India has been changing and re-shaping itself for as long as anywhere on earth, forever producing new forms of culture and absorbing new influences. Visiting the subcontinent, you’ll see spectacular carved temples and gleaming marble palaces, lonely Himalayan lamaseries and far-flung dusty villages where council meetings are held under the shade of a banyan tree, plodding camels, holy cows, snake charmers and wild-haired sadhus: you’ll also find a dynamic state racing into the twenty-first century. The boundaries of modern India, fixed some fifty years ago, are merely the latest in a four-thousand-year sequence of redefinitions that have produced one of the most heterogeneous societies in the world. The land where the Buddha lived and preached, and where the Moghul Muslims erected the Taj Mahal, has recreated itself as both a majority Hindu nation and the world’s largest secular democracy, home to almost one thousand million people.
Many first-time visitors cannot see past the grinding poverty of the country’s most disadvantaged citizens. Others expect a timeless ascetic wonderland and are indignant to find that materialism has its place here too. Still more find themselves intimidated by what may seem, initially, an incomprehensible and bewildering continent.
This guide is intended to lead you through the states, cities and towns of India, offering historical, architectural and cultural information to enrich your trip, whether you intend to travel for a few weeks or several months. The guide’s intention is to spare you the mistakes and anti-climaxes that can spoil the best-laid plans, and to direct you towards off-beat delights as well as world-famous landmarks. It covers specific states and regions by introducing the major sights, surveying the history, and summarizing the major travel routes. In each town we’ve detailed the best places to stay and eat, reviewing palace hotels of faded grandeur alongside inexpensive lodges and simple pilgrim guesthouses, and Mughlai restaurants next to village food stalls. We haven’t set out to list the cheapest options everywhere, because in India, as anywhere else, the cheapest can easily be the worst. As well as providing detailed accounts of all the major sights, we provide the information you need to search out performing arts, enjoy Indian cinema, explore ashrams and religious centers, and get swept away by the fervors of the great festivals.
The best Indian itineraries are the simplest. To imagine that there is some set list of places you must go, or things you must see, is a sure way to make your trip self-defeating. You couldn’t see everything in one expedition, even if you spent a year trying. Far better then, to concentrate on one or two specific regions, and above all, to be flexible. Although it requires a deliberate change of pace to venture away from the cities, rural India has its own very distinct pleasures. In fact, while Indian cities are undoubtedly adrenalin-fuelled, upbeat places, it is possible – and certainly less stressful – to travel for months around the subcontinent and rarely have to set foot in one.
The information under Basics provides an overview of the practical aspects of travelling in India. To put it simply, it’s not as difficult as you may imagine, or may be told. Some travellers impose an exhausting sequence of long-distance journeys and other privations upon themselves that no Indian would dream of attempting, and then wonder why they’re not enjoying their trip. Although becoming overtired is an almost inevitable part of travelling around India, getting ill – despite the interminable tales of Delhi-belly and associated hardships so proudly told by a certain type of India bore – certainly isn’t. If you give yourself time to rest there’s no reason why you should pick up anything worse than a headache. Food is generally extremely good, especially in south India, famed for its creative vegetarian cuisine; water can be bought in bottles, just like anywhere else in the world, and there are plenty of comfortable, inexpensive places to stay. Though the sheer size of the country means that travel is seldom straightforward, the extensive road, rail and air links ensure that few destinations are inaccessible, and fares are invariably cheap. Furthermore, the widespread use of English makes communication easy for the majority of Western visitors. Journeys may be long – a four-hour bus ride is normal, and travelling constantly for thirty hours not uncommon – but they can provide some of the very best moments of a trip: punctuated with frequent food stops and memorable encounters, and passing through an everchanging landscape. For long hauls, much the best way to go is by train; with computerized booking now established almost everywhere, the Indian rail network is as efficient as almost any in the world. Rail journeys also offer the chance to meet other travellers and Indians from all walks of life, and a constant stream of activity as chai-wallahs, peanut-sellers, musicians, astrologers and mendicants wander through the carriages.