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The Leader in Small Groups on the Road Less Traveled
Never more than 10-16 travelers—guaranteed!

2016 Soul of India: The Colorful South

Sold out in 2016 , Join us in 2017

Chennai • Mahabalipuram • Pondicherry • Tanjore • Madurai • Periyar • Cochin • Mysore • Bangalore

Trip Experience

Watch as O.A.T. travelers explore South India’s temples, play traditional instruments, and more.

Trip Itinerary

Route your adventure through South India—from colorful Chennai to cosmopolitan Bangalore.

Courtesy Andrew Hinton

Experience authentic Indian culture by following a local boy through his daily routine.

Courtesy David Conover
India’s Festival of Lights

See how Indian families prepare for and celebrate Diwali—the “Festival of Lights.”

Courtesy Dmitry Sumin
Kovalam Beach, Kerala, India

Get a bird’s-eye perspective of Kerala, India’s scenic Kovalam Beach.

©2010 The New York Times
Riding the Indian Railways

Let The New York Times take you for a ride along India’s popular railroad system.

Courtesy CNN
Whale watching in Sri Lanka

Set off on a private charter to spot whales in Sri Lanka, which you can visit on our pre-trip extension.

Courtesy CNN
Colombo's "creepy" town hall

Explore the oddities of the city of Colombo and enjoy high tea by the ocean.

Courtesy of Cynthia Younker
Earth Diaries - Indian Dance

Learn about elements in the beautifully orchestrated dance and music performances of itinerant Rajasthani families.

Courtesy CNN
Sri Lanka's Freshest Seafood

Experts take us to their favorite places and explain important parts of Sri Lankan culture, such as seafood and rugby.

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Itinerary Overview

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 O.A.T. 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.

Day-to-Day Itinerary

  • 9 nights from only $1995

    Sri Lanka is home to a range of landscapes, each more exotic than the next. Its predominantly Buddhist spirituality mingles with the remnants of its history in the spice trade. This tear-shaped island’s natural bounty is a cornucopia of treasures, from the tea fields to the coconut plantations. Before you explore India, come discover the land that inspired Mark Twain to exclaim: “Dear me, it is beautiful. And most sumptuously tropical.”

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Chennai Bangalore Expand All
  • 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 O.A.T. 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 the Tamil film industry; A.R. Rahman, composer of the Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire score, calls this city home.

  • After breakfast, we'll 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 Mylapore, 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 stone-carving 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 casuarina 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 Ganges. The sculpture depicts a scene from Hindu mythology, with hundreds of beings—celestial, human, and animal—that seem to be miraculously moving toward 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. After lunch at a local restaurant (included with the price of the optional tour), we'll visit one of Kanchipuram's most celebrated temples—the eighth-century rock-cut Kailashnath Temple. Next, we'll explore the even older Ekambareswarar Temple, a gathering place for worshippers dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva.

    This evening, we'll return to our hotel, where you'll be free to explore and choose a local restaurant for dinner on your own.

  • 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 will guide 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 on your own in Pondicherry this evening.

  • Explore Chidambaram and Kumbakonam on a guided tour in India

    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 Vaishnavites (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. We'll enjoy an included lunch here before we visit a weavers' colony, then continue on to Tanjore.

    Later this afternoon, we'll 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.

    Encounter local school children while touring southern India

    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'll 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.

  • Explore Madurai and see Hindu temples

    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) every day. 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 Meenakshi Temple, 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.

    Explore Thirumalai Naicker Palace in Madurai

    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 Meenakshi Temple to witness a fascinating nighttime ceremony in which deities are put to sleep. Non-Hindus are not allowed to enter the main sanctuary where idols of the god Shiva and goddess Parvati are kept. However, the ceremony can be witnessed from a short distance.

  • See the Periyar River while on tour in India

    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.

  • Explore Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary on an elephant ride

    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. 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 colonists.

    This evening, we'll enjoy dinner together at a local restaurant.

  • 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'll enjoy 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.

  • See local fishermen while touring Cochin

    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'll return to the hotel for a brief rest before dinner. This evening, we'll gain an insider's perspective on life in Cochin as we enjoy a Home-Hosted Dinner with a local family.

  • This morning we'll 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 Paradesi 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 at a local restaurant, we'll 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.

  • Encounter local farmers while touring India

    This morning we’ll rise early, as we have a long journey ahead of us. We'll start with an early morning transfer to the airport for our flight to Bangalore. After arriving in Bangalore in the mid-morning, we'll make the scenic journey to Mysore by coach, traveling through agricultural India. 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'll stop en route for lunch at a local restaurant, arriving at our hotel in Mysore this afternoon. Later we'll visit a temple dedicated to the nandi, the sacred bull of Shiva, before dinner on your own.

  • See Mysore Palace while touring southern India

    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.

  • See the mausoleum in Srirangapattana

    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 fort town of Srirangapatnam, which was briefly a political capital of southern India under the reign of the Tipu Sultan, the so-called “Tiger of Mysore.” While in town, we'll visit a mausoleum—a rare Islamic monument in a mostly Hindu region—dedicated to the Tipu 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 Srirangapatnam).  

    Upon arrival in Bangalore this afternoon, we'll have lunch together at the hotel. The rest of the day is at leisure.

    • Meals included:

    Very early this morning, we accompany you to the airport for your flight home. Or, if you’re taking our post-trip extension to Goa & Mumbai, you’ll fly to Goa.

    Goa & Mumbai

    5 nights from only $1495

    Revel in the Portuguese sossegarde (carefree) rhythm and maritime traditions of Goa. With its golden beaches and World Heritage architecture, plus a history of trade with Europe and Asia, this former Portuguese colony is a delightful melting pot of religions, cuisines, and languages. Then, discover bustling Mumbai, the birthplace of Bollywood. As India’s cultural center, Mumbai boasts countless museums and gardens.

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