Thinking about traveling to South India? This mini travel guide to South India is just what you need! This guide comes via my fantastic friend Megi who grew up in Bangalore.
South India is that inverted triangle at the bottom of the Indian subcontinent consisting of Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Pondicherry and the Lakshadweep islands. It is a diverse area that has the highest socioeconomic standards in India and is inhabited by over 200 million people. It has been ruled by endless dynasties and more recently, been influenced by the British and French rule.
There are 4 main languages here: Kannada, Tamil, Malayalam and Telugu but being an area with high literacy rates, it is easy for one to travel with English. This beautiful tropical area fed by the rivers, Narmada, Godavari and Krishna makes up the Deccan Plateau, and is completed with the exquisite coral atolls, Lakshadweep, a word that literally means a hundred thousand islands.
Must Go in South India
Hampi is a sleepy village in northern Karnataka that rose in eminence as the capital of the Vijayanagar Empire. The first historical settlements there date back from 1CE but Hampi as we see it now comprises of 25 sq. km of wonderful ruins. It is a city built of stone that was so large in its day that 5 Muslim kingdoms had to unite to destroy this mighty Hindu kingdom.
You will see some of the finest examples of rock cut temple architecture in India and get a glimpse of the opulent lifestyle the royalty enjoyed. One of the best ways to make your way around the ruins is on a rented bicycle. Make sure you have lunch at the banyan tree restaurant behind the main Virupaksha temple.
Madurai is one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world with its history going back to 3rd century BC. It was the seat of many a king and has some of the finest examples of Dravidian temple architecture. Centered around the Meenakshi temple, it is a must see in a trip to South India.
Must Do in South India
Float down the backwaters of Kerala in a houseboat
Houseboats in Kerala were country boats that were used to transport goods between isolated villages in the backwaters of Kerala. Made of local materials, they are now one of Kerala’s most famous attractions.
Imagine a beautiful boat with a chef, driver and assistant floating down a tropical river. You have your own room, bathroom and 3 meals a day freshly prepared for you. Along with traditional massages practiced over hundreds of years, this has got to be one of the things you must do in South India.
Go stay in a jungle lodge on the Western Ghats
The Western Ghats traversing several states of South India are considered one of the biodiversity hot spots in the world. For nature lovers, this area is a dream come true!
In Karnataka, these areas are easily accessible by staying at one of the eco-tourism lodges called jungle lodges. Kabini River Lodge is my favorite offering comfortable rooms with boat and jeep safaris to see some of India’s finest animals including the tiger.
Must Eat in South India
South Indian Dosa
A dosa is a fermented rice crepe served with delicious accompaniments or modified into one its hundreds of variations. It is a south Indian staple with many residents in this region having one of these delicious crepes for breakfast everyday. You must try the most famous of them all, the masala dosa in the local restaurants!
You must eat a meal on a banana leaf while in South India. Usually served at weddings in the city, it entails eating food served on a banana leaf and consisting of endless courses. Yummy!
Filter coffee is a sweet milky coffee originating from this region, made from roasted coffee beans and chicory. Traditionally served in a stainless steel tumbler and cup, I have seen many a visitor leave a complete addict!
Cultural Tips for Traveling in South India
South India is fairly liberal in the general context but it a region steeped in ancient traditions. South Indians are very welcoming of guests and treat them as gods as told in an ancient Sanskrit text. However, it doesn’t hurt to remember to always take your shoes off when you walk into someone’s house, or to dress modestly, shake hands rather than hug and kiss.
Remember to always eat with your right hands, your left one is meant to be used for other things! And if you are talking to someone older than you, you get to cheat and not worry about their names by simply calling them ‘aunty’ or ‘uncle’. That will be appreciated much more than you calling them by their names.
On a safety note, remember to never leave your bags unattended. Dress modestly especially if you are female, you don’t want to attract unwanted attention! Always remember to drink bottled water. Tap water is not meant to be drinkable in India. Also, avoid fresh food such as salads on the street but don’t let other’s stories from enjoying the wonderful cooked street food you find everywhere!
Traveling on the Cheap in South India
By far the cheapest and most efficient, and my favorite way to travel in India is by trains. It has the largest network of trains anywhere in the world! There are some really useful resources for this. For one, the booking website is greatly improved from yester year’s and works well.
This other website has great tips on how to search the schedules and timetable books available.
It is the way to see through the heart of India, not just from the views outside your window, but also by sampling the local food that jumps on and off the train and drinking the ever-present chai from the chaiwallas!