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The Leader in Small Groups on the Road Less Traveled
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2017 NEW Soul of India: The Colorful South

17 Days from only $3695 including international airfare

Chennai • Mahabalipuram • Thanjavur • Madurai • Periyar • Kerala’s backwaters • Cochin

Courtesy Dmitry Sumin
Kovalam Beach, Kerala, India

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

Courtesy of Cynthia Younker
Earth Diaries - Indian Dance

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

Courtesy of Anika Pilnei, Ian Sciacaluga, and Ian Cross
Planet Food: Delhi, India

Chef Bobby Chin takes you on a whirlwind tour of Delhi’s spicy cuisine from city to countryside.

Courtesy of Penn Museum
Travelogue: Delhi, India 1959

See Delhi through the eyes of an American visitor in 1959—notice what has changed, and what has endured, in India's ageless capital.

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.

FROM
$3695
17 DAYS
$218/DAY
including international airfare
16 DAYS FROM $2495 Land Adventure Only
  • 3 nights from only $595
    Single Supplement: $295
Extend Your Trip
 

Announcing 2017 departures of Soul of India
now with a new itinerary!

 

CRITICAL AIR INFORMATION
The air routing for this trip is very demanding. Learn More »

 

For example, extend your Dubai layover into an overnight visit.
See More Options

Itinerary Overview

Brimming with natural splendor and cultural diversity, South India is a mystical land of rock-hewn temples, palm-fringed shores, and fragrant spices. Fall under the spell of this captivating region as you journey from multicultural Chennai to the enchanting backwaters of Kerala, stopping to unveil the architectural wonders of Mahabalipuram, discover the mighty temples of Thanjavur, and explore the lush jungles of Periyar. With its endless exoticism, indescribable colors, and otherworldly magic, we welcome you to discover the other side of India.

Day-to-Day Itinerary

  • 3 nights from only $595

    Break up your lengthy flight to Chennai, India, with a 3-night Stopover in Dubai before your main adventure or before your pre-trip extension in Sri Lanka. An O.A.T. representative will meet you at the airport and assist with your included transfer into the city for three nights in a centrally-located hotel—the rest is up to you! Take advantage of this opportunity to relax, refresh, and explore the futuristic skyline, timeless desert tableaux, and traditional customs of this ultramodern Emirati city. Breakfasts and roundtrip airport transfer are also included. Single Supplement is $295.

    Looking for ways to fill your free time in Dubai? Check out some of our suggestions.

    Learn More
  • 9 nights from only $2595

    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.”

    View Extension Itinerary
Chennai Cochin Expand All
  • Today, you’ll depart the U.S. for your flight to Chennai, India, via Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

  • Today you’ll arrive in Dubai, where you’ll meet your connecting flight to Chennai, India. Depending on your flight schedule, you’ll arrive late on Day 2 or very early on Day 3. Travelers who took our pre-trip to Sri Lanka: The Resplendent Island will arrive in Chennai this afternoon.

  • Vanakkam! Welcome to South India.

    After breakfast and some time to rest, 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, a former British trading center that is now filled with a fascinating mix of 18th-century churches and Jain and Hindu temples. We’ll also visit Mylapore, a vibrant neighborhood that came into existence long before Chennai itself. In fact, Greek geographer Ptolemy wrote of the thriving port of Mylapore in the second century AD.

    After our discoveries, we’ll return to our hotel briefly before enjoying a Welcome Dinner together at a local restaurant.

  • After breakfast, we'll travel south along the coast to the stone-carving village of Mahabalipuram (also called Mamallapuram). 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.

    Today, we’ll explore the rock sculptures of Mahabalipuram, beginning with the stunning Arjuna's Penance, often called the “Descent of the Ganges.” This bas-relief is renowned as the ultimate example of Mahabalipuram’s breathtaking stonework—as well as a crowning jewel of ancient Indian art. On this massive bolder, we’ll see images of Hindu mythology, local animals, and everyday life, as well as a natural cleft that was meant to represent the holy River Ganges.

    We’ll have lunch at a local restaurant and check in to our hotel before witnessing another one of Mahabalipuram’s lovely sites: the Shore Temple. Dating back to the early 8th century, this is often considered the oldest stone-built temple in South India, with a distinctive two-tower style that eventually gained popularity across Southeast Asia. Over the years, the wind, salt, and sand of the nearby sea have had their effects on this architectural masterpiece, but that has not prevented it from becoming one of India’s most beloved (and most photographed) sites.

    We’ll also visit a cluster of seventh-century temples known as the Five Rathas, which were, astonishingly, each carved from single rocks. Each of these temples was dedicated to a Hindu god and named for one of the Pandavas—the five brothers of the ancient text Mahabharata—or their shared wife, Draupadi.

    This evening, we’ll return to our hotel. Dinner is on your own.

  • Today, continue your discoveries of Mahabalipuram on your own, or join us for an optional excursion to Kanchipuram, "City of 1,000 Temples." Kanchipuram was the capital of the Pallava Dynasty from the sixth to eighth centuries and is now hailed as one of India’s seven holy cities. We’ll begin our discoveries at Kanchipuram's oldest temple: the eighth-century Kailasanatha Temple. Next, we'll explore the elaborate Ekambareswarar Temple, a gathering place for worshippers dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva. After an included lunch at a local restaurant, we’ll return to our hotel, where you’ll have some time at leisure before we all gather for dinner at a local restaurant.

  • Today, we’ll dive deeper into the vibrant culture of South India when we experience A Day in the Life of an Indian fishing village. After breakfast, we’ll drive to Kokilamedu, a small village south of Mahabalipuram on the shores of the Bay of Bengal. When we arrive, a group of local fishermen will lead us through their daily routine—first taking us to a village temple to complete a short puja, or Hindu prayer, which is a common custom for local fishermen before heading out on the high seas. We’ll then board the fishermen’s boat and experience life on the open ocean for ourselves as they guide us through the process of catching fish. Later, the fishermen’s families will show us how to prepare, cook, and eat these fish when we return to Kokilamedu.

    We’ll then bid farewell to the fishermen and proceed to a local center for women. We’ll have a chance to meet the women who regularly visit the center, while learning more about the patchwork and handcrafts they make to earn money for themselves and their families. Next, we’ll glimpse into the future of Kokilamedu by visiting an elementary school supported in part by Grand Circle Foundation, where we’ll interact with the young students (when school is in session).

    This afternoon, we’ll have lunch at a local restaurant before returning to our hotel, where you’ll have the rest of the day to make your own discoveries in Mahabalipuram. Dinner tonight is on your own.

  • This morning, we’ll embark on a drive to Thanjavur (also called Tanjore), stopping en route for lunch. While Thanjavur is now a bustling Indian town, it was once a dazzling Chola capital under the leadership of Rajaraja I—often considered the Chola Empire’s greatest leader for his role in spreading Hinduism to Sri Lanka, the Maldives, and Java. We’ll arrive in Thanjavur this afternoon and enjoy some time at leisure before dinner together at our hotel.

  • After breakfast this morning, we visit Thanjavur’s most renowned landmark (and one of India’s crowning architectural jewels): the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Brihadishwara Temple, built between 1003 and 1010 AD to reflect the power of Chola king Rajaraja I and honor the Hindu god Shiva. In its prime, the temple worshipped the god by employing as many as 400 female dancers and a total of 200 dance teachers, musicians, astrologers, accountants, tailors, laundrymen, and other ritual attendants—the names and addresses of whom were diligently inscribed on the temple wall. This afternoon, we’ll learn more about Thanjavur’s long-standing appreciation for the arts when we visit a bronze school and casting center, where we'll find out how these ancient crafts are practiced today.

    After an included lunch, you’ll have time to explore Thanjavur on your own. We’ll regroup tonight as we meet a local family for a Home-Hosted Dinner.

  • 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 Sri Meenakshi Temple, the glorious fortress-like temple in the center of the city. Sri 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.”

    En route to Madurai, we’ll stop to visit a local tile factory and to enjoy lunch of Chettinad cuisine—typical of the Chettiar community of Tamil Nadu. We’ll arrive in Madurai in the late afternoon and check in to our hotel. Dinner is on your own this evening.

  • This morning after breakfast, visit Sri Meenakshi Temple for a daylight viewing of its gopurams. These pyramid-shaped structures often function as gateways to the temple complex, but at Sri 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 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, 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. We’ll arrive in Periyar in the afternoon and check in to our hotel. Then we’ll visit a local spice plantation, where we’ll learn about the many spices that grow in Thekkady, including pepper, cardamom, cinnamon, and cloves. Tonight, we’ll have dinner together at our hotel.

  • South India is home to an extraordinary variety of flora and fauna, and many of its most exotic species are native to the region. We’ll learn more about the area’s rich biodiversity today when we visit Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary—one of South India's most renowned national parks, set high in the Cardamom Hills. Here, we’ll embark on a jungle walk, keeping our eyes peeled for the sanctuary's 62 animal species, including elephants, wild boars, leopards, wild dogs, and monkeys.

    This afternoon, after lunch on your own, we’ll regroup to 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. Then, we’ll take a Jeep to a nearby farm, where we’ll have the chance to pick our own vegetables and cook dinner with the help of a local.

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    This morning, we’ll travel west to India’s sun-soaked coast, breaking up our drive with several stops. In the afternoon, we’ll arrive in the small Kerala village of Nedumudi, where we’ll board a Kettuvellam (houseboat)—our home for two nights. Originally designed as rice barges, these distinctive boats were later used by royalty when touring.

    Once aboard our Kettuvellam, we’ll enjoy lunch and begin our cruise of Kerala’s scenic “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, but now scattered with communities ranging from large towns to small enclaves.  Today, we’ll drift through the backwaters of Alleppey, known as “God's own country” for its serene natural beauty.

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    Today we’ll continue our discoveries of Kerala’s palm-fringed canals as we float past small villages and backwater communities. This afternoon, we’ll get a better look at daily life in this area by visiting a typical Kerala home and meeting its residents.  We’ll have lunch aboard our houseboat before stopping to visit another local village.

    Tonight, we’ll learn how to cook typical Kerala cuisine—which traditionally features a great deal of seafood and vegetarian dishes. We’ll then enjoy dinner on our houseboat.

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    After breakfast, we’ll depart for 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. En route, we’ll stop at a factory that makes products from coir—a natural fiber extracted from coconut husks. Depending on the maturity of the coconuts, these fibers can be used for doormats, brushes, mattresses, string, or fishing nets.

    We’ll check in to our hotel, then have lunch at a local restaurant. Later, we’ll visit the Fort Cochin area at the northwestern tip of the peninsula. Here, we’ll stroll the old streets filled with Dutch, British, Portuguese, and Lusitanian monuments, as well as the popular seaside promenade, where we might see some of Cochin’s most popular emblems: the elegant Cheena vala, or Chinese fishing nets. These traditional, massive nets—which typically require the strength of four men to operate—are said to have come to southern India via traders from Kublai Khan’s court.

    Tonight, enjoy dinner on your own in Cochin. Or join an optional evening cruise on the Kerala backwaters, with an exclusive Kathakali performance, followed by a seafood dinner at a local restaurant.

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    This morning we’ll explore Mattancherry—a section of Cochin that was once the center of the spice trade. Mattancherry is also home to one of the world’s oldest Jewish populations, as we’ll learn when we stroll the intensely aromatic streets of the old Jewish quarter, 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. We’ll also visit Paradesi Synagogue, which was founded in 1568. Here, we’ll once again be reminded of Cochin’s complex culture as we view floor tiles from China, chandeliers from Belgium, and several Dutch repairs.

    We'll also visit 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. You’ll have time for lunch on your own in Mattancherry before we return to our hotel for time at leisure.

    Later, we’ll toast to our discoveries in South India at a special Farewell Dinner at a local restaurant.

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    Very early this morning, you’ll transfer to the airport for your return flight to the U.S. via Dubai. Travelers taking our Dubai’s Timeless Desert & Modern Wonders post-trip will remain in Dubai and begin Day 1 of their extension. Travelers who are joining our post-trip to Rajasthan: Udaipur & Jodhpur will transfer to the airport this morning for their flight to Delhi.

  • POST-TRIP EXTENSION:
    Rajasthan: Udaipur & Jodhpur

    7 nights from only $1895

    Nestled among the fairytale landscapes and sweeping desert vistas of Rajasthan—India’s legendary Land of Kings—are two of the country’s most spellbinding destinations. We invite you to unveil the romantic allure of Udaipur and the blue-tinged magic of Jodhpur to discover how these cities captured the hearts of India’s mighty maharajas.

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  • POST-TRIP EXTENSION:
    Dubai’s Timeless Desert & Modern Wonders

    3 nights from only $995

    Experience the interplay of the United Arab Emirates’ sleepy Bedouin past and its bustling cosmopolitan present. Exquisite architecture, antique and modern, surrounds us as we explore the culture, history, and traditions of the UAE’s two most populous cities: Dubai, the gem of the Persian Gulf, and Abu Dhabi, the country’s capital.

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Click below to read our Travel Planning Guide on NEW Soul of India: The Colorful South

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