When people think of travelling India, they often think of the north, of the Taj Mahal or Rajasthan’s fortresses or the ghats of Varanasi. However, if you step away from the Golden Triangle, you’ll find there is more to India than the main tourist sites, and the South is particularly unique in that regard.
Tamil Nadu’s Temples
India is more like a continent than a country, where languages change across the border and even your phone goes into roaming. The name Tamil Nadu actual translates into Tamil Country in Tamil, and is the bastion for Dravidian culture, a term often used to categorise the people and languages of South India, and its temples are no exception. The temples in South India resemble pyramid-like constructions, some, like the Vijayanagara temples, which are multicoloured with thousands of painted statues of gods and figures like the Meenakshi Amman Temple in Madurai, or in monochromatic stone, like the ancient Chola temples like the Brihadeshwara Temple in Thanjavur.
Travel through Tamil Nadu and you’ll find spectacular Dravidian temples from Chennai to Kanyakumari. Each temple carries its own character, such as the ancient temples in the coastal town of Mahabalipuram, where stone structures sit on the shore of the Bay of Bengal and the stone carved shrines nearby, Chidambaram’s temple dedicated to Nataraja, the cosmic dancer or the ancient complex at Kanchipuram.
The Southern state of Kerala is home to a landscape of intertwining backwaters dotted with coconut palms and rice paddies. The backwaters are unique to Kerala, and are a huge network of natural interconnected waterways stretching close to 900km in canals that connect 38 rivers and 5 large fresh water lakes together. One of the most famous ways to explore is to take a houseboat, but you can do the backwaters on a budget with a local ferry or explore the rural village life in a canoe. The interesting thing about the backwaters is the water lilies and flowers on the waters. Kerala’s backwaters are truly magical and worth the visit south.
Goa’s Portuguese Churches
While people flock to Goa’s beaches for sun, sea and partying, I decided to eschew the beaches and stayed in Panaji and Old Goa. Both cities carry a strong Meditteranean accent after being a Portuguese colony for centuries. Old Goa is less than an hour away from Panaji, and is home to one of the largest Catholic cathedrals in Asia. This collection of old churches and cathedrals have earned the UNESCO World Heritage title offering a different kind of religious site on the Indian subcontinent to the mosques, such as Hyderabad’s Mecca Masjid Mosque, and temples.
South Indian Beaches
I don’t mean the famous Goan beaches or even the popular beaches in Kerala’s Varkala and Kovalam, but rather the beach life in South India’s less touristic places. Instead of being a place to swim and sunbathe, most of the beaches in South India have an almost sacred feeling to it, whether it’s watching the sunset with all the locals on a beach just outside Trivandrum in Kerala, eating street food or drinking chai on Pondicherry’s sea front or Chennai’s epically long Marina Beach, the seafront offers a taste of local life.
South Indians are very warm and welcoming, and you’ll always be greeted with smiles and help from the locals. Don’t be surprised if people queue up wanting to have their photo with you or ask you to take photos of them. As someone shy about photographing locals, in India people always welcomed it (although many wanted to photograph me too). Don’t be surprised if you’re offered a cup of chai in a shop or shown hospitality from total strangers.
When I spent a weekend alone in Alleppey in Kerala, I sat at a riverside café only to have 3 people I met once stop by and have a quick chat with me like they had known me for years. Even on the night train to Chennai, booked into a class where I was not only a solo female European traveller, but being the only European in that compartment, I had families come and check on me, helping me get some water and food and even making sure I was OK.
South Indian Food
I miss South Indian food so much, and while I can find Indian restaurants across Europe, they mostly follow the Punjabi inspired dishes that are popular in the British Indian restaurants. South Indian food is quite different, more focused on local ingredients such as rice, coconut, spices and sometimes fish (although the south is more veg). Masala dosas, a pancake made from fermented rice and lentils stuffed with spicy potatoes and served with coconut chutney, is one of my favourites, but idly, steamed rice cakes, and thalis, a selection of local curries often served on a banana leaf, are also really tasty. Southern Indian cooking also uses more spices and more chili, so tends to be spicer, but certainly a must-have culinary experience.
Ooty’s Tea Gardens
If you drive up into the Nilgiri Hills in the Western Ghats, the winding roads open up into terraces of tea gardens dotting the hillside. Driving up into the hills, the heat from below mellows out into a cooler climate – which explains why the hill stations up in Ooty were popular for the British in the summer months. Today, a stroll among Ooty’s tea plantations is a rare pleasure. You can pay a visit to the local tea factory to learn more about tea cultivation, and make sure you take home some tea when you leave. And Ooty is not the only place in the South, Munnar in Kerala is also famed for its beauty, and perhaps even more so (only I didn’t make it there personally, sadly) so when you’re in the south, make sure you visit one of the tea gardens in the hillstations of the Western Ghats.
If temples and ruins are your things, make sure you don’t miss Hampi. This vast archaeological site can take days to visit, and with a landscape of dramatic boulders and palm trees dotting the arid landscape, Hampi is one of India’s most spectacular site. You’ll find ruins of old houses, specacular temples rising up and enhancing its landscapes to giant monkeys hopping around drinking from the algae covered pools besides the ruins. Here, you’ll also find one of the rare stepwells in the southern part of the country, intricate carvings and a labyrinth of secrets. You can visit Hampi easily from Goa as a cultured side trip from the beaches, take the train and stay for a few nights at least.
The city itself is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and during its prime in 1500AD was one of the largest cities of its time as the capital of the great Vijayanagara Empire.
Mysore’s Palaces and Markets
Further south in the same state (although closer to Tamil Nadu’s Ooty than Hampi), Mysore is a city famed for its jewelled palaces, the most notable being Mysore Palace. The city is also famed for its sandalwood and silks. The Palace is spectacular from the outside, with red onion domes and gilded arches, which turn into quite a sight at night when the whole thing is illuminated with thousands of bulbs, but the interior also stuns with colourful collonades, stained glass windows and various frescoes and jewels.
However, more than the palace, Mysore’s Devaraja Market was perhaps one of my highlights, where you can indulge in spices, perfumes, silks, bangles and even buy food and banana leaves should you want to cook your own South Indian feast.
Watching the Sunrise from the Tip of Mainland India
Excluding the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Kanyakumari marks the furthest south you can go in India. This tip of India is said to be the place where three seas meet and in its own way a holy place. Where standing on the beach overlooking the seas and the giant statue of Thiruvalluvar, a famous Tamil poet, you can watch both the sun rise and set on the horizon. Sunrise in particular is a magical moment, as hundreds, if not thousands flock to the beach to watch the rising sun, which fills the coastline with a rosy glow in the first hours of the morning. This was one of my favourite moments from my trip in South India.
There is so much more I haven’t included on this list, and I’m sure there are so many places, sites and people still to discover in India’s South, but whether you choose to explore on local transport, drive your own auto rickshaw across South India, such as with the Rickshaw Challenge or with an Ambassador car on the India’s Cup, you’ll have an amazing time in this underrated part of India.