Hampi, in the South India state of Karnataka

The abandoned city of Hampi in Karnataka state is like taking a step back in time 500 years!
Photo: Brad Olsen


– By Brad Olsen

South India has unsurpassed natural beauty and a rich cultural diversity. As one of the oldest inhabited regions on Earth, India is a land rich with cultural and archeological treasures. Especially of interest to the traveler are the many abandoned cities, ornately carved caves, fantastic temple complexes and traditional delights. Once-mighty Hindu dynasties, Islamic sultans, and various religious sects left behind stupendous stone-cut cities, sprawling monasteries and rich traditions. Some of the ruins were deserted in the past few hundred years while others, like the Ajanta Caves, have been abandoned for more than 2,000 years. Imagine the surprise of the British army officer who, in 1819, accidentally stumbled upon the Ajanta cavern complex while hunting a panther!

While most people today will visit northern India on their first trip, I highly recommend your first India experience be a trip to South India. It is a region that was less impacted by invasion than the north.


The ultimate lost city of south-central India is called Hampi, the “City of Victory” located in the state of Karnataka. Built during the Vijayanagar period, Hampi was a resplendent capital until the year 1565, when the dynasty came to an abrupt end. The Muhammadan Sultans of the north conspired to defeat the Vijayanagar kings and swooped down to sack their capital. So brutal was the Sultan invasion that few survived, and the city was left to ruin and abandonment. It is in this deserted state that we find Hampi today, a wonderful assortment of ruins scattered around a surrealistic desert landscape of boulders. Most fascinating are the different styles of architecture found in the stone-carved palaces and temples, including the stone chariot in the Vittala Temple, the Hampi Bazaar and the Purandara Desara Mandapa temple complex along the Tungabhadra River.

The Kathakali Dance in South India

Dancers performing the Kathakali, a dance drama taking place in a private home in Kerala state, in the far south of India.
Photo: Kish

Many of the ancient holy cities in India continue to support a sizable population, with large commercial districts surrounding their borders. In the southernmost part of Karnataka is the fascinating city of Mysore. Like Hampi, the architecture and sculpture of Mysore achieved its highest perfection under Hindu kings in the 11th to 15th centuries. Unlike Hampi, Mysore was never destroyed by an invading army and today is a bustling city. However, in and surrounding modern Mysore are some of India’s finest monuments. The temple at Belur is unsurpassed in the world for minute detail and exuberant imagery from this period. Mysore is easily reached by train, bus or airplane service, and is a good starting point to begin a southern India adventure.

Sprawling religious complexes scatter throughout southern India, and most are pilgrimage destinations, or hold other distinctions that relegate them as being very special locations to the native people. In these living temples a visitor today can attend a puja along with the locals, as well as the traditional Kathakali dance dramas.


Located in Madurai, a center of Tamil culture, is the ornate Meenakshi Temple. It is one of the finest examples of Dravidian style temple architecture. Minakshi, known as the Fish-eyed Goddess and the consort of Siva, is the presiding deity. Daily ceremonies are performed at her shrine. Visitors may co-mingle with the locals to witness the nightly spiritual ceremony (pooja) in which Lord Shiva is carried on a palanquin accompanied by musicians, temple singers and priests to the temple of his consort, Parvati, to spend the night. It is quite a spectacle!

Life on the backwater lagoons of Kerala moves pretty slow, making it a nice counterpart to the bustling cities. The backwaters offer relaxing pristine natural beauty and a glimpse into the traditions and ways of life here that are some of the most unique India has to offer. Visitors can enjoy an overnight tour of the backwaters by a private, deluxe Kettuvallom (traditional rice boat / houseboat). Each houseboat has furnished bedrooms with attached showers and toilets. One may also opt for an afternoon cruise on the backwaters.

Fairly close by, is the harbor city Cochin. The influence of medieval Portuguese, Dutch and English culture can still be seen in this fast growing coastal city. Interestingly, it is one of the few places in India that has a small remaining Jewish population and a beautiful synagogue, which is open to visitors. Spice markets and antique shops surround the synagogue. Cochin also has Christian representation with several 16th century churches including the St. Francis Church.


On an island in the Palk Straits,near the southern tip of India, is a sacred city called Rameswaram. The main temple in the city, the huge Ramanathaswamy Temple, is one of the most highly venerated Hindu temples in the country, and is considered one of the finest examples of south India architecture. This major pilgrimage center is tied into Rama legends and the story of the Ramayana.

These are just a few of the many intriguing places to visit in South India, which can seem a whole country apart to its northern counterpart. Wherever the visitor decides to venture in southern India, they are sure to be met with delightful surprises around every corner.

You can follow Brad’s Facebook page devoted to sacred sites:

Chamundeswari Temple in Mysore, Karnataka state, South India

A view of the Chamundeswari Temple in Mysore, Karnataka state, southern India.
Photo: Sarah Andiain


A Hindu priest blowing his conch during a puja in Tirupati, Andhra Pradesh state, South India

A Hindu priest blowing his conch during a puja in Tirupati, Andhra Pradesh state, southeast India
Photo: Claude Renault


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