no surprising to find temples of great reverence. Your spiritual journey begins with Sri Kailasanatha Temple, which is dedicated to Lord Shiva. This 7th century abode of the lord stands tall among 58 smaller ones that surround it. You’ll lose track of time as you stand gaping at the intricate sandstone designs that depict the artistic bend of the people of those times.

We then move on to Vaikuntha Perumal Temple, also dating back to the 7th century. You are sure to admire the architecture comprising of about 1000 pillars that support a narrow passage. Walking through the passage admiring the statutes that surround you is an experience in itself. The temple is dedicated to Lord Vishnu with many statues of this deity in various postures.

Visit to Ekambareswarar Temple comes next. You will be awestruck with the sheer magnitude of this temple that spans a whopping land area of 40 acres. The shrine is dedicated to Lord Shiva and was built by King Krishnadevaraya of Vijayanagara Empire. The Gopura or the temple tower is among the tallest in the South, perhaps reminiscent of the power that Vijayanagara Empire once exuded. According to the south Indian religious belief, Shiva is the manifestation of 5 elements that make the universe – space, fire, earth, wind and water – known as Pancha Bootha Sthalams, and the Ekambareswarar Temple represents Mother Earth through the Prithvi Lingam, enclosed in a 1000-pillar hall comprising of five distinct enclosures.

We end the day’s exploration with a visit to Mamallapuram, also popular as Mahabalipuram. This port city derives its name from the great Pallava King, Narasimha Varman, who was a “great wrestler” of his time; in other words, a Mamalla. We end the day’s journey in Mamallapuram as you already glee at your decision of having taken this South India Tour Package, but this is just the beginning and there’s much more to come. Overnight stay in Mahabalipuram!

The rare and exclusive artefact of one-breast bronze staue at the government museum of Chennai
8th century Kailasanatha Temple, Kanchipuram
Children in Kanchipuram

Mahabalipuram was once the gateway from South to the oceans. Going by the tradition of making things around them aesthetic, the emperors of the time had turned the port city into an architectural paradise. Many of these structures still stand tall and strong today. We begin with the Shore Temple, which, true to its name, stands on the seashore, surrounded by rich greens. You will find it hard to believe that this 5-storey structure was built way back in the 7th century. Marvel the skillful architecture of this Hindu temple dedicated to Lord Shiva and Lord Vishnu.

Arjuna’s Penance – a well-known rock carving comes next. This intricate carving done right into a huge rock narrates morals in itself. For instance, a carving shows a cat standing on one leg in deep meditation as curious rats gather around it. If you read between the lines, you’ll know that the cat is only pretending to meditate and is all set to pounce on the rats – signifying the fact that not all that is apparent is actually true. You will admire the skillful carvings that depict several animals like elephants and monkeys.

We move on to Panch Rathas or the Five Chariots of temple processions carved in monoliths. Each carving here presents either a fable or a scene from the Mahabharata, the revered holy scripture of Hindus that incorporates several morals in the form of stories to form one big narration, mostly of the good conquering the evil. The carvings of Krishna, the Pandavas and other mythological characters are something that you’ll enjoy here. There are several endearing carvings here. For instance, there is one that depicts a cow being milked as the calf stands by watching. Another one depicts Lord Krishna lifting the Govardhana Mountain with his little finger to protect people from the form of baneful rains sent pouring down to earth by the angry King or Heavens, Indra. It wouldn’t be false to say that these expressive carvings reflect the best of Dravidian architecture.

There is so much in Mahabalipuram for you to explore that we spend the entire day here and rest our tired bones for a brand new day tomorrow. But before that, we spend some relaxing time at the beach, unwind and recall the experiences of the day. Overnight stay in Mahabalipuram!

A lady taking a photograph of Arjuna Penace, a rock bas relief from the 9th century
Carved figures of Buddha and Hindu monkey God Hanuman. Still today, Mahabalipuram is the center of stone masonry

After a leisurely breakfast, we head to Pondicherry covering about 100 kilometers. Pondicherry was the last bastion of the French during the British rule. You can still find imprints that the French have left behind in the architecture, culture and even the cuisines here. Don’t be surprised if you’re served croissants for your morning fill.

You’ll be amazed by the diverse architecture here that reflects French style. We begin with a stroll through the streets of Pondy and feast our eyes with the sights of the laid-back coastal town coursing through the Botanical Garden and Governor’s Villa. You’ll love the Military Fort that shouts “French.” Everything here has a tinge of the yesteryear French glory including the hotels such as Le Dupleix and Hotels de Ville.

It’s now time to bask in some spirituality as we set foot in the Aurobindo Ashram. This austere abode of the spiritually inclined was found in 1926 by Aurobindo Ghose, a seer who believed and propagated Divine Consciousness, beyond race, social status and nationalities. Experience life free from modern-day distractions and set your mind to peace here. Make excursion to Auroville. You’ll find citizens of more than 49 countries calling Auroville their home here. People of varied backgrounds such as medicine, engineering and even marketing permanently reside in the Ashram. It’s a simple way of life in perfect harmony with nature here.

Get in touch with your inner self at Matrimandir in the Auroville . You’ll not be blamed for mistaking this space for a meditation center. However, the residents Auroville refer to it as the “concentration center.” The philosophy of Aurobindo Ghose is quite different from any religion you have ever encountered. The onus here is to know your true self rather than simply meditating; hence, the reference to “concentration” instead of “meditation.” The whole thing promises to be a unique spiritual experience.

We move from spirituality to ancient history again as we move to Thanjavur or Tanjore, which was once the seat of administrative power during the Chola rein. The foremost attraction here is the Brihadeeswara Temple built in the 10th century. You will love the stroll through the country surroundings here lush with rice and sugarcane fields. We make way through these scenic surroundings to our rustic place of rest where we spend the rest of the day and night to prepare for the next day. Overnight stay in Tanjore!

Beach Promenade, Pondicherry
Indian women harvests rice in the paddy field on the… Rice is the most widely consumed staple food for a large part of the south India population

Our Tamil Nadu tour allows us to explore a bit more of Tanjore. Right after the breakfast, we visit Brihadeeswara Temple. This massive structure stands 200 feet tall with a 61-meter triangular tower adorning the main temple structure. The tower is crowned by an 80-tonne spherical headstone. Just imagine the kind of effort the construction might have taken considering it was built way back in the 1010 AD. It is believed that several elephants were used to erect the spherical top over a 5 kilometer ramp – quite a feat isn’t it? The shrine still stands strong even after 1000 years since its construction and is a UNESCO World Heritage site. To top that, the temple is still fully functional with all religious ceremonies being performed everyday. The structure stands strong reminding us of the riches that the Chola Dynasty once brought to the region.

From the temple, we take you to the Royal Palace art gallery, which showcases some well-crafted bronze statues. The art of sculpting metal statues is still alive in Tanjore.

About 90 kilometers from here is Chettinad and this is our next stop. If you’re a globetrotter, you would have noticed that Tamil, the state language of Tamil Nadu is spoken in countries like Singapore, Sri Lanka, and Malaysia. Ever wondered why? Chettinad or the land of Chettiars could be the reason. Chettiars belong to a business community that travelled overseas to countries like Myanmar, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Vietnam and Cambodia. These business giants of the time had a penchant for the good things in life and brought with them furniture and ivory carvings from their travels, which adorned their mansions. It’s astonishing to find that most of the mansions owned by the yesteryear Chettiars still stand strong today – about 300 of them. The mansions themselves sport pillars made of teak from Myanmar, marble from Italy, and chandeliers from Belgium, and these are just a few of the items that will leave you awestruck.

Your trip to Chettinad is incomplete without a scrumptious meal. The land of Chettiars is equally famous for the local cuisines filled with aromatic spices crushed into a masala. We give you a taste of this through a 7-course meal in one of the well-known Chettinad hotel. It’s quite an experience relishing these spicy dishes on plantain leaves as you’re served the fresh coastal delicacies such as crabs and prawns to your heart’s content. Don’t shy away from using your hands to eat.

In the kitchens of hotel are cooks who mix regional spices using the traditional method of using grinding stones turning them into a mix referred to as masalas that go into preparing cuisines unique to the region. Enjoy the black-pepper chicken that will leave your sinuses devoid of any impurities. The sour-scented tamarind crab curry is another dish that will titillate your taste buds. The crunchy king prawns combined with spring onions will leave you wanting for more.

Enjoying the meal itself is a unique experience as you enjoy the food in the age-old teak dining hall. To give you an insight into what goes into the delicacies, ingredients such as dried flower pods or Marathi mokku; star aniseed or anasipoo, lichen or and kalpasi are used. The tangy, spicy taste is acquired from the combination of tamarind and whole red chilies. The aroma is generated by a combination of cloves, fennel seeds, peppercorn fenugreek, bay leaf, cumin seeds and cinnamon.

After perhaps the best meal of your life, we move towards Karaikudi. Here, you’ll find a mix of colonial mansions and ruins of palaces once owned by the Indian Maharajas. The markets here will bring you a great opportunity to shop for souvenirs that you’ll not find elsewhere. You can freely interact with artisans like stone carvers as well as silversmiths. You’ll find scores of antique shops that are always game for a friendly bargaining duel with you. Don’t miss making a traditional South Indian sari yours, these come fresh out of the handloom. Saree making is a traditional art here that has been in practice since generations.

Try the relaxing Ayurveda massage. You will fall in love with the experience. Following this, we take you back to our hotel for some good night sleep. You’ll enjoy the peace and quiet as you make way through the old village to the hotel. Riding a bullock cart, like the local villagers do, is an experience that is worth cherishing the whole life. Overnight stay in Chettinad!

Full moon at Tanjore Brihadeswara Temple
A mansion in the quaint town of Chettinad
Indian potter working. His hands are shaping wet clay

A two-hour trip in the morning takes us to Madurai – perhaps the most well-known temple town in South India. The Meenakshi-Sundareshwarar Temple is Madurai’s core. All activities of the town surround the temple. Meenakshi-Sundareshwarar Temple is believed to have got its present form over a period and was originally built during the Nayak era between 16th and 18th Century AD. The Meenakshi Temple is a testament to the beauty of Dravidian architecture. You will find a huge gopuram at the top of the temple tower and will be spell-bound by the colorful deities that the temple hosts.

It is actually an understatement to call the structure a temple as it is in fact a temple complex comprising of several temples within it. You will find the walls adorned with vibrant paintings depicting the Hindu gods along with religious inscriptions and of course elaborate carvings. You will enjoy the religious seclusion as you course through the huge hallways and pillars that make you feel so small in their majestic presence.

The divine atmosphere filled with the smell of burning camphor and incense together with the chanting of ancient mantras will generate a feeling of calm in you that you’ve never experienced before. As you exit the temple complex a colorful yet chaotic market welcomes you with scores of garlands and other religious items. Don’t be startled if a temple elephant along with its mahout crosses your path.

If the exploration of this huge temple complex has tired your limbs, you can rest in your hotel but if the explorer in you is raring for more, the temple town has more to offer. Taking an auto-rickshaw ride to the famous Thirumalai Nayak Palace is not a bad idea. This is one of the rare palaces in Tamil Nadu that has a hint of Moghul architecture. Having watched Dravidian architecture all through, you will surely make out the subtle differences in the beautifully built structure. The credit of restoring this palace to its past glory goes to the British Raj. They had undertaken this task in the 19 century. As a result, you will still be able to feast your eyes on some grand Tamil interiors.

We return to the Meenakshi Temple in the late evening hours again to watch the ceremony of putting Lord Shiva to bed. This grand ceremony held every evening is something you shouldn’t give a miss. After this, we retire to the hotel for the day. Overnight in Madurai!

Shiva and Parvati on bull images. Sculptures on Hindu temple gopuram (tower). Meenakshi Temple, Madurai, Tamil Nadu, India
Flowe seller outside the Meenakshi Temple, Madurai

Get all set to visit the state of Kerala – touted as the God’s Own Country. Watch the landscape transform as you travel through the Western Ghats. Traversing through the curvy roads engulfed by thick greens which hold innumerable species of birds and animals is a unique experience. You will get a sense of why India is often referred as land of immense diversity. It’s all about nature in Kerala and the Periyar Tiger Reserve that we visit first will give you an idea why. The reserve is surrounded by small hilly towns and plantations throughout. The area is quite popular among trekkers and nature lovers.

The Kerala tour package begins unraveling now. Once you’ve freshened up in the prearranged hotel, we set out on a wildlife safari with a difference. You might have been on jeep safaris before, but here we take you on a calm boat ride through the lake in Periyar. You will spot majestic elephants moving along in herds unbeknownst of your presence. Watch Indian bison (gaur), wild boars and Sambar deer pecking into the water as you cruise by them. Look at the nearby rocks closely and you’ll find monitor lizards lying bare as if to sunbath. Don’t forget to shoot some of these animals – with your camera of course.

It’s evening by this time and it’s time for some shopping. You’ll find a handful of souvenir shops in this quiet tourist town. You could try your hand at shopping for some spices here as they are quite inexpensive in this part of the country. You could also try your hand at cardamom, cashew, almonds, or even coffee beans or powder. Eucalyptus oil is widely sold here. This oil is said to rid you of sinus problems and aches when mixed in small quantities to the water that you bathe in. You’ll love its strong aroma. You’ll also find an array of Ayurveda oils here known to have several healing properties.

If you have a penchant of familiarizing yourself with the local culture and art, then Kathakali is the right thing for you. This is an ancient form of narrating mythical stories through dance moves. The elaborate color makeup and huge head gear is something that will enchant you. These dance forms primarily narrate events in the great Indian epics of Mahabharata and Ramayana. There is also a religious side to this art form and is always a part of religious celebrations in the state. You’ll love the robust eye movements coupled with emphatic dance moves of Kathakali, if you opt to enjoy a show. We sign off for the day after this entertaining event. Overnight in Thekkady!

Two Men Drive A Herd Of Goats On The Road on our way to Thekkady – photo by Claudine Van Massenhove
Wild Elephants sightseeing during the boat ride in Periyar lake, Periyar Tiger Reserve, Thekkady

One of the most exciting aspects of visiting Kerala is experiencing life in houseboats, which are locally referred to as Kettuvallams. Floating on the calm backwaters engulfed by picturesque surroundings is something unique that you’ll not find anywhere else. For this experience, our Kerala tour package takes us to Alleppey. The journey will take us about 3 hours. Here we cruise through the still backwaters that are surrounded by villages and paddy fields.

The original Kettuvallams were plain structures built by tying together wooden planks with the help of coir ropes, and were used as a means to transport rice bags to the ports. Today, however, these Kettuvallams have taken a new luxurious and exotic shape. Spread throughout the backwaters, there are about 500 houseboats today, mostly catering to the bustling tourism industry.

You will fall in love with the surroundings that are lush with wild animals and exotic birds swooping around, not to mention the thick cover of green on the banks. Enjoying this experience through the comfort of your air-conditioned houseboats is an incomparable pleasure. The Kettuvallams we take you on will have a kitchen, sundeck, air-conditioned bedroom, bathroom, wash basin, and a comfortable living room that also doubles up as the dining area. These eco-friendly boats sport hurricane lamps and fans that run on solar power. Thatched canopies cover the houseboat on either side giving you an uninhibited view of the surroundings. You will feel like a royal amidst the scenic setup with a cook, boatman, assistant and a tour guide. You will be served fresh ground coffee, breakfast, lunch and dinner within the Kettuvallam. The cuisine comprises of a great traditional mix of vegetarian and non-vegetarian delicacies.

The entire experience will last for an extensive period of over six hours. Feel your surroundings come alive with the scenes before you changing every moment as you move along the quiet waters at a comfortable pace. Get a glimpse of the life in villages that surround this paradise as the men of the house cast fishing nets for the day’s catch and the women go about doing their household chores like washing clothes by the fringes of the still water. Watch as ducklings follow their mother as if mesmerized by her zigzag movements while children throwing pebbles in the water make way back home from their schools. As you cruise further inland away from the beautiful lagoons and lakes, the narrow canals take you to a calmer world devoid of any roads or traffic. All you’ll find is homes that have boats parked in their aquatic courtyards – welcome to the real Kerala, the paradise on earth. The intricate network of lakes, lagoons, rivers, and canals ultimately lead to the Arabian Sea. By the end of this soul-touching boat ride, you will feel truly blessed to have experienced what you just did!

Today, you spend the night in the houseboat!

Houseboat through the backwaters of Kerala
Portico on Houseboat, Kerala
Fresh pomphret fry at lunch during house boat cruise through the backwaters

Wake up on day 9 to the best morning of your life as you continue to gently float in the Kettuvallam. After a quick breakfast, we set out on a 55-kilometer drive to Kochi, also known as Cochin. This port city was once among the prominent gateways to Western Asia and Europe. Merchants and seafarers negotiated the sea waters through the port hear with their vessels carrying spices, wood and coffee beans to far off lands in the West. The city has retained its importance as a port city till date and there is immense commercial development here. It also hosts a Naval Base. Kochi’s twin city, Ernakulam is a flourishing industrial hub and a railhead.

You’ll be met by our guide the moment you reach Kochi and you’ll be off to Fort Cochin in just a while. Kerala has been ruled by Dutch, Portuguese and the British at some point in its history and Fort Cochin was always a strategic asset. For this reason, the structure sees architectural influence of all its past capturers. Our guide will take you down the path of history as you enjoy this eye-pleasing mix of various architectural styles. Even the old structures in the city of Kochi are reflective of its bygone rulers.

Just by the Fort, you will find rows together of Chinese fishing nets hung in a cantilever fashion. You will also find the age-old Jewish Quarters close by. A section of Jews made Kochi their home about 2000 years ago. The purpose of their visit to the port city, of course, was commerce as everyone else of that time. However, a few Jews fell in love with the beauty of Kochi and decided to stay back. You will find a beautiful Jewish Synagogue here. Over time, the Jewish population here has dwindled to a bare minimum, owing to migration to Israel.

You’ll have enough time left for some shopping in the local Jewish markets here. There are enough antique shops for your delight in this area. Know that Kochi also hosts the largest spice market in the country. The aroma of spices and fresh coffee fills the air here as the sweet smells escape the warehouses that store them. As typical of any busy Indian market, you will find the narrow alleys teeming with customers, vendors, and porters. However, the language and attire would be completely different. After shopping, we visit the famed St. Francis Church. This place of worship is most famous for the fact that explorer Vasco de Gama was buried here before his mortal remains were exhumed for taking them back to his motherland, Portugal. You will also enjoy the visit to Santa Cruz Cathedral with its ornate interiors complete with tastefully carved panels of wood.

After a quick fill in Fort Cochin, we head towards the Nilgiri Hills as we exit Kerala and once again enter Tamil Nadu. This time, however, you see a different face of Tamil Nadu. Your previous experience with Tamil Nadu has been all about spirituality and ancient monuments. Now, we bring you the beautiful Ooty, which was once the favourite summer retreat of the British. You’ll love the journey of roughly 295 kilometers that takes about 6 hours. You’ll enjoy the drive through the Western Ghats with its green cover. The curvy roads are a delight. On the way, you’ll find areca nut plantations on flattened land far down below as you start climbing the Ghats. We pass through Coonoor on the way, which is a small hill station. You will also start spotting tea gardens and coffee plantations on either side of the road now as we finally reach Ooty. You’ll suddenly start noticing a great difference in weather after the humid coast weather. We spend the night in Ooty as we prepare for the next two days in this hill station.

Chinese Fishing nets in Fort Kochi, Kerala
St. Francis Church, Fort Kochi
Colorful Houses in Ooty

Ootacamund or Ooty has long been a favorite retreat dating back to the British time. The region is filled with beautiful tea plantations. The weather in Ooty throughout the year is extremely pleasant as it is about 2,286 meters above the sea level. The winters here can get quite chilly.

We begin the 10th day of our South India tour with a unique toy train ride from Ooty to Coonoor. We call this one-hour journey unique because it is rare to experience a train ride on the narrow gauge tracks in the present day. Now, add to that the breath-taking surroundings and you get an idea what beholds you. The Nilgiri Toy Train, as it is often referred to, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site – one among three such railways in the continent. The train cruises at a snail pace of about 10.5 kilometers an hour, coursing through its narrow rails that take us through 13 tunnels and a whopping 208 curves. The train was once powered by steam but today a diesel engine powers it. The moment you arrive in Coonoor, you’ll find our guide waiting for you, and we head back to Ooty via car.

It’s now time to experience the flora and fauna of the region and we set out on a drive to Dodabetta Park (Big Hill Park). This is the second highest point in the Western Ghats and you get a view of the Mysore Plateau, which is quite far away. The point itself is 2638 meters above the sea level. We take you on a stroll downhill amidst exotic trees such as shola, conifer, and eucalyptus, until we reach Snowdon Peak which is at a lesser altitude of 2,450 meters above the sea level. We then continue our walk towards the Botanical Gardens. The Garden is flush with a variety of tree species including orchids, alpines, ferns that stand tall in the beautifully landscaped area complete with well-maintained lawns. In total, there are over 1000 varieties of plants in the Botanical Gardens.

We then visit the Tribal Research Center Museum. You’ll be amazed how well ancient human history is chronicled here. Tribal artifacts from Andaman and Nilgiri are displayed beautifully here. You’ll also find local wildlife here – of course, stuffed, dead wildlife, but it makes for a great educational glimpse of the region. You’ll find artifacts and weapons that date back to Stone Age. Each artifact comes with complete description and the history behind it.

By this time, it’s already past noon. We encourage you to spend this time exploring the streets of Ooty which are lined by several shopping avenues. Don’t forget to try a few locally made chocolates; you’ll love them. We spend a chilly night in Ooty.

Nilgri Toy train entering a tunnel on its way from Ooty to Coonoor. This over 100 year old train was developed by a Swiss and is still in use in India. It needs for the 46 km over 290 minutes, during which it must take a break every 45 minutes – to refill oil and water. During this stretch, the train overcomes almost 2,100 meters of altitude – photo by Sir Hoggle
Indian woman (street vendor) of exotic fruits in the street of Ooty

After a leisurely breakfast in the morning, we’re all set to continue with our journey. We course through the beautiful terrains and cross over to the state of Karnataka and enter Bandipur National Park. The drive itself is going to be a stunning one with over 36 hairpin bends down the Ghats. You’ll cross through the natural habitats of elephants, deer and of course monkeys. If you’re lucky enough, you’ll spot some wildlife at a distance during the drive, although monkeys are going to be a common sight.

In reality Nilgiri biosphere is a huge forest, which has been divided into parts namely Mudumalai, Nagarahole and Bandipur National Parks. Nagarahole was recognized as a National Park in the year 1974.

After lunch, we embark on a game drive. Of course, all the shooting would happen only with your cameras. It is a Tiger Reserve and is home to Project Tiger which is aimed at conserving this majestic animal, as a result the National Park has a sizeable tiger population. Apart from tigers one can also spot elephants, Dhol or Indian wild dogs, spotted deer, Sambar, and Indian bison which is also known as Gaur. Watching herds of animals grazing is a beautiful experience. You’ll encounter wild creatures like striped hyena, sloth bear, and the elusive giant flying squirrel in Bandipur. Within the park is the Kabini River and water reservoir which plays host to elephants during the dry seasons. The Park itself is home to a variety of trees, which includes sandalwood. You will enjoy the evening amidst the cries of wild creatures as you enjoy your dinner around a campfire.

Overnight stay at the safari lodge here is going to be a memorable one!

Serpentine road in mountains on the way from Ooty to Bandipur
Tiger in Bandipur National Park

We begin the day with an early morning guided trekking in Bandipur National Park spotting all those wild animals again, before we bid them goodbye and head towards Mysuru or Mysore, the land of the royals in Karnataka. The journey will take us roughly 2 hours. The yesteryear capital of Karnataka and home to the Wodeyar Dynasty, Mysuru has several well-maintained temples, palaces and ornate buildings that will sweep you off your feet. The Wodeyars, who were originally the Governors of Mysuru during the Vijayanagara era, had eventually got the reins of this part of the kingdom. They had ruled Mysuru and much of Karnataka from 16th century.

We begin our exploration of Mysore with a visit to the Mysore Palace, the second most visited monument in India after the Taj Mahal. The original structure is believed to have been a beautiful wooden structure which was destroyed in fire. In 1897, the Palace, in its current form, was commissioned for construction by Henry Irwin. The descendants of the Wodeyars (also referred to as Maharajas even today) still symbolically stay in the palace.

You will find beautiful walls etched with gold and silver leaves. The royal courtyard, the furnishings, and the court hall are something that you’ll love seeing. The many royal gifts that the kings and queens had once received from other royal families from around the world are still at display. The glazed ceilings from Glasgow let in colored lights that reflect on the semi precious stones on the floor. It is a scene you will fall in love with. The stairs and doorways are made with hefty rosewood with intricate carvings. The entire monument has been built in Indo-Saracenic style. The paintings from Europe, Persian manuscripts, artifacts made of silver and ivory can be found displayed beautifully at every step of the way.

The Palace is a feast to the eyes when it is lit using more than 100,000 light bulbs at night. The whole Palace illuminates in the dark surroundings reflecting lights on the colourful interiors as well as exteriors. It is an experience that one cannot afford to miss.

After the Mysore Palace, we visit the Jaganmohan Palace. The palace is a gallery of 19th Century paintings by Indian artists. It’s amazing how vibrant colors have been produced by these geniuses using natural extracts from vegetables as well as mineral dyes. You will also find the intricate gold leaf paintings of Mysuru here.

We then head to Chamundi Hills for a 360-degree view of Mysore. At the top of this hill is a temple dedicated to Goddess Chamundi. The temple itself crowns a 40 meter tower. After we visit the temple and spend some time feasting on the great view, we descend. We make a small stop to appreciate the beautiful and humongous statue of Nandi – the sacred bull of Lord Shiva.

After a quick lunch, we head towards Srirangapatna. This island surrounded by River Cauvery was once the summer capital of the warrior king, Tipu Sultan, son of Haidar Ali. Tipu had ruled Karnataka for a short interval where he had taken the reins from the Wodeyars. He was eventually defeated by the British and had laid his life defending his country in the battle. He is buried along with much of his family in Srirangapatna. The tomb structures have been constructed using marble and adorned with ebony doors with ivory etchings, which were gifted by the 1855 Viceroy of India, Lord Dalhousie.

There are several monuments in the island town of Srirangapatna that stand ode to its glory. Much of Tipu Sultan’s wealth and belongings were shifted to London after his defeat. The ruins of the fort that once protected Srirangapatna are still present. The main attraction of Srirangapatna is the Summer Palace made mostly of wood and decorated by semi precious stones. The summer palace today chronicles the great victories of Tipu over the French and the British and his eventual brave fall.

As we move on to Daria Daulat Bagh, you will read the intriguing victories of Haider Ali over Colonel Baillie at Pollilore.

In the evening, we make time for some shopping and local exploration. Know that traditionally produced incense sticks and sandalwood idols are a specialty in Mysuru. You also get a chance to explore the famous local market known as Dev Raj Market. Get your cameras out here for some great captures. You’ll love the sweet smell of fresh vegetables and fruits that emanate here.

Maharaja or Mysore Palace, Mysore
Nandi Bull Statue at chamundi hills, Mysore
Ladies busy buying fresh vegetables in the Dev raj market of Mysore

We start our journey early on this day of our Karnataka Tour as we will be traveling about 100 kilometers, which will take us roughly 2 hours. Our destination is Shravanabelagola, perhaps the most well known of the Jain pilgrimages. The center of attraction in this holy town is the monolith of Bahubali Gomateshwara which is 18 meters in height. The statue itself is situated on a hill 143 meters from the plains. You will have to negotiate 700 steps carved into the Vindhyagiri Hill, which is made of granite. The huge statue represents saint Gomateshwara who is in deep meditation as creepers entwine his body. The naked saint is representative of complete denunciation of all worldly materials including clothes. The creepers that are shown growing over him show his state of deep meditative trance where he unbeknownst to the vegetation growing over him. Bahubali is believed to be the son of the first Tirthankara or Jain saviour, Adinatha. Gomateshwara chose the path of enlightenment after he defeated his evil brother in a wrestling duel. He is believed to have realized the fruitlessness of such materialistic struggles to finally embrace divinity.

One can find inscriptions in Kannada and Marathi languages at the base of the statue. These inscriptions are believed to be the oldest scripts found in these languages, dating back to 981 AD. The monolith also has the distinction of being the largest free-standing sculpture in India. Thousands of devotees throng this temple every 12 years when the statue is bathed with ghee, milk, curds, saffron, and even gold coins.

We leave for Hassan from Shravanabelagola after visiting Vindhyagiri. We finish our lunch in Hassan and set out towards Belur and Halebidu – the twin cities which are famous for their ancient temple structures. If you remember right, you had witnessed the ancient South Indian architecture in Tamil Nadu. Here, you see an extension of it. The same Cholas that had once ruled Tamil Nadu were also the rulers of this region. The two prominent dynasties that ruled this part of the country were the Cholas and the Hoysalas. Much of the architecture though was a result of the Hoysala rein that takes us back to the 12th Century. You will find these stone temples rich with intricate carvings that depict various chapters of Mahabharata and Ramayana. You’ll hardly find a corner in any of the many pillars that is left without some kind of decoration.

Chennakesava Temple is among the most famous monuments in Belur. The construction of the temple commenced in 1116 AD to mark the victory over the Cholas by Hoysalas. The temple is considered a masterpiece of Hoysala architecture. The intricate bas reliefs that extend slightly from the stone walls are found throughout the temple. Carvings of elephants, horses, lions as well as depiction of ancient mythological characters and heavenly beauties in seductive postures are found all over. The foreside of the temple is covered entirely with the postures from the erotic scriptures of Kama Sutra, while the back of the temple is covered with deities. The sculpture of the “beautiful mirror lady” or Darpana Sundari will make you stand and take notice. You will find the huge pillars of the temple shimmer even in darkness. Such is the fine work of art that the temple represents. In today’s time, there are only a few architectural examples that date back to Hoysala times – in fact there are only three major ones and the Chennakesava Temple is one of them.

After visually feasting on Chennakesava Temple, we head towards Halebidu. The indistinct village that you enter was once the capital of the art-loving Hoysalas. The entire region between rivers Cauvery and Krishna was once ruled by this dynasty. In Halebidu, we visit the Shiva Temple constructed in 12th century. Here again, you are met with intricate stone designs that form the temple walls and pillars. Each carving tells a story of its own and depicts a mythological character, dancing lady or an animal. You’ll be amazed by the attention to detail that each of these carvings possess. You will not find a single shoddy work in the entire temple complex. The sanctum sanctorum is carved out of a black stone and stands apart from the rest of the temple complex. You will also find life of the Hoysala kings carved into the walls in the outer layers of the temple. You will find yourself basking in peace and quiet in Belur and Halebidu. A spiritual sense of calm will engulf you here.

There definitely are bigger temple structures in India than the temples in these twin cities. However, the visit is definitely worthwhile as you get to witness the architectural style of Hoysalas, which is quite distinct and highly detailed. Overnight stay in Hassan!

Priest at Gomateshwara Statue, Shravanabelagola
Stone carvings of elephants and men on horses on the Hoysala temple at Chennakesava Temple, Belur, Karnataka
Ancient sculptures in ruins at an Indian temple Halebidu

Nothing can prepare you for the visit to Hampi. You’re jaws are sure to drop as you walk amidst the ruins of Hampi – the capital of the great Vijayanagara Empire. We arrive in Hampi, spend some time for brunch and freshening up. We then set out to explore this ancient city.

The great Vijayanagara Empire once ruled much of India from Orissa to Sri Lanka. Over the 200 years that the Vijayanagara kings ruled this land, they left behind architectural wonders that simply amaze you even today. The empire was found somewhere around 1336 and reached its peak in the 16th century. The ruins are spread in a whopping 26 kilometer radius and people will tell you that a lifetime isn’t enough to explore the ruins fully. It was touted to be greater than Rome at one point in its being and gold was sold on the streets of this capital city. The name Vijayanagara itself means the City of Victory.

The kings of Vijayanagara were patrons of art. They hugely encouraged sculptors, poets, dancers and other people of art. You will find innumerable ancient structures in Hampi, some completely intact and some in total ruins but all present to date. Temples, open pools, ancient waterways, fortifications, elephant stables, and rest houses are scattered throughout the yesteryear kingdom signifying its bygone glory. The sugarcane and banana plantations add to the beauty of the land here. This mostly rocky place is a sight to behold as it glistens under the evening sun.

One thing that you will immediately notice here are the small mountains with rocks awkwardly placed over one another, as if they would fall at any moment. Ask the locals and they’ll tell you it is the handiwork of “Monkey Gods.” Their tales will take you to the ancient mythological empire of Kishikindha ruled by Monkey Gods. The stories date back to the time of Ramayana.

The star attraction of Hampi is the Vittala Temple Complex dedicated to Lord Vishnu. The craftsmanship displayed here is hard to replicate even today. Explore the beautiful Ranga Mandapa where the best dancers of the kingdom once performed. The unique aspect of this “dance stage” is that when you tap on the hollow pillars of this structure, they give out the sounds of traditional percussion musical instruments like Tabla and Mridangam. Another major attraction is the Stone Chariot with its mammoth stone wheels. The structure is laced with intricate designs of battles and floral designs.

Religious ceremonies are still performed in this ancient city and naturally attract scores of devotees throughout the country, especially to the famous Virupaksha Temple. You will find Sadhus who have relinquished their worldly possessions dedicating their life to worship and spirituality. The once luxury abodes of the kings today form the shelter for these Sadhus. You will find several opportunities for photography here. The rituals, mythologies and ruins will keep you mesmerized throughout your stay.

The overwhelming belief that a fully developed, advanced civilization once lived here will make room in your mind as you witness this town but the fact that it was eventually destroyed will tell you that all things eventually come to an end. We spend a night in amidst the ancient ruins in Hampi.

Gigantic Virupaksha Temple tower as seen from the ruins of Hampi on the bank of Tungabhadra River
A woman and her child admiring the ancient reliefs of Hampi
Stone chariot at Vittala Temple complex, Hampi

You have already seen a change in weather and terrain when you traveled from Hasan to Hampi. The dry weather is relatively hotter in the morning and cooler at night. The land is relatively flat and dry. The surroundings give you an old-world feel with farmers and their families going about their daily chores on tractors and oxen driven carriages.

We first make a stop at Aihole after leaving Hampi. Aihole is touted to be the place where the trend of creating architectural wonders began. There are over 70 temples in this area that take us back to post-Gupta era. We witness a wealth of Medieval Hindu art going back to 600 AD. You will find that most temples here are almost experimental with one varying from another, which tells us that Aihole is the place where it all began for Hindu architecture.

As we go further, we encounter the monuments of Pattadakal which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The temple structures are by the Malaprabha River. The unique thing about the architecture of Pattadakal is that it is a blend of North and South Indian styles. There are 9 monuments in total that date between 7th and 8th century. Of the 9 monuments 4 are built employing Dravidian style of south India while 4 more are built using Nagara style of the north. The 9th one is built as a combination of both styles. You will find the stories taking you back to Ramayana and Mahabharata here with gods, demons and soldiers being carved intricately. In one corner, you will find a massive Nandi, the Bull God, carved out of a black stone. The last embellishment in the form of a Jain temple came to Pattadakal last in the 9th Century by Krishna II who was a king of the Rashtrakuta Dynasty. The structures prior to that belong to the 7th and 8th centuries and were commissioned by the Chalukyas.

From Pattadakal, we move towards Badami which is 30 kilometers away. Sunflower fields that reflect bright yellow color welcome us to Badami. The town was once the capital of the mighty Chalukya Dynasty. The major attractions here are the cave temples and the surrounding red-sandstone cliffs. There is much to explore in Badami, but we first settle down in the hotel and freshen up before we resume our archaeological exploration.

Post lunch, we set out to savor the beauty of the rock-cut temples caves of Badami. You’ll love the sculptures and writings carved into the walls of the caves. You’ll have to negotiate several steps to reach these caves made of rock. A sense of excitement and adventure engulfs you as you enter them. Each cave is a result of intense boring into huge sandstone rocks. The caves, which take us back to 550 AD, have several mythological characters depicted in them. What strikes you is the fact that the Chalukyas held art beyond religion. You will find these “secular” caves representing Jainism, Buddhism and Hinduism together.

If you look at the terrain across you, you will be amazed what has become of this land which might have lain barren with rocks if not for the patrons of art that transformed it. The artistry of the sculptors has completely transformed the landscape, so much so that it touches you soul. You will find the brackets of the pillars depicting lunging Yalis. Yalis are mythological creatures that are a combination of lion, elephant and horse. The ceiling plays hosts to gods such as Lord Varuna, the creator of rain on an elephant; Shiva, the destroyer on Nandi; and Brahma, the creator on swan. You’ll love the image of drunken revellers and an image where a husband props up his seemingly unwilling wife – the emotions in these sculptures are so apparent that they’ll leave you spell-bound. The traces of the paints that once adorned the entirety of the caves are apparent on the ceilings. Divots on the floor and entrance of the caves formed the paint palettes. Experience the panoramic view from the caves that will instill a sense of serenity in you.

Sculpting is not a dead art in Karnataka. We take you to the sculpting school where you can watch students instilling life into lifeless stones. We also take you to a unit that manufactures Khadi, a type of traditional hand woven cloth that was made famous by Indian freedom fighter Mahatma Gandhi. The cloth had become representative of resilience against British Raj during the freedom struggle and remains the top choice among social activist and politicians in the country.

After a day of hearty sightseeing all around Badami, we return to our hotel to prepare for the next day.

Tractor fully loaded with straw on the way to Aihole, Karnataka
Pattadakal Group Of Monuments. Temples constructed here mark the blending of the Rekha, Nagara, Prasada and the Dravida Vimana styles of temple building – photo by Amit Rawat
Ancient caves of Badami

We drive down to Goa, which is most famous for its beaches and the many fun avenues world over. What most people do not know is the historical and religious significance of this small state. This is where Vasco da Gama, the famous Portuguese sailor and explorer had first landed as he came in search of India for its silk, spices and other riches.

You find a great mix of Christian and Hindu cultures here. While most people living by the shores of Arabian Sea are Christians, as you move further into the countryside, you’ll encounter a Hindu temple at every step. The architecture sees an amazing amalgamation of Hindu and Portuguese architecture.

Enjoy the distinct cuisines of Goa such as pork vindaloo along with the local brew – Feni, which is made from either cashew fruits or coconuts. Feni to Goa is what Tequila is to Mexico.

We bring you the best of Goa, both its past and present in the form of Churches and Temples. We also spend time shopping in the local flea markets. As you relax in the beach-town, the choice is yours. You can either spend time by the pool beach or simply opt for a relaxing Ayurvedic massage that covers your entire body with oils with medicinal properties.

We leave the choice of Goa exploration to you. You can choose to tread the countryside by bicycle, watch fisherman casting their nets under the dim sun, or simply explore the laid-back town of Panjim. Fontainhas and Sao Tome are some neighbourhoods that’ll attract your attention. You’ll love the old structures here that ooze the Portuguese architectural styles. This look is most commonly seen in the Latin Quarters, which forms good food for your cameras. The Church of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception is one landmark you cannot afford to miss. The church itself dates back to 1541. The sailors of Lisbon, at the time, would express their gratitude to god for their safe arrival and pray for a safe return here.

If lying by the beach with a nice little drink is your relaxation of choice then Cavelossim and Palolem beaches are right for you. Just ensure that you’re mindful of the strong undercurrents that exist here. Overnight stay in Goa!

Beach shack at the sandy beach of Goa
churches and convents of Goa

We’ve spent a memorable fortnight in South India and it is now time to part. You bid your farewells to the friends you’ve made and will cherish for a lifetime as you are taken to the airport by us for your flight to Delhi or Bombay.

Upon arrival, you get onboard to your destination, effectively marking an end to your package tour to South India. You’ll find yourself eagerly wanting to share all your stories with your friends and loved ones. Of course, you’re going to miss all the nature, history and fun that you’ve had these past few days.

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19-days individual, 18 nights in hotels of your choiceTravel Destinations: Chennai – Mahabalipuram – Kanchipuram – Puducherry – Thanjavur – Chettinad – Madurai – Thekkady (Periyar Tiger Reserve) – Alleppey Backwaters – Kochi (Cochin) – Ooty – Bandipur National Park – Mysore (Mysuru) – Shravanabelagola – Belur and Halebidu – Ancient City of Hampi – Badami via Aihole and Pattadakal – Goa

Season Hotel Category Per person in double room
01/10/2014 – 15/04/2016 Deluxe Price on Request
16/04/2015 – 30/09/2016 Deluxe Price on Request

All VacationIndia-customized trips are exemplary sample programs for an initial orientation. They can be customized to your own personal ideas. If you let us know what you desire, we can work out a tailor-made offer that makes sense to you. This offer would attempt to accommodate all your requests such as duration of travel, itinerary, hotel category, etc. at the corresponding destination! We are happy to work out a concrete offer for other hotel categories and of course for the hotels of your choice. Simply contact us @ [email protected]

Included Services

  • 19 days of individual travel from Kochi to Kochi
  • 18 nights hotel accommodation in a double room in selected hotels according to the booked category
  • Daily breakfast
  • A high quality air-conditioned car with driver at your disposal during your entire stay
  • 1 night stay with full board on the luxury house boat with air conditioning
  • Sightseeing tour and all excursions as described in the program
  • Services of a Local English speaking guide
  • Transfer airport – hotel – airport
  • Rickshaw ride in Madurai
  • boat safari in the Periyar national park
  • All entrances as described in the tour program
  • Visit to the Kathakali dance program in Cochin
  • 2 liter bottles of mineral water per person per day
  • 24 hours contact in India
  • All taxes and fees, parking, tolls and interstate taxes etc.

Services Not Included

  • International and Domestic Flights
  • An type of travel insurance
  • Visa fees
  • Main meals not mentioned
  • separate camera and video charges during the visits to
  • Expense of personal nature like tipping, laundry, telephone-fax calls, alcoholic beverages, camera-video camera fee at monuments, medical expenses, etc.

Trip Notes

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