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The splendid, sizzling south: the southern states are home to some of India's most exquisite attractions. They boast a mix of ancient and medieval cities, verdant beaches, colourful festivals and amazing wildlife, making a journey south an unforgettable experience. (Incredible India).

When India celebrated the 50th anniversary of its independence in 1997, it used the slogan 'Unity in Diversity'. In many ways the southern states of Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, illustrate this diversity. Their history is one of oscillating influence, with power changing hands between Hindus and Moslems several times and Buddhism and international trade adding to the mix.

For many, Karnataka is just a means of reaching Kerala--but they are missing some of India's best-kept secrets. Set in a strange boulder-strewn landscape, the rains of Vijayanagar are the remains of a fabulous city, Hampi, founded in 1336. By controlling the silk and spice trades further south, its leaders made it the most powerful Hindu city in the region, with a population of 500,000, bustling markets and extensive fortifications. It was sacked in 1565, and while much of its grandeur was destroyed, it retains a magical air, as much to do with the beautiful surroundings as the ancient rains themselves.

Old-fashioned charm

Several of Karnataka's other cities are also worth a visit. The home of the silk and incense industries and of sandalwood carving, Mysore exudes an old-fashioned charm, with its lively produce markets and magnificent palaces.

In the north, Bijapur was the capital for a series of sultans between the 15th and 17th centuries. As a consequence, it has some of India's most magnificent Moslem architecture. And while Bidar in the far northeast is remote, its Persian-style mosques, mausoleums and impressive fort are a revelation for those prepared to make the effort.

Karnataka is also home to India's highest waterfalls, Jog Falls, where the River Sharavati plummets over sandstone cliffs. The falls lie between the coastal city of Mangalore and Goa, on a beautiful stretch known as the Karavali Coast. Punctuated by small fishing villages, deserted beaches and fortified towns, it's the ideal place to unwind after days following the tourist trail.

Indian pilgrimage

Like its neighbour, Andhra Pradesh is frequently overlooked by tourists. For centuries its capital, Hyderabad, was the most important Moslem city in southern India, a fact reflected in fine buildings such as the Charminar, the Mecca Masjid and the Golconda Fort. Founded in the 15th century, the city became the centre of the diamond trade--the famous Koh-i-Noor diamond, housed in the Tower of London, came from Golconda, Hyderabad. Today, pearls are the main attraction, together with jewellery, spices, perfumes and antiques on sale in the vibrant Lad Bazaar.

In Tirupati, in the state's south, is Venkateshvara temple, the richest in India, which attracts more pilgrims than the Vatican, Jerusalem or Mecca. Farther west, the spiritual leader Sai Baba draws devotees to Puttaparthy's Prasanthi Niyalam ashram. In these cities visitors can experience the fevered atmosphere of pilgrimage or even receive darshan--an audience with a saint or sage.

Kerala: splendour in isolation

Rising from the palm-fringed shores of the Arabian Sea to the forested slopes of the Western Ghats, Kerala's breathtaking landscape is a symphony in green. Buildings rarely rise above the treetops, so the towns and villages seem to be built within the forest.

Kerala is perhaps India's most distinctive region. Isolated by the Western Ghats, it has developed its own unique culture, which is still in evidence today. Architecturally, it boasts hundreds of beautifully decorated churches that are spectacularly illuminated at night. Its food, characterised by a predominance of coconut (Kerala means 'land of coconuts'), is more delicate and fragrant than most Indian dishes. And its dance forms are similarly unique: the Mohiniattam is a classical dance performed by women, and kathakali is a combination of dance and martial arts that brings to life the tales of the Mahabharata and Ramayana.

Much of Kerala has a serene quality. Drifting along the lagoons and rivers behind Kollam, you'll witness a tranquil way of life that has been preserved for generations: women tending gardens and feeding animals on tiny spits of land; traditional longboats ferrying impossibly heavy loads; and fishermen operating Chinese cantilever nets. In the distance you may glimpse a temple nestled in the undergrowth. The quiet is only disturbed by the gurgle of a paddle or the chirps of birds that swoop and dart among the lush vegetation.

The same hills that isolated the region now attract visitors looking for respite from the heat of the lowlands. Here the state's 12 wildlife sanctuaries and two national parks protect rare species such as the Nilgiri tahr, lion-tailed macaque and atlas moth--the world's largest. The Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary is home to 35 species of mammal, including elephant, sambar and Malabar flying squirrel, as well as more than 260 bird species. But most people come in search of India's shyest residents: the tiger and leopard.

More than anything, the sea has shaped Kerala's history--from traders crossing vast oceans in search of spices, to the fishermen setting out in their boats, to the increasing number of people who fall under the spell of Kerala's magical palm-fringed beaches. While resorts are popping up, there are still a few tiny fishing villages tucked away waiting to be discovered. But to really get away from it all, jump on a boat and head for the Lakshadweep Islands, a tropical paradise 200 kilometres off the Keralan coast. With its coral reef and abundant sea life the waters of the archipelago are perfect for snorkelling and scuba diving, while the deserted beaches are a sunseeker's dream.

If you want to enter an exotic, tropical fantasy, Kerala has it all.

Celebrating Kerala

Spring is a special time in Kerala, during Kumbham, Meenam and Medam, which correspond to Aquarius, Pisces and Aries in the Western Zodiac, more than 100 events take place across the state. Poorams, or meetings, reflect the belief that gods from neighbouring provinces meet for festivities, arriving with an entourage of elephants. The highlight of the pooram is the elephant pageant, in which the animals and their handlers wear elaborate costumes and proceed to the temple accompanied by increasingly frenzied music. Major festivals are held in Koorkancherry and Vadakancherry, but the grandest is in Thrissur.
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Publication:Geographical
Geographic Code:9INDI
Date:Jun 1, 2003
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