What other country can offer the diversity of India? Such a contrast of climate and geography, from the soaring snowy peaks of the Himalaya to the dustbowl deserts of Rajasthan or the lush tropical rainforests of the south. From megacities like Mumbai and Delhi down to small rural villages, from the narrow people-crammed back alleys of Varanasi to the wide pristine avenues of Delhi’s Janpath, here India’s people dwell in extremes of poverty or richness either side of a middle class in the millions.
India has a population of over 1.25 billion, seven major religions, 18 main languages and many minor ones. Cultures ranging from the Sikhs of Punjab, the Assamese of the northeast, the Ladakhis of the north to the tribal people of Chhattisgarh and the Tamils of the south, call this country home. All exist in relative harmony in the world’s largest democracy that, no less venial than others, has managed to work for the last 60 plus years.
Indians have built magnificent edifices: the decorative and gaudy Hindu temples of South India; the plain and architecturally austere mosques of Kashmir or the Buddhist monasteries clinging onto mountainsides in Ladakh; magnificent temples to mankind such as the world famous Taj Mahal in Agra, the Jantar Mantar observatories in stone in Delhi and Jaipur and the princely palaces and forts of Rajasthan.
Lastly, India has given the world Mahatma Gandhi, the zero and many words like bungalow, jungle and khaki that are now part of the English language. India will entrance, bedazzle, annoy, confuse, elate and dismay you, maybe at different times or all together, but it will never ever bore you. The country is not for the faint-hearted but is a rewarding experience for the adventurous and open-minded visitor.
Passport and Visa Requirements
A valid passport and visa are required for travel to India. The Indian government now offers two options for tourists, a traditional tourist visa for 90 days and allowing multiple entry (needed if you’re doing a Nepal sidetrip) or an e-Tourist Visa (eTV) issued electronically for citizens of 37 countries. Visit the India Visa website for your national requirement.
A country as varied and interesting as India requires research and pre-planning to get the best out of your visit. Remember that while the weather in one part of the country might be unfavourable at a certain time of the year while in another it might be quite amenable in another.
India is a huge place to visit with so much to see in every nook and cranny. There’s little to gain from trying to cram too much into a visit, but if you’ve got a lifetime then it would be manageable. Depending on your time available the best bet is to concentrate on one area.
Unless you’re an old India hand allow yourself a day or two to settle in especially if you’ve crossed many time zones. Also allow a day in your departure city to attend to last minute shopping and getting ready to move on. You’ll need a minimum of 10 days to three weeks to comfortably visit one or two areas.
If you’re coming for a shorter time then it’s best to have an itinerary planned and organised before you arrive. Travel agents can arrange these either in your home country or in India. For longer periods of time and if you’re adventurous you can go with the flow and move on to a new place when the mood takes you.
This is determined by climate and location. Low season will be from late March to August when boiling heat gives way to torrential rains. However it will be high season in the hills when domestic tourists seek cooler altitudes. In the mountains, June to September is the high season.
High season in the rest of the country will be late September to mid December and late January to March.
Different climates in different regions will influence any choice of when best to go. Basically India has three seasons: Hot, Monsoon and Cool.
From February up to around June the temperature starts to increase quite rapidly up to 40°C (105°F) or even more in Rajasthan. This when domestic tourists rush to the hills for cool relief.
The monsoon starts around the beginning of June in the south and moves north over the month. However the extreme south will also have rains from October to early December. Monsoonal rain can be extremely heavy and intermittent with periods of sun in between making for a very humid atmosphere.
After the rains die down cool weather arrives and this is a good time to visit India. The ideal months are October to December and February to March in the north. Delhi and northern cities can get very cold in late December/ early January when even daytime temperatures don’t rise above low single figures. Delhi will experience fog that can interfere with flights. Central and southern India can be 10 to 20°C higher.
There are some specific seasons to consider. If you’re on an animal safari then the best time to see a tiger or other rarity is in March/April. Water holes are smaller and fewer, and concealing grass has died down. If you’re going into the Himalaya then July to September are the best months, the roads are free of ice and snow, the passes passable and the altitude tempers the degrees down to acceptable 20s°C (60-70°F).
India is a country of festivals and events. Religious festivals are tied to the particular Hindu, Buddhist or Islamic calendar and therefore dates change yearly – just like the Christian Easter.
Different regions will also have their different festivals determined by the prevalent religion or culture. Regardless of religion, most festivals are enjoyed by everyone.
The major festivals are:
Holi (February/March) or the Festival of Colours when coloured powders and water are thrown at each other to celebrate the arrival of spring. Wear your old clothes if you go out on the street.
Ganesh Chaturthi (August/September) Hindus celebrate the birth of the elephant-headed god, Ganesh. Gaily coloured clay statues of the god are paraded through the streets before being immersed into the nearest body of water.
Dussehra (September/October) marks the victory of Lord Rama over the evil demon Ravana. This is the epic tale of the Ramayana, which is celebrated in plays across the country ending in the burning of effigies of the bad guys.
Diwali (October/November) follows closely after Dussehra and marks the return of Lord Rama. Lights decorate houses, sweets are exchanged and it’s a big excuse for letting off lots of noisy fireworks.
Losar (late January-early March) is the Tibetan New Year and celebrated for up to 5 days in Himachal Pradesh, Ladakh, Sikkim, Zanskar and parts of Arunachal Pradesh. It is a time to visit monasteries for special rituals and religious dances.
Ramadan or Ramazan (July-September) is the main Islamic festival involving fasting and prayer. It ends after 30 days with the Eid Al-Fitr, a day of feasting, wearing new clothes and giving presents. During Ramadan Muslim-owned restaurants may be closed and Eid Al-Fitr is a public holiday.
Christmas and Easter are celebrated by India’s Christians.
Kumbh Mela (every three years at one of four locations) is not the event to visit if you don’t like crowds as it’s the largest gathering of people in one place in the world. Average attendance is over 10 million at any one time but as the event takes place over about six weeks maybe 80 million people may make the pilgrimage. Bathing in the sacred rivers in Ujain (Madhya Pradesh), Haridwar (Uttarakhand), Allahabad (Uttar Pradesh) and Nashik (Maharashtra) is believed by Hindus to cleanse their sins. Astrology determines the month of the mela and the 2016 Kumbh Mela will take place in Haridwar, the 2019 in Allahabad.
All the below are public holidays with public institutions, banks and many businesses closed.
Republic Day (January 26 celebrates the founding of the Republic of India in 1950. If you’re in Delhi on this day there is a huge military parade along Rajpath. You’ll need to book with the Delhi or India tourist office.
Independence Day (August 15) commemorates independence from Britain with military processions, cultural events and fireworks.
Gandhi Jayanti (2 October) celebrates Mohandas (Mahatma) Gandhi’s birthday.
Khajuraho Festival of Dances (February) in Madhya Pradesh celebrates the colourful and magical dance forms of India against the backdrop of the ancient Khajuraho temples.
Goa Carnival (typically in February) has its origins in the original Portuguese rule of Goa. As a Christian-based festival it takes place before Lent and involves feasting, drinking, dances, processions, performances by acrobats, clowns, fire eaters etc.
Ladakh Festival (September) in Leh is a week-long event showcasing Ladakhi culture. This is the place to see a polo match against a backdrop of Leh Palace, watch monastic dances, archery, folk dance and song.
Pushkar Camel Fair (November) in Rajasthan is a colourful spectacle surrounding a livestock fair. The colour, culture and vivacity of the event attracts thousands of visitors.
Hornbill Festival (December) in Nagaland is a time when the sixteen or so tribes of Nagas come together to show off their highly colourful culture, ethnic dress, dance and song performances in a special showground. These people were once headhunters, but yours will stay attached as they’ve also become interested in rock music.
There is only one time zone in India and that is 5½ hours ahead of GMT/UTC. If you go north in Nepal then put your timepieces ahead by 15 minutes.
If you travel upmarket there will be plenty of people, given a tip of about 50 rupees, to handle your luggage. However the key to good travelling is to pack sensibly and not over pack. Anything can be bought in India so there’s no need to stock up on consumables you might run out of. An exception will be any medicines prescribed by your doctor.
When you go and where you go will determine whether you dress for heat, rain or cool or all of them. Pack light layers of clothing that you can put on or remove as the weather requires.
India is a conservative country so take modest clothing. Keep scanty shorts and singlets for the beach. Have a stout pair of shoes or light boots as roads and pavements can be very uneven and rubbish strewn. Have a pair of flip flops/thongs/crocs for shower and beachwear. A sun hat is an essential.
Photographic & electronic gear
An electrical adapter to convert your plug to India’s two-round-pin plugs. A double adapter is useful if you have several things to charge. Enough memory cards or means of transferring photographs to your laptop.
The necessary cables although if you lose one they should be replaceable in India.
An umbrella for rain and sun shade.
Hard copies of your passport (identity page and visa page) and birth certificate in case you lose your passport. It makes replacements easier.
Ground coffee if you prefer real coffee as India generally serves the instant stuff. A travelling kettle, mug and spoon are useful additions.
A daypack to carry the minor items you need for the day.
A money/valuables pouch you can wear under your clothing. Have plastic seal lock bags for documents and money to keep the sweat off if you store then in a pouch under your clothing.
Hand sanitizing gel or wipes.
Condoms, if you’re that way inclined.
A sheet sleeping bag, you can get a silk one made cheaply in India. It’s so useful for train berths and some low budget hotels that don’t provide top sheets.
A cable lock, ideally with a metal mesh bag to secure your luggage to something immovable in trains and hotels.
A water bottle to be filled from a reliable water source.
The Indian currency is the rupee denoted by the ? symbol or Rs. Two 50 paise coins make 1 rupee but inflation has almost done away with its use. Coins come in ?1, ?2, ?5 and ?10 denominations. Notes come in ?10, ?20, ?50, ?100, ?500 and ?1000 denominations.
You will come across the following peculiar-to-India quantities: lakh equalling 100,000 and written as 1,00,000 and a core being 10,000,000 and written as 1,00,00,000.
Prices often fluctuate dynamically depending on capacity, seasonality and deals. We don’t want to lead you astray by quoting exact prices that quickly become wrong. To give you a rough idea for budgetary planning purposes, though, we have indicated general price ranges for all points of interest.
Price ranges are quoted in local currencies.
Abstract Pricing at a Glance
See & Do
N/A = Not applicable
$ = Tickets less than $5 (â¹250) per person
$$ = Tickets $6-10 (â¹251-500) per person
$$$ = Tickets $11-15 (â¹501-1000 ) per person
$ = Rooms less than $10 (â¹500) for a dormitory bed/double
$$ = Rooms $20-75 (â¹1,250-5,000) for a double
$$$ = Rooms $75 (â¹5000 ) for a double
$ = Up to $5 (â¹250) for average main at dinner (or lunch/breakfast if no dinner is served)
$$ = $6-10 (â¹400-650) for average main at dinner (or lunch/breakfast if no dinner is served)
$$$ = $11 (â¹750) for average main at dinner (or lunch/breakfast if no dinner is served)
N/A = Not applicable
A typical domestic flight Delhi to Mumbai costs from â¹3,500, Delhi to Chennai from â¹4,500.
While there are rental companies in India it is far more usual to rent a car and driver. The driver’s cost is not a great addition and for this you get someone who knows the way, knows the road rules or the lack of them and takes the strain out of travelling. You can rent for a day or longer period of time; typical cost is â¹1500 a day and upwards. See tips for more information.
Insurance is essential especially for medical cover. Your travel agent or a web browser search will give you information and ideas.
At the time of writing (April 2016) these were the following exchange rates. Bear in mind that these are interbank rates and the number of rupees you get for your money will be less and will differ depending on where you exchange. So please use these figures as indications. Of course exchange rates will go up or down.
1 Euro = â¹75
1 British Pound = â¹95
1 USA $ = â¹66
1 Canadian $ = â¹52
1 Australian $ = â¹52
1 New Zealand $ = â¹46
1 Japanese Yen = â¹0.60
“In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” – Benjamin Franklin. India is no exception except that there are several different tax structure depending upon what you buy in the way of goods or services. VAT, service tax and even a luxury tax can add to what you pay and different states will have different tax rates.
The service charge takes care of tipping in restaurants and hotels but the porter who lugs your bags to your room will expect a tip of about â¹50. If you’ve hired a car and driver then the driver will expect a tip at the end of the day or tour. If you’re pleased with his services then â¹200 a day is reasonable.
An enigmatic word meaning that “I think you should give me a present of some money” and it’s not limited to just India. It might be an official after a bribe for providing you with a service or you might have agreed a price for a taxi or rickshaw trip and at the end the driver wants baksheesh. The decision is your depending on the circumstances.
India is well served with transport options. From outside the country a large number of airlines fly to the major cities of Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai plus a number of regional airports.
Within the country there is an extensive air travel network, an immense railway system and intercity buses (although trains are preferable).
Locally an increasing number of cities have or are developing metro rail systems and there are the ubiquitous taxis and autorickshaws.
From North America
There are direct flights from Toronto, New York, Chicago and San Francisco to Delhi. Alternatively there are flights to Delhi and other major Indian centres via hubs in Britain, Western Europe and the Middle East.
From Britain & Europe
Direct flights go from London, Western European capitals and some regional centres to Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Goa although some flights may not be daily. Other flights will need a change.
From Australia & New Zealand
There are direct flights from Melbourne and Sydney to Delhi. Otherwise it’s a change in Singapore.
Crossing the border from Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh is relatively straight forward, from Pakistan it is a lengthier matter as both countries are not on friendly terms. Travel by land into or from Tibet is not allowed for foreigners. There are travellers’ tales of crossing from Myanmar into India and while it may be possible, and increasingly so as Myanmar opens up, it is more convenient to fly. Of course if you are the adventurous type with time to spare give it a go.
Flying has really taken off if you’ll excuse the pun. There is a considerable number of national and regional airlines serving all the state capitals and regional centres. A flight is obviously the best way to go from one end of the country to the other saving wads of time and with prices favourable against train travel.
Flying is the easiest and quickest way to get from Delhi to Leh (Ladakh) or Srinagar (Kashmir) with wonderful views of the Himalayan peaks and glaciers below.
Indian train travel is an adventure in itself and a wonderful opportunity to watch the countryside and chat to people. A memorable journey of mine was from Chennai to Varanasi and I shared a carriage with a family who didn’t speak English. We communicated with smiles and gestures and ended up playing cards.
The Indian rail network is huge; the third largest in the world and Indian Railways is the world’s largest employer with 1.5 million employees.
A variety of trains travel the tracks from mail trains (slow with many stops) to Super Fast Expresses that are fast but not that super fast. There are eight classes of travel but not all trains have all classes.
Shatabdi trains join nearby state capitals, run during the day and have seated, coach-type, accommodation.
Rajdhani trains run through the night and would be used for longer journeys. They have sleeping accommodation in first and second class, both airconditioned (AC). Second class AC can be two-tier or three-tier, the latter top bunk requiring some gymnastics. These trains will also have non AC accommodation that is far more basic, is unreserved and often very overcrowded.
Duronto trains are very fast long-distance trains linking major cities non-stop.
Tourist trains, these are high-end luxury trains travelling specific routes. The Palace on Wheels, for example, runs around Rajasthan on an eight-day trip linking the major tourist sites. Other trains explore central and southern India.
Trying out one of the Hills Railways is a must taking you from the plains up into the hills on a narrow gauge track. The trip may take the best part of the day, is slow and the carriages less roomy but all this is compensated for by the outstanding hill scenery. The four routes are the Matheran Hill Railway in Maharashtra, the Nilgiri Mountain Railway in Tamil Nadu with the only remaining steam-hauled train in India, the Shimla Railway in the foothills of the Himalaya in Himachal Pradesh and the most famous one the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway in West Bengal.
Buying a ticket
Popular Indian trains can be booked up weeks in advance so it’s best to get in early as possible. Some trains have a quota for foreign tourists so even if a train is fully booked it might be possible to get a ticket. There are also a number of Taktal tickets released the day before a train’s departure.
New Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Agra, Jaipur and Varanasi stations have International Tourist Bureaus where foreign tourists can book tickets away from the mad scrum of the public booking office queues.
You’ll need to be aware of a popular scam at the New Delhi railway station where a seedy character might spin you a story about the Bureau being closed, relocated, burnt down etc. His objective is to take you over the road to a travel agent where he’ll get commission and you may not get the ticket you wanted and certainly at a higher cost.
For information on buying on line visit The Man in Seat 61website.
Indian roads are not the best. At worst some can be just ribbons of tarmac linking potholes and the only freeway worth talking about is between Delhi and Agra. So avoid this option except where there are no trains such as getting into the Himalayan foothills.
A car and driver over distance will give you freedom or travel, and stopping, that other transport won’t. Travel companies can arrange the whole tour including accommodation.
Delhi, Chennai, Kolkata, Mumbai, Bangalore and Jaipur have metro rail systems and several other cities have them being built or planned. It’s a cheap and quick way of getting around the cities in air conditioned comfort while road traffic snarls itself up into gridlocks. Once at your metro destination you can take a rickshaw or taxi to your final destination.
A motley collection of ancient cars used to provide taxi services but this is now rapidly changing with modern vehicles and radio cabs booked over the phone. All taxis are required to have a meter but it is rarely used, the driver often claiming that it is broken. It is therefore essential to determine the fare before starting the journey and always bargain. Until you get the gist of sensible fares you can always ask at the desk of your hotel how much you should be paying.
These are three-wheeled, open to the air, motorised taxis. The driver sits in the front and one or two passengers on a padded bench behind. The sides are open to the air with a drop down curtain to partly protect the passengers from the rain. They have meters but are rarely used and the same comments apply as for taxis above. They exist in all Indian cities but are restricted from city centres. They are ideal for short distance travel such as in a combination with a local metro system.
A three-wheeler contraption powered by a man pedalling. They are slow, open to the elements and although they can take two the size of the seat can make it uncomfortable unless both passengers are thin in stature. They ply their trade in most cities although they are banned from some city centres like Delhi. They are ideal for short distance travel in congested traffic. They are not metered so the fare is agreed upon at the start.
Kolkata still has human-pulled rickshaws.
Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai are the main international airports with connections to North America, Britain, Europe, Australia and New Zealand. Hyderabad, Ahmedabad, Tivandrum, Cochin, Calicut, Amritsar and Bengaluru are minor international airports not necessarily connecting with your country of origin. All state capitals and other major cities will have airports with domestic services.
All state capitals and most cities have railway stations. The exceptions are Leh in Ladakh and currently Srinagar in Kashmir although its local railway is in the process of being connected to the national network.
Foreign Senior Citizens over 60 can get a 30% discount on train fares. You’ll need to show your passport as proof.
An Indrail Pass offers unlimited rail travel within the period of time you choose. You still need to make reservations and you should check the price of the rail pass against what you would normally pay to see if it’s worthwhile. The IndianRailways website gives prices.
So much goes into making India the complex and fascinating society that it is today. History, from prehistory through to more than 5,000 years of development including repeated invasion by neighbours, trade with Europeans and eventual rule by the British until independence in 1947, have helped shape the nation.
Religion has contributed with four major religions having their origins in the subcontinent – Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism and Buddhism. Islam came as the religion of conquerors from modern day Persia and Afghanistan, and Christianity came with the Europeans.
India has absorbed all these influences and made them work together in the world’s largest and stable democracy. While generally being a peaceful and tolerant nation it can take only the spark of some inter communal rivalry to cause problems. They flare up, die down and the country returns to its status quo.
By area India is the world’s seventh largest country with more than 1.25 billion people. It contributes 17.5% of the world’s population and has the second highest population after China. Some demographers suggest that within the next 50 years it will overtake China in that regard. India’s economy is number seven in the world and it has the third largest military.
The country is a federal constitutional republic governed under a parliamentary system consisting of 29 states and 7 union territories.
The neighbours are Pakistan to the west, Tibet (China), Nepal and Bhutan to the north and Myanmar (formerly Burma) and Bangladesh to the east. To the south is the island of Sri Lanka, to the south west the islands of the Maldives and to the east India’s Andaman and Nicobar Islands are between India and Thailand.
Some 75 million years ago that part of the Gondwana continent that became the Indian subcontinent inched its way north to collide ever so slowly with the Asian landmass. This collision uplifted the southern portion of Asia creating the Himalaya (NB Himalaya is already plural, as is sheep). The process of uplift continues today, but is matched by continual erosion. Rivers like the Tsedong in Tibet that once flowed south as the Brahmaputra were diverted to find weak points in the mountain range. New rivers such as the Ganges and Yamuna flowed south from the southern flanks of the Himalaya.
The mountains plummet through foothills to the Gangetic Plain of northern India. Parallel chains of hills, the Satpura and Vindhya, run northwest to southeast through central India. To the south the Deccan plateau is flanked by coastal ranges of hills aptly named the Western and the Eastern Ghats.
Apart from the Indus which rises on the Tibetan plateau and flows through Jammu & Kashmir and Pakistan to the Arabian Sea, most major rivers flow into the Bay of Bengal via the massive delta of the Sunderbahns that is shared between India and Bangladesh.
As well as the high altitude deserts of Ladakh, there is the Thar Desert of Rajasthan that spreads through that state and into eastern Pakistan.
The earliest archaeological evidence points to habitation at least 200,000 years ago and rock art sites such as Bhimbetka in Madhya Pradesh date to at 30,000 years ago. The first known Neolithic settlements can be dated to around 7,000 BC and appeared in what is now western Pakistan. These developed into the Indus Valley Civilisation producing some of the first planned cities in Asia. Some were very advanced and Mohenjodaro probably had the world’s first sewage system.
Cultural changes mark the next period, 2000–500 BC, with the composition of the Vedas, the texts that are the basis of Hinduism and the rise of the caste system. Around the 6th-century BC Buddhism and Jainism came into being. In the 3rd-century BC, the Mauryan Empire, India’s first empire, became established ruling over much of India except the south. Ashoka, 304–232 BCE) was India’s first great ruler. After a bloody start in conquering territory, he became a Buddhist and eschewed militarism. His edicts, or philosophical thoughts, can be found on pillars (two in Delhi) and rocks throughout the sub continent.
In the following period up to about 500 AD, Southern India was ruled by a number of dynasties that traded with the rest of Asia and even the Roman Empire. Northern India was ruled by the Gupta Empire that established administration and taxation systems that were adopted by later kingdoms. In this period literature, science, medicine and mathematics flourished. Indian metallurgy was highly developed and mathematicians established the concept of zero
The early medieval age is marked by the development of regional kingdoms and urbanisation. The big change came after the turn of the 10th century when Muslim invaders from the north overran northern India. Delhi was captured and became the seat of the Delhi Sultanate from where much of northern India was conquered. The rulers left the local population their local laws, customs and religion. Escaping the Mongol hordes in the 13th century, India became the refuge of learned people, artisans and tradespeople adding to the skill pool of the region.
By the early 16th century, northern India was ruled by the well-established Mughal Empire. Although Muslim they recognized and accepted the plurality of the societies they ruled. It was a time of a flowering of Hindu-Islamic culture expressed in art, architecture and literature. The great Mughal Emperors were Akbar and his grandson Shah Jahan. During their reigns the great cities of Fatehpur Sikri, Agra and Old Delhi were established. This is the period of the building of the iconic Taj Mahal. Peace, although there were constant wars with the southern kingdoms, and stability led to an expansion of trade and commerce. It was in this period that European traders started to make inroads into Indian commerce.
By the early 18th century a number of European trading companies, including the English East India Company, established coastal outposts. Backing that company was British political support and wealth allowing the company to establish itself as a military power as well. Calcutta was established as a trading post and became the de facto capital of British India. Most of India was annexed by the 1820s with local rulers allowed to remain in power but with their actions heavily guided by a British Resident or advisor. The Company became much more than a trading entity and more a colonial ruler with a Governor General at the head.
Along with the introduction of railways, irrigation canals, the telegraph and education came increasing control of the population through taxation and British laws. Unrest simmered and broke out in the Indian Uprising in 1857. The story is that the issuing of new gunpowder cartridges for the Indian troops’ rifles was the spark of the revolt. It was believed that they were coated in pig fat (an insult to Muslims) and cow fat (an insult to Hindus). The Indian troops (sepoys) revolted, killed their British officers and marched on Delhi. The rebellion spread through northern and central India and the British almost lost. The siege of Delhi was lifted in late 1857 and the city sacked by the British. Slaughter ensued, the heirs to the Emperor were executed and the Emperor exiled to the then Rangoon in Myanmar.
Direct administration by the British government followed and a Viceroy ruled in the name of Queen Victoria who was acclaimed as Empress of India. Reforms started to bring Indians into public life in administration and after WWI limited local democracy. The Indian National Congress was founded in 1885. Important leaders to emerge were Jawarhal Nehru who in 1947 became India’s first prime minister and Mohandas Gandhi who was later given the title Mahatma or Great Soul. Well known for his acts of civil non-violent disobedience he became a thorn in the British side.
Independence came in August 1947 but at a cost to the country as a whole through partition. The largely Muslim west became West Pakistan divorced geographically from East Pakistan that was divided from Bengal in the east. The latter became the independent Bangladesh after a bloody war in 1972.
Unlike its neighbour Pakistan with whom there have been several wars and skirmishes since independence, India has remained a stable democracy with governments accepting election defeats. However two of its prime ministers, Indira Gandhi and her successor son Rajiv Gandhi have been assassinated. There are civil liberties, an independent press and an active Supreme Court that has regularly intervened to right wrongs.
Since the 1990s economic liberalism has helped create a large middle class and a quick growing economy. Both in California and southern India IT companies or Indian experts have changed the face of communications through the Internet and software.
India has become known to the world though its films, culture, music and spiritual teachings. Despite this millions still live in execrable poverty, the caste system and gender inequality keep millions enslaved to an unjust position in society and there is always the threat of conflict with Pakistan over the disputed state of Kashmir.
Culture is a composite of many things; in India it is as colourful and vibrant as any other in the world and according to this biased author, the most enigmatic and special.
The country’s long history, the extended contact it has had with its neighbours and later the rest of the world, its religions, language, cuisine, music, architecture, the arts and customs have developed over centuries to establish India as one of the most individualistic of cultures. Not that these qualities are uniform across the country, far from it as there are considerable regional differences.
The traditional Indian family is an extended one comprising often of three generations with the middle generation looking after its parents as there is no social net. The grandparents also play a role in child rearing.
The tradition of an arranged marriage planned by the parents of the man and woman is still highly prevalent with the wife leaving her parents to live with her in-laws.
Friends of the author, both in their early 30s with a successful career for her in computers and for him in accountancy were brought together by their parents who were acquaintances rather than friends. They met on a Friday, like each other, agreed to be married and were wed the following Wednesday. Now 20 years later with three delightful almost adult children they are still happily married.
In most marriages the bride brings a dowry, often negotiated, of household goods, jewellery or even a motorcycle or scooter for the groom. Dowry conflicts making life miserable or even life-threatening for the bride are not uncommon. Parents of the bride in poorer communities often have to go to money lenders or sell possession to stump up enough for a dowry. Divorce is rare.
While this might be the traditional family, the percentage of non-arranged or love-marriages and nuclear rather than extended families is increasingly common in upper class India and in major urban centres. Have a look in the classified ads of the Sunday edition of the Times of India newspaper and you’ll find pages of matrimonial adverts on the lines of: Delhi-based H’some boy, 30/5’7’’, MBA, wkg in MNC, 35 lacs INR. Seeks b’ful, slim, edu, wkg girl, caste no bar. Tel No….e/mail…..While some of that is in code you’ll get the drift. Girls (or their parents) also advertise for boys; unmarried men and women tend to be referred to still as boys and girls.
If you ever get invited to an Indian wedding then grab the chance. Depending on the region, religion and wealth of the families they can be extensive and colourful events full of pageant and ritual.
Over several days when staying on an upper floor of a hotel in Guwahati I watched the construction of a castle in the hotel grounds. There were castellated walls with keeps and mock windows around the perimeter. Inside were phalanxes of tables dressed in white with artificial flowers and bunting. In one corner was a stage with ornamental arches, more flowers and bunting, and gold and red velvet thrones. Strangely there were some upturned boats that, like the whole structure, were made of bamboo framework covered with white cotton.
Outside the wall on one side was a huge kitchen with tables carrying multiple gas burners. Sitting on the ground was a large group of men peeling, dicing and preparing huge mounds of vegetables.
The baraat is a wedding procession held in the north and west of the country whereby the groom travels on horseback, often with a young male relative, to the wedding venue. They are noisy affairs heralded by much drumming and singing from the attendees who dance before the groom. Flanking them will be a series of electric lights strung together, shouldered by men and connected by cable to a generator being hauled somewhere behind. In the front leading the procession will be a uniformed band playing at least drums and wind instruments such as trumpets, trombones and shehnai (oboe-like instrument).
Hinduism reveres and worships the cow as a mother goddess and provider though her milk and dung. For poorer people the dung is mixed with straw and dried as a patty; it is quite combustible and is used for cooking fires. Some states have protected cows by making cow slaughter a serious offence. Some Hindus in some states where it is not banned do eat beef but it is not widespread.
Visitors will often find cows wandering city streets. They are not homeless but let out by their owners to forage where they may. This freedom extends to lying down in the middle of the road if the cow is inclined to do so and the traffic passes around the animal.
Traditional clothing is something particularly Indian and varies according to region and wealth. In urban centres Western style dress is very evident for both men and women, but it is probably women who are more the adherents to traditional dress than men. Very popular and well known is the sari, a long length of often brightly coloured cotton that is wrapped around the waist and then draped over a blouse. It is quite common to see bare midriffs. The alternative for women is the salwar-kameez which consists of a pair of trousers and a long tunic that can descend to the knees. This is added to by a dupatta, or long scarf, that is worn over both shoulders.
Traditional clothing for men can be more varied, their version of the tunic and trousers is the kurta-pyjama. In winter a waistcoat will be added. Indian politicians wear this style in white for their parliamentary duties. In rural area and especially in the south men may wear the dhoti, a length of cloth wound around the waist and then tucked between the legs. The lungi is a length of cloth wrapped around the waist like a sarong.
In winter you’ll see men add earmuffs to their dress or even a scarf wrapped around the head from top to bottom to keep the cold out of their ears. You will even find animals dressed up for winter, in Delhi I came across a dog wearing a dress and a goat a blanket.
Politeness and patience is a key to everything. If you’re in a difficult situation, keep calm and keep your cool.
Sometimes a ‘no’ is a temporary answer.
Wear modest clothing especially in places of worship.
Don’t expect a ‘thank you’ from someone you do something for. People are thankful but the ‘thank you’ phrase is rarely used.
India is the birthplace of the Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist and Jain religions while outside contact through invasion and trade has brought in Islam and Christianity plus Judaism and Zoroastrianism. Other minor religions including animism exist in tribal areas.
Hinduism and Buddhism are the third and fourth largest religions in the world. The last census (2011) in India showed that Hindus represented 80.5% of those who practised a religion, Muslims 13.4%, Christians 2.3%, Sikhs 1.9%, Buddhists 0.8% and Jains 0.4%.
The religion is popularly characterised outside India as a panoply of colourful and creative gods. While this is true it is a little difficult to define the religion. There was no single founder, it has no single scripture or agreed set of teachings or rituals. It can almost be what you want it to be.
Its beliefs can help define it; Hindus believe in a Supreme God whose different aspects are reflected in different avatars, they believe in a cycle of birth, death and rebirth where the quality and position of the next life is dependent on how the previous was led. Guiding them are the Vedas, religious texts and hymns from ancient history.
The trinity of Hindu gods is Brahma, the supreme god and his cohorts Shiva and Vishnu who in essence are avatars of Brahma. Gods have different responsibilities and amongst the minor gods and goddesses you’ll come across in India are Ganesh (the elephant god and remover of obstacles), Lakshmi (goddess of wealth) and Indra (god of the weather). Other favourites are Krishna, Kali and Hanuman the monkey god.
This religion was founded by Guru Nanak in Punjab during the 15th century as a reaction against the Hindu caste system and the Brahmin priests control of ritual. Sikhs believe in one god, the equality of all humankind, social justice and living a righteous life. Ten gurus have established the religion with the last Guru Gobind Singh who died in 1708 declaring he would be the final guru. Their holy book is the Guru Granth Sahib.
The greatest concentration of Sikhs in India can be found in the state of Punjab where their holiest temple, the Golden Temple, can be found in the city of Amritsar.
Male Sikhs can often be recognised by their turban, as it is an element of their religion that men do not cut their hair or beard. However not all Indians who wear a turban are Sikhs or that all male Sikhs wear a turban and don’t cut their hair. Singh is a common surname among Sikhs and means lion.
More a philosophy than a religion, Buddhism focuses on spiritual development and understanding of the world. Buddhists aim to reach a state of nirvana or state of enlightenment through morality, meditation and wisdom. That complete state then frees them from the endless cycle of rebirth.
Buddhists do not necessarily believe in a supreme being, they believe in the temporary nature of all conditions and consider that the belief in the permanency of things is a chief cause of human suffering.
This ancient Indian religion teaches non-violence and self-control as the means to spiritual liberation. Practitioners believe that every soul has the potential for salvation and become god. Jains observe vows of truthfulness, honesty, chastity and non-attachment. Non-violence is extended not only to humans but also to animals and plants. They are strict vegetarians but recognise that plants must be killed for human sustenance. Strict Jains will brush insects away from their path with a peacock feather and a fly will be escorted out of a house rather than be killed. One Jain sect avoids wearing clothes.
Look at the reverse side of any Indian rupee and you’ll find the value of the note written in 15 languages in addition to the main headings in English and Hindi. While these are the main ones there are over a hundred in daily use. The language that binds the Punjabi from the north and the Tamil from the south is English as not everyone speaks Hindi, the main language of the country. Close behind is Urdu used by Muslims but so akin to Hindi that both can speak to each other easily.
Educated Indians speak perfect English as will anyone connected with the tourist trade although maybe to a lower degree of competence in non-touristy areas. Many people can speak more than one language.
Friends in Delhi of Punjabi origin speak English, Hindi and Punjabi and often I have heard a mix of all three in their conversations.
There are always alternatives for many words in India, so a street on a map might be marked as a road or marg, that a place name like Qutb can also be found as Qutub or Qutab, why Kashmere or Kashmiri Gate is so named when the Indian state is spelt Kashmir, and a name such as Nizamuddin might also appear as Nizam-ud-din.
However these are the more common Hindi words that you’ll come across.
Ashram – spiritual college and retreat, like a monastery.
Attar – perfume.
Baba/bapu – literally father, but used as a term of respect.
Bagh – garden.
Baksheesh – tip, bribe or alms.
Baoli – a step-well dug into the ground steps leading down to the water level.
Begum – a title for a Muslim woman of rank.
Bhavan/bhawan – house, building.
Bogie – train carriage.
Cantonment – administrative and military area of a British colonial town.
Chaat – general term for small snacks.
Chai – tea, usually tea leaves and sugar boiled in milk.
Chapati – unleavened flat bread.
Charbagh – literally meaning four gardens, but a formal garden divided into quarters by watercourses.
Chowk – marketplace, intersection or town square.
Civil Lines – area of civilian housing in colonial times.
Dargah – shrine or tomb of a Muslim saint.
Darshan – an audience with someone, usually a guru or viewing of a deity.
Darwaza – gateway or door.
Dhal – lentil soup; the staple that most of India lives on.
Dharamsala – pilgrim accommodation.
Diwan – principal officer in a princely state, royal court or council.
Durbar – royal court or gathering.
Gali – narrow lane.
Gurdwara – Sikh temple.
Guru – teacher or holy person.
Haat – fair or village market.
Hammam – baths, Turkish in origin.
Haveli – traditional mansions with interior courtyards.
Imam – Muslim religious leader.
Jali – lattice screen carved out of a solid slab of stone.
Ji – an honorific that can be added to a name.
Khadi – homespun cloth.
Khan – Muslim title.
Kos – Islamic unit of distance, aproximately 3.2km.
Kos minar – distance marker.
Lassi – drink of yoghurt and water.
Mahal – palace or large building.
Maharaja/maharana/maharao – princely ruler or king.
Maharani – wife of a princely ruler or a ruler in her own right.
Mahatma – great soul.
Maidan – open grassed area in a city.
Mandi – market.
Mandir – Hindu or Jain temple.
Mantra – sacred word or chant.
Maratha – warlike central Indian race who controlled much of India at various times and fought the (Mughals.)
Marg – major road.
Masjid – mosque.
Memsahib – married European lady, from `madam-sahib’.
Mihrab – prayer niche in mosque.
Minar – tall tower and alongside a mosque, a minaret.
Mullah – Muslim scholar, teacher or religious leader.
Naan – flat leavened bread cooked in a tandori.
Nagar – suburb, town.
Nautch – dance.
Nawab – Muslim ruling prince or powerful landowner.
Nizam – high official in the (Mughal) court.
Paan – a digestive comprising areca nut, lime, spices and maybe tobacco wrapped in a betel vine leaf and placed in the mouth between the cheek and teeth.
Qawwali (plural qawwals)- rhymed Urdu couplets performed with musical accompaniment, originally sung by Sufis.
Qila – fort.
Rajput – Hindu warrior castes, rulers of central India.
Resident – British representative in the court of a princely state.
Roti – bread or a meal.
Sadhu – holy Hindu seeking spiritual enlightenment.
Sahib – `lord’; title applied to Western men.
Sepoy – Indian private in the British infantry.
Serai – accommodation for travellers.
Sufi – Muslim mystic.
Tank – artificial water-storage lake or pond.
Tandori – a circular clay oven used for cooking.
Tirthankar – Jain spiritual masters who have achieved enlightenment.
Wallah – a man who does, added onto almost anything, eg dhobiwallah (clothes washer), taxiwallah, Delhiwallah.
Wazir – Mughal prime minister.
India has a proud tradition in literature from the days of the Epics that are one of the cornerstones of Indian culture. The Ramayana, all 24,000 verses in seven books tells the tale of Rama (incarnation of Vishnu) whose wife Sita is abducted by the king of Lanka (modern-day Sri Lanka) and Rama’s struggle to get her back. Nobody can tell how old the tale is but it dates well before the Common Era (0AD). Symbolically this elemental story, also well known in other parts of the region, depicts the ideal father, husband, wife, servant and king and how they should conduct themselves on the human stage.
The epic is re-enacted yearly all over India with actors taking the parts of the characters. This event (Ramlila) coincides with the start of the autumn festival of Dussehra and is played over ten or more nights. On the last day the actors process in stage dress through the locality to where the final act and battle is performed. The baddies, Ravana, son and brother, are defeated and huge effigies of them are set on fire.
In comparison the Mahabharata is the younger literary work dating perhaps to about 400 BC. It tells the story of the Kurukshetra War but underlying the story are philosophical and religious mores. The nitty gritty of the story is a struggle between the Kauravas and Pandavas, two branches of the same family, for the kingdom of Hastinapura. Both branches believe they have the rightful successor to the throne. The infighting reaches a crescendo in the great battle of Kurukshetra in which the Pandavas gain victory
If you have a chance to see Indian dance whether it is just-for-tourists shows at the Shilpgram in Khajuraho or a Kathakali dance in Kerala, you should seize the chance. If you are lucky to chance upon a village dance such as in the tribal areas of Chhattisgarh then you’ll be doubly rewarded. Dance is an essential component of Indian culture and each state, region and locality has its own
Art is a noble tradition in India dating from the early rock shelter painting in Bhimbetka and cave paintings in Ajanta and Ellora. It can be found in places of religion, on the walls of village houses or on paper, canvas, palm leaves as craft and folk art. Galleries in big urban centres sell art by major and minor Indian artists and art galleries and museums display their work. In Delhi visit the Museum of Modern Art for their displays and the Crafts Museum for rural and folk art. A major art form during Mughal times was miniature paintings and fine examples of this can be found in Delhi’s National Museum. In religion it can be found in Buddhist temples depicting incarnations of the Buddha, gurus, symbolic story telling and in the intricate forms of mandalas. Hindu temples tend to go more for sculpture work and perhaps the highest point of this art is the astounding temples of Khajuraho where lithe figures cavort and pose.
Think Indian music and the sitar comes to mind played by one of the greatest, Ravi Shankar, or eagerly sucked up by Western pop groups in the 1960s. However that is not the only indigenous Indian instrument by far, there is also the tabla, sarod, flute, harmonium and a huge variety of other instruments that are plucked, blown through or drummed on.
Neither is classical Indian music performed on such instruments the only musical form. Modern Indian music encompasses religious, folk, pop, rock as well as classical. Two extremely popular genres are Filmi and Indipop; the former being the music of Indian cinema and the latter a fusion of folk, classical and other Indian music with Western styles.
Like other cultural aspects different regions will have their own music as will religions. Qawwali is the most well known form of Sufi music and can often be hears in the courtyards of some mosques, Nizamuddin in Delhi for example. Sikh religious music can be encountered in any gurdwara (temple).
First time visitors may be shocked to see the liberal use of the swastika. This is an ancient religious symbol dating back before the 2nd-century BC that is considered sacred and auspicious in Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism. Unfortunately it was usurped by the German Nazi party and came to represent their nasty brand of evil.
In obtaining directions always ask an open-ended question such as could you tell me the way to the train station rather than point and ask is this the way. Courtesy and eagerness to provide an answer, any answer, may mean that you are given the wrong direction especially if the person doesn’t know. Even then I find it wise sometimes to ask a second person and if those directions don’t agree with the first to ask someone else until you get two sets of directions that do agree.
Most museums are closed on a Monday so plan something else for that day.
Visiting places of worship
Dress conservatively especially in mosques.
The best seats are between the axles giving you a less bumpy ride. If you like to be tossed and turned in a fairground fashion then try the back seat.
Desperate for coffee
This can be hard to find outside the main centres of big cities. What goes for coffee is the powdered stuff, which is really something else and not coffee. I take a supply of the real stuff, a travelling kettle and a non breakable mug. Three or four teaspoons, according to taste, into the mug, pour in the boiling water, stir and allow to stand. The coffee settles into a mud at the bottom of the mug, stays there and you drink the liquid. You can also make other hot drinks of course but tea is always available.
It’s a shopping way of life in India. Wherever a price is advertised it usually means it’s a fixed price but otherwise bargaining is the expected order of the day. Bargain hard and be prepared to walk away to test the resolve of the seller. I usually start at a third of the asking price and am prepared to move up to a half and from there I won’t usually budge. However it all depends on how much I want the item and whether I could get it elsewhere. Sometimes, to the amazement of the seller, I’ve even paid the initial asking price because it has been so reasonable.
Your taxi/rickshaw driver will want to take you shopping as part of your day’s activities. He hopes for a commission. One answer is to be upfront with him and ask if he gets a commission. You can consider this something of a tip for him, agree to go to the shop, browse for a few minutes and then walk out. It would seem that his commission is regardless as to whether you buy anything.
Got a favourite pair of old shoes that desperately need a mend but would cost too much, then bring them to India. In or near a market place you’ll find a pavement cobbler set out with his shoe polish, laces and repair equipment. I had a pair of dress shoes with disintegrating plastic soles. Repair at home $80, in India $5.
Visiting an optician
Need a new pair of spectacles then prices in India can be much cheaper than at home – and they’re good quality. Bring your prescription or have another eye test done in India. Obviously the best options can be found in the bigger cities.
These are aimed at redirecting you to somewhere that the scammer will get a commission for bringing you in.
It may be that you’ve asked directions to a shop, hotel or restaurant and if you’re told the place is closed, burnt down, moved, is closed for a holiday or festival etc then consider what you are being told is a lie.
If a taxi driver tells you that you will have to reconfirm your hotel booking and takes you to a friendly travel agent then you’re about to be taken in.
Someone suggests that you buy gems, carpets, whatever and export them to your country as you can make a huge profit, and by the way he has a friend, cousin, brother etc in your country who can help you…then don’t get involved. If it were profitable then there would be a regular industry doing it in a big way.
When a taxi or rickshaw driver asks you if this is your first time in India then consider your answer. He may be testing you out as a likely customer for some travel agency he is in league with. And his commission gets added to your bill.
Don’t let this put you off India, it’s part of the experience and extremely rarely is any violence or theft involved. Just be firm, thank the person for the information and decline.
They are prevalent in all major cities and tourist haunts. It is reputed that it is something of an industry with patches controlled by beggar kings. It may be a demand for money or to be taken to a shop to buy groceries – often these are then returned unused for a refund. Whether you give is entirely up to you. My approach is to donate money to a recognised charity and to pass a few rupees to unsuspecting person who is obviously in dire straits, but is not begging. For the young homeless children who haunt railways stations I offer food. There are plenty of little kitchen stalls on railway platforms and a solid hot meal often brings more cheer to a child’s face than a few rupees.
Tourist Offices that are really Travel Agents
By signage some travel agents pretend that they are tourist offices offering tourist information and maps. They want to sell you something rather than offer free advice.
Car and driver rental
Rather than hiring a car it is far better to hire a car and driver, the latter who comes fairly cheaply. You can relax and let someone else do the driving as he’ll know the way, is often a useful source of local information and you may get to learn a few useful words of the local language.
Cars and drivers can be organised through taxi companies and travel agents. It is a very good idea to first try the driver out with local sightseeing to see that you’ve chosen a good one. When you come to sit down and explore the possibility of a longer term hire then get the agent to put in writing what you are paying for and are there any extras. Typically the hire costs includes the driver’s accommodation and meals.
Arrive in Delhi. Spend three days with what the city has to offer.
Day trip to Agra for the Taj Mahal, or spend the night and catch a train to Jaipur
Explore the pink city for two days experiencing the City Palace, the Amber Fort, the Hawa Mahal and the Jantar Mantar
Train to Jodhpur, the blue city, and explore the city for two days spending at least half a day wandering through the massive Mehrangarh Fort.
Train through the Thar desert to the medieval walled city of Jaisalmer. Spend at least two days here and consider a camel ride out into the desert.
The options then, depending on time available, are to catch an overnight train back to Delhi. Otherwise you could continue on into the rest of Rajasthan. Bikaner, Pushkar, Mt Abu and Udaipur. Or you could expand the first part of your journey to include the Keoladeo Bird Sanctuary at Bharatpur and the Ranthambore National Park for tigers.