India means many different things for different people. While a remarkable number of British families have their own personal link with India, for growing numbers today the first and perhaps only contact is through a short visit to Rajasthan and the great sites of northern India. Yet, wonderful though these are, just how much more there is to India to discover!
At first glance India's south may seem to be another world. It has none of the spectacular Muslim and Rajput buildings of the north. In their place is a wealth of temples, ornate, richly decorated, brightly coloured, and often teeming with people. There are of course great monuments from the past, as well as some of India's most dynamic modern centres.
While Chennai may owe its modern origins to the 17th century British East India Company's first traders, the shore temple at Mahaballipuram, just 40 miles to the south, takes us deep back into the Tamil history of the seventh century.
But although this temple is small, its detail and its setting introduce us to a great civilisation - and to great political powers, still little known in the west.
Kanchipuram, 40 miles inland from Chennai, still has magnificent temples over 1000 years old - and unrivalled traditional silks.
The powers that gave Mahaballipuram and Kanchipuram birth declined, but within three hundred years South Indiahad seen the rise of the Chola Empire. This came not onlyto have links with regions of India 1000 miles to the north, but with its overseas empire in South East Asia, carrying trade and religious influence far afield. Tuticorin, in itself little more than an industrialising port, gives access to a hinterland rich in these traditions, from Madurai with its great Meenakshi temple to Tirunelveli, with a historic role in the place of Christianity in India.
Travel round India's southern Cape to Cochin and you enter another world. The dry, almost semi-desert of the far southwest gives way to the lush, green tropical landscapes of coconut groves, paddy fields and placid backwaters that make up the Kerala coastline. Its distinctive ecology is matched by a unique cultural identity, where Arab and Jewish influences intermingle with the still earlier arrival of Christianity and the later impress of Portuguese, Dutch and British colonialism.
All the way up the west coast the picture that unrolls is of a modernising state treasuring the many strands of its interwoven history. Mangalore, a gateway to Jain treasures, Goa with both its beaches and Portuguese churches, and the commercial hub of modern India, Mumbai - a trip round the south is an introduction to worlds within a world. The experience may leave more questions than it answers, but offers insights into a world whose future promises to be as richly textured as its past.