No-one forgets their first day in India- a full on sensory onslaught of sights, smells, and sounds with the volume and colour saturation turned up to maximum. Then add extra glitter and bells. Our journey started in Mumbai (our car was to join us later than planned due to the logistical minefield that is Indian customs). Mumbai is a heaving metropolis with millions jostling for space on the cramped island peninsular. It’s worth spending a couple of days in the city, striking colonial architecture gives the city a grand, old-fashioned feel alongside modern, luxury buildings along sweeping Marine Drive. The Iconic Gateway to India and Taj Palace Hotel dominate the seafront where crowds of tourists gather and mingle at sunset. Family groups huddle round snack ‘chaat’ on Chowpatty beach and boats chug to and from the Gateway, ferrying visitors out to nearby Elephanta Island with incredible rock-cut caves and with carved temples.
So the journey begins, for us travelling in our trusty Toyota Hilux ‘Bee-bee’ we bumped slowly along Maharashtra’s chaotic and crowded roads, swerving round cows and rickshaws in a constant cacophony of horns beeping. Travel options are varied and include private taxis, local and tourist buses, trains or brave the Indian roads yourself and hire a car or motorbike. For short distances 3-wheeler auto-rickshaws veer and bounce through urban backstreets- every transport medium is recommended for the full Indian tour experience.
This stretch of our travels in India would see us travel the south-western coast from Mumbai, all the way to the southernmost point of the country at Kanyakumari.
We paused in Goa state at Agonda and Patnem beaches, a far cry from the hippy-heyday but an easy introduction to South India as the state attracts tourists in their droves. Tie-dye and techno beats fill the beach huts and restaurants with idyllic sunsets over the horizon.
The next state on route is Karnataka, our first stop Gokarna where pilgrims flocked to visit the ancient temple, wrapped in orange lunghi skirts and dutifully bearing offerings of coconuts, pink lotus flowers and butter lamps.
Moving inland we weaved our way into the hills to India’s highest waterfall at Jog Falls then camped amongst Malabar Hornbills and Barking Deer in Sharvati Wildlife Reserve. Emerging from the jungle and back down towards the humid coastal plain we visited Murudeshwara, the world’s second largest Shiva statue looming over the coastline, shimmering silver in the sunlight overlooking a bustling temple complex of devout pilgrims offering gifts and prayers at his feet.
Another important stop on the pilgrimage trail is Udupi, at dusk one of the huge temple chariots on wheels loomed around the inner courtyard of the temple complex in a procession of drummers and young masked boys cartwheeling through a path of fire.
We crossed into the coconut palm-fringed state of Kerala, the northern coastline is largely deserted with gorgeous sandy beaches backed by wooded hills inland. We were fortunate enough to witness the extraordinary event of Theyyam in the tiny village of Parassinikadavu. Before sunrise, in a modest temple on the banks of the murky river, elaborately-dressed priests become possessed by the Hindu God Shiva and enact a series of offerings through dance to the heady repetitive beats of white-cloth wearing temple drummers. The atmosphere is electric as the drum beats intensify and accelerate to a climax of trance-like movements from the priests wearing towering, decorated headdresses, thick orange body paint, with silver eye patches and jangling embellished skirts.
The natural environment of Kerala state is jaw-dropping, both inland and along the coast. We ventured into the pristine forests of the Western Ghats and took a jeep safari into Wayanad wildlife sanctuary, an area rich in wildlife. Spotted Deer peep shyly from the forest, Indian bison, Langur monkeys, Malabar Squirrels, numerous bird species and the highlight- a group of 3 wild elephants crossing the track in front of us.
Briefly entering Tamil Nadu state we visited the regal city of Mysore, the main attraction of the city being its outstanding palace with magnificent halls and pavilions ornately decorated with colourful carvings, paintings and stained glass. Winding our way through the rolling hills of lush tea plantations with colourful villages clinging to the bright green slopes we passed the hill station of Ooty. Further south, the town of Munnar is also surrounded by tea and the tropical jungle hills bursting with spice gardens; cardamom, vanilla, cinnamon, pepper and cloves growing wild.
Kerala is famed for its backwaters and as we slid away silently from the jetty near Kottyam on the still waters, our narrow wooden rowing boat gently gliding across the calm surface, it is easy to see why people travel to this watery paradise. The sound of melodic Bollywood drifted across the water from a small cottage, a lady washing the previous night’s pots and pans at the bottom of steps to the dark water. Vivid flashes of electric blue Kingfishers dart across the surface, elegant white Egrets tiptoe through the shallows and camouflaged Pond Herons creep across mats of floating water hyacinth. Stunning cerise water lilies burst floating from the margins as a flame-orange sun rises high over the misty rice paddies.
At Varkala an idyllic sandy beach stretches as far as the eye can see from a high cliff vantage point, surf rolling in from the Indian Ocean.
No trip to Kerala would be complete without sampling the intense dance-drama of Kathkali, one of the world’s oldest forms of theatre. In Trivandrum, a flamboyantly dressed actor leaps onto the stage, face painted thick with green paint twitching and gurning to the fast drumbeats, haunting chants and clashing cymbals.
As we crossed into coastal Tamil Nadu, villages are dominated by ornate and beautifully bizarre gateways leading to pyramid-topped temples bursting with colour and intricate carved statues of the many deity manifestations.
Our final point on our southwestern Indian coastal voyage was Kanyakumari, the most southern point of India where the Arabian Sea, Bay of Bengal and Indian Ocean meet. Watching the sun set from this ‘land’s end’ point seemed a fitting end to this stage of our overland journey, as the moon simultaneously rises over the iridescent water we looked forward to our onward travels back North.
This article originally appeared in Envoyage Inflight Magazine where we have been guest travel writers for the last year or so. Back issues are available for download using the Newstand App on iPhone and iPad.
Envoyage is the in-flight lifestyle magazine for Aurigny, the Channel Islanders' airline, voted Best Short Haul Airline by Which? readers in 2013. To find out more click here.