India, it is often said, is not a country, but a continent. Stretching from the frozen summits of the Himalayas to the tropical greenery of Kerala, its expansive borders encompass an incomparable range of landscapes, cultures and people. Walk the streets of any Indian city and you’ll rub shoulders with representatives of several of the world’s great faiths, a multitude of castes and outcastes, fair-skinned, turbanned Punjabis and dark-skinned Tamils. You’ll also encounter temple rituals that have been performed since the time of the Egyptian Pharaohs, onion-domed mosques erected centuries before the Taj Mahal was ever dreamt of, and quirky echoes of the British Raj on virtually every corner.
That so much of India’s past remains discernible today is all the more astonishing given the pace of change since Independence in 1947. Spurred by the free-market reforms of the early 1990s, the economic revolution started by Rajiv Gandhi has transformed the country with new consumer goods, technologies and ways of life. Today the land where the Buddha lived and taught, and whose religious festivals are as old as the rivers that sustain them, is the second-largest producer of computer software in the world, with its own satellites and nuclear weapons.
However, the presence in even the most far-flung market towns of internet cafés and Japanese hatchbacks has thrown into sharp relief the problems that have bedevilled India since long before it became the world’s largest secular democracy. Poverty remains a harsh fact of life for around a quarter of India’s inhabitants; no other nation on earth has slum settlements on the scale of those in Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata (Calcutta), nor so many malnourished children, uneducated women and homes without access to clean water and waste disposal.
Many first-time visitors find themselves unable to see past such glaring disparities. Others come expecting a timeless ascetic wonderland and are surprised to encounter one of the most materialistic societies on the planet. Still more find themselves intimidated by what may seem, initially, an incomprehensible and bewildering continent. But for all its jarring juxtapositions, intractable paradoxes and frustrations, India remains an utterly compelling destination. Intricate and worn, its distinctive patina – the stream of life in its crowded bazaars, the ubiquitous filmi music, the pungent melange of beedi smoke, cooking spices, dust and cow dung – casts a spell that few forget from the moment they step off a plane. Love it or hate it – and most travellers oscillate between the two – India will shift the way you see the world.Read More
India’s sacred geography
India’s sacred geography
It’s hard to think of a more visibly religious country than India. The very landscape of the Subcontinent – its rivers, waterfalls, trees, hilltops, mountains and rocks – comprises a vast sacred geography for adherents of the dozen or more faiths rooted here. Connecting the country’s countless holy places is a network of pilgrimage routes along which tens of thousands of worshippers may be moving at any one time – on regular trains, specially decorated buses, tinsel-covered bicycles, barefoot, alone or in noisy family groups. For the visitor, joining devotees in the teeming temple precincts of the south, on the ghats at Varanasi, at the Sufi shrines of Ajmer and Delhi, before the naked Jain colossi of Sravanabelagola, or at any one of the innumerable religious festivals that punctuate the astrological calendar is to experience India at its most intense.
India’s railways, which daily transport millions of commuters, pilgrims, animals and hessian-wrapped packages between the four corners of the Subcontinent, are often cited as the best thing the British Raj bequeathed to its former colony. And yet, with its hierarchical legion of clerks, cooks, coolis, bearers, ticket inspectors, stations managers and ministers, the network has become a quintessentially Indian institution.
Travelling across India by rail – whether you rough it in dirt-cheap second-class, or pamper yourself with starched cotton sheets and hot meals in an air-con carriage – is likely to yield some of the most memorable moments of your trip. Open around the clock, the stations in themselves are often great places to watch the world go by, with hundreds of people from all walks of life eating, sleeping, buying and selling, regardless of the hour. This is also where you’ll grow familiar with one of the unforgettable sounds of the Subcontinent: the robotic drone of the chai-wallah, dispensing cups of hot, sweet tea.
Indian cooking is as varied as the country itself, with dozens of distinctive regional culinary traditions ranging from the classic Mughlai style cuisine of the north to the feisty coconut- and chilli-infused flavours of the south; these are often a revelation to first-time visitors, whose only contact with Indian food will probably have been through the stereotypical Anglo-Indian dishes served up in the majority of restaurants overseas. Best known is the cuisine of North India, with its signature biryanis, tandooris and rich cream- and yoghurt-based sauces accompanied with thick naan breads, evidence of the region’s long contact with Central Asia. The food of South India is light years away, exemplified by the ubiquitous vegetarian “meal” – a huge mound of rice served on a banana leaf and accompanied with fiery pickles – or by the classic masala dosa, a crisp rice pancake wrapped around a spicy potato filling. There’s also a host of regional cuisines to explore – Punjabi, Bengali, Gujarati, Goan, Keralan and Kashmiri, to name just a few of the most distinctive – each of which has its own special dishes, spices and cooking techniques.