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South India: The Rough Guide (Rough Guide Travel Guides) Paperback – 25 Nov 1999
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NO SELF-RESPECTING INDEPENDENT TRAVELLER CAN BE WITHOUT A COPY OF THE ROUGH GUIDEThe Guardian, London
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Where to go
South India's boundaries vary according to who you're talking to: while some regard the Krishna River, the upper limit of India's last Hindu empire, as the real North-South divide, others place the subcontinent's main cultural fault line at the Godavari River, or further north still, at the Vindhya Hills, the barrier of arid table-topped mountains bounding the Ganges Basin. In this guide we've started with Mumbai (Bombay), a hot, congested and seedy city that is the arrival point for most international flights. Mumbai gets a pretty bad press, and most people pass straight through. But those who stay find themselves witness to the reality of modern-day India, from the deprivations of the city's slum-dwellings to the glitz and glamour of Bollywood movies.
The other principal gateway is Chennai (Madras), capital of Tamil Nadu, in the deep south, which is a slightly less stressful point of entry. Although it's another major metropolis bursting at the seams, hidden under its congested surface are artful gems such as regular public performances of music and dance. With regular flights and ship departures to Port Blair, Chennai is also the principal springboard for the Andaman Islands, a remote archipelago ringed by coral reefs and crystal-clear seas, 1000km east of the mainland in the Bay of Bengal.
The majority of visitors' first stop after Chennai is Mamallapuram, an ancient port littered with weather-worn sculpture sites, including the famous Shore temple. To get right off the beaten track you only have to head inland to Kanchipuram, whose innumerable Hindu shrines span the golden age of the illustrious Chola kingdom, or to Tiruvannamalai, where one of the region's most massive temple complexes rises dramatically from the base of a sacred mountain, site of countless ashrams and meditation caves. Back on the coast, the former French colony of Pondicherry retains a distinctly Gallic feel, particularly in its restaurants, where you can order coq au vin and bottles of burgundy before a stroll along the promenade. The Kaveri (Cauvery) Delta, further south, harbours astonishing crops of monuments, some of the most impressive of which are around Thanjavur (Tanjore), the Cholas' former capital, dominated by the awesome Brihadishwara temple. You could profitably spend days exploring the town's watery hinterland, hunting out bronze-casting villages, crumbling ruins and other forgotten sacred sites among the web of rivers and irrigation canals. Most travellers press on south to Madurai, the region's most atmospherically charged city, where the mighty Meenakshi-Sundareshwar temple presides over a quintessentially Tamil swirl of life.
The two other most compelling destinations in Tamil Nadu are the island of Rameshwaram, whose main temple features a vast enclosure of pillared corridors, and Kannyakumari, the auspicious southernmost tip of India, where the Bay of Bengal, Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea flow together. The dark shadows visible on the horizon from here mark the start of the Western Ghats, which stretch for more than 1000km in a virtually unbroken chain all the way to Mumbai, forming a sheer barrier between Tamil Nadu and neighbouring Kerala. Covered in immense forests and windswept grasslands, the mountains rise to the highest peaks in peninsular India, with sides sculpted by tea terraces, coffee plantations and cardamom groves. The hill stations of Udhagamandalam (or Ooty, as it's still better known) and Kodaikanal, established by India's former colonial rulers as retreats from the searing summer heat of the plains, attract hordes of Indian visitors in the run-up to the rains, but see plenty of foreign tourist traffic during the winter, too.
Neighbouring Kerala's appeal lies less in its religious monuments, many of which remain off-limits to non-Hindus, than its infectiously easy-going, tropical ambience. Covering a long thin coastal strip backed by a steep wall of hills, this is the wettest and most densely populated state in the south. It is also the most distinctive, with a culture that sets it squarely apart. Its surreal form of ritualized theatre (Kathakali), faintly Southeast Asian architecture and ubiquitous communist graffiti (Kerala was the first place in the world to gain a democratically elected communist government), are perhaps the most visual expressions of this difference. But spend a couple of days exploring the spicy backstreets of old Kochi (Cochin), the jungles of the Cardamom Hills around the Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary or the hidden aquatic world of the coastal backwaters, and you'll see why many travellers end up staying here a lot longer than they originally intended. If you're not pushed for time and find yourself crossing northern Kerala during the winter, set aside a few days to search for Teyyam, a spectacular masked dance form unique to the villages around Kannur.
A short ride across the mountains takes you to Mysore, in Karnataka, whose opulent maharaja's palace, colourful markets and comfortable California-like climate have made it among South India's most popular tourist destinations. Bangalore, the hectic modern capital, is not one of the highlights of the state, which are for the main part scattered over a vast area of rolling, granite-boulder-strewn uplands. Most, such as the richly carved Hoysala temples of Belur and Halebid, or the extraordinary Jain colossus at Sravanabelgola, are religious monuments. Amongst other extraordinary sights are the mausolea, mosques and Persian-style palaces of Bijapur, Karnataka, often dubbed the "Agra of the South". Almost unsurpassable, however, is the awesome scale and faded splendour of the Vijayangar ruins at Hampi, on the Tungabhadra River. Until it was ransacked by a confederacy of Muslim Sultanates in 1565, this was the magnificent capital of South India's last Hindu empire, encompassing most of the peninsula. Only one day's journey to the west, the palm-fringed, white-sand beaches of Goa offer a change of scenery from the rocky terrain of the Deccan. Succumbing to the hedonistic pleasures of warm sea water, constant sunshine and cheap drinks, many travellers find it hard to tear themselves away from the coast. Further east, a string of smaller former dynastic capitals punctuate the journey across the heart of the Deccan plateau to Hyderabad, capital of Andhra Pradesh, whose principal landmarks are the Charminar and Golconda fort. Andhra's other attractions, by contrast, lie much further off the beaten track. Comparatively few Western visitors ever reach them, but Puttaparthy, the ashram of India's most famous living saint, Sai Baba, and Tirupati, whose temple receives more pilgrims than anywhere else on earth, are essential stops for South Indians.