The Taj Mahal, Agra
Agra*** The Taj Mahal is one of the world’s top sights and deservedly so. Magnificently huge, but also with stunning detail, the colourful semi-precious stones set into white marble are sensational.
The environment around and beside the (sadly polluted) Yamuna River is peaceful; the adjacent Red Fort is equally awesome and also built by Shah Jahan, while the not-far-away Moghul palace complex of Fatehpur Sikri is more of the same but less.
At 200km (125mls) from Delhi this can be a long day trip so it’s way better to stay overnight and wander around early or late when the massive crowds are at their least.
Taj Mahal Pictures, Red Fort Pictures
Delhi** A big city version of traditional India which does not suit those in search of tranquility, but there are enough strange sights, great buildings and interesting cultural activities to keep most tourists happy for a few days. Delhi Pictures
Mumbai* also known as Bombay, this Bollywood-on-sea has to be seen, briefly, with its grand colonial architecture, new millennium ‘scrapers, love of cricket, sophisticated life and appalling poverty. Mumbai Pictures
Ellora Cavetemples and Ajanta Caves*** near Aurangabad (M), 400km (250mls) north-east of Mumbai.
Ellora offers 34 superbly carved caves alive with sculptures lurk in an escarpment, including shrines, halls and platforms. Ajanta’s high points – other than sculptures – are a more spectacular location and stunning, well-preserved murals painted by 200 monks that used to live here.
Madurai* (TN) is a modern city and has the usual problems of congestion and pollution but with one staggering, kaleidoscopic temple positively writhing with mythical figures at its heart, the Meenakshi-Sundareshwarar.
Khajuraho** (MP) is India’s erotic temple centre with an amazing collection of beautifully crafted, outrageous carvings on a cluster of temples in pastoral surroundings. It’s a bit of a problem to reach.
Gwalior** (MP)120kms (80mls) south of Agra, is a nothing town but is overseen by a cluster of rock-hewn Jain sculptures and a wonderful, tiled hill fort containing six palaces and three temples.
Varanasi, the River Ganges
The Ganges at Varanasi** (aka Benares or ‘The City of Light. UP) This is a place to die for, literally. It’s so holy that anyone, of any religion, dying here, goes to heaven. On the stepped banks of the Ganges hundreds of pilgrims bathe, meditate and are cremated here. It’s a gripping, colourful spectacle, and so, so Indian. Varanasi Pictures
Calcutta* (Kolkata), with its roots firmly in the British Raj era, is a fascinating, crammed, dilapidated city with a heart of gold and – fortunately – an energetic renovation program. Locals are proud of their wit, their hospitality and their avant-garde art and theatre, while their grand old buildings refuse to collapse under the weight of numbers. It’s best October-February.
Gujaratstate** in the west is a detuned Rajasthan – without the tourists but with plenty of temples, palaces, forts, desert, colourful people and fine handicrafts.
Kashmir is cool, mountain-ringed but still out of play unfortunately, due to border tension and occasional terrorist attacks.
Dharamsala** (HP. aka McLeod Ganj) in the Himalayas is home of the Dalai Lama and centre for Tibetan refugees as well as their Hollywood hangers-on. It is relaxed and scenic and also makes a good base for mountain treks.
December-March is the snow season but warm clothes will be needed at night all year round.
Golden Temple, Amritsar, Punjab. Photo by Paul Rudd.
Trekking: Best in the Himalayas from April to November e. g. Dharamsala in H Pradesh(see right); also U Pradesh and Punjab but stay away from Kullu, where bandits are active and deadly.
Wildlife: Kanha National Park is the country’s ultimate wildlife destination.
The setting for Kipling’s ‘Jungle Book’, this 750 sq. mile park is your best chance to see a tiger in the wild, though not big. However, the elephant back safaris are fun and apart from tigers, you can see leopards, rhinoceros, bison, boar, sambar deer and monkeys by the barrel load. Open Nov-June, but best Feb – April.
Other OK wildlife parks are:
Ranthambore (Raj) for tigers+, Periyar (Ker) for elephants, Bharatpur (Raj) for birds, and Bandhavgarh (MP) for tigers+.
Camel Safaris: many from gorgeous Jaisalmer or Pushkar (Raj), but inevitably touristy.
Boating and Rafting: the Ganges e. g. from Rishikesh (UP), Chenab & Beas (HP), Rangit & Teesta (Sikkim), Zanskar & Indus (Ladakh).
Backwater River Trips from Cochin or Allepey in Kerala are superb. Cruising through tranquil, spectacular waterways, viewing duck-herding, Chinese fishing nets, pastoral scenes of all kinds, it’s magical and more or less free if you jump a regular ferry (but possibly noisy. Try the front or roof of the boat for more peace).
Trains: Nilgiri Blue Mountain railway (TN), Neral -Matheran (M), Kalka-Shimla (HP) toy train, and the creme de la creme Palace on Wheels for seriously fat wallets.
Caving: East Khasi Hills, Jainta Hills, South Garo Hills (Meghalaya)
Yoga, Ashrams and Meditation: All over the land. The Beatles went to Rishikesh (UP) on the Ganges. Varanasi is also a major centre.
240v, 2 round pin mostly. Occasionally 3 round pin.
The choice of holiday hotels is extensive and they can be crudely divided into four categories – the outrageously expensive, moderately expensive business hotels, very economical (sometimes almost boutique) hotels for the flashpacker and ridiculously cheap dives for the backpacker. How big can the difference be ? Enormous.