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Thursday, June 2, 2011

Southern India Travel Itinerary

Q: What is the best South India itinerary? 

Naga Goddess, Belur
Response to a question from a reader about what is a good three
week South India travel itinerary.  While outside of Southeast Asia, we thought we'd answer it with an article since of  our editor lived in Southern India most of the last half decade.

A:I suggest you begin in Southern Kerala, in Kochi (Cochin), and work your way up the Malabar Coast all the way to Mangalore. From there, you can drive or take a bus on a good, mostly new highway connecting it to Bangalore.  From Bangalore you can easily traverse across another good road or take the Shatabdi Express Train to Chennai.

It would be leisurely time.  Cochin is right in the Backwaters.  From there, you can easily organize your trip to the backwaters  while you explore a place that was an ancient confluence of cultures.  The Kochin Jewish community here dates back to the Babylon Exile and Nestorian Christians already long established here when the first Catholic missionaries came to India.

After the backwaters and seeing a beautiful peak at India's human and natural landscape, you could hop over to an Arabian Gulf beach.  Whether you want one that is one of the new "hot spots" for backpackers or try to find one less touched, it is easy from here.  You could even plan on visiting both as you work your way north!

Carving from Halebid Temple
After the beach, a night or two in Mangalore will give you enough time to plan a trip to Halebid and Belur (there are a few other temples that can be covered in this "circuit" including a significant Jain shrine) as well as sample some Konkin Coast cooking.  Mangalorean Konkani food--a ethnic/linguistic group that are largely Christian--is delightful and like nothing else on the continent.  If you are able, try the pork curries (buffat curried) and the famous crabs.

Halebid and Belur  lie halfway between Mangalore and Bangalore.  They are popular with Indian tourists, but over the weekends there will be very few.  They are very significant examples of Southern India art and architecture.  It is best to hire a driver or rent a car, but tour operators can help you arrange things if you need help.

Between Bangalore and Chennai
Bangalore is very cosmopolitan with lots of IT but not much infrastructure although a megabucks rail system is under construction.  In the meantime, traffic can be glacial.  I lived there for nearly four years.  Really--you need to sometimes leave hours in advance in order to reach the other side of the city in time.  I do suggest taking in the Hari Krishna Temple and visiting the Nandhi Temple.  It and the one you would have seen earlier at Belur are among India's largest nandhis.  In a single day you can take in the sights with an autorickshaw or by car.  There is also Sri Sri has an ashram not far from the city center you can visit that is very beautiful, but if I remember you have to arrange your visit in advance.  If you can make the four or five hour journey (depending on when you leave) to Mysore, the cultural heart of Karnataka, then I highly suggest it as an overnight trip.  Otherwise, I suggest doing some shopping at Commerical Street and along MG Road or in some of the megamalls like Guruda Mall.

If you liked, you could travel to Chennia from here.  Take the Shatabdi Express train to Chennai.  If you don't do a lot of train travel it can be a fun and comfortable trip.  I used to commute back and forth from Chennai and Bangalore and take the midnight express and be in Chennai fairly early in the morning.

Kanchipuram Temple Carving
A very interesting temple town off the beaten path is Kanchipuram an hour or two from  Chennai.  You can get off a bus early to get here, and there is a train station (but the Shabadi doesn't stop here--it is an express train).  I stayed in Kanchipuram for five nights once and never saw another foreigner during my entire time. It is a much more intimate experience than going to somewhere like Madurai, and I thought more exciting.  It is a small enough town you can easily walk everywhere and there is very little traffic.  I took a very long, perhaps five mile walk out into the countryside from here once and it was really a special experience.  I got invited into three or four houses for tea, sometimes when we only shared a handful or words with my broken Tamil and their broken English.

If you go as far as Chennai, then you will have crossed Southern India to the Bay of Bengal.  If you can, go to Mahabalipuram.  If is again very popular with Indian tourists.  There are several excellent resorts like Marina Beach that although expensive are well worth it.  They would be a very relaxing place for a few days more on the seaside before probably facing the horror that is flying out of India.  I am not sure about now, but when I flew out of Chennai in February I stood in the security line for two and a half hours because they are remodeling one wing! 

This would be a very great trip over three weeks and let you see a large swath of Southern India culture, nature and people.

All photos © Jarrod Brown 2007


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