South India is so much more than the much-marketed Kerala, and a lot of it is underrated, writes Navneet Sahni
South India is easily one of the most under-sold tourism attractions in India. Though Kerala has marketed itself very well across the world, it is Tamil Nadu and Karnataka which are relatively understated – but believe me, absolutely a marvel waiting to be discovered. I would not be exaggerating to say that some of the places down south equal, if not surpass, the famous South American landmarks such as Machu Picchu in sheer size, architecture and religious importance. The temples at Chidambaram, Kancheepuram and Madurai are sheer marvels of architecture and awe-inspiring in the size of construction. The Vijayanagara empire ruins at Hampi have been designated a World Heritage Site and are a delight to visit for their grandeur. It’s a real pity that we have not been able to market these destinations to the international tourist. Once a person visits these marvels, he/ she is sure to be awe-struck
KARNATAKA. Our journey started from Bangalore. Though there are some interesting places to visit, I wanted to get out of town as quickly as possible and visited the massive Vidhan Sauda building, the Lalbagh Gardens, and the Nandi Bull Temple – Shiva’s mount made out of one piece of black granite.
That night we boarded an overnight train to the famous Hampi ruins (Hospet Junction is the station, 13 km away). The main temple complex of Vithala is simply breathtaking. The famous chariot temple is one of the most photographed monuments here, and frankly one must visit this complex just for that alone. Of course the main temple is outstanding. However, the larger picture here is the expanse of the complex with the beautiful hills as the backdrop, and it should ideally be visited at sunrise or sunset.
Some other places which are a must-visit here are the Virupaksha Temple, the stepwell and the iconic statue of Narsimha. For the enthusiast the Hazar Rama Temple’s carvings are worth a look.
Hampi now has some nice places to stay and among them is the Evolve Back resort by the Orange County group , The Hyatt and the Shivavilas Palace. I recommend at least a one night/ two day stay here and the best way to travel to and fro is by the comfortable overnight train.
While in Hampi, a short drive away is the magnificent spectacle of the Tungabhadra Dam and the gardens – definitely a do-not-miss. Your return train can be boarded from Hospet itself and so the unnecessary drive back and forth is not required.
We boarded the Hampi express (overnight train) back for Mysore this time and eagerly waited to visit the famed Mysore Maharaja’s palace, the Somnath and Sri Chamundeswari temple and new Namdroling monastery. The palace is absolutely a marvel to behold. The sheer expanse and opulence leaves one stunned – the paintings, chandeliers, and the furniture makes this palace one of the most magnificent in the country. You can easily spend the better part of the day here. Next, we visited the monastery – though a new construction, it is interesting how the old Hindu traditions and temples are juxtaposed with the growing Tibetan Buddhist influence. However it is the superb Somnath temple which takes one’s breath away. The intricate carvings on the temple walls are awe-inspiring, to say the least. This is truly one of the gems of India.
We had kept a full day to visit the famous Bellur temples and Hassan. So we took a car and driver to take us first to Shravanbelagola to visit the gigantic statue of Bhagwan Bahubali. Warning: the climb up the hill is of about 650 steps and it certainly tested my physical fitness – but it was definitely worth it. The positive energy around revitalises you.
However for me the main place to visit in that tour was the Kedareswara temple. The stunningly intricate carvings in this Shiva temple are unparalleled and absolutely one of the hidden gems of India. Unfortunately people do not visit this as much as the other two temples of Cheenakeshava and the Hoysleswar. Another outstanding temple would be the Lakshmi Narasimha Temple, a must-see for its sheer detail. Not many people know very much about it but a good tourist taxi driver will know it.
One of the best things to do in Mysore is actually to visit the many excellent places for Mysore food – for example, Hotel Mylari, a tiny little place, gives you the best Dosas and Idli, absolutely yummy!
The iconic Lalitha Mahal Palace is still the most attractive hotel building in Mysore; unfortunately with poor management it is no longer the most sought-after place as there are many more great hotels. The Royal Orchid Metropole, The Radisson Blu, The Grand Mercure and the Windflower Spa Resort are some excellent places to stay.
The above programme in Karnataka which we covered was 6 nights and 7 days (including the two overnight train journeys). It gave us enough time to cover the best of Bangalore, Hampi / Hospet and Mysore.
TAMIL NADU – From Mysore we boarded the Shatabdi express for Chennai (8.30 hours). Chennai is a bustling city just like Bangalore and is fast losing its original character, and so frankly if you have no work there it is best to get out of town as soon as possible. A half-day tour covering the St Thome Church and Kapaleshwar Temple is enough to give you an idea of the diversity of this old and historic city. The National Art Gallery houses a rich repository of Dravidian art and culture. The Nataraja statue is absolutely one of the finest you can see in all of India.
Chennai has many good hotels but the newly built ITC Grand Chola is fast becoming a landmark with its majestic building. The Taj Coromandel and the Park Hyatt are good hotels but the Raintree at Annasalai is a perfect hotel, recommended for its location and high quality of services.
From Chennai we took a hired car as that is the best way to tour Tamil Nadu. The road network is excellent and it gave us an opportunity to see the countryside. The first place was the holy city of Kancheepuram. This was the capital city of the Pallava dynasty and Adi Sankara himself was the founder of the “Peeth”. While everyone knows of this place as of the most important centres of Hindu religion, this temple town has three outstanding temples (amongst more than 150!) – the Kamakshi Amma temple is dedicated to Goddess Parvati as Shakti and is of course the most well known. The temple complex is in 5 acres and has four main gates with the central temple having a Gold Gopuram. It is a belief that the visit to this city has to start with this temple. Later visit the Sri Ekambareswarar temple – an important Shiva temple (one of the five main Shiva temples) dedicated to Lord Shiva, the unique thing being that the Shivling here is made of sand. Finally we visited the Kailashanath temple which is about 2 km away from the Kamakshi Amman and Ekambareswarar temples and is under the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). The sheer beauty of the sculptures and carvings in this temple is absolutely outstanding and unique. The depth in the carvings is just beyond words. The statutes of a dancing Shiva and Goddess Parvati have different hues of Him being angry and smiling – and changes with different light shades.
After being suitably stunned and humbled we drove onto Mahabalipuram, a beautiful sleepy seaside town. Most resorts here have “private” beaches and so it is just a few steps to the ocean. We were at the stunning Grand Bay Resort. The sunrise is what I had heard so much about, and so I headed early in the morning to the beach and was certainly not disappointed. It was good to see a few surfing enthusiasts who rise early up with their surf boards. With the shore temple in its backdrop it was a stunning picture.
This fisherfolk village here has a history going back to the 4th century and you have monuments dating back to that time. The famous places to visit are the Panch Rathas, the Arjuna’s Penance, and the Butter Ball. However it is the bas-relief carving on two monoliths which has the most recognisable structure of the “Descent of Ganges”. It is pure joy to see the beautiful and intricate carving in such magnitude.
From Mahabalipuram we left early for a two-and-a-half-hour drive for the temple town of Tiruvannamalai and enroute found a hidden gem – of Gingee Fort, a 9th-century outpost, very surprising for this part of the world. Unfortunately by then the sun was beating relentlessly and with the rest of the day already planned, we skipped walking up the 600 odd steps and continued onwards.
Tiruvannamalai is famous for the Ramanna Ashram and the mighty Arunachaleshwar Temple. It is said that the devout Shiva devotee who wishes to go to Sabrimala first has to pay respects at this temple before going there. Ramanna Ashram is so peaceful and quiet that it invites you to continue staying there. Although we did not do the 14 kms perimeter walk of the sacred mountain, there were many people going about it with great devotion. On the outskirts of the town we stopped for a meal at the only good hotel, The Sparsa.
Finally, we drove onto the French Indian township of Pondicherry. The first thing which struck me was the wide open roads here. After reaching we visited the famous seaside promenade. This bustling and happening area has many nice restaurants; with fresh sea breeze blowing it was very relaxing. We dined at an authentic French restaurant – Satsanga around here and can recommend it highly.
Peace and Calm
The next morning we visited Auroville and the peace and calm acts like a magnet. The breathtaking dome of the Matri Mandir is very unique and the concept of silence here reminded me of the B’ahai temple in Delhi where one just sits to contemplate. Be sure to find out the timings and the visiting requirements before going. Later, we visited this unique temple of French Dravadian architecture – the Kanniga Parameswari (Godess Shakti). The painting and motifs are very different from other South Indian temples, with arches inside. Every afternoon the temple elephant walks through the temple, blessing the devotees, and is quite a sight to see. There are some nice hotels to stay and we opted for something in the city and on the main Promenade.
We had heard so much about Chidambaram’s temples that we were looking forward to this visit and it is difficult to be disappointed. One of the largest temple complexes in the South, this complex dates back to the 12th century and over the years the Pallavas and the Cholas have added to it. Considered to be one of the main five Shiva temples it houses the famous bejewelled Shiva as the Nataraja (an absolute must-see). We were very fortunate as the Dikshidhar here personally took us around and explained the importance, history and relevance of this fantastic temple. A few months earlier someone had sent me a WhatsApp message showing the longitude on which major Shiva temples across India are built – Kedarnath, Kaleswaram, Ekambareshwarar, Chidambaram and Rameshwaram are all in one straight line. Can you imagine how they figured this out hundreds of years ago without any modern-day science? More important is the relevance of this fact, to which no one has been able to give a satisfactory answer!
After the spiritually satisfying visit we drove onwards and reached Tanjore. By this point we were quite travel-fatigued and so the accommodation was most apt for our state. The Ideal Riverview Resort is absolutely breathtaking and so calming. Away from the city on the banks of the river, this resort is quiet and peaceful, yet very approachable. However it was the Brihideshwara Temple which we were all looking forward to. Considered to be one of the best temples in South India, it did live upto the billing. Built in the 11th century this is an absolute marvel of ancient architecture. The temple is dedicated to Lord Shiva. The Nandi in the front courtyard in black granite holds centre-stage. The granite capstone, which weighs 20 tonnes, is perched about 20 stories high and it is a mystery as to how it was put there – a 1000 years ago!
Tanjore is famous for its paintings and our dream of acquiring one such piece led us through narrow streets to a small showroom where the artisan was busy at work making a masterpiece. We found an exquisite painting of Bal Krishna and immediately decided to buy it. Today it adorns our apartment and every time I look at it I cannot but thank the Lord.
Our final destination was Madurai where the Meenakshi temple completed the tour. The biggest temple in South India, the sheer number of devotees here is over whelming to say the least. With four equally beautifully and ornate gates the temple complex is dedicated to Goddess Meenakshi (a manifestation of Goddess Parvati). The hall of Thousand Pillars is astounding as each pillar is beautifully carved, and there is a beautiful statue of Natraja in bronze. The pillars appear to be in a straight line if viewed from any angle and each pillar produces a different musical note.
Madurai is also home to the beautiful Thirumalai Nayak Palace. One of the very few places which displays Dravadian, Islam and European architecture, it easily is one of the most beautiful palaces in South India. The ornate work is mostly lattice and so very unique to that part of the world.
Due to a large influx of tourists, Madurai has hotels to suit all. The Taj Pasumalai and The Heritage – a Geoffrey Bawa-designed hotel – are highly recommended. Madurai is very well connected by air and trains and is the perfect place to end your journey, as multiple transport options are available.
A few important notes travelling to this area and specially visiting the temples:
- Find out the temple timings in advance as in most cases these institutions are open in the morning and then later in the evenings. Most afternoons are closed.
- Some of the temples are so crowded that you can spend a fair amount of time waiting so plan accordingly and start early.
- It is important to get good guides. Most locals speak limited English and in order to get a thorough understanding of these architectural wonders you need a good guide.
- Dress appropriately – most of these places are places of worship and the locals can get offended easily. Please find out in advance which temples restrict entry for non-Hindus and foreigners.
- The best time of the year to visit is between mid-November and end-February. Even during this time it can be hot and the sunshine is strong so a hat is necessary. Loose cotton clothes are best. At all temples you will be required to leave footwear outside and it can be quite uncomfortable walking on hot stone paths. It is best to carry thick cotton socks to prevent any awkward walking.
- Good reliable transport is the most important part of this journey as there are long drives. Budget hotels are available and are generally quite neat and clean but can be basic.
- South Indian food is yummy and lunch generally is “meals”. This inexpensive “thali” system is freshly made and wholesome. In the smaller cities North Indian and international cuisines can be a challenge to find. Larger hotels of course offer a wide selection of cuisines.