Unveil the Secrets of South India: A Private Explorer's Journey
South India offers a treasure trove of natural beauty, ancient history, and cultural diversity. Traverse this tropical paradise on a private journey that takes you from breathtaking artistry and ruins to stunning beaches and wildlife.
Must-Visit Destinations in South India
Beaches of Bay of Bengal & the Arabian Sea: Walk along the pristine beaches framing the coastal beauty of South India.
Mahabalipuram’s Temples: Experience the architectural splendor of 7th-century temples built during the Pallava dynasty.
Kanchipuram’s Silk & Temples: Discover the city that was a crown jewel of the Chola and Pallava kingdoms, boasting over 100 exquisite temples dating back to the 2nd century BC.
Upon arrival at the airport you will be met by a Nomadic Expeditions representative and transferred to your hotel. The remainder of the day is at your leisure.
Formerly known as Madras, Chennai is India’s fourth-largest city. Bursting onto the world’s historical scene with the founding of Fort St. George by the British East India Company in the mid-17th century, Chennai was the center of British activity in India until the transfer of the Company’s seat of power to Calcutta. Chennai is an ancient city, however, and was a vital port on the Bay of Bengalfor the powerful 7th-century Pallava Dynasty.
(Taj Connemara - Heritage Room)
Day 2 - MAHABALIPURAM
This morning, explore Chennai before heading off on a one-hour drive south to Mahabalipuram, one of India’s fabulous UNESCO World Heritage sites.
Mahabalipuram is commonly known as the “City of the Seven Pagodas,” even though five of the seven pagodas are actuallyrathas (stone chariots). The Pallavas, the ruling power of South India during the 7th and 8th centuries and prolific patrons of the arts, reached their greatest architectural achievement in the visually dramatic temples at Mahabalipuram. A wealthy maritime trade with Southeast Asia enabled the Pallava monarchs to construct a large number of temples and sculptural programs, which garnered them both religious merit and promoted the political and social ideals of South Indian society.
After checking into your hotel, head off to visit the photogenic and windswept Shore Temple, dramatically perched near a promontory overlooking the Bay of Bengal. You can see the aforementioned Pancha Rathas (Five Stone Chariots), at the southern end of town. The rathas, which date to the 7th century, are extraordinary examples of rock shrines hewn from monolithic stone, and are named for the heroes of the epic Indian tale, Mahabharata.
In the center of Mahabalipuram is the main cluster of temples and rock sculptures. Life-size stone statues of an elephant, bull, and lion guard these delicately sculptured temples. Scenes from Indian mythology carved out of stone cover the temples. One of the most elaborate is the Bhagirathi’s Penance, which despite its mammoth proportions is intricately carved. So large is the bas- relief that it is often described as a “fresco in stone.” In fact, a number of stonecutters still work in Mahabalipuram and continue to produce high-quality traditional sculptures.
After breakfast, head out into the interior (two-hour drive) to visit Kanchipuram. Dating back to the 2nd – 3rd centuries BCE, it is one of the oldest South Indian cities and was a jewel for the Chola and Pallava Kingdoms. With over a hundred beautiful temples, Kanchipuram is also one of the seven holy cities for Hindus. Along with visits to some of the main temples, you will also spend time with the silk weavers. Kanchi silk is famous across India.
(Taj Fisherman’s Cove - Deluxe Sea View Room; B)
Day 4 - TRICHY | TANJORE
Enjoy the morning further exploring the UNESCO site at Mahabalipuram before being transferred to Chennai airport in time for the afternoon flight to Trichy. Upon arrival, transfer to your lovely hotel in Kumbhakonam. Each of the chalets is built in the manner of traditional Tamil village architecture.
(Svatma - Millennium Deluxe; B)
Day 5 - TANJORE & KUMBHAKONAM
Built in 1010 CE by Rajaraja Cholan, one of the Chola dynasty kings who once ruled much of South India, the magnificent BrihadisvaraTemple is the crowning glory of Chola temple architecture and is dedicated to Shiva as Nataraja, king of the cosmic dance.
Its beauty is particularly enhanced in late afternoon, when its sandstone tower is bathed in the golden hues of sunset. The vimana, or tower, over the temple sanctuary soars to a height in excess of 200 feet and is adorned with several exquisite pieces of Chola sculpture. The temple sits in the middle of a spacious courtyard, faced by a massive 20-foot long sculpture of Shiva’s vahana (vehicle), the great bull Nandi, carved from a single piece of granite. The style of the Chola architecture exemplified by the Brihadisvara Temple is distinctly different from that of the Meenakshi Temple in Madurai. Although a UNESCO World Heritage site, the Brihadisvara Temple, like the Madurai temple, functions as an active place of worship.
In the afternoon, visit local bronze craftsmen and learn about the traditional “wax mold” casting of bronze workmanship that is unique to this region and considered one of the “lost arts.” Once a bronze statue is cast, the mold is melted off, ensuring that each bronze is a unique piece.
(Svatma - Millennium Deluxe; B)
Day 6 - MADURAI VIA TRICHY
This morning, drive (3 hours) to Tiruchirappalli, “The Town of the Three-Headed Devil,” so called after the demon who achieved salvation after being slain by Shiva. The city is now more commonly known as Trichy, the moniker bestowed upon it by the British. Trichy has the historical distinction of being the center around which the Carnatic Wars were fought in the 18th Century during the British-French struggle for supremacy in South India. Despite its historical importance in colonial times, Trichy is an ancient city, and its position on the Kaveri River delta was of strategic importance during several of South India’s prominent political dynasties.
In Trichy, join pilgrims and hike up the spectacular Rock Fort, standing sentinel 270 feet high atop a massive rocky outcrop, which rises abruptly to tower over the old city. As you walk up the Rock Fort’s many steps, you come to the “Hall of a Hundred Pillars,” which leads to the Shiva temple, where he is revered as Thayumanavar, “The God Who Became Mother.” In this incarnation he assumed the guise of a mother helping her pregnant daughter in childbirth. As you continue up the hill and reach the top, you are greeted with a commanding panoramic view of Trichy. Aerial views of the Srirangam complex, the massive Teppakulam Tank, the Cathedral of Our Lady of Lourdes, the bustling streets of thecity, and the lush green fields of the Tamil countryside greet you as you walk around the temple. This rock temple is dedicated to Ganesh (the elephant-headed son of Shiva and Parvati).
After lunch in Trichy, continue your drive (2.5 hours) to the ancient 4th-century temple town of Madurai, renowned for the phenomenal Meenakshi Sundareshvara Temple. Here, you will spend the next few nights at the Taj Gateway Hotel, nestled on Pasumalai Hill and overlooking the city. The hotel is a blend of original British-era colonial architecture and more recent additions built in the colonial style. The retreat is a relaxing haven and provides a wonderful place to rest after exploring bustling Madurai.
(Taj Gateway Pasumalai - Executive Room; B)
Day 7 - MADURAI
Madurai is one of South India’s oldest cities and has been a center of learning for over 2,000 years. Once the Meenakshi Temple was built, Madurai became the cultural center of the Tamil people. It was the seat of the Pandya Empire (7th – 13th centuries), and then the short-lived capital of an Islamic sultanate in the 14th century. After 1364, Madurai became a part of the Vijayanagara Empire. By the middle of the 16th century the local Hindu governors, the Nayakas, asserted their independence and the city became an independent kingdom until the arrival of the British.
Today, Madurai is an animated city packed with pilgrims, beggars, businesspeople, bullock carts, and legions of underemployed rickshaw drivers. With your guide, you have the day to explore one of the most important temples in the South, the awe- inspiring Meenakshi Temple, whose complex occupies an area of six hectares. The Meenakshi temple of Madurai is estimated to receive 10,000 pilgrims every day. A riotously baroque example of Dravidian architecture with twelve gopuras ranging in height from 130 to 165 feet, the towers are covered from top to bottom in a breathtaking profusion of multicolored images of gods, goddesses, animals, and mythical figures. Legend has it that the temple was founded by Indra (King of Gods) himself. Every point in the temple has a legend attached to it.
While exploring the temple, visit the “Hall of a Thousand Pillars,” with its fascinating study of human expression carved on the pillars, the walls, and the ceiling. Just outside you will find the “musical pillars,” each emitting a different musical note when struck. Explore the Kambatti Mundapum (yet another hall) containing pillars sculpted with various manifestations of Lord Shiva. The Meenakshi Temple is arguably the preeminent example of South Indian temple architecture and is one of India’s most important places of pilgrimage. You can also visit the Thirumalai Nayaka Palace, built in the 17th century and partially restored by the British in the 19th century. The Palace is built on a grand scale, with towering pillars and a large courtyard where the ruler Thirumalai Nayaka received his audience in bygone days.
This evening, you can explore the bazaar and go to the Meenakshi temple in time for the evening arthi, a ceremony where the Lord Shiva is reunited with his wife Meenakshi for the night.
(Taj Gateway Pasumalai - Executive Room; B)
Day 8 - THEKKADY | PERIYAR WILDLIFE SANCTUARY
A beautiful four- to five-hour drive into the Nilgiri Hills, locally known as the Western Ghats, brings you to the town of Thekkady, gateway to Periyar National Park and Tiger Reserve. At 800 sq. kilometers, the game preserve is the largest, and is considered one of the most picturesque parks, in India. The terrain consists mainly of rolling hills with numerous steep cliffs and grasslands surrounding the winding Lake Periyar. The park boasts wild elephants, tigers, leopards, bison, wild boar, and many varieties of deer and primates. The wildlife viewing is done by boat on Lake Periyar and is best at sunrise – you will visit the park the following morning.
After checking into your hotel, head off to visit the “source of India’s wealth,” the spices of South India that were sought after by traders for hundreds of years.
(Spice Village - Spice Garden Cottage; B)
Day 9 - PERIYAR | TO HOUSEBOAT
Rise with the sun to explore the park by boat. The lush tropical forest along the valley floors supports an extensive array of bird life and is considered one of the best places to view Asian elephants in the wild. Herds of elephants are often seen (within 20 yards) frolicking, feeding, and bathing along the banks of the lake. Unlike their African cousins, female elephants do not have tusks, nor do all males grow tusks. Tusker elephants are fairly rare and are solitary animals. (NOTE: The park does not permit any private boats and so we will be on a boat with other wildlife enthusiasts.)
After a late breakfast back at the hotel, begin the five- to six- hour drive to Cochin. The drive takes you through beautiful hills covered with tea and coffee plantations to Kumarakom Lake, where you will board your deluxe houseboat.
Traditionally called a kettuvallom, or rice barge, the shallow and rounded hull of the boat is made without using a single nail. Each Anjali wood plank is joined to the next with strong coil rope and then coated with caustic black resin obtained from boiled cashew kernels and fish oil. These boats were originally built for transportation in the placid lagoon waters, and this technique of boat making has existed for many centuries.
(Deluxe Houseboat; B, L, D)
Day 10 - BACKWATERS OF KERALA
Spend a full day relaxing aboard this comfortable floating home. As you cruise along the backwater canals of the Arabian Sea, stop and explore some of the many small villages, old temples, and churches discovered along the way.
(Deluxe Houseboat; B, L, D)
Day 11 - TO COCHIN
Continue exploring the canals and remote villages of Kerala. After lunch on the boat, depart for Cochin, a two-hour drive away. Shady lagoons, wooded islands, and canals winding past houses built on stilts have given Cochin the nickname, “Venice of the East.” Cochin has a long and colorful history. Given its preeminent location on the ancient Spice Route between the Middle East and Southeast Asia, it has seen its fair share of foreign visitors, from Arab spice traders to the British Raj. In the typical style of South India, however, it has managed to absorb these influences without losing its own distinct Keralan style. The best way to see Cochin is on foot, as many of its most important sites are clustered around the northern tip of the peninsula.
Your hotel in the heart of Old Kochi is ideally located to explore the harbor by foot.
(Brunton Boatyard - Sea Facing Room; B, L)
Day 12 - EXPLORING COCHIN
Walk down the Harbor Terminus, where the fishing boats come in and the fishermen ply their trade as they have done for centuries. Visit the Church of St. Francis, established in the early 1500s. Christianity has thrived in Cochin for millennia, having been brought to southern India by the disciple St. Thomas. Built in Old Spanish style, St. Francis is one of the oldest Christian churches in India. The great explorer Vasco de Gama was buried here for a number of years before his remains were transferred to Lisbon. Another important church is the basilica of Santa Cruz, located a few blocks away. Strolling through the heart of Fort Kochi, you will find a number of charming shops and restaurants.
In the evening, you will be treated to a traditional Kathakali dance performance and have an opportunity to meet with the performers.