Our South India Tour takes place during the fall harvest season, a time of celebration and worship. Everywhere rice fields are lush green and the winter climate ideal. In Tamil Nadu we explore colorful markets overflowing with harvest bounty: young turmeric and ginger plants, raw sugar, tall stalks of fresh sugarcane, coconuts and dried fruit, flowers, and colored powders to create the auspicious designs or kollams in front of every door. We visit a potter’s village and watch as the special Pongal Festival pots are made. In Kerala, "sons and daughters of the soil" return home for the pleasant winter season and arrange elaborate temple oil-lamp lightings in the almost Japanese-styled Kerala temples. The Kerala hills are emerald green with coffee, tea and spice plantations and the backwaters a delight of coconut palm-shaded canals, small village life and emerald green paddy fields.
South India in its culture and heritage - its art, architecture, literature, styles of dress, manners, public life, the personalities of its people and its cuisine - is an original, edenic India, India the way it “always” was. The Indian states of Tamil Nadu and Kerala present two very different fascinating faces of South India. We begin and end our trip in two cities, cosmopolitan but also highly traditional, still renowned for their rich cultural life and magnificent architecture of the British Raj: Chennai (formerly Madras) and Mumbai (Bombay).
South India Tour overview:
We begin our South India tour in Chennai, modern capital of the India state of Tamil Nadu and former capital of British India. We tour its impressive Indo-Islamic-English public buildings, and visit Mylapore, an ancient sacred center still fully traditional with life revolving around the ancient Kapileshwar Temple.
In Tamil Nadu, temples date back to the 7th and 8th centuries, with many of the still active ones dating from the 9th and 10th. They are sacred multi-walled cities with “palaces” housing gods and goddesses, meeting halls, bathing tanks, thousand-pillared dancing halls — forests of stone columns each carved in high relief depicting rearing horses, mythical beasts, celestial beings and jungles of foliage — markets of sweet-scented flowers and religious paraphernalia. Inside these complexes, such as the huge Madurai Temple, you are truly in other dimensions of time and space.
These great edifices are architectural wonders containing world-renowned sculpture, and they evoke in worshippers a quality of devotion that is palpable to anyone who shares that space with them. And we visit smaller temples, home to mysterious and powerful autochthonous god and goddesses.
The bronze statues of Tamil Nadu, made in the Thanjavur region where the soil and water are perfectly suited to this art, are world renowned. We visit a traditional bronze workshop and see the lost wax process by which these masterpieces are made.
We visit a small town in Chettinad filled with tropical mansions, the traditional homes of members of one of India's wealthiest business castes, who had in ancient times a virtual monopoly on trade with and investment in southeast Asia. Here we see courtyards surrounded by galleries supported by stout yet graceful pillars of gleaming Burmese teak; massive and intricately carved doors and door frames and locally made floor tiles of marvelous design. We see the ingenious manufacture of these handmade sun-baked tiles and watch handloom weavers at work.
Traveling west, we climb into the Western Ghats, the mountain range dividing the Indian peninsula and enter the lushly tropical state of Kerala. Our first stop is Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary, where we walk through stunning virgin tropical forest spotting colorful Malabar giant squirrels, bonnet macaque monkeys and birds. Boating on the lake, we are on the lookout for wild elephants bathing along its shores and gaur (the Indian “bison,” Asia's largest ungulate), wild boar, massive sambhar deer, frolicking otters, water birds and perhaps even a tiger.
Kerala is India's most progressive (with a literacy rate of well over 90%) and perhaps most beautiful state; and the only part of the country shaped as much – or even more – by its contacts with the outside world as with the rest of the Indian subcontinent. Trade with the West flourished from at least the first century AD. From Rome, gold poured into Kerala in exchange for equal amounts of black pepper and for cardamom too, both of which are native to this region. (In fact, pepper is the oldest item of trade between Europe and tropical Asia.) The spice plantations of Kerala are world famous and cultivate cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, cocoa, vanilla, all spice, cashews, areca nuts and coconuts as well as black pepper and cardamom. On a visit to one, we'll see how the spices are grown. Under British domination, tea, coffee and rubber plantations were established.
Kerala's narrow coastal plain is criss-crossed by almost 2000 miles of “backwaters,” a unique ecosystem of fresh and saline waterways formed as rivers flowing down from the mountains meet the sea. This is an intricate network of innumerable lagoons, lakes, canals, estuaries and the deltas of forty-four rivers. Here villagers live their lives along watery “roads” with boats (from beautifully shaped, hand-carved two-person country crafts to motor-launch public “buses”) as their vehicles.
On the Kerala Backwaters we travel by boat along the tropical canals watching traditional life unfold as colorful birds flit through the foliage, passing small villages and paddy fields where farming is done below sea level. School children are ferried to school in country boats. We stop for walks in traditional villages shaded by mango and coconut trees. Coconut is an integral part of the local cuisine. Graceful coconut palms are everywhere. Coir from the fiber of coconut husks is used to manufacture of rope and doormats, the fronds are used for roofing and fencing material and the trees are tapped for toddy, a lightly fermented “beer.”
Kerala was not only a hub of international trade in ancient times; it was also a magnet for immigrants from many parts of the world. The first century saw an influx of Syrian Christians and Jews (a few of whose descendents still live in Cochin in what is probably the oldest continuously existing Jewish community on earth). Later, other sects of Christians arrived as did Muslim traders and fishermen who settled throughout the state making Kerala a mélange of ethnicities and cultures, all of which not only accommodated each other but blended together sufficiently to form a local character in which all groups, however disparate, share.
The old fort area of Cochin, with its mansions, spice warehouses, shipping offices, churches and synagogue still retains the scale, charm and flavor of its colonial heritage — it was ruled successively by the Portuguese, the Dutch and British — when from the 16th to the 19th century it was the spice trading capital of the world. We explore by boat and on foot and stay in one of its most elegant mansions.
We end in Mumbai (the former Bombay), India's most dynamic metropolis and the commercial hub of the country, with vibrant markets, extravagant British colonial architecture set amid handsome tropical gardens and dramatic seafront. At Elephanta Caves, on an island in Mumbai’s harbor, rock-cut caves contain extraordinary sculptures depicting the god Shiva and his consort Parvati. Emerging from a recess in the back wall of the vast main cave is a 20-foot high image of three-faced Shiva. Its central face, stone become animate, expresses the fullness of absolute knowledge that is peace. This is one of the great masterpieces of world art.
The price of our 21-day SOUTH INDIA TOUR escorted and guided by Carol and Martin Noval is $5700 per person based on double occupancy (add $1400 for single supplement) and a group of 8-10 members. The price includes all accommodation (all rooms with a/c and attached bath, meals (B, L, D), mineral water and soft drinks, entrance fees, the Cochin-Mumbai flight, travel by a/c car and bus, and all airport transfers.
More South India tour "reviews":
"We loved FAB India with you - thank you for your knowledge, enthusiasm, and warm welcome!" Judy P. and Carol E.
“We thank you for the giant squirrels, pungent smells, vivid colors, assorted anecdotes and for creating a few more gaps in our ignorance of the culture of South India. ...with gratitude and affection all the way down.” Bonnie and Peter, Barbara, Margrit, Huguette, Eric, Bob & Ellen, Carol, Jane, Norm and Marcia
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