India evokes fantasies of riotous colors, opulent cultures, and surreal landscapes. But South India turns this intensity up a notch, in two states that remain largely untrammelled by tourists. Tamil Nadu and Karnataka are an exuberance of ornate temples, World Heritage sites, and ancient native arts. Their vastness spans golden sandy coastlines, misty hill towns, national safari parks, and even a Universal Peace Town. Pondicherry, aka “India’s French Riviera,” entices Europeans with its exciting café culture, propelled to fame in film The Life of Pi. But nothing beats their manic markets—an overwhelming sensory overload for a true taste of local life.
South India is literally adorned in elaborate Hindu temples. You won’t find a city, town, village, or community without its own exquisite offering, or hundred. You’ll notice their multi-story Gopura (entrances), embellished in abundant fanciful carvings of the Hindu pantheon, rocketing into the sky. Many are UNESCO World Heritage Sites, such as Brihadisvara, India’s tallest temple devoted to Lord Shiva. Within the 1st-century architectural legacy of the Great Chola Kings, the profound sacred bull statue is omnipresent and intimately entwined with belief.
Nagarahole National Park, former hunting ground of the Mysore Maharaja, is blessed with beautiful but elusive tigers. Leopards are plentiful here, as are Asiatic elephants, gaur, and sambar. Boarding open-sided Jeeps with over-zealous photographer-guides is unforgettable, as they pull out gigantic telephoto lenses. The Nagarahole Jeeps are shared with mostly domestic tourists who have to be reminded, often, to keep quiet—adding to the authenticity of an Indian safari.
3. TEA PLANTATIONS
Driving on the top of an incredulous verge, jutting into the sky, as well as scaling the clouds at two, 240 meters proves a furry drive. Atop the ‘Queen associated with Hill Stations’ crowning the Nilgiri Hills, Ooty is one of 14 bio-hotspots on earth. The route from Ooty to Coonoor can be a stepped carpet of verdant their tea plantations blanketing hectares of misty undulating inclines. The annual Tea and Vacation Festival attracts huge crowds. Way up here, the cool crisp air caused it to be the choice summer residence with the British Chennai government.
Tamil Nadu and Karnataka are ingenious with transport—as cars are still unaffordable for most rural-dwellers. The Toy Train traverses UNESCO Heritage Nilgiri Mountain Railway at high altitude. Chugging through 26 viaducts, 16 tunnels, and tall olden bridges, over gurgling streams and deep ravines, in rickety old-fashioned carriages through the cool crisp mountain air is a highlight. Nagarhole National Safari Park enables a thrilling open-sided Jeep safari and Coracle boat ride; the latter an unparalleled adventure. Ending on horseback on a beach in Chennai is magical.
5. TASTE BUDS
South India embodies the phrase “Atithi Deva Bhavo”—”Guest is God.” Nowhere is this more visible than at mealtimes. Typical Tamil Nadu breakfasts consist of Idly rice-flour cakes, Uttapam, and Dosa with spicy Sambar and coconut, chilli, and coriander chutneys. Bordering the Bay of Bengal, the region benefits from the freshest seafood. Don’t miss firm favorite, Crab Claw cooked Chettiar style, just part of a feast platter served at award-winning Southern Spice restaurant. The chef encourages sampling all corners of South India. My only advice is to go in very hungry.