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2018 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 British Pathé
India 1942
Catch a glimpse of India in the 1940s, from camel-studded city streets to lush palace gardens.
Courtesy David Conover
India’s Festival of Lights

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

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
Colombo's "creepy" town hall

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

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.

including international airfare
16 DAYS FROM $2495 Land Adventure Only
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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

  • 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.”

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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 continuing our exploration of Mahabalipuram.

    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 temples. 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, 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). Next, we'll visit the town women's center, where 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.

    Later this morning, 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. The fishermen’s families will show us how to prepare, cook, and eat these fish when we return to Kokilamedu for lunch.

    This afternoon, we’ll return 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). 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, have lunch, 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. 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 for dinner 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) 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 enjoy a 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.

  • 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, and one for lunch on your own. 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 and some free time, we’ll go to a nearby farm, where we’ll have the chance to pick our own vegetables and cook dinner with the help of a local.

    • Meals included:
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    This morning, we’ll travel west to India’s sun-soaked coast, breaking up our drive with a stop at a rubber plantation. 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.

    • Meals included:
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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. We’ll have lunch aboard our houseboat before continuing our exploration of the canals.

    This evening, we'll disembark at a village and witness a puja ceremony at a local temple. We’ll then enjoy dinner on our houseboat.

  • 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.

    We’ll have lunch at a local restaurant, then check in at our hotel. Tonight, enjoy an evening cruise on the Kerala backwaters with an exclusive Kathakali performance, an Indian tradition of storytelling through dance and music. You don’t need to worry about speaking the language because Kathakali dramas have no dialogue; instead, the drama unfolds through the actors’ dancing and gestures, called mudras. The dancers’ elaborate movements and painstakingly crafted costumes and makeup come together to create a truly unforgettable visual performance. Dinner afterward is on your own.

  • Today we'll explore 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. 

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

    • Meals included:

    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.

    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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    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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