The Way of Life

Spirituality is the common thread in the richly diverse tapestry that is India. It, along with family, lies at the heart of society, and these two tenets intertwine in ceremonies to celebrate life's milestones. Despite the rising number of nuclear families – primarily in the more cosmopolitan cities such as Mumbai (Bombay), Bengaluru (Bangalore) and Delhi – the extended family remains a cornerstone in both urban and rural India, with males – usually the breadwinners – considered the head of the household.

Marriage, Birth & Death

South India's different religions practise different traditions, but for all communities, marriage, birth and death are important and marked with traditional ceremonies according to faith. Hindus are the 80% majority in India, while only 14.2% of the population is Muslim (though at 176 million, Indian Muslims roughly equal the population of Pakistan).

Marriage is an exceptionally auspicious event for Indians – for most Indians, the idea of being unmarried by their mid-30s is unpalatable. Although ‘love marriages’ have spiralled upward in recent times (mainly in urban hubs), most Indian marriages are still arranged, be the family Hindu, Muslim, Sikh or Buddhist. Discreet enquiries are made within the community. If a suitable match is not found, the help of professional matchmakers may be sought, or advertisements may be placed in newspapers and/or on the internet. In Hindu families, the horoscopes of both potential partners are checked and, if propitious, there’s a meeting between the two families.

Dowries, although illegal since 1961, are still a key issue in many arranged marriages (mostly in conservative communities), with some families plunging into debt to raise the required cash and merchandise (from cars and computers to refrigerators, televisions and apartments). Figures from the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) suggest that a woman is murdered roughly every hour over dowry demands; the majority are young, new brides. Health workers claim that India’s high rate of abortion of female fetuses (sex identification medical tests are banned in India, but they still clandestinely occur) is predominantly due to the financial burden of providing a daughter’s dowry. Muslim grooms have to pay what is called a mehr to the bride.

The Hindu wedding ceremony is officiated over by a priest and the marriage is formalised when the couple walk around a sacred fire seven times. Muslim ceremonies involve the reading of the Quran; traditionally the husband and wife view each other via mirrors. Despite the existence of nuclear families, it’s still the norm for a wife to live with her husband’s family once married and assume the household duties outlined by her mother-in-law. Not surprisingly, the mother–daughter-in-law relationship can be a tricky one, often portrayed in Indian TV soap operas.

Divorce and remarriage is becoming more common (primarily in bigger cities), but divorce is still not granted by courts as a matter of routine and is not looked upon very favourably by society. Among the higher castes, in more traditional areas, widows are traditionally expected not to remarry and to wear white and live pious, celibate lives. It is still legal for Muslim males in India to obtain oral divorce according to sharia law (by uttering the word talaq, meaning 'divorce', three times, though these days it's increasingly emailed or texted).

The birth of a child is another momentous occasion, with its own set of special ceremonies which take place at various auspicious times during the early years of childhood. For Hindus these include the casting of the child’s first horoscope, name-giving, feeding the first solid food, and the first hair cutting.

Hindus cremate their dead, and funeral ceremonies are designed to purify and console both the living and the deceased. An important aspect of the proceedings is the sharadda, paying respect to one’s ancestors by offering water and rice cakes. It’s an observance that’s repeated at each anniversary of the death. After the cremation, the ashes are collected and, 13 days after the death (when blood relatives are deemed ritually pure), a member of the family usually scatters them in a holy river such as the Ganges or in the ocean. Sikhs similarly wash then cremate their dead. Muslims also prepare their dead carefully, but bury them. The minority Zoroastrian Parsi community place their dead in 'Towers of Silence' (stone towers) to be devoured by vultures.

The Caste System

Although the Indian constitution does not recognise the caste system, caste still wields powerful influence, especially in rural India, where the caste you are born into largely determines your social standing in the community. It can also influence your vocational and marriage prospects. Castes are further divided into thousands of jati, groups of ‘families’ or social communities, which are sometimes but not always linked to occupation. Conservative Hindus will only marry someone of the same jati, and you'll often see caste as a criteria in matrimonial adverts. In some traditional areas, young men and women who fall in love outside their caste have been murdered.

According to tradition, caste is the basic social structure of Hindu society. Living a righteous life and fulfilling your dharma (moral duty) raises your chances of being reborn into a higher caste and thus into better circumstances. Hindus are born into one of four varnas (castes): Brahmin (priests and scholars), Kshatriya (soldiers and administrators), Vaishya (merchants) and Shudra (labourers). The Brahmins were said to have emerged from the mouth of Lord Brahma at the moment of creation, Kshatriyas were said to have come from his arms, Vaishyas from his thighs and Shudras from his feet.

Beneath the four main castes are the Dalits (formerly known as Untouchables), who hold menial jobs such as sweepers and latrine cleaners. Many of India's complex codes of ritual purity were devised to prevent physical contact between people of higher castes and Dalits. A less rigid system exists in Islamic communities in India, with society divided into ashraf (high born), ajlaf (low born) and arzal (equivalent to the Dalits). The word ‘pariah’ is derived from the name of a Tamil Dalit group, the Paraiyars. Some Dalit leaders, such as the renowned Dr BR Ambedkar (1891–1956), sought to change their status by adopting another faith – in his case, Buddhism.

At the bottom of the social heap are the Denotified Tribes. They were known as the Criminal Tribes until 1952, when a reforming law officially recognised 198 tribes and castes. Many are nomadic or seminomadic tribes, forced by the wider community to eke out a living on society’s fringes.

To improve the Dalits’ position, the government reserves a considerable number of public-sector jobs, parliamentary seats and university places for them. Today these quotas account for almost 25% of government jobs and university (student) positions. The situation varies regionally, as different political leaders chase caste vote-banks by promising to include them in reservations. The reservation system, while generally regarded in a favourable light, has also been criticised for unfairly blocking tertiary and employment opportunities for those who would have otherwise got positions on merit. On the other hand, there is still regular discrimination against Dalits in daily life, such as higher castes denying them entry into certain temples.

Pilgrimage

Devout Hindus are expected to go on a yatra (pilgrimage) at least once a year. Pilgrimages are undertaken to implore the gods or goddesses to grant a wish, to take the ashes of a cremated relative to a holy river, or to gain spiritual merit. India has thousands of holy sites to which pilgrims travel. The elderly often make Varanasi their final one, as it’s believed that dying in this sacred city releases a person from the cycle of rebirth. The pilgrimage to Sabarimala in Kerala is one of India's largest Hindu pilgrimages. Sufi shrines in India attract thousands of Muslims to commemorate holy days, such as the birthday of a sufi saint; many Muslims also make the hajj to Mecca in Saudi Arabia.

Most festivals in India are spiritual occasions, rooted in religion (even those that have a carnivalesque sheen), and are thus a magnet for throngs of pilgrims. Remember to behave respectfully at festivals. Be aware that there are deaths at festivals every year because of stampedes, so be cautious in large crowds.

Women in South India

According to the most recent census (2011), India's population includes 586 million women, with an estimated 68% of these working in the agricultural sector, mostly as labourers. Women in India are entitled to vote and own property. While the percentage of women in politics has risen over the past decade, they’re still notably underrepresented in the national parliament, accounting for 11% of parliamentary members.

Although the professions are male dominated, women are steadily making inroads, especially in urban centres. Kerala was India’s first state to break societal norms by recruiting female police officers (1938) and establishing an all-female police station (1973). For village women it’s much more difficult to get ahead, but groups such as Gujarat's Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA; www.sewa.org) have shown what’s possible, organising socially disadvantaged women into unions and offering microfinance loans.

In low-income families especially, girls can be regarded as a serious financial liability because a marriage dowry must often be supplied. An estimated 300,000 to 600,000 female fetuses are illegally aborted each year as a result.

For the urban middle-class woman, life is much more comfortable, though pressures still exist. Broadly speaking, she is far more likely to receive a tertiary education, but once married is still usually expected to ‘fit in’ with her in-laws and be a homemaker. Like her village counterpart, if she fails to live up to expectations – even if it’s just not being able to produce a grandson – the consequences can sometimes be dire, as demonstrated by the extreme practice of ‘bride burning’, wherein a wife is doused with flammable liquid and set alight, typically by her husband or mother-in-law. In 2013 the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) figures reported 8083 incidences, around one every hour; it's thought that actual numbers are even higher. Acid attacks by would-be suitors on women who have rejected them are also common.

Although the constitution allows for divorcees (and widows) to remarry, relatively few reportedly do so: divorcees are traditionally considered outcasts from society, most evidently so beyond big cities. Divorce rates in India are among the worlds’ lowest, though rising. Most divorces happen in urban centres and are deemed less socially unacceptable among upper society.

In October 2006, following women’s civil rights campaigns, the Indian parliament passed a landmark bill (on top of existing legislation) which gives women suffering domestic violence increased protection and rights. Prior to this legislation, although women could lodge police complaints against abusive spouses, they weren’t automatically entitled to a share of the marital property or to ongoing financial support. Critics claim that many women, especially those outside India’s larger cities, are still reluctant to seek legal protection because of the social stigma involved. Despite legal reforms, conviction rates remain low enough for perpetrators to feel a sense of impunity. A 2012 Unicef study revealed that almost 60% of Indian adolescent males believe it's justifiable to beat a wife.

India remains an extremely prudish and conservative society, and despite the highly sexualised images of women churned out by Bollywood (although kissing is still rarely seen on screen), many traditionally minded people consider a woman wanton if she so much as goes out after dark.

According to India's NCRB, reported incidences of rape have gone up over 50% in the last 10 years (34,000 rape cases were reported in 2015), but most sexual assaults go unreported, due to family pressure and/or shame, especially if the perpetrator is known to the family (often the case). Women themselves continue to be blamed for rapes.

Following the highly publicised gang rape and murder of 23-year-old Indian physiotherapy student Jyoti Singh (known as Nirbhaya, 'Fearless One') in Delhi in December 2012, tens of thousands of people protested in the capital, and beyond, demanding swift government action to address the country's escalating gender-based violence. It took a further year before legal amendments were made to existing laws to address the problem of sexual violence, including stiffer punishments such as life imprisonment and the death penalty. There is still limited recognition of marital rape (a horrifically common phenomenon) and government permission is necessary before security forces can be prosecuted for criminal offences.

Despite the action taken, shocking cases are horrifyingly regular occurrences. The NCRB reported that in 2015, 327,394 gender-based crimes were committed against women. Of these, 34,651 were rape and 84,222 were 'other' sexual offences (sexual harassment, assault, stalking, kidnapping etc). The conviction rate for rape was just 27.1% in 2013, the same year that a 22-year-old photojournalist was gang raped in Mumbai (Bombay). In 2014 a Danish woman was gang raped in Delhi, and most recently, there has been international outcry over the 'mass molestation' of women by groups of men in Bengaluru (Bangalore) on New Year's Eve 2016 – just a few in a long line of recent sexual assaults on women in India. It's doubtless that sexual violence is a pervasive social problem in India and, despite government efforts, including Modi's Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao (Save the Daughter, Teach the Daughter) campaign and harsher sentences, remains rampant. Most female visitors' Indian travels progress safely, but it is important to be careful and alert.

Sport

Cricket has long been engraved on the Indian nation's heart, with the first recorded match in 1721, and India's first test match victory in 1952 in Chennai (Madras) against England. It's not only a national sporting obsession, but a matter of enormous patriotism, especially evident whenever India plays against Pakistan. Matches between these South Asian neighbours – who have had rocky relations since Independence – attract especially passionate support, and the players of both sides are under immense pressure to do their respective countries proud. The most celebrated Indian cricketer of recent years is Sachin Tendulkar (the 'Little Master'), who, in 2012, became the world's only player to score 100 international centuries, retiring on a high the following year. Cricket – especially the Twenty20 format (www.cricket20.com) – is big business in India, attracting lucrative sponsorship deals and celebrity status for its players. In 2016 India hosted the ICC World Twenty20, into its sixth edition. The sport has not been without its murky side though, with Indian cricketers among those embroiled in match-fixing scandals. International games are played at various centres – see Indian newspapers or check online for details. Keep your finger on the cricketing pulse at www.espncricinfo.com (rated most highly by many cricket aficionados) and www.cricbuzz.com.

The 2013 launch of the Indian Super League (ISL; www.indiansuperleague.com) has achieved its aim of promoting football as a big-time, big-money sport. With games attracting huge crowds, celebrity funding and international players, such as legendary Juventus footballer Alessandro del Piero (who was signed for the Delhi Dynamos in 2014, then retired a year later) or Marco Materazzi (of World Cup headbutt fame) as trainer of Chennai, the ISL has become an international talking point. The I-League is the longer-running domestic league, but it has never attracted such media attention or funding.

India is also known for its historical links to horse polo, which intermittently thrived on the subcontinent (especially among nobility) until Independence, after which patronage steeply declined due to dwindling funds. Today there's a renewed interest in polo thanks to beefed-up sponsorship and, although it remains an elite sport, it's attracting more attention from the country's burgeoning upper middle class. Believed to have its roots in Persia and China around 2000 years ago, polo is thought to have first been played on the subcontinent in Baltistan (in present-day Pakistan). Some say that Emperor Akbar (who reigned in India from 1556 to 1605) first introduced rules to the game, but that polo, as it's played today, was largely influenced by a British cavalry regiment stationed in India during the 1870s. A set of international rules was implemented after WWI. The world's oldest surviving polo club, established in 1862, is Kolkata's Calcutta Polo Club (www.calcuttapolo.com). Polo takes place during the cooler winter months in major cities, including Delhi, Jaipur, Mumbai, Kolkata (Calcutta) and Hyderabad, and occasionally in Ladakh and Manipur.

Although officially the national sport, field hockey no longer enjoys the same fervent following it once did, though, as of 2016, India's national men's/women's hockey world rankings are 6/12 respectively. During its golden era, between 1928 and 1956, India won six consecutive Olympic gold medals in hockey; it later bagged two further Olympic gold medals, one in 1964 and the other in 1980. Recent initiatives to ignite renewed interest in the game have had mixed results. Tap into India's hockey scene at Hockey India (http://hockeyindia.org) and Indian Field Hockey (www.bharatiyahockey.org).

Kabaddi is another competitive sport popular across India and especially in Tamil Nadu. Two teams each occupy one side of a court. A raider runs into the opposing side, taking a breath and trying to tag one or more members of the opposite team. The raider chants 'kabaddi' repeatedly to show that they have not taken a breath, returning to the home half before exhaling.

Other sports which are gaining ground in India include tennis (the country's star performers are Sania Mirza, Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi; delve deeper at www.aitatennis.com) and horse racing, which is reasonably popular in larger cities such as Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata and Bengaluru (Bangalore), and in Tamil hill station Ooty (Udhagamandalam).

At the 2016 Rio Olympics, India scored just two medals – both by women. PV Sindhu became the first Indian woman to win a silver medal (for badminton), while Sakshi Malik set a record as India's first female wrestler to win an Olympic medal (bronze).

If you're interested in catching a sports match during your time in India, consult local newspapers or tourist offices for current details about dates and venues.

Feature: Indian Attire

Widely worn by Indian women, the beautiful, elegant sari comes in a single piece (between 5m and 9m long and 1m wide), ingeniously tucked and pleated into place without pins or buttons. Worn with the sari is the choli (tight-fitting blouse) and a drawstring petticoat. The palloo is the part of the sari draped over the shoulder. Also commonly worn is the salwar kameez, a traditional dresslike tunic and trouser combination for women, accompanied by a dupatta (long scarf).

Traditional attire for men includes the dhoti, and in the south the lungi and the mundu. The dhoti is a loose, long loincloth pulled up between the legs. The lungi is more like a sarong, with its end usually sewn up like a tube. The mundu is like a lungi but always white. A kurta is a long tunic or shirt worn mainly by men, usually with no collar. Kurta pyjama is a cotton shirt and trousers set worn for relaxing or sleeping. Churidar are close-fitting trousers often worn under a kurta. A sherwani is a long coat-like men's garment, which originated as a fusion of the salwar kameez with the British frock coat.

There are regional and religious variations in costume; for example, you may see Muslim women wearing the all-enveloping burka.

In South India's bigger cities, like Mumbai (Bombay), and touristy areas such as Goa and Kerala, Western-style clothing is increasingly common, particularly among younger-generation Indians.

Feature: Rangolis

Rangolis, the striking and breathtakingly intricate chalk, rice-paste or coloured powder designs (also called kolams) that adorn thresholds, are both auspicious and symbolic. Rangolis are traditionally drawn at sunrise and are sometimes made of rice-flour paste, which may be eaten by little creatures – symbolising reverence for even the smallest living things. Deities are deemed to be attracted to a beautiful rangoli, which may also signal to sadhus (ascetics) that they will be offered food at a particular house. Some people believe that rangolis protect against the evil eye.

Adivasis

India’s Adivasis (tribal communities; Adivasi translates to ‘original inhabitant’ in Sanskrit) have origins that precede the Vedic Aryans and the Dravidians of the south. These groups range from the Gondi of the central plains and the animist tribes of the Northeast States to Tamil Nadu's Todas. Today, they constitute less than 10% of the population and are comprised of more than 400 different tribal groups. Around 95% of India's Adivasis live in rural areas, mostly in mountain regions. The literacy rate for Adivasis is significantly below the national average.

Historically, contact between Adivasis and Hindu villagers on the plains rarely led to friction as there was little or no competition for resources and land. However, in recent decades an increasing number of Adivasis have been dispossessed of their ancestral land and turned into impoverished labourers. Although they still have political representation thanks to a parliamentary quota system, the dispossession and exploitation of Adivasis has reportedly sometimes been with the connivance of officialdom – an accusation the government denies. Unless more is done, the Adivasis’ future is an uncertain one.

Read more about Adivasis in Archaeology and History: Early Settlements in the Andaman Islands by Zarine Cooper, The Tribals of India by Sunil Janah and Tribes of India: The Struggle for Survival by Christoph von Fürer-Haimendorf.

Feature: Hijras

India’s most visible nonheterosexual group is the hijras, a caste of transvestites and eunuchs who dress in women’s clothing. Some are gay, some are hermaphrodites and some were unfortunate enough to be kidnapped and castrated. Hijras have been part of the subcontinent's culture for thousands of years. In 2014 the Indian Supreme Court officially recognised hijras as a third gender and as a class entitled to reservation in education and jobs. Conversely, in 2013 homosexuality was ruled to be unlawful (having been legal since 2009), though in 2016 the Supreme Court agreed to reconsider this decision.

Hijras work mainly as uninvited entertainers at weddings and celebrations of the birth of male children, and possibly as prostitutes. In 2014 Tamil Nadu's Padmini Prakash became India's first transgender daily television news-show anchor, indicating a new level of acceptance.

Read more about hijras in The Invisibles by Zia Jaffrey and Ardhanarishvara the Androgyne by Dr Alka Pande.

Sidebar: BBC India's Daughter Documentary

The distressing, important BBC documentary India's Daughter, directed by Leslee Udwin, details the events of the much-publicised 2012 Delhi gang rape and murder of Jyoti Singh. The documentary was banned in India (after it emerged that the film-makers had interviewed one of the jailed rapists), but widely circulated online.

Sidebar: The Indian Diaspora

India has one of the world’s largest diasporas – over 25 million people – with Indian banks holding an estimated US$70 billion in Non-Resident Indian (NRI) accounts.

Sidebar: Ministry of Tribal Affairs Website

Read more about India’s tribal communities at www.tribal.nic.in, an insightful website maintained by the Indian government’s Ministry of Tribal Affairs.

Sidebar: Online Matchmaking

Matchmaking is now, inevitably, online, with popular sites including www.shaadi.com, www.bharatmatrimony.com and, in a sign of the times, www.secondshaadi.com – for those seeking a partner again.

Sidebar: Books On India's Caste System

If you want to learn more about India’s caste system, read Interrogating Caste, by Dipankar Gupta, and Translating Caste, edited by Tapan Basu.

Sidebar: The Wonder that Was India Book

The Wonder That was India, by AL Basham, proffers descriptions of Indian civilisations, major religions and social customs – a good thematic approach to weave the disparate strands together.

Sidebar: Sati: A Study of Widow Burning in India Book

Sati: A Study of Widow Burning in India, by Sakuntala Narasimhan, explores the history of sati (a widow’s ritual suicide on her husband’s funeral pyre; now banned) on the subcontinent.

Sidebar: Chokher Bali Film

Based on Rabindranath Tagore’s novel, Chokher Bali (directed by Rituparno Ghosh) is a poignant film about a young widow living in early 20th-century Bengal who challenges the ‘rules of widowhood’ – something unthinkable in that era.

Sidebar: Recommended Cricket Books

Cricket lovers are likely to be bowled over by The Illustrated History of Indian Cricket, by Boria Majumdar, and The States of Indian Cricket, by Ramachandra Guha.

Sidebar: Indian Super League Football Teams Owned by Bollywood Stars

Several of the Indian Super League teams are co-owned by Bollywood superstars; for example, Pune by Hrithik Roshan, Mumbai City by Ranbir Kapoor and Chennai by Abhishek Bachchan.

Sidebar: Sultan: Bollywood Sport-Drama Film

Bollywood sport-drama Sultan (2016) – starring Salman Khan and revolving around the exploits of a former wrestling champion – set all kinds of box-office records and became India's third-highest grossing film ever.

Sidebar: Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao Anti-Dowry Videos

As of 2016, Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao (Save the Daughter, Teach the Daughter) campaign – launched to fight gender inequality by discouraging female feticide – includes publicly screened antidowry 'adverts' in which Indian brides fight back against their dominating, dowry-demanding in-laws.

Spiritual India

From elaborate city shrines to simple village temples, spirituality suffuses almost every facet of life in India. The nation's major faith, Hinduism, is practised by around 80% of the population and is one of the world’s oldest extant religions, with roots extending beyond 1000 BC. Buddhism, Jainism and Zoroastrianism are also among the oldest religions, dating back to the 6th century BC.

Hinduism

Hinduism has no founder or central authority and it isn’t a proselytising religion. Hindus believe in Brahman, who is eternal, uncreated and infinite. Everything that exists emanates from Brahman and will ultimately return to it. The multitude of gods and goddesses are merely manifestations – knowable aspects of this formless phenomenon.

Hindus believe that earthly life is cyclical: you are born again and again (a process known as ‘samsara’), the quality of these rebirths depending upon your karma (conduct or action) in previous lives. Living a righteous life and fulfilling your dharma (moral code of behaviour; social duty) will enhance your chances of being born into a higher caste and better circumstances. Alternatively, if enough bad karma has accumulated, rebirth may take animal form. But it’s only as a human that you can gain sufficient self-knowledge to escape the cycle of reincarnation and achieve moksha (liberation).

Almost 80% of India's population is Hindu.

Gods & Goddesses

All Hindu deities are regarded as manifestations of Brahman, who is often described as having three main representations, the Trimurti: Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva.

Brahman

The One; the ultimate reality. Brahman is formless, eternal and the source of all existence. Brahman is nirguna (without attributes), as opposed to all the other gods and goddesses, which are manifestations of Brahman and therefore saguna (with attributes).

Brahma

Only during the creation of the universe does Brahma play an active role. At other times he is in meditation. His consort is Saraswati, goddess of learning, and his vehicle is a swan. He is sometimes shown sitting on a lotus that rises from Vishnu’s navel, symbolising the interdependence of the gods. Brahma is generally depicted with four (crowned and bearded) heads, and today is the least worshipped of the Trimurti gods.

Vishnu

The preserver or sustainer, Vishnu is associated with ‘right action’. He protects and sustains all that is good in the world, and has 10 avatars. He is usually depicted with four arms, holding a lotus, a conch shell (it can be blown like a trumpet so symbolises the cosmic vibration from which existence emanates), a discus and a mace. His consort is Lakshmi, goddess of wealth, and his vehicle is Garuda, the man-bird creature. The Ganges is said to flow from his feet.

Shiva

Shiva is the destroyer without whom creation couldn’t occur – he destroys to deliver salvation. Shiva’s creative role is phallically symbolised by his representation as the frequently worshipped lingam. With 1008 names, Shiva takes many forms, including Nataraja, lord of the tandava (cosmic victory dance), who paces out the creation and destruction of the cosmos.

Sometimes Shiva has snakes draped around his neck and is shown holding a trident (representative of the Trimurti) as a weapon while riding Nandi, his bull. Nandi symbolises power and potency, justice and moral order. Shiva’s consort, Parvati, takes many forms.

Other Prominent Deities

Ganesh

Elephant-headed Ganesh is the god of good fortune, remover of obstacles and patron of scribes (the broken tusk he holds was used to write sections of the Mahabharata). His animal vehicle is Mooshak (a ratlike creature). How Ganesh came to have an elephant’s head is a story with several variations. One legend says that Ganesh was born to Parvati in the absence of his father Shiva. One day, as Ganesh stood guard while his mother bathed, Shiva returned and asked to be let into Parvati’s presence. Ganesh, who didn’t recognise Shiva, refused. Enraged, Shiva lopped off Ganesh’s head, only to later discover that he had slaughtered his own son. He vowed to replace Ganesh’s head with that of the first creature he came across: an elephant. The Ganesh Chaturthi festival is particularly popular in South India.

Krishna

Krishna is the eighth incarnation of Vishnu, sent to earth to fight for good and combat evil. His dalliances with the gopis (milkmaids) and his love for Radha (a favourite mistress when he lived as a cowherd) have inspired countless paintings and songs. Depicted with blue-hued skin, Krishna is often seen playing the flute.

Hanuman

Hanuman is the hero of the Ramayana and loyal ally of Rama (the seventh incarnation of Vishnu). He embodies the concept of bhakti (devotion). He is the king of the monkeys, but capable of taking on other forms.

Shakti & Female Goddesses

Among Shaivites (followers of Shiva), Shakti, the universe's divine feminine creative force, is worshipped in her own right. The concept of shakti is embodied in the ancient goddess Devi (divine mother), who is also manifested as Durga and Amman, and in a fiercer, evil-destroying incarnation, Kali. Other widely worshipped goddesses include Lakshmi, goddess of wealth, and Saraswati, goddess of learning.

Murugan

Murugan, one of Shiva's sons, is a popular deity in South India, especially in Tamil Nadu. He is sometimes identified with another of Shiva's sons, Skanda (also Kartikiya), who enjoys a strong following in North India. Murugan's main role is that of protector, and he is depicted as young and victorious.

Ayyappan

A son of Shiva who, like Murugan, is identified with the role of protector is Ayyappan, whose temple at Sabarimala in Kerala attracts 40 to 60 million pilgrims a year. It's said that he was born from the union of Shiva and Vishnu, both male. Vishnu is said to have assumed female form (Mohini) to give birth. Ayyappan is often depicted riding a tiger and accompanied by leopards, symbols of his victory over dark forces. Today the Ayyappan following has become something of a men's movement, with devotees required to avoid alcohol, drugs, cigarettes and misbehaviour before making the pilgrimage.

The Sacred Seven

The number seven has special significance in Hinduism. There are seven sacred rivers: the Ganges (Ganga), Saraswati (thought to be underground), Yamuna, Indus, Narmada, Godavari and Cauvery (Kaveri). There are also seven sacred Indian cities, all major pilgrimage centres:

  • Varanasi Associated with Shiva
  • Haridwar Where the Ganges enters the plains from the Himalaya
  • Ayodhya Birthplace of Rama
  • Dwarka An older city, said to have been Krishna's capital, is believed to be beneath the sea nearby
  • Mathura Birthplace of Krishna
  • Kanchipuram Site of historic Shiva temples
  • Ujjain Venue of the Kumbh Mela every 12 years

Sacred Texts

Hindu sacred texts fall into two categories: those believed to be the word of god (shruti, meaning ‘heard’) and those produced by people (smriti, meaning ‘remembered’). The Vedas are regarded as shruti knowledge and considered the authoritative basis for Hinduism. The oldest and longest of the Vedic texts, the Rig-Veda, was compiled over 3000 years ago. Within its 1028 verses are prayers for prosperity and longevity, as well as an explanation of the universe’s origins. The Upanishads, the last parts of the Vedas, reflect on the mystery of death and emphasise the oneness of the universe. The oldest of the Vedic texts were written in Vedic Sanskrit (related to Old Persian). Later texts were composed in classical Sanskrit, but many have been translated into the vernacular.

The smriti texts comprise a collection of literature spanning centuries and include expositions on the proper performance of domestic ceremonies, as well as the proper pursuit of government, economics and religious law. Among its well-known works are the Ramayana and Mahabharata, as well as the Puranas, which expand on the epics and promote the notion of the Trimurti. Unlike the Vedas, reading the Puranas is not restricted to initiated higher-caste males.

The Mahabharata

Thought to have been composed around 1000 BC, the Mahabharata focuses on the exploits of Krishna. By about 500 BC the Mahabharata had evolved into a far more complex creation with substantial additions, including the Bhagavad Gita (where Krishna proffers advice to Arjuna before a battle).

The story centres on conflict between the heroic gods (Pandavas) and the demons (Kauravas). Overseeing events is Krishna, in human form. Krishna acts as charioteer for the Pandava hero Arjuna, who eventually triumphs in a great battle against the Kauravas.

The Ramayana

Composed around the 3rd or 2nd century BC, the Ramayana is believed to be largely the work of the poet Valmiki. Like the Mahabharata, it centres on conflict between the gods and the demons.

The story goes that Dasharatha, the childless king of Ayodhya, called upon the gods to provide him with a son. His wife duly gave birth to a boy. But this child, named Rama, was in fact an incarnation of Vishnu, who had assumed human form to overthrow the demon king of (Sri) Lanka, Ravana.

As an adult, Rama, who won the hand of the princess Sita in a competition, was chosen by his father to inherit his kingdom. At the last minute Rama’s stepmother intervened and demanded her son, Barathan, take Rama’s place. Rama, Sita and Rama’s brother, Lakshmana, were exiled and went off to the forests, where Rama and Lakshmana battled demons and dark forces. Ravana captured Sita and spirited her away to his palace in Lanka.

Rama, assisted by an army of monkeys led by the loyal monkey god Hanuman, eventually found the palace, killed Ravana and rescued Sita. All returned victorious to Ayodhya, where Rama was welcomed by Barathan and crowned king. It is this legend that is celebrated in Tamil Nadu at Rameswaram's Ramanathaswamy Temple.

Naturally Sacred

Animals, particularly snakes and cows, have long been worshipped on the subcontinent. For Hindus, cows represent fertility and nurturing; snakes (especially cobras) are associated with fertility and welfare. Naga stones (snake stones) serve the dual purpose of protecting humans from snakes and appeasing snake gods.

Plants can also have sacred associations. Banyan trees represent the Trimurti, and mango trees are symbolic of love – Shiva married Parvati under one. Meanwhile, the lotus flower is said to have emerged from the primeval waters and is connected to the mythical centre of the earth through its stem. Often found in the most polluted of waters, the fragile yet resolute lotus has the remarkable ability to blossom above murky depths. The centre of the lotus corresponds to the centre of the universe, the navel of the earth: all is held together by the stem and the eternal waters. Embodying beauty and strength, the lotus is a reminder to Hindus of how their own lives should be. So revered has the lotus become that today it’s India’s national flower.

Worship

Worship and ritual play a paramount role in Hinduism. In most Hindu homes you’ll find a dedicated worship area, where members of the family pray to the deities of their choice. Beyond the home, Hindus worship at temples. Puja is a focal point of worship, ranging from silent prayer to elaborate ceremonies. Devotees leave the temple with a handful of prasad (temple-blessed food), which is shared among others. Other forms of worship include aarti (auspicious lighting of lamps or candles) and the playing of bhajans (devotional songs).

Islam

Islam is India's largest minority religion, followed by approximately 14.2% of the population. It's believed that Islam was introduced to northern India by Muslim rulers (parts of the north first came under Muslim rule in the 12th century) and to the south by Arab traders.

Islam was founded in Arabia by the Prophet Mohammed in the 7th century AD. The Arabic term islam means 'to surrender', and believers (Muslims) undertake to surrender to the will of Allah (God), revealed in the scriptures, the Quran. In this monotheistic religion, God’s word is conveyed through prophets (messengers), of whom Mohammed was the most recent.

Following Mohammed’s death, a succession dispute split the movement; the legacy today is the Sunnis and the Shiites. The Sunnis emphasise the ‘well-trodden’ path or the orthodox way. Shiites believe that only imams (exemplary leaders) can reveal the Quran's true meaning. Most Indian Muslims are Sunnis.

All Muslims, however, share a belief in the Five Pillars of Islam: the shahada (declaration of faith: ‘There is no God but Allah; Mohammed is his prophet’); prayer (ideally five times a day); the zakat (tax), in the form of a charitable donation; fasting (during Ramadan) for all except the sick, young children, pregnant women, the elderly and those undertaking arduous journeys; and the hajj (pilgrimage) to Mecca, which every Muslim aspires to do at least once.

Muslims form around a quarter of the population of Kerala; over 10% in Maharashtra and Karnataka; and around 6% in Tamil Nadu.

Sikhism

Sikhism, founded in Punjab by Guru Nanak in the 15th century, began as a reaction against the caste system and Brahmin domination of ritual. Sikhs believe in one god and, although they reject the worship of idols, some keep pictures of the 10 Sikh gurus as a focus point. The Sikhs' holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib, contains the teachings of the 10 gurus. Like Hindus and Buddhists, Sikhs believe in rebirth and karma. In Sikhism, there's no ascetic or monastic tradition ending the cycles of rebirth. Almost 2% of India's citizens are Sikhs; 75% of them live in Punjab.

Born in present-day Pakistan, Guru Nanak (1469–1539) was dissatisfied with both Muslim and Hindu religious practices. He believed in family life and the value of hard work: he married, had two sons and worked as a farmer when not travelling, preaching and singing self-composed kirtan (Sikh devotional songs) with his Muslim musician, Mardana. He is said to have performed miracles and he encouraged meditation on God’s name as a prime path to enlightenment.

Nanak believed in equality centuries before it became socially fashionable and campaigned against the caste system. He was a practical guru, and appointed his most talented disciple to be his successor, not one of his sons.

His kirtan are still sung in gurdwaras (Sikh temples) today and his picture is kept in millions of homes on and beyond the subcontinent. Members of the Khalsa (Sikh brotherhood) adopt five symbols known as the Five Kakars (or Five Ks):

  • kesh – uncut hair, covered with a keski (turban), which some regard as the kakar instead of the hair
  • kanga – wooden comb
  • kaccha or kachhera – cotton undershorts
  • kara – steel bracelet
  • kirpan – small sword

Buddhism

About 0.8% of India's population is Buddhist. Bodhgaya, in the state of Bihar, is one of Buddhism's most sacred sites, drawing pilgrims from across the world.

Buddhism arose in the 6th century BC as a reaction against the strictures of Brahminical Hinduism. The Buddha (Awakened One) is believed to have lived from about 563 to 483 BC. Formerly a prince (Siddhartha Gautama), the Buddha, at 29, embarked on a quest for emancipation from the world of suffering. He achieved nirvana (the state of full awareness) at Bodhgaya, aged 35. Critical of the caste system and the unthinking worship of gods, the Buddha urged his disciples to seek truth within their own experiences.

The Buddha taught that existence is based on Four Noble Truths: that life is rooted in suffering, that suffering is caused by craving, that one can find release from suffering by eliminating craving, and that the way to eliminate craving is by following the Noble Eightfold Path. This path consists of right understanding, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right awareness and right concentration. By successfully complying with these one can attain nirvana.

Buddhism was spread widely around India by the Mauryan emperor Ashoka in the 3rd century BC. Buddhist communities were quite influential in Andhra Pradesh between the 3rd century BC and 5th century AD; missionaries from Andhra helped establish monasteries and temples in countries such as Thailand. But Buddhism had ceased to play a major role in India by the 12th century AD. It saw a revival in the 1950s among intellectuals and Dalits, disillusioned with the caste system.

About three-quarters of Indian Buddhists today live in Maharashtra, making up 5.8% of the state's population. The number of Buddhists has been further increased with the influx of Tibetan refugees into India. Both the current Dalai Lama and the lama (monk) widely accepted as the 17th Karmapa reside in the northern state of Himachal Pradesh. There are several Tibetan refugee communities in South India, the biggest being Bylakuppe in Karnataka, a state in which Buddhists comprise 0.2% of the population.

Jainism

Jainism arose in the 6th century BC as a reaction against the caste restraints and rituals of Hinduism. It was popularised by Mahavira, a contemporary of the Buddha.

Jains believe that liberation is attained by achieving complete purity of the soul. Purity means shedding all karman (matter generated by one’s actions that binds itself to the soul). By following various austerities (fasting, meditation) one can shed karman and purify the soul. Right conduct is essential, and fundamental to this is ahimsa (nonviolence) in thought and deed towards any living thing.

The religious disciplines of followers are less severe than those for monks (some Jain monks go naked). The slightly less ascetic maintain a bare minimum of possessions, including a broom to sweep the path before them to avoid stepping on any living creature, and a piece of cloth tied over their mouth to prevent accidental inhalation of insects.

Today, around 0.4% of India's population is Jain, the majority in Gujarat, Rajasthan, Maharashtra and Mumbai (Bombay). Notable Jain holy sites in South India include Sravanabelagola in Karnataka.

Christianity

There are various theories circulating about Christ’s link to the Indian subcontinent. Some, for instance, believe that Jesus spent his ‘lost years’ in India, while others say that Christianity came to South India with St Thomas the Apostle in AD 52. However, many scholars attest it’s more likely Christianity is traced to around the 4th century with a Syrian merchant, Thomas Cana, who set out for Kerala with around 400 families. India's Christian community today stands at about 2.3% of the population, with the bulk residing in South India.

Catholicism established a strong presence in South India in the wake of Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama’s visit in 1498, and orders that have been active – not always welcomed – in the region include the Dominicans, Franciscans and Jesuits. Protestant missionaries are believed to have begun arriving – with a conversion agenda – from around the 18th century.

Zoroastrianism

Zoroastrianism, founded by Zoroaster (Zarathustra), had its inception in Persia in the 6th century BC and is based on the concept of dualism, whereby good and evil are locked in a continuous battle. Zoroastrianism isn’t quite monotheistic: good and evil entities coexist, although believers are urged to honour only the good and a pleasant afterlife does depend on one’s deeds, words and thoughts during earthly existence.

Zoroastrianism was eclipsed in Persia by the rise of Islam in the 7th century. Over the following centuries some followers emigrated to India, where they became known as Parsis. Historically, Parsis settled in Gujarat and became farmers; during British rule they moved into commerce, forming a prosperous community in Mumbai.

There are now believed to be only around 61,000 Parsis left in India, 40,000 to 45,000 of whom reside in Mumbai.

Judaism

There are fewer than 5000 Jews left in India, mostly in Mumbai and scattered pockets of South India. South India’s Jews first settled in the region from the Middle East as far back as the 1st century. They became established at Kochi (Cochin; Kerala) and their legacy continues in the still-standing trading houses and synagogues.

Tribal Religions

Tribal religions have merged with Hinduism and other mainstream religions so that very few are now clearly identifiable. It’s believed that some basic tenets of Hinduism may have originated in ancient tribal culture.

Village and tribal people in South India have their own belief systems, which are much less accessible or obvious than the temples, rituals and other outward manifestations of the mainstream religions. The village deity may be represented by a stone pillar in a field, a platform under a tree or an iron spear stuck in the ground. Village deities are generally seen as less remote and more concerned with the community's immediate happiness and prosperity. There are also many beliefs about ancestral spirits, including those who died violently.

Feature: Om

One of Hinduism’s most venerated symbols is ‘Om’. Pronounced ‘aum’, it’s a highly propitious mantra (sacred word or syllable). The ‘three’ shape symbolises the creation, maintenance and destruction of the universe (and thus the holy Trimurti). The inverted chandra (crescent or half moon) represents the discursive mind and the bindu (dot) within it, Brahman.

Buddhists believe that, if intoned often enough with complete concentration, it will lead to a state of blissful emptiness.

Religious Etiquette

  • When visiting a sacred site, dress and behave respectfully. Don’t wear shorts or sleeveless tops (this applies to men and women), and refrain from smoking. Loud and intrusive behaviour isn’t appreciated, and neither are public displays of affection.
  • Before entering a holy place, remove your shoes (tip the shoe-minder a few rupees when retrieving them) and check if photography is allowed. You’re permitted to wear socks in most places of worship – often necessary during warmer months, when floors can be uncomfortably hot.
  • Religious etiquette advises against touching locals on the head, or directing the soles of your feet at a person, religious shrine or image of a deity. Protocol also advises against touching someone with your feet or touching a carving of a deity.
  • Head cover (for women and sometimes men) is required at some places of worship – especially gurdwaras (Sikh temples) and mosques – so carry a scarf.
  • There are some sites that don’t admit women and some that deny entry to nonadherents of their faith; enquire in advance. Women may be required to sit apart from men and some sites ask that menstruating women not enter. Jain temples request the removal of leather items you may be wearing or carrying. Non-Hindus are often not allowed into the inner sanctums of Hindu temples.
  • When walking around any Buddhist sacred site (chortens, stupas, temples, gompas) go clockwise. Don't touch them with your left hand. Turn prayer wheels clockwise, with your right hand.
  • Taking photos inside a shrine, at a funeral, at a religious ceremony or of people taking a holy dip can be offensive – ask first. Flash photography may be prohibited in certain areas of a shrine, or may not be permitted at all.

Sidebar: Hinduism: An Introduction Books

Unravelling the basic tenets of Hinduism are two books both called Hinduism: An Introduction – one by Shakunthala Jagannathan, the other by Dharam Vir Singh.

Sidebar: Hindu Deities

The Hindu pantheon is said to have around 330 million deities; those worshipped are a matter of personal choice or local tradition.

Sidebar: Shiva, Lord of Yoga

Shiva is sometimes characterised as the lord of yoga – a Himalaya-dwelling, marijuana-smoking ascetic with matted hair, an ash-smeared body and a third eye symbolising wisdom.

Sidebar: Myth = Mithya, A Handbook of Hindu Mythology

Did you know that blood-drinking Kali is another form of milk-giving Gauri? Myth = Mithya: A Handbook of Hindu Mythology, by Devdutt Pattanaik, sheds light on this and other fascinating Hindu folklore.

Sidebar: English Translations of Holy Hindu Texts

Two recommended publications containing English translations of holy Hindu texts are The Bhagavad Gita by S Radhakrishnan and The Valmiki Ramayana by Romesh Dutt.

Sidebar: Sadhus

A sadhu is someone who has surrendered all material possessions in pursuit of spirituality through meditation, the study of sacred texts, self-mortification and pilgrimage. Read more in Sadhus: India’s Mystic Holy Men by Dolf Hartsuiker.

Sidebar: A History of the Sikhs Book

To grasp the intricacies of Sikhism read Volume One (1469–1839) or Volume Two (1839–2004) of A History of the Sikhs, by Khushwant Singh.

Sidebar: The House of Blue Mangoes Book

Set in Kerala against the backdrop of caste conflict and India’s struggle for independence, The House of Blue Mangoes, by David Davidar, spans three generations of a Christian family.

Sidebar: Zoroastrian Funerary Rituals

The Zoroastrian funerary ritual involves the ‘Towers of Silence’ (seen, for example, in Mumbai and Hyderabad), where the corpse is laid out and exposed to vultures that pick the bones clean.

Sidebar: A South Indian Journey Book

For an insight into the depth, breadth and quirks of Tamils' Hindu beliefs, as well as absorbing travel writing, read Michael Wood's A South Indian Journey.

Sidebar: Tamil Nadu's Favourite Deities

Few parts of India worship the Hindu gods as passionately as Tamil Nadu, the state in which South India's splendid temple architecture reaches its peak. Tamil Nadu's most worshipped deity is Shiva, in widely varied forms including dancing Nataraja. Shiva's peacock-riding son Murugan is also immensely popular.

Sidebar: Indian Women Fight Sacred Site Restrictions

In recent years, Indian women have begun fighting for their right to enter temples, mosques and other sacred sites from which discrimination bans them, either because of their sex or while they are menstruating. In 2015 gender-rights activist Nikita Azad's 'Happy to Bleed' social media campaign went viral.

The Great Indian Bazaar

South India's bazaars and shops sell a staggering range of goodies: from woodwork to silks, chunky tribal jewellery to finely embroidered shawls, sparkling gemstones to rustic village handicrafts. The array of arts and handicrafts is vast, with every area – sometimes every village – maintaining its own traditions, some of them ancient. Be prepared to encounter (and bring home) spectacular items. Indeed, South India's shopping opportunities are as inspiring and multifarious as the region itself.

Bronze Figures, Pottery, Stone Carving & Terracotta

In southern India (and parts of the Himalaya), small bronze images of deities are created by the age-old lost-wax process. A wax figure is made, a mould is formed around it, then the wax is melted, poured out and replaced with molten metal; the mould is then broken open to reveal the figure inside. Figures of Shiva as dancing Nataraja (a tradition going back to medieval Chola times in Tamil Nadu) are the most popular, but you can also find images of numerous other Hindu deities, and images of the Buddha and Tantric deities. Don't confuse bronze (a copper-tin alloy) with brass (a cheaper copper-zinc alloy).

In Mamallapuram (Mahabalipuram) in Tamil Nadu, craftspeople using local granite and soapstone have revived the ancient artistry of Pallava sculptors; souvenirs range from tiny stone elephants to enormous half-a-tonne deity statues. Tamil Nadu is also known for bronzeware from Thanjavur and Trichy (Tiruchirappalli).

A number of places produce attractive terracotta items, ranging from vases and decorative flowerpots to images of deities and children’s toys. In Chettinadu (southern Tamil Nadu), enormous terracotta horses and other beasts are crafted as offerings to the popular pre-Hindu deity Ayyanar.

Outside temples across India you can buy small clay or plaster effigies of Hindu deities.

Carpets, Carpets, Carpets!

Carpet-making is a living craft in India. Workshops throughout the country produce fine wool and silkwork, though most of the finest carpets are made in the north. Most Tibetan refugee settlements have cooperative carpet workshops (there are several Tibetan refugee communities in South India). 'Antique' carpets usually aren’t antique, unless you buy from an internationally reputable dealer; stick to ‘new’ carpets.

Coarsely woven woollen namdas (numdas) from Kashmir and Rajasthan are much cheaper than knotted carpets. Various regions manufacture flat-weave dhurries (kilim-like cotton rugs); Warangal in Telangana is one of the south's main centres. Puducherry (Pondicherry) and Bengaluru (Bangalore) are other South India carpet producers.

Children have been employed as carpet weavers in the subcontinent for centuries. Child labour maintains a cycle of poverty, driving down adult wages, reducing adult work opportunities and depriving children of education. Carpets produced by Tibetan refugee cooperatives are almost always made by adults; government emporiums and charitable cooperatives are usually best for buying.

Costs & Shipping

The price of a carpet is determined by the number and the size of the hand-tied knots, the range of dyes and colours, the intricacy of the design and the material. Silk carpets cost more and look more luxurious, but wool carpets usually last longer. Expect to pay upward of US$200 for a 90cm by 1.8m traditional wool carpet, and around US$2000 for a similar-sized silk carpet.

Many places ship carpets home for you, although it may be safest to send things independently to avoid scams. Shipping for a 90cm by 1.8m carpet costs around ₹4000 to Europe and ₹4500 to the USA. You can also carry carpets as check-in baggage on a plane (allow 5kg to 10kg of your baggage allowance for a 90cm by 1.8m carpet; check your airline allows oversized baggage).

Feature: The Art of Haggling

Government emporiums, fair-trade cooperatives, department stores and modern shopping centres almost always charge fixed prices. Almost anywhere else you need to bargain. Shopkeepers in tourist hubs are accustomed to travellers who have lots of money and little time to spend it, so you may be charged double or triple the going rate. Souvenir shops are the most notorious.

The first ‘rule’ of haggling is to never show too much interest in the item you’ve got your heart set upon. Second, resist purchasing the first thing that takes your fancy. Wander around several shops and price items, but don’t make it too obvious: if you return to the first shop, the vendor will know it’s because they are the cheapest (resulting in less haggling leeway).

Decide how much you would be happy paying, then express a casual interest in buying. If you have absolutely no idea of the going rate, a common approach is to start by slashing the price by half. The vendor will, most likely, look aghast, but you can now work up and down respectively in small increments until you reach a mutually agreeable price. Many shopkeepers lower their ‘final price’ if you head out of the shop saying you’ll ‘think about it’.

Haggling is a way of life in India and usually taken in good spirit. It should never turn ugly. Always keep in mind how much a rupee is worth in your home currency, and how much you'd pay for the item back home, to put things in perspective. If you're not sure of the 'right' price for an item, think about how much it is worth to you. If a vendor seems to be charging an unreasonably high price, look elsewhere.

Jewellery

Virtually every Indian town has at least one bangle shop with an extraordinary range, from colourful plastic and glass bracelets to brass, silver and gold creations. In Telangana, Hyderabad is a centre for making and selling bangles made from lac (a resinous insect secretion), encrusted with colourful beads or stones.

Heavy folk-art silver jewellery can be bought in various parts of India, as can chunky Tibetan jewellery made from silver (or white metal) and semiprecious stones. Many Tibetan pieces feature Buddhist motifs and text in Tibetan script, including the famous mantra Om Mani Padme Hum (Hail to the Jewel in the Lotus). There’s a huge industry in India, Nepal and China making artificially aged Tibetan souvenirs. Loose beads of agate, turquoise, carnelian and silver are also widely available. In South India's Western Ghats, you might find beautiful, rare tribal jewellery crafted by local indigenous communities, such as the Todas near Ooty (Udhagamandalam).

Pearls are produced by most Indian seaside states, but they're a particular speciality of Hyderabad. You’ll find them at most state emporiums across the country. Prices vary depending on colour and shape: you pay more for pure white pearls or rare colours such as black, and perfectly round pearls are more expensive than misshapen or elongated pearls. A single strand of seeded pearls can cost as little as ₹500, but better-quality pearls are upward of ₹1200.

Beware of scams involving buying jewels and reselling them overseas – jewels are often fake, or the buyer they were intended for never shows up.

Leatherwork

As cows are sacred in India, leatherwork is, in theory, made from the skin of buffaloes, camels, goats or other animals. Most large cities offer smart, modern leather footwear at very reasonable prices, some stitched with zillions of sparkly sequins. Jootis (traditional, often pointy-toed, slip-in shoes) from the northern states of Punjab and Rajasthan can be found in South India.

Chappals, those often curly-toed leather sandals, are sold throughout India, but the Maharashtrian cities of Kolhapur, Pune and Matheran are particularly famous for them. Tamil Nadu is a big leather producer, while Puducherry (Pondicherry) is known for its international-influenced leather creations.

Cow slaughter (for consumption, leatherwork or anything else) is illegal in most of India, and some states, such as Maharashtra, have also banned the killing of bulls and bullocks, but discerning travellers will want to be aware that India's leather industry is rife with reports of malpractice and involves complex, unsettling animal-welfare issues.

Metalware

You’ll find copper and brassware throughout India. Candle holders, trays, bowls, tankards and ashtrays are popular buys.

In all Indian towns you can find kadhai (Indian woks, also known as balti) and other cookware for incredibly low prices. Beaten-brass pots are particularly attractive, while steel storage vessels, copper-bottomed cooking pans and steel thali trays are also popular souvenirs. Ask if you can have your name engraved on them (free of charge).

Many Tibetan religious objects are created by inlaying silver in copper: prayer wheels and traditional document cases are inexpensive purchases.

The people of Bastar in Chhattisgarh use an iron-smelting technique similar to one discovered 35,000 years ago to create abstract sculptures of spindly animal and human figures. These are often also made into functional items such as lamp stands and coat racks, and are found in tribal-crafts shops around India.

Bidri, a damascening method where silver wire is inlaid in gunmetal (a zinc alloy) and rubbed with a paste incorporating soil from Bidar (Karnataka), is used for jewellery, boxes and ornaments, particularly in Bidar itself and Hyderabad.

Musical Instruments

Quality Indian musical instruments are mostly available in larger cities; prices vary according to each instrument's quality and sound.

Decent tabla sets – a pair of hand drums comprising a wooden tabla (tuned treble drum) and a metal dugi or bayan (bass drum) – cost upward of ₹5000. Cheaper sets are generally heavier and often sound inferior.

Sitars range from ₹5000 to ₹25,000 (possibly even more). The sound of each sitar will vary with the wood used and the shape of the gourd, so try a few. Note that some cheaper sitars can warp in colder or hotter climates. On any sitar, make sure the strings ring clearly and check the gourd carefully for damage. Spare string sets, sitar plectrums and a screw-in ‘amplifier’ gourd are sensible additions.

Other popular instruments include the shehnai (Indian flute), the sarod (like an Indian lute), the harmonium and the esraj (similar to an upright violin). Conventional violins are great value, starting at ₹3500.

Paintings

India has a sizeable contemporary-art scene, and major cities such as Chennai (Madras), Bengaluru (Bangalore) and Hyderabad host many independent galleries and shops selling work by local artists.

Miniatures

Reproductions of Indian miniature paintings are widely available, but quality varies: the cheaper ones have less detail and are made with inferior materials. A bigger range of quality miniatures is generally found in northern India than in the south, but state-run craft emporiums and antique shops are always worth a browse.

In southern regions such as Kerala and Tamil Nadu, you’ll come across miniature paintings on leaf skeletons that portray domestic life, rural scenes and deities.

Tanjore Paintings

Tamil Nadu's famous Thanjavur (Tanjore) paintings typically depict Hindu deities in bright colours with gold foil and glass beads, or occasionally gemstones. They may be done on canvas, wood or glass. Much of today's output is a somewhat kitschified version of a venerable tradition that goes back to the 17th century, but it's worth keeping an eye open for authentic old works in antique shops.

Folk Art & Kalamkari

Telangana's cheriyal paintings, in bright, primary colours, were originally made as scrolls for travelling storytellers. The ancient textile-painting art of kalamkari is practised in Andhra Pradesh, where Sri Kalahasti is the best place to see artists at work and buy their art, and at Chennai's Kalakshetra Foundation, which offers kalamkari courses. It involves priming cotton cloth with resin and cow’s milk, then drawing and painting deities or legendary or historic events with a pointed bamboo stick (kalam) dipped in fermented jaggery and water; dyes are made from cow dung, ground seeds, plants and flowers. Kalamkari from Machilipatnam, also in Andhra Pradesh, employs block-printing in combination with freehand drawing.

Thangkas

Tibetan craft shops often sell thangkas (rectangular Tibetan cloth paintings) depicting Tantric Buddhist deities and ceremonial mandalas. Some re-create the glory of murals in India’s medieval gompas (Tibetan Buddhist monasteries); others are simpler. Prices vary, but expect to pay at least ₹5000 for a decent-quality A3-size thangka, and a lot more (up to around ₹50,000) for large intricate thangkas.

Textiles

Textile production is India’s major industry. Around 40% takes place at village level, where the cloth produced is known as khadi (homespun cloth, usually cotton) – hence the government-backed khadi emporiums around the country. These inexpensive superstores sell all sorts of items made from khadi, including the popular Nehru jackets and kurta pyjamas (long shirt and loose-fitting trousers), with sales benefiting rural communities. Khadi has recently become increasingly chic, with India's designers referencing and incorporating the fabrics in their collections.

You’ll find a truly amazing variety of weaving and embroidery techniques all over India. In tourist centres such as Goa, Kerala, Rajasthan and Himachal Pradesh, patterned textiles are made into shoulder bags, wall hangings, cushion covers, bedspreads, clothes and more. Items from Adivasi (tribal) peoples of Telangana, Gujarat and Rajasthan often have small pieces of mirrored glass eye-catchingly embroidered on to them.

Appliqué & Block Print

Appliqué, where decorative motifs are sewn on to a larger cloth, is an ancient art in India, with most states producing their own version, often featuring abstract or anthropomorphic patterns. Traditional lampshades and pandals (marquees) used in weddings and festivals are usually produced using this technique.

Block-printed and woven textiles are made, and sold by fabric shops, all over India: each region has its own speciality. Block-printing involves stamping the design on the fabric with carved wooden blocks – a laborious but highly skilled process that produces beautiful results. India-wide retail chain stores Fabindia (www.fabindia.com) and Anokhi (www.anokhi.com) strive to preserve traditional patterns and fabrics, transforming them into home-decor items and Indian- and Western-style fashions.

Feature: Gandhi's Cloth

Almost 100 years ago Mohandas Gandhi urged Indians to support the freedom movement by ditching their foreign-made clothing and turning to khadi (homespun cloth). Khadi became a symbol of Indian independence, and the fabric is still closely associated with politics. The government-run, nonprofit group Khadi & Village Industries Commission (www.kvic.org.in) serves to promote khadi, which is usually cotton, but can also be silk or wool.

Khadi outlets are simple, no-nonsense places where you can pick up genuine Indian clothing such as kurta pyjamas, headscarves, saris and, at some branches, assorted handicrafts – you’ll find them all over India. Prices are reasonable and often discounted in the period around Gandhi’s birthday (2 October). A number of outlets also have tailoring services.

Saris

Saris are a very popular souvenir, especially as they can be easily adapted to other purposes (from cushion covers to skirts). Real silk saris are the most expensive; the silk usually needs to be washed before it becomes soft. India's ‘silk capital’ is Kanchipuram in Tamil Nadu (Kanchipuram silk is also widely available in Chennai), but you can also find fine silk saris (and cheaper scarves) in other centres including Mysuru (Mysore). You’ll pay upward of ₹3000 for a quality embroidered silk sari.

Aurangabad, in Maharashtra, is the traditional producer of Himroo shawls, sheets and saris, made from a blend of cotton, silk and metallic thread. Silk and gold-thread saris produced at Paithan (near Aurangabad) are some of India’s finest; prices range from around ₹8000 to a mind-blowing ₹150,000. Madhya Pradesh is famous for its cotton Maheshwari saris (from Maheshwar) and silk Chanderi saris (from Chanderi), while Chettinadu (Tamil Nadu) is known for its handwoven silk-and-cotton Kandaangi saris.

Patan in Gujarat is the centre for the ancient, laborious craft of Patola-making: every thread in these splendid silk saris is individually hand-dyed before weaving, and patterned borders are woven with real gold.

Shawls

Indian shawls are famously warm and lightweight. It’s worth buying one to use as a blanket on cold night journeys. Shawls are made from all sorts of wool; many are embroidered with intricate designs. The best-known varieties all come from northern India but some make their way to outlets in the south, including Kashmiri pashmina shawls (made from the downy hair of the pashmina goat) and subtly embroidered and mirrored lambswool shawls from Gujarat's Kachchh (Kutch) region. Authentic pashmina shawls cost several thousand rupees, though many 'pashminas' are actually a pashmina-silk blend, which means they're cheaper (around ₹1200) but still beautiful.

Woodcarving

Woodcarving is an ancient art form throughout India. Sandalwood carvings of Hindu deities are one of Karnataka’s specialities, with high prices to match: a 10cm-high Ganesh costs around ₹3000 in sandalwood (which releases fragrance for years), compared to roughly ₹300 in kadamb wood. Beautiful deity figures and decorative inlaid boxes and furniture are carved from rosewood in Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Kerala.

Buddhist woodcarvings are a speciality of Tibetan refugee areas – including wall plaques of the eight lucky signs, carved dragons and reproductions of chaam masks used for ritual dances.

Putting Your Money Where It Counts

Overall, a comparatively small proportion of the money brought to India by tourism reaches people in rural areas. Travellers can make a greater contribution by shopping at community cooperatives, set up to protect and promote traditional cottage industries, and to provide education, training and a sustainable livelihood at the grassroots level. Many of these projects focus on low-caste women, tribal people, refugees and others living on society’s fringes.

The quality of products sold at cooperatives is high and prices are usually fixed, so you won’t have to haggle. A share of the sales money is channelled directly into social projects such as schools, health care, training and other advocacy programs for socially disadvantaged groups. Shopping at the national network of Khadi & Village Industries Commission emporiums (www.kvic.org.in), or the shops of Tribes India (http://tribesindia.com), the profits of which help support tribal artisans, also contributes to rural communities.

Wherever you travel, keep your eyes peeled for fair-trade cooperatives.

Other Great Finds

It’s little surprise that Indian spices are snapped up by tourists. Virtually all towns have shops and bazaars selling locally made spices at great prices. Karnataka, Kerala, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Tamil Nadu produce most of the spices that go into garam masala (the ‘hot mix’ used to flavour Indian dishes), while the Northeast States and Sikkim are known for black cardamom and cinnamon bark. Note that some countries, such as Australia, have stringent rules regarding the import of animal and plant products.

Attar (essential oil, mostly made from flowers) can be found around the country. Mysuru (Mysore), in Karnataka, is famous for its sandalwood oil, while Mumbai (Bombay) is a major centre for the trade of traditional fragrances, including valuable oud, made from a rare mould that grows on the bark of the agarwood tree. In Tamil Nadu, Ooty and Kodai produce aromatic and medicinal oils from herbs, flowers and eucalyptus.

Indian incense is exported worldwide, with Karnataka's Bengaluru (Bangalore) and Mysuru being major producers. Incenses, as well as clothing, essential oils and perfumed candles, from Auroville in Tamil Nadu and Sri Aurobindo Ashram in Puducherry (Pondicherry) are also renowned and easy to find locally.

A Goan speciality is feni: a head-spinning spirit distilled from coconut milk or cashews that often comes in decorative bottles.

Quality Indian tea is sold in parts of South India, such as Munnar in Kerala and the Ooty area in Tamil Nadu’s Western Ghats. There are also top tea retailers in urban hubs.

Thanjavur in Tamil Nadu is famed for its brightly painted bobble-head dolls, made from terracotta or wood.

Fine-quality handmade paper – often fashioned into cards, boxes and notebooks – is worth seeking out, especially in Puducherry and Mumbai.

Indian cities have some good bookshops, with books at competitive prices, including leather-bound titles. Higginbothams in Chennai, in business since 1844, is India's oldest bookshop and still going strong. Asian Educational Services publishes old (17th- to early-20th-century) and out-of-stock titles in original typeface.

On the Papier-Mâché Trail

Artisans in Jammu and Kashmir have been producing lacquered papier mâché for centuries, and papier mâché–ware is now sold across India, making inexpensive yet beautiful gifts. The basic shape is made in a mould from layers of paper (often recycled newsprint), then painted with fine brushes and lacquered for protection. Prices depend on design complexity and quality and the amount of gold leaf used. Many pieces feature patterns of animals and flowers, or hunting scenes from Mughal miniature paintings. You can find papier mâché bowls, boxes, coasters, trays, lamps, puppets and Christmas decorations. Colourful Rajasthani puppets are another Indian papier mâché speciality.

Sidebar: State-Government Handicraft Emporiums

State-government handicraft emporiums usually have reasonable fixed prices and good local crafts. Try Tamil Nadu's Poompuhar (http://tnpoompuhar.org); Lepakshi (www.lepakshihandicrafts.gov.in) in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana; Kerala's SMSM Institute (www.keralahandicrafts.in); and Karnataka's Cauvery Handicrafts Emporium (www.cauveryhandicrafts.net).

Sidebar: Shopping Tips

Be cautious when buying items that include international delivery, and avoid being led to shops by smooth-talking touts, but don't worry about too much else – except your luggage allowance!

Sidebar: South Indian Jewellery

Throughout South India you'll find finely crafted gold and silver rings, anklets, earrings, toe rings, necklaces and bangles; pieces can often be crafted to order.

Sidebar: Bazaars

India's bazaars are the heart and soul of its commercial life. The name bazaar often refers to a street lined with shops and/or stalls, rather than a separate trading area.

Sidebar: Top Musical Instrument Shops

  • BX Furtado & Sons (Mumbai)
  • Sri Sharada Grand Musical Works (Mysuru)

Feature: South Indian Tailors

Many South Indian tailor's shops can run up new items for you the same day; if you just want a good copy of your favourite garment, they'll do that too. In Tamil Nadu, Madurai's Pudhu Mandapa is a 16th-century temple pavilion filled with finely sculpted stone pillars, along with dozens of tailors busy treadling away at sewing machines for just this purpose; a cotton top or shirt can cost ₹350.

Sidebar: Indian Textiles Book

Indian Textiles (John Gillow and Nicholas Barnard) explores the cultural background of India's many beautiful textile techniques, including weaving, block-printing, painting, tie-dye and embroidery, and details products of different regions.

Sidebar: Shopping Malls

Ever bigger, brighter and flashier, modern malls are an integral part of the South Indian city shopping scene. They're full of Indian and international fashion, with prices similar to those in the Western world.

Sidebar: Toda Tribal Shawls

Among the tribal communities of Tamil Nadu's Nilgiri Hills, the embroidery-skilled Todas make, wear and sell unique, beautiful black-and-red-embroidered shawls.

The Arts

Over the millenniums India’s many ethnic groups have spawned a rich artistic heritage, and today you'll experience art both lofty and humble around every corner: from intricately painted trucks on dusty roads to harmonic chanting emanating from ancient temples and booming Bollywood blockbusters. The wealth of creative expression is a highlight of travelling in South India, and today's artists fuse ancient and modern influences to create works of art, dance, literature and music that are as evocative as they are beautiful.

Dance

The ancient Indian art of dance is traditionally linked to mythology and classical literature. Dance can be divided into two main forms: classical and folk.

Classical

Classical dance is based on well-defined traditional disciplines. Of India's eight schools of classical dance, these are the ones you're most likely to encounter in South India.

  • Bharatanatyam, which originated in Tamil Nadu, has been embraced throughout India. Noted for its graceful movements, it was traditionally performed by solo women, but now often includes male dancers and/or group performances. Songs, poems, prayers and Carnatic (characteristic of South India) music are part of the performance.
  • Kathakali, with its roots in Kerala (possibly around the 17th century), is a classical dance-drama with drum and vocal accompaniment, based on the Hindu epics.
  • Kuchipudi is a 17th-century dance-drama that originated in the Andhra Pradesh village from which it takes its name. The story centres on the envious wife of Krishna.
  • Mohiniyattam, the 'dance of the enchantress', is a graceful Keralan form performed by solo women.

Folk

Indian folk dance is widespread and varied, ranging from the theatrical dummy-horse dances of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu to Punjab's high-spirited bhangra dance. Northern Kerala's theyyam rituals feature wild drumming and frenzied dancing by participants embodying deities or heroes, with headdresses sometimes several metres high.

Pioneers of modern dance forms in India include Uday Shankar (older brother of the sitar master, Ravi Shankar), who once partnered the Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova. The dance you'll most commonly see, though, is in films. Dance has featured in Indian movies since the dawn of 'talkies' and often combines traditional, folk, modern and contemporary choreography.

Music

Indian classical music traces its roots back to Vedic times, when religious poems chanted by priests were first collated in the Rig-Veda. Over the millenniums classical music has been shaped by many influences, and the legacy today is Carnatic and Hindustani (the classical style of North India) music. With common origins, they share a number of features. Composition and improvisation are both based on the raga (the melodic shape of the music) and the tala (the rhythmic meter characterised by the number of beats); tintal, for example, has a tala of 16 beats. The audience follows the tala by clapping at the appropriate beat, which in tintal is at beats one, five and 13. The ninth beat is the khali (empty section), indicated by a wave of the hand.

Both Carnatic and Hindustani music are performed by small ensembles, generally comprising three to six musicians, and both have many instruments in common. The most obvious difference is Carnatic’s greater use of voice. Hindustani has been more heavily influenced by Persian musical conventions (a result of Mughal rule); Carnatic music, as it developed in South India, cleaves more closely to theory.

One of the best-known Indian instruments is the sitar (a large stringed instrument), with which the soloist plays the raga. Ravi Shankar, master of the sitar, is generally praised as the 20th century's most influential Hindustani classical musician, bringing sitar-playing to the international stage in the 1960s. Other stringed instruments include the sarod (which is plucked) and the sarangi (played with a bow). Also popular is the tabla (twin drums), which provides the tala. The drone, which runs on two basic notes, is provided by the oboe-like shehnai or the stringed tampura (also spelt tamboura). The hand-pumped keyboard harmonium is used as a secondary melody instrument for vocal music.

Indian regional folk music is widespread and varied. Wandering musicians, magicians, snake charmers and storytellers often use song to entertain their audiences; the storyteller usually sings the tales from the great epics.

You might also come across qawwali (Sufi devotional singing), performed in mosques or at musical concerts.

A completely different genre altogether, filmi (music from films) includes modern, slower-paced love serenades along with hyperactive dance songs, typically performed by lip-synching actors.

Classical Dance & Music Festivals

Painting

South India's earliest art was painted on cave walls and reached its supreme expression around 1500 years ago when artists covered the walls and ceilings of the Ajanta Caves, in Maharashtra, with scenes from the Buddha’s past lives. The figures are endowed with an unusual freedom and grace. Later, painters also decorated the walls of temples and palaces, though little of this mural art has survived from before the time of the Vijayanagar empire (14th to 16th centuries), which left fine frescos at Hampi's Virupaksha Temple.

The Indo-Persian painting style, coupling geometric design with flowing form, developed in Islamic royal courts, with some indigenous influences. Persian influence blossomed when artisans fled to India following the 1507 Uzbek attack on Herat (in present-day Afghanistan), and with trade and gift-swapping between Shiraz, a Persian centre for miniature production, and Indian provincial sultans. The most celebrated Indo-Persian art developed at the Mughal court in northern India from the mid-16th century, particularly under emperor Akbar (r 1556–1605). The Mughal style, often in colourful miniature form, largely depicts court life, architecture, battle and hunting scenes, as well as detailed portraits.

Miniature painting also flourished in the Deccan sultanates of the 16th and 17th centuries. The landscapes and floral backgrounds here reflect Persian influence, though Deccani in subject matter, while the elongated figures draw on Vijayanagar traditions. Colours are rich, with much use of gold and white.

Temple mural painting, on multifarious historical and mythological themes, continued to flourish in the south: there are fine Nayak-era frescos at Thanjavur, Kumbakonam and Chidambaram in Tamil Nadu. Superb Hindu-myth murals were painted at Kochi's Mattancherry Palace in the 16th century.

A unique local South Indian art known as Tanjore painting took root in Thanjavur from the 17th century, typically depicting Krishna and other Hindu deities in bright colours, against a background of thrones, curtains and arches which, along with the deities' clothing, are picked out in gold leaf studded with gemstones or glass beads. This tradition lives on today in a somewhat debased, kitsch form.

Kerala's Ravi Varma (1848–1906) popularised oil painting with colourful, European-style treatments of scenes from Indian mythology and literature, including depictions of Hindu goddesses modelled from South Indian women, and has had a huge influence on subsequent religious art and movie posters. Maharashtra's Maqbool Fida Husain, India's major post-Independence artist, was famed for his often controversial modified cubist works, among them representations of naked Hindu gods.

The Madras Movement, whose cooperative base you can visit at Cholamandal Artists' Village near Chennai, pioneered modern art in South India in the 1960s. In the 21st century, paintings by modern and contemporary Indian artists have been selling at record numbers (and prices) around the world. Delhi and Mumbai (Bombay) are India’s contemporary-art centres, but most large cities have worthwhile galleries.

Feature: Mehndi

Mehndi is the traditional art of painting a woman’s hands (and sometimes feet) with intricate henna designs for auspicious ceremonies, such as marriage. If quality henna is used, the orange-brown design can last up to one month.

In touristy areas, mehndi-wallahs are adept at applying henna tattoo ‘bands’ on the arms, hands, legs and lower back. If you get mehndi applied, allow at least a few hours for the design process and required drying time (you can’t use your hennaed hands while they are drying).

It’s wise to request that the artist do a test spot on your arm before proceeding: some dyes contain chemicals that can cause allergies. Avoid 'black henna', which is mixed with chemicals that may be harmful.

Cinema

India’s film industry was born in the late 19th century – the first major Indian-made motion picture, Panorama of Calcutta, was screened in 1899. India’s first real feature film, Raja Harishchandra, was made during the silent era in 1913 and it’s ultimately from this film that Indian cinema traces its vibrant lineage.

Today, India’s film industry is the biggest in the world. Mumbai, the Hindi-language film capital, aka ‘Bollywood’, is the biggest name, but India’s other major film-producing cities – Chennai (Kollywood), Hyderabad (Tollywood) and Bengaluru (Sandalwood) – also have a huge output. In recent years, there has also been a surge in the number of films produced in Goa. Big-budget films are often partly or entirely shot abroad, with some countries vigorously wooing Indian production companies because of the spin-off tourism these films can generate.

Broadly speaking, there are two categories of Indian films. Most prominent is the mainstream 'masala' movie, named for its 'spice mix' of elements for every member of the family – romance, action, slapstick humour and moral themes. Three hours and still running, these often tear-jerking blockbusters are packed with dramatic twists interspersed with numerous song-and-dance performances. There's no explicit sex in Indian films made for the local market; even kissing is rare. Instead, it's all about intense flirting and loaded innuendo; heroines are often seen in skimpy or body-hugging attire.

The second genre is art house, or parallel cinema, which adopts Indian ‘reality’ as its base and aims to be socially and politically relevant. Usually made on infinitely smaller budgets than their commercial cousins, these films are the ones that win kudos at global film festivals. The late Bengali director Satyajit Ray, most famous for his 1950s work, is the father of Indian art films.

Literature

India has a long tradition of Sanskrit literature, and works in the vernacular languages have also contributed to a particularly rich legacy. In fact, it’s claimed that there are as many literary traditions in India as there are written languages. The Tamil poetic works known as the Sangams, written between the 3rd century BC and 3rd century AD, are the earliest known South Indian literature.

Bengal is traditionally credited with producing some of India’s finest literature, and Rabindranath Tagore (1861–1941) was the first Indian writer to really propel India’s cultural richness on to the world literary stage, through the fiction, plays and poetry he wrote in Bengali.

One of the earliest Indian authors to receive an international audience was RK Narayan, who wrote in English in the 1930s and whose deceptively simple writing about life in a fictional South Indian town called Malgudi is subtly hilarious. Keralan Kamala Das (Kamala Suraiyya) wrote poetry and memoirs in English; her frank approach to love and sexuality broke ground for women writers in the 1960s and '70s.

India has an ever-growing list of internationally acclaimed contemporary authors. Winners of the prestigious Man Booker Prize have included Chennai-bred Aravind Adiga (2008), for his debut novel The White Tiger, set between Bengaluru (Bangalore) and northern India, and Kiran Desai (2006) for The Inheritance of Loss. Desai's mother Anita Desai has thrice made the Booker shortlist, as has Rohinton Mistry, a Mumbai-bred Parsi, with three novels all set in Mumbai. Kolkata-born Amitav Ghosh's Sea of Poppies (the first in his Ibis Trilogy) was shortlisted for the 2008 Booker. In 1997 Keralan Arundhati Roy won the Booker for The God of Small Things, set in a small Keralan town, while Mumbai-born Salman Rushdie took this coveted award in 1981 for Midnight’s Children.

Sidebar: Indian Classical Dance Book

Indian Classical Dance, by Leela Venkataraman and Avinash Pasricha, is a lavishly illustrated book covering various Indian dance forms, including bharatanatyam, Kuchipudi and Kathakali.

Sidebar: Classical Dance and Music Venues

Most big South Indian cities have venues staging regular classical dance or music performances, but Chennai (Madras) and Mumbai (Bombay) have the most frequent performances (almost nightly). Kochi (Cochin) is the best place to catch Kathakali performances.

Sidebar: Indian Art Books

Get arty with Indian Art, by Roy C Craven; Contemporary Indian Art: Other Realities, edited by Yashodhara Dalmia; and Indian Miniature Painting, by Dr Daljeet and Professor PC Jain.

Sidebar: Saffronart Online Auction House

For a glimpse into India's contemporary art scene, check out the Mumbai-based online auction house Saffronart (www.saffronart.com).

Sidebar: Annual Number of Indian Films

Around 2000 feature films are produced annually in India. Apart from hundreds of millions of local Bolly-, Tolly- and Kollywood buffs, there are also millions of Non-Resident Indian (NRI) fans, who have played a significant role in catapulting Indian cinema on to the international stage.

Sidebar: Top-Earning Bollywood Stars

The top-earning Bollywood male actors, all raking in over US$20 million a year according to Forbes (www.forbes.com), are Shahrukh Khan, Salman Khan, Amitabh Bachchan and Akshay Kumar. The highest-earning female actor, at US$10 million, is Deepika Padukone.

Sidebar: Top Film Festivals

  • Mumbai Film Festival; October
  • International Film Festival of India Panaji, Goa; November

Sidebar: Rabindranath Tagore

The prolific writer and artist Rabindranath Tagore won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1913 for Gitanjali. For a taste of Tagore’s work, read Selected Short Stories.

Sidebar: Dangal Film

Released in December 2016, Aamir Khan's untraditional wrestling drama Dangal – based on the true story of Indian female wrestling champions Geeta and Babita Phogat – became Bollywood's highest-grossing film of all time in its first three weeks.

Sidebar: Sairat Film

Shot on shoestring budget by Dalit director Nagraj Manjule, anti-Bollywood Sairat (2016) tells the heart-wrenchingly realistic story of doomed inter-caste love between an uppercaste girl and a fisherman's son. To date, it is the highest-grossing film in Marathi cinema history.

Architectural Splendour

From lofty temple gateways adorned with rainbows of delicately carved deities to whitewashed cube-like village houses, South India has a fascinatingly rich architectural heritage. Traditional buildings often have a superb sense of placement within the local environment, whether perched on a boulder-strewn hill or a lakefront. British bungalows with corrugated-iron roofs and wide verandahs linger in most hill stations, but most memorable are buildings that beautifully blend European and Indian architecture, such as breathtaking Mysuru Palace.

Sacred Creations

Temples

Throughout India, most early large-scale architecture was not built but excavated. Buddhist, Hindu and Jain temples, shrines and monasteries were carved out of solid rock or developed from existing caves at various times between the 3rd century BC and 10th century AD. Outstanding rock-cut architecture in South India includes Maharashtra's awe-inspiring Ajanta and Ellora Caves, Mamallapuram (Mahabalipuram) in Tamil Nadu, Mumbai's (Bombay's) Elephanta Island cave temples, Karnataka's Badami cave temples, and Andhra Pradesh's Buddhist complex Guntupalli.

It was during the Gupta period in North India (4th to 6th century AD) that the first free-standing temples were built, to enshrine Hindu deities. The Badami Chalukyas of Karnataka took up the idea at Aihole and Pattadakal between the 4th and 8th centuries, as did the Pallavas of Tamil Nadu at Kanchipuram and Mamallapuram in the 8th century. Towers called vimanas on southern temples were equivalent to the sikhara towers of North Indian temples. The three great 11th- and 12th-century Chola temples at Thanjavur and outside Kumbakonam, with enormous vimanas rising above their central shrines, represent the apogee of early southern temple architecture. In many later southern temples, tall, sculpture-encrusted entrance towers called gopurams replaced vimanas as the main architectural feature. Madurai's Meenakshi Amman Temple, in Tamil Nadu, with its 12 tall gopurams, is reckoned to be the peak of South Indian temple architecture. Also typical of what has become known as the Dravidian temple style is the mandapa, a pavilion of often richly carved columns that serves as a meeting hall or approach to the central shrine.

The Hoysala empire based in southern Karnataka in the 12th and 13th centuries developed a distinctive style of temples covered in elaborate, detailed carving, with relatively low vimanas, as seen at Belur, Halebid and Somnathpur. The 14th-to-16th-century Vijayanagar empire took the gopuram and mandapa to some of their finest levels not only at the capital, Karnataka's Hampi, but also at Vellore and Trichy's Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple in Tamil Nadu.

Islamic Monuments

Muslim rule over much of northern India from the late 12th century, extending later to the Deccan, saw typical Islamic forms such as domes, arches and minaret towers dominate monumental architecture. Karnataka's 15th-century Bahmani Tombs at Bidar are among the earliest major Islamic monuments on the Deccan. They were followed by the great 16th- and 17th-century Qutb Shahi monuments of Hyderabad and Golconda – magnificent big-domed royal tombs, a huge mosque and a unique mosque-landmark, the Charminar – and Vijapura's (Bijapur's) wonderful 17th-century mausoleum, the Golgumbaz. The latter was completed in Karnataka just a few years after Mughal architecture in northern India achieved its peak of perfection in the Taj Mahal. In Maharashtra, Aurangabad's Bibi-qa-Maqbara, or the poor man's Taj, also dates from the 17th century.

Holy Squares

For Hindus, the square is a perfect shape, and southern temples often take the form of several square (or rectangular) compounds of diminishing size nested one inside another. Complex rules govern the location, design and building of temples, based on numerology, astrology, astronomy and religious principles. Essentially, a temple represents a map of the universe. At the centre is the garbhagriha (inner sanctum), symbolic of the ‘womb-cave’ from which the universe is believed to have emerged. This provides a residence for the deity to which the temple is dedicated.

Temple Tanks

Commonly used for ritual bathing and religious ceremonies, as well as adding aesthetic appeal to places of worship, temple tanks have long been a focal point of temple activity. These often vast, angular, engineered reservoirs of water, sometimes fed by rain, sometimes fed by rivers (via complicated drainage systems), serve both sacred and secular purposes. The waters of some temple tanks are believed to have healing properties; others are said to wash away sins. Devotees (as well as travellers) may be required to wash their feet in a temple tank before entering a place of worship.

Churches & Cathedrals

Most of India's estimated 27.8 million Christians reside in South India, and the extended presence of European colonialists here engendered many majestic churches. According to legend, Christianity was introduced to India through Kerala in AD 52 by St Thomas the Apostle, who was martyred at St Thomas Mount, Chennai (Madras), and buried at what is now the city's 19th-century neo-Gothic San Thome Cathedral. Chennai's Portuguese-built 1516 Luz Church is reputed to be one of India's most ancient churches.

Thanks to the Portuguese (who controlled Goa from the 16th century until 1961), it is Goa that famously takes South India's church architecture to its finest heights. Sporting sumptuous interiors, Goa's late-Renaissance- or baroque-inspired churches are typically made of whitewashed laterite. You'll find some of the best in Old Goa, including the celebrated 1605 Basilica of Bom Jesus. Goa is also known for its Portuguese Manueline church architecture, exemplified by Old Goa's Church of Our Lady of the Rosary.

In Kerala (controlled variously by the Portuguese, Dutch and British), Kochi's (Cochin's) impressive collection of centuries-old churches includes 16th-century St Francis Church, India's oldest European-built church – and the original burial spot of Portuguese voyager Vasco da Gama (his remains were later moved to Lisbon).

Former French colony Puducherry (Pondicherry) hosts some of India's most magnificent churches, including 19th-century Notre Dame des Anges and Goa-like 1791 Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception Cathedral. British-built churches tend to be neoclassical or neo-Gothic; Chennai's St Andrew's Church is an exquisite example of the former. Most of South India's hill stations have moody colonial-era British-style churches.

Forts & Palaces

The frequent wars between old Indian kingdoms and empires, as well as the later involvement of colonial powers, naturally led to the construction of some highly imposing fortresses. A typical South Indian fort sits on a hill or rocky outcrop, with a ring or rings of moated battlements protecting the inner citadel. It usually has a town nestled at its base. Gingee in Tamil Nadu is a particularly good example. Vellore Fort, also in Tamil Nadu, is one of India’s best-known moated forts, while Bidar and Vijapura (Bijapur) in Karnataka and Golconda in Hyderabad host great metropolitan forts.

Daulatabad in Maharashtra is another magnificent structure, with 5km of walls surrounding a hilltop fortress reached by passageways filled with ingenious defences like spike-studded doors and false tunnels. Maharashtra's many other impressive forts include several built or used by the 17th-century Maratha hero Shivaji, including Raigad and Pratapgad forts. The 16th-century Janjira fort, off Maharashtra's Konkan Coast, was built by descendants of African slaves and will blow you away with its 12m walls rising straight from the sea, brooding gateway and mighty bastions. Like Goa's almost as impressively situated 17th-century Fort Aguada, it was never conquered.

Few old palaces remain in South India: conquerors often targeted these for destruction. The remains of the Vijayanagar royal complex at Hampi indicate local engineers weren’t averse to using the sound structural techniques and fashions (domes, arches) of their Muslim adversaries, the Bahmanis. In Tamil Nadu, the remarkable palace of the Travancore maharajas at Padmanabhapuram dates back to 1550 and is South India's finest example of traditional Keralan architecture. Other notable palaces include Mattancherry Palace in Kochi (Cochin), Kerala; Thanjavur (Tanjore) Royal Palace, Tamil Nadu; Aga Khan Palace in Pune, Maharashtra, where Gandhi was once imprisoned; and Tipu Sultan's Summer Palace at Srirangapatnam.

Indo-Saracenic, a conflation of European, Islamic and Hindu architectural styles that blossomed all over India in the late 19th century, produced not only grandiose functional edifices, such as Mumbai's Victoria (Chhatrapati Shivaji) Terminus railway station and Chennai's Madras High Court, but also numerous flamboyant Indian royal palaces. The opulent diamond of the south is marvellous Mysuru Palace, its interior a kaleidoscope of stained glass, mirrors and mosaic floors.

Sidebar: Temple Net Website

Discover more about India’s diverse temple architecture (in addition to other temple-related information and recommendations) at insightful Temple Net (www.templenet.com).

Sidebar: Indian Architecture Books

Masterpieces of Traditional Indian Architecture, by Satish Grover, and Introduction to Indian Architecture, by Bindia Thapar, Surat Kumar Manto and Suparna Bhalla, offer interesting insights into temple and other architecture.

Sidebar: Mosque Layout

The basic elements of mosque layout are similar worldwide. A large hall is dedicated to communal prayer; within is the mihrab, a niche indicating the direction of Mecca. Outside is often a courtyard with a pool or fountain for ritual preprayer ablutions. The faithful are called to prayer from minarets.

Sidebar: Hyderabad's Nizam Architecture

You can get a good idea of the unbelievable wealth of Hyderabad's former rulers, the nizams, from their Chowmahalla and Falaknuma Palaces, the latter now a luxury hotel.

Sidebar: Chettinadu Mansions

Southern Tamil Nadu's Chettinadu region contains 10,000 (maybe 30,000) magnificent mansions, some of them genuinely palatial, built by traders made rich in the 19th century. Many are now abandoned or decaying, but some are open to visitors. A few have been transformed into fascinating hotels, including Visalam and Saratha Vilas.

Sidebar: Southern India: A Guide to Monuments, Sites & Museums Book

George Michell's Southern India: A Guide to Monuments, Sites & Museums shines a detailed light on the region's multifaceted architectural treasures, from Tamil Nadu's psychedelic temples to Goa's elegant churches.

Wildlife & Landscape

The wildlife of South India is a fascinating melange of animals whose ancestors roamed Europe, Asia and the ancient southern supercontinent Gondwana, in a great mix of habitats from steamy mangrove forests and jungles to expansive plains and flower-filled hill-country meadows. The South Asian subcontinent is an ancient block of earth crust that arrived with a wealth of unique plants and animals when it collided with the Eurasian Plate an estimated 40 million years ago, after a 100-million-year journey from Gondwana.

Wildlife

India is celebrated for its big, bold, eminent species – tigers, elephants, rhinos, leopards, bears, monkeys. But there is much, much more, including a mesmerising collection of colourful birds.

Feature: India's Disappearing Vultures

The story of India's vultures is perhaps the most devastating of all India's wildlife struggles – especially that of the white-rumped vulture, which in the 1980s numbered around 80 million and was the world's most abundant vulture. Today white-rumped vultures number no more than several thousand – a near-annihilation blamed on the veterinary chemical diclofenac, which causes kidney failure in birds that eat the carcasses of cattle that have been treated with it. The absence of vultures has led to a rise in the number of disease-spreading feral dogs, feeding on carcasses that would formerly have been picked clean by the birds.

Signature Species

It’s fortunate that Asian elephants – a thoroughly different species from the larger African elephant – are revered in Hindu custom and were able to be domesticated and put to work. Otherwise they may well have been hunted to extinction long ago, as in neighbouring China. Indian wild-elephant numbers were estimated to be around 30,000 in 2012, up from 27,700 in 2007, despite poaching and habitat destruction. These 3000kg animals migrate long distances in search of food and require huge parks, running into predictable conflict when herds attempt to follow ancestral paths now occupied by villages and farms. The purchase of ivory souvenirs supports the poaching of these magnificent creatures, and many countries have strict customs guidelines preventing ivory importation.

The tiger is fixed in the subcontinent's subconscious as the mythological mount of the powerful, demon-slaying goddess Durga, while prowling the West's image of India as Mowgli's jungle nemesis. This awesome, iconic animal is endangered, but its numbers in India seem to be on the rise, up from 1706 in 2010 to 2226 in 2014 according to India's official census (though there are some doubts about data accuracy). The tiger can be seen, if you're lucky, at India's tiger reserves.

India is also home to 15 other species of cat. Leopards are quite widespread in different types of forest and in several parks and sanctuaries in the south – but elusive, nevertheless. In recent decades some leopards have increasingly been found close to (and even within) some of India's ever-expanding towns and cities, where they prey on dogs, cats, pigs and rodents (with the occasional human fatality too).

Feature: Project Tiger

When naturalist Jim Corbett first raised the alarm in the 1930s, no one else believed that tigers would ever be threatened. At the time it was believed there were 40,000 tigers in India, although no one had ever counted them. Then came Independence, which put guns into the hands of villagers who pushed into formerly off-limits hunting reserves seeking highly profitable tiger skins. By the time an official census was conducted in 1972, there were only an estimated 1800 tigers left and international outcry prompted Indira Gandhi to set up Project Tiger. The project has since established 50 tiger reserves totalling 71,027 sq km (including buffer zones) that not only protect this top predator but all animals that live in the same habitats. After an initial round of successes, neglect, habitat loss, corruption and relentless poaching – spurred by the international skin trade and demand for tiger parts in Chinese traditional medicine – saw tiger numbers down to just 1411 in 2006, the first year a relatively reliable counting system based on camera traps was used. That year, Project Tiger was transformed into the National Tiger Conservation Authority (http://projecttiger.nic.in, www.tigernet.nic.in), a statutory body with a bigger budget, more on-the-ground staff, and more teeth to fight poaching and the trade in tiger parts. Tiger numbers rose to 1706 in the 2010 census and 2226 in the 2014 census – encouraging statistics, but tigers continue to be poached, their habitat outside tiger reserves is shrinking and there's still doubt over the reliability of collected data. India's tigers account for around 70% of the total world tiger population.

Common Encounters

Easily the most abundant forms of wildlife you’ll see in India are deer (nine species), antelope (six species), goats and sheep (10 species), and primates (15 species). The ones you're most likely to see in the parks and reserves of the south include the chital (spotted deer), sambar (a large deer), nilgai or bluebull (a large antelope), the elegant grey (Hanuman) langur with its characteristic black face and ears, and the bonnet macaque which often loiters around temples and tourist sites. Also fairly often spotted are the gaur (Indian bison) and wild boar; you can also hope to see the occasional sloth bear (with its long white snout), golden jackal or giant squirrel.

Endangered Species

Despite its amazing biodiversity, India faces an ever-growing challenge from its exploding human population. Wildlife is severely threatened by poaching, habitat loss and human-animal conflict. The 2016 Red List of the International Union for Conservation of Nature listed 1052 threatened species in India, including 387 plant species, 92 mammal species, 87 bird species, 54 reptile species, 75 amphibian species, 222 fish species and 128 invertebrate species. Of these, 75 are in the most at-risk category, 'critically endangered'; 205 are in the next most imperilled group, 'endangered'; and 385 are 'vulnerable'.

Even the massively resourced National Tiger Conservation Authority faces an uphill battle every day. The number of tiger reserves is growing, but the total amount of territory roamed by tigers is shrinking. And every encouraging tiger news story seems to be followed by another of poaching gangs or tiger or leopard attacks on villagers. The Wildlife Protection Society of India documented 1060 tigers and 4226 leopards killed by poachers between 1995 and 2015, but warns that total numbers may be far higher.

'Critically endangered' animals found in South India include the great Indian bustard, a large, heavy bird of which less than 250 survive in isolated pockets of South and North India; the Anamalai flying frog (living only in Tamil Nadu's Anamalai Tiger Reserve); the Malabar large-spotted civet (less than 250 in the Western Ghats, possibly even extinct); and four species of vulture.

Species of South India on the 'endangered' list include the tiger; elephant; dhole (wild dog; around 2000 surviving); the lion-tailed macaque, with its splendid silvery-white mane (3000 to 3500 remaining, in the Western Ghats); and the Nilgiri tahr, a wild sheep of the Nilgiri Hills (around 1800 remaining).

Birds

With over 1250 highly varied species (925 of which breed here), India is a birdwatcher’s dream. Wherever critical habitat has been preserved in the midst of dense human activity, you might see phenomenal numbers of birds in one location. Winter (November to February) is a particularly good time, as wetlands host northern migrants arriving to kick back in the subtropical warmth of the Indian peninsula. Bird sanctuaries are generally the best places for intensive birdwatching, but many other protected areas also have vast avian variety.

Plants

India was once almost entirely covered in forest; now its total forest cover is around 20%. The 2016 Red List of the International Union for Conservation of Nature listed 77 'critically endangered' Indian plants, plus 172 'endangered'. But the country still boasts over 45,000 documented plant species, over 4000 of them endemic.

Nearly all of India's lowland forests are types of tropical forest, with native sal forests forming the mainstay of the timber industry. Some of these tropical forests are true rainforest, staying green year-round, such as in the Western Ghats, but most forests are deciduous, losing their canopies during hot, dry April and May.

High-value trees such as Indian rosewood, Malabar kino and teak have been virtually cleared from the Western Ghats, and sandalwood is endangered across India due to illegal logging for the incense and wood-carving industries. A bigger threat on forested lands is firewood harvesting, often carried out by landless peasants squatting on government land. Many forests have also been cleared to make way for tea and coffee plantations.

Several Indian trees have significant religious value, including the huge silk-cotton tree, with its spiny bark and large red flowers under which Pitamaha (Brahma), the creator of the world, sat after his labours. Two well-known figs, the banyan and peepal, grow to immense size by dangling roots from their branches and fusing into massive jungles of trunks and stems. It is said that the Buddha achieved enlightenment while sitting under a peepal (also known as the Bodhi tree).

Parks, Sanctuaries & Reserves

Before 1972 India had only five national parks. That year, the Wildlife Protection Act was introduced to set aside national parks and stem the abuse of wildlife. The act was followed by a string of similar pieces of legislation with bold ambitions but often too few teeth with which to enforce them.

India now has over 100 national parks and 500 wildlife sanctuaries, covering around 5% of its territory. There are also 50 tiger reserves and 18 biosphere reserves (designed to protect ecosystems and biodiversity while permitting human activities), often overlapping with other protected areas. Many contiguous parks, reserves and sanctuaries in the highly biodiverse Western Ghats provide valuable migration corridors for wildlife.

One consequence of creating protected areas has been that about 1.6 million Adivasis (tribal people) and other forest-dwellers have had to leave their traditional lands. Many were resettled into villages and forced to abandon their age-old ways of life. The Forest Rights Act of 2006 forbids the displacement of forest-dwellers from national parks (except in so-called 'critical wildlife habitat'), and should protect the four million or so people who still live in them.

Top Parks For Wildlife

Tigers

Maharashtra's Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve and Madhya Pradesh's Pench Tiger Reserve in North India (easily accessed from Nagpur in Maharashtra) are among India's top spots for tiger sightings. Chances are slimmer, but not negligible, in Karnataka's Nagarhole and Bandipur National Parks, and Kerala's Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary.

Elephants

South India's best parks for spotting wild elephant include Nagarhole National Park, Karnataka; Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary, Kerala; and Mudumalai Tiger Reserve, Tamil Nadu.

Birds

Kerala's Kumarakom Bird Sanctuary and Tamil Nadu's Vedanthangal Bird Sanctuary are top spots for migratory waterbirds between November and February. Thattekkad Bird Sanctuary in Kerala is home to 320 mainly forest species, while Goa's Dr Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary protects mangroves and their birdlife.

Other Wildlife

Visiting Protected Areas

Many parks, sanctuaries and reserves encourage visitors, and your visit adds momentum to efforts to protect India’s natural resources. The experience of watching an elephant, sloth bear or even, if you're lucky, a leopard or tiger in the wild will stay with you for a lifetime. The best parks and reserves take time to reach, but usually have a range of accommodation – from comfortable lodges to tree huts – inside or just outside the park. In some parks, guided hikes and 4WD safaris are available; others may offer only cursory minibus tours. Independent operators offer 4WD safaris or guided treks on some parks' fringes, which can be just as wildlife-rich as the park itself. Free hiking within parks is generally banned for safety reasons.

The monsoon months (June to August in most places) are usually the least favourable for visits; during holiday periods parks and their accommodation can overflow with visitors. A few parks close during the ultradry and hot couple of premonsoon months, though this can be the best time to view wildlife, as the cover is thinner and animals seek out scarce waterholes.

The Lie of the Land

The Himalaya, the world’s highest mountains, form an almost-impregnable barrier separating India from its northern neighbours (India's highest peak, Khangchendzonga, reaches 8598m). The Himalaya were formed when the Indian subcontinent, after a 100-million-year northward drift from Gondwana, slammed slowly into the Eurasian continent, buckling the ancient sea floor upward.

South of the Himalaya, the floodplains of the Indus and Ganges Rivers form the fertile heartland of North India. To their south, the elevated Deccan plateau forms the core of India's triangular southern peninsula. The Deccan is bounded by the hills of the Western and Eastern Ghats. The Western Ghats, stretching from north of Mumbai (Bombay) almost to India's southern tip, drop sharply down to a narrow coastal lowland, forming a luxuriant slope of rainforest. Their highest peak is Anamudi (2695m) in Kerala. With many endemic species, they are one of the world's top biodiversity hot spots; 39 areas of the Western Ghats were inscribed on the World Heritage list in 2012 for their natural values. The lower Eastern Ghats stretch from West Bengal to south-central Tamil Nadu, and are cut by the four major rivers of peninsular India, flowing west-to-east across the Deccan: the Mahanadi, Godavari, Krishna and Cauvery.

Offshore are a series of island groups, politically part of India but geographically linked to the land masses of Southeast Asia and islands of the Indian Ocean. The 572 Andaman and Nicobar Islands, far east in the Andaman Sea, are the peaks of a submerged mountain range extending almost 1000km between Myanmar (Burma) and Sumatra. The coral atolls of Lakshadweep, 300km west of Kerala, are a northerly extension of the Maldives islands.

Environmental Issues

Given India's 2016 population of 1.3 billion (expected to reach 1.5 billion by 2030), ever-expanding industrial and urban centres, and growth in chemical-intensive farming, India’s environment is under tremendous pressure. An estimated 65% of the land is degraded in some way. Many current problems are a direct result of the Green Revolution of the 1960s, when chemical fertilisers and pesticides enabled huge growth in agricultural output, at enormous cost to the environment.

Despite numerous environmental laws, corruption has exacerbated environmental degradation – exemplified by flagrant flouting of laws by companies involved in hydroelectricity and mining. Usually, the people most affected are low-caste rural farmers and Adivasis (tribal people). Agricultural production has been reduced by soil degradation from overfarming, rising soil salinity, loss of tree cover and, increasingly, lack of water resources. The human cost is heart-rending, and India constantly grapples with the dilemma of how to develop economically without destroying what's left of its environment.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, elected in 2014, continues to offer mixed signals about his priorities. On one hand, Modi has famously instigated plans to clean the appallingly polluted Ganges River by 2019; launched the much-publicised Swachh Bharat Mission to reduce trash pollution nationwide; supports large-scale solar-power generation; and, by ratifying the UN's Paris Agreement, has committed to producing 40% of India's electricity from non-fossil-fuel sources by 2030. But his government has also pledged to increase domestic coal mining and double coal use, adding significantly to India's greenhouse gas emissions (which account for about 4.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions).

As anywhere, tourists tread a fine line between providing an incentive for change and making the problem worse. Many of Goa's environmental problems, for example, are the direct result of irresponsible development for tourism.

Climate Change

Changing climate patterns, linked to global carbon emissions, have been creating dangerous extremes of weather in India. While India's per capita carbon emissions still rank far behind those of the West and China, the sheer size of its population makes it the world's third-largest carbon-dioxide emitter.

It has been estimated that by 2030 India will see a 30% increase in the severity of its floods and droughts. Islands in the Lakshadweep group, as well as the low-lying Ganges delta, are being inundated by rising sea levels.

Evidenced by recent deadly heatwaves, cyclones, drinking-water shortages and other disasters, climate change is a major issue in the south. A 2015 heatwave is thought to have caused the death of at least 2500 people, with Telangana and Andhra Pradesh worst affected. Also in 2015, South India's heaviest floods in over a century killed at least 500 people, most in Tamil Nadu. Meanwhile, there is growing conflict over the south's water resources: in 2016, decades' old disputes over plans to send water from drought-stricken Karnataka to also-dry Tamil Nadu culminated in strikes, violence and a transport breakdown between the states.

Deforestation

Since Independence, over 50,000 sq km of India’s forests have been cleared for logging and farming, or destroyed by urban expansion, mining, industrialisation and river dams. The number of mangrove forests has halved since the early 1990s, reducing the nursery grounds for the fish that stock the Indian Ocean and Bay of Bengal.

India’s first Five Year Plan in 1951 recognised the importance of forests for soil conservation, and various policies have been introduced to increase forest cover. Almost all have been flouted by officials or criminals and by ordinary people clearing forests for firewood and grazing.

Water Resources

Arguably the biggest threat to public health in India is inadequate access to clean drinking water and proper sanitation. With the population continuing to grow, agricultural, industrial and domestic water usage are all expected to spiral. Sewage treatment facilities can handle only about a quarter of waste water produced. Many cities dump untreated sewage and partially cremated bodies directly into rivers. Open defecation is a simple fact of life, practised by over 50% of the rural population, though Modi's Swachh Bharat Mission is working to end open defecation by 2019.

Rivers are also affected by run-off, industrial pollution and sewage contamination. At least 70% of the freshwater sources in India are now polluted in some way.

In addition, there is South India's growing strife over the sharing of water resources – most recently highlighted in the strikes and violence caused by government instructions to split Cauvery River water between the drought-hit states of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.

Sidebar: India's Rich Biodiversity

India harbours some of the world's richest biodiversity. There are around 400 mammal species, 1250 bird species, 500 reptile species, 340 amphibian species and 3000 fish species – nearly 7% of the earth's animal species on just 2.5% of its land, which is also inhabited by 18% of the planet's human population.

Sidebar: Tiger Deaths in 2016

Despite India's seemingly encouraging tiger numbers, a shocking 74 tigers were documented to have died in the first six months of 2016. At least 30 of them were poached; other causes include infighting, loss of prey and habitat, vehicle accidents and human-wildlife conflict.

Sidebar: Ayurveda Plants

Around 2000 plant species are described in ayurveda (traditional Indian herbal medicine) texts.

Sidebar: India's National Emblems

India’s national animal is the tiger, its national bird is the peacock and its national flower is the lotus. The national emblem of India is a column topped by three Asiatic lions.

Sidebar: Recommended Wildlife Books

  • Indian Mammals: A Field Guide, by Vivek Menon
  • Birds of Southern India, by Richard Grimmett and Tim Inskipp
  • Treasures of Indian Wildlife, by Ashok Kothari and BS Chhapgar

Sidebar: Online Wildlife Resources

  • Wildlife, conservation and environmental awareness-raising at www.sanctuaryasia.com
  • Wildlife Trust of India news at www.wti.org.in
  • Top birdwatching information at www.birding.in

Sidebar: India's Snakes

India has 238 species of snake, of which about 50 are poisonous. Of the various species of cobra, the king cobra is the world's largest venomous snake, attaining a length of 5m!

Sidebar: Bandipur, Nagarhole, Wayanad, Sathyamangalam and Mudumalai Protected Areas

Spanning Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu, the contiguous Bandipur, Nagarhole, Wayanad, Sathyamangalam and Mudumalai protected areas in South India's Western Ghats are home to 570 tigers (according to the 2014 tiger census) – the world's single largest tiger population.

Sidebar: Air Pollution

In 2016 the World Health Organization reported that four Indian cities rank among the world's 10 most polluted; 10 out of the top 20 are also in India.

Sidebar: Down To Earth Website

Get the inside track on Indian environmental issues at Down to Earth (www.downtoearth.org.in), an online magazine that delves into stories overlooked by mainstream media.

Sidebar: Dams & Displacement

Since 1947 an estimated 35 million Indians have been displaced by major dams, mostly built to provide hydroelectricity. Valleys across India are being sacrificed to create new power plants, and displaced people rarely receive adequate compensation.

Sidebar: Wildlife Protection Society of India

Founded by celebrated tiger champion Belinda Wright, the Wildlife Protection Society of India (www.wpsi-india.org) is a premier wildlife conservation organisation campaigning for animal welfare via education, lobbying and legal action against poachers.

Sidebar: China Bans Ivory Trade

In December 2016, China – where ivory is notoriously sought after – announced a total ban on its domestic ivory trade, to be implemented by the end of 2017. This, hopefully, spells a slightly brighter future for India's (and the world's) elephants.

Ancient & Historic Sites Colour Section

South India has a remarkable assortment of monuments and ruins that testify to the splendour of the many varied cultures that have paraded across its broad canvas. From serene places of worship to remnants of grandiose empires, the opportunities to marvel at the genius of long-gone civilisations are manifold here. Temples all over the region are awash with colourful South Indian life, while wondrous hilltop forts and opulent palaces recall the lofty aspirations of long-gone leaders.

Hindu Sacred Sites

South India is home to some of the most spectacular devotional architecture in this Hindu-majority country: soaring gopurams (gateway towers), exquisite mandapas (pavilions) and some of the most intricately chiselled deity sculptures you’ll ever see.

Madurai

Madurai's Meenakshi Amman Temple, abode of the triple-breasted goddess Meenakshi, is generally considered the pinnacle of classic South Indian temple architecture. This Tamil Nadu temple, with its 12 sky-reaching gopurams, predominantly dates from the 17th century, but its origins reach back 2000 years to when Madurai, one of India's most ancient cities, was a Pandyan capital.

Hampi

Now a sleepy Karnataka hamlet, from 1336 to 1565 Hampi was the thriving centre of the mighty Vijayanagar empire. Its World Heritage–listed ruins are strewn amid boulders of all shapes and sizes, the result of hundreds of millions of years of volcanic activity and erosion. Especially fine examples of temple art can be seen at the 15th-century Virupaksha Temple and 16th-century Vittala Temple.

Mamallapuram

The exquisite sculptures dotted around the seaside Tamil Nadu town of Mamallapuram (Mahabalipuram) were carved by artisans of the Pallava dynasty in the 7th and 8th centuries. They range from the beautifully sculpted free-standing Shore Temple to the Five Rathas – temples carved from the living rock, including several wonderful animal figures – and the giant Arjuna's Penance relief carving, exploding with episodes of Hindu myth.

Thanjavur

The multitiered vimana (tower) soaring above the Brihadishwara Temple in Tamil Nadu's Thanjavur (Tanjore) is the ultimate expression of the power and creativity of the medieval Chola dynasty. This 11th-century temple, still very much a living place of worship, is adorned with glorious graceful sculptures of Hindu deities and elaborately carved gopurams.

Buddhist, Hindu & Jain Caves

Maharashtra's World Heritage–listed caves of Ajanta and Ellora, within 100km of each other, are stunning galleries of ancient cave art replete with historical sculptures, rock-cut shrines and natural-dye paintings. These are just the most spectacular of the many cave or rock-cut shrines from the times before South India started building free-standing stone structures.

Ajanta

The 30 Buddhist caves of Ajanta, with origins in the 2nd century BC, are clustered along a horseshoe-shaped gorge above the Waghore River. One of their most renowned features is the natural-dye tempera paintings (similar to frescoes) decorating many of the caves’ interiors. Some of these murals are even coloured with crushed semiprecious stones such as lapis lazuli. Don't miss Cave 1, with particularly superb artwork including a wonderful rendition of Buddhism's Bodhisattva Padmapani, or Cave 16, whose especially fine paintings include the famous 'dying' (actually fainting) princess.

Ellora

The Ellora Cave Temples – a collection of Hindu, Jain and Buddhist shrines constructed between AD 600 and 1000 – are situated on a 2km-long escarpment. There are 34 in all: 17 Hindu, 12 Buddhist and five Jain. Most famed is Cave 16, the Kailasa Temple in honour of the Hindu god Shiva, which is the world's biggest monolithic sculpture and was skilfully carved into the cliff face by thousands of labourers over 150 years.

Guntupalli

One of more than 100 ancient Buddhist sites in rural Andhra Pradesh, the 2nd-century-BC monastery at Guntupalli sits high on a hilltop overlooking an expanse of forest and rice fields. Monks' dwellings line the cliffside, with lovely arched stone facades sculpted to look like wood.

Forts

Battleground of many a rival empire in centuries gone by, South India is dotted with fantastical forts that have survived the vagaries of time – many of them sprawled across strategic hilltops and wrapped within sturdy walls protecting a treasure trove of monuments.

Golconda Fort

Hyderabad’s 16th-century Qutb Shahs transformed the preexisting Golconda Fort, on a 120m-high granite hill, into a fortified city with two rings of ramparts, one 11km in circumference. Mughal ruler Aurangzeb had to resort to bribing a defending general to conquer the fort in 1687, after a fruitless year-long siege. Golconda is a feast of crenellated walls, cannon-mounted bastions and imposing gates studded with iron spikes to repel raiding war elephants.

Daulatabad Fort

The central bastion of Maharashtra's crumbling Daulatabad Fort is reached by an hour's climb via spiralling tunnels, multiple doorways and spiked gates. Eccentric Delhi sultan Mohammed Tughlaq marched the entire population of Delhi 1100km here in 1328 to make Daulatabad his capital – but his dream was swiftly cut short when Daulatabad proved strategically unviable as a capital.

Bidar Fort

South India's now-neglected largest fort was once the bustling capital of much of the region. Although mostly in a state of deteriorating disrepair, this Karnataka fortress still retains noteworthy remnants of its glory days, including the Rangin Mahal (Painted Palace) and Sixteen-Pillared Mosque.

Janjira

The brooding fortress of Janjira looms sheer out of the sea 500m off the Konkan Coast. Built in the 16th century by descendants of African slaves, Janjira was never conquered by enemies. Only nature is succeeding in reclaiming the now-abandoned fort.

Gingee Fort

A spectacular example of South Indian fort architecture, Tamil Nadu's abandoned Gingee Fort encompasses three hilltop citadels within a 6km perimeter of sheer cliffs and chunky walls. It was built mostly by the Vijayanagars in the 16th century, before being taken over by the Marathas, Mughals, French and British.

Palaces & Tombs

The rulers of South India's bygone kingdoms and sultanates not only proclaimed their pomp by building ridiculously opulent palaces, but many of them were also buried in splendid tombs – some of which rank among the region's most exquisite architecture.

Southern Palaces

First prize among South India's flamboyant royal residences goes to fabulous Mysuru Palace, but Mysuru's (Mysore's) rival princely state of Hyderabad puts up a stern challenge with the shimmering, chandelier-laden Chowmahalla Palace and the hilltop Falaknuma Palace, a splendiferous neoclassical construction now reincarnated as an ultraluxurious hotel.

Bijapur's Tombs

Vijapura (Bijapur) ruled one of the five Deccan sultanates that dominated the plateau lands in the 16th and 17th centuries. Its delicately graceful Ibrahim Rouza is a sort of southern Taj Mahal, in that it was built by a sultan as a mausoleum for his wife and its minarets are said to have inspired those of the Taj itself. Vijapura's massive Golgumbaz, another royal mausoleum, boasts what is said to be the world's second-largest dome (with incredible acoustics).

Qutb Shahi Tombs

The final resting place of the builders of Golconda Fort and their kin, the 21 magnificent domed Qutb Shahi Tombs stand within sight of the fort on the edge of Hyderabad. The domes are mounted on cubical bases with beautiful colonnades and delicate stucco ornamentation.