Stretching from the frozen summits of the Himalayas to the tropical greenery of Kerala, India's expansive borders encompass an incomparable range of landscapes, cultures and people. Walk the streets of any city when you travel India and you’ll rub shoulders with representatives of several of the world’s great faiths, encounter temple rituals performed since the time of the Egyptian Pharaohs, onion-domed mosques erected centuries before the Taj Mahal, and quirky echoes of the British Raj on virtually every corner.
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For all it's 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 diesel fumes, cooking spices, dust and dung smoke - casts a spell that few forget from the moment they step off a plane. Love it or hate it - and most who travel India oscillate between the two - the country will shift the way you see the world.
Places to visit in India
Quite often those who travel India do so more than once. Due the countries immense size and variety of cultures, it is impossible to experience all of India, or even half, in one trip. The north of the country is made up of Mughal and Rajput architecture, ancient cities and temples, deserts and Buddhism while the south is a haven of scenic beaches, Hinduism, colonial coastal towns and a much more easy-going approach. New Delhi, the heart of India, sits in the North, with Mumbai in the West, Goa in the east and popular tourist regions Kerala and Tamil Nadu in the south.
Although the country holds a charm that stays with those who travel to India, there is a daunting truth to the country that not even the beautiful landscapes can fix. No other nation on earth has slum settlements on the scale of those in Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata, nor so many malnourished children, uneducated women and homes without access to clean water and waste disposal. Many first-time travellers come expecting a timeless ascetic wonderland and are surprised to encounter one of the most materialistic societies on the planet.
Best times to travel to India
Thanks to the Himalayas blocking cold winds, India is always relatively warm (with exception to the far north). There are three main seasons, summer being boiling hot, winter being pleasant and monsoon, well, being wet. The best time to travel India is often October to March when temperatures are tropical but not sweltering.
Festival-wise, the best time to travel India is during March when the most famous Hindu festival takes place over the full moon. The colourful Holi festival celebrates good over evil and the arrival of spring.
Planning your itinerary when you travel to India
India, being a place of diverse culture and landscapes, is a complex country to fit in your travels with one trip. When planning a trip to India, it is important to create a checklist of exactly what you want to see to ensure you do not miss your main spots of interest. For those visiting India for the first time, we've created a simple itinerary for inspiration. Keep in mind, tour packages are available along with our tailor-made trips for independent travel.
Days 1 -2: New Delhi
New Delhi, India's busy, crowded, and polluted capital. Although it might not be as appealing as other destinations in India, for an authentic experience New Delhi is not to be missed. Indulge in Indian Cuisine, explore the museums and dive into the heart of India.
Days 2 - 4: Agra and the Taj Mahal
Make your way to Agra and take a boat trip along the Yamuna River in the early hours of the morning to see the grand Taj Mahal in all its glory at sunrise. A trip to Inida would not be complete without a visit to the iconic monument. Finish off in Agra by visiting the Mughal hotspots that litter the area.
Days 4 - 6: Keoladeo National Park
After spending time in the hustle and bustle of the cities, head to Keoladeo National Park for a bicycle safari in the best bird-reserve of India. Keep your eyes peeled for rare sightings and enjoy the peace and quiet.
Days 6 - 8: Jaipur
Once you've refreshed and become one with nature again, it is back to city life with Jaipur, also known as the pink city due to its coloured architecture. The Rajasthani capital is home to the Amber Fort and famous textile gemstone bazaars.
Days 8 - 10: Mahe Beach
Catch a flight to Calicut International Airport, or take the local route with the night train and make your way to Mahe Beach. Picture white sands, turquoise waters, and swaying palm trees - relax and enjoy the Indian sun in this idealistic fishing village before heading home or to your next stop.
Culture in India
India, a culturally rich country made up of varied ethnic, cultural, linguistic, historical and religious backgrounds, is a land of diversity and historical masterpieces. Hinduism, Buddhism and Sikhism were born here although several other major religions happily live in harmony with one another. Often labelled as an amalgamation of several cultures, India has an abundance of culture, each region with its own distinct traditions.
Cuisine in India
The cuisine in India is popular worldwide and is as varied as the country's culture, dubbed the land of spices, strong flavours, aromatic curries and a range of meats and vegetables, the dishes change region to region. For obvious reasons, coastal towns boast delicious fish curries while mainland areas are well known for their veggie curries. Beef is almost non-existent in Indian cuisine, as cows are considered sacred under Hindu law. Must try curries include mutton Rogan Josh, macher jhol, vada curry and paneer tikka masala.
India fact file
The Republic of India, whose capital is Delhi, is bordered by Afghanistan, China, Nepal and Bhutan to the north, Bangladesh and Myanmar (Burma) to the east and Pakistan to the west.
- It’s the seventh largest country in the world, covering more than three million square kilometres, and is second only to China in terms of population, at more than 1.25 billion. Hindus comprise eighty percent of the population, Muslims 14 percent, and there are millions of Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists and Jains. Twenty-three official languages are spoken, along with more than a thousand minor languages and dialects. Hindi is the language of more than forty percent of the population; English is also widely spoken.
- The caste system is pervasive and, although integral to Hindu belief, it also encompasses non-Hindus. It holds special sway in rural areas and may dictate where a person lives and what their occupation is.
- Eighty-one percent of males over 15 are literate, compared to 61 percent of females: 71 percent of the total adult population.
- Indian Railways is India’s largest employer, with around 1.4 million workers.
- Producing 1900 movies each year and turning over US$4 billion, India’s film industry is the largest in the world, in terms of ticket numbers if not box office receipts.
The media in India
With well over a billion people and a literacy rate approaching 75 percent, India produces in excess of a staggering 5000 daily papers in more than three hundred languages, plus another 40,000 journals and weeklies. There are a large number of English-language daily newspapers, both national and regional.
Newspapers and magazines
The most prominent of the nationals are the Times of India, The Hindu, The Deccan Chronicle, The Hindustan Times, The Economic Times and the New Indian Express, usually the most critical of the government. All are pretty dry and sober, concentrating on Indian news, although Kolkata’s The Telegraph tends to have better coverage of world news than the rest. The Asian Age, published simultaneously in Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata and London is a conservative tabloid that sports a motley collection of the world’s more colourful stories. The Times of India, The Hindu and The Hindustan Times provide the most up-to-date and detailed online news services.
India’s press is the freest in Asia and attacks on the government are often quite outspoken. However, as in the West, most papers can be seen as part of the political establishment, and are unlikely to print anything that might upset the “national consensus”.
There are also a number of Time/Newsweek-style news magazines, with a strong emphasis on politics. The best of these are India Today and Frontline, published by The Hindu. Others include Outlook, which presents the most readable, broadly themed analysis, and The Week. As they give more of an overview of stories and issues than the daily papers, you will probably get a better insight into Indian politics, and most tend to have a higher proportion of international news, too. Also worth checking out are samachar.com, one of the best news gateway sites, featuring headlines and links to leading Indian newspapers, and alternative news webzine tehelka.com, famous for exposing corruption scandals in government.
Film fanzines and gossip mags are very popular – Filmfare and the online-only Screen are the best, though you’d have to be reasonably au fait with Indian movies to follow a lot of it. Other magazines and periodicals in English cover all sorts of popular and minority interests, so it’s worth having a look through what’s available.
Expat-oriented bookstalls, such as those in New Delhi’s Khan Market, stock slightly out-of-date and expensive copies of magazines like Vogue.
Foreign publications such as the International Herald Tribune, Time and The Economist are all available in the main cities, though it’s easier (and cheaper) to read the day’s edition for free online. For a read through the British press, try the British Council in Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai and six other cities; the USIS is the American equivalent. The UK’s Guardian website is one of the best online news resources, with an extensive archive of articles and an excellent dossier on Kashmir. Access is free.
Radio and TV
BBC World Service radio can be picked up at 94.3FM in most major cities, on short wave on frequencies ranging from 5790–15310kHz, and on more sporadically medium wave (AM) at 1413KHz (212m) between about 8.30am and 10.30pm (Indian time). It also broadcasts online. The Voice of America can be found on 15.75MHz (19) and (75.75MHz (39.5m), among other frequencies. Radio Canada broadcasts in English on 6165 and 7255KHz (48.6 and 41.3m) at 6.30–7.30am and on 9635 and 11,975 KHz (31 and 25m) at 8.30–9.30pm.
The government-run TV company, Doordarshan, which broadcasts a sober diet of edifying programmes, has tried to compete with the onslaught of mass access to satellite TV. The main broadcaster in English is Rupert Murdoch’s Star TV network, which incorporates the BBC World Service and Zee TV (with Z News), a progressive blend of Hindi-oriented chat, film, news and music programmes. Star Sports, ESPN and Ten Sports churn out a mind-boggling amount of cricket, extensive coverage of English Premier League football, plenty of tennis and a few other sports. Other channels include CNN, the Discovery Channel, the immensely popular Channel V, hosted by scantily clad Mumbai models and DJs, and a couple of American soap and chat stations. There are now numerous local-language channels as well, many of them showing magnificently colourful religious and devotional programmes.
Travelling with children in India
Travelling with kids can be both challenging and rewarding. Indians are very tolerant of children so you can take them almost anywhere without restriction, and they always help break the ice with strangers. Most children will enjoy the vibrancy of just being in India, with festivals and temples likely to exert a special appeal. Similarly, you can’t go far wrong taking them to beaches and wildlife sanctuaries, although not all Indian zoos are very happy places; the one in Mysuru is an honourable exception. There are, however, relatively few attractions aimed especially at kids beyond a rash of rather cheesy family theme parks that have popped up in recent years, especially in areas popular with new Indian middle-class holidaymakers, such as the coast south of Chennai. On the other hand, the more modern museums are increasingly introducing interactive displays aimed at the young that are both educational and fun.
As for the difficulties of travel, the main problem with children, especially small ones, is their extra vulnerability. Even more than their parents, they need protection from the sun, unsafe drinking water, heat and unfamiliar food. All that chilli in particular may be a problem, even with older kids, if they’re not used to it. Remember too, that diarrhoea, perhaps just a nuisance to you, could be dangerous for a child: rehydration salts are vital if your child goes down with it. Make sure too, if possible, that your child is aware of the dangers of rabies; keep children away from animals and consider a rabies jab.
For babies, nappies (diapers) are available in most large towns at similar prices to the West, but it’s worth taking an additional pack in case of emergencies, and bringing sachets of Calpol or similar, which aren’t readily available in India. And if your baby is on powdered milk, it might be an idea to bring some of that: you can certainly get it in India, but it may not taste the same. Dried baby food could also be worth taking – any café or chaiwala should be able to supply you with boiled water.
For touring, hiking or walking, child-carrier backpacks are ideal; some even come with mosquito nets these days. As for luggage, bring as little as possible so you can manage the kids more easily. If your child is small enough, a fold-up buggy is also well worth packing, even if you no longer use a buggy at home, as kids tire so easily in the heat. If you want to cut down on long train or bus journeys by flying, remember that children under 2 travel for ten percent of the adult fare, and under-12s for half price.