Tamil Nadu and Kerala boast two of the oldest civilizations in existence today. These traditional societies have a rich cultural and artistic past which is as vibrant as any on earth. With this itinerary you can get a taste of temples, both ancient and 'living', see artists at work in a variety of disciplines and have plenty of time to relax as well.
Day 1: You'll be met on arrival in Chennai and assisted with the transfer to your hotel. Overnight in Chennai.
Day 2: Formerly known as Madras, Chennai was the major trading hub of south-east India during the centuries of British rule. Now a fully-fledged modern metropolis, Chennai boasts one of India's largest museums- you will visit it today along with a host of other sights including Fort St George and Vivekananda House. End the day in the traditional Chennai fashion with a sunset stroll on the famous Marina Beach. Overnight in Chennai.
Day 3: Drive to south to Mahabalipuram, with stops en route at Dakshinachitra- a tastefully recreated village showcasing the arts, crafts and building styles of the different states of southern India- and the artists' village of Cholamandal. On arrival in Mahabalipuram, you will be able to relax on the beach or beside the pool at your hotel. Overnight in Mahabalipuram.
Day 4: An excursion today to Kanchipuram, one of the most sacred pilgrimage places in India and home to some beautiful temples dating back nearly a thousand years- you will be able to learn more about Kanchipuram on a guided tour and later see the silk-weaving for which the city is also famous. Overnight in Mahabalipuram.
Day 5: Mahabalipuram was once a major port and capital of the Pallava Dynasty which held power in this part of India over a thousand years ago. The legacy of this period is a series of superb rock cut temples and several sites throughout the town and its environs have been recognized by UNESCO on its register of World Heritage monuments. Tour these with a guide in the morning and later drive 2 hours south to Pondicherry. This former French colony is something rather special- part Gallic, part Tamil and is a great place to walk around on foot. Explore the French Quarter via the Heritage Trail walk and later venture into the Tamil Quarter with superb shops, boutiques and cafes. Overnight in Pondicherry.
Day 6: Today's drive to Tanjore takes in the rich agricultural land of the Cauvery Delta and passes through interesting villages and a patchwork of emerald green rice paddies. There are 2 temples to visit on the way to Tanjore, both of which have UNESCO World Heritage listing. Gangaikondacholapuram is a smallish temple set in tranquil grounds well off the main tourist route- if you are lucky the only other presence here will be a few sadhus (holy men) and the occasional school group. Close to the town of Kumbakonam is the village of Darasuram and the Airavateshwara Temple- an example of the wonderful restoration work being undertaken by the Archaeological Survey of India, the guardians of India's cultural heritage. Continue on to Tanjore and visit the thousand year old Brihadishwara Temple as the sun sets. This temple is quite simply one of the most stunning sights in all of south India and the effect of the light playing on the granite surfaces of the main temple tower is an unforgettable experience. Overnight in Tanjore.
Day 7: This morning you will revisit Tanjore's Brihadishwara temple, this time with a guide who will explain the history and religious significance of the place. Later tour Tanjore Palace and then proceed to Trichy, another of the main temple cities of Tamil Nadu and check in at your hotel. In the afternoon, journey to Srirangam, a large island in the middle of two branches of the Cauvery River and home to one of the largest temple complexes in Asia. Srirangam Temple houses not only a major place of pilgrimage, but also a thriving town within its seven concentric walls- the entire complex covers more than 60 hectares. For a superb view of the river, the temple and the city you can climb the 437 steps up to the top of Rock Fort in the centre of the city- this is best done at the end of the day when the temperature drops. The area around Rock Fort houses a wonderful bazaar and is home to India's largest textile shop- a massive enterprise with 5 floors of fabrics. Overnight in Trichy.
Day 8: Drive to Chettinad - one of Tamil Nadu's most interesting areas Sittanavasal (famous for ancient monuments and Jain caves with intricate wall Paintings) and then continuing to a most unusual village temple where offerings to the gods are presented in the form of brightly painted terracotta animals- horses, bullocks and elephants. The Chettinad district is the home of the Chettiars, a banking and merchant sub-caste who, over several centuries, made their fortunes trading with empires to the east and west. The intermingling of influences is dizzying- Burmese teak, Italian marble, British steel and a myriad of architectural styles are used and blended in these colossal buildings (some of which are over 40,000 sq ft) and you will not only get the chance to explore some of these buildings, but to stay in one too. The village of Kannudakathan lends itself to exploration on foot, or alternatively by traditional bullock cart. Overnight in Kannudakathan.
Day 9: Explore more of the unique Chettinad culture including a visit to a hand-painted tile maker- most practitioners of this ancient craft work from their homes making this a genuine cottage industry. Another aspect of Chettinad which is attracting more attention is the cuisine of the area- rich, spicy and utterly delicious. The district headquarters of Karaikudi is also worth visiting- an entire street is given over to antique shops. Overnight in Kannudakathan.
Day 10: Leave the peace and quiet of Chettinad and make your way to Madurai, the second largest city in Tamil Nadu and one of the most important pilgrimage centres in Tamil Nadu. During the afternoon you'll be able to visit the Nayak Palace and later the 'centre' of Madurai- the colossal Sri Meenakshi temple. This vast and ornate complex requires the services of an expert guide to give it some sense of context. Meenakshi is not just a place of spiritual importance but also a centre for social gathering, a market place and the streets around the outside are home to traders and merchants of every kind. Overnight in Madurai.
Day 11: A longer day today to drive via Kanyakumari at the southern-most tip of the Indian subcontinent to Kovalam. Like many 'land's end' locations there is something special about this place- the meeting of three great bodies of water (the Bay of Bengal, the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea)- and the Indian subcontinent- it is shrouded in myth and spiritual importance. Kanyakumari is one of the places at which the ashes of the great Mahatma Gandhi where scattered after his assassination and a special memorial here is the last building on the mainland. The pioneering Indian sage and philosopher, Vivekananda, meditated in a cave on a small island just out to sea- visiting this place is an important aspect of a visit to Kanyakumari for many Hindu visitors. Continue on to Kovalam- one of Kerala's most popular beach resorts. Overnight in Kovalam.
Day 12: A day out from touring, driving and looking at things to enjoy the beautiful beaches and perhaps an Ayurvedic massage. Overnight at Kovalam.
Day 13: Drive north to Alleppey and visit Krishnapuram Palace and take a Heritage Tour of the town dubbed by locals as the Venice of the East. Alleppey is slow to reveal her charms but those who know the town can show you a hidden history here which the vast majority of tourists never see. Later board a private houseboat for lunch and an afternoon cruise on the famous backwaters of Kerala. Disembark the boat and drive 2 hours to Cochin, overnight in Fort Cochin.
Day 14: A full day to explore Cochin- a major trading port for over 500 years. Over these centuries of trade, commerce and conquest, Cochin has been influenced by Chinese, Arab, Dutch, Portuguese and British elements and the lasting impact of all these is still clearly seen around the historic Fort Cochin and Mattancherry areas. Your guided sightseeing will focus particularly on the synagogue here (the oldest in India) and the recently restored Dutch Palace. Later in the day visit Greenix Village, a cultural centre, tour their museum and attend a performance of traditional Keralan dance/drama- Kathakali. Overnight in Cochin.
Day 15: AM sightseeing of Cochin, evening performance of Kalari Payattu traditional Keralan Martial Arts, O/N Cochin
Day 16: Transfer to Cochin airport for your onward flight.