The deep south of India is a different land to the dusty hills and crowded cities of Rajasthan. In many ways it is a better introduction to this deeply spiritual, wildly colourful and richly inventive country. The pace of life is slower, the sales patter relaxed, and the lush green landscape a visual feast.
Big rivers rise in the tropical rainforests of the Western Ghats and tumble down basalt cliffs to water coconut groves and rice paddies before wending their way to the sea. To the west lie the tea gardens, backwaters and beaches of Kerala, a state grown wealthy on remittances from the Gulf and famous for its richly spiced cuisine. To the east is Tamil Nadu where age-old Hindu rituals are central to daily life in the exuberant temple towns. Together they make a winning combination for a touring holiday.
As The Telegraph’s India expert, I have been visiting for more than 30 years. Tamil Nadu is one of my favourite states but to uncover its tangled Hindu and colonial heritage, it’s important to find the right guides. This itinerary lists some of the best, avid history buffs who are also great communicators. Particularly enjoyable are the temple, bazaar and food walks run by Storytrails (), set up by a former Chennai banker dismayed by the quality of government-registered guides.
The beaches of Kerala can disappoint as a holiday finale (littered sand, sales hassle, alcohol bans). If you have more time, fly from Chennai to Port Blair and take the ferry to Havelock. Radhanagar Beach is one of the world’s most beautiful: the sea crystal clear and backed by spectacular trees. Stay in a luxury tent at boutique Barefoot resort (), which has eco-cred as well as sumptuous villas, a superb team of chefs and a 164-foot pool.
Chennai: where British India began
The direct British Airways flight from Heathrow arrives at 5.30am. Request an early check-in at the Taj Coromandel and book a table in its Southern Spice restaurant for a modern take on Tamil classics.
Chennai’s historic sights are scattered and the streets are hot and dusty, so join Mr Kaushik for an afternoon British Blueprints tour () and learn about the feats of gallantry and dastardly deeds of the East India Company, which created the city
Pondicherry: a very French affair
An hour south of Chennai, the rock temples of Mahabalipuram are a monument to the skills of the seventh-century stonemasons whose descendants still tap away in this seaside village. Their finest work is the Pancha Rathas, each monument carved from a single granite outcrop.
Skirting lagoons and dunes, the road continues to Pondicherry, which is doing a fine job in brushing up its French heritage. Stay at handsome Palais de Mahé in the heart of the French quarter, which has a good rooftop seafood restaurant.
Before dinner, join the locals promenading along the seashore and drop into Anokhi on Caserne Street to buy a cool handblock-printed kurta tunic or shirt ().
Start the day with a guided “Once Upon a Time in Pondicherry” walk () and discover how the French won and lost their enclave through jealousy and intrigue in the 18th century. Afterwards, head across the canal into the shopping streets of the livelier Tamil quarter, especially historic Vysial Street.
For a more in-depth look at the town’s 500 historic buildings and their futures, join local architect and heritage adviser Ashok Panda for a late afternoon stroll (; 2,000 rupees/£22).
The Tamil temple towns
Less is definitely more on Tamil Nadu’s temple circuit. Many historic temples have been restored in a sanitised way by India’s Archaeological Survey.
The Nataraja Temple in Chidambaram is a rare exception. Run by the Brahmin community for more than 1,000 years, its halls are filled with dusty pilgrims and chanting priests who conduct the elaborate fire ceremonies and shrine viewings with panache.
The road continues across a wide plain of rice paddies and traditional mud-brick villages to Thanjavur, the most appealing of the World Heritage temple towns.
Stay at Svatma () which has an excellent spa (try the sound treatment), a delicately spiced vegetarian tasting menu, and a nightly performance by a leading classical dancer or musician.
Brihadisvara Temple is a symphony in stone, built by the greatest of the Chola kings, Rajaraja I, in 1010. Contact Nagaraj Alagusundaram (; donation 2,000 rupees) for a private guided tour with a local historian. Afterwards see the superb collection of Chola bronzes in the Palace Museum (closed 1-2pm).
In the late afternoon join the branch secretary of the Indian National Trust, Mr Muthukumar ([email protected]; donation 2,000 rupees), to learn about the town’s intriguing cosmic and caste layout, finishing with a cup of south Indian coffee in the sort of place you’d never find on your own.
Rajakkad: into the hills
Leave early to visit Chettinad, where flamboyant neoclassical mansions testify to the wealth of the Chettiar clans, bankers to the British Empire. The village of Kanadukathan has some of the finest, now shuttered except for weddings; caretakers give entry for a 100-rupee note. Lunch at the Visalam hotel’s poolside café.
It takes three hours to climb from the arid plain into cool forest and the quiet beauty of Rajakkad (). An 18th-century palace built of wood, it’s owned by a British family and run as a guesthouse with exceptional Indian food.
Potter around the estate, where coffee, lemons and pepper are grown, or join the longer jungle walk for a view right across the granite massif to Kodaikanal, an old British hill station. Spend the afternoon in a hammock, serenaded by bird song, with a book from Rajakkad’s extensive library.
The temple town of Madurai
Rajakkad is hard to leave, but Tamil Nadu’s most celebrated temple town beckons. Pilgrims throng the streets on their way to ask favours of the warrior goddess Meenakshi who tamed the great god Shiva. The carving on the massive gateway towers is spectacular.
To gain an understanding of the city’s complex history, join the 4pm city walking tour run by Storytrails (.
Book Rishi, Madurai’s best guide, who explains the sanctity and ceremony of the labyrinthine Meenakshi Temple with engaging simplicity. Aim for an 8am start to avoid the crowds: [email protected]; 2,000 rupees for a morning, which includes the royal palace and flower market.
Tea and spices
It’s a four-hour drive into the Western Ghats, the mountainous border with Kerala. The road climbs through dense hardwood forests shading cardamom plantations before corkscrewing down to sunlit tea gardens. Windermere Estate () is the place to stay: a collection of trim stone bungalows on a coffee farm. Arrive in time for the 4pm estate walk led by a naturalist through old-growth forests with fine views.
Sign up for the exhilarating four-hour Letchmi hills ridge walk with Rosy Rao, who knows her botany: [email protected]; 1,600 rupees.
After lunch at Kurinji Cafe in Munnar town, drop into the Tea Museum (; closed Mondays) which shows an excellent film on British tea planters. Nearby Srishti (srishtinatural.com) is a heartening employment project for the “differently abled” which sells high-quality vegetable-dyed fabrics and handmade paper.
Cochin: a colonial layer cake
It’s a four-hour drive to Fort Kochi (Cochin), scruffy round the edges but filled with history: Portuguese forts, Dutch mansions, British parade grounds and spice bazaars. Stay at the Old Harbour Hotel a stylishly renovated colonial house in a shady garden.
The best Kathakali show – comic dramatisations of epic tales – is at Kerala Kathakali near Santa Cruz Basilica (); arrive by 5pm to watch the troupe apply their elaborate make up.
Join Biju Thomas, a local historian ([email protected]), for a walking tour of Fort Kochi. Afterwards take a rickshaw to Mattancherry for spices and antiques, notably Crafters emporium.
A tour of Kerala’s backwaters on a traditional houseboat is a must. A longer two-night cruise avoids the tour boat jams (there are 500 for hire) as does heading south from Alleppey. Xandari Riverscapes (
Alternatively, explore smaller canals with Kathu Tours, which operates from the far end of Alleppey’s canal road: [email protected]; private boat 3,000 rupees for three hours.
The Marari Beach Hotel () is the best of the resorts, beside a clean, relatively hawker-free stretch of beach, though the sea can be rough. Its specialist seafood restaurant is superb.
When to go
The best time to visit South India is during the winter months. The monsoon rains start in late May in the south, gradually moving north over the following six weeks, though the timing does vary and it certainly doesn’t rain all day every day.
How to book
It is perfectly possibly to organise everything independently, but if you would prefer to employ the services of a tour operator Telegraph Travel recommends .