The five states of laid-back Southern India are Andrha Pradesh & Telegana, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala at the tip of the continent. From the IT capital of Bangalore (Bangalura) to the palaces of Mysore and Hampi, once part of the ancient Vijayanagara Empire, there’s much to discover in the decidedly different Southern India.
In 2014 the central government divided this into two states to meet popular demand from the Telugu-speaking region of the interior for their own state. Telegana is the inland territory of the former state while the reduced Andhra Pradesh is a long coastal region adjoin the Bay of Bengal.
Hyderabad, for the moment, is the joint capital and was the seat of the Nizams of Hyderabad. The last to rule his principality before Indian independence was a well known miser and eccentric. Despite chests of jewels and gold lying around the palace he dressed like a beggar and despite electric lights had his way lit with a candle carried by a servant. Read Freedom at Midnight, the story of the gaining of Indian independence by Lapierre and Collins for more eccentricities.
While Hyderabad, like any other major Indian city, is a sprawling affair, it is the older central section that is the attraction. The Charminar archway topped with minarets (you can climb to the top) is a landmark for the incredible Laad Bazaar. Hyderabad is known for its bangles and in small workshops you can view the very manually intensive task of making them. The Salar Jung Museum is stuffed full of artworks, jewellery, weaponry and miniature paintings. The Chowmahalla Palace, no treasure chests now, is the former palace of the Nizam and now open to the public.
Outside the city, Golconda Fort is a 16th-century fortress built on the flanks and top of a 120m-, 70ft-high craggy hill. The 5km-, 3mile-perimeter protects an interior with palace buildings, halls, magazines, stables and other buildings needed to service a regal capital from the 12th century.
Andhra Pradesh’s long coastline provides many beaches to explore with that at Visakhapatnam (aka Vizag) being a favourite with domestic tourists. While it might be the Long Beach or Blackpool of India, the cultural colour of India at the seaside is an interesting spectacle.
Vizag is a central location to explore the interior with tribal cultures in the Araku Valley, ancient Buddhist complexes at Sankaram and Aramavathi, and Tirumala’s holy Hindu pilgrimage centre atop a hill ascended daily by thousands of pilgrims.
This state is the home to the Tamil people, one of the oldest civilisations in the country settling here from the north about 4500 years ago.
Chennai, formerly Madras, has a decent museum and a fine example of Tamil temple architecture in the Kapaleeshwrarar Temple with its towering multi-coloured entrance gateway (gopuram). Completed on St George’s Day in 1644, Fort St George was the British fortress around which the modern city has developed. Within its walls are the state legislature and the Fort Museum with displays from colonial times. While Marina Beach is not suitable for bathing it’s a place for a quiet of the day stroll, a look-see at the fishmarket and general observance of the locals at relaxation.
Beach junkies make their way to Mamallapuram to hang out, visit its temples and rock carvings, enjoy cold beers on the beach, practise yoga, get manipulated by a masseur or munch on fresh seafood or a nostalgic pizza.
Puducherry, once Pondicherry, was a French colony until 1954. Appearing briefly in the film, The Life of Pi, the city’s French legacy is preserved in its French Quarter, with tree-lined streets (named Rue rather than Street), colonial buildings and churches.
Tiruchirappalli, sensibly shortened to Trichy, has the biggie of temples(Ranganathaswamy Temple) in the ornate Dravidian style of ancient Tamil culture. More a city in itself the temple is surrounded by seven concentric walls. The big numbers continue with 21 gopurams (towers), 39 pavilions, 50 shrines and a vast hall with 1,000 pillars.
Madurai is another city with a temple (Sri Meenakshi) that excels. This has 12 gompurams with the highest at 52m studded with hundreds of deities, demons and heroes.
The Western Ghats (hills) form the western state boundary. Here at over 2,000m locals and foreigners flock to escape the heat.
Udhagamandalam (again fortunately abbreviated to Ooty) is an old British hill town with a feel of history to it. A very good reason for visiting Ooty is that it is the terminus of the only steam engine-hauled rail service left in India. The journey starts at the bottom of the Nilgiri Hills in Mettupalayam and takes five hours to ascend 2,000m up jaw-dropping scenery.
Bangalura, (aka Bangalore) has made its name in the most modern of things – the internet and computers. Here is India ancient and modern. An IT specialist drives home from a day in the office dealing with the future in technology. Reaching home he might change into traditional kurta pyjamas (a loose fitting light shirt down to about the knees and loose baggy trousers kept up with a drawstring). This could be followed by a visit to the temple where his act of worship (puja) might have remained unchanged for thousands of years.
Bengaluru Palace contains the artefacts and paintings of a princely family while outside the grounds have hosted concerts by the likes of Elton John and the Rolling Stones. For aircraft buffs the HAL Aerospace museum sponsored by Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd, which has its base in this city, has displays of Indian and foreign built aircraft.
Wonderla, outside Bengaluru is an amusement park with plenty of water-based rides. The Iskon temple run by the Hare Krishna sect is an astonishing mix of modern technology, ancient ritual and modern and traditional architecture.
Mysore is much more a traditional city, and if nothing else is showcased by the magnificent Maharaja’s Palace, one of seven palaces in the city. Match Indian craftsmanship and a maharajah’s wealth and anything splendid can happen as it has here. Stained glass, wood carvings, ornate pillars and mosaic floors contribute to an outlandish display of Indo-Saracenic architecture (a melange of Hindu, Muslim, Rajput and Gothic styles) at its best. Unfortunately no photography inside but I did catch a local politician photographing with his mobile phone.
The market is one of the best in India for a palette of colours and a mix of everything in the food line. For rail buffs there’s a Rail Museum and although not on the scale of Delhi’s gives a peak into how royalty travelled by rail.
Sri Chamundeswari Temple stands upon the Chamundi Hill outside town. Fronting the temple is a seven-storey gopuram decorated with the usual phalanx of intricately carved statues. The temple doors are of beaten silver.
Hampi. Mix a surreal rock landscape with oases of green rice fields and sprinkled with temples of all shapes and sizes and you have a small idea of what this laid back town is all about. You need to visit to get the real picture.
Now just a small town, Hampi was once part of the richest empires, the Vijayanagara Empire with its capital of Vijayanagara. At its peak in the early 1500s its population was about half a million making it one of the largest cities in the world at that time. Like all empires this one had a limited life span and in 1565 it was conquered by a confederation of Deccan sultanates to its north. The city was pillaged and then abandoned.