The distinctive culture of South India (encompassing the states of Kerala, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, and Tamil Nadu) lends itself to a number of unique and fascinating attractions. These South India cultural attractions will provide you with an unforgettable glimpse into the South Indian way of life.
South Indian Food
If you love seafood, you'll find dining in Kerala and other coastal parts of south India a real treat. The food in Kerala is coconut-based, however, the fiery dishes of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh might be too much for some unaccustomed western palates. Many travelers do love Tamil Nadu's idlis though, and Hyderabadi biryani is renowned. Food is traditionally eaten off a banana leaf with your hands and rice is an important part of meals. Wash it down with some aromatic South Indian filter coffee (kaapi).
The best way of sampling south Indian food is by staying at a homestay, such as The Bangala in Tamil Nadu's Chettinad region (which serves a seven-course feast and offers cooking demonstrations and packages for exploring local cuisine). The food will be cooked fresh in real home style and most likely with recipes handed down from generation to generation. You can even participate in the process! Alternatively, go on a food or cooking tour. Yum!
Carnatic music is south India's classical style of music, dating back to the 15th century. Its most common form is the kriti -- a composition based on a fixed raga (melody) and tala (rhythm), which involves a great deal of improvisation.
The greatest concentration of Carnatic musicians is found in the city of Chennai, the capital of Tamil Nadu. If you're a fan of Carnatic music, you shouldn't miss the Chennai Music Festival (also known as the Madras Music Season), held annually in Chennai from mid-December to mid-January. Over 1,000 performances take place during the festival. The Thyagaraja Carnatic Music Festival, held every January in Thiruvariyar (in the Tanjavur district of Tamil Nadu), is also excellent.
South India has many classical dance forms. Bharatanatyam is perhaps the most well-known one. It's believed to have originated in the Tanjore district of Tamil Nadu. It flourished in the temples and is most popular in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. The annual Indian Dance Festival, held for a month from late December to late January in Mamallapuram, showcases many south Indian classical dance forms.
Kathakali is a very unusual and ancient form of dance-drama that's traditional to Kerala. You won't get to see performers dressed up like this every day, that's for sure! The look, with its red bloodshot eyes, borders on grotesque. The movements of the dance are subtle, yet they tell a meaningful mythological story. Performers are required to undergo intense training, including hours of eye exercises, when learning the art of Kathakali. Kathakali performances can be seen in many tourist areas of Kerala. However, Cochin has the most theaters, with daily performances. Try the Cochin Cultural Center or the Kerala Kathakali Center. Classes are also offered in Kathakali and other art forms.
Kalaripayattu is an ancient martial arts form practiced in Kerala. It's believed to be the oldest existing martial arts form in the world, dating back more than 2,000 years. (This is even older than Chinese martial arts, which apparently grew after Buddhist monk Bodhidharma took knowledge from India to China). Kalaripayattu features strikes, kicks, grappling, preset forms, weaponry, and healing methods. One place to see it is being performed at the Kadathanadan Kalari Center in Thekkady. Travspire offers a group tour from Kochi.
Ayurveda, the medical side of yoga, is India’s traditional natural healing system that's has Thekkady for over 5,000 years. It's divided into eight branches called ashtvaidyans. The origins of Ayurveda can be traced back to Kerala, where 18 families were believed to have practiced these ashtvaidyans and developed their own specialized treatments, handed down through generations. A number of other legends associate Ayurveda with Kerala. These days, many people head to the state for Ayurvedic treatments.
Festivals are an excellent way to immerse yourself in south India's culture. The two prominent festivals that take place in south India are Onam in Kerala and Pongal in Tamil Nadu. In the town of Thrissur, a rather quirky part of the Onam festival involves the art of Pulikali -- where men dress up as tigers and parade around! Kerala is also renowned for its elephant festivals. The festivals, which are part of annual temple celebrations, take place all over the state from February to April, with each festival running for around 10 days.
When it comes to south India temples, the state of Tamil Nadu dominates with its many ancient, towering Dravidian masterpieces. These temples, which display some of India's greatest temple architecture, are the backbone of Tamil culture. As if the temples aren't captivating enough, many of them are located in spectacular surroundings including an island, perched high on a rock, and in the remote mountains.
Who can resist the gorgeous brightly colored south Indian silk saris? Places such as Mysore in Karnataka and Kanchipuram in Tamil Nadu are renowned for the saris that are hand-woven there. Before making any purchases, it's best to understand the essentials of buying Kanchipuram saris.
Literature and Poetry
Literature buffs will be excited to know of south India's literary excellence, which extends back over 2,000 years to the poetic Sangam period. It produced a collection of 2,381 poems composed by 473 poets. A towering statue of Thiruvalluvar is a standout feature at Kanyakumari, on the coast of Tamil Nadu. This Tamil poet and philosopher authored the Tirukkural, classic Sangam literature consisting of 1,330 couplets. It's one of the most important works in the Tamil language. What's also noteworthy is that women are considered to be powerful in south Indian literature and philosophy. This no doubt contributes to the more respectful way that women are treated in South India compared to the north.