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India's rich cultural tapestry unveils a country with many faces, each unraveling a piquant feast of fresh experiences. At different moments, India can be indelibly spiritual, architecturally glorious, astonishingly natural, and fascinatingly cultural. Each idiosyncratic destination is infused with a kaleidoscopic blend of enchantment and sensual indulgence, ensuring that no previous travel compares.
Visit India and you’re catapulted straight into a chameleonic theater of color. Even the glorious old architecture is vividly draped, from the sun reflecting off the Taj Mahal to the pink regal city of Jaipur. This is the dazzling backdrop, the delightful exterior that hangs over a population delighting in bringing vitality and vibrancy to everything. Just being outside is a sensual banquet; fresh smells float and flicker, merging with sounds of soft temple bells and the shouts of chai wallahs. Then a painted elephant walks past and a market stall reveals a thousand flamboyant saris. Trying to describe this experience to friends verges on the impossible: “well, err, it was, it was so…India!”
India is a huge country, home to over one billion people and 29 individual states, each remarkably different from the last. It would take years to see it all, and even longer to understand it. On one hand it remains a poor nation, yet the blossoming economy is helping to power a sophisticated tourism market. Gone are the days when visiting India meant having to rough it. Five-star hotels are decorated with inimitable style and panache, a network of tourist-tailored domestic flights dramatically reduces travel time, and the government is feverishly investing in positioning India as an upmarket travel destination. Grandeur should be expected, after all, India has been offering aristocratic opulence since long before the nation was conceived. It’s now safe to shed the old stereotypes and pamper yourself on this new commitment to luxury.
However, the country’s heart remains indelibly humble, and its soul invariably welcoming. Wandering the streets reveals one of India’s many faces; every soiree outside is imbued with a radiant hypnotism. Yet India supplements this omnipresent charm with an outstanding collection of attractions and paradigms. Spiritual cities submerge you in mesmeric culture, always ensuring immersive experiences with local people and lifestyles. Richly diverse landscapes provide a stage to explore, from the Himalayan Mountains to the beaches of Goa, and from the endlessly green tea plantations to deserts and salt pans crossed by camels. Charming ancient cities cover the country, each absolutely unique and serving up wondrous temples, shimmering forts, and a sublime blend of architectural styles. Like Hindu god Brahma, there are so many faces to discover. Go trekking, ride elephants, practice yoga, watch birds, meet holy babas, track tigers, meditate, indulge, experience, and jump in to the most enchanting show on our planet. The following is just a glimpse at the country’s iconicism.
- The Colored Cities of Rajasthan: Rajasthan revels in its ambiance of ancient glory, infusing the architectural wonders with endless slices of cultural heritage. Rugged forts and spectacular palaces grab the attention revealing relics from centuries of warrior narratives and regal prosperity. Each city has its own style and color; Jaipur is the “Pink City,” Jodhpur the blue one, Udaipur the “City of Lakes,” and Jaisalmer is the scorched red gateway to the Thar Desert. Nestled between these iconic destinations are mountain retreats, camel market towns, elephant tours, dance troupes, and a continual immersion in eminent wonder.
- India’s Sacred Cities and Spirituality: Temple bells chime and spirituality exudes from most Indian streets, the engrossing experience elevated in the country’s holy cities along the River Ganges. Varanasi is the oldest and most riveting, the centerpiece of Hindu culture where smoke infused ceremonies are performed by babas, and dead bodies are symbolically burnt at the entrance to the river. It’s India in a nutshell, a labyrinth of enchanting smells, colors, sounds, and monkeys that swing around the rooftops. Less intense yet equally captivating, you’ll find a myriad of important Hindu towns along the irrefutable Ganga and further afield.
- The Taj Mahal and Ancient Agra: Few buildings ignite the imagination like the Taj Mahal, the white marble mausoleum built by a Mughal emperor for his wife. As the sun crosses the sky it brings subtle shades and wizardry reflections to the traditional domes; each hour displays another compelling reason to stay and take more photos. It’s far from the only marvel in Agra, the historic city packed with resilient forts, charming mosques, and streets that dance with intrigue.
- The Beaches of Goa: Framed by palm trees and endless white sand, Portuguese flavored Goa has long been a luxury beach retreat. It’s easy to laze away weeks in sun-kissed bliss, yet this tiny state crams in hill station getaways, crumbling forts, cute whitewashed stone churches, and vibrant temples. Everything runs on a wonderfully laid-back rhythm, the encompassing tranquility providing an idyllic antidote to any travel fatigue.
- The Northern Tea Plantations: Northern India is elevated and cool, the fresh mountain air cultivating thick green landscapes of tea plantations and indigenous forest. It’s remote and rural India at its best, each mountainous village unchanged for centuries and offering authentic immersions into lost Himalayan culture. You may recognize the names; places like Darjeeling have long exported their unique flavors around the world. Despite the fame, a journey into the northern tea plantations is always soothing and tender, with luxuriant panoramas accompanying every journey.
- Cruising the Kerala Backwaters: With more canals than Venice and an equally captivating assortment of local gondoliers, the iridescent Kerala backwaters provide one of India’s most tranquil excursions. Live aboard house boats, cruise past tiny villages and buffalo ploughed rice paddies; the serene waterways are a million miles from the experience in the rest of India. Alight and explore a lost temple, then jump back aboard for a sumptuous buffet beneath the stars.
Wherever you are in India, the country’s blanket of charm and originality will be integral to the experience. Whether it’s beach or mountains, temples or churches, there’s an irrefutable feeling of being immersed in local culture. This manifests in many ways, exemplified by the myriad of unique experiences you can find across the nation.
- The Bustle of Modern India in Mumbai: The country’s economic hub isn’t for the fainthearted, yet it delivers a compelling look into modern India. The huge slums are an eye-opening experience and guided tours reveal the smiles and vitality behind the poverty. Whole suburbs exude luxury and the high-life, complete with ocean views and the country’s finest gastronomic feasts. There are funky markets, one of the world’s biggest movie industry, Bollywood, and marvelous remnants of the country’s colonial past.
- Meditation and Yoga Retreat: The Beatles were among the famous musicians lured by India’s spirituality in the 60’s, and the country continues to offer handcrafted retreats focused on meditation and yoga. Ayuverda therapies rejuvenate, tranquility emanates from hilltop destinations like Rishikesh, and the world’s greatest meditators teach their lifelong knowledge. You can center your Indian experience around this deep connection between body and soul; it’s easy to add deeply authentic meditation and yoga experiences to your Indian itinerary.
- Thrilling Tiger Safaris: A spectacular variety of indigenous wildlife has forever forged a haven in India’s vibrant national parks, the standout highlight being the rare Royal Bengal Tiger. The entrancing forests of Kanha & Bandhavgarh National Parks provide the best chances at experiencing the striped orange beauty, safaris heading out on elephant-back through the trees. At the other end of the size scale, India is a stunning destination for bird lovers, the cute and the colorful mixed with predatory claws.
- Karma Sutra Temples of Khajuraho: All across this continent nation you’ll discover illustrious ancient temples; some evocatively stand in states of decay and ruin, others have been painstakingly restored to their former glory. Revealing the rich detail and dedication to originality are Khajuraho’s Hindu and Jain temples, the marble walls filled with erotic sculptures depicting the birthplace of the Karma Sutra. The Nagara symbolism adds a defining edge and an imposing originality that’s been standing for over 1000 years.
- Trekking Holidays in the Himalayas: Keep going north in India and the green eventually turns to white, the dazzling peaks of the world’s highest mountain chain offering unrivaled adventure, from intimate journeys tracking snow leopards to intrepid river rafting through the wilderness. Nestled within the mountains are cute homestays, Buddhist culture, and staggering vistas onto majestic Himalayan peaks.
- Luxury Cross-Country Train Odysseys: Indian trains have always provided picturesque impressions and miles of railroad that connect even the most remote of destinations. Forget preconceptions of squalid carriages; India’s trains also come wrapped in regal indulgence and opulence. Saunter through a continent of colors in unforgettable style, living out famous journeys and delighting at ancient cities.
From sub-zero Himalayan Mountains to tropically humid rainforest, nowhere on earth can rival India for climatic variation. It’s impossible to encapsulate the weather into a single snapshot of advice, but let’s try some overarching summaries. The Indian sub-continent is annually marked by the monsoon, or rainy season, bringing a daily down-pouring of rain that’s interspersed with sunshine. This starts in the Southwest around May, and spreads northeast, coating most of the country in daily storms and sometimes floods. While the monsoon should have rescinded by August in the North, it can linger in the far South until late October. This is also the hottest time of the year.
There is no single time of year that’s perfect for everywhere in India. However, the cool dry season from November to March is a good bet for most of the country and any classic Indian itinerary. Temperatures are always manageable (predominantly in the 70’s), skies are wonderfully clear, and humidity stays low. However, the mountains and most of the far North get very cold through the winter, making remote destinations inaccessible. This is also the peak tourist season and major attractions like the Taj Mahal can feel a little crowded. For trekking and the tea plantations, the best climate is found around August to September.
In essence there are two ways to approach your handcrafted Indian vacation. If your time of year is set, then there will always be destinations and enchantment to discover in certain parts of the country. Alternatively, if you have a firm idea of where to go, allow Zicasso’s handpicked specialist travel agents to inform you about the best months to visit.
India doesn’t have the greatest reputation when it comes to accommodation. The classic travel phrase “the black hole of Calcutta” has disparagingly associated the country with rundown hotels across the globe. Yet India has a millennia old history of entertaining royalty with exuberant luxury. You, fair visitor, are the new royalty, firmly at the center of the government’s investment in high-end tourism and luxury travel markets. Dispel any preconceptions of having to rough it because India knows exactly how to impress.
While the country isn’t short on major international brands; wherever you stay will invariably have a localized feel. Mountain retreats have been elevated and enhanced since they served the colonial governors, while the ancient cities are now loaded with cute boutique hotels that exude authenticity. Sumptuous five-star resorts mark major cities and new tourist destinations, often coming with wonderful views and cultivated gardens. There’s not a squat toilet in sight, in fact, you’ll be wondering out loud how India can overtake the West in serving up luxury. At the other end of the scale, there are still many options to stay in remote village homestays and enthralling temples, the humble simplicity providing a fitting immersion into local life.
Each Indian destination delivers inimitability, yet the journeys between them are equally hypnotic and engrossing. Indian Railways are the world’s biggest employer, a government owned institution that provides the backbone to a nation. Seeing India from the train window is an iconic experience, sumptuous first class carriages allowing you to soak up the country in serious style. Private companies have renovated classic rail cars to offer the ultimate indulgence, while certain rail routes have been locally upgraded for the high-end tourist experience.
While city driving conditions are seriously chaotic, some of the rural states provide wonderful road journeys through mountains and desert. Just like the railways, going by car means keeping your camera ready at all times.
A major addition to India’s travel infrastructure is the development of local airports and airlines. Visitors can now see the whole country in a short amount of time; scheduled flights dramatically minimize travel time. Just as an example, the classic Northern Indian itinerary of Delhi - Varanasi - Khajaraho - Agra - Jaipur - Delhi / Mumbai can be exclusively joined together by local flights. These tourist-tailored connections epitomize the Indian government’s focus on luxury tourism. With a whole host of new airports in construction, there are no limits on your Indian itinerary dreams.
At the same time, India still offers opportunities to get around with the means of yesteryear. Taking a classic motorized tuk-tuk remains the best way to explore a city, while the back of an elephant is perfect for the forest. Camels take you through the desert and gorgeous houseboats cruise though the backwater canals.
Visa and Passport Requirements
As of late 2014, foreign visitors must obtain a visa in advance to travel to India. This can be done via the Indian embassy in your respective country or through a travel agent who will do the legwork for a fee.
However, India is rapidly modernizing its approach to foreign visitors and is currently implementing an e-visa on arrival system, enabling citizens of the US, Canada, and EU nations to apply for a visa online and then obtain the visa at the airport upon their arrival. The system is modeled on Australia’s electronic visa system and is planned to be in place by June 2015.
“Delhi belly” is another of India’s unfortunate phrases, and an image of spending half the vacation with an upset stomach puts off many potential visitors. It’s another unfortunate stereotype with only a smidgen of truth. The insatiable use of chili and spice infuses the local cuisine with subtle flavors and exotic tangs. It’s far more flavorful and nuanced than your Indian restaurant at home. But the chili isn’t going to “blow your head off” (to use another stereotyped local phrase). Tourist restaurants are well versed in toning down the heat to foreign palates. While the rugged street food won’t appease every stomach, the gourmet dining experiences and hotel restaurants have a Western approach to food hygiene.
Cleanliness is paramount to the country’s luxury tourism industry, so expect to be impressed. However, there is no denying that this hot country of 1.2 billion people can sometimes be dirty. Basic health precautions help negate the risks. These include sticking to sealed bottle water, carrying hand sanitizer and using it regularly, avoiding meat cooked on the streets, and washing all fruit with bottled water.
The majority of doctors will recommend additional inoculations for your trip to India. These are usually hepatitis A, tetanus, and typhoid. The majority of India is considered low malaria risk and anti-malarial medication is generally only recommended for visits to the Northeastern states of Assam and Orissa. It’s still important to bring mosquito repellent and cover up at dusk.
Despite the image of street children stealing from tourists in the movie Slumdog Millionaire, a culture of honesty covers most of the nation. It’s rare that tourists encounter problems, other than the sometimes over zealous attentions of local kids wanting their photos taken. The usual precautions apply, like leaving valuables and passport in the hotel safe, yet this isn’t anything additional to most vacation destinations. In and around major attractions there are a number of guides offering their services to unaccompanied tourists. If you’re already with a guide, you won’t be approached by them.
India is slowly opening up to electronic payments and ATMs, even if the majority of locals are unlikely to have ever used a cash machine. ATMs generally accept Visa and MasterCard although you can’t find them everywhere and they can be frustratingly unreliable. When traveling into rural areas it’s good to stock up on cash beforehand. Your guide will have more detailed information.
Currency exchange is relatively common and US dollars are the easiest currency to change. Major hotels accept cards but in most other establishments you’ll need to pay with cash. It’s good to carry a variety of bills around, as cheap things like a bottle of water are almost impossible to buy with a 1000 rupee note.
There’s no denying that India is a culture shock. First impressions often become a confusing yet unforgettable memory as there is simply much to take in. Another of India’s unfortunate stereotypes is of a country that’s dirty, smelly, poverty stricken, and overly rugged. You will experience these facets at some point during your stay, yet these are not your first or lasting impressions. Focusing on a little garbage doesn’t make sense when the street you’re exploring is one of the planet’s most colorful and unique. Culture shock doesn’t stem from the negative Indian cliches. It has its roots in the mesmeric heritage and idiosyncrasies that you came to explore.
There’s also no denying that this culture shock has a potential to become overbearing. This is another reason why the commitment to luxury tourism is transforming the Indian travel experience. Opulent hotels, first class train carriages, sumptuous rooftop restaurants; your daily itinerary is filled with serene stops that provide an alternative paradigm and break the thick immersion in local Indian life. This keeps you energized and focused on the captivation.
Indians are naturally friendly and welcoming. While English is not a universal language, all services for tourists have staff with excellent spoken English skills. India is full of individualized customs and local etiquette, although tourists are generally not required to follow suit. Care should be taken around temples and holy sites, but there’s always someone around to ensure you don’t unwittingly act disrespectfully. Don’t get too hung up on customs or etiquette to follow; it’s fun to learn and discover, and guides are always experts in easing you in to Indian ways.