A Journey To Discover The Magic Of South India

I went to Mumbai with the idea of ending my trip in Goa, because they told me that there lies the true essence of coming-of-age. Destiny however led me from Mumbai to Tamil Nadu and extended to touring the southern tip of Kerala. On the way back, everyone wanted to know my impressions after such a long journey.

What could I tell: South India had incarnated in me and I was in a way another person. Everything ended up being familiar to me. South India appeals like no other land to the senses and rules over them. Smells, flavours, colours, music - all together create even in the least sensitive spirit a complex emotion that will never leave you.

best places for solo trip in south india

The first dosa

Watching a background of sharp skyscrapers to trains that do not fit a pin, I walk through the labyrinth of tiny alleys of Mumbai. A certain frenzy subsided, until it explodes in an insane spiritual fervour. In Colaba, I have the first dosa in my Southern odyssey.

The Gateway of India fades into the smog of old Bombay as I sail to Elephanta to see the triple face of Sadashiva carved into the cave. I am captivated by the indifference and peace that his inner gaze gives off. On the way back to my hostel a taxi driver recommends me that I go to Madurai, a divine place that has mesmerised him fully.

On hearing my change of plans, the hostel owner suggests me if he would book for me a flight ticket from Mumbai to Chennai. My budget however advised me to look for a cheaper option.

Manali of the South

I reach Madurai at night, when a secret desire provokes me to visit the headland where the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean meet but the almighty had other plans. The heat was suffocating. The temples were the only coolest place where I spend the day. People recited a prayer before the little idols dipped in yellow powders and flower necklaces.

I flee from the heat to the Nilgiri Mountains, where I enjoyed the freshness of Kodaikanal. Kodaikanal (Kodai), at 2,100 m high, gains in charm when it was enveloped in the mist (which happens often). It had a character of its own, accentuated by its organic cuisine and its high popularity among honeymooners.

On the lake with star-shaped rowing boats swaying, and the misty slopes covered with forest are Kurinji shrubs that only grows in the Western Ghats and bloom every 12 years. There are routes through forests and reach viewpoints that show the horizon and shimmering lakes.

I sense the paradise in Vattakanal village, which has the lively atmosphere and feels like the Manali of South India.

Go go Govindaaa!

After entering Tiruvannamalai, I feel a paroxysm. My face turns to the lingam of fire lit on the top of Arunachala, the sacred mountain of Tiruvannamalai. I go around the altar in an ashram chanting the Vedas in Tamil. The illuminated atmosphere of the ashram is profound. Hands together, the devotees pray. I sit with the men while the women on the other side sing. In the ground an excellent thali is laid on banana leaves.

It is not surprising that my next step is guided by a strange idea. I decide to go to Tirupati, south of Andhra Pradesh. The Tirumala mountain attracts more pilgrims than Mecca or Rome, they say. Crowded bus convoys rush around the curves in a breath-taking pace.

Few pilgrims adopt me and guide me in the endless queues. I reach the temple covered in gold. The devotees touch the walls and raise their arms and shout Go go Govindaaa! I have two seconds to see the face of Balaji, before I receive a shove. My protectors then told me excitedly: "You can go home now, as you have seen God."

best places for solo trip in south india

The Malabar coast

It was September. The monsoon was giving its last blows. From the rickshaw the white churches of Velha Goa seemed suspended in a bed of coconut trees.

I have been moving places now, and I hardly knew my next destination. That is how I ended up in the Gokarna, which gets together everything that I would find when delving into the South: the centrifugal attraction of the temples, the noble and carefree people, and the healing beat of the jungle.

I came to Gokarna for a few days and stayed for a week. In the mornings, I saw the fishermen on the beach and on evenings the abrupt sunset with the oxen on Om beach. I met a merry holy man who lived in the forest and start realising the true meaning of coming-of-age.

The train that takes me to Badami crosses the misty plains of Karnataka. On the trains, you can understand the real life of this country if you venture to travel in the general class, little visited by tourists. I like Badami, its temples around the green lagoon where I swim every afternoon. I enjoy the reddish light of the gorges and the hills.

Remote, dusty city anchored in an Islamic past, in Bijapur I occupy a large colonial room with a porch and garden.

Afterlife

Every traveler is looking for the landscape that they carry inside even before they are born. In childhood I caught a glimpse of it in part, as through a keyhole: a reed bed, the silk flight of dragonflies, the afterlife in a perfect Kipling phrase.

Thanks to a friend in Gokarna I found myself among the landscapes of Hampi, in the middle of the most wonderful ruins. I learn about Vijayanagara, capital of a vast and powerful empire and see round rocks, as carved by Cyclops, a gentle river winding for the eyes, palaces and temples plundered by the sultans centuries ago, the brilliant green of the rice fields.

Hampi is a mythological place come true, like so many things in life. The Ramayana designates it as the place where Sugriva and his army of monkeys join Rama to rescue Sita, abducted by Ravana. I wanted to stay in Hampi climbing rocks, or meditating with a mind full of dragonflies. I ascended the Hanuman Temple and I swam across the Tungabhadra river every day until the rains came.

Crouching Elephant, Hidden Tiger

Someone told me about the Bengal tigers and the free elephants of Madumalai. I boarded a bus in Mysore, a city with the best stocked market. With mountains of onions, potatoes, cabbages, tomatoes and other unknown vegetables, the Devaraja market has it all. The huge palace of the Maharaja bored me compared to the market.

I was mesmerized by the multi-coloured spice minarets, the banana columns, the jasmine arabesques for the women's braids. I climb around the hills amidst the mythical trees and the furtive presence of striped tigers: Kipling again. In Theppakkadu a man told me about his childhood and his retreat to these wild mountains, far from the suffocating cities.

My driver took me in the jeep to a bend in the river to see the elephant bath. Sher Khan, the tiger from The Jungle Book, remained hidden in the bush.

Backwaters

In Kerala most of the men that I meet has moustaches and wear dhoti. I passed through Thrissur and Trivandrum. I saw the Chinese nets of Fort Kochi in a green sea of algae. I spent a night at a long performance enjoying Kathakali in a theatre.

I finally arrived in Alleppey to rest in a campsite listening to the churning of the waves all night. In Alleppey I took a boat sailing in the backwaters to Kollam. I see the palms of the coconut trees combing the air, and the clouds that pass towards the horizon.

All the South Indian cities end up being overwhelming. They are a faithful reflection of the cyclothymic momentum of India, which often ends in a fascinating mix of ruins, dust and pride. From the waters of the gigantic Arabian sea, I see the dawn and feel that the time has stopped and I already think with nostalgia that I will return.

How to go around South India

There are direct flights between the capital cities, and there are also many options to fly with a stopover. There is the possibility of flying to airports in South India. If you are looking for a quicker trip or see more places in a short time book a flight ticket from Mumbai to Chennai or Bangalore or Thiruvananthapuram early and enjoy the southern odyssey.

Kalyan Panja