India

With a history that spans the better part of the last ten thousand years and boasting more people than (almost!) any other country on the planet, India is a country that has so much to offer it is impossible to get it down in one visit, or even ten. From the Himalayan region to the north, through the deserts of Rajasthan, to the lush foothills of the Western Ghats and the famous beaches of Goa, across to coasts along the Bay of Bengal, down to the cone of the South and almost everywhere in between, India is simply phenomenal. There are the usual suspects when one is looking for something to see and do, but with so many temples, mosques, museums, events, festivals, pilgrimages, holy sites and vacation hot spots, it would be insulting to name just a few. It is important to mention, though, that it would be wise to keep a few things in mind. First of all, not every place in the country is safe: centuries-old clashes between Hindus and Muslims and Sikhs mean that present day tensions can and do result in eruptions, so travellers would be well-advised to pay attention to the news. Secondly, India is home to some of the most religious and spiritual people in the world, not all of whom appreciate flip-flopped backpackers trudging through their holy sites; travellers should exercise a bit of common courtesy and humility when trying to enter certain locales. Finally, and potentially most importantly, travellers should always have a plan of escape to tranquility. The never-ending crowds, poverty, pollution, dirt, monkeys, rampant gender and class inequality, heat, humidity and people who want something from you tend to weigh heavily on even the most intrepid traveller from time to time; having such a backup plan can be a cheap and fun way to ensure you leave India with your attitude about the country - and your sanity - intact! ~ Samantha McDonald-Amara


India: Namaste Says it All

Falling in love with India is a gradual affair. First the country flirts with you to get your attention, and before you even know what is happening, it entices you with its endless charms. You may be looking for a quick thing to tide you over until your next trip, but India wants more from you than just a superficial relationship; it’s looking for a deeper commitment, one that seeks to bind itself to your heart and soul. Slowly and steadily you fall under its enigmatic spell, and before you know it, there’s a new though sometimes complicated love in your life.

Tigers and Monkeys and Mongoose, Oh My!

Svelte and graceful, the lithe tigress made her way through the tall grass, her movements barely making a whisper. She had come to check on her three cubs, who were playfully engaged but who stopped dutifully to follow her. We watched in awe as this elegant creature in her glorious stripes crossed the road in front of our safari jeep. Though we knew the tigress was fully aware of us, she never glanced our away, preferring to remain aloof and distant. The cubs trailed after their mother, one at a time, closely adhering to her path. Two of the trio made it to the other side; the third balked and retreated back into the grass. The tigress quickly headed back to retrieve her baby. It was a privileged moment for our group and we reveled in the good fortune and timing that had allowed us to witness this amazing scene at Ranthambore National Park in northern India.

Driving to the Top of the World

At the top of the world

Our two-day journey into Indian Tibet began, sleepily, on an overcast and drizzly morning in Manali, Himachal Pradesh. We intended to drive the Manali-Leh highway across the Himalayas and through some of the highest mountain passes on Earth. Our driver, Dawa, picked us up at our hostel, and our group of four climbed into his car and began on our way. The ubiquitous concrete buildings with painted shop shutters quickly disappeared and were replaced by rugged hills, coniferous trees and waterfalls. Lots of waterfalls. In this part of India you are never too far away from dramatic scenery.

After a few hours on the road we stopped for a typical roadside breakfast: spicy dosas, an overly salty omelette and glasses of coffee with a layer of film, a veritable 'breakfast of champions'! The first leg of the journey was to take around ten hours, so we were back in the car before we had chance to digest our meals. As the ascent continued, Dawa began playing his Tibetan mantra CD. The music comprised of one song which was about an hour long and repeated the same prayer over and over. It was authentic to the region so I didn’t mind listening to it. A few yawns escaped me but I thought nothing of it, blaming it on the mantra, the swaying car, the mountain roads and a belly full of food.

The scenery changed frequently. As we climbed, there were fewer trees and more boulders and rocks. The road narrowed and began to flirt with the edge of the mountain. To one side of the car was a rock wall and to the other, a sheer drop. For the first time in India we all fastened our seatbelts. Overcast drizzle matured into rain and thick fog, which the car’s headlights struggled to penetrate. With no tree cover, the rain fell with impunity and quickly flooded the road. The surface was slick with mud and puddled water, not an optimum combination on this already-dangerous road.

One Silent Spot

Old Delhi's Red Fort (Photo: Noel Rodrigues)With more than 22 million people in its greater metropolis area, Delhi is one of the loudest and most hectic cities in the world. In every street and alleyway of New Delhi there is a constant wall of noise that confronts you as you wander around this fascinating urban sprawl. So I was amazed that when I visited Old Delhi - the city's notorious market district - I managed to find a moment of complete tranquillity.

The day began with a journey from Connaught Place and the relative comfort and luxury of New Delhi into the more cultural and demanding area of Chandi Chowk in Old Delhi. For this trip I decided to test out the new metro system that had been put in place underneath the entire city.

I have to admit I was amazed by the efficiency, cleanliness and all around Western experience that was delivered from this shiny new method of transport. A stark contrast to the admittedly more entertaining, if not slightly terrifying experience, of navigating Delhi's congested network of roads above the ground.

An Old Mughal Capital

Fatehpur Sikri: Hall of Private Audience (Wikimedia)Fatehpur Sikri, located 40 km west of Sikandra in India's Uttar Pradesh state, was the capital of the Mughal Empire from 1570 until 1586, when it was mysteriously abandoned. It is not a city in the modern sense, but a redoubt that is probably the best preserved archaeological site in India. It hasn’t been pilfered like every other site and this may be attributed to the presence of a venerated Sufi tomb: Shaikh Salim Chisti. Akbar of the great Mughal Empire was a Muslim and it is said that he revered Chisti's Sufi. The original name for the town was the Persian form, Fathabad, but this gradually became Indianized to Fatehpur Sikri. Over time, a fortification was erected which surrounded the town and protected it from any potential threat, though it was abandoned in 1585. Though more than four centuries have passed, it still looks much the same today.

I arrived at Fatehpur Sikri mid-morning and instructed my taxi driver to wait outside the palace complex. Everyone here is a guide. I didn't remember all the touts when I was last here, some 15 years earlier. Some old coot, who was old enough to be Jehangir’s grandson, came up to try and solicit my attention. He was an old toothless wreck of a man who needed a cane to steady himself on the cobblestone pavement. But he had a regal distinction about him, which made up for his physical shortcomings. His glasses didn’t fit properly either; probably something given to him by a VisionCanada project. He was hassled by other, equally old men: "He is too old a man,” scoffed one guy; "He is not an 'official guide'," yelled another. "We are 'official guides' and he is stealing money away from us!" He pulled out a dog-eared card to prove his claim. I felt sorry for Gramps, so I gave him a five rupee note for his trouble and a package of #30 beedies. He nodded his head from side to side in thanks. The other guides were nodding their heads the same way, so I figured I must have done a good thing.

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 Full name: Republic of India

 Population: 1.2 billion (CIA, 2012)

 Capital: New Delhi

 Largest city: Urban Mumbai (by population)

 Area: 3.287 million sq.km. (1.27 million sq. mi.)

 Major languages: Hindi, English and 14  other Official Languages

 Major religions: Hindu, Muslim, Christian,  Sikh, Other

 Monetary unit: Rupee

 GDP per capita: US $3,700

 Internet domain: .in

 International dialling code: +91

 Source: CIA World Factbook