With its sumptuous mix of traditions, spiritual beliefs, festivals, architecture and landscapes, your memories of India will blaze bright long after you've left its shores.
India's Great Outdoors
India's landscapes are as fantastically varied as its cultural traditions. From the snow-dusted peaks of the Himalaya to the sun-splashed beaches of the tropical south, the country has a bounty of outdoor attractions. You can scout for big jungle cats on scenic wildlife safaris, paddle in the shimmering waters of coastal retreats, take blood-pumping treks high in the mountains, or simply inhale pine-scented air on meditative forest walks. Among all these natural treasures is a wealth of architectural gems, from serene temples rising out of pancake-flat plains to crumbling forts peering over plunging ravines.
Indian cuisine is a scrumptious smorgasbord of regionally distinct recipes, each with their own traditional preparation techniques and presentation styles – from the competing flavours of masterfully marinated meats and thalis (plate meals) to the simple splendour of vegetarian curries and deep-sea delights. Spices lie at the heart of Indian cooking, with the crackle of cumin seeds in hot oil a familiar sound in most kitchens. The country is also renowned for its tempting array of street food, with vendors selling everything from spicy samosas and kebabs to cooling kulfi (ice cream) and lassi (yoghurt drink).
A go-with-the-flow attitude will help you navigate the infinite twists and unexpected turns you're guaranteed to encounter in India. With its ability to inspire, exasperate, thrill and confound all at once, it can be challenging for first-time visitors: despite India's wonders, the bureaucracy can be frustrating, the crush of humanity may turn the simplest task into a frazzling epic, and the poverty is confronting. Even veteran travellers find their nerves frayed at some point. But love it or loathe it – and most travelers see-saw between the two – to embrace India's unpredictability is to embrace its soul.
Spirituality is the ubiquitous thread in India's richly diverse tapestry, weaving all the way from the snowy mountains of the far north to the tropical shores of the deep south. Hinduism and Islam have the most followers, while Sikhism, Buddhism, Jainism, Christianity and Zoroastrianism are also widely practised. The array of sacred sites and rituals pay testament to the country's long and colourful religious history. And then there are its festivals! India has an abundance of devotional celebrations – from formidable city parades heralding auspicious religious events, to simple village harvest fairs that pay homage to a locally worshipped deity.
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Poet Rabindranath Tagore described it as 'a teardrop on the cheek of eternity'; Rudyard Kipling as 'the embodiment of all things pure'; while its creator, Emperor Shah Jahan, said it made 'the sun and the moon shed tears from their eyes'. Every year, tourists numbering more than twice the population of Agra pass through its gates to catch a once-in-a-lifetime glimpse of what is widely considered the most beautiful building in the world. Few leave disappointed.
A complex of courtyards, gardens and buildings, the impressive City Palace is right in the centre of the Old City. The outer wall was built by Jai Singh II, but within it the palace has been enlarged and adapted over the centuries. There are palace buildings from different eras, some dating from the early 20th century. It is a striking blend of Rajasthani and Mughal architecture.
This magnificent fort comprises an extensive palace complex, built from pale yellow and pink sandstone, and white marble, and is divided into four main sections, each with its own courtyard. It is possible to visit the fortress on elephant-back, but animal welfare groups have criticised the keeping of elephants at Amber because of reports of abuse, and because carrying passengers can cause lasting injuries to the animals.
Conceived as the cosmic chariot of the sun god Surya, this massive, breathtakingly splendid temple was constructed in the mid-13th century, probably by Odishan king Narashimhadev I to celebrate his military victory over the Muslims. Around the base, seven rearing horses (representing the days of the week) move the stone leviathan on 24 stone cartwheels (representing the hours of the day). The temple was positioned so that dawn light would illuminate the deul (temple sanctuary) interior and the presiding deity.
Come here twice: in the morning, when the honey-hued granite begins to assert its dominance over the white dawn sunshine, and in the evening, when the rocks capture a hot palette of reds, oranges, yellows and pinks on the crowning glory of Chola temple architecture. The World Heritage–listed Brihadishwara Temple was built between 1003 and 1010 by Raja Raja I (‘king of kings’). The outer fortifications were put up by Thanjavur's later Nayak and British regimes.
The legendary Golden Temple is actually just a small part of this huge gurdwara complex, known to Sikhs as Harmandir Sahib. Spiritually, the focus of attention is the tank that surrounds the gleaming central shrine – the Amrit Sarovar, from which Amritsar takes its name, excavated by the fourth Sikh guru, Ram Das, in 1577. Ringed by a marble walkway, the tank is said to have healing powers, and pilgrims come from across the world to bathe in its sacred waters.
There are extraordinary riches scattered around Mehrauli, with more than 440 monuments – from the 10th century to the British era – dotting a forest and the village itself behind the forest. In the forest, most impressive are the time-ravaged tombs of Balban and Quli Khan, his son, and the Jamali Khamali mosque, attached to the tomb of the Sufi poet Jamali. To the west is the 16th-century Rajon ki Baoli, Delhi's finest step-well.
Madhya Pradesh is the king of the jungle when it comes to tiger parks, and Kanha is its most famous. The forests are vast, and while your chances of seeing a tiger are probably slimmer than at nearby Bandhavgarh, this is still one of India's best parks for sightings. The sal forests and vast meadows are home to approximately 125 tigers and 100 leopards.
If your only reason for visiting a tiger reserve in India is to see a tiger, look no further. A couple of days at Bandhavgarh should net you a tiger sighting. India's 2014 tiger census counted 68 tigers here, the great majority of them in the 453-sq-km Bandhavgarh National Park, which forms part of the reserve's core zone. The main base for visits is the small, laid-back village of Tala, 32km northeast of Umaria, the nearest train station.
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