With its lush tropical forests, verdant tea plantations, and pristine beaches fringed by the azure waters of the Arabian Sea, Southern India is a haven for nature enthusiasts and wanderers seeking respite from the hustle and bustle of India’s larger cities. And on our Tropical South adventure, you get to travel from the old spice town of Cochin to the serene coastal town of Kovalam visiting colourful Indian temples, ancient fishing villages and the tranquil Kerala backwaters en route. Intrigued? Read on to find out how our South Asia Product Manager, Sarah Puttnam, got on during her incredible adventure across India’s tropical south.
Sarah explained, “This trip is one of our longest-standing Indian itineraries, and that doesn’t come as much of a surprise because it’s a great trip that covers all the highlights Southern India has to offer!” She continued, “If you’ve visited Northern India and think that’s all you need to see of this country, think again. The South has a whole other side to it, showcasing just how vast and diverse India really is. For those wanting to get a taste of India, but don’t want to travel to the seemingly chaotic and bustling cities seen in travel shows then the South is for you!”
“On my trip, there were 16 of us travelling together, with a mix of five nationalities, couples and singles and ages ranging from 40 – 72 (all young at heart). An eclectic bunch at first sight, but we soon banded together and felt like old friends by the end of the trip!”
Sarah joked, “There are so many highlights, I could talk in endless detail about each day. It was incredible the number of sites we packed in over the space of two weeks, and what was great about it, was that every day felt different from the next.” The first stop was the charming port city of Cochin, known for the imposing Mattancherry Palace and the centuries-old Paradesi Synagogue that exemplifies the diverse cultural influences which have shaped Cochin’s identity. “The temperature was hot and humid but the coastal breeze on the harbour cruise was refreshing, as the group spotted birds and dolphins on the shore while strolling past Chinese fishing nets and fresh catch stalls. Our local Leader, Biju, then took us on a great introduction to Kerala on a tour through the old heritage streets of Fort Kochi, where he was only too keen to share amusing facts and anecdotes.”
Next, the group moved inland and towards the lush tea hills of Munnar. Nestled in the breathtaking landscapes of the Western Ghats in Kerala, these sprawling estates produce some of India’s finest and most sought-after tea varieties. “It was stunning. Uninterrupted tea and spice plantations lined the roads as we climbed higher and higher in this tea lovers’ paradise.” She continued, “On our morning trek into the tea plantations, we watched pluckers harvesting the leaves while learning more about the intricate process of tea cultivation, plucking, and processing from our local guide. It was a special moment for the group.”
After this, the trip took them over the border from Kerala and into Tamil Nadu, a state that’s renowned for its rich cultural heritage, ancient Dravidian temples, and delectable cuisine, where they were lucky to witness a religious ceremony in one of the villages they were passing through.
“We came across a lively procession of men playing drums and setting off essentially, improvised explosives that scattered colourful paper across the street. They were being followed by women wearing exquisitely vibrant sari’s carrying large platters of food. Our Leader, Biju stopped the bus and explained this was most likely a ceremony celebrating a life event. It was totally unplanned, but we jumped at the opportunity to get off the bus and join in the celebrations! The locals seemed delighted that we’d stopped, keen for us to take photos of them as they walked along.” Once they got back on the bus, Biju explained that this was a coming-of-age celebration for a five-year-old girl getting her ears pierced. “We could hardly believe it. Apparently, it was the maternal grandparents who orchestrated the procession taking gifts and offerings to the child’s home for a feast after she had been to the local Hindu temple that morning to have her ears pierced. It was quite an unusual celebration but a unique one-off opportunity to witness for sure!”
When asked what one of her top highlights of the Tropical South trip was, Sarah said, “It was the optional visit to the historic Meenakshi temple for their daily closing ceremony known as the Meenakshi Sundareswarar Thirukalyanam”, on their first night in Madurai. Taken by tuk tuks through the city’s busy side streets the group reached the Meenakshi Temple North entrance, where they waited for the ceremony to begin. This daily ritual symbolizes the celestial marriage of Goddess Meenakshi, an avatar of Parvati, and Lord Sundareswarar, an incarnation of Lord Shiva. Traditionally starting around dusk or shortly after sunset, Sarah mentioned that their local guide, Rishi, told the group that “the ceremony only commences once all the Hindu worshippers are inside and have passed through the inner chamber. Even though we sat for a while, it was worth the wait. As soon as Rishi got the nod that the ceremony would be starting, we were whisked to the outer area of Shiva’s chamber while the Priests and musicians readied to carry Shiva (a statue inside a huge carriage) around the temple, stopping at the shrines of his two sons first before his final stop.”
“Outside of Parvati’s chamber, Shiva then had his tiny gold feet bathed by Priests and waited for the signal that Parvati was happy for him to enter. Apparently, on occasion, she can take her time to make that decision but mercifully she was quick to say yes, that evening.” With the temple’s halls and corridors adorned with colourful flowers, intricate decorations, and vibrant lights, onlookers gather to see the priests performing various sacred rituals and prayers, accompanied by the chanting of hymns and the resonating sounds of traditional musical instruments, making it a moving experience for many. Sarah said, “Even though the ceremony was over in less than 15 minutes, the resounding sentiment from the group was that the experience was unique, captivating and well worth the later evening.”
Another key highlight for Sarah was the time she spent navigating the Kerala backwaters. “No trip to the South would be complete without exploring Kerala’s waterways on a traditional houseboat. The first stop we made was in Kumarakom where we boarded Shikara boats and spent a few hours pootling through the river and out onto the vast lake. This was truly a birdwatcher’s heaven and Tony, our group twitcher, was a fountain of knowledge, teaching me to spot many birds I’d never heard of before (the Pariah Kestrel was my particular favourite). The main event though was the experience spent cruising the backwaters on a houseboat. Once a traditional method for transporting rice, spices and other commodities through the region, these boats were made from bamboo and Anjili wood, and have now been converted into cruise boats with cabins for an overnight adventure on the canal network.”
When it came to summing up her experience in South India, Sarah said, “The real jewel of the trip was our Leader, Biju Kumar. He surpassed all our expectations and had the most infectious smile which could lift your mood in a second! While we were on the road or between places, he’d take the time to share interesting facts and historical moments that took place in the region. He would also personalise the stories with his insights into local customs, and share how his family celebrated life events. This would have been a good trip ticking all the key boxes but with expert local leaders like Biju, this trip became a once-in-a-lifetime experience where I learnt so much and felt really immersed in the local culture.”
So, if you’d like to join Sarah and explore the fascinating temples, backwaters and tea plantations that South India has to offer, take a look at our Tropical South adventure here.