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South India: Festival and Culture

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13 days, 12 nights
Availability : November through March
Min Age : 10+
Grade: 1 - Easy

South India is one of the most alluring and exotic destinations on Earth.  It’s a dazzling mix of incense and romance, temples and tea, curry and coconut.  Our South India Festival  & Culture Tour will introduce you to the best of everything here; highlighting the uniqueness of the South with a visit to Pongal, a traditional regional harvest celebration and festival, and a special focus on the rich culture and culinary traditions in Tamil Nadu and Kerala.  Arrive in the eastern city of Chennai, making your way south to Mahabalipuram, home of world renowned stone carvers and ancient stone temples overlooking the Bay of Bengal.  Witness the Pongal Festival, celebrating the rain god Lord Indra and the sun god Kolam with elaborate artworks and painted cattle, traditional dancing and singing, bonfires and feasting. Hop a short flight to Tiruchirappalli (or Trichy), one of Tamil Nadu’s largest cities and visit the impressive Rock Fort that presides dramatically over the town. Continue on to Thanjavur, a city which rose to glory during the late Chola period, well known throughout the world as home to Brahadeeswara temple, the magnificent palace, Rajah Serfoji’s Saraswathi Mahal Library, it’s art gallery and as a treasure of exquisite art and handicrafts for centuries. Drive to Chettinad and visit the foremost temple in the world devoted to Vishnu, Srirangam and learn to cook a traditional Chettinad meal served on a fresh banana leaf.

Move your way through Tamil Nadu, to Madurai where you will visit the Meenkshi Amman Temple, which has just undergone a recent, extensive renovation taking nearly a decade. Witness the evening prayers here and feel the energy of this powerful site visited by thousands of Hindu pilgrims from all around India every day. Head west over the ghats, toward Kerala.  Stop in Thekkady where you will take a boat ride on a peaceful lake and taste your way through a spice plantation, peeling cinnamon bark and sampling peppercorns off the vine. Take a cooking class with a Keralan chef at your hotel and discover the uniqueness of the regional cuisine.  Spend a peaceful night aboard a kettuvallum, a traditional houseboat, where you will relax and discover some of the best seafood in South India!  A local family will welcome you into their home and give you a traditional cooking demonstration and show you their culture and customs.  Explore the historically rich town of Cochin, watching local fisherman pull up their nets and cruise through the centuries old spice markets where Marco Polo once roamed!  On your final night  enjoy a special farewell dinner followed by a performance of Kathakali, a spiritual dance.  On this trip you will have the opportunity to learn to cook and eat the very best of South Indian cuisine as well as visit some of the most culturally interesting temples and cities in this 13 day/12 night itinerary.

Highlights:
-Experience the traditions of Pongal, a local harvest festival in Tamil Nadu
-Taste your way through a spice plantation in Thekkady
-Witness India’s best stone sculptors in action in Mahabalipuram
-Visit the largest Vishnu temple in the world in Trichy
-Learn insiders tricks for preparing Indian cuisine from local chefs

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Trip at a glance

Brief Itinerary

Day Description Overnight
Day 1 Arrive in Chennai Chennai
Day 2 Drive to Mahabalipuram Mahabalipuram
Day 3 Drive to Chennai. Fly to Trichy. Trichy
Day 4 Drive to Chettinad Chettinad
Day 5 Attend the Pongal Festival Chettinad
Day 6 Drive to Madurai Madurai
Day 7 Explore Madurai Madurai
Day 8 Drive to Thekkady Thekkady
Day 9 Thekkady Thekkady
Day 10 Drive to Kumarakom. Board houseboat. Houseboat
Day 11 Allepey Allepey
Day 12 Allepey to Kochi. Kochi
Day 13 Final departure  
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Detailed Itinerary

Day 1Arrival in Chennai

Arrive in Chennai, the chaotic capital city of Tamil Nadu province. Spend the afternoon getting acclimated to Indian time and culture. Meet your other tour members at a group dinner at the hotel.

Stay: Hotel Beverly (D)

Day 2Drive to Mahabalipuram

Your day will begin with a morning tour of Chennai, in the state of Tamil Nadu. Visit the bronze gallery and see their superb collection of Chola art. Visit a local market, Kapeeleshwar Temple, Marina Beach among others. After a short drive, we will spend the day exploring Mahabalipuram (formerly Mamallapuram), the historic, picturesque town that is world-renowned for their highly skilled stone carvers. The sweeping stretch of golden sands lacing the Bay of Bengal has defied time and retained its pristine nature, and is the setting for the amazingly well preserved shore temples that date back to the 8th century. Visit the World Heritage Site Five Rathnas and you’ll see five impressive shrines carved out of pink granite and named after five famous characters from the Mahabharata. Watch local fisherman practice the labor intensive ancient art of pulling in their haul by hand from the beach.

Stay: Ideal Beach Resort (B, D)

Day 3Drive to Chennai. Fly to Trichy.

After breakfast, you’ll depart for Chennai where you will catch a flight to Trichy. Situated on the banks of the river Cauvery is the fourth largest city in Tamil Nadu, Tiruchirappalli or Trichy. A fine blend of tradition and modernity built around the Rock Fort, it is home to many churches, colleges and missions dating back to the 18th century.

Stay: Ideal River View (B, D)

Day 4Drive to Chettinad

Known for their cultural heritage and culinary delicacies, the Chettiars are widely known as the historical business tycoons of the South. What remains in Chettinad today are their architectural legacies and many of their descendents. The local village Karaikudi is famous not only for its traditional houses, but for its unique, brightly colored handmade tiles that you will see all over India. Lunch will be at the Bangala, a traditional Chettinad style restaurant overlooking a spectacular garden. Chettinad food is famous for using a variety of different spices and masalas in preparing vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes, and for the beautiful banana leaf presentation. After your meal, spend some time wandering through the Shandi market seeing the unique goods that are available in this region. In the evening, you’ll learn the art of authentic South India cuisine at a cooking class and then dine on the delicacies that you’ve helped to prepare.

Stay: The Bangala (B, D)

Day 5Attend the Pongal Festival.

Today you will travel approximately one hour from Chettinad to Nattarasankottai to experience Pongal, a traditional harvest festival unique to Tamil Nadu. This is a Hindu celebration of the harvest’s end marking the six month period Uttarayanda, the northward movement of the sun, when all important events are scheduled. This four day festival celebrates the rain god Lord Indra and the sun god Kolam with elaborate artworks of colored rice flour and colored chalk, painted, decorated cattle, dancing and singing, bonfires and feasting. Very few Westerners get to participate in this unique experience.

Stay: The Bangala (B, D)

Day 6Drive to Madurai

From Chettinad, you’ll make your way to the second largest city in Tamil Nadu, Madurai. Enroute, stop at one of the five Gandhi sanghralayas (museums) in the country, and learn a bit more about India’s iconic hero. Endowed with a rich cultural heritage and glorious traditions, Madurai is considered one of the “antique” cities of India. With history dating back to the 6th century BC, it’s often called “The Athens of the East”. In the late afternoon, you’ll visit the elaborate Meenakshi Amman Temple complex, which is the largest Shiva temple in the world. The soaring towers rise from solid granite bases and are covered with intricate stucco figures of deities, mythical animals and monsters painted in vivid colors. Witness the evening prayers and feel the sacredness of this very special temple.

Stay: Sangam (B, D)

Day 7Explore Madurai

Spend the day getting a deeper appreciation for one of India’s most popular cities for Indian residents. Spend a bit more time at the Meenakshi Temple Complex, and visit the Tirumala Nayak Palace, a gracious 17th century building in the Indo Saracenic style famous for intricate stucco work on its domes and arches. After lunch, take a short drive to the Thiruparankundram Temple where the Hindu got Murugan is said to have married Deivanai. The temple is the first among the six holy abodes of Murugan and the second most popular temple in Madurai. You’ll end the evening with an adventurous auto rickshaw ride through town, returning to the hotel for dinner.

Stay: Sangam (B, L, D)

Day 8Drive to Thekkady

This morning, take a bamboo raft on Lake Periyar, in one of South India’s most popular wildlife reserves. Be sure to bring your camera and binoculars as you might spot wild elephants, gaur, deer, exotic birds and more. Afternoon free to enjoy the lush tropical gardens and grounds of your hotel, explore the town of Thekkady or rest by the pool. (B, D)

Stay: Greenwoods (B, D)

Day 9Thekkady

This morning, take a bamboo raft on Lake Periyar, in one of South India’s most popular wildlife reserves. Be sure to bring your camera and binoculars as you might spot wild elephants, gaur, deer, exotic birds and more. Afternoon free to enjoy the lush tropical gardens and grounds of your hotel, explore the town of Thekkady or rest by the pool. (B, D)

Stay: Greenwoods (B, D)

DAY 10 Board a houseboat

You will depart after breakfast for Kumarakom, deep in the tropical heart of Kerala. “God’s Own Country” as the locals call it, Kerala has the country’s highest literacy rate at 91%. It’s mostly known for its lush backwaters, which are a peaceful slice of heaven far away from the clamor of India. Kumarakom is an emerald peninsula jutting into the beautiful Vembanad Lake, where you’ll see plenty of traditional country crafts, boats and canoes. The fresh water of the lake runs through the flat lands of Kerala. Here you will board a traditional “kettuvallam” for a tour through the backwaters where land, sea and sky come together. Cruise comfortably and slowly on an air-conditioned boat through quiet canals lined with coconut palms and rice paddies. Before roads were built the waterways were the highways of South India and they still are in a different way as you’ll see. Enjoy a wonderful freshly prepared dinner that you will not soon forget!

Stay: Houseboat (B, L, D)

DAY 11 Kerelan homestay at Allepey

Disembark from the houseboat and visit the Allepey market. Experience the unparalleled magic of the narrow, shaded streets and vibrant color of this quaint town built along canals and shaded by coconut trees. Mid-day you will visit a local home, where you will eat a lovingly prepared meal and meet the family. Afterwards, you will have free time to walk in the village. In the evening, you will learn firsthand the finer points of Keralan cuisine from a local chef.

Stay: Homestay (B, L, D)

Day 12Drive to Kochi

This morning, travel about an hour north to Cochin, the distinctive colonial town that has been home to Jewish settlers, Portuguese and Dutch traders, Chinese visitors with threads of Syrian, Christian and Portuguese merchants. Wake up and greet the fishermen at Cochin’s famous Chinese fishing nets during their morning catch. The strong are invited to help pull in a net! Enjoy a fascinating tour of Cochin’s heritage sites including St. Francis Church (the oldest in India, built in 1506), the Jewish Synagogue, Mattancherry Palace, and the world famous spice markets. Shopping opportunities abound! If all that shopping has you tired, indulge in one of Kerala’s famous ayurvedic massages. Cochin clings to its vibrant historical traditions such as Kalarippayat, a gravity-defying martial art. In the evening, witness another one of their sacred traditions, a trance-induced ritual Kathakali, a blend of religion and dance.

Stay: Spice Fort (B, D)

DAY 13 Final departure

Transfer to the airport for final departure. (B)

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Detailed Cost Information

Per person price until Dec 31, 2020

(4 and 5 STAR HOTELS)
2 – 3 participants: $3,600 USD per person
4 or more participants: $3,240 USD per person

Single Supplement: $995 USD

(All private departures)

 

 

Price Includes

  • All airport transfers
  • Sightseeing as indicated in the itinerary; all entrance fees
  • Meals as indicated in the itinerary
  • Domestic airfare: Chennai to Trichy
  • Double occupancy accommodation
  • Transfers by private air-conditioned vehicles
  • English speaking tour escort

Price Excludes

  • Your international airfare
  • Tips
  • India visa fee (must be obtained prior to arrival in India)
  • International airport tax, if applicable
  • Travel Insurance
  • Bottled/canned beverages including soft drinks, alcoholic beverages and mineral water
  • Expenses of a personal nature
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Map
Trip Gallery

Options

It is best to co-incide this trip with the Pongal Festival near Chettinad which is usually in November. Inquire for dates. You may also consider the India: Coast to Coast program which is very similar to this trip. Or ask us to customize a trip for you. We’d be happy to do so.

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Frequently Asked Questions

FAQ

How do I get an India visa?

You must get an Indian visa prior to arrival in India. You may submit your visa online. Click on this Indian Government website for details.

How should I dress when traveling in India?

It is best to be conservative so cover up and dress in light, loose clothing. You can buy cheap and colorful Indian clothes once you get there. Also bring a light cardigan or pullover. It can get chilly in Munnar.

When is the best time to travel on this trip?

The best time to travel in South India is during the winter months – December through February. You could extend this time frame to November through April. During these months humidity is at a minimum and the temperature ranges from the 70’s to the 90’s. Munnar is cooler especially in the evenings. Note, it is monsoons/summer from May through October.

Are there ATM's available? Can I use my credit card?

Yes, ATM’s are widely available in all cities and towns of India. And most vendors will accept credit cards.  There are also other forms of payment.

What are some essentials I should pack?

While traveling in India, things will not always go according to plan. So be patient. Here are some items you could include in your pack:

  • Charcoal Tablet/Electrolytes: To deal with diarrhoea and the famed ” Delhi Belly”.
  • Toilet paper/Wet wipes: Easily available anywhere in India.
  • Ear plugs: Good to have, especially if you are sensitive to noise. India can be noisy.
  • Insect repellent: Very important for mosquitoes and other bugs.
  • Sunscreen: The sun is quite bright. You do need to take precautions to avoid adverse effects on your skin.

Is India safe?

YES. As long as you apply the same level of carefulness as you would in any other large city. Petty theft and pick-pocketing is prevalent in some places and you must always be aware of your belongings. 

As far as safety for women, India is generally safe. Women may experience unwanted attention from men. Dressing conservatively helps. And it is highly recommended not to travel or arrive at a destination late at night. Especially if you are traveling alone.

What kind of food should I expect?

Indian food is SPICY; especially for those who have a bland palate. Spicy does not necessarily mean chilli spicy, but it also means the use of spices such as ginger, cumin, coriander, turmeric etc. And, South Indian food is usually cooked in coconut oil which some people may not like after a few meals. That said, a wide variety of world cuisine is available. So you could choose what you want to eat.

1 Review
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Tom P

Family Traveller

“The Festival and Culture Tour occurs at precisely the right time of year, during the Pongal festival, when the weather is moderate. For my wife and me, it was the perfect blend of immersion and insulation, with great local guides and charming Indian hotels. The temples in Tamil Nadu were amazing, followed by cultural experiences in Kerala: a houseboat tour through old canals and a stay in a traditional home. With our own car and driver, we had access to many places we never would have seen without the keen insight of our guides, which also enabled us to meet local people. Though the schedule is full, there was enough time built in for relaxation and contemplation. All in all, it was a perfect trip, made possible only with the knowledge and preparation of Grand Asian Journeys.”

November 14, 2015