A trip to India is an all-out assault on the senses. You'll travel through dusty heat (or snowy cold in the north), sharing roads with a parade of bicycles, auto-rickshaws, sputtering motorcycles, tinsel-draped trucks, cattle, livestock and the occasional elephant.
At India's sights and markets, the chaos continues: throngs of beggars, hawkers, tourists, near-naked holy men, businesspeople, children and scurrying monkeys. Amid the cacophony, some of the globe's most majestic and historical sights will emerge—the Taj Mahal, the Ganges and the Himalayas.
India, with all its variety, feels more like a series of countries strung together than a cohesive whole. As you move from region to region, you'll be exposed to dramatic changes in cuisine, dress, language, religion, custom and tradition.
Some parts of the country are rife with modern conveniences, and Indians there live in fashionable real estate, surrounded by the trappings of 21st-century consumer capitalism. The growth of the economy is due, in part, to a burgeoning IT, infrastructure and communications industry. Malls, multiplexes and lifestyle stores are opening all over. Yet in some areas, people still don't have access to clean water, electricity, adequate food and medical care. Many people, attracted to cities in search of jobs, stay in clumsy shacks because of unaffordable real estate, resulting in slum regions. This is especially prevalent in India's commercial capital, Mumbai, where the government is building multistoried housing complexes to accommodate these people.
With these contradictions come complications. The mass of humanity that populates India requires that you be patient, flexible and tolerant, which can be difficult if you're troubled by the disparities between India's rigid social classes. The country's religious conflicts and ongoing dispute with Pakistan are also concerns, though these events have been largely confined to certain regions. Most travelers will find these difficulties well worth the rewards, however: India remains an incomparable travel experience.
The foremost attractions in India are the Taj Mahal, religious shrines, the Himalayas, tigers, monkeys, cows, magnificent architecture, beaches, spiritual pilgrimages, great works of art, awe-inspiring scenery, ancient cultures, colonial relics and Bollywood movie musicals.
India will appeal to naturally curious and adventurous travelers (some experience traveling in developing countries will be helpful to those going off the beaten path). For first-time visitors, it is recommended to use escorted tours or well-organized itineraries with previously arranged guides and accommodations in each city. Expect to experience hot weather, severe poverty and unexpected delays or schedule changes. Don't expect deluxe accommodations outside urban or tourist areas.
India shares borders with Pakistan, China, Nepal, Myanmar, Bangladesh and Bhutan. At its southernmost tip is Sri Lanka. The Himalayas rise out of the north, and the Indian Ocean surrounds the southern portions; the Bay of Bengal in the east and the Arabian Sea to the west make India a peninsula. The fabled Ganges, the holiest and one of the most important rivers in India, originates in the northern Himalayas and flows into huge, flat plains. The plains run into the Deccan Plateau in the south. The western Ghats, made up of the Sahyadri Mountain Range, runs parallel to the coastal Konkan region and separates the west coast from the high plateau of the Deccan.
So vast and varied is India that if you don't remind yourself, you may believe you've passed into another country when you've merely crossed state boundaries. Though somewhat arbitrary distinctions, India is often divided into four regions. The north includes Delhi, Punjab and neighboring states; the magnificent Himalayas; agrarian regions and a distinctive nomadic desert lifestyle. The east is made up of Kolkata (Calcutta), Orissa and other states. The west, which consists of Mumbai (Bombay), Goa and other states, is home to the Western Ghats (a steplike mountain chain), verdant forests and sun-kissed beaches. Separated from the north by the Vindhya Mountain Range, the south comprises Chennai (Madras), Bangalore, Hyderabad, Thiruvananthapuram (formerly Trivandrum, capital of Kerala state) and the Konkan coast along the Arabian Sea and the Coromandel coast along the Bay of Bengal which together make up much of the nation's coastline.
India's long history includes a succession of kingdoms and empires, and an often-volatile mixture of religions and cultures. Hinduism, the world's oldest-surviving religion, and Buddhism, established in the sixth century BC, both grew out of the region, though Hinduism has had the greater influence on India. Beginning in the AD 700s, Islam spread to the Indian subcontinent. Muslim rulers first took control of India in the 1100s, and the Islamic Mughal empire (1526-1738) had a lasting impact on the area. Although a sizable Muslim population developed, Hindus remained in the majority.
European powers began vying for colonial control of India in the 1600s, with the British eventually gaining the upper hand. They ruled most of India until after World War II, when a movement led by Mohandas Gandhi and others finally won independence. As the British exited, the region was partitioned into predominantly Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan. The 1947 partition provoked the greatest exodus in human history as 10 million people changed sides—Muslims fleeing west toward Pakistan, and Hindus and Sikhs traveling east into India. Terrible mob violence set the scene for more than 50 years of mutual hostility and suspicion—between 250,000 and 500,000 people were slaughtered before the partition was completed.
India and Pakistan have fought three major wars, including one in 1971 that led to the creation of Bangladesh, and troops continue to fire at each other over the border almost daily. Constant threats of incursion and sabotage have led both countries to expend large proportions of federal resources on their militaries, and both countries now possess nuclear weapons. However, new transport connections by way of buses and trains between the two countries have reduced tensions in the region.
India has made great strides in other areas. It has remained a democracy—despite its turbulent and often-violent politics, including the assassination of two prime ministers. Economic development also has been impressive. In the 1990s, the government abandoned decades of economic isolation and welcomed foreign investors. As a result, advanced industries such as computer-software development and biotechnology have blossomed, though rising prices have proved unpopular, especially with lower-paid workers. The country has also become a favorite business process outsourcing destination for the West. The presence of multinational companies and call centers has created many jobs, especially for youth. Despite huge and visible problems facing the government, India remains one of the most accessible destinations in the developing world.
Most travelers fly directly to Delhi and make a beeline for the Taj Mahal. The southeastern states of Orissa and Tamil Nadu are best known for temples, while lush Karnataka, the south central rainforest-strewn state of which Bangalore is the capital, offers glimpses of the ancient Vijayanagara Empire at Hampi, through thick rain-forest cover. The Ellora and Ajanta caves, both UNESCO-protected groupings of ancient cave temples dating back to the second century, lie northwest of Mumbai in the district of Aurangabad.
History buffs will get a kick exploring India's colonial past. Highlights include the crumbling mansions and neo-Gothic facades of Mumbai and Kolkata, both British capitals for a time; the deteriorating churches of Old Goa that once rivaled Lisbon in power; and a sprinkling of hill stations, particularly Darjeeling and Shimla, that offer glimpses of a bygone era. Even though the French left a long time ago, the former French capital of Pondicherry (now Puducherry), with its wide lanes and leafy boulevards, still strikes a distinctly Parisian chord.
Additionally, food and drink aficionados will not be disappointed, and this traditionally beer-and-whiskey-only nation even boasts of a nascent wine scene. Looking classes are also popular with tourists around the country.
Some parts of the country, such as Varanasi, with its dying beggars and riverside funeral pyres, seem firmly rooted in time. Yet others, such as fast-paced Mumbai, race to make up for lost time. The city is a must for those interested in sampling the country's best dining, galleries, museums and nightlife, and for taking in a Bollywood film or two.
Among India's best buys are fabrics (including silks), clothing and shawls, paintings and prints, religious iconography, dhurries, Oriental carpets, dolls, musical instruments, tea, saffron, batiks, fossils, and items made of brass, wood, marble, copper, bronze, jute, crystal, papiermache and bamboo. Well-made souvenirs are available from most good hotels, but for the real Indian buying experiences, head to any local market. Be prepared to haggle, and know prices automatically increase for tourists.
The national and state government emporium stores have high-quality items, but prices are usually higher than elsewhere and you can't bargain. Bargaining is the name of the game almost everywhere else: Depending on the product, you may want to offer one-third to twothirds of the initial asking price and haggle from there. Be prepared for the vendor to act shocked at your ridiculously low-ball counter offer. More often than not, simply moving on to the next stall (where you will likely find an identical product) will be enough for him to reconsider. (Many "handicrafts" are produced en masse in Delhi, making it more likely shoppers will meet the middleman than the artisan.)
It's true (as you'll be told by gem dealers) that you can buy gems to take home for profit, but you can get burned—only attempt it if you know a lot about gems. It's usually best to avoid vendors selling animal-derived objects—tiger skins, elephant tusks—because trade in most animal products is illegal. If you are determined to purchase such merchandise, the Indian Tourist Office strongly suggests that you insist on seeing the permit to sell animal products and make sure to take a receipt. Additionally, any item more than 100 years old is classified as an antique, and you will need an export license to take it home.
If you see brand-name products in unexpected places (Gucci bags or U.S.-brand candy bars offered by street vendors), they are not likely to be legitimate, regardless of the vendor's insistence. Counterfeit and copycat goods abound. (We had always wondered why the Indian toilet paper, A-One, carried the warning "Beware of Imitations" until we accidentally picked up a roll of A-Won, which had nearly identical packaging.)
Hindus believe bathing in the Ganges washes away guilt: Many sadhus (holy men) trek barefoot from Rishikesh to dip three times into the icy water at the source of the river near Gangotri.
Ayurvedic medicine has been practiced in India for more than 3,000 years. The regimen, practiced in different ways in various parts of the country, is designed to prevent everything from skin ailments to cancers by strengthening the immune system. More than 100 Indian colleges offer degrees in traditional ayurvedic medicine.
Indian weddings are elaborate, showy affairs, and can be up to five days long. In certain community weddings, it is customary for guests to dance, sing and play musical instruments while the couple to be married processes by horse, elephant, camel or bedecked car. It's not uncommon for these processions to block traffic. In rural areas, marrying off the brides in a single, mass ceremony is a common way to share expenses.
Chewing betel nut (the seed of the betel palm)—and then spitting it out—is a popular pastime in certain regions of India. Betel nut stains can be found all over, though the government is trying to stop the practice. Spitting is now a punishable offense. Some private building owners have been innovative in curbing the practice by installing images of gods on walls, compounds and staircase corners.
Indians are great fans of cricket; the local joke is this hugely diverse country is united only by its love of the game and distrust of Pakistan. Cricket players have a huge fan following, and victories at international matches are celebrated by lighting fireworks all over the country. As such, many are surprised to find the national sport is actually hockey.
There's a whole legend built around the theory that Christ was in Kashmir during his missing years. The alleged Tomb of Christ lies outside Srinagar.
Most luxury hotels employ physicians, massage therapists and even astrologists to administer massage, medicated steam baths and yoga to their guests.
Indian cuisine ranges from the simple and bland to the lavish and complexly pungent. Each region has its specialty cuisine, though some dishes are available throughout the country. Curries are ubiquitous, as is thali, a vegetarian or meat meal that includes rice and chapatis (similar to heavy flour tortillas), sauces, various side dishes and curds. You'll also find dhal (a lentil soup) and idli (steamed rice cakes) just about everywhere you go.
Wheat-based breads such as roti, naan, chapati or puri and cooked rice with a variety of vegetable-, lentil-, fruit- and yogurt-based accompaniments form an Indian meal. It is common to share food on the table. Water is served with meals, as well as drinks such as jaljira (a digestive made with crushed cumin) and fruit juices.
Any dish prepared in the Kashmiri style will be delicate and have lots of fruits and nuts. Meat lovers visiting Kashmir itself should find a restaurant offering a wazwan, a traditional feast containing as many as 17 meat dishes. Indian breads are superlative—there's none better than naan (baked in a tandoori oven), but also try papadum, a wafer-thin lentil-flour bread.
Pakoras are fried vegetable fritters, and samosas are breaded, fried vegetable triangles, both served as snacks. Dum aloo is a wonderfully spicy potato dish found in the north and served with Indian bread. Buff refers to water-buffalo meat, and mutton is usually goat. Curd, a mild yogurt, is often served with meals. Naan, a white Indian flatbread (often stuffed with cheese or garlic) is served with kebabs and curries; roti or chapati (the terms are used interchangeably, depending on the region) is a slightly smaller, wheat cousin. Fruit lassis are refreshing, yogurt-based drinks. For dessert, try kheer (rice pudding).
We generally advise against eating from street stalls, unless the food is freshly cooked before your eyes. Indian food is eaten with the fingers of the right hand only; the left hand is considered unclean. In addition to Indian foods, Western and Chinese restaurants abound, and some of the best meals may be had in hotel restaurants. If you want dairy, opt for local, popular packaged brands of ice cream and dairy products at restaurants and shops. If you're in an area where you don't trust the food, a variety of packaged biscuits, potato chips and other similar items are widely available. So are bottled drinks and fruit juices. Coconut water is available widely and can be refreshing.
Stick to bottled water and avoid ice unless you are certain it was made with purified water. Many restaurants use water filters to purify drinking water. Indian brands of soft drinks tend to be extremely sweet. Some states prohibit the sale of alcohol. If you want to drink liquor everywhere you go, get an All India Liquor Permit when you get your visa (or from the Government Tourist Offices in Mumbai, Kolkata, Delhi or Chennai). The western region of India is becoming popular as a wine-producing region. You may want to try the local brands available throughout India.
DOS & DON'TS
Do dress conservatively at most Indian beaches (though there are some beaches that allow nude bathing, particularly in the former Portuguese colony of Diu). This is especially true for women. Normal Western beach attire may send a strong, though unintended, signal. Attacks on foreign women have occurred, especially in the state of Kerala.
Don't be shocked by India's contradictions. There are areas where tobacco use, sex districts, nude bathing and other activities exist in close proximity to orthodoxy and extreme conservatism.
Do be prepared for begging, which has a legitimate place in Indian society. Even poor people give to beggars or charity to earn religious merit. The Indian government, however, would like to regulate begging more. There are plenty of scams and there have been instances in which parents have maimed or drugged their children (to make them appear sick) to increase begging profits. Though begging is common, you are not under obligation to give money. In fact, it is better to donate to an established NGO or charity, which can distribute resources according to need, rather than support childhood begging.
Don't try to sneak into temples and mosques that forbid non-Hindus or non-Muslims.
Do carry a scarf, which will be needed to enter some mosques, with you at all times. Ladies will find scarves to be the ultimate India accessory.
Don't be surprised if you are frequently the center of attention when traveling around the country. Staring unabashedly is not a social taboo. Similarly foreign travelers, particularly women and those of a fair complexion, will be often asked for a "snap," or photo. Don't feel under any obligation to say yes, especially if you find the situation threatening in any way. Also be warned that one photo shoot may lead to additional requests by other passers-by.
Do carry toilet paper with you (or adjust to the Indian habit of using water instead), but don't throw it down the toilet without first checking to see if there's a basket to put it in (narrow pipes clog easily). And don't be surprised to see men defecating or urinating in public when restrooms are not readily available. Women, in the same circumstance, tend to use cover of darkness and huddle in groups.
Do be open and friendly in conversations with locals, while steering clear of the touts, who will try to lure you into their shop. Indians can be quite talkative, asking strangers questions (about marital status, salary and so forth) that might be interpreted as overly personal in other cultures.
Do dust off your bartering skills, because almost everything—from the price of your hotel, taxi, and even some sundry goods—is up for negation. As a foreigner, expect the price to double or triple automatically.
Passport/Visa Requirements: Passports, visas, proof of onward passage and sufficient funds are required. (Passport must be valid for at least six months after arrival.) Reconfirm travel document requirements with carrier before departure. There are no provisions for obtaining visas upon arrival. Yearlong visas are issued for people visiting India for medical treatment. The Indian government recently changed its visa requirements so that most foreign nationals, including U.S. citizens, must leave India for at least two months before re-entering the country, even if they are on a multiple entry visa.
There is now an e-visa facility available to nationals of most countries. It requires for you to apply and pay the visa fees online before arrival. A receipt will be mailed to you and a print-out of that will get you a visa on arrival. For more details visit
Languages: Hindi, English, 22 other official languages, thousands of dialects.
Predominant Religions: Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Sikhism, Jainism, Buddhism, others.
Time Zone: 5.5 hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time (+5.5 GMT). Daylight Saving Time is not observed.
Voltage Requirements: 220 volts.
Telephone Codes: 91, country code; 11, Delhi; 80,Bangalore; 44,Chennai; 33,Kolkata; 22,Mumbai.
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Courtesy of: Darla Logsdon
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