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India shares borders with Pakistan, China, Nepal, Myanmar, Bangladesh and Bhutan. The Himalaya flank India in the north, while the Indian Ocean surrounds the country's large southern peninsula. The fabled Ganges, the holiest and one of the most important rivers in India, originates in the northern Himalaya and flows down into huge, flat plains. The plains run into the Deccan Plateau in the south.

For tourism purposes, India is often divided into two regions: the north, which includes Delhi and Kolkata (Calcutta); and the south, which includes Mumbai (Bombay), Chennai (Madras), Bangalore and much of the nation's coastline. (The culture, cuisine, languages and customs are noticeably different in each region.) Within those regions, each state also has its own identity, formed around an ethnic group.

 

Facts

Official Name: Republic of India.
Capital: New Delhi.
Population: 1,205,073,612.
Languages: Hindi, English, 14 other official languages.
Predominant Religions: Hindu, Islamic, Christian, Bhuddist, and a range of more animistic religions.
Time Zone: 5.5 hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time (+5.5 GMT). Daylight Saving Time is not observed.
Voltage Requirements: 220 volts.
Telephone Codes: 91, country code.
For most of the country, November-March is (by far) the best time to visit, with temperatures ranging from 40-60 F/5-15 C in the north (excluding Kashmir and Ladakh, which are always cooler) to 65-85 F/19-30 C in the south. March-June is dry and very, very hot (85-110 F/30-44 C), and June-October is monsoon time (20-80 in/50-200 cm of rain will fall in one season). The best times to visit Darjeeling and other mountain areas are the months of March, April, October and November. Obviously, it's less crowded with tourists in India during the off-seasons, but it can be so hot in the spring and summer that it's really not possible to stay outdoors for long periods of time. Another problem is that in the rainy period the monsoon washes away many roads in game parks and the rural areas (south-eastern India has a second rainy period during the cool season). If you're going to India during the spring or summer, you'll want to stick with the hill stations (60-70 F/ 15-21 C). During the winter, avoid Kashmir (30-45 F/0-7 C), unless you're going skiing (and don't even think about Ladakh unless you are going to trek in frozen rivers with Joel - it's one of the coldest inhabited regions on Earth).
India's first major civilisation flourished for a thousand years from around 2500 BC along the Indus River valley. Its great cities were Mohenjodaro and Harappa (in what is now Pakistan), ruled by priests and bearing the rudiments of Hinduism. Aryan invaders swept south from Central Asia between 1500 and 200 BC and controlled northern India, pushing the original Dravidian inhabitants south.

The invaders brought their own gods and cattle-raising and meat-eating traditions, but were absorbed to such a degree that by the 8th century BC the priestly caste had reasserted its supremacy. This became consolidated in the caste system, a hierarchy maintained by strict rules that secured the position of the Brahmin priests. Buddhism arose around 500 BC, condemning caste; it drove a radical swathe through Hinduism in the 3rd century BC when it was embraced by the Mauryan Emperor Ashoka, who controlled huge tracts of India.

Following are the list of places to visit in India.

Agra

This city (pop. 956,000) is best known for being the site of the Taj Mahal, the single most important sight a visitor to India can see. Even though millions of pictures have been taken of it, none can do it justice. This elegant structure was built by the Emperor Shah Jahan for his wife Mumtaz Mahal, who died giving birth to their 14th child. It took some 20,000 laborers 22 years to build the Taj, and every detail is absorbing: the classical gardens, the reflecting pool, the elaborate patterns of semiprecious stones decorating the white marble. (More than 200 factories in the area have been shut down to prevent air pollution from discoloring the marble.) If time permits, schedule at least two days in Agra to visit the Taj twice and plan to spend a minimum of an hour on each visit. Hours are from sunrise to sunset, and it is closed on Friday.

Religion seeps into every facet of Indian life. Despite being a secular democracy, India is one of the few countries on earth in which the social and religious structures that define the nation's identity remain intact, and have continued to do so for at least 4000 years despite invasions, persecution, European colonialism and political upheaval. Change is inevitably taking place as modern technology reaches further and further into the fabric of society but essentially rural India remains much the same as it has for thousands of years. So resilient are its social and religious institutions that it has absorbed, ignored or thrown off all attempts to radically change or destroy them. India's major religion, Hinduism, is practised by approximately 80% of the population. In terms of the number of adherents, it's the largest religion in Asia and one of the world's oldest extant faiths. Hinduism has a vast pantheon of gods, a number of holy books and postulates that everyone goes through a series of births or reincarnations that eventually lead to spiritual salvation. With each birth, you can move closer to or further from eventual enlightenment; the deciding factor is your karma. The Hindu religion has three basic practices. They are puja or worship, the cremation of the dead, and the rules and regulations of the caste system. Hinduism is not a proselytising religion since you cannot be converted: you're either born a Hindu or you're not.

At the time of writing all nationalities require a visa to enter India, they are not available at port of entry but must be obtained in advance. It your responsibility to arrange visas before you travel, sometimes your travel agent can assist you.

For information on the location of your nearest embassy or consulate we recommend the following website: http://dir.yahoo.com/Government/Embassies_and_Consulates/
There's more to Indian food than just curry - the country has more than 15 different regional cuisines (curries are favored in the south). Thali (pronounced TAR-ley) is the most ubiquitous meal in India. Served either as a vegetarian dish or with meat, it consists of rice and chapatis (similar to heavy flour tortillas) with five sauces and curds.

Even those afraid of spicy food will love the mild chicken tandoori or Kashmiri-style dishes or, in Kerala, fish flavored with coconut, ginger or fruit. Any dish prepared in the Kashmiri-style will be delicate and have lots of fruits and nuts (in Kashmir itself, find a restaurant offering a wazwan, a traditional feast containing as many as 17 meat dishes). Pakoras (fried vegetable fritters) also provide an easy introduction to Indian cookery. Samosas are breaded, fried vegetable triangles. Dal, an Indian lentil soup, can be found anywhere, and if the name of a dish has the word paneer in it, the dish contains cubes of compressed cottage cheese (it's better than it sounds). Dum aloo is a wonderfully spicy potato dish found in the north. Buff refers to water-buffalo meat, and mutton is usually goat. The breads are superlative - there's none better than naan (baked in a tandoori oven), but do try papadum, a wafer-thin lentil-flour bread, at least once.

For dessert, try kheer (rice pudding). Fruit lassis are a yogurt-based drink that can be very refreshing; curd, a very mild yogurt, is often served with meals. We generally advise against eating from street stalls, unless the food is freshly cooked before your eyes. Indian food is eaten with the fingers of the right hand only. In addition to Indian foods, Western and Chinese restaurants abound. Beware of ice cream and dairy products except at the finest hotels. If you're in an area where you don't trust the food but are really hungry, buy a package of the ubiquitous glucose biscuits, a bland (but safe) cookie. Steamed rice cakes, known as idli, are available almost everywhere and are considered the lightest and safest meal for sensitive stomachs.

Beware of vendors selling soft drinks that are not normally available in India (whatever's in those bottles, it's not what it says on the label). Don't accept ice in your drinks, except from the absolutely finest hotels - the water that goes into the ice might not be so good. Some states prohibit the sale of alcohol. If you want to drink liquor everywhere you go, get an All India Liquor Permit when you get your visa (or from the Government Tourist Offices in Mumbai, Calcutta, Delhi or Chennai).

Tipping

Tip 10% in better restaurants that haven't added a service charge to the bill. Small change will be appreciated in modest restaurants. Tip taxi drivers by rounding off the fare (more only if given exceptional service).
Do dress conservatively at Indian beaches. This is especially true for women: Much of Indian society is very conservative, and normal Western beach attire may send a strong, though unintended, signal. Attacks on foreign women have occurred, especially in Kerala State.

Don't try to sneak into temples and mosques that forbid non-Hindus or non-Muslims.

Don't be surprised if you are frequently the centre of attention when travelling around the country. Staring unabashedly is not the social taboo in India that it is in Western countries.

Do carry toilet paper with you (or adjust to the Indian habit of using water instead), but don't throw it down the toilet without first checking to see if there's a basket to put it in (pipes in India are very narrow and clog easily).

Don't give in to children who ask for "just one rupee." Although a rupee is a small amount that anyone can spare, successful begging leads young children to drop out of school and take up panhandling as their trade.

Do walk around stupas clockwise, so that the outer walls are always on your right. If you encounter a stone wall covered with Tibetan inscriptions, do the same: Walk past with the wall on your right (and don't take any of the stones!).

Don't step over other people's feet (or any other part of their body). By the same token, don't pat children on the head and don't sit with your feet pointing at someone (especially toward a monk or lama) - both practices are considered insulting.
Sandalwood items, fabrics (including silks), papier-mache, brassware, wood carvings, clothing, religious paraphernalia, paintings and prints, dhurri rugs, shawls, Oriental carpets, marble-inlay boxes, dolls, copperware, bronzes, musical instruments, silver, jute products, tea, saffron, batiks, bamboo products, fossils and crystals are among the good buys. Well-made souvenirs are available from most good hotels, but for the real Indian buying experiences head for any local market.

The national and state government emporium stores have high-quality items, but prices are usually a bit higher than elsewhere and you can't bargain. Bargaining is the name of the game almost everywhere else: Depending on the product, you may want to offer one-third to two-thirds of the initial asking price and take it from there. Remember that haggling for a good price takes time. When buying name-brand items, be careful - copycats abound. Any item more than 100 years old is classified as an antique; you will need an export license to take it home.

It's true (as you'll be told by gem dealers) that you can buy gems to take home for profit, but you can also get burned - only attempt it if you know a lot about gems. It's usually best to avoid any vendors selling animal-derived objects - tiger skins, elephant horns - because trade in most animal products is illegal. If you are dead set on obtaining such merchandise, the Indian Tourist Office strongly suggests that you insist on seeing the permission to sell any animal products and make sure to take a receipt.

If you see a brand-name product in unexpected places (a Gucci bag from a street vendor or a U.S.-brand candy bar), it may not be legitimate. Counterfeit and copycat goods are not just aimed at tourists - Indian residents are also wary. We had always wondered why the Indian toilet paper, A-One, carried the warning Beware of Imitations until we accidentally picked up a roll of A-Won brand, which had nearly identical packaging.

Shopping Hours: Monday-Saturday 9:30 am-6 pm. In established markets, shopping hours usually stretch on till night falls. Because markets differ in which days they close, it's sometimes a good idea to double-check with locals before going to one.

Banking Hours: Generally Monday-Friday 10 am-2 pm, Saturday 10 am-noon. Long lines are common, and you are often required to stand in at least two lines for every transaction.
  • Colonial literature includes Rudyard Kipling's Kim and Plain Tales from the Hills, and EM Forster's A Passage to India.

  • The post-colonial Indian novel par excellence is Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children, though Vikram Seth's suitcase-sized A Suitable Boy runs a close second. In the past decade, a swag of Indian authors writing in English have achieved international recognition. They include Rohinton Mistry, Shashi Tharoor and Arundhati Roy. The delightful novels of RK Narayan are evidence that Indian literary talent in English is nothing particularly new.

  • Worthy travelogues include Paul Theroux's The Great Railway Bazaar and Alexander Frater's delightful Chasing the Monsoon. William Dalrymple explored Delhi in City of Djinns and Geoffrey Moorhouse took the plunge in Kolkata in Calcutta - A City Revealed.

  • Commentaries on India almost form a publishing sub-genre of their own, and provide travellers with some of the best insights. They include VS Naipaul's acerbic An Area of Darkness and India - A Wounded Civilisation and the more mature A Million Mutinies Now; James Cameron's insightful An Indian Summer; Mark Tully's No Full Stops In India; and John Keay's Into India are also worthwhile reading.

  • The two-volume Pelican History of India is a dry but comprehensive historical treatment. More readable accounts of specific chapters of Indian history include Christopher Hibbert's The Great Mutiny - India 1857, Plain Tales from the Raj edited by Charles Allen, Tariq Ali's The Nehrus & the Gandhis and the sensationalist potboiler Freedom at Midnight by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre.

  • The Hindu holy books, the Upanishads and Bhagavad Gita, are available in English translations. Hinduism by KM Sen is a blissfully brief and to-the-point introduction to India's major religion. A Classical Dictionary of Hindu Mythology &Religion will help unravel who's who in the Hindu cosmology. Anyone tempted to don a dhoti and go looking for spiritual salvation will save themselves a lot of heartache by reading Gita Mehta's witty Karma Kola.

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