Jaisalmer city walls, Rajasthan
India travel good and bad…
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. . .
The Taj Mahal, Agra. Photo by Steve Evans.
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.
The Ganges at Varanasi**
Aka Benares or ‘The City of Light, 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.
Gujarat state** 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.
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 India travel backpackers. How big can the difference be ? Enormous.