South India - A Melting Pot of Cultures, Curries and Temples
"India is a place where colour is doubly bright. Pinks that scald your eyes, blues you could drown in." – Kiran Millwood Hargrave
Six years ago, I fell deeply in love with India. If I had to describe this country in one word, I would choose the word intense. Everything is brighter, more vibrant, more vivid, more captivating, more mesmerising - everything is more in India.
For some reason I had been fascinated by India since I was a child. It was the one country where I had always wanted to go, simply because I couldn’t imagine what it would be like. I finally got the chance to board a plane to the colourful place in October 2011. Prior to going, I imagined it to be very different from every culture I knew and anything I had ever experienced - which is true. However, to this day I still cannot describe the magic of this country. It will captivate you. Be prepared to be fascinated and frustrated at the same time - because India does that to you.
As much as I love India, it can be more than frustrating at times. Everything is extremely slow-paced so getting around and getting things done can take some time. Personal space does not exist and queueing is not a thing (sorry, Brits, you’ll have to deal with it). The traffic is absolutely insane and in the beginning it always took me a good 15 minutes to dare to cross the road. Some streets are so busy that there is never a gap in traffic, so you will simply have to learn to move inch by inch if you don’t want to either get hit or wait for hours.
Nonetheless, its incredible scenery and the warm heartedness of the majority of people make more than up for the struggles you will undoubtedly have as a foreigner visiting the Indian subcontinent. As soon as I stepped out of the plane everything overwhelmed me. The smell, the colour, the noise - everything screamed India. India is also an epicentre of culture and religion: no country has more holidays, festivals and different religions than this South Asian destination. Nearly 80% of the population are Hindus, so most festivals celebrate one or more of the many Hindu gods. In honour of Diwali, the Festival of Lights, on the 19th of October, I am now going to take a walk down memory lane and reminisce about my favourite places in India.
While I travelled around India, I mostly stayed in the southern part. It is impossible to travel every part of the country in one trip: India is not only the second-most populous country in the world with 1.2 billion inhabitants, but also covers an area of a whopping 3.3 million square kilometres. I stayed in the country for six months and lived in Bangalore, in the southern state Karnataka, for the majority of the time.
Bangalore - officially known as Bengaluru - is not your typical tourist destination. It is the capital of Karnataka and for Indian standards relatively westernised. The city is referred to as the IT capital of India due to its role as the leading IT exporter. When you visit Electronic City you’ll understand why Bangalore is often called “The Silicon Valley of India”. On top of that, it is an excellent city to start your South India trip from. Flights into Bangalore are affordable and its location enables you to travel around easily. There are multiple day trips starting from Bangalore. Of course you should also explore the 8 million city while you are there! Take a half day city tour (morning tour & afternoon tour) to get an overview of India’s third biggest city, visit Lal Bagh Botanical Gardens and the Government Museum, or experience a full day tour where you also get to see Bangalore Palace and the city’s ISKCON (International Society for Krishna Consciousness) temple.
Whenever I travelled to other cities and regions in India and explained to people that I lived in Bangalore, I would get the same reaction: “Bengaluru? Bengaluru has the best weather in India.” Despite being an IT capital, Bangalore is also known as the Garden City. Its renowned for its pleasant weather throughout the whole year, its greenery and high number of public parks including Lal Bagh Botanical Gardens and Cubbon Park. Take a half day excursion to Lumbini Park to check out one of the city’s many green spots!
Another thing I loved about India was the food. I am still on the search for an authentic Indian restaurant in Edinburgh, but although there are some gems in Scotland, nothing comes close to the deliciousness of the South Indian cuisine. I would recommend sampling some of the street food, although it is arguably a risk that might result in the famous “Delhi Belly”. If you’d rather play it safe, join a food tour, such as the Bangalore Biryani Walk.
While in the state of Karnataka, don’t miss out on taking a trip to Mysore from Bangalore. In Mysore you can visit Chamundi Hill with the Chamundeshwari Temple, see the gorgeous Maharaja Palace and Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple. Mysore was one of my favourite cities in India and it only takes three to four hours to get there from Karnataka’s capital!
Although it is technically not South but West India, I can’t neglect Mumbai. It fascinated me completely. I found it a lot more diverse and multicultural than the other Indian cities I travelled to. The influences from the British colonisation are clearly visible in various parts of the city, it is full of religious buildings from Hindu temples to mosques and Jewish synagogues, it is located right by the beach and has a phenomenal nightlife. Mumbai is also the biggest city in India right before the official capital New Delhi. To me, Mumbai always seemed a bit like the secret capital of the country.
Some areas of Mumbai can be explored by foot, but due to the sheer size I would suggest taking a city sightseeing tour (Private City Tour of Mumbai or Mumbai City Experience), where you see the famous Gateway of India, visit a Jain Temple and the Dhobi Ghat. I personally found the Dhobi Ghat particularly fascinating. It is the world’s biggest open air laundry located in the slums of Mumbai where the washers (“Dhobis”) wash the clothes and bed sheets for Mumbai’s hotels and hospitals. I still haven't quite figured out how they get the clothes so clean just by hand. Definitely head to the tourist attraction and see it for yourself!
Another symbol of Mumbai that you don’t find in other cities are the Dabbawallahs; the word translates to “the ones who carry a box”. Mumbai’s dabbawallahs make up a lunchbox delivery and return system that is unique in the world. They deliver hot lunches from homes and restaurants to the working people of India. More than 100,000 lunches make their way across the megacity every day! Meet them yourself on the Mumbai Dabbawallah Tour. If you’d like to try some meals yourself and learn more about Bombay’s food culture, head out to Mumbai’s markets and bazaars on the Flavours of Mumbai Tour.
For more cultural and religious immersion, definitely check out the city’s many temples and mosques. The stunning white mosque of Haji Ali Dargah in the southern part of the city is particularly impressive. Rules for entering the mosque are quite conservative and women were not allowed to enter the shrine for a long time before the ban was lifted in the end of November of 2016. Mumbai is also famous for its Jewish community. Take part in the Jewish Heritage Tour and visit the Magen David Synagogue in central Mumbai. Jews are actually a minority in India although the religion was one of the first foreign religions to arrive in the country. Mumbai has the majority of the Indian Jewish population and there are eight synagogues in the city. If you’d like to head out of the city for a bit but not travel too far, explore the heritage of Bandra, one of Mumbai’s suburbs.
Mumbai is also renowned for its entertainment industry. Having come from Bangalore, where the clubs used to close too early to make the most of the night, experiencing Mumbai’s nightlife and seeing the illuminated mega city was an absolute highlight for me. Of course Mumbai is also famous for its Bollywood scene. Bollywood is the largest film producer in the country well before Telugu and Tamil cinemas. It makes far more films than the industry that gave the Hindi cinema its name - Hollywood - although Hollywood has larger movie earnings and generally spends more on the production of films. Visit Juhu Beach and see if you can meet some of the Bollywood superstars who live in the “Venice Beach of Bollywood”!
Kerala - God’s Own Country
If we are exploring the south of the country we can’t leave out the southernmost state: Kerala, marketing itself as “God’s Own Country”. The name is fairly reasonable as it is one of the most beautiful places I have ever been to. The culture here is slightly different again (overall, India is a melting pot of religion, culture and languages - no state is like the other). You will hear the beautiful language Malayalam on the streets, people are more laid-back than in the megacities and the Christian community is overwhelming compared to the rest of the country.
I started my journey in Kochi, also known as Cochin. The port city on the south west coast is the ideal starting point to explore the gorgeous backwaters of Kerala, visit markets, cruise the waters and experience Malayalam culture. Kochi is one of India’s main tourist destinations for a good reason! The backwaters are my favourite aspect of Kerala. Most tours start from Kochi and Alleppey. Experience the backwaters - the canal, river and lake network with over 900 km of waterways. I loved spending time in the pristine environment and enjoying the scenic views as well as seeing the small villages, rice fields and coconut groves.
Learn about the culture of Kochi which is highly influenced by its former trading partners from Portugal, the Netherlands, China and many more. Take a tour of the port city (morning or afternoon tour) and see the fishermen using the Chinese Fishing Nets that are iconic symbols for Kochi’s beach, explore the older parts of Fort Kochi and experience the Jewish community. In the early evening you can take a sunset cruise on the harbour of Kochi to see the massive fishing nets from the water.
Another evening activity is a Kathakali Dance Performance. Kathakali performances are renowned for the elaborate makeup and costumes and for the fact that the dances tell a story. Another aspect of the Keralan culture is the cuisine of the South. While I enjoyed the spicy delicacies of Bangalore and Mumbai, Kerala wins the bread game! In my opinion, neither Naan nor Puri, Roti or Chapati can compete with Kerala Paratha - a layered flatbread which is the main choice of bread in Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka. Take a lunch and cookery class and learn how South Indian meals are prepared.
All in all I can say my time in India was nothing short of life-changing. It changed me as a person, it opened my eyes to the things that are important in life and it brought me closer to both myself and the people around me. Will you definitely love India as much as I did? Maybe. There is one thing I can promise you though: it will do something to you and whether you love it or not, you will never regret going!