Arrive at Kochi (Cochin) at any time and transfer to hotel. There are no planned activities, so check into our hotel and enjoy the city. Attend an afternoon/evening meeting, where you will meet your fellow group members to go over the details of your trip. Check the notice board or welcome note to confirm what time and where the group meeting will be held. After the meeting we head out to the harbour to enjoy sunset over the Chinese fishing nets followed by an optional group dinner. These old cantilevered fishing nets, quite common in Kerala, were originally brought from China. In Malayalam they're called 'cheena vala', and used mainly at high tide. If you arrive early read our Kochi welcome note for some suggestions. There are plenty of things to do in this seaside Indian city. Kochi was an important stop on the spice trading route due to its strategic location near the tip of the Indian subcontinent, Kochi has been a melting pot of influences since the 14th century. The city’s history stretches back much farther: by 1102, Kochi was already the seat of an eponymous princely state that traced its lineages to the Kulasekhara empire. Ancient travellers and tradesmen made references to Kochi in their writings, and in 1503 Kochi became the first European colonial settlement in India when it was occupied by the Portuguese. Later, both the Dutch and British occupied Kochi, resulting in the variety of architecture, food and other influences typical of today’s Kochi. Kochi is home to the Fort with its Dutch Palace and Jew Street. The oldest church in India sits near mosques and synagogues, and Portuguese housing sits side by side with English manor homes. Ernakulam is the modern and upmarket part of town and is best reached by ferry. Marine Drive is the most popular hangout for locals and MG Road and Broadway are the lifeline of the city. Kochi is quite famous for its exquisite gold designer jewellery and of course the finest spices which are in abundance.
Leaving early to avoid the heat, we have an orientation tour of Fort Kochi. We visit the Dutch Palace, Jewish Town with its old curios shops and the more than 400 year old synagogue. We stop at the spice market before visiting St Francis Church. Vasco da Gama, the first European explorer to set sail for India, was initially buried in here until his remains were returned to Portugal in 1539. We have a quick look at the Dutch cemetery before eventually ending up at the Chinese fishing nets where perhaps you can assist the local fisherman raise these huge nets. In the late afternoon/early evening we will take in a performance of kathakali dancing (the Keralan tradition dance form), and you can even watch the performers put on their makeup beforehand. Considered one of the oldest dance forms in India, Kathakali is a combination of drama, dance, music and ritual. Characters with vividly painted faces and elaborate costumes re-enact stories from the Hindu epics, Mahabharatha and Ramayana.
Travel to Alleppey and board the houseboat, our home for the evening. Experience local life, fresh South Indian cuisine, tropical wildlife and leisure time on the backwater lagoons, canals and lakes. The house boats have private cabins with small ensuites and a deck in front for sitting. They are airconditioned and have a small team of cook, helper and houseboat driver on board. The houseboats run on main canals and do not move at night. At night they are stationed in the lake area or on the banks near paddy fields. The houseboat serves traditional Kerala cuisine with food prepared fresh on the boat. The backwaters are a unique ecosystem where the land was salvaged from sea or flood areas to cultivate rice by embanking the sides and is today a major mode of transport in Kerala.
Travel to Kumarakom on the largest freshwater lake in Kerala. Visit a local village and enjoy a short canoe ride, viewing a variety of backwater birds including king fisher, cormorant, duck and water hen. We also take a yoga class.
Scenic drive through the countryside to Periyar. Visit an organic spice farm where you can interact with the agriculturists and learn about spice cultivation, organic farming, use of plants in medicine (ayurveda) and South Indian cuisine. The rolling hills around the region grow some of the finest cardamoms in the world and are aptly called Cardamom hills, exotic spices like cloves, pepper (black gold), nutmeg, cinammon and a lot of medicinal herbs are in abundance. We do a guided tour of the spice plantations and Tea factory. This spice garden we visit is organic and run by the Abraham’s family. They are known for using natural methods instead of pesticides. You can see some extraordinary spiders doing what spiders are meant to do – killing bugs. You can also see minute Asian honey Bees and numerous spices and fruits including many verities of banana. Here you can interact with the agriculturists to learn about spice cultivation, organic farming, use of plants in medicine (ayurveda) and the scientific knowledge about spices.
Enjoy an early morning green walk in Periyar then drive to Madurai and explore this holy city. On Day 7 visit the hilltop Thirupurakundrum Temple, mixing with locals and students. Later, enjoy a thrilling cycle-rickshaw tour of the lively streets and bazaars and visit the Ghandi museum. End the day with a visit to the Meenakshi temple. Option to enjoy a Bollywood film in a local theatre. On Day 7 we proceed to visit Thirupurakundrum one of the important Temples dedicated to Lord Muruga - Karthikeya located on a hillock approximately 8 km from the city. References to this ancient temple are available in scriptures from 6th century AD and it’s the only place where you can see the students for Veda classes taken by the senior priests. (Except government holidays) Later drive to Madurai to explore the city to take in the sights and smells that surround you; pass through vegetable markets and see the locals haggling over the price; stop to admire the 17th-century Thirumalai Nayak Palace, a fusion of classical Indian and European styles; and spend time in the Gandhi Museum which charts India's freedom struggle. The mail Highlight is Madurai Meenakshi temple - Join the local throngs in this bustling temple, one of the largest in India, and soak up the atmosphere. Something is always happening here – ceremonies, musicians playing, weddings, prostrating pilgrims, festivals – making it a compelling place to spend time and enjoy temple life. Although there are many temples sprinkled throughout the city, none compares to the size and detail of Meenakshi temple. The enormous temple complex is dedicated to Shiva, known here as Sundareshvara and his consort Parvati or Meenakshi. The credit for making the temple as splendid as it is today goes to the Nayaks who ruled Madurai from the 16th to the 18th century. Even before you pass through the massive stone walls of the temple, the nine striking gopurams (towers, actually monumental gateways covered with stucco figures of dieties, mythical animals and monsters all painted in vivid colors) which distinguish the temple loom high above. The temple’s tallest spire rises as high as 60 meters, and was for many years the tallest structure in its category in Asia. In the late evening (about 9.00pm) you may like to take an optional visit the Meenakshi temple again for the night time rituals. Filled with incense, people and noise this is a wonderful spectacle.
This morning drive to Karaikudi, a prosperous city, homeland of the Nattukottai Chettiars, a banking and business community, many of whom emigrated to Southeast Asia in the 19th century to expand their business empire. This is a city of elegant mansions, highlighting the best of the region's art and architecture, the weekly Chettinadu Shady market and some fine antique shops. After we drive to the nearby village called Athangudi to observe the tile making process. Athangudi tiles, named after the place of manufacture in Chettinad, Tamil Nadu, come in myriad colors and patterns and are made by a unique process using local soil. These tiles are a testimony to the rich cultural heritage of the Chettiar community, who effectively adapted many influences to their own brand of local craftsmanship and in the evening enjoy the cooking demonstration and taste the cuisine. This evening our cooking class will be at the Chettiar heritage home where we learn about Chettinad cuisine which is specific to the region.
Drive to Pondicherry via Tanjore to visit Brihadeshvara Temple which is over 1000 years old and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Continue to Pondicherry which was designed based on the French grid pattern and features neat sectors and perpendicular streets. The town is divided into two sections: the French Quarter and the Indian quarter. Many streets still retain their French names, and French style villas are a common sight. In the French quarter, the buildings are typically colonial style with long compounds and stately walls. We explore this small French town with a short Rickshaw cycle tour.
On the way to Mamallapuram we stop at the village of Kadumbadi to visit the school, temple and Pottery studios . Continue to the seaside city of Mamallapuram where we don local attire (which you can keep) for a fun photo session. The ladies in the group can wear a traditional Saree. A saree is a strip of unstitched cloth, ranging from four to nine meters in length that is draped over the body in different styles - It is popular in India and the subcontinent. The most common style is for the sari to be wrapped around the waist, with one end then draped over the shoulder baring the stomach. Special staff will be available to help us to drape the sari and Dhoti for gents. On Day 11 we explore the 7th C monuments of Mamallapuram. At Arjuna's Penance nothing can prepare you for the wonderful bas-reliefs covering two huge boulders. The exquisite detail, dating from the 7th century, depicts the flow of the Ganges down from the Himalayan mountains as well as scenes from Indian daily life. The Five Rathas shrines are carved whole from an outcrop of rock. Each of the five temples is dedicated to heroes from the great epic of the Mahabharata. Spend time admiring the detail of the carvings which include gods, humans and elephants and wonder why the temples are incomplete and were never consecrated. Also visit the Shore Temple and its delightful seaside location, overlooking the Bay of Bengal, with landscaped gardens, a popular place for the locals to visit. Dedicated to both Vishnu and Shiva, the decorative beauty of the temple, built in Dravidian style, has suffered erosion by its proximity to the sea. Mamallapuram has been a forerunner in Solid waste Management and since 2008 they have developed a unique system of waste management. This project was one of the finalists in BBC world Challenge Award for the year 2011. On our drive to the project site, we would be met by project director who proudly shows us around the campus of the Solid Waste management. This project was started with just three persons who called themselves as Green Friends and they started with door to door collection, segregation and waste processing. Today they cover about 3600 establishments and handle about 4 metric tons of waste daily. They enrolled a lot of local residents as Green friends and this project would sustain itself commercially by 2014. So this short visit of this project site will you give an idea about our future plans for recycle, reuse and reduce.
Travel by train to Mysore and explore the city including visits to the City Palace and Chaumundi Temple. On arrival to Mysore you will be charmed by the faded grandeur of the former capital of the much loved Wodeyars dynasty who reigned from the 16th century. A city rich in heritage, make sure you discover its royal palaces, sacred temples and majestic buildings. You can't fail to be impressed by this vast palace, with its turrets, domes and arches and an opulent interior with intricately carved doors and ceilings. Wander through the luxuriously furnished rooms, once home to the royal family, and admire this treasure trove of works of art from all over the world. Head up Chamundi Hill for panoramic views of the city spread out below before exploring the exquisite hilltop temple dedicated to the goddess, Chamundi and dominated by a 40m-high gopuram (tower). Also make a short stop at the huge statue dedicated to Nandi, the bull of Lord Shiva.
Morning drive to Bangalore to visit the Lalbagh garden. Flight to Kochi for our final evening feast.
Depart at any time.