South India Tour: Tamil Nadu and its Temple Cities, Kerala’s Backwaters, Wildlife and Spice Country

Please email us for information about this trip, available as a private trip for individuals, couples or groups.
Our next scheduled trip is our Central India Tour in October 2017 followed by our India Himalayan Tour in May 2018 and our Ladakh Himalayan Trek in July-August 2018.

Chennai - Mamallapuram - Pondicherry - Chidambaram - Kumbakonam - Thanjavur - Chettinad - Madurai - Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary - Kerala Spice Plantation - Kerala Backwaters - Fort Cochin

“I’m slowly getting my body adjusted to being back
– getting my mind adjusted, though is another matter! I’m still flooded with images and memories of the trip. It was a wonderful experience and I learned so much about the culture, the people, the food. Martin, you are a wealth of knowledge & you share it in a way that is so interesting & thought-provoking. Thank you both for leading such a great trip, and for your generosity of spirit.”

Jane T.

South India in its culture and heritage – its art, architecture, literature, styles of dress, manners, public life, the personalities of its people and its cuisine – is an original, edenic India, India the way it “always” was.

The Indian states of Tamil Nadu and Kerala present two very different faces of South India. In the state of Tamil Nadu explore temple "cities," rural villages and traditional small towns, colorful markets overflowing with harvest bounty. We'll be there for the Pongal Festival, the major festival of the year in Tamil Nadu, a time of joyful pilgrimage. In tropical Kerala explore coffee, tea, rubber and spice plantations and wildlife sanctuaries where elephants roam. On the Kerala backwaters, get into the gentle rhythm of life on coconut palm-shaded canals and in small villages amid bright green paddy fields. See traditional life unfold on our houseboat cruise and on village walks.

Begin in cosmopolitan yet very traditional Chennai (formerly Madras), capital of the India state of Tamil Nadu and seventeenth-century capital of British India. Tour historic Fort St. George and magnificent Indo-Islamic-English buildings of the British Raj. A visit to the ancient Kapileshwar Temple is a wonderful introduction to the rich spiritual and cultural life of Tamil Nadu. Have dinner in a beautiful temple-like local restaurant and attend a performance of Bharatnatyam, the graceful dance form of South India.

Leaving Chennai the first stop is Mamallapuram, a UNESCO World Heritage site. More than 2000 years ago, Mamallapuram, on India’s southeast coast, was already a famous seaport. In the mid-seventh century during the rule of the kings Mahendravarman and Mamalla I of the Pallava dynasty the town became the base for the export of Indian culture to Southeast Asia.

Mamallapuram is a “stone city” cut from living rock. The vibrancy and animation of the art created here during the Pallava ascendancy is unsurpassed anywhere – this is stone come to life. Most impressive and unforgettable is the "Great Relief," 100 feet long, teeming with human, animal and plant figures all in life size.

The massive boulder strewn landscape is dotted with 7th- and 8th-century caves and temples cut from the living rock sheltering exquisitely carved relief sculptures illustrating the exploits of Hindu gods, renowned masterpieces of early Indian art.

Watch outdoor performances of classical and folk dances near the ancient Shore Temple. Stay in a luxurious beach side resort, with the world’s second longest swimming pool.

Tamil Nadu's vast temple complexes, dating as far back to the 7th and 8th centuries, are sacred multi-walled "cities" with towering gateways teeming with polychromatic life-size figures of Hindu deities. They are filled with grand pavilions housing gods and goddesses, miles of corridors with ceilings covered in paintings and mandalas, ceremonial bathing tanks, thousand-pillared dancing halls – forests of stone columns, each carved in high relief depicting rearing horses, mythical beasts, and celestial beings. And markets of sweet-scented flowers and religious paraphernalia.

Inside these temple cities, such as the huge Chidambaram, Thanjavur and Madurai temples, we enter other dimensions of time and space where age-old rituals are celebrated, emphasizing the interdependent nature of humans and their gods. These great edifices are architectural wonders and evoke in worshipers a quality of devotion that is palpable to anyone who shares that space with them. Smaller, hidden temples, some hewn out of gigantic boulders, and village shrines, are home to mysterious and powerful autochthonous god and goddesses.

Visit a bronze workshop near our luxurious Kumbakonam rural retreat and watch the creation of bronze images of gods and goddesses by the ancient lost wax process. The bronze statues of Tamil Nadu, made in the Thanjavur region where the soil and water are perfectly suited to this art, are in museum collections throughout the world.

In Chettinad visit the mansions of the Chettiars, members of one of India's wealthiest business castes. In ancient times the Chettiars had a virtual monopoly on trade with southeast Asia. Stout pillars and intricately carved door frames of gleaming Burmese teak, Lalique fixtures, Belgian glass, enameled copper ceilings grace their mansions. And locally made floor tiles of Italian design – watch the ingenious manufacture of these handmade sun-baked tiles. See handloom weavers at work on scarfs, saris, tablecloths in traditional Chettinad patterns and have the opportunity to purchase some. An old friend of ours, a Chettiar herself, accompanies on explorations into the Chettiar heritage and way of life. Chettinad is famed for its cuisine and the food is inventive and fabulous.

Traveling west, climb into the Western Ghats, the mountain range dividing the Indian peninsula, and enter the lush tropical state of Kerala. In Periyar National Park walk through tropical forest with eloquent tribal naturalists spotting colorful Malabar giant squirrels, bonnet macaque monkeys, birds, and wild elephants and gaur (the great Indian “bison”) both from a comfortable distance. Boating on Periyar Lake, watch elephants bathing along its shores, gaur, wild boar, massive sambhar deer, frolicking otters and water birds. In the evening be mesmerized by powerful performances of tribal dance.

Kerala is India's most progressive (with a literacy rate of well over 90%) and perhaps most beautiful state; and the only part of the country shaped as much – or even more – by its contacts with the outside world. Trade with the West and China flourished here from at least the 1st century AD. From Rome, gold poured into Kerala in exchange for equal amounts of black pepper and for cardamom too, both of which are native to this region. (In fact, pepper is the oldest item of trade between Europe and tropical Asia. The spice plantations of Kerala have been world famous for more than two thousand years.

Learn about the history and cultivation of spices, and coffee and tea in lush gardens in Kerala’s tropical hills. Under British rule, tea, coffee and rubber plantations were established and still cover vast swathes of the hills presenting to the eye mosaic designs of luxuriant green. On a visit to a spice garden featured in BBC's 100 Best Gardens in the World series have a tour with the eloquent and knowledgeable owner and see how spices are grown.

Kerala's narrow coastal plain is criss-crossed by almost 2000 miles of “backwaters,” a unique ecosystem of fresh and saline waterways formed as rivers flowing down from the mountains meet the sea. This is an intricate network of innumerable lagoons, lakes, canals, estuaries and the deltas of forty-four rivers. Here villagers live their lives along watery “roads” with boats (from beautifully shaped, hand-carved two-person country crafts to motor-launch public “buses”) as their vehicles. School children are ferried to school in country boats. We board a luxurious houseboat from our heritage homestay and cruise along tropical canals watching traditional life unfold. Colorful birds flit through the foliage as we pass small villages and paddy fields where farming is done below sea level.  Stop for walks in small villages shaded by mango and coconut trees and have a traditional Kerala lunch on board.

Kerala was a hub of international trade in ancient times and a magnet for immigrants from many parts of the world. The 1st century AD saw an influx of Syrian Christians and Jews (a few of whose descendants still live in Cochin in what is probably the oldest continuously existing Jewish community on earth). Later, other sects of Christians arrived as did Muslim traders and fishermen making Kerala a mélange of ethnicities and cultures, all of which blended together to form a local character. Kerala's Hindu temples, where elaborate temple oil-lamp lightings take place every evening, have a very eastern, almost Japanese look to them.

End the journey in Fort Cochin, a great walking town. With its mansions, warehouses, shipping offices, Chinese fishing nets, churches and synagogue, Fort Cochin still retains the scale, charm and flavor of its colonial heritage. It was ruled successively by the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British – when from the 16th to 19th century it was the spice trading capital of the world. Stay in one of the town’s most elegant historic mansions.

Email us at: for the day-by-day itinerary and more information.

More photos taken by our travelers are on our Trips Into India Facebook page: South India Tour Photos

"I want to thank you for providing us with an enlightening experience that awakened all our senses. The Hindu philosophy you shared; your thoughts regarding Western constructs; the temples; the mythology; the food; the music and dance; the look into village life truly exceeded our expectations and that is due to both you and Carol. You knew just where to take us, helped us gain a conceptual understanding of what we were seeing and at the same time paid careful attention to the details of travel."

Steve G.

“We thank you for the giant squirrels, pungent smells, vivid colors, assorted anecdotes and for creating a few more gaps in our ignorance of the culture of South India. ...with gratitude and affection all the way down.”

Bonnie and Peter, Barbara, Margrit, Huguette, Eric, Bob & Ellen, Carol, Jane, Norm and Marcia