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Discover India - vivid colours and vast railroads

By Dmitry Petrounin Dmitry Petrounin Section editor Profile
From the heights of the Himalayas to the sparking shores of the ocean, India remains an intrigue. Adventurers and backpackers, luxury-lovers and urban travellers, listen up: this Asian superstar will show you colours you never even knew existed.

Before leaving

A rising star

Live like a prince in Rajasthan, take a cruise in Kerala, and sunbathe on Goan beaches; India puts a whole world of opportunities at your fingertips. In a real explosion of colour and sound, the country is attracting more and more explorers to discover the mysteries behind its vibrant cities and diverse landscapes. With the wealth of luxury hotels and spas on offer, as well as kindly offers from locals of a comfortable place to rest your head, it's no wonder India's star is on the rise.

Wonderfully unpredictable

That said, this is a country which still throws up a host of unpredictable problems for its visitors. Whether it's the fast and furious haggling culture, the troubling poverty on all sides or the general crush of people, you'll find that many parts of the Indian experience are exceptionally challenging. An easy-going attitude is key to survival here, along with a sixth sense for knowing when to just walk away. Once you've settled into life at an Indian pace, you'll find it's a difficult thing to relinquish.

Spiritual empowerment

A huge amount of importance is placed on spirituality here, though the religions behind it are often just as diverse as India's enormous population. From the large, scattered Hindu and Muslim communities to the smaller groups of Sikhs in Punjab and Buddhists in Himachal Pradesh, you'll find constant reminders of India's long and often turbulent religious history. As the majority religion, Hindu rites and rituals take centre stage, churning out an almost constant flow of sacred sites, spectacularly colourful festivals, village parades and everyday traditions.

Spice up your life

Regionally distinct, packed with flavour and infinitely resourceful, Indian cooking will at different points both make and break your trip. Spice is almost always on the agenda, a fact which Western tummies often don't agree with, but this should never put you off sampling the varied menus. Tuck into marinated meats in Gujarat, give vegetable curries a go in the south or indulge in great fish and seafood in Kerala; your taste buds will be well and truly tantalised.

Northern scenery

Head into the wilds of Jammu and Kashmir for some of the most spectacular scenery in India and the region's population is just as varied as the hills and troughs that surround them. Jammu heaves with Hindu pilgrims, whilst neighbouring Kashmir has a strong Muslim presence. But perhaps the region's biggest draw is the Ladakah area, home to exiled Tibetan Buddhists whose monasteries and villages nestle into the rugged heights of the Himalayas.

Into the urban jungle

As you move southwards, you'll encounter the golden temples and Sikh traditions of the Punjab region, the arid sands and lake palaces of Rajasthan, until you hit the heaving colossus that is New Delhi. Third biggest metropolis in the world, the city writhes to the rhythm of traffic, bicycles, pedestrians and vendors. But buried just below the jumbled surface, you'll find tons of free attractions, innumerable intricate mosques and plenty of bars to relax in afterwards.

From Calcutta to Kerala

To the East lies everything from the sprawling cities of Calcutta and Darjeeling to the endless shores of the Indian Ocean. A paradise for wildlife lovers, the natural parks and Himalayan foothills hide everything from the Bengal tiger to fertile tea plantations. Otherwise, descend through the centre from the spiritual hub of Varanasi to the top diving spots and cosmopolitan cities of Maharashtra, before hitting the lazy beaches and endless fishing nets of Kerala.

Our Editorial team's advice

India is the perfect place for the curious traveller. The immensity of the Indian south continent will mean you inevitably have to make a choice between north and south when planning your trip. An adventure to northern India will take you to some of the most majestic monuments in the world: the Taj Mahal in Agra, the ancient city of Fatehpur Sikri, the temples of Khajuraho or those at Bhubaneswar in Orissa. In terms of natural landscapes, the Bengali region with its famous Sundarban Park, the biggest mangrove reserve in the world, or the immense Thar Desert are good places to visit.

The country's capital, New Delhi could seem a bit off-putting, given its size and dense population but if you manage to fight through the crowds you'll get a real insight into Hindu daily life.

The south of India is extremely different from the north. The region's past has far less foreign influence and highlights consist more of natural landmarks than manmade ones. Here you will find temples hidden in the heart of the jungle, yellow sand beaches and caves that have sat unchanged for hundreds of years. A trip to India's south is often considered a spiritual pilgrimage by many given the mass religious influence there. The temples at Halebid or Chennakeshava are both gems of the Hoysala dynasty and definitely merit a visit. The region's impressive beaches are picture-perfect and are ideal spots for sunbathing.

The best time to go to India will depend on the region you choose. India is an enormous country and as such while one state might be boiling hot, a few hundred miles away another could be freezing cold. Don't forget about monsoon season either! It usually starts in May, but for some regions it can be as late as June, so if your trip coincides with the rainy season, making room in your suitcase (or backpack) for an umbrella is well worth doing.

The south of India benefits from a far milder climate between October and January. We would not recommend visiting during India's summer, between April and June, as temperatures can become unbearable - sometimes reaching 45 degrees. Mid-November to the end of March is the main tourist season, but travelling at this time does mean you will be surrounded by countless other tourists, making your trip slightly less authentic.

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Traditions

India's many religions will throw up some interesting traditions during your stay here. The majority of the population practices Hinduism, closely governed by beliefs of divinity, reincarnation, karma and compassion. Even if you are not a believer, try to respect the religion's systems and customs.

In Hindu temples, for example, take off your shoes before entering. The same applies to Sikh temples where you must cover your head and in Jain temples, where you must take off all your leather items. Before entering a mosque, make sure visitors or women are accepted during prayers, as well as covering your arms and legs and avoid all sloppy clothing.

As a general daily rule, avoid touching someone else with your feet. During a meal, it is customary to take off your shoes if the people who are inviting you are not wearing them. If you are eating with your fingers, only use your right hand, the left is reserved for personal hygiene.

What to see

Spitok monastery (Ladakh) , India
Spitok monastery (Ladakh)
The backwaters , The Kerala Backwaters , India
The backwaters
The Malabar Coast , India
The Malabar Coast
India : Explore

Food

Indian cuisine encompasses a huge variety of regional dishes, adding up to an incredible panorama of tastes, smells and colours. Each region, heavily influenced by history and by religion, brings something different to the table - various rice dishes in the North, accompanied by fresh vegetables and spicy sauces, versus a more carnivorous diet in the South.

Don't expect to see beef on the menu here though, as the cow is a sacred animal and eating its meat is strictly taboo. There is plenty of other red meat available, often in the form of lamb and buffalo.

Coastal regions more often than not have an excellent selection of fish and prawn dishes, including countless types of curry. In Bombay, be sure to try pomfret - a fish similar to plaice - as well as dhansaak, a famous lamb dish. If you visit Andrah Pradesh, haleem, made from wheat, lentils and lightly spiced meat, is well worth a try as a snack, as well as thalis - made from vegetables and bread and always available for very good prices.

The south of the country is packed full of fresh fruit, which you can buy from street sellers at every corner. If you have the chance, try a green coconut whose milk and succulent flesh are delicious.

Souvenirs

Handmade Indian products are plentiful and high in quality. In Kerala you will find saris made from cotton and embroidered with fine golden thread. Another good idea for souvenirs is a handmade sculpture, usually made from bronze or copper.

Equally Kathakali clay masks, oil lamps and of course fresh spices are all good keepsakes as well. Make a visit to the State Emporium, a shop that can be found all over the country and where the prices aren't subject to change like with individual sellers.

Although it might seem a bit intimidating at first, haggling is the key to getting a good deal in India. Always go in with your lowest price and see what bargains you can find. Shops are normally open from 10:00am to 7:00 or 8:00pm from Monday to Saturday and are closed on Sunday and bank holidays. Keep in mind that it is illegal to export any fur, snakeskin or ivory products out of India.

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