Tailor-made Tour 14 days from £2445 per person
Places Visited: Chennai, Mamallapuram, Pondicherry, Thanjavur, Madurai, Periyar National Park, Kumarakom, Riceboat Cruise, Cochin
The classic route across the far south is the journey from Chennai on Tamil Nadu’s Coromandel Coast to Kochi in Kerala. You need at least a fortnight to do it justice. Carefully designed to take in all of the principal highlights at a sensible pace, this tried-and-tested version is our go-to itinerary for first-time visitors to the region and one that packs in an amazing spread of different sights and experiences. In fact, it’s hard to think of another two-week tour in the country offering comparable variety.
By combining both of the big states in a single trip, you’ll be able to take in the surf-lashed beaches and ancient rock-cut temples of Mamallauram, the giant Chola temples rising from the rice fields and coconut groves of the Kaveri Delta and the boulder hills of the Vagai Plain around Madurai, home of the magnificent Meenakshi temple. Midway through the trip, the Western Ghats mountains provide a welcome respite from the heat as you ascend through misty coffee plantations and jungles roamed by wild elephant - a world away from Fort Cochin and the tropical backwaters of Kerala, where you’ll spend a night on a traditional houseboat before winding up your holiday on the west coast.
UK - CHENNAI
Fly overnight from the UK to Chennai.
On arrival, you’ll be met by your TransIndus representative and introduced to your driver for the transfer to Mamallapuram, a 1hr 25-minute trip south along the coastal highway. Spend the remainder of the day recovering from your journey, perhaps venturing out for a sunset stroll on the beach.
Thousands of years before the British founded the trading centre of Madras on the Coromandel Coast, merchants’ ships were setting sail from a city further south to ports across Asia. Known as Mamallapuram (or ‘Mahabalipuram’), the town was praised by both Periplus and Ptolemy for its wealth and sophistication; Marco Polo enthused about the ‘Seven Great Pagodas’ that rose from its shore, a skyline hewn from solid granite by the Pallava Dynasty in the 7th century AD.
Numerous vestiges of this golden era survive amid the giant humpback boulders dotted around the modern village and you’ll be exploring them in detail tomorrow with your guide. For now, though, enjoy the end of your first day in India with stroll along the sand to the Shore Temple in time for sunset – an outing you may want to repeat the following morning to catch the magical spectacle of the sun rising over the Bay of Bengal.
After breakfast, explore the rock-cut temples, bas reliefs and sculpture workshops of Mamallapuram in the company of your guide. Later, return to Chennai to visit its colonial-era monuments, or visit the towering Sundari Amman temple at nearby Tiruparakundaram.
The vestiges of the 7th-century Pallava capital at Mamallapuram constitute one of richest and most interesting archaeological complexes in India. Ranging from shrines sculpted in the form of temple chariots to cave sanctuaries and giant open-air bas reliefs, they include the world-famous Shore Temple, one of many UNESCO World Heritage Monuments in the village.
For most British visitors, Chennai’s most compelling historic monument is the British-built Fort St George, which was one of the first East India Company trading posts established in India. The surviving buildings mostly date from Georgian times. On the first floor, the gallery houses a collection of old uniforms, weapons and well preserved aquatints of the city, as well as fascinating letters from the likes of Clive and Cornwallis. History buffs may also wish to visit the government museum to see fragments of its famous collection of antiquities. The building itself is in a lamentable condition but the ancient sculpture, which includes fragments of the great Amaravati stupa, is superb.
Barely any of the foreign visitors staying in Mamallapuram make it to nearby Tiruparakundaram, a 20-miniute drive across the rice fields inland, yet this small temple town offers a wonderfully atmospheric introduction to the splendours in store further south. Your guide will lead you to the top of a granite hill for a sunset view of the Sundari Aman shrine, with its huge gopura gateways rising majestically from the coastal plain.
MAMALLAPURAM - PONDICHERRY
Drive down the coastal highway to the former French colony of Pondicherry (Puducherry). You’ll arrive in time for lunch and a leisurely exploration of the town in the afternoon.
‘Pondi’ served as France’s principal stronghold on the Coromandel during the Carnatic Wars of the 17th century and remained a colony until 1962. Typical French houses with louvred windows and colour-washed Neoclassical facades, line the backstreets of the former ‘Ville Blanche’; and other echoes of the Gallic era abound, from the red képis worn by local policemen to the games of pétanque played on the palm-shaded seafront square. There’s no better way to immerse yourself in the faded French ambiance than by joining our walking tour, led by an expert local guide. As you’d expect, freshly baked croissants, fragrant coffee and coq au vin feature on the menus of the neighbourhood’s restaurants.
PONDICHERRY - THANJAVUR
After a sunrise stroll along Pondi’s breezy seafront promenade enjoy breakfast back at your hotel, then re-join your vehicle for the drive south to Thanjavur, pausing en route at Chidambaram and Darasuram to visit two of the region’s most spectacular 12th-century shrines, as well as a famous bronze casting workshop.
The city of Chidambaram has been a centre of worship since at least the 7th century. Today, the temple at its heart is revered as the seat of Lord Shiva in the form of Nataraja, the Cosmic Dancer, whose bronze deity resides under a solid gold roof. The streets surrounding the shrine offer rich pickings for photographers, with numerous flower stalls and a Vedic school for local Brahmin boys.
Further south across the Kaveri Delta lies Kumbakonam where you’ll stop for lunch at a vegetarian restaurant. The town was the capital of the mighty Chola Empire in medieval times and retains some magnificent temples and monasteries. Most retain antique bronze deities, cast using the ‘lost-wax’ technique still deployed at a famous metalworkers’ colony at Swamimalai, on the outskirts, which can also be visited today, time permitting.
Explore the wonders of Thanjavur in the morning, beginning with the awe-inspiring Brihadeshwara Temple, followed by the old Nayaka Palace Complex, whose art gallery holds the finest collection of antique Chola bronzes in the world.
Brihadeshwara is the greatest shrine surviving from the time of the Cholas. A soaring pyramid of richly carved granite, its central tower looks almost as fresh today as it must have when it was built over 1000 years ago. Elsewhere, the impressive Durbar Hall of the Royal Palace Complex stands as a reminder of the glory days of the Nayak Kings (16th –18th centuries). Aficionados travel from all over the world come here to see the dancing, multi-limbed Shivas and voluptuous Parvatis on display at the adjacent art gallery.
THANJAVUR - MADURAI
An early start is recommended for the seventh day of your trip, which kicks off with a drive west to the city of Trichy, site of South India’s biggest temple, Sriranganaswamy, before swinging south to Madurai. You’ll arrive in time for lunch before visiting the illustrious, polychrome Shri Meenakshi-Sundeshwarar temple in the heart of the city.
For sheer visual impact, no Hindu temple in South India can match the the Meenakshi temple in Madurai. Sweeping nearly 70 metres off the ground, its gopura gateways are unique for their scale and complexity. Thousands of stucco figures swarm over the sides – multi-limbed gods, many-headed goddesses, celestial nymphs and fanged mythological monsters – depicted in a wild array of poses. Opposite the east entrance to the temple is a grand pillared hall where tailors, flower sellers and religious souvenir vendors ply their trades from sunrise until late in the evening.
MADURAI - PERIYAR NATIONAL PARK
Squeeze in an early morning visit to the Meenakshi Temple if desired before starting your journey west across the mountains to Periyar National Park, in the forests of the Tamil Nadu–Kerala border.
High in the Cardamom Hills of south Kerala, Periyar centres on a convoluted reservoir where herds of elephant, wild buffalo, bison (gaur) and boar make frequent appearances. Visitors tend to tour the lake morning and evening by launch, but we recommend you enjoy the comfort of your hotel for the remainder of the day, soaking up the sights and sounds of the surrounding jungle.
PERIYAR NATIONAL PARK
Enjoy a nature walk with a park ranger through the forests of Periyar in the morning. Later, tour a spice plantation.
The combination of intense sunlight and abundant rainfall make Kerala’s interior mountains perfect for growing spices. See how black pepper, cardamom, cloves, vanilla and cinnamon are cultivated on a small, family-run plantation. You’ll already know what cinnamon smells like, but by the end of the walk you’ll be able to identify the tree it comes from too.
PERIYAR NATIONAL PARK - KUMARAKOM
Descend through the Western Ghats to Kumarakom in the Keralan backwaters, arriving in time for lunch at your hotel on the shores of Vembanad Lake. You’ll notice a dramatic change in temperature and humidity levels as you travel from the mountains to the coastal plains.
A vast, shimmering saltwater lagoon known as Vembanad Lake dominates the coastal backwaters between Alappuzha and Kochi. As well as being a prime fishing ground for inhabitants of the local villages, the 200-sq-km body of water is also an important nesting site for migratory wetland birds, for whom a sanctuary has been set aside at Kumarakom, where you’ll be spending the night. Species such as darter, white-breasted water hen and snake birds are commonly sighted between November and March, when the glassy surface of the lake is speckled with dozens of stately houseboats cruising between the resorts located in the area.
Transfer to Alappuzha in the morning to join your houseboat crew for an overnight cruise through the Kuttinad backwater region. All meals will be prepared and served on board.
Up until the 1980s, large barges made of oiled jackwood and canopies of plaited palm leaves were used throughout the backwaters to transport rice. Now, trucks do the haulage work but the boats have been put to more lucrative uses, taking visitors on cruises around the canals, rivers and lagoons of this fascinating region.
A far cry from the oily craft of old, kettu vallam are today fitted with comfortable en-suite, air-con bedrooms, galleys, and viewing decks from which you can watch the watery world slip past.
KUMARAKOM - COCHIN
After breakfast, bid farewell to your houseboat crew and drive to Kochi (Cochin) where you’ll be spending a couple of nights. In the evening, enjoy a sunset cruise around the historic harbour.
Fort Cochin’s low-slung, red-tiled skyline bears the imprint of the various colonial powers and migrant communities that have, over the centuries, settled and traded in the port: Lusitanian chapels, Jewish synagogues, Dutch Burghers’ houses, Armenian mansions and British bungalows all survive in the grid of narrow lanes here – the largest collection of early colonial buildings anywhere in Asia.
The most evocative views of the port are to be had from the water, particularly at sunset time, when the shallows swirl with tropical colours. Watch the container ships and local fishing boats chug past the Chinese fishing nets over a gin-and-tonic on deck before dining on spicy Keralan coastal cuisine back at your hotel.
Explore Cochin on foot and by auto rickshaw in the morning. Later, squeeze in some last-minute souvenir shopping at the boutiques and galleries of Mattancherry, before taking in an evening performance of Kathakali.
Auto-rickshaws are the most suitable mode of transport for exploring the back lanes of Fort Cochin. Your English-speaking driver-guide will lead you through the area’s historic highlights, from the Church of St Francis to the house where Vasco Da Gama lived, via an atmospheric Dutch cemetery and the local ‘dhobi ghat’, or open-air laundry. The tour winds up with a visit to the elegant royal palace and richly decorated Jewish synagogue in Mattancherry.
The lanes around the Jewish quarter are these days packed with antiques and handicrafts shops where you can pick up high-quality local textiles, wood carvings, Tanjore paintings and other South Indian treasures.
No visit to this region is complete without experiencing Kathakali, one of Asia’s most mysterious ritual theatre forms. Dressed in voluminous, elaborate costumes and make up, the performers enact stories from ancient Hindu epics using an otherworldly language of mime, signing and eye expressions. The show our guides will take you to is designed with foreign tourists in mind and only lasts around 90 minutes (the authentic ones go on all night).
COCHIN - UK
Time to say goodbye to India as you transfer to Kochi’s international airport for your return flight to the UK.
Tailor-made Tour 14 days from £2445 per person
- International flights from London
- 13 nights accommodation
- Houseboat and sunset harbour cruises
- All internal transportation and transfers
- English-speaking guides
- Breakfast daily
- Entrance fees to sites, monuments and national parks listed in the tour itinerary
Places and Experiences in this tour
The capital of Tamil Nadu, Chennai is India’s fourth city – a fast-paced, traffic-filled metropolis of 4.7 million people. This strip of the Coromandel Coast first rose to prominen…
Thousands of years before the British first landed on the Coromandel Coast, merchants’ ships were setting sail from a city further south to ports as far afield as the Malacca Strai…
Puducherry, also known as Pondicherry or Pondi, a half-day’s drive south of Mamallapuram, served as France’s principal stronghold on the Coromandel during the Carnatic Wars of the…
The Kaveri (Cauvery) Delta of central Tamil Nadu was the heartland of the mighty Chola Dynasty, whose towering temples stand as south India’s defining monuments. One of the greates…
For sheer visual impact, no Hindu temple in South India can match the magnificence of the Meenakshi-Sundeshwarar in Madurai. The gigantic, multi-coloured gopura towers of the ‘Fish…
Periyar National Park
High in the hills of inland Kerala, the famous Periyar National Park hugs the border with Tamil Nadu. Its focal point is a convoluted reservoir on whose muddy shores herds of eleph…
Kumarakom Backwaters and Bird Sanctuary
Kumarakom, a tiny village located between the shores of Vembanad Lake the largest of Kerala’s backwaters and a vast 200-square-kilometre lagoon provides an idyllic setting for rela…
Until the 1980s, large barges made of oiled jackwood and canopies of plaited palm leaves were used throughout the Kuttinad region of Kerala to transport rice and other produce thro…