Misleading. There is no other word that can more convincingly capture the enigma that is India. Brazenly flaunting its diversity ranging from snow dusted mountains to sun-drenched beaches, tranquil temples to exuberant celebrations, from villages lit by lanterns to cities that dominate the IT world, the country presents itself as the most multifaceted and multidimensional in the entire planet.
Either you love it or hate it and mostly visitors pass from one mood to another as India promises a total involvement. More than a billion people live in the sub-continent, teeming with an eclectic mix of ethnic groups and tourists that translates into an intoxicating cultural cocktail. India is a country unlike any other, which promises you a journey to unknown spaces.
For those seeking spiritual support, India offers a profusion of holy sites, while history buffs will encounter gems from the past almost everywhere from the grand vestiges of the British Raj, which dominate the the quiet splendor to the spice bazaars and the decaying fortresses placed on the edge of steep escarpments. The spirituality is the common thread that weaves the complex tapestry of India today with countless sacred sites and traditional rituals, testifying to the long, fascinating and sometimes hectic religious history.
Meanwhile, those looking for excitement in nature can paddle the sparkling waters of one of the many quiet coves, go and look for the big cats in an exciting safari to see animals in the jungle or just breathe air that smells of pine during a meditative walk in the forest.
Epicureans can charge tasty samples of all kinds, from sticky idli, a sweet fermented rice typical of southern India to deliciously spicy curry in the north of the country. Just set foot on Indian soil for discovering the national obsession of cricket, which dominates and makes all conversations animated, along with the latest intrigue of the crazy world of Bollywood.
Too much noise, too many people, too much heat, too much rain but there is grace in the smiles, elegance in the movements of a sari, in the winding of a turban, a naturalness in the Spirituality, a majesty in its architecture and fervor in its prayers.
Every day of the year, in some places of India, is celebrated a festival. There are thousands of gods, prophets and gurus that the main religions of India adore and worship and celebrate. There are celebrations that can last for several days, almost always accompanied by music, dancing and delicious food. Major among them are Holi, Independence Day, Krishna Janmashtami, Raksha Bandhan, Onam, Ganesh Chaturthi, Navaratri, Durga Puja, Dussehra, Diwali, Pushkar Fair and Makar Sankranti and the celebrations vary from region to region.
There are two Eid during the year, Eid-ul-Fitr at the end of the month of fasting, Ramadan, and Eid-ul-Zuha or simply Bakra Eid. Goa celebrates the Intruz carnival, from the Portuguese Entrudo that lasts for three days and three nights and the most important event takes place in the city of Panaji. King Momo event finds wide resonance even outside the Christian community, with huge parades of floats, dances and music that invade all the cities of the state into the night.
Many other festivals do not have an exact date but simply follow the lunar calendar as well as for tribal festivals, which are little known to the general public but with traditions and customs distant in time.
To see the entire India, you will require at least a month, if not more. Whatever plan you choose to follow, you will end up in some way to jump, or modeled in a different way than you had thought. The biggest risk for those who has never been in India before is trying to fit too many stages in the itinerary, and in an attempt to see it all end up doing nothing and doing it badly.
Let's start with the simple things. One in Rajasthan is a classic route, perhaps the most popular among the short-term tourists who land in Delhi. Agra and the Taj Mahal is nearby and about twenty trains a day connect the two cities, and after a day to photograph sunrise, sunset and everything in between, you can continue towards Rajasthan.
Before arriving in Jaipur lies the Ranthambore National Park, where you can go on a safari and hope to see a tiger. The center of Jaipur is completely painted in light red, but its highlights are outside with the Amer Fort and the floating palace of Jal Mahal. Continuing south you can reach Udaipur, the city on the lake and if you want you can make a stop in Pushkar, especially if you are in the period of the camel fair. Going up is on the trail Jodhpur, the blue city, and follows Jaisalmer from which you can arrange to visit the Thar Desert aboard a camel.
Jumping on a train to reach Udaipur, you get closer to the state of Gujarat. The capital, Ahmedabad, is home to the house of Mahatma Gandhi, with nearby sanctuaries of the white lion in the Gir forest and the Rann of Kutch. But further south, in Maharashtra, there is Nashik, another holy city built on the banks of the Godavari River, where is held the Kumbha Mela. Here you can observe the rituals of the faithful without feeling the constant click of the camera, even if the dimensions are much smaller than the Ganges. Continuing you reach Aurangabad which is a base for visiting the World Heritage of Ajanta and Ellora then. After a few days in the ruins of these ancient structures, we can continue to finish in the home of Bollywood, Mumbai.
Taking the long route from Delhi, you can reach Varanasi and spend a few days on the banks of the Ganges, then return to the west swerving northward. In Uttarkhand and Himachal Pradesh lie dozens of villages, valleys and parks. India's first national park is the Jim Corbett, and shortly thereafter it is the small towns of Rishikesh, Haridwar and Mussorie. This has become the best known of the villages in this area after a visit of the Beatles in the 70s. Today the large part of its tourists turn around to yoga.
It is a very popular tourist spot, and offers beautiful scenery and a chance to see the clean Ganges. From near here you can leave for the trek to the source of the sacred river. Shimla and Manali, are towns in the mountains and was used by settlers as a summer resort and has remained intact as it was then. The great thing though is it to get to Shimla, you can go up and take the historic train that starts from Kalka.
Then there is the Tibetan community of McLeod Ganj, a short distance from Dharamsala, where the Dalai Lama resides. From here you can make excellent treks, including one to Triund, Leh and Ladakh through the Zanskar range.
To conclude a major event is at the wagah border near Amritsar in Punjab where a celebration is held for the evening closure of the border with Pakistan. Amritsar is also the spiritual capital of the Sikhs, and a lunch at its Golden Temple is a must.
North India offers a fantastic cultural cocktail and dizzying diversity, which will remain engraved in your mind long after your trip. With the gigantic tip plunging into the Indian Ocean, the southern peninsula is the hot and humid heart of the subcontinent. Its luxuriance contrasts with snow-capped mountains and plains burned by the northern sun. It is India of those who love the seaside life from the beaches of Goa, the old temples of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, the urban jungles of Mumbai and Bangalore, the backwaters fringed with palm trees and cooled by the breeze in tropical Kerala, treks in forest reserves to discover wildlife and the preserved aboriginal and rural cultures of Andhra Pradesh.
Kolkata in the east is the second Indian city by population, which is a madhouse with an explosion of smells, colors and sounds as is difficult as interesting. After spending a few days in Calcutta, climb towards Darjeeling, the famous hillside in the world famous for its tea and Sikkim. From here there are several treks, plus the ability to approach the Buddhist doctrine that prevails here.
Going down you will need to make a stop in Patna, capital of Bihar, but only to reach Bodhgaya, place of pilgrimage for Buddhists, because here is the tree under which Gautama Buddha attained enlightenment. Going by train from here is Varanasi, after which is Khajuraho and its temples. Nearby is Jhansi and Orchha, from where you reach the end of the trail coming to Delhi.
With its capacity to provoke exaltation, frustration and at the same time thrills of joy and discomfort, this region of the world is exceptionally rich in experiences for visitors. Even the most accustomed travelers sometimes get saturated. South India rushes you to the depths of your being. Wherever you go and whatever you do, you will have unforgettable memories.
This time we start from Chennai, the capital of Tamil Nadu, to quickly go down to the sea at Mamallapuram, a sleeping village on the shores and Ooty, the hill station in the Nilgiris. Continuing we reach the former French colony of Pondicherry, where you can still find baguettes, as well as the obvious typical architecture. But under Pondicherry, lives a community of very special that of Auroville, which is inhabited by more than 40 nations established here to follow utopia.
In half a day can be reached Madurai, where you cannot help but admire the large colorful temples carved in the most detail. Not far away is actually the island of Rameswaram, connected by a long bridge, which stretches towards Sri Lanka. This is a sacred place and for many Hindus it is a duty to collect the water of the Ganges for using here, and then collect the water of this sea and bring it into the Ganges to conclude the cycle.
Then we enter Kerala, the green state, and get to Munnar, another tea land. Coming down from the hills we end up in Kochi and its islands, from which you can move south to explore the backwaters before concluding the trip.
There is an India hidden and unknown to most people, linked to the great subcontinent by the narrow corridor of Siliguri in West Bengal, and considered one of the areas with cultural diversity so varied and numerous to recall, as always, the interest of anthropologists. Northeast India, on the border with China, Bhutan, Myanmar and Bangladesh, where the seven sisters, Mizoram, Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Nagaland, Meghalaya and Tripura, is a pre-Himalayan natural beauty that preserve a cultural heritage almost intact, that of tribal communities that inhabit them.
Assam, with its green valleys, is the second largest state of the seven sisters, the most accessible to tourism and alone produces 65% of the total production of tea in India. Here are two important parks famous for the last vestiges of Indian rhinos, Manas and Kaziranga, a World Heritage Site, partly crossed by the river Brahmaputra.
The whole of northeast India is inhabited by many tribal communities of the Mongolian strain, a true treasure of humanity, and the varied languages, customs, religions and traditions, living on agriculture and livestock, produce, wool textiles and other local crafts. Like a kaleidoscope of cultures, the peculiarities of these tribal communities are reflected in their dances, songs, food, festivals, art and other social occasions in which they express their vitality and pride.
Traditions have survived time and modernity. Nagaland is the least populous and yet one that is home to the rich ethnic diversity, as many as 80 tribes and subtribes of Mongol origin reside. Arunachal Pradesh is bathed by the rising sun because the sun everyday lights it first together with its beautiful orchids. Special entry permits are required to visit most of the interior places, issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Visa and Customs
All foreign visitors must have a visa to visit India. You must obtain it before arriving in India, which is possible in the Indian Embassies or consulate general. Among the various documents remember that the passport must have a validity of at least six months with free pages for affixing the visa. The Indian authorities do not issue visa on arrival at the airport.
When to go and Climate
In India, the weather is so diverse that it is impossible to choose a better period than others for the journey, but, in principle, in much of the country, the most pleasant months are those ranging from October to March. In the far south the best period goes from January to September, while eastern and northeastern India is more attractive from March to August and Kashmir and the mountainous regions are more attractive between May and September, with snowfall mainly during January to April.
The deserts of Rajasthan and the north-western Himalayan region offer the best of themselves in the monsoon season. The Indian Himalayan trekking season lasts roughly from April to November, although it varies widely depending on the location, altitude and region. The ski season is from January to March.
How to get
The main airports in India are Mumbai and Delhi, but many international flights also arrive in Calcutta and Chennai. Typically flights from Europe arrive in India in the early hours of the morning, which can be quite inconvenient if you have not booked the hotel and you do not like to wander in the dark in a strange city. The place where you can buy tickets at cheaper price is Delhi, followed by Mumbai and Calcutta. The direct international flights to neighboring countries can be very cheap especially between Kolkata and Dhaka (Bangladesh), Delhi and Karachi (Pakistan) and Tiruchirappalli and Colombo (Sri Lanka).
If you're heading from Kathmandu or Pokhara to Delhi or elsewhere in India, the most convenient entry point is Kolkata. The only currently open border between India and Pakistan is between Lahore and Amritsar. The crossing can take place by rail or road. A bus service between Lahore and Delhi makes four trips a week. Phuentsholing is the incoming and outgoing border point between India and Bhutan, but you need to have a visa to enter the country, which you must take at least 15 days before starting the journey at an agency accredited by the Department of Tourism of Bhutan.
Air India is the main Indian airline managed by the government, which has a fairly extensive network. Deregulation has greatly improved the quality of service and multiplied the number of smaller players. Among the new entrants, the most reliable are Jet Airways, Spice Jet, IndiGo, Air Asia and Vistara. The Indian railway system is, rightly, legendary and traveling by train in India is a unique experience in the world. Sometimes it can be uncomfortable and frustrating, but it is also part and parcel of the Indian trip.
It is advisable to try to take over as quickly as possible of the Indian rail etiquette, if you do not want to fight desperately to defend your own private space. There are many different classes and different types of trains and you can take an express or a local train, but try all the different classes for the simple sake of it. The reservation system is labyrinthine and definitely deserves an anthropological study, but be patient, because it is one of the few bureaucracies in the country that actually work.
Buses are many from state to state, but on the main routes there is often a choice of ordinary, express, semi-deluxe, deluxe, deluxe, air-conditioning and even deluxe seats with bed. Apart from the state buses, on many journeys private companies also operate that are usually more expensive and more comfortable and can prove to be a smart choice if you have a long way to go.
The local buses are usually crowded, tatty, slow and inconvenient and then you'll have to endure full volume hindi pop music in ramshackled tin speakers. The bus is the best way to get to Kashmir and also to go to Nepal and Uttar Pradesh. They are usually faster than trains in Bihar and in large areas of Rajasthan. It is very easy to rent a car and driver, but if you want to drive yourself you have to be equipped with nerves of steel and an outstanding karma.
Usually the cars are rented by the day for a limited number of kilometers. Probably you will have to provide for the driver's expenses, so get clarified exactly how much you have to pay each day before getting in motion. If you're planning a long trip, ask to do a short test drive to check the braking speed of your driver. Biking in India has become a popular pastime, but it is a risky business and unwise for amateur bikers.
Cycling is good in cities and in general you can rent for a pittance, but for long distances it takes good legs and strong heart. If you intend to bring your own bike, think twice if it is of the very latest 10-speed model, as they will in fact be touched, examined and tested every time you stop.
The local transportation include buses, taxis, auto rickshaws, cycle rickshaws and occasionally horse-drawn carriages. Taxis can be metered, but you will find it working in very few cities. The auto rickshaws and cycle rickshaws generally cost half of a taxi but the passenger has to breathe the diesel fumes. The cycle rickshaws have almost completely disappeared from the centers of the major Indian cities, but in smaller towns are still an essential part of the transport network. Agree on the fare before boarding.
The Indians are curious. If you stop on the street people will stare at you and will be interested in your presence. There are many topics of conversation that you can deal with, but remember that many Indians are sensitive towards Pakistan and so avoid talking about it.
Do not make photos of women who bath in the springs or relatives of the dead during a cremation. Avoid giving money to the children in the street, because they are often in a racketeering and money will end up to their exploiters.
Many Indians, especially in Punjab or the surrounding areas, asks to take pictures with you that has became popular in recent years. Try to avoid them.
Go see a Bollywood movie during your visit. India is full of shopping malls with multiplex cinemas. Watch a movie surrounded by enthusiastic spectators who sing together or maybe sometimes they dance, which is a unique experience! Remember not to ridicule Bollywood as for the Indians is like a religion.
For many Indians you will be regarded as outcasts. Do not be offended, that caste is a complex system. Do not dress up as Indians in saris, shalwar kameez or dhoti, lungi or kurta. It would be ridiculous and in certain areas some might even take offense. Put on by Western wear but in moderation. It is good that women avoid tank tops, vests, too low-cut or short sleeveless dresses. However, it depends very much on the area as the phenomenon is more pronounced in the south. Always remember that it is correct to respect the decency of the culture in which you are located.
Never kiss a woman in the audience to greet her. Do not embrace her and try not to shake her hand. It will go well to join your palms in front of you with a namaste.
Before leaving read something on Hinduism. It will help you understand many things India also apparently not related to religion. Visit the Hindu temples, even those that may seem artistically insignificant, and stay there for long. Do not just visit the temple and its monuments, but live it. Sit down and look, listen, smell and touch. Normally you will not be allowed to enter the Garbhagriha, the room womb containing the image of the main deity of the temple, but what happens outside the temples will be more than enough.
Always remove your shoes to enter a temple. Do not take food or beverages in the Jain temples. Wrap up the head in Muslim and sikh shrines. You can get in many temples, but not those that contain the lingam, as in Varanasi. Once inside, you can sing or dance with the Indians. Beware of the puja, the ritual act of the offer in the temples. The actual pujari will never do business with Westerners, because it would mostly be a taboo. Watch out then for those who offer you a tour of a temple with adjoining puja in an unlikely Sanskrit language, because he may be a fake pujari who often use gentle kids, who can enchant you in minutes. But in the end, the cost of your mock puja will be very high.
Do not ever ridicule a sikh for his turban. I would highly recommend if you are in the area at the right time to take part in some festivals like Holi and Diwali. Do not make fun of tantra or kamasutra. It is complex doctrines that should not be generalized.
Do not assume any price as even the rates of luxury hotels are negotiable. They will take into account when you propose other services. In fabric stores, expect a price increase of 7-8 times the actual price. Bargaining should be fierce. You can pretend to go away. Usually you will be called back and you get the price you want.
If you do accompany an acquaintance for shopping, he may be entitled from the shopkeeper a percentage of what you bought. Visit the markets, especially those not intended to tourists but to the Indians, where colors, sounds, faces and music will bewitch more than an artistic monument. Keep a little savings to an Ayurvedic treatment especially if you are in Kerala.
The Indian food could cause problems to your stomach. Start perhaps with lighter dishes and then, gradually, try spicy. The hygiene in India is a problem and put your heart at the fact that the vegetables may have been prepared with dirty hands and cups of tea being washed in old water. Sooner or later, during your trip, you may have tummy problems, but fortunately the drugs for these disorders are easily found at local pharmacies.
There may be circumstances in which some Indians may not want to eat near you. Respect their customs, as it may be an orthodox Hindu. In restaurants, always ask for the spice level you want.
India is like a wave, you have to go along and let yourself be overwhelmed.