India Travel Guide 2017-03-30T14:05:43+00:00

India Guide to main attractions

Jaisalmer city walls, Rajasthan, India

Jaisalmer city walls, Rajasthan

India Tourism

This is a truly incredible land of dramatically diverse cultures all under one flag, all of them unearthly, and some – like Rajasthan – positively barmy.

India holidays provide an endless succession of dazzling sights from the Taj Mahal to the forts and palaces of Rajasthan, the erotic temples of Khajuraho, the carved caves of Ellora to the wandering cows on busy highways, the lush green lands of Kerala and garish Bollywood posters.
And then there are the people sights. . . saris, huge clunky silver jewellery, handlebar moustaches, brown fishermen in pink thongs, pilgrims bathing in the Ganges at Varanasi while bodies float past, sadhus and their bizarre habits, snake charmers, glorious weddings, funny head waggles meaning yes (or is it no? ) and so on.

Beaches are huge, towns are noisy but enthralling and the endless, wacky festivals are world-class mind-bogglers.
India tourism is generally safe (though women traveling alone should take GREAT care), inexpensive, has good weather if you get your timing right and is populated by relaxed, friendly people. Though rather too many of them. . .

Rajasthan desert ladies in red saris, India

Rajasthan, Thar desert

Downsides

• Visa acquisition is complex, pricey and time-consuming. More.

• Towns are often crowded, noisy, dusty and polluted by bikes and auto-rickshaws.

• There is limited food choice (with occasional questionable hygiene), especially if you don’t like Indian food, though vegetarians are unusually well-catered for.

• Travel between sights can be very time consuming as distances are huge and the transport infrastructure sometimes shaky.

• Pushy hustlers and beggars are a pervasive and depressing sight in many locations, so much so that many tourists fail to buy souvenirs that they actually want due to the marketing overkill!

• Visitors will also have to get used to men peeing almost at will in the streets and on occasion flashing their todger around.

Mumbai traffic and Victoria Station, India

Mumbai

Traffic was like a bad dog. It wasn’t important to look both ways when crossing the street; it was important to not show fear.
P J O'Rourke

Weather

For primary tourism e. g. south & centre, especially Rajasthan the best weather is November-March (tho’ Delhi can be chilly)
Worst weather: June-Sept (heat, humidity, rains)
For Himalaya trekking try April-November.
For southern states, such as Kerala, go January-September.
For NE areas, such as Sikkim, go March-August.

Length of stay

Min. worthwhile stay, not inc. flights: 7 days (for the ‘Golden Triangle’ of Delhi, Agra, Jaipur).
Recommended: 2 weeks – 6 months for the full experience; remember, it’s very, very big (population 1 billion) and has a massive variety of fascinating sights, not to mention many places where you may want to hang out for a while.
Think of India as seven entirely different countries and you’ll begin to understand the reality of holidays here.

Delhi seen from high point, India

Delhi

Main Attractions

n. b. India is so vast that our recommendations are listed with the state in which they are situated:
UP= Uttar Pradesh, MP= Madhya Pradesh, HP= Himachal Pradesh, AP= Andhra Pradesh, Raj= Rajasthan, G= Gujarat, TN= Tamil Nadu, M= Maharashtra, Kar= Karnataka, Ker= Kerala, O= Orissa.

The beaches** They’re big, hot and sunny in the right season and offer very good value holidays: see our India Beaches pages.

Rajasthan*** (best November-March) is one of the more distinctly Indian states and most visitors primary target, offering deserts, stunning palaces, fortified towns, turbaned and mustachioed men, women in clunky jewelry and red saris, etc etc. A hire-car road trip connecting the main towns is the premium approach. Next best is to let the train take the strain.

Udaipur lake musician, Rajasthan, India

Udaipur, Rajasthan

Udaipur*** is an India icon of prettily painted houses in dilapidated streets, lake isolated palaces and a marvellously relaxed ambience, though recently water levels have fallen dramatically and that may well tarnish the scenery, depending on the season and recent rainfall.
Udaipur Pictures

Bundi** relatively unvisited and undeveloped, this walled town holds not only a monster fort and evocative old town but also one of Rajasthan’s best palaces, ‘the work of goblins rather than of men’ according to Kipling, but all a bit run down now.

Jaipur*** should be on any tourist itinerary with stunning pink buildings including the dazzling City Palace, a marvelous astronomical observatory, the great Amber Fort a short elephant ride away and superb shopping in the bazaars. The town is, however, overcrowded and suffers dust and noise pollution.
Jaipur Pictures

Jodhpur** en route from Jaipur to Jaisalmer is not of huge interest apart from a massive fort and magnificent palace (which is also a first-class hotel) and many houses painted in Brahmin blue. Jodhpur Pictures

Pushkar**The desert around the small Rajasthan town of Pushkar provides a stunning setting for the world’s largest camel fair. As well as the trading, camels are paraded and raced while a circus entertains visitors.
Pushkar is a sacred spot for Hindus and during the festival its otherwise tranquil lake is engulfed with thousands of devotees bathing in its holy waters.
Pushkar Pictures

Jaisalmer*** is an awesome fantasy fortified town surrounded by the Thar desert but sadly these days also encircled by hotels, shops and houses servicing tourist visitors. Mud medieval styling and camels galore, this is still a must-see.
Many tourists do camel safaris from here, from a few hours to a few days though the short trips are very short of romance. It’s best October-February.
Jaisalmer is a long way out but buses and trains generally work pretty well.

Taj Mahal at sunset, Agra, India

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 ghats and people seen from the Ganges River, India

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.

the Golden Temple of Amritsar, Punjab

Golden Temple, Amritsar, Punjab. Photo by Paul Rudd.

Activities

Hampi, Karnataka, India

Hampi, Karnataka

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.

Volunteering In India:  Take on projects involving anything from medical work experience to teaching and get a true insight into what makes this beautiful country tick.

Accommodation

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.

Electricity:
240v, 2 round pin mostly. Occasionally 3 round pin.

Visas

You’ll generally need a visa from your local Indian embassy/consulate or by mail and that you’ll require a return or onward ticket. The visa will probably be six month multiple entry, giving you serious exploration time.
However, as a fine example of the country’s spectacularly ponderous bureaucracy, getting a visa can be desperately time consuming, especially if you live away from major cities. In the UK 1, 000 people waited in line for hours at a Midland visa ‘surgery’ only to be told that only 500 could be processed that day.

Visa Advice from The Telegraph newspaper in 2013:
As you would expect from a country that loves its red tape, the Indian visa application process is full of pitfalls.

A visa agent like Travcour will complete the online form on your behalf and send your passport to the Indian High Commission (IHC) for a fee of £45. The visa itself costs another £80 for UK citizens; £30 for other EU nationalities.

However, you shouldn’t find the direct postal service too onerous. The application form must be filled in online at the Indian Visa Application Service, the website of the IHC’s official agent, VFS Global, which charges a processing fee of £12. 20. Allow at least 14 days for a visa to be issued by post. Make sure you note down the form’s confirmation number so you can retrieve it when you mislay the payment link (a common problem) and to track progress of your application.

Other common mistakes are failing to send the correct photographs (the IHC insists on a larger 50 x 50mm size and a white background) and failing to enclose a pre-paid return envelope for your passport.

Health

India has some hygiene problems, particularly for individuals travelling on a low budget, so ensure your vaccinations are to the max and up-to-date.

Diseases you should be concerned about, at least, are cholera (be careful of what you eat or drink), Hepatitis A and B (get a jab), Hepatitis B, C, D ( take care what you eat, drink, or who you share fluids with, blood included), and dengue fever and malaria, both acquired from mosquitoes.

Kerala backwaters boating, India

Kerala backwaters boating.

Domestic Transport

The long distance transport of choice is definitely the train, though booking tickets can be tiresome. Once you have the ticket the system works well.
Buses are usually uncomfortable, cramped and the crush to get on is a nightmare, especially if you’re lumbered with a big bag.
The air network is considerable and efficient but planes are expensive and dull, needless to say.
Car hire is not expensive but driving requires luck and intense concentration to survive – for those who learnt on regular western roads.
If you can afford it, on some journeys it is worth booking a car and driver. The cost, if you are a group, is reasonable (for good quality around £50 per day) and the reduction in hassle etc. is notable.

Safety

There are crowds aplenty, especially hustling to get on buses, so pocket-picking is not uncommon. See the Safety page. Otherwise, violent crime is rare and the people are generally calm and friendly with the exception of lone women travellers who have been targeted as easy prey by rampant males and sexually assaulted, sometimes with serious consequences.

Hawa Mahal, Jaipur, Rajasthan

Hawa Mahal, Jaipur, Rajasthan

Money

Indian holidays can be very good value or expensive, all the options are open to your wallet. At one end it’s cheap, but a tad uncomfortable and hygiene issues could lead to health problems, but you do meet real people.
At the other end of the scale you can stay in palaces, eat like a Maharajah, have no disease worries and live in princely style, but not be in touch with true India at all.
Try to find a middle way!
Tipping is unnecessary in most restaurants, but very useful for greasing your path or solving problems – when it’s called Baksheesh.

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