Since ancient times, India has been coveted as a prize by many a military force. From Alexander the Great to the modern British, India was invaded for its riches, its jewels, and its mystique. Somehow South India remained relatively unaffected by the invasions in the North. Here is where the true ancient Indian Dravidian culture survived. On this Southern sojourn, traversing through Tamil Nadu and Kerala, we explore the unique and breathtaking architecture, sculpture, ancient culture influenced by the Pallava, Chola and Pandya dynasties. Enjoy the markets and spice trails with local storytellers and be involved in the culinary dishes that will delight the taste buds. Stroll the promenade of Pondicherry, ride through the streets of Madurai in a rickshaw, witness the awesome Meenakshi Temple, stay in Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary, and explore the canals that make up the back waters of the Arabian Sea from a deluxe houseboat (2 night cruise).
Small Group Departure & Costs
February 9 to 22, 2023
Tour Cost based on First Class hotels: $ 4,380 CAD / $ 3,550 USD
Pre-tour option Dehli/Agra Feb 6 to 9: $ 710 CAD plus approx. $150 domestic air Delhi/Chennai
This trip can be customized and delivered as a private departure any day of the year.
Deposit required : $ 500 per person
Note: 1.5% discount for payments made by cheque
Single Room supplement TBA ~ share request available
Independent & customized departures can be arranged for other dates, based on minimum 2 persons - add $ 450 CAD / 370 USD per person
February 9: Arrive Chennai & drive to Mahabalipuram (D)
After clearing India Immigration and Customs at the Chennai airport, you step into the receiving area where you will be met by our Chennai representative. You will then make the 2 hour drive down along the coastline of the Bay of Bengal to the ancient temple town of Mahabalipuram, on of India’s fabulous UNESCO World Heritage sites. After dinner, evening is free at leisure.
February 10: Mahabalipuram (B,D)
Mahabalipuram is commonly known as the “City of the Seven Pagodas,” even though five of the seven pagodas are actually rathas (stone chariots). The Pallavas, the ruling power of South India during the 7th and 8th Centuries and prolific patrons of the arts, reached their greatest architectural achievement in the visually dramatic temples at Mahabalipuram. A wealthy maritime trade with Southeast Asia enabled the Pallava monarchs to construct a large number of temples and sculptural projects, which garnered them both religious merit and promoted the political and social ideals of South Indian society.
We will visit the photogenic and windswept Shore Temple, dramatically perched near a promontory overlooking the Bay of Bengal. From here we can see the Panch Rathas (Five Stone Chariots) which date to the 7th Century - extraordinary examples of rock shrines hewn from monolithic stone, and named for the heroes of Mahabharata, the epic Indian tale.
In the center of Mahabalipuram is the main cluster of temples and rock sculptures. Life size stone statues of an elephant, bull and lion guard these delicately sculptured temples. Depictions of scenes from Indian mythology carved out of stone cover the temples. One of the most elaborate is the Bhagirathi’s Penance, which despite its mammoth proportions, is intricately carved. So large is the bas-relief that it is often described as a “fresco in stone.” In fact, a number of stonecutters still work in Mahabalipuram and continue to produce high-quality traditional sculptures. Visit the Krishna’s butterball a giant balancing rock, perched on a smooth slope. Rest of the day is free at leisure.
February 11: Mahabalipuram – Pondicherry (approx. 2½ hr drive) (B, snacks)
Today after breakfast, we will proceed to Pondicherry, the union territory that retains the borders of former French India. It consists of four small unconnected districts: Pondicherry, Karaikal and Yanam by the bay of Bengal and Mahe by the Arabian Sea. Of these, Pondicherry is the largest. Steeped in history, this quaint world charms you with cathedrals, French-styled villas and tree-lined boulevards - the perfect setting to relive an era straight out of history books.
This afternoon, a Storyteller will take us on a special food trail to hear learn about the people who make Pondicherry such a vibrant city and to taste the foods that tagged along with them when they travelled. As we discover the food that Pondicherry loves, we will uncover forgotten stories and histories of the people who make up this town. For centuries, Pondicherry has been a place of refuge and reinvention and all of this is reflected in its vibrant food. Delve into all this and more while you dig into a variety of treats and uncover the delicious stories at every corner.
February 12: Pondicherry (B)
The French relinquished control of their former colony just 50 years ago and “Pondy” (as it’s locally known) still bears its European heritage. The local cuisine has a distinctive French influence, as does the architecture of homes, boulevards and city buildings. Often referred to as “a little piece of Medieval France in India” and “a sleepy provincial French town,” Pondicherry has retained its French aura. Pondicherry is also famous as a center chosen by late Sri Aurobindo, revolutionary turned saint, who built his Ashram here in 1926, drawing huge crowds of followers with its unique spiritual concept revolving around work as a divine offering.
After breakfast, proceed for a early morning walking tour of the French quarters, full of tales of Kings and commoners, poets and all of whom wove their way into the fabric of this town. Behind every charming facade, you will find incredible stories. Did you know that the Romans were in Pondicherry as early as the 2nd Century? Explore the stories and the ironies, the contradictions and the culture of this eclectic town. Rest of the day is free to explore the local market and stroll around the promenade beach in the evening.
February 13: Pondicherry – Chidambaram – Tanjore (approx. 7 hour drive) (B)
After breakfast, check-out and drive to Tanjore. En-route stop to explore the Chidambaram Temple located in the heart of the temple town of Chidambaram, Tamil Nadu. The temple complex spreads out over 50 acres in the heart of the city. It is an ancient and historic temple dedicated to Lord Shiva Nataraja and Lord Govindaraja Perumal - one of the few temples where both the Shaivite and Vaishnavite deities are enshrined in one place. The word Chidambaram may be derived from chit, meaning “consciousness”, and ambaram, meaning “sky” (from aakasam or aakayam); it refers to the chidaakasam, the sky of consciousness, which is the ultimate aim one should attain according to all the Vedas and scriptures. (Note: Chidambaram Temple is closed from 12 noon till 4 pm every day). Continue the drive to Tanjore, built in 1010 CE, one of the Chola dynasty kings who once ruled much of South India. On arrival, check-in to the hotel.
February 14: Tanjore (B)
This morning visit the magnificent Brihadishwara Temple, the crowning glory of Chola temple architecture and dedicated to Shiva as Nataraja, king of the cosmic dance. Its beauty is particularly enhanced in the late afternoon light, when its sandstone tower is bathed in the golden hues of sunset. The vimana, or tower, over the temple sanctuary soars to a height in excess of 200 feet and is adorned with several exquisite pieces of Chola sculpture. The temple sits in the middle of a spacious courtyard, faced by a massive 20-foot long sculpture of Shiva’s vahana (vehicle), the great bull Nandi, carved from a single piece of granite.
This afternoon visit Tanjore’s second great historical site, the Royal Palace complex, with its impressive observation tower. The Nayakas, who ruled this area in the 16th and 17th Centuries, constructed the palace. Aside from the historical significance of the palace itself, the complex also houses several important museums and libraries, including the Raja Raja Museum and Art Gallery, which contains a number of fabulous sculptural pieces representative of the broad array of South Indian styles over the centuries. Tanjore is also famous for the bronze sculpture and paintings. We will visit a small manufacture complex to understand more about this art. Evening at leisure. Dinner on own.
February 15: Tanjore – Trichy – Madurai (approx. 4 hour drive) (B,L)
This morning after breakfast, we make our way to Madurai, the cultural center of the Tamil people. It was the seat of the Pandya Empire (7th to 13th Centuries), and then the short-lived capital of an Islamic sultanate in the 14th Century. After 1364, Madurai became a part of the Vijayanagara Empire and by the mid-16th Century the local Hindu governors, the Nayakas, asserted their independence and the city became an independent kingdom until the arrival of the British.
En-route we will visit Tiruchirapalli the "Town of the Three Headed Devil" named after the demon who achieved salvation after being slain by Shiva. The city is now more commonly known as Trichy, the moniker bestowed upon it by the British. Trichy has the historical distinction of being the center around which the Carnatic Wars were fought in the 18th Century during the British-French struggle for supremacy in South India. Despite its historical importance in colonial times, Trichy is an ancient city with its position on the Kaveri River delta lending strategic importance during several of South India’s prominent political dynasties.
Once in Trichy, we will head to the superb Sri Ranganatha temple complex at Srirangam, situated on a 2 mile long island formed by two arms of the Kaveri River. The temple complex is incredibly vast, covering an area in excess of 140 acres. Srirangam is dedicated to the god Vishnu and, like Madurai’s Meenakshi Temple, is one of the most sacred of all pilgrimage sites in South India. A walk around the complex to explore the first three enclosures, beyond which non-Hindus are not permitted. Continue the drive to the ancient 4th Century temple town of Madurai. Once we arrive, we will check into our hotel for a rest.
This evening, we explore one of the most important temples in the South, the awe-inspiring Meenakshi Temple, whose complex occupies an area of six hectares and is estimated to receive 10,000 pilgrims every day. A riotously baroque example of Dravidian architecture with twelve gopuras (towers) ranging in height from 130 to 165 feet, the towers are covered top to bottom in a breath-taking profusion of multi-coloured images of gods, goddesses, animals and mythical figures. Legend has it that the temple was founded by Indra (King of Gods) himself. While exploring the temple, visit the “Hall of a Thousand Pillars,” with its fascinating study of “human expression” carved on the pillars, walls and ceiling. Just outside, discover the “musical pillars,” each emitting a different musical note when struck. Explore the Kambatti Mundapum containing pillars sculptured with various manifestations of Lord Shiva. The Meenakshi Temple is arguably the preeminent example of South Indian temple architecture and is also one of India’s most important places of pilgrimage.
If interested you can attend the evening Aarti, a ceremony at the great temple where the Lord Shiva is reunited with his wife Meenakshi for the night.
February 16: Madurai (B,L)
Cardamom, coriander, turmeric, ginger, tamarind, asafoetida… the stars of Indian cuisine are many, and each has a unique personality that it lends unabashedly to every preparation.
This morning proceed for a spice trail exploratory journey of Indian cuisine. Pay a visit to a local market and buy some produce – fresh and bursting with colour. Walk into an everyday Indian kitchen and watch the magic play out. Savour the fragrance of a myriad spices, working in harmony to make a memorable meal. Listen to stories of seasonal produce, of handpicking local vegetables and of the people who grow them. Create a drool worthy meal, sit back and relish every mouthful.
Later in the afternoon, visit of Thirumalai Nayak Palace, built in the 17th Century and partially restored by the British in the 19th Century. The Palace is built on a grand scale, with towering pillars and a large courtyard, where the ruler Thirumalai Nayaka received his audience in bygone days. We will take the cycle rickshaws riding into the streets of Madurai. Dinner on own.
February 17: Madurai – Thekkay/Periyar Wildlife Reserve (approx. 5 hours drive) (B,L)
Today we will drive toward Thekkady and Periyar Wildlife reserve. The journey by road itself is an experience, passing through bustling towns in the plains, rubber plantations in the foothills and undulating tea gardens and spice plantations in the mountains. At some point on our journey, we will visit a private plantation which grows pepper, cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg and more. Learn even more about how to use them, combine them, and savour the special magic they bring to even the most commonplace foods.
February 18: Periyar Wildlife Reserve (B)
Periyar is an elephant and tiger reserve encompassing an area of 925 km2. The park is a home to endemic flora and fauna and forms the major watershed of two important rivers of Kerala, the Periyar and Pamba. Nature walks and bamboo rafting are offered as ideal ways of observing wildlife in their natural habitat. This morning we proceed for a bamboo rafting and guided nature walk through dense deciduous forests, swampy grasslands and narrow canals. Note: Bamboo rafting is subject to water levels. Afternoon to enjoy the lush grounds of the hotel. Optional nature and culinary and cultural excursions can be booked locally.
February 19: Thekkady – Kerala Backwaters Cruise (B,L,D)
Today we will drive along the Kerala coast to the docks at Thothapally in the Alleppey district to board our private houseboat. This environmentally-friendly vessel is unique to Kerala’s placid waterways. Prior to their conversion to passenger boats with all the modern comforts, these traditional craft known as kettuvallom once plied these waters as rice barges. Coir (coconut fibre rope) and resin from cashew kernels, not nails, hold the kettuvallom together – a shipmaking practice passed down through the centuries.
On this comfortable floating home we spend the day unwinding, with a slow cruise along the backwater canals of the Arabian Sea. We see Indian life up close as we slowly cruise along the palm-fringed canals, a distinctive region whose beauty and tranquility have earned it the sobriquet “God’s own country.” 2 nights on board our houseboat with private crew and chef.
February 20: Kerala Backwaters Cruise (B,L,D)
A vast network of lagoons, lakes, and canals formed by the confluence of Kerala’s numerous rivers and the Arabian Sea, the backwaters run alongside the coast for more than 550 miles. These labyrinthine waterways have served as a thoroughfare for boats like ours from ancient times, and the daily existence in the communities here has changed little over the centuries. We may wish to stop and explore some of the many small villages, farmlands, old temples and churches as we travel along. Overnight onboard Houseboat.
February 21: Kerala Backwaters Cruise to Cochin (B,D)
After breakfast, drive to Cochin. Kochi, “Queen of the Arabian Sea” (formerly called Cochin), is the first of Europe’s colonies in India and the southern state of Kerala’s commercial capital. From antiquity the prosperous spice trade drew seafarers here: the Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Jews, Chinese, Portuguese, Dutch, and finally the British.
We have a walking tour of Mattancherry, the bustling part of Old Fort Cochin and the epicenter of the spice trade for centuries. It remains densely populated by different ethnic groups and faiths in very close quarters. Mattancherry is home to a small Jewish community whose origin dates back nearly 2000 years, during the period of King Solomon, when large scale trade took place between the Middle East and the Malabar Coast.
Our touring today reveals Kochi’s multi-layered past, a rich brew of Arab, Portuguese, British, and Dutch influences. We begin with the Dutch Palace, actually built by the Portuguese as a gift for the Raja of Kochi in 1555. The Dutch renovated and expanded it a century later, earning it its name. The palace also contains some of India’s finest mythological murals depicting scenes from the classics, the Ramayana and Mahabharata. Then we see St. Francis, India’s first European church (ca. 1510), famed as the original burial site of Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama, who died in 1524 while on his third visit to India. Not immune to the turbulence of the colonial era, the originally Catholic St. Francis changed hands – and denominations – with each new power that took local control, becoming a Protestant Dutch Reformed church in 1663 then an English Anglican church in 1804.
In the evening, a farewell dinner followed by attendance at a Kathakali dance performance, where facial expressions and hand gestures combine with movement to create a highly expressive traditional Kerala art form. Distinct among the six classical Indian dances, Kathakali is a highly dramatic and mimetic dance depicting various stories from Indian epics. It originated in Kerala during the 17th century and has developed over the years with improved looks, refined gestures and added themes besides more ornate singing and precise drumming.
February 22: Houseboat – Departure (B)
After breakfast, disembark and transfer to Cochin airport for your onward destination.
Post Tour Option: Coastal Kerala
Breathtakingly beautiful - a haven of peace and tranquility, the Kerala Coastline offers an excellent diversity with three curve shaped beaches, alienated by stony outcroppings, backed by precipitously mounting headlands and covered by fertile coconut palms. Traditional beach holidays and Ayurvedic experiences can be accommodated on an individual basis.
Pre-Tour Option: Delhi & Agra
Feb 6 : Arrive Delhi
After clearing immigration and customs, our representative will meet you at the receiving area and escort you to your hotel. Thereafter, arrive at the hotel and check-in. Delhi is a dynamic city where the past coexists with the present. While historic evidence shows that the area around Delhi was first occupied around 2,500 years ago, Hindu mythology predates that by another 500 years. The British captured the city in 1803 and when they decided to make it the capital of India in 1911, they commissioned Sir Edwin Lutyens to draw up the plans. The result is slightly surprising with spacious tree-lined avenues punctuated with architecture which is among the most striking in the world.
Feb 7 : Delhi / Agra drive (approx. 3 ½ hour drive) (B)
After breakfast, check-out and drive to Agra. Though Agra’s history is largely identified with the Mughal Empire, the place was established much before it and has linkages to Mahabharata, the Mythological history. The golden age of the city began with the Mughals. Akbar made it the center of art, culture, commerce and learning. During the peaceful reign of Shah Jahan, his passion for architecture came to the fore and the world-famous architectural masterpieces were constructed including the Taj Mahal.
Visit the Itmad Ud Daulah tomb, popularly known as Baby Taj. From there proceed to visit the “Mehtab Bagh” situated north of the Taj Mahal complex on the opposite side of the Yamuna River, in the flood plains. The garden complex, square in shape, is perfectly aligned with the Taj Mahal on the opposite bank. The most important attraction of Mehtab Bagh is the Taj Mahal itself. This is a unique spot as you can get a picturesque view of the Taj from here.
Feb 8 : Agra / Delhi train (Gatimaan Express at 1750/1930 hrs.) (B)
Early this morning, savor a travel highlight as you embark on a tour of the Taj Mahal, the magnificent tomb of white marble built by Emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his beloved wife Mumtaz, who had implored her husband to build a monument symbolizing their undying love for each other. Some 20,000 labourers and artisans from around the world spent 22 years constructing what became Mumtaz’s mausoleum, which was begun in 1632. Along with its exquisite symmetry, the Taj features striking examples of pietra dura, a decorative art in which craftsmen embed precisely cut semi-precious stones in marble to form dazzling patterns. Return to the hotel for breakfast.
After relaxed breakfast, check-out and visit the imposing Red Fort of Agra (also known as Agra Fort). A creative, architectural, and strategic masterpiece, the Fort is protected as a UNESCO World Heritage site. In a cruel twist, Emperor Shah Jahan, builder of the Taj Mahal and whose grandfather built the original Fort and who also assumed the throne himself, was imprisoned here at the end of his life by his own son – in a room looking out on the Taj Mahal across the river.
From here, transfer to Agra railway station to board the train to Delhi. On arrival, our representative will meet you at the Railway station and you will be transferred to the hotel located near the Delhi airport.
February 9 : Delhi / Chennai – Mahabalipuram (D)
Check-out of your hotel and transfer to Delhi airport to connect with flight to Chennai to join the main tour.
- Accommodation on twin sharing basis as indicated
- Meals as specified by B = breakfast, L = lunch, D = dinner
- All Entrance fees at the Monuments as per the itinerary
- Food Trail (walking tour) in Pondicherry
- Home hosted lunch with cooking class in Madurai
- Rickshaw ride in Madurai
- Kathakali dance performance at Kochi
- 2 night Backwaters cruise
- Mineral water during the road travel
- Services of English speaking Local guide during sightseeing at all places as indicated
- Assistance at the airports
- Land transport by exclusive; 10-14 guests : Air-conditioned mini coach
- All currently applicable taxes
- Expenses of personal nature like laundry, telephone/fax calls, alcoholic beverages, camera/videocamera fee at monuments, medical expenses, airport departure tax etc.
- Any insurance
- Accompanying English speaking Tour Leader (supplement cost mentioned above)
- Any tipping
- Any meals or beverages that are not specified on the above inclusions
- International & Domestic Air fares
- Expenses caused by factors beyond our control like rail and air plane delays, roadblocks, vehicle malfunctions, political disturbances, taxes, lost luggage, etc.
- Other services not mentioned in the inclusions
- Any further tax levied by the government of India