Social Media

A month in Kerala & Tamil Nadu—where to go for ancient temples, yoga, beautiful backwaters & mind-blowing food

lady in sari rowing wooden boat on river kerala india
Kerala's stunning backwaters

The Southern Indian states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu cover roughly the same area as England and Wales, yet are home to over 102 million people. These two starkly different areas are an eclectic mix of calming backwaters, juxtaposed with frenetic cities, from the modern stop-off points of Kochi and Kovalam with their western-style coffee shops playing Queen hits in Kerala, to the vegetarian-only cafes, holy cities and astonishing hand-carved temples of coastal Tamil Nadu, there’s something for everyone and every budget. I took a month out of my India itinerary to concentrate on these two very beautiful states, here’s the route I took and the places I highly recommend seeing.

After spending time in Northern India and then the seriously chaotic and traffic-filled city of Bangalore, I flew to Trivandrum airport with a plan to spend six days completely relaxing, taking daily yoga classes and eating good food in Varkala. A friend recommended Soul & Surf, a cliff-top guesthouse run by a British couple offering yoga and surf lessons. On previous trips to India I’d always taken yoga classes or stayed in Ashrams run by Indians, but I took a chance on Soul & Surf based on their good reviews, pretty location and beautiful rooms.

bedroom orange wall soul and surf varkala india
My room at Soul & Surf, Varkala

The six days I spent by the beach were blissful. Varkala does indeed feel like a slightly sanitised version of India (much like Goa), you can order Western food in local cafes plus Soul & Surf has all the comforts of home with nightly film screenings and massages but it was exactly what I was looking for at this point in my journey. Varkala also provides a great introduction to India for travellers who have never been to the country before. After six days of roof-top yoga, great breakfasts and stunning sunsets, I was ready to get out of the Western bubble and needed my next hit of ‘bustling India’ so took a train four hours down the coast, crossing the border into Tamil Nadu to the very Southern tip of India and my next stop, Kanyakumari.

Kanyakumari is the furthest Southern point of mainland India and the place where three oceans meet, the Bay of Bengal, the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean. Standing tall in the Arabian Sea is a 40-meter-high statue of the poet and philosopher Valluvar. You can take a boat out to the statue and neighbouring Vivekananda Rock Memorial. (Astonishingly, while there, a local man told me that during the 2004 tsunami, a wave reached the shoulders of the Valluvar statue). Aside from the fascinating statues out at sea, there’s also a memorial to Mahatma Gandhi that’s worth visiting too. The interesting building is sat on the spot where some of Gandhi’s ashes were kept before being scattered in the sea. Legend has it that at noon every year on his birthday, the sun's rays shine in through a hole in the temple roof to the spot where his ashes were kept. 

white and blue gandhi memorial kanyakumari india
Gandhi memorial, Kanyakumari

In the centre of town, dedicated to the goddess Kanya Kumari is the 3000-year-old Hindu temple (and one of the most beautiful temples in India) Bhagavathy Amman that non-Hindus can visit too. Inside is extremely hot, men have to enter bare-chested and people everywhere take offerings, lie on the floor, bow down repeatedly to deities and offer money or flowers. No photographs are allowed inside but it’s well worth seeking out for an experience unlike any other. Before leaving this intriguing and spiritual town, I walked the short 1km to Sunset Point, where you can buy bright pink candyfloss and watch the most incredible sunset. After two nights in Kanyakumari, I travelled by train back into Kerala for a brief stop in Kovalam, a small coastal town with a distinctive red and white striped lighthouse, which you can climb. Kovalam, for me, was too touristy and resort-like so I quickly moved up the coast to Alleppey, the place from where I visited the stunning Keralan backwaters. For this journey, I took government buses and stopped along the way at Amritapuri, the ashram of Amma, the revered ‘hugging saint’. The ashram, houses 3000 of Amma’s devotees, all of which live and work there, it remains one of the oddest places I’ve visited in my life. My diary entry from the time reads, ‘It’s crazy, like a prison and an asylum.’

Back in Alleppey, I stayed at Tharavadu Heritage Home and spent a few days kayaking around the backwaters with a guide. The scenery around the backwaters is a paradise of bright green and yellow palms that dip down into the water creating incredible reflections wherever you go. There’s a lot to explore here so don’t rush by, further up the coast is Kochi and the cool artsy neighbourhood of Fort Kochi—a good place to stay. For five days I explored the area, some days on a bicycle, sometimes with a rickshaw driver, often on foot, and found boutiques, galleries, cute coffee and bookshops and a pretty seafront where you can watch the fishermen using huge Chinese fishing nets, dominating the seafront. Fort Kochi is the place for fancier restaurants and hotels too, so if you were looking to splash out, I’d recommend doing it here. Fort Kochi was my last stop in Kerala before I took a bus, up and over rolling tea plantations just above the Cardamom Hills and straight back into crazy, busy, chaotic Indian life, arriving in Madurai, Tamil Nadu, 12 hours later.

women in saris picking tea in tamil nadu india
Heading through tea plantations on the journey to Madurai

Madurai is one of my favourite cities in Southern India, famed for its impressive Meenakshi Amman Hindu Temple and mind-blowing food. There are so many things to do in Madurai, from trying the city's famed halwa at Sri Prema Vilas Tirunelveli Lala Sweet Shop, to visiting the fascinating Gandhi Museum—it's one Indian city that certainly won't disappoint

Once my three days of eating in Madurai were over I travelled up to Thanjavur to check out Brihadeeswara Temple, a hand-carved Chola temple that’s over 1000 years old, then on to Pondicherry by bus. The French colonial settlement of Ponicherry does in fact feel like you’re suddenly back in Europe, you can get freshly baked croissants for breakfast, sleep in grand stately mansions and the street signs all over town are still written in French. Pondicherry has a similar vibe to Fort Kochin in the sense that it’s set up well for tourists, there are great restaurants, cool coffee shops and really fab art galleries. I even bought a colourful print of Delhi here and posted it home. 

hindi and french street sign in pondicherry india
Street sign in Ponicherry

From Pondicherry, I’d recommend a day trip to Auroville. This fascinating experimental township set up in 1968 is the kind of place you’d never imagine existing. Built on the premise that everyone is equal, where men and women of all countries can live in peace and progressive harmony, Auroville now has over 2000 residents. Attracting people who have become disillusioned with modern society and who want a different, freer way of life, residents have access to schools, shops and healthcare. In the middle of the town is an incredible futuristic-looking building known as the Matrimandir, the spiritual centre of Auroville which you can also visit and take a look inside. 

golden sphere building matrimandir auroville india
The Matrimandir in Auroville

From the bold and modern Matrimandir, I headed back in time to see the ancient temples and rock carvings at Mamallapurum, a couple of hours up the coast. The 40 monuments and temples here are over 1000 years old, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and completely incredible. I booked a few days at Hotel Mamallaa Heritage which has a pool and free (very early morning) yoga classes, for my base to explore. As my last stop in Tamil Nadu before heading up to Hyderabad, Mamallapurum did not disappoint, the town is home to some of the most impressive hand carvings I ever saw, including one of the largest rock reliefs in Asia; Arjuna’s Penance. The huge rock face is carved with large elephants, monkeys (many in yogic poses) and hundreds of ornate figures, (some life-size), all depicting the story of the River Ganges descending from heaven to earth. Also in town in Krishna’s Butterball, a giant boulder that is crazily perched on a rock face, always looking like it’s ready to fall. 

krishna's butterball mamallapurum balancing boulder on rock face
Krishna's Butterball in Mamallapurum

Tamil Nadu is full of towns like this, which is why the state is known as Land of the Temples. So if you appreciate art, good food, natural beauty and seriously incredible rock carvings make sure Tamil Nadu and Kerala are on your radar, these places just cannot be missed.

Post a Comment


Theme by BD