The northernmost state of India, Jammu and Kashmir is located mostly in Himalayas. Sharing borders with China in the north and east, Afghanistan and Pakistan, this mountainous region is well known for its beautiful landscape. Nature lovers will have plenty to keep them busy, especially in the south where Jammu plain is separated from the Kashmir valley by the Pir Panjal massif and in the northeast where the Ladakh plateau is situated. The Kashmir valley is famous for its beautiful mountainous landscape, and Jammu's numerous shrines attract tens of thousands of Hindu pilgrims every year. Ladakh, also known as "Little Tibet", is renowned for its remote mountain beauty and Buddhist culture. The geographical situation of this territory and its sharing of international borders on all sides mean there is great population diversity. There have been political troubles since 1980 which has created a tense atmosphere, meaning travel is unadvisable.
Surface area : 222236.0 km2
Population : 8500000 inhabitants
India has a very rich arts and crafts sector. You can find silk, copper, bronze and silver objects, musical instruments, perfumes, incense, tea, dye, carpets and a wide variety of spices. Women should think of bringing back silk saris which are sold by weight and by the metre and are a lot cheaper than in UK. Visit government shops (State Emporium) offering fixed prices or expect to haggle. In the big Indian cities, shops open between 10:00 a.m and 19:00 p.m or 20:00 p.m Monday to Friday, and are closed on Sundays and during public holidays.
The Kashmir region is known for carpets made of silk or wool, and beautiful wool shawls (raffals). The price depends mostly on the quantity and quality of the wool (for example, pashminas are of better quality and more expensive than raffals). The different coloured objects, in papier mache (candlesticks, lamps and other boxes), constitute inexpensive souvenirs. Objects nicely gilded with thin layers of gold are more expensive. More unusual, buy a cricket paddle from Kashmir, a region reputed for the quality of its savoir-faire and its wood. In Jammu, head to the bazaars of Vir Marg, Raghunath Bazaar and Hari Market, known for their Kashmiri artwork, especially Dogri traditional art.
In Ladakh, discover Tibetan handiwork in the form of praying objects (prayer wheel, bells and musical instruments); dorjes (ritual weapons symbolising ligh)t; wooden masks; jewels; coloured head-dresses, often decorated with turquoise and coral (perak) and worn by women during important events. For these sorts of gifts look around Leh and Choglomsar in the south. Tibetan Handicraft Shop are also a good bet and have fixed prices. During the Ladakh festival in the two first weeks in September, stands of handmade objects and clothes appear, dotted around the town.
Careful! It is forbidden to bring back antiquities more than 100 years old, or Ladakhis praying items such as thangkas or Buddhist statues. It is also forbidden to export furs, snake skin, antiquities and to import ivory objects into Europe.
India boasts a huge diversity of dishes depending on the state, origin of the population and their respective castes. The only common ingredients found throughout the country are rice and tea. The Dhal, a type of soup with lentils is the most widely-eaten dish. In Ladakh, discover Tibetan cuisine. The main ingredient of most dishes is tsampa, grilled barley flour. Try it as a pancake or moulded with chang (beer made with barley). Try gyatug, a dish made of long tsampa straps, sprinkled with a flavoured meat stew. Enjoy the momos, a sort of white meat or vegetable ravioli, steamed or fry cooked. Drink Tibetan tea, gur-gur chai, a mix of green tea, butter and salt that might surprise you, but will warm you fiercely against the cold. It is also possible to find Chinese food. In Kashmir, the different rice dishes are flavoured with many spices, including saffron. Let yourself be tempted by a gushtava and a rishta, chopped meat preparations (sheep or goat, for one, and lamb, for the other) and spiced, served as meatballs cooked in a yoghurt sauce. Smell the scent of rogan josh, a lamb stew simmered in a yoghurt sauce, spiced with ginger and various other spices. Regarding vegetables, try the nedru yakni, lotus' roots cooked in yoghurt. As a drink with your meal, have a Kashmiri tea, salted (shiri) or sweetened (kahwa), flavoured with ginger and cardamom, brewed in a samovar with pruned almonds.
You will also find, like everywhere in northern India, chicken, sheep and lamb tandooris, marinated in spiced yoghurt and cooked in a clay oven. Like in Pendjab, eat plenty of breads, such as chapatis cooked on a heated pan. Look out for biryanis, a mix of meat and rice, sometimes seasoned with almonds and dried fruits.
Jammu and Kashmir is the only state in India with a Muslim-majority population therefore be prepared for a culture shock. Most human relations are governed by a hierarchical system of castes, where each individual has a definite role. The cow is a sacred animal.
In Hindu temples, jains and mosques, take off your shoes before entering. The same applies to Sikh temples but here you must also cover your head. Take off all your leather items before entering Jain temples. Before entering a mosque, make sure visitors or women are accepted during prayers. Cover your arms and legs and avoid all sloppy clothing. Make sure to never touch a sculpture or statue of a deity.
In Ladakh, always go around Buddhist monuments clockwise, whether it is mani walls (stone walls engraved with a Buddhist Tibetan Mantra) or chortens (pagoda in Tibetan language). Take off your shoes before entering in a Buddhist sanctuary.
In India, as a general rule in the daily life, avoid touching someone else with your feet. Inform yourself of the symbols of flowers in order to avoid any faux pas if you are thinking of giving some to someone. A gift received is kept in a corner to be opened at a later time. During a meal, 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. Arranged weddings, between two families, still exist.
At the moment, visiting Kashmir is unadvisable due to ongoing conflicts between Pakistan and India. In the Kashmir valley, neither of the two countries acknowledges the international borders. Even though the Indian government has not yet put in place any restrictions to visit the region, make sure you are up to date on the political situation, in order to avoid any trouble once you're there. Warnings of kidnapping should be taken seriously. Instead opt for a visit to Jammu, go trekking in the heart of the high mountain pass region and in the valleys of Ladakh, where there is still lots to do while at the same time avoiding areas close to China.