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India. Its name triggers images of ornate Hindu temples and maharaja's palaces, women clad in jewel-toned saris, snake charmers swaying before mesmerized cobras and teeming masses bathing in the river Ganges.

The seventh largest country in the world (about one-third the size of Canada), India is many countries in one. Scenery, attractions, language, religion, costumes, foods, festivals and handicrafts vary dramatically from one region to another.

Five thousand years of history, 130 years of British rule and more than fifty years of independence have created a country that's endlessly fascinating and guaranteed to provide sensory overload.

Why go to India?

The first reason is to see its beautiful and diverse scenery. Snow-clad Himalayas, in the north, form magnificent backdrops to the terraced tea plantations of Darjeeling and the elegant wooden houseboats and floating flower vendors on Kashmir's Lake Dal. Golden sand dunes drift across the desert state of Rajasthan, southwest of Delhi. Palm-fringed beaches edge much of India's two coastlines, while lush forests and fertile farmlands make the south a verdant Eden.

Thali with puris, dal and curried mutton
Thali with puris, dal and curried mutton
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Food is a second reason to visit India. India's cuisine varies from region to region, with meat and breads more popular in the north and hot curries and rice dishes more common in the south. While spices flavour many dishes, Indian food doesn't always trigger spontaneous human combustion. Coastal towns and cities, for example, feature fresh grilled fish and prawns. Prices are surprisingly inexpensive.

Curried lamb & pistachio ice cream

Hotel restaurants serve bountiful buffets of continental, Chinese and Indian cuisine. Try the tandoori (clay oven)-baked breads and marinated meats, mulligatawny soup, turmeric-spiced chicken broth, flavoured with fresh coconut milk and lime, rogan josh, curried lamb, kofta, spicy meatballs, often stuffed with fillings and cooked in a rich sauce, and thali, a platter of saucy meat and vegetable dishes for scooping up with torn pieces of deep-fried poori bread.

India is a vegetarian's paradise, with a vast variety of diverse dishes. For dessert, don't miss the pistachio kulfi (ice cream), rasgullas (cream cheese balls, flavoured with rosewater syrup), fresh mangoes and pomegranates.

Snackers will find tasty pakoras, samosas (filled turnovers), dosas (stuffed crepes), all wonderful with a glass of cool lassi (yoghurt drink). Because India's large Hindu population doesn't eat beef, and the Muslim inhabitants don't eat pork, even traditional fast food restaurants accommodate both groups. McDonald's outlets serve a mutton burger called a Maharaja Mac.

New Delhi and Old Delhi

History is a third major reason to visit India. Delhi, located centrally in the north, is the capital and third largest city (after Calcutta and Bombay).

New Delhi boasts wide tree-lined boulevards, stately colonial buildings, modern hotels, restaurants and shops. In contrast, Old Delhi, with its crowded bazaars and narrow streets jammed with a colourful cacophony of cars, scooters and autorickshaws, is a showcase of India's golden age of the Mogul emperors.

For nearly 200 years, beginning in 1526, six great Mogul rulers merged Hindu and Islamic cultures. The resulting renaissance of arts and architecture is still evident today.

Giggling harem girls

Old Delhi's most popular relic from the past is the Red Fort, built more than 300 years ago by Emperor Shah Jahan (creator of the Taj Mahal), as a centre of Mogul government. Two kilometres in circumference, it encompasses elegant private apartments, the cupola-topped Pearl Mosque, The Hall of Private Audience and elaborate gardens.

Don't miss the Sound & Light Show, at night, when illuminated buildings, marching British soldiers, creaking saddles, giggling harem girls and other sound effects bring India's history to life.

One thousand elephants

The best-preserved example of early Mogul architecture is Humayun's Tomb. A beautiful tomb-in-a-garden, built by a widow in memory of her husband, it's a forerunner to the Taj Mahal, which was constructed a century later.

The Taj Mahal illuminated by the full moon in Agra
The Taj Mahal illuminated by the full moon in Agra
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Agra, home to the Taj Mahal, is a half-hour flight or four hour-drive from Delhi. Built between 1631 and 1653 as a tomb for Shah Jahan's second wife, who died giving birth to their fourteenth child, the Taj Mahal is India's most famous attraction.

One thousand elephants hauled the 2.5-ton slabs of marble which 20,000 labourers used to cover the tomb. The inlaid flowers, made from semi-precious stones, are so detailed that a coin-size flower contains 64 pieces, so skilfully placed that your fingertips cannot detect the joints.

Best time to visit

If at all possible, time your arrival so that you can admire the Taj Mahal by the light of the full moon, when its white marble glows evocatively. Otherwise, visit at dawn when the sun's first rays change it from cotton candy-pink to snow-white.

While the image of the Taj Mahal, reflected in the rectangular pools of the surrounding gardens, is memorable, visit Agra's Fort to view the Taj Mahal from its windows. Imprisoned here by his son, for the last seven years of his life, Shah Jahan could only gaze at his marble creation from across the river. Before leaving Agra, check out the inlaid marble handicrafts in the city's shops.

Fertility ritual

Both history and Hindu and Muslim architecture are well preserved 35 kilometres southwest of Agra at the imperial ruins of Fatehpur Sikri. Emperor Akbar transferred his capital here, from Agra, after a local holy man's blessing enabled his wife to conceive a son and heir.

Today, childless women tie coloured threads on the marble screen of the holy man's mausoleum, as a fertility ritual.

Pleasure palace

Completed in 1575, the red sandstone city took six years to build. By 1600, however, its meagre water supply wasn't able to sustain the population, so Akbar abandoned the city. Of the 4,000 buildings, only 20 remain today.

The best view of the deserted town is from the Panch Mahal, or "Building of Five Storeys," which was a pleasure palace used by the emperor and his harem.

Court ladies and auspicious horoscopes

The desert state of Rajasthan also exudes history. For 300 years, it was the domain of the powerful Rajput warrior kings. These maharajas built sprawling palaces, forts, gardens and temples which are popular visitor attractions today.

The Palace of the Winds is the landmark of the walled capital, Jaipur, known as the "Pink City" for its rose sandstone buildings. From here, the maharaja's court ladies observed city life, while hidden by its elaborate screens.

Red-turbaned men guard the maharaja's City Palace, now a museum housing India's best collection of arms, as well as paintings, carpets and manuscripts. Worth a visit is the 250-year-old Jantar Mantar Observatory, once used by the maharaja (an astronomer) to forecast local time, eclipses and auspicious horoscopes.

Fourth reason to visit

Culture is undoubtedly a fourth major reason to visit India. An hour's flight southeast of Agra is Varanasi, home to more than 2,000 temples and shrines. The Ganges River, which Hindus believe is the goddess Ganga, flows through this sacred city of the Hindu god, Shiva. (More than 80 per cent of India's one billion population practice Hinduism.)

Bathing on the ghats of the Ganges River in Varanasi
Bathing on the ghats of the Ganges River in Varanasi
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Every Hindu wants to make at least one pilgrimage to Varanasi. Many come here to die, in the belief that they will be liberated from the cycle of incarnation (rebirth) and go straight to heaven. On the ghats (stone steps) leading down to the river, people gather to purify themselves by bathing and drinking the water.

Cremations and boat tours

Wispy clouds of pewter-coloured smoke arise from cremations on the burning ghats, just a short distance away from the steps where laundrymen wash clothing in the river. Pilgrims gather around near-naked, ash-covered holy men, to learn, pray and meditate.

Others offer flowers and coconuts at riverside temples and gain religious merit by donating alms to beggars. The best way to view this overwhelming spectacle is by taking one of the many boat tours along the Ganges, at dawn.

India's Hollywood

For glimpses of ancient culture, visit Bombay (now called Mumbai), two hours by air, southwest of Delhi. Electric-paced Mumbai, a major port, commercial and financial centre, is India's Manhattan. As the world's largest film-making centre, it's also India's Hollywood.

A short ferry ride brings visitors to the 1,200-year-old rock-cut Hindu temples on Elephanta Island. Ellora's and Ajanta's rock-hewn caves are an hour's flight away.

Dating back to the 7th century, Ellora's 34 Buddhist, Hindu and Jain cave temples feature intricately chiselled rock carvings of gods and goddesses. The paintings and sculptures in Ajanta's 30 caves depict the life of Buddha, and date back to the 5th century AD.

A festival every day

It's not surprising that a country with six major religions and a pantheon of deities, saints, and prophets has a festival or fair nearly every day of the year. Name the topic — religion, music, dance, flowers, seafood, kites, sports, boats or handicrafts — and there's a festival to celebrate it.

Among the most famous are Diwali, the Festival of Lights, in early winter, which marks the beginning of the Hindu New Year. Millions of candles, oil lamps and electric lights illuminate both homes and public buildings.

Holi, in March, is a prankish holiday when celebrants toss crayon-coloured powder and water at relatives, friends and strangers, to mark the beginning of spring and, symbolically, the triumph of good over evil.

Camel races

Perhaps the most unique festival is the Pushkar Fair, in Rajasthan. Held for 10 days every November, during the full moon, the fair attracts 250,000 Hindus. Garbed in mustard yellow, fire engine red, shocking pink and tangerine orange turbans and saris, they come to buy and sell camels and cattle, bathe in Lake Pushkar, worship Lord Brahma, and enjoy camel races, folk dances and music.

While tourists stay in tents, locals camp in the open desert, grilling chapattis (flat, round, unleavened breads) over camel dung fires. Vendors sell sugar cane, curries, sweets, jewellery, camel saddles and decorations.

Pushkar Camel Fair
Pushkar Camel Fair
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Classical, folk and tribal dances highlight most festivals. In India, dance is used as both a vehicle of worship and entertainment. Musical accompaniment is as varied as the dances, with drums, horns and stringed instruments providing a range of tempos and rhythms. Costumes, makeup and jewellery change from region to region.

Live like a maharaja

The fifth, but by no means the least, good reason to visit India is simply to have fun. Visitors can pretend they're maharajas, aboard a traditional howdah seat on an elephant's back. The driver, perched on its neck, manoeuvres the lumbering pachyderm up the cobblestone road to the massive gates to the 16th-century palace of Amber, 11 kilometres from Jaipur.

Inside its pitch-black Hall of Mirrors, a guide lights two candles, then waves his arms so the flames reflect in thousands of coin-size mirrors embedded in the walls and arched ceilings.

Guests live like maharajas in the sumptuous rooms and marble courtyards of Udaipur's Lake Palace Hotel, which floats like a white lily on Lake Pichola. Until 1963, it was the summer palace of the Maharana of Udaipur. (A maharana is more distinguished than a maharaja.)

Udaipur, 400 kilometres southwest of Jaipur, is a city of palaces, gardens and temples. Its gleaming white City Palace, across the lake from the hotel, is now a museum, housing royal apartments, courtyards, pavilions and terraces, richly decorated with glittering mosaics, inlaid tiles and fine paintings.

Haggling for carpets and gems

Shopping is another fun thing to do in India. Kashmiri carpets, delicate filigreed silver jewellery, ornate brassware, enamelled tableware, sandalwood sculptures and block-printed fabrics, beckon from shops and bazaars. You can select a bolt of shimmering silk from a rainbow of offerings and request a sari, made-to-order.

Gem merchants tempt you with mounds of glittering precious and semi-precious stones. Large modern stores usually have fixed prices, but in the bazaars and small shops, haggling is the rule. Start at fifty per cent of the asked price and work up from there. As a rule, the price of an object is based, not on its value, but by how much you want it.

Free fun

It's hard to beat people-watching. You can get whiplash viewing vignette after vignette. Drivers bringing cow-drawn carts, heaped with bananas, to market. Buddhist worshippers spinning prayer wheels in monasteries. Monks blowing elongated horns. Dentists spreading out pliers and jars of pulled teeth, on a streetside blanket. Women washing clothing in water lily-filled ponds. Farmers threshing rice. Vendors selling mounds of fragrant coloured spices.

India is, undoubtedly, the greatest show on earth.


India Dept. of Tourism, Ministry of Tourism and Culture: www.incredibleindia.org

More things to see and do in India:

Dal Lake & Nigeen Lake Houseboats in Srinagar, Kashmir

Lonely Planet's India

Lonely Planet's Northeast India