When India celebrated the 50th anniversary of its independence in 1997, it used the slogan 'Unity in Diversity'. In many ways the southern states of Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, illustrate this diversity. Their history is one of oscillating influence, with power changing hands between Hindus and Moslems several times and Buddhism and international trade adding to the mix.
For many, Karnataka is just a means of reaching Kerala--but they are missing some of India's best-kept secrets. Set in a strange boulder-strewn landscape, the rains of Vijayanagar are the remains of a fabulous city, Hampi, founded in 1336. By controlling the silk and spice trades further south, its leaders made it the most powerful Hindu city in the region, with a population of 500,000, bustling markets and extensive fortifications. It was sacked in 1565, and while much of its grandeur was destroyed, it retains a magical air, as much to do with the beautiful surroundings as the ancient rains themselves.
Several of Karnataka's other cities are also worth a visit. The home of the silk and incense industries and of sandalwood carving, Mysore exudes an old-fashioned charm, with its lively produce markets and magnificent palaces.
In the north, Bijapur was the capital for a series of sultans between the 15th and 17th centuries. As a consequence, it has some of India's most magnificent Moslem architecture. And while Bidar in the far northeast is remote, its Persian-style mosques, mausoleums and impressive fort are a revelation for those prepared to make the effort.
Karnataka is also home to India's highest waterfalls, Jog Falls, where the River Sharavati plummets over sandstone cliffs. The falls lie between the coastal city of Mangalore and Goa, on a beautiful stretch known as the Karavali Coast. Punctuated by small fishing villages, deserted beaches and fortified towns, it's the ideal place to unwind after days following the tourist trail.
Like its neighbour, Andhra Pradesh is frequently overlooked by tourists. For centuries its capital, Hyderabad, was the most important Moslem city in southern India, a fact reflected in fine buildings such as the Charminar, the Mecca Masjid and the Golconda Fort. Founded in the 15th century, the city became the centre of the diamond trade--the famous Koh-i-Noor diamond, housed in the Tower of London, came from Golconda, Hyderabad. Today, pearls are the main attraction, together with jewellery, spices, perfumes and antiques on sale in the vibrant Lad Bazaar.
In Tirupati, in the state's south, is Venkateshvara temple, the richest in India, which attracts more pilgrims than the Vatican, Jerusalem or Mecca. Farther west, the spiritual leader Sai Baba draws devotees to Puttaparthy's Prasanthi Niyalam ashram. In these cities visitors can experience the fevered atmosphere of pilgrimage or even receive darshan--an audience with a saint or sage.
Kerala: splendour in isolation
Rising from the palm-fringed shores of the Arabian Sea to the forested slopes of the Western Ghats, Kerala's breathtaking landscape is a symphony in green. Buildings rarely rise above the treetops, so the towns and villages seem to be built within the forest. …