Introduction to India
Second largest in population and the seventh largest nation by land area in the world, India is a rapidly emerging player on the global stage. Mixed with a virtual potpourri of cultures, languages, religions, and geographic zones, this massive country (technically considered a subcontinent) will dazzle and amaze you seemingly at every turn. Despite the fact that India can be chaotic at the best of times, and can be extremely dirty by those used to the spic and span West, the country nevertheless remains very functional. Patience will go a long way here; using it liberally will get you through the inevitable delays and aggravations that you may encounter, leading to countless payoffs that make putting up with the former well worth the effort.
Regardless of the trials travelers and residents face every day, this country takes great pride in making it all work, as it is the world’s largest democracy, engaged in free and fair elections since the 1970’s. Indeed, it is not an easy act, as India is unbelievably diverse with regards to its people, as 438 different languages (21 that are officially recognized by the government) are spoken here, along with the many religions whose needs need to be accommodated for (Hinduism, Islam, Sikhism, Christianity, Jainism, Buddhism, etc).
Setting aside the human factor, India is also beset with a wide variety of geographic features and climatic zones, from tropical jungle in the Deep South, to arctic conditions in the high alpine landscapes of the Kashmir region in the north. With such drastic variations, those who live to enjoy different natural environments will be endlessly fascinated throughout their explorations of this country.
Whether you crave to climb some of the highest mountains in the world, want to lounge on the beach, thrust yourself into the some of the most frenetic urban chaos on Earth, or simply grow fat but happy on a never-ending buffet of food coma inducing Indian cuisine, a trip to India may never be a walk in the park, but the courage you show by coming here and braving the difficulties will be more than paid back by the rich experiences you will have during your time here.
Currency: Indian Rupee
Languages: Hindi, English, along with 21 other official languages
What To Do in India
There is much to see and do in India … much more than can be covered adequately by this country guide. The biggest of attractions will be mentioned in this segment, but for the best possible information, refer to the companion city guides for the city or region you are visiting, so that you may be in the know about all the best highlights to see in any given location.
With that covered, let’s start by talking about the most important festivals you may encounter during your time in the country. If you are visiting the country in the Late Fall, be sure to take in Diwali. This is the Hindu festival of lights, which is held to ward away the darkness that shades over knowledge and understanding in our lives. Darkness, being ignorance and misunderstanding, is chased away in an orgy of fireworks and candlelight, making a very entertaining evening indeed.
Holi is held in the Spring, as this colourful celebration aims to celebrate the arrival of the warmth of Spring, and to aim to please the Gods so that fertility may be impressed on the lands ahead of the growing season. For you the traveler, it will likely manifest itself as a coloured powder throwing frenzy, making it a gleeful spot of fun for anybody involved. Just don’t wear anything you don’t want ruined during the proceedings, ok?
As far as cultural sights go, the Taj Mahal headlines a deep field of tourist attractions in India. Built as a memorial for the wife of Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, this behemoth of a mausoleum stands as the most remarkable tomb in the world. Made of white marble and standing 40 metres high, it is an imposing symbol that will count as one of your most memorable bucket list experiences.
Those looking for a little bling in their lives should make time to see the Golden Temple. Located in Amritsar, the most famous Sikh religious site in the world is actually plated with real gold, making for some unreal pictures during the low light of morning or evening, and at night when it is all lit up. This auspicious place attract Sikh pilgrims from all over the world, making this an excellent opportunity to learn about a religion that most people have never heard of, or mistake for Islam or Hinduism.
Next, jump from the most important religious place for Sikhs, to Varanasi, the city that Hindus hold in the highest regard, as it is often the final destination for many of the faithful in this country when they expire. On the banks of the Ganges River in Varanasi, the recently departed are cremated on Ghats, after which their ashes are gathered and are sprinkled into the holiest river in the Hindu religion, as they believe being released into this body of water will carry their soul to heaven.
After all this culture hunting, the heat, noise, and chaos of the interior have likely worn your psyche to a paper thin consistency. As such, make it a priority to go beach bumming in Goa, a wide tract of lively beach communities on the Indian Ocean in Southwestern India. Relax on a tract of beach you can call your own, as the coast here has almost 70 kilometres of unbroken sands, or zip up and down the shorelands on a rented jetski. After all the R+R has started to become uninteresting, there are a number of cultural attraction relating to the minority Christian culture here, brought into the area as a result of Portuguese colonialism, which lasted for a solid 451 years.
If you’d rather chill out on top of a mountain than bake on a beach, then perhaps trekking around the peaks near the Himalayan city of Leh would be more your speed. Being one of the highest cities in the world, Leh is surrounded by the jagged peaks of the world’s highest mountain range, and the odds of seeing these peaks are a lot higher than in the Darjeeling area in Eastern India, as the area is arid, compared to the intensely rainy conditions of the former place. Altitude sickness is a common affliction of travelers here. Take your time and acclimatize, don’t rush to places like the highest motorable pass (18,000 feet), or go on horseback treks in the higher hills around you without first giving your body a chance to adjust to the lower oxygen environment that exists here.
Finally, take the train to the Western deserts of Rajasthan, where adventure awaits you in the wilderness that lies just outside the ancient city of Jaisalmer. Go on a camel safari in the Thar Desert, where plodding amongst the sand dunes as the harsh sun sinks towards the horizon will rank highly among the memories you will have of your time in India.
What To Eat in India
While there are many dishes that warrant a mention when it comes to the multi-faceted joys of Indian cuisine, a common side to most meals is the well-loved Naan bread. A flatbread often made with yogurt or milk and served with butter brushed on top, it is a decadent treat of carb lovers, and it often used to scoop up curry or dal when eating those dishes.
In the north, Tandoori Chicken typically ranks as the most popular main dish among many well-ranking alternatives. This spicy chicken is marinated in yoghurt and rubbed down with red chili powder and/or cayenne pepper, giving this beloved meat dish its characteristic zing, and is baked in a clay oven, or tandoor, which is what gives this food its name.
If you are only jonesing for a quick snack, a Samosa is often a better option. Originating in North India, these triangular pocket-sized treats are pastry shells that are stuffed with potatoes, various meats, and/or lentil beans. Frequently, meatless varieties are found throughout India, making these a good standby for any vegetarians in your group.
In Western India, Vindaloo is the often the meal of choice that the locals can be found consuming. Typically a meat curry, this dish is thought to have been a variation on the Portuguese meal Carne de Vinha d’Alhos, which was a dish that consisted of pork, wine and garlic.
Finally, the culinary mark of distinction in Southern India is granted to the Banana Leaf Meal, which is typically a variety of vegetables, rice and curry served on a banana leaf. This meal is thoroughly vegetarian friendly, although fried eggs may be included with some sittings, depending on the location.