The best Indian itineraries are the simplest. It just isn’t possible to see everything in a single expedition, even if you spent a year trying. Far better, then, to concentrate on one or two specific regions and, above all, to be flexible. Although it requires a deliberate change of pace to venture away from the urban centres, rural India has its own very distinct pleasures. In fact, while Indian cities are undoubtedly adrenalin-fuelled, upbeat places, it is possible – and certainly less stressful – to travel for months around the Subcontinent and rarely have to set foot in one.
The most-travelled circuit in the country, combining spectacular monuments with the flat, fertile landscape that for many people is archetypally Indian, is the so-called Golden Triangle in the north: Delhi itself, the colonial capital; Agra, home of the Taj Mahal; and the Pink City of Jaipur in Rajasthan. Rajasthan is probably the single most popular state with travellers, who are drawn by its desert scenery, the imposing medieval forts and palaces of Jaisalmer, Jodhpur, Udaipur and Bundi, and by the colourful traditional dress.
East of Delhi, the River Ganges meanders through some of India’s most densely populated regions to reach the extraordinary holy Hindu city of Varanasi (also known as Benares), where to witness the daily rituals of life and death focused around the waterfront ghats (bathing places) is to glimpse the continuing practice of India’s most ancient religious traditions. Further east still is the great city of Kolkata (Calcutta), the capital until early last century of the British Raj and now a teeming metropolis that epitomizes contemporary India’s most pressing problems.
The majority of travellers follow the well-trodden Ganges route to reach Nepal, perhaps unaware that the Indian Himalayas offer superlative trekking and mountain scenery to rival any in the range. With travel in Kashmir still largely limited to its capital, Srinagar, and central valley area, Himachal Pradesh – where Dharamsala is the home of a Tibetan community that includes the Dalai Lama himself – and the remote province of Ladakh, with its mysterious lunar landscape and cloud-swept monasteries, have become the major targets for journeys into the mountains. Less visited, but possessing some of Asia’s highest peaks, is the niche of Uttarakhand bordering Nepal, where the glacial source of the sacred River Ganges has attracted pilgrims for more than a thousand years. At the opposite end of the chain, Sikkim, north of Bengal, is another low-key trekking destination, harbouring scenery and a Buddhist culture similar to that of neighbouring Bhutan. The Northeast Hill States, connected to eastern India by a slender neck of land, boast remarkably diverse landscapes and an incredible fifty percent of India’s biodiversity.
Heading south from Kolkata (Calcutta) along the coast, your first likely stop is Konarak in Odisha, site of the famous Sun Temple, a giant carved pyramid of stone that lay submerged under sand until its rediscovery at the start of the twentieth century. Tamil Nadu, further south, has also retained its own tradition of magnificent architecture, with towering gopura gateways dominating towns whose vast temple complexes are still the focus of everyday life. Of them all, Madurai, in the far south, is the most stunning, but you could spend months wandering between the sacred sites of the Kaveri Delta and the fragrant Nilgiri Hills, draped in the tea terraces that have become the hallmark of south Indian landscapes. Kerala, near the southernmost tip of the Subcontinent on the western coast, is India at its most tropical and relaxed, its lush backwaters teeming with simple wooden craft of all shapes and sizes, and red-roofed towns and villages all but invisible beneath a canopy of palm trees. Further up the coast is Goa, the former Portuguese colony whose 100km coastline is fringed with beaches to suit all tastes and budgets, from upmarket package tourists to long-staying backpackers, and whose towns hold whitewashed Christian churches that could almost have been transplanted from Europe.
North of here sits Mumbai, an ungainly beast that has been the major focus of the nationwide drift to the big cities. Centre of the country’s formidable popular movie industry, it reels along on an undeniable energy that, after a few days of acclimatization, can prove addictive. Beyond Mumbai is the state of Gujarat, renowned for the unique culture and crafts of the barren Kutch region.
On a long trip, it makes sense to pause and rest every few weeks. Certain places have fulfilled that function for generations, such as the Himalayan resort of Manali, epicentre of India’s hashish-producing area, and the many former colonial hill stations that dot the country, from Udhagamandalam (Ooty), in the far south, to that archetypal British retreat, Shimla, immortalized in the writing of Rudyard Kipling. Elsewhere, the combination of sand and the sea, and a picturesque rural or religious backdrop – such as at Varkala in Kerala, Gokarna in Karnataka, and the remoter beaches of Goa – are usually enough to loosen even the tightest itineraries.