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Thursday, 14 March 2013 10:25

Surprising Southern India

Written by  Buzzy Gordon

The vast subcontinent of India is more than 2,000 miles long, from the Himalayan highlands in the north of the country to its southernmost cape. Fully 20% of this vertical distance is accounted for by the state of Tamil Nadu -- which, together with the neighboring state of Kerala, make up the fascinating world of
Southern India.

It is in Southern India that the history of the West’s encounter with the second largest country in the world began. In 1498, famed Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama landed on the Malabar Coast of the Asian subcontinent, thus opening the first maritime trade route between Europe and India. As ships laden with black pepper, cinnamon, cardamom and other exotic spices set sail from the ports of southwest India, global commerce and geopolitics were transformed forever; even now, modern-day visitors to the harborside alleyways of Fort Kochi can still experience much the same sights and smells ancient traders did. 

Kochi -- aka Cochin -- is also the home to St. Francis Church, the oldest European church in India. Built in 1503, it was also Vasco da Gama’s burial place, before his remains were repatriated to Portugal. Tradition has it that Christianity actually arrived here as early as 52 C.E., when St. Thomas, one of the 12 Apostles, reached these shores. Interestingly, however, the most famous house of worship in Kochi for international visitors is a synagogue: the Paradesi Synagogue, which dates back to 1568, is considered to be the oldest active synagogue in continuous use in the world.

Kochi, nicknamed the “Pearl of the Arabian Sea,” is one of Southern India’s primary gateway cities and a hub of Keralan culture. Popular folklore experiences include performances of Kathakali, a dance tradition characterized by colorful, oversized masks and headdresses, and Kalaripayattu, a particularly acrobatic form of martial arts.  

Kerala’s frequent lavish festivals are also spectacles to behold. Processions featuring elaborately costumed lumbering pachyderms are particularly extravagant in this state, which has the largest domesticated elephant population in the country. Vembanad Lake’s annual Nehru Trophy snake boat race is another exciting event that draws enthusiastic crowds. 

Vembanad Lake lies at the center of Kerala’s famous backwaters, India’s longest inland navigable water system, plied by unique, stately houseboats  headquartered in Alleppey, dubbed the “Venice of the East” because of its many canals. Leisurely houseboat cruises along coconut palm tree-fringed  riverbanks are a leading attraction drawing honeymoon couples seeking romance, as well as nature lovers wishing to glide by the Kumarakom Bird Sanctuary, part of one of the most important wetlands in the world. A highlight of these cruises are the meals prepared on board by a private chef, using the freshest local ingredients and seafood. 



Another recommended way to relax is to spend some health-restoring time in one of Kerala’s renowned resorts dedicated to the ancient Indian medical science of Ayurveda. This centuries-old tradition, which is gaining new-found respect worldwide as an effective holistic system of treatments for many Western lifestyle-induced illnesses, uses diet, massage with medicated oils and natural herbal remedies in tranquil settings to promote stress reduction, healing and rejuvenation.

While most Ayurvedic resorts are situated alongside Kerala’s beautiful white sand beaches, other appealing resorts are located in the Western Ghats mountain range, in towns referred to since the days of the British Raj as hill stations. These retreats, nestled among scenic tea plantations in the cool mountain air, represent refreshing escapes from the baking heat of south Indian summers. Two of the most popular hill stations are Munnar, in Kerala, where rare flowers bloom only once every 12 years, and Ootacamund, just over the state line in Tamil Nadu. “Ooty,” as the latter is affectionately called, lies at the end of a very picturesque narrow-gauge railway line. Collectively, the 39 national parks, wildlife sanctuaries and nature reserves of the Western Ghats have been accorded UNESCO World Heritage site status.



Tamil Nadu is home to two more World Heritage sites as well. The Great Living Chola Temples comprise three impressive temples in the region of Thanjavur (Tanjore), formerly a major imperial city that is also home to a sprawling royal palace that now houses a partially restored throne room,
an art museum and a library containing ancient manuscripts and fascinating old maps. The awe-inspiring Brihadisvara temple, built in the year 1010 C. E., was the first of the three temples to earn UNESCO recognition. Its highlight is an ornately carved granite sanctum tower soaring 216 feet high that is bathed in a beautiful reddish hue at sunset. 

The state’s other World Heritage site is Mahabalipuram, a complex of historic monuments and intricately hewn sandstone structures dating back 1,200 to 1,400 years. Mahabalipuram is just north of Pondicherry, a semi-autonomous former French colonial outpost with an enlightening historical museum, a pedestrian beach promenade, charming boutique hotels, and diverse culinary options. A fun curiosity is feeding coins into the trunk of an elephant at the Ganesh Temple, and receiving a head pat in return.

 Straight down the coast from Pondicherry is Kanyakumari, at the very tip of the subcontinent, where three mighty bodies of water meet - the Bay of Bengal, the Indian Ocean, and the Arabian Sea. This confluence enhances the luminous effects of sunrise and sunset, which are especially magical on full-moon evenings, when it is possible to view moonrise and sunset at the same time.

A few hours north of Kanyakumari is Madurai, home of the spectacular Meenakshi Amman Temple, which draws upwards of 15,000 visitors a day. The temple’s art museum and more than 30,000 sculptures earned the site a top nomination slot in the competition to name the “New Seven Wonders of the World.” Madurai, along with Thanjavur and Pondicherry, are all excellent places to shop for museum-quality antiques, jewelry and folk art.

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