Like a giant wedge plunging into the ocean, South India is the subcontinent's steamy heartland – a lush contrast to the peaks and plains up north.
A Fabulous Heritage
Wherever you go in the south you'll uncover splendid relics of the many civilisations that have inhabited this land over two millennia. The spectacular rock-cut shrines carved out by Buddhists, Hindus and Jains at Ajanta and Ellora; the palaces, tombs, forts and mosques of Muslim dynasties on the Deccan; Tamil Nadu's inspired Pallava sculptures and towering Chola temples; the magical ruins of the Vijayanagar capital at Hampi…and so much more that you'd need a multitude of incarnations to see it all. It's a diverse cultural treasure trove with few parallels, in the land that also gave birth to yoga.
Thousands of kilometres of cascading coastline frame fertile plains, glinting backwaters and rolling hills in South India – a constantly changing landscape kept glisteningly green by the double-barrelled monsoon. The palm-strung strands and inland waterways of the west give way to spice gardens, emerald tea plantations, tropical forests and cool hill-station retreats in the Western Ghats. The drier Deccan 'plateau' is far from flat, crisscrossed by numerous craggy ranges and often spattered with dramatic, fort-topped outcrops. Across the region, protected wild forests shelter a world of wildlife, from elephants and tigers to monkeys, deer and sloth bears.
South India's glorious culinary variety and melange of dining options are an adventure in their own right. Some of India's most famous and traditional staples hail from here: large papery dosas (savoury crêpes) and fluffy idlis (fermented rice cakes) are the backbone of South Indian cooking. Mouth-watering Mumbai is India’s top destination for gastronomic indulgence, be it hole-in-the-wall street food or haute-cuisine wizardry. Goa's spicy, Portuguese-influenced cuisine is fiery inventive fusion at its finest; Kerala's coconut-infused seafood is the stuff of legend; and, everywhere you travel, the humble South Indian kaapi (filter coffee) keeps things ticking over.
The south's vibrant cities are the pulse of a country that is fast-forwarding through the 21st century while also at times remaining staunchly traditional. From in-yer-face Mumbai and increasingly sophisticated Chennai to historic Hyderabad, IT capital Bengaluru (Bangalore) and charming, colonial-era Kochi (Cochin) and Puducherry (Pondicherry), southern cities are great for browsing teeming markets, soaking up local history and indulging in India's more fashionable side – from arty coffee houses and chic boutiques to an explosion of hipsterised microbreweries and cocktail bars.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout South India.
Come here twice: in the morning, when the honey-hued granite begins to assert its dominance over the white dawn sunshine, and in the evening, when the rocks capture a hot palette of reds, oranges, yellows and pinks on the crowning glory of Chola temple architecture. The World Heritage–listed Brihadishwara Temple was built between 1003 and 1010 by Raja Raja I (‘king of kings’). The outer fortifications were put up by Thanjavur's later Nayak and British regimes. You enter through a Maratha-era gate, followed by two original gopurams with elaborate stucco sculptures. You might find the temple elephant under one of the gopurams. Several shrines are dotted around the extensive grassy areas of the walled temple compound, including one of India’s largest statues of Nandi (Shiva’s sacred bull), facing the main temple building. Cut from a single rock and framed by slim pillars, this 16th-century Nayak creation is 6m long. Don't miss the sublime sculptures at the shrine dedicated to Lakshmi, to the right of Nandi when entering the complex. A long, columned assembly hall leads to the central shrine with its 4m-high Shiva lingam, beneath the superb 61m-high vimana (tower). The assembly hall's southern steps are flanked by two huge dwarpals (temple guardians). Many graceful deity images stand in niches around the vimana's lower outer levels, including Shiva emerging from the lingam (beside the southern steps); Shiva as the beggar Bhikshatana (first image, south side); Shiva as Nataraja, the cosmic dancer (west end of south wall); Harihara (half Shiva, half Vishnu) on the west wall; and Ardhanarishvara (Shiva as half-man, half-woman), leaning on Nandi, on the north side. Between the deity images are panels showing classical dance poses. On the vimana ' s upper east side is a later Maratha-period Shiva within three arches. The compound also contains an interpretation centre along the south wall and, in the colonnade along the west and north walls, hundreds more linga. Both west and north walls are lined with exquisite lime-plaster Chola frescoes, for years buried under later Nayak-era murals. North of the temple compound, but still within the outer fortifications, are the 18th-century neoclassical Schwartz's Church and a park containing the Sivaganga tank. Official guides can be hired at the tourist information booth just outside the temple for 90-minute tours (₹500).
One of India’s greatest monuments, this astonishing temple, carved from solid rock, was built by King Krishna I in AD 760 to represent Mt Kailasa (Kailash), Shiva’s Himalayan abode. To say that the assignment was daring would be an understatement. Three huge trenches were bored into the sheer cliff face, a process that entailed removing 200,000 tonnes of rock by hammer and chisel, before the temple could begin to take shape and its remarkable sculptural decoration could be added. Covering twice the area of the Parthenon in Athens and being half as high again, Kailasa is an engineering marvel that was executed straight from the head with zero margin for error. Modern draughtspeople might have a lesson or two to learn here. The temple houses several intricately carved panels, depicting scenes from the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and the adventures of Krishna. Also worth admiring are the immense monolithic pillars that stand in the courtyard, flanking the entrance on both sides, and the southeastern gallery that has 10 giant and fabulous panels depicting the different avatars (incarnations of a deity) of Lord Vishnu. After you’re done with the main enclosure, bypass the hordes of snack-munching day trippers to explore the temple’s many dank, bat urine–soaked corners with their numerous forgotten carvings. Afterwards, hike the sturdier path up to the south of the complex (past the scaffolding) that takes you to the top perimeter of the ‘cave’, from where you can get a bird’s-eye view of the entire temple complex.
Ajanta’s caves line a steep face of a horseshoe-shaped gorge bordering the Waghore River. Five of the caves are chaityas (assembly or prayer halls) while others are viharas (monasteries with attached residential cells). Caves 8, 9, 10, 12, 13 and part of 15 are early Buddhist caves, while the others date from around the 5th century AD (Mahayana period). In the austere early Buddhist school, the Buddha was never represented directly but always alluded to by a symbol such as the footprint or wheel of law. During busy periods, viewers are allotted 15 minutes within the caves, which have to be entered without shoes (flip-flops will make your life a lot easier). Caves 3, 8, 22, 28, 29 and 30 remain either closed or inaccessible. Keep in mind, there is a fairly steep uphill walk from the ticket counter to the beginning of the caves – porters (₹400) and chair dolis (₹1500; porters who carry people on chairs) are available.
Mumbai’s most famous landmark, this stunning hotel is a fairy-tale blend of Islamic and Renaissance styles, and India’s second-most-photographed monument. It was built in 1903 by the Parsi industrialist JN Tata, supposedly after he was refused entry to nearby European hotels on account of being ‘a native’. Dozens were killed inside the hotel when it was targeted during the 2008 terrorist attacks, and images of its burning facade were beamed worldwide. The fully restored hotel reopened on Independence Day 2010. Much more than an iconic building, the Taj’s history is intrinsically linked with the nation: it was the first hotel in India to employ women, the first to have electricity (and fans), and it also housed freedom fighters (for no charge) during the struggle for independence. Today the Taj fronts the harbour and Gateway of India, but it was originally designed to face the city (the entrance has been changed).
Imposing, exuberant and overflowing with people, this monumental train station is the city’s most extravagant Gothic building and an aphorism of colonial-era India. It’s a meringue of Victorian, Hindu and Islamic styles whipped into an imposing Dalí-esque structure of buttresses, domes, turrets, spires and stained glass. It's also known as CSMT. Some of the architectural detail is incredible, with dog-faced gargoyles adorning the magnificent central tower and peacock-filled windows above the central courtyard. Designed by Frederick Stevens, it was completed in 1887, 34 years after the first train in India left this site. Despite being renamed again in 2017, after being changed to Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST) in 1998, it’s still better known locally as VT.
The second-most-visited sight in India (after the Taj Mahal), this palace is among the very grandest of India’s royal buildings and was the seat of the Wodeyar maharajas. The original palace was gutted by fire in 1897; today's structure was completed in 1912. The lavish Indo-Saracenic interior – a kaleidoscope of stained glass, mirrors and gaudy colours – is undoubtedly over the top. It's further embellished by carved wooden doors, mosaic floors and a series of paintings depicting life here during the Raj. English architect Henry Irwin designed the palace and construction cost ₹4.5 million. On the way in you'll pass a fine collection of sculptures and artefacts. Don’t forget to check out the armoury, with an intriguing collection of 700-plus weapons. From 7pm to 8pm every Sunday and national holiday, the palace is illuminated by nearly 100,000 light bulbs that accentuate its majestic profile against the night. Entrance to the grounds is at the South Gate ticket office. While you're allowed to snap the palace’s exterior, photography within is strictly prohibited. Note that many visitors have been unable to download the palace-information app (promoted at the ticket office).
One of the best places to see tigers in India, the seldom-visited Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve, 150km south of Nagpur, is now much more accessible thanks to the upgrading of state highways. Despite not drawing the crowds of many other bigger name forest reserves in India, it is one of the best spots to get up close and personal with tigers and other wildlife. Mammals in the 1700-sq-km include gaurs, chitals, nilgais, sloth bears and leopards, as well as very healthy tiger numbers (estimated at around 88 adults and 45 cubs in the park plus 35 additional tigers in the surrounding areas); the park is also a fantastic spot for birders. The park also remains open throughout the year, unlike many in India. The prices here, however, can really add up: three-hour safaris in Gypsy 4WDs cost ₹2700 per vehicle plus ₹350 for a mandatory guide and ₹200 for an SLR camera (or ₹250 for any lens greater than 250mm) in addition to park admission fees, so you are looking at between ₹7050 to ₹11,050 per safari before even thinking about snapping a photo.
Hampi's most exquisite structure, the 16th-century Vittala Temple stands amid boulders 2.5km from Hampi Bazaar. Work possibly started on the temple during the reign of Krishnadevaraya (r 1509–29). The structure was never finished or consecrated, yet its incredible sculptural work remains the pinnacle of Vijayanagar art. The courtyard's ornate stone chariot (illustrated on the ₹50 note) is the temple’s showpiece and represents Vishnu’s vehicle with an image of Garuda within. Its wheels were once capable of turning. The outer ‘musical’ pillars, supposedly designed to replicate 81 different Indian instruments, reverberate when tapped. To protect them, authorities have placed them out of bounds. As well as the main temple, whose sanctum was illuminated using a design of reflective waters, you’ll find the marriage hall and the prayer hall, to the left and right, respectively, as you enter.
The saga of the hammer and chisel comes full circle at the Unesco World Heritage-listed Ellora cave temples, located 30km from Aurangabad. The pinnacle of ancient Indian rock-cut architecture, these caves were chipped out laboriously over five centuries by generations of Buddhist, Hindu and Jain monks. Monasteries, chapels, temples – the caves served every purpose, and the style quotient was duly met by embellishing them with a profusion of remarkably detailed sculptures. Unlike the caves at Ajanta, which are carved into a sheer rock face, the Ellora caves line a 2km-long escarpment, the gentle slope of which allowed architects to build elaborate courtyards in front of the shrines as well.