Ralph Ellison, who wrote the award winning novel, Invisible Man, writes in the book, ‘when I discover who I am, I will be free.’ When you are traveling (on a trip), it is the closest you get to experiencing self discovery and what place better on earth to embark to make this trip than India.
The world knows India as the birth place of Lord Rama, Lord Krishna (Hinduism), Lord Buddha (Buddhism), Lord Mahavira (Jainism), Guru Nanakji (Sikhism), Emperor Ashoka (who gave up war) and the Mahatma. While they are great men, their shadow pales the country’s other attractions. For example, India has 3650 National Monuments in contrast to the the United States’s 113 National Monuments.
India is a melting pot of different cultures. Here, the old and the new live in peaceful co-existence. So don’t be surprised if you see a 21st centuary highrise standing side by side with a slum (these sights are common in the bigger Indian cities). The lingua franca of the country are Hindi and English yet there are 1652 languages and dialects in India.
India is actually several countries rolled into one. The country is divided into 29 states, most of them on the basis of language or culture. Even then India is a ‘union’ and not a ‘federation’. Therefore, Jawaharlal Nehru described the Indian condition as ‘unity in diversity’.
Indians subscribe to the credo, ‘atithi devo bhava’, which means ‘the guest is no different from God.’ So where ever you go, you will always be greeted with a smile. Greeting people with a namaste (or namaskara, in the South) with folded hands is considered auspicious (namaste means, ‘I bow to the divine in you.’), so if you can, try to adopt it when you are in India.
Here is another tip exclusively for women. If you want to blend in, buy some salwar kameez (a two piece dress with a dupatta).
The cave paintings at Bhimbetka in the state of Madhya Pradesh or M.P are approximately 30,000 years old. Much later, came the dynasties, who ruled over India for a greater part of its recorded history. New Delhi, the capital city lists over 174 monuments, including three World Heritage Sites (the Qutub Minar, Humayun’s Tomb and the Red Fort). Currently, there are 32 World Heritage Sites in India.
North India is home to a large number of monuments. The Mughal gardens of Kashmir (Char Baghs), the masoleums of Delhi and Agra, the sanctum sanatoriums in the hills (Rishikesh, Dev Prayag, Rudraprayag, Gangotri), buddhist holy sites such as Tabo Monastery, Dharmshala and Bodh Gaya are some other places of note.
In West India, Rajastan is a must visit. The state is famous for its hill forts and palaces. The hill forts of Rajastan (six listed) are a World Heritage Site. There are also 42 palaces in the state. Some of them are now boutique hotels, so if you want to experience the royal life, you can do so in Rajastan.
The east of India is a hidden gem. The city of Kolkata (or Calcutta) was once the capital of the British in India (until 1911 when New Delhi was made the capital). As a result, it has many British structures such as Victoria Memorial, Indian Museum and Fort William. The seven sisters of the east (the seven states of North India) are also very picturesque and have immense tourism potential. The Sun Temple in Konark (the Black Pagoda) and the Khajuraho temple in M.P are other noteworthy tourist spots in the east.
South India contains a number of old temples and grand structures. The Meenaxi temple in Madurai, the Tanjavur Brihadeshwara temple (has the largest vimana or temple tower of any temple in the world), the Tirupati temple (all in Tamil Nadu), the Belur-Halibedu temple complex and Veerupaksha temple in Hampi (both in Karnataka) are some popular tourist places.
Goa is a tiny state in West India, nestled between the Western Ghats and the Arabian Sea. For a long time (until 1961), Goa was under Portuguese rule. So they have left their mark on the state’s culture, language and architecture. Goa is very famous for its forts, beaches (Vagator, Anjuna and Baga) and nightlife
Kerala, in the South of India was once called the Land of Spices. Roman senators used to complain that Roman women used too much spice and silk imported from India which was draining Rome of its gold. The urge to acquire Indian spices was also one of the major reasons why European powers were so keen to find India.
Since spice is easily available and is plenty, it is used in most Indian food and so, Indian food was traditionally spicy. In India, rice is the staple diet of the people but wheat and other grains like pearl millet (bajra) and finger millet (ragi) are also popular.
India is also famous for is street food called chaats (a North Indian speciality). Pani puri, seev puri, dahi puri, ragda puri, bhel puri are some famous chaats. Alcohol is easily available in India (except in Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland and Gujarat, where there is prohibition) with many home grown brands like Kingfisher, Knockout and Haywards.
There are a number of activities you can take part in while you are in India. For example, the country is fast emerging as a hot bed for adventure activities. Whether it is trekking, mountaineering, kayaking, white water rafting, paragliding, hot air ballooning or mountain biking, you can find them in India.
If you are nature person, you will be happy to learn that India is home to 9 biosphere reserves, 99 national parks and 514 wildlife sanctuaries. The Royal Bengal Tiger is the national animal of India. If you want to see it in the wild, do visit Ranthambore National Park (in Rajasthan), Kanha National Park (in Madhya Pradesh) or Bandhavgarh National Park (also in Madhya Pradesh).
If you like fishing, you can try catching the Mahsheer (called the Tiger of Indian Rivers for the spirited fight it puts up when caught on a fishing line). The Himalayan region of Himachal Pradesh is a good place to angle the Mahsheer as is the Cauvery river in the south of India.
If you want to go scuba diving, the Andaman & Nicobar Islands, Goa, the former French colony of Pondicherry and Netrani at Murudeshwar have plenty of opportunities. The best thing about all these activities is, you can engage in them for a fraction of the price in western countries.
Train, bus and flight are the preferred modes of transport in India. For short distances, it is better to take a bus or a cab. For long distances, you can take a train or a flight. Waterways are not well developed in India.
It is a good idea to contact a travel agent to book tickets (travel in India is confusing because of the multitudes of trains and buses). You can also book tickets yourself via online portals like TicketGoose, RedBus. Ibibo or MakeMyTrip. To book rail tickets, log on to irctc.com (Indian Catering and Tourism Corporation Ltd.), a government owned enterprise. Most of the larger states have their own road transport corporations, which also have websites.
Ensure that you book your tickets well in advance because seats tend to get filled quickly. Please note that both buses and trains have special arrangements for women (separate seats for women on buses and separate coaches for women on trains).
It is never cold in South India (because it is closer to the tropics) so unless you are visiting a hill station like Munnar, Kodaikanal or Ooty, you will not need woolens in the South. In North India, especially during winter, woolens are a must.
Always carry some drinking water because you can easily get dehydrated in the hot tropical sun. It is a popular perception that you need to carry iodine tablets to purify water because there is no guarantee about the water in India but it is not true. First of all, most Indians boil water before drinking and second, bottled water is easily available. But as a precaution, do not drink water from a tap or an open body of water. Do carry some paracetamol tablets, cough syrup and ORS sachets for urgent medical use.
The local Indian currency is the rupee or rupiyah in Hindi. There are many money changers in the big cities and you can get a list of them from the Reserve Bank of India website. Never carry large sums of money with you (if you do, do not show it to anyone). Women are recommended to travel with companions. Finally, keep your travel documents safe and always carry photocopies of the documents.