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Top 10 things to do in India
Probably the most enigmatic and spiritual place on the planet, India defies description with sacred cities, verdant backwaters, glittering palaces, palm-lined beaches and festivals as diverse as the country’s landscape. We discover the top 10 things to do in India, an intoxicating land of vivid colour and timeless traditions.
Travel back in time to the Buddhist Caves of Ajanta
Where: Ajanta, in the Aurangabad district of Maharashtra.
What: Declared both a World Heritage Site by UNESCO and a protected moment by the Archaeological Survey of India, this mesmerising chain of 30 caves is actually Buddhist temples cut into the steep face of a horseshoe-shaped hillside. Discovered by chance in April 1819 by British army officer John Smith, these revered chambers were built in two stages between the 2nd century BC and 6th century AD. Each cave is unique and filled with elaborate wall murals, magnificent stone sculptures and intricate ceiling paintings that illustrate the court lives of the Gupta Dynasty in its most prosperous epoch.
Highlights: Whilst the lack of light in this Buddhist sanctuary is crucial to the serene and surreal experience, you will need to bring a torch. The caves are numbered and divided into Viharas (monasteries with residence halls) and Chaitya-grihas (stupa monument halls with Buddhist shrines). Work your way through all 30 caves in the semi-darkness to see why this is the one of the most immaculately preserved sites in India - and also one of the finest painting galleries from the ancient world in existence.
Cruise the backwaters of India’s Kerala state
Where: Stretching along India’s southwest coast.
What: A network of 44 lakes, rivers, lagoons and canals, Kerala’s tropical backwaters are a little piece of paradise in Kerala, the self-styled ‘God’s Own Country’. Actually meaning 'land of coconuts', Kerala is like nowhere else in India; this sliver of land is awash with rice paddies, tea-covered hillsides, rustic villages, waterfront resorts, delectable cuisine, and gorgeous beaches on the Arabian Sea coast. The wildlife is pretty wild too; get up-close with elephants, exotic birds and the occasional tiger in the evergreen forests, and seek out egrets, herons and kingfishers at the Kumarakom Bird Sanctuary set in the lush woodland.
Highlights: Sailing Kerala’s backwaters on a kettuvallam is an absolute must - especially for those who want to get a glimpse of local tribal life in the surrounding villages. Meaning 'boat with knots', these houseboats are built from wooden planks that are tied together with coconut ropes. Measuring around 70-foot long and 20-foot wide, they are topped with thatch made from palm leaves and bamboo poles and then painted with layers of fish and cashew nut oil to prevent water damage. Most kettuvallams can be hired for up to a week, with many assuring air-conditioning, designer-led décor, and other luxurious trimmings and trappings.
Enjoy a stylish stay at Taj Lake Palace
Where: On Lake Pichola in Udaipur.
What: A fabulous white marble palace that seemingly ‘floats’ across a four-acre island in the middle of Lake Pichola, this former royal residence was built by Maharana Jagat Singh II, the 62nd successor to the dynasty of Mewar of Udaipur. Completed in 1746 and originally named Jag Niwas, it served as a summer retreat for the Maharana’s descendants until the 1960s. Opened as a five-star hotel in 1971, the building shot to fame in 1983 when it featured in the James Bond movie Octopussy. It has since become one of India’s most salubrious boltholes.
Highlights: Gilded mouldings, sparkling chandeliers, sculptured marble columns and immaculately laid-out gardens set the scene for the upscale design elements to follow. The décor is every bit as sumptuous as you would imagine with elaborate frescos, lavish silks and ornate carved wood furniture adorning each of the 66 guestrooms and 17 suites. Guests can enjoy blissful pampering in the Jiva Spa, dine in four sublime restaurants, unwind by the outdoor pool, and hire one of the hotel's vintage cars with a personal butler if they fancy taking a trip to the city.
Hit the beaches in the tiny sun-soaked state of Goa
Where: On India’s western coast.
What: What was once an off-the-beaten-track hippie haven is now less about tripping out and embracing inner peace and more about the stunning 75-mile long coastline, sugar-white sands, crystalline waters and upscale five-star resorts. This small, former Portuguese enclave has a character quite distinct from the rest of India, with most party-lovers heading to North Goa for iconic full-moon parties, all-night raves, and a legendary club scene. By contrast, South Goa is far more chilled-out and relatively untouched by mass tourism.
Highlights: Lapped by the Arabian Sea, the beaches in South Goa may not compete with those in the north for high-octane activity; the vibe here is a lot more peaceful. Three of the best southern sandy gems include Palolem for its mile-long stunning crescent-shaped beach and palm trees, Polem for its secluded setting, and Patnem for its palm groves and laid-back beach scene. Also trip-worthy is Galgibag for its dolphins and endangered Olive Ridley turtles, and the less-visited Talpona for its exceptionally clean waters. It is worth bearing in mind that although Goa has quite a liberal reputation, wearing a bikini anywhere other than the beach is considered disrespectful.
Take a tour of Old Delhi
Where: Between the Aravalli hills and the Yamuna River in northern India.
What: Built in the 17th century during Shah Jahan's reign and packed out with architectural marvels, historic shrines and chaotic bazaars, the city of Shahjahanabad (now called Old Delhi) is one that ignites the imagination. The sites of Old Delhi are best discovered on foot - although you could take a rickshaw or horse-drawn cart for a more authentic experience. For knockout city views, climb to the top of the minaret at the colossal and decorative Jama Masjid - also known as Friday Mosque. Built by some 5,000 artisans between 1644 and 1656, this is the largest mosque in India, accommodating up to 25,000 worshippers.
Highlights: Set on the banks of the River Yamuna, the huge red sandstone UNESCO-listed Lal Qila (known as Red Fort) was built between 1639 and 1648 by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan as a grandiose display of pomp and power. Opposite here stands Shri Digambar Jain Lal Mandir (known as Red Temple), the oldest Jain temple that houses the Bird’s Charity Hospital - the only one of its kind in the world. No visit to Old Delhi would be complete without getting lost in the winding alleyways of the historic shopping strip Chandni Chowk. The area is divided into different bazaars, most famous of which is Khari Baoli – known as the Spice Market. Seek out precious gems at the ancient Dariba Kalan, stock up on fabrics at Katra Neel, marvel at the traditional wedding gear at Kinari Bazaar, and sample delicious street food from local vendors.
Stake out tigers at Kanha National Park
Where: In the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh.
What: The inspiration for Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Jungle Book, Kanha National Park is one of the largest and most significant wildlife sanctuaries in India - and certainly one of best places to spot tigers. Complete with extensive sal and bamboo forests, lakes, streams and flourishing open grasslands, the park will impress Mowgli wannabes with plenty of wildlife. It is home to over 300 bird species as well as a significant number of leopard, sloth bear, Indian wild dog, chital, ant-eating pangolin, and endangered barasingha (swamp deer).
Highlights: As one of the first nine reserves established by Project Tiger in 1973, a scheme to safeguard tigers and protect their ecosystems, Kanha is the king of tiger territory. Elephant safaris are the park’s star attraction, mainly as these beasts can navigate parts of the jungle not accessible by jeeps and 4WD’s. Each elephant ride lasts for up to 15 minutes, and the chances of spotting tigers, amongst other wildlife, are always high. For peace of mind, elephants in India have been tracking tigers for centuries, and those used on safari at Kanha are trained to ‘block’ tigers if and when necessary.
Feel the festive spirit of India
What: There was once a time when there was a festival for every day of the year, but nowadays around 40 remain to celebrate gods and goddesses, saints and prophets, the wind, the fire, the rain, the sun, and more. By far the biggest and most culturally significant is Diwali, the five-day Festival of Lights that usually falls between mid-October and mid-November. Named for the glittering row (avali) of clay oil lamps (or deepa) that millions of Indians light outside their homes to dispel darkness and bring in the light of clarity, the festival is marked with fireworks, sharing of sweets and gifts, strings of electric lights, bonfires, and worship to Lakshmi - the goddess of prosperity, wealth, purity, and generosity.
Highlights: Whereas Diwali is the Festival of Lights, March’s Holi is the Festival of Colours. An uplifting festival to celebrate joy, rebirth and the beginning of spring, crowds of people gather around bonfires, smear each other with coloured powders, dress in vibrant clothing, and soak each other with water balloons. Equally theatrical is Navatari, the longest Hindu festival that honours the goddess Durga for nine consecutive nights, and pays tribute to Lord Rama on the tenth day. Held in late September or early October, celebrations vary from region to region but typically include drama and dance performances.
Marvel at the iconic Taj Mahal
Where: Agra, in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh.
What: As one of the world’s New Seven Wonders, India's fabled mausoleum is a fairytale-like palace carved from Makrana white marble. What looms from the banks of the Yamuna River and assumes hues of pearly pink at dawn, brilliant white at noon, and shimmering gold at moonlight is a symbol of true love. It was built by Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan to honour his late wife Mumtaz Mahal who died in childbirth in 1631. Legend states that the Mughal Empress had bound her devoted husband with a deathbed promise - to build her the most beautiful tomb ever. And he did. Completed in 1653, the epic task of building the Taj Mahal (meaning Crown Palace) took 22 years and cost approximately 32 million rupees.
Highlights: The world’s busiest tomb packs in some 60,000 visitors daily. The double-storied domed chamber houses the star attraction - the white marble cenotaphs of Mumtaz Mahal and Shah Jahan that are inlaid with precious and semi-precious stones. Equally impressive is the 300-metre squared Persian-style walled garden, where the centrepiece is a raised marble lotus-tank (known as Tank of Abundance) that reflects the image of the Taj Mahal in its waters.
Be wowed by the natural beauty of Valley of Flowers National Park
Where: Nestled high in West Himalaya in the state of Uttarakhand.
What: Only open from the beginning of June until the end of September, this enchanting flower-filled UNESCO-listed park entices with over 300 species of endemic alpine flowers. To appreciate the beauty of this high-altitude Himalayan valley, be sure to visit after the monsoon. The flowers are in full bloom from mid-June to mid-August - at any other time of year the ground is frozen. Originally known as Bhiundhar Valley, this bio-diverse hotspot was discovered and renamed in in 1931 by Frank S Smythe, the British mountaineer and botanist who subsequently wrote ‘The Valley of Flowers’ as a tribute to the valley’s floral wonders.
Highlights: According to Hindu mythology, The Valley of Flowers is the place from where Hanuman brought the magical herb of Sanjeevani to revive the unconscious Lakshman. Nowadays the valley still holds a mystical appeal, with many believing it to be the playground of fairies. Whilst the floral composition changes daily, the view of a landscape carpeted by flowers such as the sacred brahmakamal (orchid cactus), blue poppy, cobra lily, daisies, rhododendrons and anemones is truly spellbinding. The area is also home to plenty of butterflies and you may be lucky enough to spot a snow leopard, musk deer, blue sheep or Himalayan bear.
Watch pilgrims bathe in the holy Hindu city of Varanasi
Where: In the middle Ganges valley of North India.
What: As one of Hinduism’s seven holy cities, Varanasi (also known as Benares) is the city of life and death that rises from the ghats (steps) on the western banks of the River Ganges. Founded by Lord Shiva 5,000 years ago and believed to be the world’s oldest inhabited city, it was famously described by Mark Twain as ‘older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together’. Regarded by its devotees as the holiest of Indian pilgrimages, this is where the devout come to wash away their sins in the holy - but polluted and filthy - waters.
Highlights: The sights of pilgrims publically bathing and practicing age-old rituals celebrating life and death can be overwhelming, so brace yourself - especially when you encounter the daily ritualistic burning of bodies on funeral pyres along the riverside. Walk along the ghats, take a rowing boat ride on the river at sunrise or sunset, explore the narrow ancient alleys of the old city, and visit the golden Vishwanath Temple dedicated to Lord Shiva. Most fascinating is the nightly Pooja Ceremony, where Brahmins perform a series of rituals with burning incense, fire, bells, drums and loud music from around 6pm.