The sights of northern India appear on most travelers' must-see lists: the glittering Taj Mahal, devout pilgrims bathing at dawn in the Ganges at Varanasi, the resplendent palaces of the maharajahs at Udaipur and Jaipur.
But it is in South India that the true heart of India beats. It is this portion of the subcontinent that most travelers to India never see. Stretching from the Arabian Sea in the west to the Bay of Bengal in the east, it is a land of startling contrasts. Palm-fringed beaches line both the western Malabar coast and the eastern Coromandel coast. Lush tropical forests -- many now national parks -- dot the interior of the subcontinent. Christian churches, originally built by the Portuguese, Dutch and British, stand in close proximity to the elaborate Dravidian temples of a much earlier era. The large cities of the south -- Madras and Bangalore -- appear almost tranquil in comparison to the frenzy of such northern cities as Delhi and Calcutta. The tiny villages of the countryside seem lost in time, life moving slowly on in seasonal cycles as it has for millennia. This is India at its best.
South India begins at Bombay. New York has its Empire State Building and the Statue of Liberty, Paris the Eiffel Tower, Rome the Colosseum. Bombay has the Gateway of India, built to commemorate the 1911 royal visit of George V and Queen Mary. Overlooking the harbor on the Arabian Sea, it stands stolidly beside Bombay's second landmark, the Victorian-Gothic Taj Mahal Hotel. From the windows of the hotel's Sea Lounge, one can gaze at the Gateway while sipping Earl Grey tea accompanied by savory pakoras (deep-fried vegetables) and samosas (flour patties filled with potatoes).
Goa is only an hour south by air. Here against a luxuriant backdrop of rice paddies and palm trees are numerous reminders of Portugal: tiny pastel-colored churches nestled among the jackfruit and mango groves; ruins of a 17th century fortress incorporated into one of India's most luxurious beach resorts, the Taj Fort Aguada; Indians with surnames like Peres and Pereira; and an eclectic cuisine that includes suckling pig and chorizo (Portuguese-style sausage). Not at all strange when you remember that Goa was a Portuguese possession for 451 years, from 1510 to 1961, when it was forcibly incorporated into ++ India.
The streets of Goa's capital, Panaji, are lined with red-tiled houses decorated with balconies. Tavernas do a brisk business in the cobblestoned alleyways. Just a few miles away in Velha (Old) Goa are clustered three splendid 16th century reminders of Catholic Portugal's missionary zeal: Se Cathedral, the largest Christian church in India, the Church of St. Francis of Assisi with frescoes painted by local Indian artists and the Basilica of Bom Jesus, where the remains of St. Francis Xavier lie displayed within a silver casket.
Eclectic as Goa is, Cochin, an hour by air farther south along the coast, is even more so. Here side by side in this busy port city are found Portuguese churches, mosques, Hindu temples, a Dutch palace, British-style cricket greens, Chinese fishing nets and the oldest synagogue in the British Commonwealth (1568).
One of the pleasures of Cochin is a boat trip among the lagoons and islands of the Kerala coastline. Painted houses with thatched roofs, banana groves, fishermen poised with nets and minuscule churches seem to slip effortlessly by like images on a painted scroll. Or -- if even this sounds too energetic -- one can relax on the lawn of the Malabar Hotel perched at the tip of Willington Island watching cargo ships maneuvering into port, dolphins playing and tiny craft overloaded with rice and coconut being laboriously poled along by boatmen.
From Cochin, we began our long drive across the subcontinent to Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary and on to the temple cities of Madurai, Tanjore and Tiruchchirappalli, culminating in Madras -- a distance of 600 miles comfortably spread out over five days.
Traveling by road to the Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary presents a pageant of everyday life in southern India moving slowly by (traffic along Indian roads seldom moves faster than 30 miles per hour, so there's plenty of time for observation). Plantations by the score -- rubber, banana, coffee, tea, cocoa -- slip past, punctuated by brightly colored doll houselike churches and colonial mansions with wraparound verandas. Gaily painted trucks and buses whiz by (at 40 miles per hour) while equally gaily painted oxen meander leisurely along.
Periyar, one of India's largest wildlife sanctuaries, was created with the damming of the Periyar River. The resulting lake attracts abundant bird life, plus sambar (Asiatic deer), wild boar and gaur (Indian bison) who congregate at lakeside at dawn and dusk. We watched herds of female elephants with their young foraging through the tall grass beside the lake. A nice feature of Periyar is that most of the animal watching is done by boat, leaving the animals undisturbed.