Aug 25, 2017

The Spice of Life


From tea plantations to ancient temples, South India is an aromatic, multi-coloured adventure.

While the north of the country is famed for its desert and mountain landscape, the south of India is all about water – the bounteous ocean, the beaches of Chennai, the canals of Kerala and the innumerable life-giving rivers, lakes and streams.

Also home to IT hubs and a booming tourism industry, southern India is one of the most intriguing, eclectic and exciting places in the world; a steamy, heady combination of exotic architecture, ancient culture, world-famous cuisine, mysticism and modern achievements.

Layers of multi-cultural influences introduced over hundreds of years of colonization by the Portuguese, French and British can be found in the area’s food, architecture and city design – much of which continues to co-exist with the Hindu way of life today.

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The Portuguese influence is evident in the beachside city of Goa where Indo-Portuguese style churches and homes have faded but survive; while the elegant, wide boulevards and bakeries of Pondicherry (where street signs are given in both French and the local Tamil language) reflect India’s French heritage.

British colonial rule lasted from 1876 to 1947 and India was regarded as the ‘jewel in the crown’ of the British Empire. Many of the elegant public buildings, churches, schools and railways built during this time remain intact in cities like Chennai, the port where the British East India company first thrived.

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The hub of India’s spice trading since the early 19th century, southern India is still filled with an aromatic array of richly scented condiments and spices that pervade many rituals of daily life. The multitude of local flavours and cooking styles unique to this area take dining from merely eating to an experience which will form just as strong memories as the sights you see across this colourful corner of the earth.

A potent mix of chillies, peppers, cumin, cardamom, cinnamon, turmeric, coconut will greet you at every meal – whether raw from the overflowing bowls at a spice market or wafting from kitchens everywhere. Many gastronomes consider southern Indian food the finest there is, and after you tuck into a fragrant, locally–made masala dosa or vegetable biryani, you are likely to agree.

Southern India is also a deeply spiritual place, filled with the symbols and reverence of ancient and modern worship, from simple offerings and sculptures to pilgrim sites and lavish temples. The 2,500 year old Tamil-based, six hectare site at Madurai is a magical illustration of this – here you can explore the labyrinthine 17th century Meenakshi Amman Temple and its 30,000 carvings and sculptures and follow the nightly procession of Shiva being carried into the temple amid a blanket of incense.

One of the top natural attractions in Southern India is the Nagarhole National Park (also known as Rajiv Gandhi National Park) in the state of Karnataka, once the hunting grounds of Mysore royalty. These days, despite their dwindling numbers, the ruling monarchs are the magnificent Royal Bengal tigers, which, along with a cornucopia of other fascinating wildlife and stunning landscapes, make Nagarhole the adventure of a lifetime.

Nagarhole (meaning ‘cobra river’) is about 95 kilometres from the city of Mysore, and covers more than 640 square kilometres. It’s a significant part of the 3,300 square kilometre Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve. The lush green cover of Nagarhole is comprised of protected state forests and includes precious timbers such as rosewood, sandalwood and teak.

Aside from the regal and critically endangered tigers, Nagarhole is also home to elephants, gaur (Indian bison), leopards, dhole (Indian wild dogs), jackals, striped hyenas, four-horned antelope, sloth bears, civets, hares and mouse deer.

Birdwatchers flock here to view the more than 270 avian species, headlined by the critically endangered oriental white-backed vulture. Other species that get twitchers twitching include the Nilgiri wood-pigeon, greater spotted eagle, Indian peafowl, yellow legged green pigeon and painted bush quail. Even reptile fanciers are catered for with the common krait, Russell’s viper, vine snake and Indian rock python also regularly sighted.

The best way to experience the beauty of Nagarhole is aboard a canter (or open truck) on a game safari. The canter visits waterholes, glades and grasslands searching out its spectacular flora and fauna, taking passengers as close as possible to the park’s abundant wildlife. Your guides will track the wildlife and point out hidden treasures, positioning the canter so you will have as many opportunities as possible to capture photographic memories every step of the way.

The waterways, mountains and savannah that bloom in the dry months when the lake created by the Kabini Dam dries up provide a variety of conditions favoured by a wide range of wildlife. Indeed, an early-morning boat safari on the Kabini River is a must. Here you can see nature’s best work from the comfort of the cruiser as well as visit the Kadu Kuraba tribe in a traditional village. A naturalist will be along for the ride to explain farming techniques and how the community lives in harmony with the forest.