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).

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Sport
Robin van Persie leaves the field at the King Power Stadium last Sunday
football
News
In this photo illustration, the Twitter logo and hashtag '#Ring!' is displayed on a mobile device as the company announced its initial public offering and debut on the New York Stock Exchange on November 7, 2013 in London, England. Twitter went public on the NYSE opening at USD 26 per share, valuing the company's worth at an estimated USD 18 billion.
news

Arts and Entertainment
tvPresenter back after daughter's Halloween accident
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch as John Watson and Sherlock Holmes in Sherlock
tv

Co-creator Mark Gatiss dropped some very intriguing hints ahead of the BBC drama's return next year

Arts and Entertainment
music Band accidentally drops four-letter description at concert
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

    Investigo: IT Auditor

    £60000 - £75000 per annum + Benefits : Investigo: A global leading travel busi...

    Recruitment Genius: Chef De Partie x 2

    £16000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This charming and contemporary ...

    Recruitment Genius: Membership Sales Advisor - OTE £20,000 Uncapped

    £15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing fitness cha...

    Recruitment Genius: Personal Trainer - £30,000 OTE Uncapped

    £15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing fitness cha...

    Day In a Page

    US immigration: President Obama ready to press ahead with long-promised plan to overhaul 'broken system' - but will it get past a Republican-controlled Congress?

    Immigration: Obama's final frontier

    The President is ready to press ahead with the long-promised plan to overhaul America's 'broken system' - but will it get past a Republican-controlled Congress?
    Bill Cosby rape allegations explained: Why are these allegations coming out now? Why didn’t these women come forward earlier? And why has nobody taken legal action?

    Bill Cosby rape allegations explained

    Why are these allegations coming out now? Why has nobody taken legal action? And what happens next for the man once thought of as 'America's Dad'
    Four years of excruciating seizures caused by the 1cm tapeworm found burrowing through a man's brain

    You know that headache you’ve got?

    Four years of excruciating seizures caused by the 1cm tapeworm found burrowing through a man's brain
    Travelling to work by scooter is faster than walking and less sweaty than cycling, so why aren’t we all doing it?

    Scoot commute

    Travelling to work by scooter is faster than walking and less sweaty than cycling, so why aren’t we all doing it?
    Paul Robeson: The story of how an American icon was driven to death to be told in film

    The Paul Robeson story

    How an American icon was driven to death to be told in film
    10 best satellite navigation systems

    Never get lost again: 10 best satellite navigation systems

    Keep your vehicle going in the right direction with a clever device
    Paul Scholes column: England must learn to keep possession and dictate games before they are exposed by the likes of Germany and Brazil

    Paul Scholes column

    England must learn to keep possession and dictate games before they are exposed by the likes of Germany and Brazil
    Michael Dawson: I’ll thank Spurs after we win says defender as he prepares to return with Hull

    Michael Dawson: I’ll thank Spurs after we win

    Hull defender faces his struggling former club on Sunday ready to show what they are missing. But he says he will always be grateful to Tottenham
    Frank Warren column: Dr Wu has big plans for the professionals yet he should stick to the amateur game

    Frank Warren column

    Dr Wu has big plans for the professionals yet he should stick to the amateur game
    Synagogue attack: Fear unites both sides of Jerusalem as minister warns restoring quiet could take 'months'

    Terror unites Jerusalem after synagogue attack

    Rising violence and increased police patrols have left residents of all faiths looking over their shoulders
    Medecins sans Frontieres: The Ebola crisis has them in the headlines, but their work goes far beyond West Africa

    'How do you carry on? You have to...'

    The Ebola crisis has Medecins sans Frontieres in the headlines, but their work goes far beyond West Africa
    Isis extends its deadly reach with suicide bombing in Kurdish capital

    Isis extends its deadly reach with suicide bombing in Kurdish capital

    Residents in what was Iraq’s safest city fear an increase in jihadist attacks, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Underwater photography competition winners 2014 - in pictures

    'Mysterious and inviting' shot of diver wins photography competition

    Stunning image of cenote in Mexico takes top prize
    Sir John Major: Negative West End portrayals of politicians put people off voting

    Sir John Major hits out at theatres

    Negative West End portrayals of politicians put people off voting
    Kicking Barbie's butt: How the growth of 3D printing enabled me to make an army of custom-made figurines

    Kicking Barbie's butt

    How the growth of 3D printing enabled toy-designer to make an army of custom-made figurines