India offers myriad flavours mingling in the steam of a country coming of age.
Teeming with over a billion people who voice over a million concerns in fifteen hundred different languages, India is where people live with variety, thrive on diversity and are too familiar with largeness to let it boggle them.
Travellers and tourists to India may however not find it so undaunting. Mud huts and mansions face off across city streets and lurid luxury and limp living are inhabitants of the same lane. Just like in the 'masala' box in every Indian kitchen, measures of Calm and "Kaam" (work)craft the people of India. In this beautiful and bountiful land that is India, events, experiences and sensations heap themselves on the tourist at every step. India will be one of the most stimulating places you’ll ever visit, so you must visit.
India is a beautiful and bamboozling place, where holy cows amble along the streets, bask on heavenly beaches next to modern hotels and where ancient temples sit perfectly at home besides shiny new offices.
The most enigmatic of countries, India is a relentless assault on all of the senses at once. It is an extraordinary place, one of the world's great human melting pots where an incredible array of cultures, religions and ethnicities live in reasonable harmony. It teems with one-sixth of the planet's population from rural villages where life hasn’t changed for hundreds of years, to ultra-modern cities like Mumbai that ooze western sensibilities. India is simply vast, varied and, above all, unforgettably beautiful.
You could spend a lifetime exploring the echoes of ancient cultures, and the country's dramatic landscapes, including the mighty Himalayas. The most frequently visited part of India is the Golden Triangle, comprised of Delhi, Agra and Jaipur. The people-packed cities of Mumbai (Bombay) and Kolkata (Calcutta) have a bustling, colourful charm, while the holy city of Varanasi and the awe-inspiring temples of Tamil Nadu are rewarding places of pilgrimage. Ancient frescoes are on view in the Anjanta Caves in Maharastra and dotted across India are 28 World Heritage Sites. Every region in India is stippled with an unmatched depth of history, diversity in cultures and language, monuments and beauty of settings.
As a tourist there is something to cater to every taste be it adrenaline-fuelled explorations, luxurious pampering or simply relaxing. India's real allure and magic comes from the sheer assortment of things to do in every region: In Delhi, catch a rickshaw through the narrow lanes to the Red Fort, take a ride on the new world-class metro or visit it’s wonderful Lodhi Gardens. Perhaps you would prefer a more sublime treat such as floating on a houseboat through Kerala’s dreamy landscapes. You can choose to be overwhelmed by the vivid colours and overpowering aromas of a spice market. Or in Rajasthan, you can bounce up and down on a camel through the mystical deserts or sweat with the locals on a train through mountainside tea plantations. And, even if you do all that, you still won't have scratched the surface.
Still, India is a wonder wrapped in contradictions. It is hard to overlook the fact that it has extraordinary displays of wealth as it does poverty. Modern architecture and corporate parks are growing but there is still a paucity of infrastructure. However, as a tourist there are responsible ways to visit as discussed in this guide.
Don’t expect to absorb all it has to offer in one visit, this is a country best approached as one would a smorgasbord. It’s a much more palatable experience if you take a sampling of what is on offer and then revisit for more.
It can be a baffling and at times an overwhelming place to visit but one thing is for certain, no matter how ready you are to leave by the end of your trip, within a few days after departure, you'll be longing to return.
Top places to see in India
Snorkel in the Andaman Islands, in the Bay of Bengal - a lushly forested archipelago that has exotic plant life and a wide variety of corals and tropical fish. The best sites for diving around the islands are more difficult to reach remote. It is also home to India's only active volcano.
Experience India's sprawling deserts from the back of a camel. Make sure you camp overnight to experience the desert’s incredibly clear array of stars. Coincide your visit with one of the annual festivals such as Jaisalmer’s Desert Festival (January/February) and Pushkar’s fascinating Camel Fair (October).
Experience India's sprawling deserts from the back of a camel. Make sure you camp overnight to experience the desert’s incredibly clear array of stars. Time your visit to coincide with one of the annual festivals such as Jaisalmer’s Desert Festival (January/February) and Pushkar’s fascinating Camel Fair (November).
Play golf on one of the highest golf course in the world, at Gulmarg. From here there are good views of Nanga Parbat, one of the highest mountains on earth. In winter, Gulmarg is transformed into a lively ski resort.
Take part in the Durga Puja (September/October) in Kolkata (Calcutta). One of the biggest Hindu religious festivals in India, it is full of colour and noise, held in honour of the goddess Durga. Other Hindu festivals to watch out for include Diwali, Ganesha Chaturthi and Kumbh Mela.
Wonder at Kashmir's flower-spangled meadows, icy mountain peaks and clear rivers. Jammu is the railhead for Srinagar, the ancient Mughal capital. Lake Dal has houseboats where visitors can live surrounded by scenery so beautiful it is known as 'paradise on earth'.
Go east to Kolkata (Calcutta), capital of West Bengal. It is a major business centre with many markets, bazaars and impressive, if crumbling, colonial buildings. Central Kolkata contains the Maidan, the central parkland.
Explore the wildlife in over 70 national parks, 400 wildlife sanctuaries and 17 biosphere reserves. The Indian tiger and the Asiatic elephant are still found in certain regions. Among the best known reserves are Keoladeo Ghana National Park (Rajasthan), Ranthambore National Park (Rajasthan), Kanha National Park (Madhya Pradesh), Corbett Tiger Reserve (Uttarakhand) and Sunderbans Tiger Reserve (West Bengal).
Go mountaineering or trekking in the pristine landscape of Sikkim. Shimla, in Himachal Pradesh, is the base for treks into the beautiful Kullu Valley, while Kodaikanal is a popular base for treks in Tamil Nadu.
Find out where your humble cuppa comes from with a tour of one of India’s tea plantations. Watch the tea pickers at work and learn how the leaves are processed. Head to the cool mountain town of Darjeeling, Assam or The Nilgris for the best brews.
Mumbai (Bombay) has Juhu and Chowpatty, while Goa offers some of the nation's most sublime beaches and resorts. Marina Beach in Chennai (Madras) is the second largest in the world. The lush state of Kerala includes the famous beach at Kovalam.
Bollywood and Bombay
Escape Indian stereotypes in Mumbai (Bombay), the capital of Maharashtra, where a bustling port and the country's commercial hub, Mumbai’s plate-glass skyscrapers and modern industry jostle alongside ramshackle bazaars and a hectic street life. The city is also the home of the prolific film industry. Welcome to 'Bollywood'!
Encounter the two sides of Delhi: New Delhi is a modern city, offering Lutyens' architecture; 'Old' Delhi is several centuries old, with narrow, winding streets, ancient shrines and rambunctious bazaars. See the Red Fort, the nearby Jama Masjid (India's largest mosque) and the Qutab Minar's soaring tower.
Take part in the Durga Puja (September/October) in Kolkata (Calcutta). One of the biggest Hindu religious festivals in India, it is full of colour and noise, held in honour of the goddess Durga.
Although much less mellow than in the heady days of the 1960s, there are still some fabulous full moon parties in places such as Anjuna. Time your visit for the spectacular Carnival for bustling fun, as crowds throng to watch the lavish floats pass by and dance the night away.
Head for the cool hill stations to retreat from the heat of the plains. Some of the most renowned hill stations include Shimla (Himachal Pradesh), Darjeeling (West Bengal), Ooty (Tamil Nadu), Kodaikanal (Tamil Nadu) and the incredibly beautiful Srinagar (Jammu & Kashmir) with its lotus-strewn Dal Lake.
Orissa state is famous for temples. Bhubaneswar has some particularly notable temples, including the Lingaraj Temple. Puri, a holy Hindu place of pilgrimage, stages Rath Yatra in June or July, where icons of gods are drawn on massive chariots. Konarak is known for its striking ‘Sun Temple '
A complete break from India's urban grit, cruise along the tropical backwaters of Kerala, pausing en route to visit rustic villages and assorted tourist sites. Sample the region’s renowned cuisine whilst you’re there including seafood flavoured in light coconut curries.
Music and dance
Listen to the evocative instruments of Indian music, such as the sitar, sarod and the subtle rhythm of the tabla. There is also a variety of dance forms to marvel at, each with its own costumes and elaborate language of gestures.
Visit the most romantic city in Rajasthan, Udaipur. Known as the ‘Venice of the East’, it is built around the lovely Lake Pichola and is famed for its breathtaking Lake Palace Hotel as well as being a key filming location for the James Bond film, Octopussy. The rest of Rajasthan is famous for its colourful people and fairy-tale castles and forts.
Brave the crowds that throng the sacred River Ganges. Along its bank is the wondrous city of Varanasi, one of India's holiest Hindu locations with its ghats which, at dawn, are mobbed with pilgrims and holy men performing ritual ablutions and prayers.
Taj Mahal and the Golden Triangle
Discover the area known as the 'Golden Triangle' with its many stunning attractions. Delhi sits at the heart of the area with Agra in the southeast with the iconic Taj Mahal. To the southwest, in Rajasthan, is Jaipur, the vibrant 'Pink City'. Visit the Amber Fort and the Hawa Mahal (Palace of the Winds). To the southeast of the triangle lies Khajuraho with its famous erotic friezes.
Temples of Ajanta
Observe stunning rock-cut temples all over India including the Buddhist cave temples at Ajanta, which date back at least 2,000 years, and Khajuraho with its famous erotic friezes. The caves at Ellora depict religious stories and are Hindu, Buddhist and Jain in origin.
Travel to India
Flying to India
Flights to India are available from several national and international carriers. The major national airline in India is Air India (AI) (www.airindia.com) which merged with Indian Airlines in February 2011. There are also several commercial Indian airlines that have added international destinations to their schedules such as Jet Airways (9W) (www.jetairways.com), Kingfisher Airlines (IT) (www.flykingfisher.com) and IndiGo Airlines (I9) (www.goindigo.in). Flights to India maintain their prices throughout the year but become more expensive in peak season June and July and in December.
A new state-of-the-art terminal building opened at New Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International airport in 2010. Terminal 3 boasts available Wi-Fi at no cost with 24/7 support and power charging stations. There is a procedure to access the Wi-Fi which may be elusive so check how to on the airport’s web site.
From London to Delhi is 8 hours 30 mins; to Kolkata (Calcutta) is 11 hours 45 minutes; to Chennai (Madras) is 11 hours, and to Mumbai (Bombay) is 9 hours. From New York to Delhi is 14 hours; to Mumbai is 15 hours.
Rs500 Departure Tax is normally included in the price of the air ticket - check with your booking agent.
Travel by rail
Indian Railways (www.indianrail.gov.in) run most international services.
Connections to Pakistan: From India you can cross into Pakistan at the international Attari/Wagah border. There are bus and train services between India and Pakistan. Approaching the border away from the official crossing point may be dangerous.
Connections to Nepal: The most practical and popular route to Nepal is by train to Raxaul (Bihar) and then by bus to Kathmandu or by train to Gorakphur (or bus if coming from Varanasi) and then by bus to Kathmandu crossing the border at Sunauli; also, by train to Nantanwa (UP) and then by bus to Kathmandu/Pokhara, or Bhairawa to Lumbini for Pokhara. It is also possible to make the crossing from Darjeeling and Sikkim by bus to Kathmandu across the southern lowlands.
Connections to Bhutan: The best way of reaching Bhutan by land is by bus/train to Siliguri, then bus to Phuentsholing.
Connections to Bangladesh: The most convenient route to Bangladesh is Kolkata (Calcutta) to Dhaka by bus. Another route is from Darjeeling via Siliguri, then train or bus from Jalpaiguri to Haldibari, or bus to Changrabandha.
Currently, no land frontiers are open between India and Myanmar or between India and China (PR).
By rail note:
Be prepared for long queues at ticket windows in train stations. Services are almost always busy, especially overnight trains, so it pays to book in advance.
Getting to India by boat
Most people arrive in India by air or overland. Seaports levy the following departure tax: Rs500 (for journeys to Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka); Rs750 (all other destinations).
Indian ports are also served by several international shipping companies and several cruise lines. There are, however, no regular passenger liners operating to South East Asia.