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WHY YOU COME TO INDIA
India is a beautiful and bamboozling place, an endlessly fascinating country that is often challenging and always surprising.
Stretched between the golden beaches of the Indian Ocean and the snow-capped peaks of the Himalayan mountains lies an incredible tapestry of natural and man-made wonders – astounding temples, mystical monasteries, frenetic cities, pristine national parks, lavish palaces, lost kingdoms, mesmerising markets and some of the world’s most iconic monuments.
Visiting India is an assault on the senses. Sights, sounds, smells and sensations are all experienced at maximum intensity. On day one, it can feel intimidating, but by the end of the first week, the noise and chaos will seem like an ordinary part of life. The sensory stimulation becomes strangely addictive.
India is one of the world’s great melting pots, where an incredible diversity of cultures, religions and ethnicities live in surprising harmony. Presided over by an extraordinary array of gods and deities, one-sixth of the planet’s population can be found here, living in anything from high-rise apartments and inner city shantytowns, to simple huts in remote villages where life has hardly changed in centuries.
You could spend a lifetime exploring the relics left behind by ancient empires and the country’s dramatic landscapes, which range from tiger-filled jungles to frozen Himalayan deserts. On the first trip, almost everyone finds time for the so-called Golden Triangle, zipping from the colonial capital, Delhi, to the Taj Mahal at Agra, then on to Jaipur, the colourful capital of Rajasthan. With more time to spare, you can discover 32 UNESCO-listed sights, from creaking mountain railways and ancient fortresses to mangrove forests and temples overflowing with multi-armed deities.
Don’t expect to absorb all India has to offer in one visit; the country is best appreciated like a buffet table, with repeat visits to sample the next tantalising platter. And with India’s legendary cuisine, rest assured that on every trip, you’ll eat like a Maharaja.
THINGS TO SEE AND DO IN INDIA
Admire the artistry of Ajanta and Ellora
The stunning rock-cut cave temples at Ajanta and Ellora are the crowning glory of Indian religious art. The temples of Ellora were hewn by Buddhist, Hindu and Jain stone-carvers from the 5th to the 10th century, but nearby Ajanta is even older, with exquisite murals that may date back as far as the 2nd century BC.
Bend to the power of Yoga
India is the birthplace of yoga, one of the world’s best-loved traditional therapies. At ashrams and yoga retreats across India, you can learn the fine art of yoga from the people who invented it, or at least their direct descendants. Head to Haridwar or Rishikesh in the Uttarkhand hills to discover yoga at its spiritual source.
Delve into Delhi
India’s capital is a riot of sounds, smells and sensations. Eight separate capitals have risen up on this site over the centuries, ruled by a string of empires. The heart of the city is Old Delhi, which overflows with forts, mosques and maze-like bazaars; south of the old city, New Delhi was laid out in wide avenues by the colonial architect Lutyens.
Feel the belief in India’s temples
India overflows with temples, from modern marvels like Delhi’s Akshardham to the timeless glory of the erotic temples of Khajuraho. Amritsar’s Golden Temple is the most sacred site for the Sikh religion, while the temples at Ranakpur are thronged by Jain pilgrims. In the east, Konark is one of India’s treasures, built in the shape of a vast stone chariot.
Feel the flow of the River Ganges
The mighty River Ganges is a direct channel to the divine for India’s 966 million Hindus. At the wondrous city of Varanasi, one of India’s holiest Hindu pilgrimage towns, the riverside ghats are mobbed by pilgrims and holy men performing ritual ablutions and prayers as the sun rises and sets over the sacred river.
Find Bollywood in Bombay
Delhi may have the history and architecture, but Mumbai (formerly Bombay) is India’s capital of fashion, film, finance and fun. Mumbai is a city of phenomenal contrasts, where India’s tallest skyscrapers rise against a backdrop of ramshackle bazaars and slums. Attractions include ancient cave temples, colonial monuments, fine dining restaurants, the movie studios of Bollywood and the world’s busiest train stations.
Find peace in Kashmir
Troubled Kashmir manages to be both India’s most serene spot, and sometimes its most dangerous. When things are peaceful, the legendary Kashmir Valley is mesmerising, with its ancient mosques, Mughal gardens and houseboats drifting over its serene lake. Because of the security situation, many opt instead for neighbouring Ladakh, which moves to the peaceful refrain of Buddhist temple bells.
Head for the hills
India’s hill stations are a bizarre facsimile of England, transported to the forested highlands of India. In towns such as Shimla (Himachal Pradesh), Darjeeling (West Bengal), Ooty (Tamil Nadu), Kodaikanal (Tamil Nadu), you’ll find grand colonial hotels, whitewashed churches and dainty teahouses set against a spectacular backdrop of Himalayan peaks.
Join the fun at a Hindu festival
The 330 million deities of Hinduism are celebrated in all their vivid glory at festivals such as Durga Puja (September/October) in Kolkata (Calcutta), where thousands of rainbow-coloured idols are immersed in rivers and pools. Other must-see celebrations include Holi, the festival of colours (March), Diwali, the festival of light (October/November), and the Kumbh Mela, the largest human gathering on Earth.
Kick back on India’s beaches
Mumbai (Bombay) has Juhu and Chowpatty, and Chennai (Madras) has Marina Beach, but the best beaches of all are down in the south. Goa offers some of the nation’s top strips of sand, while Kerala offers an even steamier version of the tropical south. Then there are the beaches of the Andamans – pure tropical perfection.
Move to Indian rhythms
From the show-tunes of Bollywood to the haunting melodies of the sitar and shehnai (Indian oboe), Indian music has a way of getting into the blood. You’ll hear it everywhere, from temple courtyards and dinner shows to buses and marketplaces, where the singers of the latest movie soundtracks are treated with the kind of adulation normally reserved for Beyonce and Beiber.
Roam through Rajasthan
From the glorious capital, Jaipur, to the Blue City of Jodhpur and the White City of Udaipur, Rajasthan is awash with desert fortresses, terrific temples and the palaces of Maharaja. For the ultimate Rajasthani experience, head for the desert city of Jaisalmer, where camel safaris into the Thar Desert offer a little taste of what life was like in India’s glorious past.
Sample serene Buddhist India
When the Dalai Lama fled Tibet, he found sanctuary, along with the exiled Tibetan administration, in Dharamshala in Himachal Pradesh. Today, Tibetan Buddhist communities thrive across India, from the high-altitude deserts of Ladakh to the mountains of Himachal Pradesh and Sikkim and remote Arunachal Pradesh in the far northeast, offering a whole different take on Indian spirituality.
Sample the steamy south in Kerala
For a complete break from India’s urban grit, cruise along the tropical backwaters of Kerala, pausing en route to visit country villages and scattered temples and beaches. On board, you can sample one of India’s best-loved cuisines, with delicious seafood cooked in coconut curries. For something really unique, see Kerala’s kathakali dancers perform their elaborate routines.
Seek the perfect brew in India’s northeast
Discover where the humble cuppa comes from on a tour of one of India’s tea plantations, which spread out like a green carpet around Darjeeling, Assam and the Nilgiri Hills of south India. On a plantation tour, you’ll meet workers picking tea in a landscape of vivid green and get a chance to sample India’s finest brews.
Seek tigers in India’s national parks
India boasts more than 70 national parks, 400 wildlife sanctuaries and 17 biosphere reserves, providing a much-needed home for rare tigers, Asiatic elephants, one-horned Indian rhinos and more. 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).
Soak up the atmosphere in artistic Kolkata
Where Mumbai is all razzle and dazzle, Kolkata exudes an air of calm sophistication. India’s capital of the arts is a fascinating collection of bustling bazaars, sprawling parks, and grand, decaying colonial monuments that once housed the government of British India, where life moves to the same timeless rhythms as the turgid Hooglhy River.
Splash down in the Andaman Islands
For the real tropical paradise experience, there’s really only one choice. Floating off the east coast of India, the Andaman Islands are densely forested, ringed by sand and fringed by coral reefs teeming with tropical fish. This remote archipelago is also home to Adivasi tribal people whose ancient way of life endures despite the challenges of modernisation.
Take a desert safari
Mughal India was the crowning glory of the Islamic world, and while other empires stole the thunder, the ancient cities of north India still swim with the romance of Arabian Nights. For the full experience, get out into the India’s sprawling deserts on camel back from Jaisalmer, and camp beneath an unbelievably clear panorama of stars.
Take in the Taj
India’s Golden Triangle offers a mesmerising circuit through Delhi, Jaipur and Agra, but it’s the Taj Mahal that everyone comes to see. Described as the greatest monument ever built for love, it’s perhaps the most aesthetically perfect building on earth, constructed from gleaming white marble by the heart-broken Mughal emperor, Shah Jahan, for his favourite wife.
Unwind on the sand in Goa
Although less mellow than in the happy-be-go-lucky days of the 1960s, the hippy hangouts of Goa have evolved into India’s favourite seaside resorts. The occasional full moon party can still be found in places such as Anjuna, but today, the focus is more on sunbathing, sipping local spirits and sampling the Portuguese-influenced cuisine of the coast.
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