Anxious to avoid the depredations of package holidays, particularly in poorer countries, some companies now promote eco-tourism. Here, Hester Lacey joins a group of 'responsible travellers' in India. Overleaf, a nomadic tent in Turkey
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"FORTY per cent of Indian women don't wear panties. Or so American statisticians say." This kind of dramatic statement, delivered with withering scorn, is hard to digest at the best of times, let alone late in the evening, preparing for a bumpy night on the Madras to Thanjavur sleeper train. Raising relevant social issues, however, is an important part of the responsible tourism experience, and Ranjit Henry, our guide - or "facilitator", as he preferred to be called - was not letting us off the hook.

"American pantie suppliers are starting an aggressive marketing campaign here," he explained, more in anger than in sorrow. "The poor Indian woman who is quite happy as she is suddenly thinks 'Damnit!' and believes she should be buying these things. It destroys the dignity of poverty."

He followed up with a spirited denunciation of scented soap, as we hauled out our sheet sleeping bags and slapped on our mosquito repellent.

Ranjit, a small, energetic and excitable Tamil, runs Kolam, a "responsible tours and soft travel" enterprise based in Madras. In partnership with the Bristol travel firm Journeys, he welcomes small groups of travellers (absolutely not tourists) to southern India. Ranjit's intention is to reveal what he calls the "India of the Indians", and this trip tries to provide a sample of as many facets of southern Indian life as possible in three weeks - including culture, history, food, nature, art.

This may sound like a tall order, but with an energetic chaperone it's surprising how much ground you can cover in a mere 21 days. Our group of six were all India novices at the beginning of the trip; by the end, we were all hooked. It was an ideal, if frenetic, introduction. Travelling in a small group meant that individual interests were never swept away in a welter of group decisions that no one really agreed with. The timetable was flexible enough to allow for last-minute changes of direction. And even if one day turned out to be something you weren't terribly keen on, the backdrops to every single minute were magnificent. We swept through a great kaleidoscope of coconut plantation and paddy field, woodland and river bank and scrub, from Madras on the east coast, via the temple town of Thanjavur, to Cochin on the west, up the coast to Calicut, across to Mudu-mulai game sanctuary, on to elegant sandalwood-scented Mysore, then the hill station of Madikeri and back to Madras via traffic-choked Bangalore.

Air travel (apart, of course, from the flight from London to Madras) was out of the question - convenient, yes, but also horribly polluting - so the seven of us bounced across the subcontinent, east to west and back again by (relatively) ecologically sound train and mini-bus. As we went, southern India unfolded outside the windows. The streets were impossibly crowded, with squatting fruit sellers behind pyramids of oranges and tomatoes and strange, unfamiliar roots arranged on blankets, sandal-menders, ox- carts, bicycles wobbling under enormous loads of green bananas or clay pots or boxes of eggs, and dozens of buzzing mopeds.

On every corner there was a flower- seller - even in the smelliest alleys there would be an occasional whiff of jasmine. Sweet-smelling garlands were draped and twined everywhere, twisted in women's hair, festooned over statues in the temple, hanging from radiator grilles and windscreens on lorries and cars and auto-rickshaws and cycle handles. The lorries themselves are painted in oranges, pinks and reds, with elaborate floral designs. Kept immaculately clean, the cabs are little shrines; miniature statues of the chosen god in the place of honour on the dashboard. It's just as well the drivers are under divine protection, given that accepted driving etiquette is to whizz up behind anything slower than you and hoot frantically before shooting past.

The traffic was not the only thing that moved at a spanking rate. We raced from temple to art gallery to museum, led by a bewildering succession of guides with wildly varying grasps of English. In the Madras art gallery, we absorbed the finer points of Chola period bronze figures, encouraged by Rama (self-taught in four languages) to give Shiva's smooth greenish buttocks a fondle, to feel just how perfectly, humanly shaped they were. In Maha-balipuram, on the eastern coast, cultured, elderly Uma showed us how to identify a Pallava granite carving at 100 paces. In Cochin we gaped at the former Maharajah's state velvets, encrusted with jewels and embroidery. Three nights was the most we spent in any one place.

This was all mesmerising enough; but the pace was not the only demanding element of the trip. Ranjit's introductory leaflet rather dauntingly revealed that he likes to include an "examination of the politics of tourism and leisure, and the neocolonial conditioning inherent in us all in our search for a world free of war, exploitation and illusion". His views on the politics of tourism, leisure and neocolonial conditioning are pronounced, hence the frequent plunges into impassioned social comment, punctuated with deep, emphatic, resonant sniffs.

Ranjit was a hard man to please; the newly emerging materialistic Indian middle classes ("betrayers of their culture"), backpackers ("scroungers"), Western consumerism (in particular such seductively wicked devices as the electric toothbrush) were all on the receiving end of a verbal blast or two. This meant that we tended to avoid typical Westerners' haunts. Five-star hotels with their water-guzzling swimming pools and power-guzzling air conditioning were anathema. We stayed mainly in locally run hotels, where our fellow guests were travelling Indian businessmen and holidaying Indian families. This gave us the pleasantly superior feeling that we were really "visiting India". It was a neat compromise between the excesses of "luxury" travel and the discomforts of backpacking. Another bonus was that meals in such places were generally authentic and excellent - and incredibly cheap.

This grassroots travel also gave us the opportunity to sample the vagaries of Indian plumbing at first hand. The frequent problems we reported to the various managements were initially tackled absolutely everywhere with the hopeful proffering of a new roll of loo paper. Facilities ranged from basic (no hot water - no hardship in 28 degrees of sunshine) to wildly eccentric (the Green Hotel in Mysore prides itself on its state-of-the- art solar water-heating system, a paragon of eco-correctness that delivers steaming hot showers and baths. Unfortunately, the cold water supply is liable to fail, so we had to fill buckets from the scalding shower and use them to flush the loo).

Maybe so much self-consciously virtuous eco-awareness sounds a bit much to endure. After all, this is supposed to be a holiday. But sometimes, in the middle of it all, there was a moment or two that transcended any vestiges of eco-prissiness and was unreservedly perfect. South of Cochin, the rivers of the Western Ghat mountain range drain into a complex network of tiny natural canals. A morning spent poling through the maze, in a boat barely narrower than the waterways, in perfect silence was a perfect respite from the bustling street-life. The brown, earth-smelling water was overhung with greenery and flowers, including the odd hibiscus and gardenia, and rows of wild pineapples shored up the banks. Our boat was made of planks lashed and stitched together with coconut fibre; two boatmen propelled the seven of us, sitting in state on folding chairs.

The people who live in the back-waters, growing rice and coconuts, don't see too many tourists (or travellers). Children came rushing out to look at us looking at them, and asked us to take their photos. Each house had a channel up to the door, where a boat was tied, just like a driveway with a car in it. Electricity pylons strode through the swamps - it's government policy that every household shall have electrical wiring and one light point. Nightly power cuts tend to negate some of the advantages of this, but the lines provided perfect perches for kingfishers and bee- eaters, while egrets, paddy-birds and herons stalked below.

Another high point was when, in the high, cool, coffee-growing country of Coorg, inland from the western coast, near the town of Madikeri, we stumbled on the local harvest festival. Such festivals must have led to a certain amount of confusion during India's Green Revolution in the Sixties, when hybrid rice strains and improved irrigation led to two or even three harvests every year. This revolution is another of Ranjit's bugbears - he muttered darkly about soil exhaustion, pesticide pollution and huge water demands. Meanwhile, the Coorgs have calmly kept to their single festival at the beginning of December, on an auspicious date chosen by the village astrologer.

This hospitable hill-tribe practise a unique brand of Hinduism. They have quietly ditched dietary restrictions on meat (the local dish is pork stewed in spices and blackberries) and alcohol (consumption is actually obligatory at weddings). They have also got rid of Brahmin priests, and all priestly duties have devolved on to the local pattedar, or clan leader. The pattedar of Kadaga Dalu village was the genial, white-haired KC Appayya. "I am the only leader," he explained, adding, "We don't believe those Brahmins too much. There is a saying that if you are suddenly faced with a Brahmin and a snake, you should kill the snake first."

Resplendent in white turban edged with gold, black tunic, wide gold belt with red edging, and an intricately scabbarded knife stuck in his belt, he conducted the festival's dancing - a kind of very slow and dignified hopping in a circle, striking out at each other with sugar cane sticks, rather like an exotic version of Morris dancing. Following the elders was a bunch of younger men who had not yet graduated to proper costumes, and five sprogs barely bigger than their bamboo canes who were still learning the ropes. As the afternoon progressed, the ranks of the dancers were swelled as other clans appeared. The drums and flutes played even louder, and the audience of women and children refreshed themselves with lurid ice-lollies.

The men, however, were on stronger stuff. Fortified by hefty tots of rum, they lit an after-festival bonfire - a jolly, if incoherent, affair, with pork to eat and much singing of Coorg traditional songs to honour their guests. We were completely stumped, however, when they politely asked us to respond with a British air or two. We resisted; they insisted. In the end, the quavery strains of "On Ilkley Moor baht 'at'" floated up over the rice fields.

Perhaps, though, we shouldn't have been there at all, poking our noses into other people's celebrations. The growing encroachment of Western tourism, enthusiastically encouraged by the government, is a subject of concern to many Indians. One of our final visits was to the offices of a tourism-control lobbying group, Equations, based in Bangalore. We sat, rather guiltily, through a gloomy lecture on the hideous effects of mass tourism.

Some response was clearly required, and one of our number, a retired doctor from Guildford, leapt bravely into the breech. Surely allowances could be made for those who wanted to share in the architectural and cultural delights of another place, he asked. We had tried, he explained, to be as good and well-behaved tourists as we possibly could. But was there anything else we could do? The Equations man sighed a weary sigh. "Nothing. We are not interested in your experience as tourists, but in the experiences of the local people who have to live with tourism. It's not up to tourists to 'take part' or 'help'. It's our battle, not yours."

So, in the end, how green were we? We genuinely did our best. Our imported currency flowed into local pockets. We took our shoes off in the temples, and kept our disrespectful legs and shoulders covered. We asked permission before taking photos. Perhaps it was all a very small drop in a very big bucket - but at least we were made aware of some of the more sensitive issues. When I came home, I felt I'd seen a side of India I wouldn't have found on my own, or if I had relied on a conventional travel agent. Who wants a five-star, air-conditioned, chips-with-everything package anyway? !