13 days, 12 nights
Difficulty Level: 1
Price (US$): From $2,975.00
Months Available: January
South India is one of the most alluring and exotic destinations on Earth. It’s a dazzling mix of incense and romance, temples and tea, curry and coconut. Our South India Festival & Culture Tour will introduce you to the best of everything here; highlighting the uniqueness of the South with a visit to Pongal, a traditional regional harvest celebration and festival, and a special focus on the rich culture and culinary traditions in Tamil Nadu and Kerala. Arrive in the eastern city of Chennai, making your way south to Mahabalipuram, home of world renowned stone carvers and ancient stone temples overlooking the Bay of Bengal. Witness the Pongal Festival, celebrating the rain god Lord Indra and the sun god Kolam with elaborate artworks and painted cattle, traditional dancing and singing, bonfires and feasting. Hop a short flight to Tiruchirappalli (or Trichy), one of Tamil Nadu’s largest cities and visit the impressive Rock Fort that presides dramatically over the town. Continue on to Thanjavur, a city which rose to glory during the late Chola period, well known throughout the world as home to Brahadeeswara temple, the magnificent palace, Rajah Serfoji’s Saraswathi Mahal Library, it’s art gallery and as a treasure of exquisite art and handicrafts for centuries. Drive to Chettinad and visit the foremost temple in the world devoted to Vishnu, Srirangam and learn to cook a traditional Chettinad meal served on a fresh banana leaf.
Move your way through Tamil Nadu, to Madurai where you will visit the Meenkshi Amman Temple, which has just undergone a recent, extensive renovation taking nearly a decade. Witness the evening prayers here and feel the energy of this powerful site visited by thousands of Hindu pilgrims from all around India every day. Head west over the ghats, toward Kerala. Stop in Thekkady where you will take a boat ride on a peaceful lake and taste your way through a spice plantation, peeling cinnamon bark and sampling peppercorns off the vine. Take a cooking class with a Keralan chef at your hotel and discover the uniqueness of the regional cuisine. Spend a peaceful night aboard a kettuvallum, a traditional houseboat, where you will relax and discover some of the best seafood in South India! A local family will welcome you into their home and give you a traditional cooking demonstration and show you their culture and customs. Explore the historically rich town of Cochin, watching local fisherman pull up their nets and cruise through the centuries old spice markets where Marco Polo once roamed! On your final night enjoy a special farewell dinner followed by a performance of Kathakali, a spiritual dance. On this trip you will have the opportunity to learn to cook and eat the very best of South Indian cuisine as well as visit some of the most culturally interesting temples and cities in this 13 day/12 night itinerary.
-Experience the traditions of Pongal, a local harvest festival in Tamil Nadu
-Taste your way through a spice plantation in Thekkady
-Witness India’s best stone sculptors in action in Mahabalipuram
-Visit the largest Vishnu temple in the world in Trichy
-Learn insiders tricks for preparing Indian cuisine from local chefs
“The Festival and Culture Tour occurs at precisely the right time of year, during the Pongal festival, when the weather is moderate. For my wife and me, it was the perfect blend of immersion and insulation, with great local guides and charming Indian hotels. The temples in Tamil Nadu were amazing, followed by cultural experiences in Kerala: a houseboat tour through old canals and a stay in a traditional home. With our own car and driver, we had access to many places we never would have seen without the keen insight of our guides, which also enabled us to meet local people. Though the schedule is full, there was enough time built in for relaxation and contemplation. All in all, it was a perfect trip, made possible only with the knowledge and preparation of Grand Asian Journeys.”
-Tom P., Indianola, WA
Stay: Ideal River View (B, D)Day 4 - Chettinad Known for their cultural heritage and culinary delicacies, the Chettiars are widely known as the historical business tycoons of the South. What remains in Chettinad today are their architectural legacies and many of their descendents. The local village Karaikudi is famous not only for its traditional houses, but for its unique, brightly colored handmade tiles that you will see all over India. Lunch will be at the Bangala, a traditional Chettinad style restaurant overlooking a spectacular garden. Chettinad food is famous for using a variety of different spices and masalas in preparing vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes, and for the beautiful banana leaf presentation. After your meal, spend some time wandering through the Shandi market seeing the unique goods that are available in this region. In the evening, you’ll learn the art of authentic South India cuisine at a cooking class and then dine on the delicacies that you’ve helped to prepare. Stay: The Bangala (B, D) Day 5 - Pongal Festival Today you will travel approximately one hour from Chettinad to Nattarasankottai to experience Pongal, a traditional harvest festival unique to Tamil Nadu. This is a Hindu celebration of the harvest’s end marking the six month period Uttarayanda, the northward movement of the sun, when all important events are scheduled. This four day festival celebrates the rain god Lord Indra and the sun god Kolam with elaborate artworks of colored rice flour and colored chalk, painted, decorated cattle, dancing and singing, bonfires and feasting. Very few Westerners get to participate in this unique experience. Stay: The Bangala (B, D) Day 6 - Chettinad to Madurai From Chettinad, you’ll make your way to the second largest city in Tamil Nadu, Madurai. Enroute, stop at one of the five Gandhi sanghralayas (museums) in the country, and learn a bit more about India’s iconic hero. Endowed with a rich cultural heritage and glorious traditions, Madurai is considered one of the “antique” cities of India. With history dating back to the 6th century BC, it’s often called “The Athens of the East”. In the late afternoon, you’ll visit the elaborate Meenakshi Amman Temple complex, which is the largest Shiva temple in the world. The soaring towers rise from solid granite bases and are covered with intricate stucco figures of deities, mythical animals and monsters painted in vivid colors. Witness the evening prayers and feel the sacredness of this very special temple. Stay: Sangam (B, D) Day 7 - Madurai Spend the day getting a deeper appreciation for one of India’s most popular cities for Indian residents. Spend a bit more time at the Meenakshi Temple Complex, and visit the Tirumala Nayak Palace, a gracious 17th century building in the Indo Saracenic style famous for intricate stucco work on its domes and arches. After lunch, take a short drive to the Thiruparankundram Temple where the Hindu got Murugan is said to have married Deivanai. The temple is the first among the six holy abodes of Murugan and the second most popular temple in Madurai. You’ll end the evening with an adventurous auto rickshaw ride through town, returning to the hotel for dinner. Stay: Sangam (B, L, D) Day 8 - Madurai to Thekkady Drive through the scenic Eastern Ghats, the mountains of South India and experience a very different landscape. After a morning drive (4 hours) you will enjoy a tour of a spice plantation and get to experience the taste of fresh spices from the garden! Make your way to your hotel where you will get to watch a cooking demonstration by the chef, and enjoy traditional Keralan cuisine for dinner, with an emphasis on the flavors created by the fresh vegetables and local spices. Stay: Greenwoods (B, D) Day 9 - Thekkady This morning, take a bamboo raft on Lake Periyar, in one of South India’s most popular wildlife reserves. Be sure to bring your camera and binoculars as you might spot wild elephants, gaur, deer, exotic birds and more. Afternoon free to enjoy the lush tropical gardens and grounds of your hotel, explore the town of Thekkady or rest by the pool. (B, D) Stay: Greenwoods (B, D) Day 10 - Thekkady to Houseboat You will depart after breakfast for Kumarakom, deep in the tropical heart of Kerala. “God’s Own Country” as the locals call it, Kerala has the country’s highest literacy rate at 91%. It’s mostly known for its lush backwaters, which are a peaceful slice of heaven far away from the clamor of India. Kumarakom is an emerald peninsula jutting into the beautiful Vembanad Lake, where you’ll see plenty of traditional country crafts, boats and canoes. The fresh water of the lake runs through the flat lands of Kerala. Here you will board a traditional “kettuvallam” for a tour through the backwaters where land, sea and sky come together. Cruise comfortably and slowly on an air-conditioned boat through quiet canals lined with coconut palms and rice paddies. Before roads were built the waterways were the highways of South India and they still are in a different way as you’ll see. Enjoy a wonderful freshly prepared dinner that you will not soon forget! Stay: Houseboat (B, L, D) Day 11 - Keralan Homestay Disembark from the houseboat and visit the Allepey market. Experience the unparalleled magic of the narrow, shaded streets and vibrant color of this quaint town built along canals and shaded by coconut trees. Mid-day you will visit a local home, where you will eat a lovingly prepared meal and meet the family. Afterwards, you will have free time to walk in the village. In the evening, you will learn firsthand the finer points of Keralan cuisine from a local chef. Stay: Homestay (B, L, D) Day 12 - Kochi This morning, travel about an hour north to Cochin, the distinctive colonial town that has been home to Jewish settlers, Portuguese and Dutch traders, Chinese visitors with threads of Syrian, Christian and Portuguese merchants. Wake up and greet the fishermen at Cochin’s famous Chinese fishing nets during their morning catch. The strong are invited to help pull in a net! Enjoy a fascinating tour of Cochin’s heritage sites including St. Francis Church (the oldest in India, built in 1506), the Jewish Synagogue, Mattancherry Palace, and the world famous spice markets. Shopping opportunities abound! If all that shopping has you tired, indulge in one of Kerala’s famous ayurvedic massages. Cochin clings to its vibrant historical traditions such as Kalarippayat, a gravity-defying martial art. In the evening, witness another one of their sacred traditions, a trance-induced ritual Kathakali, a blend of religion and dance. Stay: Spice Fort (B, D) Day 13 - Final departure Depart from Cochin airport to home, or extend your stay and join our Sri Lankan Winter Wildlife Adventure. (B)
“I had the pleasure of enjoying a Grand Asian Journeys adventure to South India and it was spectacular. My favorite thing was the design of the trip, which felt personal even when traveling with a small group of virtual strangers. No big bus tours with name tags around your neck. Our group was diverse, but there was something for everyone from the colors, tastes, sounds and scents. Our local guide was extremely knowledgeable. It felt like I had taken a Hindu 101 course! I am in love with the people..they are genuine, generous, curious and kind. We had far too many adventures to choose a favorite, but the house boat trip in Kerala was unforgettable. I am already planning my next trip to Northern India with Grand Asian Journeys! .”