“Indians are the Italians of Asia and vice versa. Every man in both countries is a singer when he is happy, and every woman is a dancer when she walks to the shop at the corner. For them, food is the music inside the body and music is the food inside the heart. Amore or Pyar makes every man a poet, a princess of peasant girl if only for second eyes of man and woman meets.”
— Gregory David Roberts
India has everything to make you fall head over heels in love with it and at times, the connect is so deep that you may leave everything to make this beautiful country home. It is not an exaggeration but a truth. Guarded by the mighty Himalayas in the North and the immense Indian Ocean to its south, India is as enchanting and mysterious as its elephants and snake charmers. Diversity as the very essence of it, Indian culture is no lesser than 4500 years old. With 1.2 billion people rubbing shoulders with one another, 22 scheduled languages (excluding local dialects and many regional languages), a whole lot of heritage from the past, at least dozen of religious faiths and (hold your breath) 330 million Hindu Gods and Goddesses, India is not just a unique country but an experience like never before.
Be prepared for an assault on your senses in all possible ways and be assured, India will leave you bewildered in such a way that you would want to write a book on your Indian experiences after returning home. Good or bad, whatever you would decide to term your memories as, one thing is for sure, it will remain with you forever. Like China, India is so vast that it may take months to see it in entirety. It may be little confusing to decide what to do in India, but there are some most iconic and must-see tourist attractions in India that cannot be missed. Here’s an India travel guide for the closest encounter with a magic called India.
Explore the heart of India-Delhi:
The capital city of India is mysterious and mind-boggling. Divided into two as New and Old Delhi, the capital city is home to political big-wigs, the centre of power and like Eastern Rome, also has seams bursting with antiquity. Dusty, crowded and noisy, Delhi can be tiring if you are not mentally prepared to deal with the touts, narrow bylanes and frustrating traffic.
Once you overcome the initial shock of the giant city, Delhi like its Mughal masters will overwhelm your senses with architectural relics, colonial past and culinary feast. New Delhi, on the other hand, presents a contradictory picture with shining shopping malls, flashy hotels and skyscrapers. Humayun’s tomb, Lodi garden, Jama Masjid and Red fort are among many other historical treasures hidden in the narrow lanes of Old Delhi. If you love to shop, Delhi’s bamboozling bazaars are swarming with great handicraft items and textile.
Travel Tip: Although, it may be tiring and challenging, try to explore the narrow alleys of Old Delhi on foot or cycle rickshaw. Beware of pickpockets. Bargain hard if you are shopping anywhere else but a fixed-priced shopping mall.
Admire the beauty of Taj:
The most iconic of all Indian monuments and the symbol of love, Taj Mahal is India’s identity to the world. Built by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan for his beloved wife Mumtaj Mahal after her death, Taj is built with pristine white marbles along the banks of River Yamuna. Much has been spoken about Taj and its overwhelming beauty, however, words can’t suffice the exquisiteness of this bereaved husband’s spectacular expression of love. Rudyard Kipling described Taj as ‘the embodiment of all things pure’. Your India trip is incomplete without witnessing the grandeur of Taj Mahal.
Explore the royal Rajasthan:
Exotic, royal and colourful, Rajasthan is the vantage point from where you can gaze upon the rich and golden antiquity of the country. Rajasthan—located in the west of the county—is one of the most popular tourist destinations in India for many reasons including sandy expanse of Thar Desert, opulent Rajput palaces and fortresses emerging triumphant in the test of time, enchantingly vivid handicraft markets, smiling faces and delectable spicy flavours of the local cuisine bursting in your mouth.
With numbers of UNESCO world heritage sites, the narrow alleys and a palace (now a heritage hotel) in the middle of the lake in Udaipur, an amalgamation of a contemporary city with the olden times in the Pink City Jaipur, the beauty of sand dunes in Jaisalmer or a mighty fortress watching over the blue city of Jodhpur, Rajasthan is as extravagant as its glorious past. If ghosts and ghostly tales excite you, Bhangarh fort, built in the 17th century, is believed to be one of the scariest and most haunted places in the world.
Experience the spiritual high in Varanasi:
Bright and bewitching, Varanasi is a small holy town along the banks of Ganges. Known as Kashi (City of Life) and Benares in olden times, the city holds a special significance in Hindu religion. The sacred place to attain Moksha, (emancipation from the cycle of birth and death), Varanasi will stir your soul for a spiritual high. The Ghats of Varanasi transform into one big temple with the sound of cymbals and bells combined with the chanting of prayers rising higher and higher in the sky, Varanasi may alter your way of life forever. The cremation Ghats are not for the faint-hearted. Varanasi or Benares is also famed for its exquisite handwoven textile.
Himalayan sojourn in Northen India:
You move up north and India starts changing its colour from dusty cities to green valleys. The Himalayan hills in the north are exquisite. Himachal, Uttarakhand, Kashmir and Leh-Laddakh with snow-peaked mountains and treacherously winding roads will leave you gasping for breath, literally and poetically both. The higher you go, the better it gets. Home to His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Dharmsala in Himachal Pradesh is full of picturesque villages perched on the hill tops. There are many Buddhist monasteries in these exquisite hill stations. Thiksay Gompa or Thiksay Monastery in Leh-Ladakh is a must-visit.
Gaze upon the erotic sculptures of Khajuraho:
Located at the heart of India in the state of Madhya Pradesh, the exotic temples of Khajuraho are listed as the UNESCO world heritage site. Built in 950 and 1050 CE by the Chandela dynasty, only 20 out of 85 temples have survived till date. Famous for the sexual sculptures, Khajuraho is a site that will remain etched in your memories for a long time.
Colonial and chaotic Kolkata (Calcutta):
The former capital of British India, Kolkata (Calcutta) is also the intellectual capital of India. Unlike other Indian metropolitan cities, Kolkata is a laid-back city where time slows down considerably, hence offering you an up-close and most authentic experience of an Indian way of life. Since, Kolkata had been the base for the East India Company, the chaotic lanes of the city has hidden treasures traversing you back into the colonial era.
Once the centre of the Opium trade during the British rule, Kolkata also has a fair count of Chinese immigrants. China Town in Tangra, although a dying neighbourhood now, was once famous for its morning breakfast market and restaurants serving authentic Chinese food. Howrah Bridge and Victoria Memorial are must-see vintage sights and the tranquil banks of Hooghly with tiny wooden boats moored along the banks, make for the perfect photography site.
Bodh Gaya and Nearby:
Most important of the four Buddhist pilgrimages, Bodh Gaya is the place where enlightenment was bestowed upon Gautama Buddha. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Mahaboddhi temple is surrounded by several other Buddhist temples. Just a few kilometres away is Rajgir (ancient Pali), the first capital of the kingdom of Magadha. Don’t miss the Vishwa Shanti Stupa, one of the 80 Peace Pagodas around the world and the excavated caves that are believed to have the Golden Treasury of Bimbisara locked by the secret inscriptions on a stone, which remain indeciphered till today.
Visit the Sun Temple in Konark:
Built in the 13th century, the sun temple of Konark located in the state of Odisha (Orissa) at the East of India, was known as the Black Pagoda by the sailors. A UNSECO world heritage site, the Sun temple has spectacular sculptures and carvings all over. The most-famous of all, the wheels of the temple are a challenge to the contemporary world of innovations as these sundials can tell you the time accurately to a minute including day and night. Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore said about the Sun temple: “Here the language of stone surpasses the language of man.”
Let your hair down in Mumbai:
The commercial capital of India, Mumbai-formerly known as Bombay, is the glamour quotient of the country. Home to celluloid stars and feared gangsters, Mumbai is the city of lights that never sleeps. The cityscape of Mumbai is stunning with skyscrapers along the coastline of Arabian Sea, Queen’s necklace at the Marine Drive, glimpses of the colonial past in town (South Mumbai) and UNESCO World Heritage site of Elephanta caves. However, like the rest of India, Mumbai is crowded too. Full of hotels, restaurants, night clubs, bars and cafes, Mumbai is an ideal place to let your down in India.
Relax by the exquisite beaches of Goa:
Sparkling water, palm groves and white sandy expanse are the key elements that define Goa. Ditch the crowd and relax by the beach, stroll around the narrow alleys, relish the food fresh from the sea, admire the Portuguese leftovers of crumbling buildings and after the sun goes down, party like there’s no tomorrow. Goa is the Mecca for holidaymakers, both Indians and foreigners.
The most loved beaches include, Anjuna, Baga, Candolim and Gokarna. Vagator’s rusty cliffs emerging from the thickets of greenery and the postcard-perfect beach of Palolem are breathtaking. While in Goa, don’t miss the famous gems of Old Goa namely Basilica of Bom Jesus, Sé Cathedral and the capital city Panaji’s Church of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception.
Explore the spectacular South:
Southern India is noticeably different from the other parts of the country in all aspects, be it culture, cuisine or landscape. Little hamlet, lush paddy fields, banana plantations, swaying palms, white sandy beach of Kochi, the beautiful sight of houseboats floating on the chest of the backwaters in Kerala, the towering temples of Madurai and Trivandrum and the World Heritage Site of Hampi, southern India possess the magnificent relics from the olden times, especially from the times of Chola Empire.
This part of the nation is also the epicenter of classical music and dance of India. Don’t miss the Meenakshi temple in the 2500-year-old town of Madurai. Built between 1623 and 1655 CE with an estimated 33,000 sculptures, the temple is simply extraordinary.
Be a part of a festival or a traditional fair:
Believe it or not, India has more festivals than months in a year. However, some of the Indian festivals are beyond the boundaries of religion and region. Holi (the festival of colours), Durga Puja (the 10-day festivity), Diwali (the festival of lights), are a few of such festivals that are celebrated throughout the country. Festivals are the best time to visit India to get closest to its cultural soul.
The camel fair in Pushkar, Rajasthan is the world’s biggest livestock fair and definitely a sight like never seen before. Thousands of camels are brought to the banks of Pushkar Lake to celebrate the Full Moon day in the months of Oct-Nov and the five-day festival observes the selling and buying of camels. The Elephant Festival in Thrissur, Kerala, where a huge number of elephants are decorated with gold and silver head-gears is truly magnificent and a jaw-dropping sight.
India has endless shopping options in all ranges, from high street to budget shopping. While all big cities have shopping malls, they also have designated places for more affordable or handicraft stuff. Inquire around to locate such places in each city. Bargaining is common while shopping for local things. Keep it pleasant and enjoy the experience. There can be different rates for locals and foreign tourists, be a bit vigilant. The best way to find a good deal is to explore the market first and figure out standard rates before beginning to bargain.
Majority of metro cities like Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore, Hyderabad or Chennai have vibrant night lives. There are plenty of pubs, clubs, bars and cafes all around. Indians love their movies and the game of cricket is almost a religion here. Watch a three-hour silver screen saga of love, full of songs and dances or catch a cricket match to experience the magnitude of these two popular forms of entertainment in India.
India is so diverse a nation that the food palate changes from one city to another. Spicy and exotic, Indian food is rich and hearty. Taste the local flavours if you love to experiment with your food, or else the continental or fast food is also easily available. Rice and veggies are staple, however, the different preparations may change the taste completely. Don’t experiment too much with the street food, if you have a delicate stomach. Stick to bottled water. Tea is the most common beverage and it is customary to offer a cup of tea to guests. Tipping is common in India and there’s no specified limit for how much you tip.
Where to stay: Hotels, hostels and guesthouses are in plenty in India. The tariff may vary depending on the location. Mumbai is comparatively more expensive than the rest of the country. It’s ideal to book online after reading reviews. Hotels can range from INR 500 to INR 50000 per night, depending on your budget. If your pocket allows, try staying in the heritage hotels (palaces and fortresses converted into hotels). Hostels are not many but most of the tourist destinations have affordable guesthouses. Cleanliness can be an issue in cheaper lodging options. Indian Railway stations have waiting rooms where you can spend nights provided you have train tickets of a connecting journey. India always has some room for discounts, try your luck before finalizing the deal.
Local Transport: All big and small cities are well-connected through Air and Rail lines. Air travel is the most convenient way to move from one city to another. But, if you wish to explore India, opt for a train journey. Well-connected and comfortable, trains will give you the best sight-seeing opportunities. You need to book in advance for an overnight train journey. There are different classes in the train, from first class AC to sleeper classes without AC. Take your pick as per your convenience. For commuting locally, auto-rickshaws are the best and most pocket-friendly. Taxis can be expensive and the metres may be tampered. In smaller towns, there are also cycle-rickshaws. Mumbai has local trains for local transport. Fast and efficient, local trains are the lifeline of Mumbai. Delhi and Kolkata have metros. Take a ride in Kolkata tram which is running since 1902 and currently the only operating tram network in India and the oldest operating electric tram in Asia. Buses can be tiring and overcrowded.
Things to Remember
Too much of skin show is frowned upon in India, especially in smaller towns. Cover your shoulder and knees to avoid hurting sentiments. Dress conservatively when you visit a religious place, remove your shoes and cover your head before entering a temple or any other place of religious importance. Indians do not appreciate touching as a gesture. Maintain a physical distance, especially when you are talking to a woman. Fold your hands in greetings or simply saying ‘Namaste’ is ideal to greet people. Religious subjects are extremely sensitive, refrain from expressing your religious views or criticizing.
Although, Indians are friendly and warm-people, be careful of thugs. Especially, women must be vigilant and shouldn’t venture out too late in the evening alone. Avoid wearing expensive jewellery and beware of suspiciously friendly person. However, the person may also turnout be a genuinely helping Indian, take your time before trusting anyone blindly.
India is a huge country with challenges of its own. Be prepared to deal with the unimaginable crowd, pestering beggars, annoying touts and honk-crazy vehicles. If you overcome these not-so-pleasant aspects of India, it will open up like a magical box, presenting you with the fondest travel memories of your life.
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