Lying South of the Vindhyas, South India conjures up a montage of images and offers a feast of delights to the itinerant traveller. There is plenty to choose from to stimulate your senses and imagination. If you are a history and culture buff, check out the sprawling ruins of Hampi or the timeless temple architecture in Tamil Nadu. A tryst with the old world charm of Nizami culture greets you in Hyderabad. And if you wish to get away from the hurly burly of metropolis, book a trip to ‘God’s Own Country,’ — Kerala has some of the world’s most pristine beaches and scenic backwaters.
The four states that make up South India are similar in many ways, but slightly different from the rest of the country. They are fairly contiguous in terms of language, customs and culture, and yet each has its own distinct language; some have many dialects and vernaculars as well, which are sometimes nothing like the regional language. However, it is the incredible diversity that is truly fascinating. Karnataka is rich in heritage monuments going back centuries; Andhra Pradesh shows how easy it is to amalgamate distant cultural influences; Tamil Nadu’s landscape resonates with history; and Kerala, India’s most literate state, teases your imagination with its diversity of captivating landscapes. It’s a mosaic that is rich, deep and ancient, and is bound to leave the visitor enthralled and enriched.
In Karnataka lies the most evocative display of history. Scattered across the banks of the river Tungabhadra, Hampi is considered to be the world’s largest outdoor museum, containing the ruins of the Vijayanagara kingdom which achieved its peak in the 15th century. The ruins are spread over an area of over 40 sq km and envelop many things that mark the country’s and the region’s glorious past. Myth and legend compete with the magnificence of architecture, science, planning and strategy that at once stun and awe the visitor. There are innumerable temples dedicated to a pantheon of gods, royal palatial complexes and their footprints, many civic structures, mansions of noblemen, elaborate bazaars, exceptionally well-detailed water works, royal baths. Monuments not to be missed include king’s palace, Mahanavami dibba, Lotus Mahal, the elegant Queen’s bath, elephant stables, Virupaksha temple, Vithala temple, Hazara Rama temple, the images of Narasimha and Ganesha. Running through all these structures is the astounding intricacy with which the entire city was planned, taking care of the topography, defense systems, bridges and dams. Its charms increase manifold during the annual Hampi Utsav held against the spectacular backdrop of the Virupaksha temple when the whole place reverberates with the sights, sounds and smells of local dance, music, drama, art and craft, not to mention cuisine.
With a history that spans nearly 4000 years, Tamil Nadu has a rich melange of destinations to offer visitors. A plethora of temples and ancient monuments stand as signposts to the creative wisdom of people belonging to a bygone era. Unarguably among the best, the Brihadeeshwara temple at Thanjavur is hailed for its beauty as well as conceptualisation and design brilliance. Built by Rajaraja Chola I, it is considered to be the greatest temple complex in the country, with an imposing vimaana, a hollow pyramid of over 63 metres through sixteen storeys and is crowned by a monolithic circular cupola. Madurai is home to the largest temple complex dedicated to Meenakshi, with 12 gopurams, with the tallest one in the south rising to a height of 150 metres and dominating the city. The Ranganathaswamy temple complex at Srirangam near Tiruchirapalli (Trichy) demonstrates not just architectural expertise but one of the most highly evolved urban management systems, with the entire township is embedded in its seven prakaarams (concentric precincts). Kancheepuram’s skyline is studded with temple gopurams with the main Kamakshi temple dominating for its shakti worship and is one among the seven ‘mokshapuris’ (towns of salvation) in India. Equally stunning and important are the Nataraja temple in Chidambaram, the Arunachaleshwara temple in Tiruvannamalai, the Nellaiappar temple in Tirunelveli, the amalgamation of Shaivaite and Vaishnavaite deities at Rameswaram among others.
In neighbouring Kerala, a narrow strip that lies along the coast, God has bestowed abundant natural beauty that is reflected in the beaches and the backwaters. The nearly 600 km coastline has some of the most beautiful beaches in the country. Some are overrun by crowds but there are also untrammelled stretches and sandy beaches to relax and have a great time. Of these, Kovalam, outside Thiruvananthapuram is the most famous. Moving up the coast, other popular beaches include the Alleppey beach, Thrissur, Fort Kochi, Varkala, Cherai and Bekal, to mention a few. In addition, no matter which part of Kerala’s coastline you are, the locals will be able to direct you to secluded and magnificent seaside locations. Interspersed with these beaches are large stretches of backwaters, a phenomenon largely unique to Kerala. A series of brackish lagoons and large water bodies running parallel to the Arabian Sea, they have the advantage of spectacular scenery as their background. The best way to experience them is on a Kettuvallam (houseboat). Alleppey, nicknamed the Venice of the East, has a large number of such canals and is very popular for its houseboats, as is Kochi. The network is linked by about 1500 km of canals, spanning some 38 rivers and five large water bodies. Also popular is Kumarakom on the Vembanad lake which has a massive lake, breathtaking scenery and is packed with places to stay.
In Andhra Pradesh it is the Nizami culture that dominates. The fountainhead is Hyderabad, the state’s capital which is also considered to be the eternal city of love, art, and history. In Hyderabad the past and present, many religions and cultures live together seamlessly. It is a warm and hospitable city with impressive monuments, mosques, minarets, art and architectural richness and offers visitors many sights, sounds, smells and tastes that are difficult to ignore. Charminar, at the centre of town, incarnates the city’s identity and Laad Bazaar which surrounds it is a great shopping experience. Golconda Fort, which overlooks a large part of the city with its brooding presence, is a great symbol of ancient architecture. Check out the sound and light show in the evenings. Not to be missed are the Salar Jung and Nizam’s museums housing an enviable collection of artefacts. Also worth a visit are the Qutub Shahi tombs while a stroll along the Hussain Sagar lake is best done in the evenings when the lights come on and the place takes on an ethereal beauty. And when all this is done, it is essential to head to the old part of the city and taste the Hyderabadi dum biriyani, haleem during the month of Razam and wash everything down with piping hot Irani chai.
From art and culture to natural beauty, from rich heritage to diverse cuisine, South India has something to offer to every traveller. On the face of it, it defies any notions of homogeneity, and yet all the four southern states share a sub-set of history that makes them more alike. A South Indian sojourn is bound to bring it all home.
(Anita Rao-Kashi is a Bangalore-based travel writer).