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).

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