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Flying direct from north to south India, you understand why the country is often described as a ‘subcontinent’. In the south, the climate is more noticeably tropical; the light more intense; the greens that little bit greener; and the pace of life a notch less frenetic.
At a cultural level, too, things feel different. The populations of southern India were historically less subject to Muslim influence than their northern cousins. The Delhi Sultans made several incursions into the region, but the Turko-Persian invaders who so dominated the northern plains never penetrated far beyond the fringes of the Deccan plateau, leaving southerners free to develop their own distinctly ‘Dravidian’ way of life over two or more thousand years.
Tamil Nadu, in the far southeast, is where these ancient roots are most dramatically manifest today. Towering above the state’s rivers, palm groves and rice fields are huge, pyramidal temple gopuras, originally built by the Cholas from the late-9th century and later enlarged by the Vijayanangar kings. As well as serving as active places of worship and pilgrimage, these great Tamil shrines are also repositories of the world’s last surviving classical culture, which retains its own body of literature, music and dance forms, as well as sculpture and painting traditions.
The two sprawling states to the north of Tamil Nadu – Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh – span a zone of transition from the Hindu-dominated deep south to the Indo-Islamic world of the Deccan. From medieval times until the days of the British Raj, successive Muslim sultans ruled this more arid region from a necklace of citadel towns whose ruined palaces and tombs barely hint at the extraordinary wealth and power they once wielded.
Finally, separating the Tamil plains and Karnataka uplands from the coast, the Western Ghat mountain range retains magnificent forests with some of the most impressive biodiversity on the planet. A string of wildlife sanctuaries allow visitors access to these heavily protected areas, where tigers and elephant still roam wild.
Hyderabad in Andhra Pradesh, is a great place to visit for architecture – Golconda Fort, Charminar, Qutb Shahi Tombs, Mecca Masjid, and Charkaman all incorporate beautiful Indo-Islamic designs. European styles are evident in King Kothi Palace and Falaknuma Palace; the grandeur inside similar to the sumptuousness of the Titanic.
Its familiar contours smoothed by more than 1300 years of salt breezes, the diminutive Shore Temple at Mahabalipuram is just one among dozens of extraordinary ancient monuments dotted around the popular little seaside resort of Mamallapuram.
The malleable qualities of chlorite schist, allied with the great skill of local sculptors, are the secrets behind the intricacy and suppleness of the stone work adorning the Hoysala temples of central Karnataka – masterpieces of medieval Indian art.
If you’ve come to India to see incomparably exotic scenery, pilgrims bathing in glassy rivers, and giant temple towers writhing with sensuous statues and scampering monkeys, look no further than Hampi, the ruined capital of India’s last great Hindu empire.