In this article of best places to visit in India we discuss South of India. Once again there would be multiple articles for South India and this one would be more of a mix of Tamil nadu and bits of Kerala.
There is so much more that once can do but if this is your first time and you want a flavour of what South India is like then this is a perfect itinerary to Start with.
One things to remember is that names in South India can be tongue twisters for someone not familiar with them and it is ok to not be able to pronounce them they way they are intended to be.
Table of Contents
Chennai and Mahabalipuram
The itinerary outlined here should begin in Chennai formerly known as Madras. The city of Chennai did not exist before 1639, it was in 1639 that a stretch of land 10 kms long and 1.6 kms inland was leased by the British for a yearly payment to set up their Factory and warehouse for Trading purposes.
The land allocated was in the area of a village called Madraspatnam from where the city got its name Madras.
The extensive development that followed over the years made the city a key settlement for the British and by the 18th century after having defeated the French and rulers of Mysore the British established Madras presidency by conquering most of Tamil Nadu and parts of what is Modern day Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka.
The colonial history is very evident as soon as one gets closer to the area call Fort St. George and Marina beach. This is an excellent place to drive past and get the feel of Colonial era.
The more important places however when in Chennai and if one has the time are the Government museum specially the Bronze gallery and Kapaleeshwarar Temple dedicated to Lord Shiva and dates back to 7th Centure CE
Though the history of the region is older than what the British built here, but none of it is directly in Chennai, this makes it mostly a 1 night stop as International flights arrive in here.
From Chennai you should be driving to another coastal town called Mahabalipuram or also referred to as Mamallapuram. The city is best known for the UNESCO World Heritage Site of 7th- and 8th-century Hindu Group of Monuments.
The city has been known by different names at different times, during Marco Polos time it was referred to as 7 Pagoads, on account of the 7 temples which stood here, shore temple which you should visit is the lone survivor.
Normally since Chennai is a one night halt, you should have done some Orientation drive as a part of Sightseeing in the late morning and then left for Mahabalipuram, the travel time is around 60-90 minutes.
– Neolithic burial urn, cairn circles and jars with burials dating to the 1st century BCE have been discovered near Mahabalipuram. The Sangam age poem Perumpāṇāṟṟuppadai relates the rule of King Thondaiman Ilam Thiraiyar at Kanchipuram of the Tondai Nadu port Nirppeyyaru which scholars identify with the present-day Mahabalipuram.
– Chinese coins and Roman coins of Theodosius I in the 4th century CE have been found at Mahabalipuram revealing the port as an active hub of global trade in the late classical period.
– Two Pallava coins bearing legends read as Srihari and Srinidhi have been found at Mahabalipuram. The Pallava kings ruled Mahabalipuram from Kanchipuram; the capital of the Pallava dynasty from the 3rd century to 9th century CE, and used the port to launch trade and diplomatic missions to Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia.
In all you have 3 places which are of importance here
Start with the Panch Rathas also known as Five Rathas or Pandava Rathas) is an example of monolithic Indian rock-cut architecture. The complex was commissioned during the reign of Narasimhavarman II (c. 690–725 CE)
Each of the five monuments in the Pancha Rathas complex resembles a chariot (ratha), and each is carved over a single, long stone or monolith, of granite which slopes in north–south direction with a slight incline. Though sometimes mistakenly referred to as temples, the structures were never consecrated because they were never completed following the death of Narasimhavarman.
The structures are named after the Pancha Pandavas and their common wife Draupadi, of epic Mahabharata fame. In order of their size, they include the Dharmaraja Ratha, Bhima Ratha, Arjuna Ratha, Nakula Sahadeva Ratha, and Draupadi Ratha.
From here on you should move to Arjunas Penance / Descent of the Ganges, Measuring 96 by 43 feet (29 m × 13 m), it is a giant open-air rock relief carved on two monolithic rock boulders. The legend depicted in the relief is the story of the descent of the sacred river Ganges to earth from the heavens led by Bhagiratha.
The descent of the Ganges and Arjuna’s Penance are portrayed in stone at the Pallava heritage site. The relief is more of a canvas of Indian rock cut sculpture at its best not seen anywhere in India.
The last Stop for your this Sightseeing would be the Shore temple, ideally I always recommend that this be done towards later part of the day. Shore temple has been built with blocks of granite, dating from the 8th century AD. At the time of its creation, the site was a busy port during the reign of Narasimhavarman II of the Pallava dynasty. As mentioned earlier Marco Polo and various other European Travellers described this site as Seven Pagodas only the Shore temple has survived.
Make Mahabalipuram a 1 night stop.
The French Touch – Pondicherry
The next day you should travel along the coast to Puducherry / Pondicherry. The history of Pondicherry is recorded only after the arrival of Dutch, Portuguese, British and French traders.
In 1674 the French East India Company set up a trading centre at Pondicherry and this outpost eventually became the chief French settlement in India. The French governor François Martin made remarkable improvements to the city and its commercial ties, facing at the same time strong opposition from the Dutch and the English.
He entered into extended negotiations with the sultans of Golconda through the intercession of several roving French merchants and doctors who were in favour with the Sultan. Trading in jewelry and precious stones which had become highly fashionable in European courts was one among many activities. The city was separated by a canal into the French Quarter and the Indian Quarter
Pondicherry also rose to fame on account of the Aurobindo Ashram and Auroville. The ashram grew out of a small community of disciples who had gathered around Sri Aurobindo after he retired from politics and settled in Pondicherry in 1910.
On 24 November 1926, after a major spiritual realization, Sri Aurobindo withdrew from public view in order to continue his spiritual work. At this time he handed over the full responsibility for the inner and outer lives of the sadhaks (spiritual aspirants) and the ashram to his spiritual collaborator, “The Mother”, earlier known as Mirra Alfassa. This date is therefore generally known as the founding-day of the ashram.
Auroville: Auroville has its origins in the French language, “Aurore” meaning dawn and “Ville” meaning village/city. The key idea of establishing this city was to make it a universal town where men and women of all countries are able to live in peace and progressive harmony, above all creeds, all politics and all nationalities. As per Mother who founded it, The purpose of Auroville is to realize human unity. Parts of Auroville are in Pondicherry while parts are in Tamil Nadu.
Pondicherry is unique in a way that it retains its French charm and architecture. It is often described as s love child of the French and Indian cultures. The old Bouganvellia-draped French-style houses, churches and even the newly built French-style shops, bright coloured cafes and restaurants give Pondicherry an exotic character to it.
The city is best explored on Cycle Rickshwas which take you across the French Quarter and bring you to the Aurobindo Ashram from here you can visit the Beach or just walk around the city.
1 Night is sufficient to experience Pondicherry.
Into the Heart of Tamil Nadu
From this day onwards you would be totally immersed into the depth of the Culture that South India is so known for. As you leave Pondicherry you will be travelling West into the interiors of Tamil Nadu. Your first halt of the day should be a small town called Gangaikonda cholapuram, you should be visiting the Sri Brihadisvara Temple built in 1035 CE. You would be visiting another Brihadisvara Temple in Tanjore which is bigger of the two, but this is just as stunning if not better.
Gangaikonda Cholapuram Temple is built in Dravidian architecture with a square plan. The original courtyard is two squares stacked next to each other, all mandapas, the upapitham, the shrine plans, the garbha griha (sanctum) and the tower elements are all square shaped and incorporate circles and principles of geometric symmetry.
The main temple is built on an elevated structure with the courtyard measuring 560 ft (170 m) by 320 ft (98 m). Its sanctum measures 100 sq ft (9.3 m2) and is entered through the Ardha Mandapa. The sanctum doorway is flanked by dvarapalas, the guardians, each 6 ft (1.8 m) tall. The sanctum contains Brihadeeswarar (Shiva) in the form of lingam. This lingam is 4 m (13 ft) tall and the base has a circumference of 18 m (59 ft)
After visit continue on to the temple town of Trichy. Located on the banks of Kavery river, Tirchys recorded history begins in the 3rd century BCE, when it was under the rule of the Cholas. The city has also been ruled by the Pallavas, Pandyas, Vijayanagar Empire, Nayak Dynasty, the Carnatic state and the British.
The most prominent historical monuments in Tiruchirappalli include the Rockfort at Teppakulam, which you should visit this afternoon, the Ranganathaswamy temple at Srirangam dedicated to the reclining form of Hindu God Vishnu, and is also the largest functioning temple in the world, which should be your next days morning visit.
Rockfort, locally known as Malaikottai, is a historic fortification and temple complex built on an ancient rock It is constructed on an 83 metres (272 ft) high rock. There are two Hindu temples inside, the Ucchi Pillayar Temple, Rockfort and the Thayumanaswami Temple, Rockfort. The most popular attraction is the famous Pallava-era Ganesha temple and the Madurai Nayak-era fort.
The name “Rockfort” comes from frequent military fortification built here, first by the emperors of the Vijayanagara Empire and later by the British Empire during the Carnatic Wars. The Rockfort also offers some amazing views of the Trichy city, however do not that a lot of climbing is involved, steps have been carved out for people to be able to climb up.
Your stay in Trichy should be 2 nights.
The next day be prepared to experience something very unique, you should be visiting Srirangam temple complex, It is a city within a city, the towering Gopurams can be seen from a distance and there are 21 of them. The temple dedicated to Vishnu, occupies an area of 155 acres (63 ha) with 81 shrines, 21 towers, 39 pavilions, and many water tanks integrated into the complex making it the world’s largest functioning Hindu temple.
As you walk through the gates you will experience the life playing out in front of you. The entire morning would showcase to you what an integral part the Temple plays in the life of the People here and offer you a deep insight into the Culture.
In the Afternoon, take an excursion to the town of Thanjavur or Tanjore to visit the Sri Brihadisvara Temple, one of the largest Hindu temples and an exemplary example of a fully realized Tamil architecture. It is called as Dakshina Meru (Meru of south).
Built by Chola emperor Rajaraja I between 1003 and 1010 AD, the temple is a part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site known as the “Great Living Chola Temples”, along with the Chola dynasty era Gangaikonda Cholapuram temple and Airavatesvara temple.
The original monuments of this 11th-century temple were built around a moat. It included gopura, the main temple, its massive tower, inscriptions, frescoes, and sculptures predominantly related to Shaivism, but also of Vaishnavism and Shaktism traditions of Hinduism. The temple was damaged in its history and some artwork is now missing.
Additional mandapam and monuments were added in the centuries that followed. The temple now stands amidst fortified walls that were added after the 16th century.
Built using granite, the vimana tower above the shrine is one of the tallest in South India. The temple has a massive colonnaded prakara (corridor) and one of the largest Shiva lingas in India. It is also famed for the quality of its sculpture, as well as being the location that commissioned the brass Nataraja – Shiva as the lord of dance, in 11th century.
After your visit you will return back to Trichy. The idea of staying in Trichy is to avoid packing and unpacking on both the days. The next day you are travelling to Madurai, from Tanjore the route to travel is via Trichy.
Madurai – Experience the Living Cultures of India.
The next day you should be heading to Madurai, the experiences that await you here cannot be described in words and are best experienced. The travel time from Trichy to Madurai is around 2.30 hours, a start at 0830 – 0900 would bring you into this Temple city before 12 noon.
Madurai, located on the banks of River Vaigai, has been a major settlement for two millennia and has a documented history of more than 2500 years. It is often referred to as “Thoonga Nagaram”, meaning “the city that never sleeps”.
Madurai is closely associated with the Tamil language. The third Tamil Sangam, a major congregation of Tamil scholars is said to have been held in the city. The recorded history of the city goes back to the 3rd century BCE, being mentioned by Megasthenes, the Greek ambassador to the Maurya empire, and Kautilya, a minister of the Mauryan emperor Chandragupta Maurya. Signs of human settlements and Roman trade links dating back to 300 BCE are evident from excavations by Archeological Survey of India in Manalur.
The city is believed to be of significant antiquity and has been ruled, at different times, by the Pandyas, Cholas, Madurai Sultanate, Vijayanagar Empire, Madurai Nayaks, Carnatic kingdom, and the British East India Company British Raj.
Due to the long history the city has a number of historical monuments, with the Meenakshi Temple and the Thirumalai Nayak Palace being the most prominent. Your tour would start with a visit to Thirumalai Nayak palace, the Palace is a classic fusion of Italian and Rajput styles. The building, which can be seen today, was the main Palace, in which the king lived. The original Palace Complex was four times bigger than the present structure. In its heyday, the palace was considered to be one of the wonders of the South.
After the visit to the Palace, you should proceed to Meenakshi Temple, dedicated to the goddess Meenakshi, a form of Parvati, and her consort, Sundareshwarar, a form of Shiva. The temple is at the center of the city and mentioned in the Tamil Sangam literature, with the goddess temple mentioned in 6th-century-CE texts.
The Temple complex consists of monuments inside a number of concentric enclosures, each layer fortified with high masonry walls. The outer walls have four towering gateways, allowing devotees and pilgrims to enter the complex from all four directions.
After the city’s destruction in the 14th century, the Tamil tradition states that the king Vishwantha Nayaka rebuilt the temple and the Madurai city around it in accordance with the principles laid down in the Shilpa Shastras (the art of architecture). The city plan is based on concentric squares with streets radiating out from the temple. Early Tamil texts mention that the temple was the center of the city and the streets happened to be radiating out like a lotus and its petals.
The temple prakarams (outer precincts of a temple) and streets accommodate an elaborate festival calendar in which processions circumambulate the temple complex. The vehicles used in the processions are progressively more massive the further they travel from the centre.
You should visit the Temple and its surrounding areas and appreciate the architecture and craftsmanship. After the visit return back to your Hotel or explore the city bazaars just outside the temple complex. You will be returning back for the evening ceremony so do check the timings.
Every evening Sundareshwar (Shiva) is taken to the chambers of his wife Meenakshi (Parvati) in a very elaborate ceremony and you can be a witness to this, just make sure to arrive 15-20 minutes before the ceremony begins so that you can find a comfortable spot which allows you to view the procession.
Since Madurai is well connected to Trichy, 1 night is enough here.
Kerala – Gods Own Country Spices and Wildlife
The next day you will be leaving the State of Tamil Nadu and entering into Kerala. a 4 hour drive would bring you to Thekkady in Kerala. Located in close proximity to Periyar Tiger Reserve thekkady is known for its spice plantations with hundreds of shops selling Spices. You should visit one of the many Spice plantations where you can see Vanilla, Cardamom, Black Pepper, Clove and various other spices being grown.
Kerala has always been known as the Spice Garden of India and had trade routes with many countries going back centuries on account of the Black Pepper and other Spices it exported. Black pepper was also referred to as Black gold in those days.
Thekkady since it is located in the hills of Western Ghats, would be a pleasant change from the heat of Madurai, the main attractions to visit here would be the Periyar Tiger reserve , spread across 777 km2 (300 sq mi), of which 360 km2 (140 sq mi) is thick evergreen forest. It is home to herds of elephants, sambar, tigers, gaur, lion-tailed macaques and Nilgiri langurs.
However due to the density of the forest sightings of elephants and in particular, tigers are highly unlikely, I have ever only seen a few herds of Elephants from a Distance. All Safaris are done in a Boat and the proximity to the animals depends on the level of water in the Lake.
If you are inclined to visit a wildlife reserve then it may be an enjoyable experience, however if you are not big into the wildlife then by skipping Periyar Tiger reserve you are not missing much. I would rather recommend that you spend that extra time in a Plantation.
1 Night is sufficient for Thekkady.
The Kerala Backwaters and Ayurveda
Kerala is often referred to as God own Country on account of its Natural beauty and is also known for its Backwaters, as a matter of fact the backwaters are the lifeline of the State and were used in the past to transport goods on traditional boats known as Kettuvallams.
The backwaters are a network of brackish lagoons and lakes lying parallel to the Arabian Sea coast (known as the Malabar Coast) of Kerala, as well as interconnected canals, rivers, and inlets, a labyrinthine system formed by more than 900 kilometres (560 mi) of waterways, and sometimes compared to American bayous.
The network includes five large lakes linked by canals, both man made and natural, fed by 38 rivers, and extending virtually half the length of Kerala state.
From Tekkady you should be heading to Alappuzha / Alleppey and experience the Backwaters aboard a converted Kettuvallam or a Houseboat. These houseboats can be basic or be absolute luxury from 1 bedroom to 3 bedrooms (any larger and it would not be able to steer across smaller canals)
My recommendation is to be extremely careful before you book one, make sure that if you are booking it yourself you have checked the credentials and reviews thoroughly and have the name of the boat booked in writing along with the Images / Video.
You will board this Houseboat around lunch time and sail the back waters, the lunch, Dinner and next morning Breakfast would all be made on-board. Sailing on a Houseboat would take you up close and personal to the region and offer you deeper insights into the people, their culture and their lifes. The Houseboats usually drop anchor around 6 pm.
You should ensure before hand that they would do so in the middle of the lake and not parked on a Canal. The Middle of the Vemaband lake is calm and serene and gives you amazing sunset experience.
Since this is just a night halt the next morning the Houseboats would after breakfast drop you to the Jetty Point / Your Hotel (I will explain this next)
Located along the Vemaband lake is Kumarakom, which is famous for its Hotels / resorts offering you an opportunity to relax in the lush surroundings and experience Ayurveda. Kerala is also home to some of the best Ayurveda Treatment resorts and the same can be experienced in Luxury here.
If you choose to do so then you can pre inform your Houseboats and they will park accordingly the next before to drop you straight to your resort the next day.
You can choose to spend a night or two experiencing Ayurveda in Kumarakom (I have even built in week long stays for my travelers here, one has to know what resort would be the right fit for whom)
Here you definitely need some Guidance as booking a wrong one would ruin your Stay.
Cochin / Kochi
From Kumarakom your Journey would head on over to Kochi / Cochin. Called the “Queen of the Arabian Sea”, Kochi was an important spice trading centre on the west coast of India from the 14th century onward, and maintained a trade network with Arab merchants from the pre-Islamic era.
In 1505, the Portuguese established trading ports in Cochin. There are still buildings like the Old Harbour House from this period, some of which have been renovated in more recent times. The Kingdom of Cochin allied with the Ming Dynasty, Portuguese, and Dutch and became a princely state of the British.
Kochi is around 90 minutes away from Kumarakom so 1 Night here can also do the trick. However if you are taking your flight out of India from Kochi then you may also need 2 nights depending upon your flight timings etc.
Cochin, which comprises of a cluster of islands and towns. Fort Cochin is believed to be the oldest European settlement in India, with the Portuguese flag first hoisted here in 1500. St Francis Church, built in 1510 by friars brought to India by Vasco da Gama, is the first European church built in India and is the site where da Gama was buried.
The “Dutch Palace” was built in the 1550s by the Portuguese and taken over by the Dutch, who later presented it to the Rajas of Cochin. The palace contains excellent mythological murals and a rare example of traditional Keralite flooring.
The Chinese fishing nets are used for a very unique and unusual method of fishing. Operated from the shore, these nets are set up on bamboo and teak poles and held horizontally by huge mechanisms, which lower them into the sea. They look somewhat like hammocks and are counter-weighed by large stones tied to ropes.
You should plan time to wander around Mattancherri or Jew Town. Jew Street is full of antique shops selling genuine and pseudo objects d’art. The Jewish Synagogue (CLOSED ON FRIDAYS AND SATURDAYS) was built in 1568 and considerably embellished in the mid 18th century. It contains Grand Scroll of the Old Testament and the copper plates giving privileges to the Jew settlers by the rulers of Kochi.
In the evening plan to witness a Kathakali dance performance. This is the most developed dance drama art of India. Drums beckon an audience to a performance most magnificent – actors depict characters from the Puranas and the Mahabharata, the great Indian epics – demons, superhuman beings and ordinary men and women.
The dancers, all male, adorn themselves in huge skirts and elaborate head-dress, wearing what must surely be the most intricate make up known to any dance style in the world. Dialogue is combined with dance to bring myth and legend to life in the temple courtyards of Kerala.
All this can easily be covered in one afternoon. From Kochi / Cochin you can then plan your next stage of Journey or take an international Flight from the Airport.
This tour is a perfect introduction to South India and the Best Places to visit in India down South are covered in it.
How I can help
Leverage my 3 decades plus of expeience as a Traveller and let me help you craft the perfect Itinerary for your Trip. This would be made in Consultation with you and would help you maximise your time in India.
If after that you wish to have it booked, I would get it booked for you locally which would
A) give you a Huge price advantage 15-20% cheaper than what you would pay in your Country.
B) You will benefit from last minute upgrade deals that are made available locally.