India, the Asian subcontinent, is arguably the most diverse and captivating country on earth. With everything from sun baked white sandy beaches to the stunning snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas, frantic metropolitan cities to traditional laid-back village life, peaceful temples and holy shrines to a feast of festival fun, its popularity is unsurprising. Whether in search of spiritual enlightenment, an outdoor adventure sports holiday, a delve into its historical past or just a culinary food tour, India has something for everyone and plenty of unexpected surprises along the way.
With a population of over 1 billion, 14 official languages, plus a countless number of dialects, India has an abundance of cultures bringing its people together. Of the many cultures that do exist, religion plays an important role and can be seen in the daily activities of the locals. Hinduism has the strongest support, followed by Islam, Sikhism, Christianity, Buddhists, Jainism and others. These religions, alongside their 33 million gods all combine to create the county’s unique and enchanting atmosphere.
The country is set apart from the remainder of Asia by the magnificent stretch of the Himalayan mountains to the north and its 26 states play host to all imaginable forms of life and landscape. The northern regions are jam packed with tourists and some of the most popular historical sites, from Kolkata, on the extreme east coast, to the western desert state of Rajasthan to the northern hill stations of Dharamsala, Shimla and Leh. The countries capital, Delhi, lies on the famous Golden Triangle circuit, incorporating Agra, Jaipur, Udaipur and Jaisalmer. Moving south from Mumbai, most travellers starting point and a fascinating cosmopolitan city, the country becomes more laid back, stretching along the shores of the Arabian Sea through the states of Goa and Kerala.
Due to its size, India experiences a range of climates and is broken down into three main seasons: the hot, the extremely wet monsoonal and the cooler period. During the hot season, February to June, temperatures are known to surpass 40°C and be very humid. At these times, the northern hill stations are at the busiest. Then comes the rain, starting in the southwest and gradually spreading north up until mid October. At this time, flooding is regular and travel becomes disrupted. Nevertheless, although it may rain every day, it does not rain all day long and visitors planning a trip during these months should not be put off. Finally, the cooler period follows the end of the monsoon, which is the time when most tourists enter the country. However, from December to the end of January, many northern cities become surprisingly cold. Other factors affecting when to visit are the many festivals, which take place throughout the calendar year, so important to check beforehand.
Travelling around the country can be exciting, pleasurable and, on occasions, frustrating. With its immense railway system, trains provide excellent services between all major cities, as well as many smaller ones, and are a true part of the Indian experience. Most of the bigger stations have tourist friendly booking offices to assist with reservations. The cheapest form of travel is by bus, with buses running at all hours of the day, both short and long distance. Be warned, driving in India is an art and journeys can often be rather hazardous. Other popular ways of intercity travel is through hiring a private driver, a more expensive option, or, for the adventurous, renting a motorcycle. For travel within cities, there are never a shortage of rickshaws, speeding around the streets in wacky-races style, taxis, cycle rickshaws and local buses. Failing this, take to the streets on foot and enjoy the pleasures that unfold.
It is impossible not to be enthralled, mesmerised and baffled by this great country and almost as impossible to sum it up in words. No amount of preparation can prepare the traveller for what lies ahead and this is a mystical land where one must be open to the unknown. Travelling through India triggers all emotions and the crazy blend of love and hate, old and new, rich and poor, sun and rain, all contrive to frustrate, confuse, stimulate and excite, albeit at the same time.
Things to do in
Taj Mahal, Agra - One of the world’s most breathtaking and magical monuments. Gaze in awe at this white marble architectural masterpiece built for love, which often leaves the most experienced traveller lost for words.
The Golden Temple - The focal point of Amritsar and the Sikhs holiest shrine. Sit back amongst the pilgrims and enjoy the welcoming spiritual atmosphere, accompanied by the hypnotic chants from inside the temple.
Discover the life of Mahatma Gandhi - Various sites across the country pay homage to India’s most famous son, including Gandhi Smitri, Delhi, where the great man was assassinated, and Sabarmati Ashram, Ahmedabad, his headquarters during the fight for independence.
Shatrunjaya, Palitana - Climb the c3,200 steps to one of Jainism’s holiest pilgrimage sites. At the summit is a feast of no less than 863 temples, making the 2-hour walk worth every moment.
Keralan Backwaters - Lose yourself on a houseboat tour through the peaceful network of canals, lakes and lagoons, stopping off to visit the sleepy traditional towns of Alleppey, Kottayam and Kollam on the way.
Udaipur’s Lake Palace - Standing like a fairytale castle in Lake Pichola, the palace stirs up a sense of mysticism and enchantment.
Varanasi Ghats - Take a trip along the Ganges, India’s holiest river, and watch as the daily religious rituals unfold on the endless number of ghats.
Explore the markets - Wind your way around the twisting alleyways in search of some real bargains. Marvel at the range of items on offer at Delhi’s Chandni Chowk, Kolkata’s New Market and Mumbai’s Chor Bazaar and Crawford Market.
Festivals - Being part of an Indian festival is a truly magical experience and there are an abundance of colourful and vibrant events throughout the calendar year.
Beaches - Catch some rays, take a dip in the Arabian Sea and kick back on the pristine sandy beaches of Goa. Lunch on succulent fruit at Palolem, visit the markets of Anjuna or soak up the hippy life of Anjuna.
Camel Safari, Rajasthan - Saddle up on a camel and head out into the Thar Desert, near Jaisalmer, visiting villages and spending a romantic night beneath the stars.
Train journeys - With its extensive rail network, India is home to a number of fascinating train journeys. From the spectacular, Mumbai to Goa, Konkan railway to the Shimla to Kalka Himalayan Queen to the 66-hour journey from Kanyakumari to Jammu Tawi on the Himsagar Express.
Escape to the Himalayas - Relax, meditate, go trekking, or try some adventure activities at one of the many hill stations, including Manali, Shimla, Darjeeling and Leh, all encompassed by the magnificent and breathtaking snow capped mountains.
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