Practically its own sub-country with several vernaculars, South India is flanked by the natural bookends of the Eastern and Western Ghat mountains. Within this plateau heartland lies a nexus of rivers, dialects, and manmade wonders in the form of more than 30,000 temples. All in all, the peninsula encompasses the states of Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Tamil Nadu, and Kerala -- as well as the often forgotten islands of Andaman and Lakshadweep.
It's easy to see why the Tropic of Capricorn needs its own in-depth guidebook. But to start, for those who might be ambivalent about skipping South India in favor of more well-known gems in the north like the Taj Mahal, here are just three reasons to pause and reconsider.
1. Underrated Temples with Diverse Architecture
Mark Twain once said that you couldn't hurl a brick in Montreal without it crashing into a church window. In South India, that brick would likely land on a temple instead. Some well-known favorites include Guruvayoor in Kerala, affectionately called the "Dwaraka of the South" and famous for its shrine for the god Krishna. Doors open at 3 a.m. here, and people can stand in line for as many as three hours to get a glimpse of the inner halls.
Suchindram Temple, near the tip of India at Kanya Kumari, is the only temple in the country with a statue bearing all the godheads in the Indian Trinity -- Brahma, Vishnu, and Siva. Free.
Finally, one of the most well-known examples of Dravidian architecture is the Tanjore Temple, or "Brihadeeswarar," a UNESCO World Heritage Site that's known for its temple tower, among the tallest of its kind in the world. Fun fact: The apex is carved out of a single granite rock. Nominal entrance fee.
2. Museums & Palaces Galore
North India doesn't have a monopoly on historic buildings, either. In South India, you’re likely to trip over a museum housing an artifact from as early as 8 A.D. In the state of Karnataka, Mysore is one of the most notable destinations for ancient estates, so much that it's often called the City of Palaces. Its most famous architectural resident is the Indo-Saracenic Amba Vilas Palace (or Mysore Palace), designed by architect Henry Irwin. Perhaps dreamier than many of its palatial counterparts, it features rosewood doorways and mosaic floors in the “pietra dura” style, inlaid with semi-precious stones. And if you time your visit to the season of Dasara -- the months of September and October -- you’ll see the palace aglow like a thousand fireflies with 96,000 lights.
The Government Museum in Chennai is the second oldest museum in the country, after one in Calcutta. The dusky brick building from 1851, during the British Raj era, still retains a certain dilapidated grandeur. Most well-known within the museum is the stupendous Bronze Gallery, where you’ll find Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist bronzes as well as a remarkable statue of Nataraja with a cosmic-swirl background.
Other palace-museums worthy of a visit include the Tanjore Palace in Tamil Nadu and the Salar Jung Museum in Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh.
3. Unique Cuisine
From dosas (fermented crepes) that are traditionally served with several types of chutney to softer-than-marshmallow appams (hoppers made from rice batter and coconut milk), South Indian cuisine is starkly different from North Indian versions because of its spice levels. (Watch out, Scoville scale!) And the traditional North India curry becomes highly stylized in the southern regions -- for example, Malabari dishes from Kerala has an emphasis on seafood, whereas Hyderabadi ones are nuttier and sweeter.
Generally speaking, the heat and humidity levels during the summer months can daunt the most stalwart lover of the outdoors. Even the locals often flee the warmer cities in favor of the cooler “Hill Stations” like Ootacamund or Kodaikanal. To avoid the crowds, try visiting South India in April, September, October, December, and January.