Sunshine and Sandalwood in South India

Take a magical journey across the subcontinent's tropical south.
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Compared with the images most of us have of India as arid, dusty and remote, the southern part of the country can be a lushly green, tropical surprise. Here, you are more likely to be served coconut water than curry, find yourself in camel pose than on camelback, and sit beneath the gaze of a palm tree instead of a palm reader.

But this is still India, and even amid the beaches and jungles, you can find plenty of incense-infused shrines and languid sitar music. Whether you explore Hampi's stone temples, dress up for a night in Bangalore's clubs or kick back on the beach with a plate of fresh seafood in Kerala, southern India offers something for every traveler.

Chennai

Whole families on speeding scooters, jam-packed buses with travelers hanging out open doors, and the ubiquitous rickshaws all careen around a slowly meandering cow. This is Chennai, on the eastern coast of southern India.

The first British settlement in India, Chennai is a bustling industrial metropolis and a good place to acclimate to the country. Duck into

Annalakshmi (804 Anna Salai), the city's most renowned vegetarian restaurant, for a home-cooked

dosa

, the thin pancake of rice batter folded over spicy potato filling that is a South Indian specialty.

Or zone out in one of Chennai's movie theaters -- the city is the center of a burgeoning independent film scene, the Sundance to India's Bollywood.

Afterward, grab a super-sweet chai at a streetside tea stand (the chai here is more sugar and milk than actual tea).

Mamallapuram

Next is the bumpy bus ride south to Mamallapuram, a tiny fishing village with lots of rock carvings. Dating from the seventh century, Arjuna's Penance, the largest relief carving in the world, is the most astounding of these.

Wander from workshop to workshop where sculptors breathe new life into the ancient craft, head to the beach to watch the sunset over the monolithic Shore Temple ($5) or indulge in some fresh seafood at a café overlooking the fishing boats returning from sea.

Mysore

An overnight train takes you into the continent's interior and to Mysore, a small, dusty town infused with the sweet, heavy scent of sandalwood -- the region's most celebrated export.

Once home to the wealthy Wodeyar maharajas, the city is now a center for the production of the expensive medicinal oils said to have healing, calming and even aphrodisiac properties in Ayurvedic lore.

It is also the birthplace of ashtanga yoga, and thousands of aspiring yogis congregate here to study the ancient asanas with masters like Pattabhi Jois at the

Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute and B.N.S. Iyengar at Sri Patanjala Yogashala (Jagamohan Palace Circle).

If Mysore is the heart of southern India, the Maharaja's palace (Mirza Rd., $1) is the heart of Mysore. Today, the palace grounds are opened to the public each Sunday night, its towers lit by thousands of electric bulbs, while fireworks and jugglers entertain families picnicking with their children.

Join the pilgrims on their way up the 1,000-plus steps to the top of Chamundi Hill, or visit the Devaraja Market, where merchants sell the electrically colored

tikka

powder Indian women use to dot their foreheads.

Bangalore

A short ride north is the cosmopolitan, commercial center of Bangalore, home to the Indian headquarters of Yahoo! and Google.

Spend a day, and lots of rupees, shopping at the

Bombay Store (99 EGK Prestige, M.G. Road) for high-end Indian crafts and clothing, lunching at the rustic Queen's Restaurant (Church Street), just one of the trendy eateries here, or sipping a decadent mocha freeze at

Café Coffee Day or

Barista, the two Starbucks-inspired chains springing up all over this increasingly Western city.

Hampi

For those more interested in history than shopping, Bangalore is also a popular jumping-off point to visit Hampi. The crumbling capital of the Vijayanagara kings, Hampi is a fantastical place where monkeys romp inside cavernous stone ruins.

Some are merely a few worn steps leading to a handful of broken columns; others are giant temples where you can almost hear long-dead priests chanting in the dusty, cobwebbed dark.

The most sacred of these is the still-used Virupaksha Temple, where pilgrims gather each morning for

puja

(prayers) and to be blessed by Lakshmi, the temple elephant.

Rent a bicycle to tour the ruins, take a coracle (a tiny round boat made of reeds) across the river to the Monkey Temple or sip a banana lassi on the terraced hillside at the laid-back Mango Tree café (94487-65213).

Cochin

Although only a night's travel from Bangalore, Cochin, in the swampy backwaters of India's Western Ghats, is a journey several hundred years into the past. Its narrow streets zigzag past spice shops where merchants still sell pepper, cardamom and turmeric, centuries after the Dutch established the trade here.

The beautifully ornate synagogue in Jew Town, the center of a once-thriving Jewish community, still conducts Shabbat services for the few families that remain. Along the water, fisherman earn their livelihood the way their great-grandfathers did, wading into the surf with hand-sewn nets.

And dancers still spend hours preparing their intricate make-up for the Kathakali performances -- an elaborate mix of dance, mime and storytelling that dates back to a time before Shakespeare. The best places to see a show are See India Foundation (Kalathiparambil Lane, Ernakulam) and Kerala Kathakali Center (River Road, Fort Cochin). Both offer nightly performances for around $3.

Take a lazy cruise along Kerala's backwaters ($8-$16), green and lush and beautiful, where coconuts are still collected by spindly men in makeshift turbans. Try a traditional Keralan meal served on plantain leaves before heading on.

Varkala

Four hours south along the coast is Varkala. Lodged precariously on a cliff overlooking the ocean on the very western edge of the subcontinent, Varkala is the perfect place to end any journey.

A tiny, laid-back beach town, its row of guesthouses, open-air restaurants and shops caters mainly to Western tourists. There's nothing much to do here except lay out on the beach, take a yoga class or treat yourself to a strangely slippery Ayurvedic massage ($12 to $25) at spas like

Eden Garden.

Or you can simply indulge in one last chai as you watch a glowing sunset over the Arabian Sea -- a well-earned respite after a memorable adventure.