Small Groups: Never more than 10-16 travelers—guaranteed!
Explore India and see its colorful southern region. From the rock-hewn temples that overlook the shimmering Bay of Bengal to the lush palm-fringed shores of the Arabian Sea, southern India is brimming with natural splendor and cultural diversity. Chennai, where Tamil music fills the air … Tanjore, where millennium-old Chola temples rise over ancient streets … rugged Kerala, where abundant wildlife roams free on the Cardamom Hills. Surrounded by a symphony of colors and languages, your OAT small group will revel in the guidance of an expert resident Trip Leader, who knows how to make the most of your travel experience, whether you’re exploring sacred temples or spice-filled markets. As you meet brick-makers, grape farmers, schoolchildren, and even join a family on their houseboat in the backwaters, you’ll come to know the people who truly are the vibrant Soul of India.
You depart today on your overnight flight from the U.S. to Delhi or Mumbai, India, where you connect to your flight to Chennai.
Depending on flight schedules, you’ll arrive in Chennai, the capital of the southeastern state Tamil Nadu and the Gateway to South India, either late this evening or early in the morning of Day 3. Consult your air itinerary for details. When you arrive, an OAT representative will meet you at the airport and escort you to your hotel. Travelers on the Sri Lanka pre-trip extension will join the main trip today.
Perched upon the ancient clay where the Cooum and Adyar rivers snake through their last miles toward the Bay of Bengal, Chennai (formerly Madras) is one of India’s largest cities. Widely considered the “Musical and Cultural Capital of India,” Chennai’s streets are frequently alight with world-renowned classical dancing and the captivating rhythms of Carnatic music. Chennai is also the center of Tamil film industry; A.R. Rahman, composer of the Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire, calls this city home.
After breakfast, gather for an orientation briefing with our Trip Leader. Then, we’ll explore Chennai, a bustling hub of commerce from its inception in 1639 by the British East India Company. This area has been an important economic and cultural center for nearly 2,000 years, thanks to its perfect position at the nexus of three rivers and the Bay of Bengal.
Chennai is famous for its confluence of cultures, and is one of the few places on earth with national celebrations for almost all major religious holidays. To highlight this region’s rich European-flavored history, we’ll take a heritage walk in Georgetown and Mypalore, and visit St. Thomas Basilica, a church atop St. Thomas Mount, where we’ll take in panoramic views of the city. The basilica, which is locally known as “Santhome Church,” is reputed to be the final resting place of Saint Thomas and was visited by Marco Polo during his epic travels.
After lunch on our own, we’ll travel south along the coast to the stonecarving village of Mahabalipuram. Upon arrival, we’ll check in to our hotel, where we enjoy a Welcome Dinner tonight.
Believed by many historians to have been the site of a training school for sculptors, Mahabalipuram is situated on a rocky outcrop between a shimmering lagoon and a silver, sandy beach. With its remarkable rock temples overlooking the shining Bay of Bengal and graceful casuarinas trees swaying in the tropical breeze, this open-air museum is truly a sight to behold.
We’ll explore the rock sculptures of Mahabalipuram, beginning with the world’s largest bas-relief in stone, the Descent of the Ganga. The sculpture depicts a scene from Hindu mythology, with hundreds of beings—celestial, human, and animal—that seem to be miraculously moving towards a natural cleft in the center of the stone.
We’ll also see Arjuna’s Penance, depicting a scene from the Mahabharata; the Five Rathas, “chariots of the gods” hewn from solid rock; and the twin-spired Shore Temple that overlooks the Bay of Bengal. Later, we’ll have time to walk around on our own to see local artisans creating rock sculptures, just as they have for centuries.
You can find a restaurant to have lunch on your own and spend the rest of the day at leisure. Or you can join an optional excursion to Kanchipuram, "City of 1,000 Temples." Kanchipuram was the capital of the Pallava Dynasty from the fourth to ninth centuries, during which many of the city’s temples were built. Kanchipuram’s most celebrated temples include the ancient rock-cut Kailashnath Temple and the Ekambareswarar Temple, a gathering place for worshippers dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva.
You’ll have lunch at a local restaurant (included with the price of the optional tour), then explore Kanchipuram’s spiritual legacy with a visit to both of these temples. First you visit the eighth-century Kailashnath Temple with its two-story halls and heavy, horizontal lintels, and then you continue to the even older Ekambareswarar Temple, noted for its pyramid-shaped towers and colonnaded corridors. You’ll return to Mahabalipuram, where you’ll be free to explore on your own and choose a local restaurant for dinner.
After breakfast this morning, we’ll depart for the beautifully landscaped city of Pondicherry, designed in French style with Parisian-inspired city plans. Pondicherry is simultaneously a resort destination for beachgoers and an educational center for South India: it boasts 35 colleges and universities, from law schools to technical institutions.
We'll arrive this afternoon and enjoy an included lunch. Then, your Trip Leader guides you through the side of Pondicherry only the locals see, with stops at some of his or her favorite places in conjunction with a rickshaw ride in the French Quarter. Throughout our exploration of Pondicherry, we’re sure to find remnants of this charming city’s colonial legacy along every wide boulevard and picturesque promenade. Don’t be surprised if you hear local people speaking French as you enjoy the evening at leisure to explore our surroundings. Perhaps you’ll stroll along Goubert Salai (Beach Road), a beachside promenade, before seeking out a restaurant of your choice for dinner in Pondicherry this evening.
After breakfast at our hotel this morning, we’ll depart for Tanjore, stopping along the way to visit Chidambaram, an important site of pilgrimage for Shaivites and Vishnaivites (worshippers of Shiva and Vishnu). We’ll also stop at a local village and learn more about the art of mat weaving.
Then we continue to Kumbakonam, which is located still farther south in Tamil Nadu and bordered by two rivers. Known for its Mahamaham festival, which takes place every twelve years and involves bathing in a ritual tank that holds water from many sacred rivers, Kumbakonam is a small village with a wealth of temples. Enjoy an included lunch here before we visit a weaver's colony then continue on to Tanjore.
Later this afternoon, we arrive at our hotel in Tanjore and check in. We'll enjoy dinner together this evening in the hotel.
After breakfast this morning, we visit Brihadisvara temple, passing through the gopurams, the two temple gates that guard the UNESCO World Heritage Site temples at Tanjore. The main temple is dedicated to Lord Shiva and is a powerful symbol of the Chola empire, testifying to its achievements in architecture, sculpture, painting and bronze casting. We’ll discover two of these important arts—first, on a visit to a bronze school and casting center, we’ll find out how the ancient craft is practiced today. Then we’ll visit the artisans who make veena, a traditional Tamil Nadu musical instrument.
After an included lunch at a local restaurant, we’ll visit a local orphanage and school, supported by Grand Circle Foundation, where we’ll be greeted by one of the staff before meeting some of the children. We spend some time here, interacting with the kids (who are certain to charm) and asking questions of the teacher. Dinner is included this evening at our hotel.
This morning we continue to Madurai, the second-largest city in the state of Tamil Nadu. An important Hindu pilgrimage site, Madurai is a temple city that draws streams of worshippers making puja (prayer ceremonies) everyday. This cultural hub dates back more than 2,500 years, making it one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the entire subcontinent—and also one of the most culturally diverse. You’ll feel the pulse of these ancient grounds in the bustling marketplaces and streets that merge concentrically like lotus petals around Sundareswarar Meenakshi, the glorious fortress-like temple in the center of the city. Meenakshi’s labyrinthine grounds are dedicated to the Hindu Lord Shiva who, as legend has it, descended on Madurai to bless the city during its first days, and showered divine nectar down from his locks, giving Madurai its original name, Madhurapuri, the “City of Divine Nectar.”
After lunch at a local restaurant, we’ll continue our journey, arriving in Madurai in the late afternoon. Dinner will be on your own this evening.
This morning after breakfast, visit Meenakshi Temple for a daylight viewing of its gopurams. These pyramid-shaped structures often function as gateways to the temple complex, but at Meenakshi they rise above mere gateways due to the riotous and highly colored tiers of sculptures culminating in shell-like finials.
Next we’ll visit Thirumalai Naicker Palace, a stunning fusion of diverse architectural influences, including Italian, Dravidian and Islamic. Lunch will be on your own, and you’ll have time at leisure this afternoon before dinner together in a local restaurant.
Later this evening we‘ll have the opportunity to travel by auto-rickshaw back to the Sri Meenakshi Temple to witness a fascinating nighttime ceremony in which deities are put to sleep. Non-Hindus are not allowed to enter inside the main sanctuary where idols of the god Shiva and goddess Parvati are kept. However, the ceremony can be witnessed from a short distance.
After breakfast at our hotel this morning, we’ll embark on a scenic transfer overland to Periyar in Thekkady, set high in the rugged mountains in the state of Kerala. Kerala is another timeless region thought to have been inhabited since Neolithic times; indeed, many of the region’s caves harbor some of mankind’s oldest secrets—ancient tombs, mysterious rock formations, and prehistoric artifacts.
On the way, we'll make a few stops: one at a local brick-making factory, one for lunch on your own, and one at a grape plantation—a crop for which this region is known. After checking in to our hotel, we’ll visit a local spice plantation to discover pepper plants and cocoa beans. We’ll enjoy dinner at our hotel tonight.
South India is home to an extraordinary variety of flora and fauna, and many of its most exotic species are native to the region. Today we’ll get a taste of this biologically diverse hotspot as we visit Kerala’s most popular wildlife sanctuary, set high in the Cardamom Hills.
We’ll embark on a jungle walk, keeping our eyes peeled for the sanctuary’s 62 exotic animal species, including elephants, wild boars, leopards, wild dogs, and monkeys.
Lunch is on your own, or you may join us for an optional tour in the Periyar area that includes a Home-Hosted cooking demonstration, lunch, and an unforgettable personal encounter with one of India’s emblems, the elephant. You’ll start at a local home, where you meet the family and learn some of the secrets to Southern Indian cuisine during a cooking demonstration. Then you share a home-cooked meal before setting off for the elephant camp. Here you take a 15-minute elephantback ride and then return to the hotel.
Later, we’ll visit a rubber plantation to learn how this material is produced and witness a demonstration of sap extraction from the rubber trees first introduced by Dutch colonialists.
Enjoy a dinner at a local restaurant this evening.
This morning, we begin our drive to Cochin (Kochi), the cosmopolitan “Queen of the Arabian Sea,” with its fine natural harbor—where mariners from Arabia, China, Holland and elsewhere have left their mark among inimitable South Indian tradition and style. We'll stop at a tea plantation, where we'll meet the local people working in the field.
Then, we'll head for the “backwaters”—a system of interconnected lagoons, lakes, and canals that stretches along the western edge of Southern India. Like Louisiana’s bayou country, the waterways are a unique ecosystem, lushly overgrown and labyrinthine. Over the years, communities ranging from large towns to small enclaves have sprung up, like the one we visit today for a look into everyday life.
We’ll board a Kettuvellam (houseboat) during our trek. Originally designed as rice barges, these distinctive boats were later used by royalty when touring. Once aboard, we lunch while cruising through the backwaters of Alleppey, known as “God’s own country” for its serene natural beauty. We’ll see palm-fringed canals, local fishermen, a variety of birdlife, vivid green rice paddies, and sparkling water.
Upon our early evening arrival in Cochin, we’ll check into our hotel and have dinner on our own in this storied South Indian city layered with Jewish, Portuguese, Chinese, and British influences from its days as a hub for spice traders the world over. Cochin’s colonial history can still be felt today, blending seamlessly with ancient traditions and the modern trappings of a burgeoning hub of commerce and culture.
After breakfast this morning, we’ll explore Cochin city proper. We’ll see remnants of the melting-pot culture that emerged here as a result of the spice trade in the blend of Dutch and English architecture and in the elegant cheena vala (Chinese fishing nets) for which Cochin is known. We’ll also visit the Freedom Fighters' Jail and St. Francis Church, burial place of Vasco da Gama.
Then we'll visit Fort Kochi and embark on a walking tour of its fascinating Heritage Buildings. After our explorations, we'll sit down for lunch together at a local restaurant.
We return to the hotel for a brief rest before dinner. This evening, we gain an insider’s perspective on life in Cochin as we enjoy a Home-Hosted Dinner with a local family.
This morning we stroll the intensely aromatic streets of the old Jewish quarter, once the center of the spice trade and home today to spice shops that sell cardamom, ginger, turmeric, cloves, and cumin.
As the scents mingle together, you may find it challenging to distinguish one from another, but their magnificent colors are nonetheless a feast for the eyes. This part of town is also home to one of the world’s oldest Jewish populations. At the Pardesi Synagogue, which was founded in 1568, be sure to have a look at the ornate, hand-painted Cantonese tiles decorating the floor, and see if you can decipher the love story depicted in the images.
We’ll also visit the Mattancherry Palace, also known as the Dutch Palace for its tiled roof and whitewashed walls. But the colorful murals we’ll find here—some of the best examples of Hindu temple art in India—are the main attraction.
Enjoy time on your own to explore this vibrant neighborhood. After lunch in a local restaurant, we return to the hotel for rest or continue to explore Cochin independently. Tonight, enjoy the intoxicating hues of a South Indian sunset over dinner on your own. Or join an optional evening cruise on the Kerala backwaters, with an exclusive Kathakali dance performance, followed by a seafood dinner at a local restaurant.
This morning we’ll rise early, as we have a long journey ahead of us. We start with an early morning transfer to the airport for our flight to Bangalore. After arriving in Bangalore in the mid-morning, we make the scenic journey to Mysore by coach.
This is agricultural India that we travel through; according to governmental statistics more than 60 percent of the region’s land is cultivated and roughly half of the local population works on farms. As we pass by verdant plains and rows of palm tree plantations, scooters and trucks laden with green coconuts zip by while ox-drawn carts plod on at their centuries-old pace. Be on the lookout for carts drawn by zebu oxen, a type of humped cattle originating in this area and still used as beasts of burden.
We stop en route to pause for lunch. We arrive at our hotel in Mysore this afternoon and check in to our hotel. Later we'll visit a temple dedicated to the nandi, the sacred bull of Shiva, before dinner on your own.
This morning, join an optional tour to the Somnathpur temple, outside of Mysore. This less-visited temple is a remarkably well-preserved example of Hoysala architecture. It transports us back to 13th-century India with a symmetrical star-shaped building, carved both inside and out with ornate images of Hindu legends and gods. Lunch at the distinctly European Lalitha Mahal Palace is included in this tour.
Or, explore Mysore on your own. Perhaps you’ll visit the busy marketplace at the heart of the city. Stroll through the market, see powdered dyes in shocking hues set out in baskets like spices, smell the sandalwood oil, and hear the raucous calls of the vendors each trying to outdo his neighbor.
Later, we duck inside the ornate, pink marble-domed Mysore Palace, the former residence of the royal family. We explore opulent ivory inlayed halls and uncover ancient ceremonial objects like glittering gold and wooden frames that once composed an elephant’s train for carrying royalty and other persons of distinction throughout Mysore’s ancient streets.
Tonight, gather for a Farewell Dinner with your fellow travelers at our hotel.
After breakfast this morning, we’ll transfer to Bangalore, a center of the information technology industry in South India. En route we’ll stop in the town of Srirangapatna, which was briefly a political capital under the reign of the Tipu Sultan, the so-called “Tiger of Mysore.” While in town, we’ll visit the mausoleum of the Sultan—a rare Islamic monument in a mostly Hindu region—dedicated to the Sultan who died in a 1799 battle against the British. The romantic image of the brave Tipu has inspired a surprising array of writers, from Jules Verne (Captain Nemo is supposedly Tipu’s nephew) to Wilkie Collins (the opening of The Moonstone is set during the fall of Srirangapatna).
Upon arrival in Bangalore, we’ll have lunch together at the hotel.Travelers taking the post-trip extension to Goa & Mumbai will check into our hotel in Bangalore, while travelers returning home will transfer to the airport to board flights to the U.S.