The complete guide to south India

In its climate, its environment, its bewildering range of religious faiths and its intriguing culture and tempting cuisine, South India is characterised by fascinating paradoxes and dazzling diversity. Rhiannon Batten leads the way through this land of rich contrasts


Where exactly do you mean by south India?

Where exactly do you mean by south India?

South India is normally used to describe, collectively, the good-time state of Goa, industrial Karnataka, highly literate Kerala, cultural Tamil Nadu and huge but often overlooked Andhra Pradesh.

Compared to the landlocked north of the country this is totally tropical territory, running from the high Deccan Plateau, via the Eastern and Western Ghats, to lively beaches, tropical forests, spice-scented hill stations, mighty rivers and cities that buzz with hi-tech industry and thick pollution.

The area's sunny climate has given its inhabitants a cheerful disposition and you will generally find people friendly and helpful. The buses in the south may be just as uncomfortable as their counterparts in the north, but at least here the drivers will willingly keep you informed of the journey's progress. And although the accommodation in Anjuna may be as basic as that in Agra, your host will do his or her utmost to offer every add-on service you might request.

But what's so special about the South?

Culturally, the south has always been distinct from the north, largely because its inhabitants are descended from indigenous Dravidians who were pushed south by Aryan invaders in the North. Societies here developed distinct forms of music, dance, architecture, dress, food and language. And although the region has seen its share of cultural invasions, from Muslims in the 13th and 14th centuries to relatively recent colonial incursions - most obviously Dutch and Portuguese in the west, French in the east and British just about everywhere - the region has managed to retain a strong identity.

The predominant belief system is Hinduism but you will also find Islam, Buddhism, Christianity (St Thomas the Apostle is said to have landed in Kerala in 52AD), Jains and even, in Cochin, the last few descendants of a Jewish community. There is great linguistic diversity, though you will find that most people speak English.

But despite this strongly valued heritage, South India is one of the world's most forward-sighted corners, with internet cafés cluttering the cities and satellite dishes streaking across the countryside. Though there aren't quite enough ATMs to allow you to dispense with travellers cheques, or reliable enough computer connections to mean that you can leave your pen at home, as a visitor you can catch up on the news in a café in Cochin or talk train times with tourists from Calcutta without having to spend hours in a queue or trying to track down a phone.

Is it safe?

If you're sensitive to local customs and sensible about where you wander, then generally yes. However, if you're going off the beaten track or you simply want to be as informed as possible, contact the Foreign Office travel advice unit (020-7008 0233, www.fco.gov.uk/travel) before you leave.

Its website currently offers the following advice: "Driving on Indian roads can be hazardous, particularly at night in rural areas. Inadequately lit buses and lorries, poor driving and badly maintained vehicles are the main causes of accidents.

"In popular tourist areas, do not walk in isolated spots on your own, especially after dark. Visitors should respect local codes of dress and behaviour. Theft of valuables - especially passports - is a particular risk at major railway stations and on trains."

One final, sobering warning: "Penalties for possession of even small amounts of narcotic substances are severe (a minimum of 10 years imprisonment). The slow judicial process means that lengthy pre-trial detention is the norm."

When is the best time to go?

If weather is your deciding factor, book now to travel between October and March when temperatures are lower (relatively speaking) and skies are drier (although in some areas a secondary monsoon hits during November and December). Winter is also the best time to pick up a cheap charter flight or package holiday to Goa or Kerala and, therefore, to enjoy the party season.

If you don't mind foregoing a tan and you'd rather visit when the beaches are quiet and the hotels cheap, many believe the region reveals more of its local character between June and August, when the monsoon is in full torrent (in Tamil Nadu, the monsoon can be much less apparent than in Goa and Kerala during these months).

Where should I start?

For a cultural excursion, you could start by exploring the towering Sri Meenakshi temple and elaborate Nagore tomb in Tamil Nadu, dramatic Golconda Fort and the pilgrim-packed Venkateshwara temple in Andhra Pradesh, the Anglo architecture of Ooty and Madras, also in Tamil Nadu, or the massive churches of Old Goa, the fading elegance of the Braganza mansion and the Portuguese-style streets in the Fontainhas quarter of Panjim, Goa, not far from where Vasco da Gama landed in 1498. In Kerala, Fort Cochin boasts elaborate European-style buildings paid for by tea and coffee merchants, and useful bookshops. Alternatively, catch a traditional Kathakali or Kuchipudi dance performance - the first in Kerala and the second in Andhra Pradesh - or shop for sandalwood soap in Mysore.

Further afield, there's the archipelago of Lakshadweep off the coast of Kerala, boasting white sands, great diving and fantastic sunsets. For nature, try the National Parks: the Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary in Kerala for langurs, elephants, otters and kingfishers; the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve in Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu for elephants, leopards and macaques; Vedantangal Bird Sanctuary in Tamil Nadu for cormorants, egrets, herons, storks and pelicans; the Indira Gandhi Wildlife Sanctuary in Tamil Nadu for tigers, panthers, bear and boar; and the Mahatma Gandhi Marine Park in the Andaman and Nicobar islands for mangrove, rainforest and coral reefs.

You might want to finish up on a beach. Kovalam and Varkala in Kerala are popular for ayurvedic massages, while Gokarna, in Karnataka, is less hectic. In Goa, Anjuna is known for its fun, frenzied Wednesday market, Arambol and Palolem for their quiet and prettiness, Calangute and Baga for bustle and Chapora and Vagator for offering something in between. For a different coastal experience, head for Mamallapuram in Tamil Nadu to see its atmospheric Shore temple, or to nearby Pondicherry to meditate on the Sri Aurobindo Ashram.

How do I get there?

There are two main choices: scheduled or charter. Out of season, scheduled is the only way to go, with Air India, British Airways, Emirates, Kuwait Airways, Qatar Airlines, Royal Jordanian and Virgin among the airlines competing for business. Generally, the lowest fares are available on connecting flights, and are always cheaper through agents than direct with the airline. Trailfinders (020-7628 7628, www.trailfinders.com) has return fares of £497 to Madras on British Airways, £353 to Bombay on Qatar, and £424 to Trivandrum also on Qatar.

If you want to find a cheaper deal, wait until the main tourist season, from around October to the end of March, find a cheap charter package and then simply throw away the accommodation. I recently paid £319 for a return flight from Gatwick to Goa from my local Lunn Poly (020-7519 1616, www.lunnpoly.com).

Finally, don't forget your visa. Six-month tourist visas currently cost £30 and are available from the High Commission of India, India House, London WC2B 4NA (020-7836 8484, www.hcilondon.org), the Consulate General of India, 20 Augusta Street, Birmingham, B18 6JL (0121 212 2782) or the Consulate General of India, 17 Rutland Square, Edinburgh EH1 2BB (0131 229 2144). You will also need a valid passport and two passport-sized photographs.

And getting around?

With relative ease, particularly if you use the trains. It's worth paying extra for an air-conditioned carriage (last November an overnight journey from Bangalore to Cochin in a second-class, air-conditioned sleeper, complete with clean sheets and trolley service, cost me £12, compared to the £4 I would have paid for an uncomfortable, crowded night in a standard carriage, but make sure you know which class you want (air-conditioned second-class seating is much more comfortable, and often cleaner, than non air-conditioned first-class sleeper).

The state-run long-distance buses are reliable and cover a large territory but, though cheaper than the trains (I paid £3.50 for a 10-hour ride) are very slow and really not designed for gangly Western limbs. Private buses are more comfortable for long-distance routes. For shorter journeys, an army of auto-rickshaw drivers will no doubt be on hand to shuttle you over town, but don't complain about the pollution if you use them!

If you really have to get somewhere fast, most cities in the south are well-served by airlines and inter-city flights cost around £50 per hop. Jet Airways has about the best reputation for safety and service.

I was thinking of a slower kind of trip

Then head for the Keralan backwaters, a quiet, water-lilied tangle of terrain between Cochin and Kollam. One of the highlights of the region, the scenic backwaters can be explored in all manner of ways; you can hop on a public ferry (from around 50p for two hours), take a morning or afternoon tour in a tiny canoe (around £5 for four hours) or hire a kettuvallam, or rice barge, for a couple of days and drift off to sleep on the water (around £100 per night, including meals). The soothing, reflective scenery is worth the trip alone but most tours will include visits to see coir and other coconut-based items being produced and spices being grown. All these are very easy to book locally but, if you want to see something special, time your trip for August when the Nehru Cup Snake Boat Races are held here.

What about organised tours?

Companies which offer itineraries to South India include the following: Somak (020-8423 3000, www.somak.co.uk) offers 14-night holidays in Goa from £449 per person, including flights, transfers and B&B accommodation; Colours of India (020-8343 3446, www.partnershiptravel.co.uk) offers trips from £1,278 per person including flights, transport, seven nights accommodation - among the venues are a boutique hotel, a kettuvallam and a treehouse - and most most meals; Cox and Kings (020-7873 5000, www.coxandkings.co.uk) offers a Keralan Experience 10-day tour of the backwaters, the Thekkady spice region, Periyar wildlife park and Cochin from £995 per person including flights, accommodation, transport, guides and most meals and a 16-day Temples and Spices trip from the Coromandel Coast to the Arabian Sea, via temples, spice markets, tea plantations and the backwaters from £1945 per person, on the same basis; Gateway to india (0870 442 3204, www.gateway-to-india.co.uk) runs seven-night Curry and Rice tours in Kerala from £240 per person, excluding flights; Dragoman (01728 861133, www.dragoman.co.uk) arranges 22-day Goa and the Deep South trips from £745 per person including transport, attractions and tours, accommodation and some meals but not flights; Exodus (020-8675 5550, www.exodustravels.co.uk) runs 14-day cycling trips along the backroads of southern India from £890 per person, including flights, accommodation and most meals; Travelbag Adventures (01420 541007, www.travelbag-adventures.com) arranges two-week trips around from Madras, via Periyar, to Cochin, from £999 per person, including flights, accommodation, transport and some meals. Manos Holidays (01273 427333, www.manos.co.uk) offers two-week trips to Goa from around £581 per person including flights and B&B accommodation; Explore (01252 760 000), runs 16-day 'South Indian Images' trips, including Madras, Cochin, Mysore and the Keralan backwaters from £1095 per person, including flights, accommodation, transport and some meals; Naturetrek (01962 733051, www.naturetrek.co.uk) runs 19-day wildlife holidays to the Nilgiri and Cardamon Hills, Nagarhole, Anaimalai and Periyar from £2,690 per person, including flights, accommodation and most meals; and Wildlife Worldwide (020-8667 9158, www.wildlifeworldwide.com) offers wildlife holidays in Kerala from £1995 per person, including flights, accommodation and most meals.

Where can I get more information?

The Government of India Department of Tourism is at 7 Cork Street, London W1S 3LH (020-7437 3677, www.indiatouristoffice.org). For more general background, try the following books: Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things (Flamingo, £7.99), Alexander Frater's Chasing the Monsoon (Penguin, £7.99), Mysore-born author RK Naryan's Malgudi Days (Penguin, £7.99) and David Tomory's Hello Goodnight (Lonely Planet, £6.99).

For general guidebooks, try the informative Rough Guide to South India (£12.99) or Lonely Planet's South India (£11.99) but give the latter's less conscientious separate guides to Goa and Kerala a miss.

Finally, if you're a young traveller thinking about visiting South India and you want to be well-informed, a national conference for young travellers, Exploring the Issues of Exploring the World, is taking place on 7 and 8 April in Manchester. Tickets cost £15 from Tourism Concern (020-7753 3330, www.tourismconcern.org.uk).

Sport
Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi during Barcelona training in August
footballPete Jenson co-ghost wrote Suarez’s autobiography and reveals how desperate he's been to return
News
newsMcKamey Manor says 'there is no escape until the tour is completed'
Voices
Hunted: A stag lies dead on Jura, where David Cameron holidays and has himself stalked deer
voicesThe Scotland I know is becoming a playground for the rich
News
people
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Architect Frank Gehry is regarded by many as the most important architect of the modern era
arts + entsGehry has declared that 98 per cent of modern architecture is "s**t"
Arts and Entertainment
Soul singer Sam Smith cleared up at the Mobo awards this week
newsSam Smith’s Mobo triumph is just the latest example of a trend
News
Laurence Easeman and Russell Brand
people
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch has refused to deny his involvement in the upcoming new Star Wars film
film
Sport
football
News
news
News
people

Britain First criticised for using actress's memory to draw attention to their 'hate-filled home page'

Arts and Entertainment
A photograph taken by David Redferm of Sonny Rollins
people
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Junior Application Support Engineer (ERP / SSRS)

    £23000 - £30000 per annum + pension, 25days holiday: Ashdown Group: An industr...

    IT Systems Analyst / Application Support Engineer (ERP / SSRS)

    £23000 - £30000 per annum + pension, 25days holiday: Ashdown Group: An industr...

    SCRUM Master

    £30 - 50k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a SCRUM Master to joi...

    Franchise Support Assistant

    £13,520: Recruitment Genius: As this role can be customer facing at times, the...

    Day In a Page

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

    Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

    The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
    Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

    Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

    The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
    DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

    Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

    Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
    The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

    Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

    The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

    The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
    Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

    Paul Scholes column

    I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
    Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker