From the soaring snow-dusted peaks of the northern mountains to the sultry sun-washed beaches of the southern coast, India’s dramatic terrain is breathtaking. Along with abundant natural beauties, exquisitely carved temples rise majestically out of pancake-flat deserts and crumbling old fortresses peer over plunging ravines. Aficionados of the great outdoors can scout for big jungle cats on wildlife safaris, paddle in the shimmering waters of one of many beautiful beaches, take blood-pumping treks high in the Himalaya, or simply inhale pine-scented air on meditative forest walks.Spirituality is the common characteristic painted across the vast and varied canvas that is contemporary India.
The multitude of sacred sites and rituals are testament to the country’s long, colourful, and sometimes tumultuous, religious history. And then there are the festivals! India hosts some of the world’s most dazzling devotional celebrations – from formidable city parades celebrating auspicious events on the religious calendar to simple harvest fairs that pay homage to a locally worshipped deity.
A spending spree in Mumbai’s designer shops and a stay in an international hotel in Delhi is going to cost you as much as it would in Dubai, but away from these enclaves the cost of living is ridiculously low. Even if you travel first class on the trains (the Rajdhani or the Shatabdi Express are the most comfortable to travel on, being fully air-conditioned with meals included in the ticket price) and take taxis everywhere, you’ll be hard pressed to spend a lot of money here and it’s possible to live like a raj on just £15 (about 1,500 rupees) a day. India is the seventh largest country in the world, so unless you’re planning an incredible six month sojourn, it pays to plan which of the country’s 29 states you want to visit.
Head to western India to Rajasthan for an assault of the senses in the state capital, the Pink City, Jaipur, or kick back on the white sands of Kerala in southern India. You can’t fly all that way without seeing what may well be the most famous tomb in the world, the Taj Mahal, in Agra, northern India – just don’t go on a Friday, it’s closed. And don’t worry about Delhi belly, you’ll find some of India’s best street food here in the capital, particularly in the narrow streets and bustling boulevards around Connaught Place in the centre of town. Pick your stall wisely – make sure they look clean and if they’re busy it usually means the food is fresh, but it’s still a good idea to pack the Immodium, just in case.
India, it is often said, is not a country, but a continent. Stretching from the frozen summits of the Himalayas to the tropical greenery of Kerala, its expansive borders encompass an incomparable range of landscapes, cultures and people. Walk the streets of any Indian city and you’ll rub shoulders with representatives of several of the world’s great faiths, a multitude of castes and outcastes, fair-skinned, turbanned Punjabis and dark-skinned Tamils. You’ll also encounter temple rituals that have been performed since the time of the Egyptian Pharaohs, onion-domed mosques erected centuries before the Taj Mahal was ever dreamt of, and quirky echoes of the British Raj on virtually every corner.
That so much of India’s past remains discernible today is all the more astonishing given the pace of change since Independence in 1947. Spurred by the free-market reforms of the early 1990s, the economic revolution started by Rajiv Gandhi has transformed the country with new consumer goods, technologies and ways of life. Today the land where the Buddha lived and taught, and whose religious festivals are as old as the rivers that sustain them, is the second largest producer of computer software in the world, with its own satellites and nuclear weapons.
However, the presence in even the most far-flung market towns of internet cafés, smart phones and Tata Nano cars has thrown into sharp relief the problems that have bedevilled India since long before it became the world’s largest secular democracy. Poverty remains a harsh fact of life for around forty percent of India’s inhabitants; no other nation on earth has slum settlements on the scale of those in Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata (Calcutta), nor so many malnourished children, uneducated women and homes without access to clean water and waste disposal.
Many first-time visitors find themselves unable to see past such glaring disparities. Others come expecting a timeless ascetic wonderland and are surprised to encounter one of the most materialistic societies on the planet. Still more find themselves intimidated by what may seem, initially, an incomprehensible and bewildering continent. But for all its jarring juxtapositions, intractable paradoxes and frustrations,
India remains an utterly compelling destination. Intricate and worn, its distinctive patina – the stream of life in its crowded bazaars, the ubiquitous filmi music, the pungent melange of diesel fumes, cooking spices, dust and dung smoke – casts a spell that few forget from the moment they step off a plane. Love it or hate it – and most travellers oscillate between the two – India will shift the way you see the world.