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But don't limit yourself to the Taj alone. Three other sights in the area should not be missed: Agra Fort, built under the Mughal Emperor Akbar in 1565, contains numerous palaces and a white marble mosque; Itmad-ud-Daulah's tomb, which is a marble forerunner to the Taj; and Fatehpur Sikri, 25 mi/40 km outside of Agra, is an enchanting, extremely well-preserved 16th-century city that was once the capital of the Mughal empire (abandoned 15 years after it was built, it remains deserted to this day). The newer parts of Agra are unexceptional, but if you follow the road out of the Main Gate of the Taj and keep heading straight, you'll find yourself in old Agra, which has a lively market. On a hot spring or summer afternoon, the whitewashed residential area nearby has the look and feel of a small North African town. 125 mi/200 km southeast of Delhi.

Ajmer

An important pilgrimage site for Muslims, Ajmer (pop. 402,000) also has fine examples of Hindu and Mughal architecture. The city has a large fort and many beautiful pavilions lining Anasagar Lake. Nearby is the town of Pushkar, with a sacred lake where devout Hindus go every autumn for ritual bathing and a large fairgrounds where camel traders assemble for a colorful three-day camel festival. (The lake is at its best after a good monsoon season.) However, do not try to photograph women taking their morning dip, and do not let a priest (or someone posing as one) conduct rituals for you - it ends up being heavy on the wallet. Also worth seeing are the Pushkar market and anyone perfoming the "Snake Dance," a local ritual. 220 mi/355 km southwest of Delhi.

Alappuzha

A tropical town in southwestern India (pop. 170,000), Alappuzha lies in a region webbed with canals and fishing areas. We like it because it's a starting or ending point for the exquisite inland waterway trail stretching from there to Kollam (Quilon). The maharajahs once used the 300-mi/483-km network of canals for communication - now tourists chug slowly on riverboats through the shallow, palm-fringed lakes (sometimes running aground) to gaze at a part of Keralan society that revolves around fishing and the processing of coir (coconut fibre), copra (dried coconut meat) and cashews. Families cling perilously to narrow spits of land, somehow managing to keep cows, pigs, chickens and ducks and cultivate small vegetable gardens on islands just a few yards wide. Residents paddle rapier-thin canoes hewn from trunks of the jackfruit tree cross the open stretches of water to sell groceries or deliver rice hay. It's a relaxing, unhurried journey that seems much more like a tour in the South Pacific than in India.

Numerous boat races are held June-September. The main attraction is the Snake Boat Races or Nehru Trophy Races held the second Saturday of August. Each boat holds more than 100 oarsmen and glides through the water like the races' namesake. Alappuzha is 700 mi/1,150 km southeast of Mumbai.

Amritsar

The holy center of the Sikh religion, Amritsar is a 16th-century Punjabi city (pop. 1,050,000) located near the Pakistani border. It's main attraction is the beautiful Golden Temple, which is made of white marble, bronze and gold leaf. To enter the temple, you must don a traditional headscarf, wade through a shallow pool (a purification ritual) and merge with the sweeping mass of bodies that circle the embankment around the holy structure. The temple sustained some damage when it was the site of a bloody battle between Sikh and government forces in 1984. Much of the physical damage has been repaired, but tensions periodically run high in the immediate area.

Other sights include the Baba Atal Tower and the many beautiful gardens. Amritsar is also the place to go to gain insight into the Sikh culture (adherents of the religion don't cut any of their hair; the men are easily identified by their turbans, beards and silver bracelets, the women by the dress-and-pants combination they wear (known as the salwaar kameez, it has become popular around the country). The India-Pakistan border at Wagah is worth a look: The guards on both sides take part in various military rituals, morning and evening, that are strangely symbolic of the violent relationship the two countries share. 255 mi/410 km northwest of Delhi.

Andaman And Nicobar Islands

These 300-plus islands (pop. 280,000) are really off the beaten path. The Andamans, once famous for being home to Kala Pani, a jail for political prisoners during colonial rule, now offer nice beaches, palm trees, dense forests, farms, swampy land and a wide variety of people (ranging from nice to not-so-friendly). The 19 Nicobar Islands, 10 mi/16 km south of the Andamans, are still very primitive, offering few tourist facilities. (At press time, only native Indians with specific business there - mostly research - were being allowed to visit.) The main island is Car Nicobar. The Andamans are reached by air from Kolkata or Chennai or by a three-day boat ride to Port Blair in the Andamans. Travel between the islands is by local boat. Only a few islands are open to foreign visitors, and even those require special permits for a limited stay. Located in the Bay of Bengal, more than 750 mi/1,200 km southeast of Kolkata.

Bangalore

Previously known for its public gardens, Bangalore (pop. 5,561,000) is now famous for its booming software industry. The city requires at least one day to see adequately. The town has a large Anglo-Indian minority and is considerably more Westernized than many Indian cities. Visit the Palace of Tippu Sultan (once home to the south Indian king famous for battling the British), the Bull Temple, the Indian Institute of Science and the 240-acre/100-hectare Lal Bagh botanical garden, with its pools, terraces, fountains, trees and herbs. 530 mi/855 km southeast of Mumbai.

Bhubaneswar

Three towns near the southwest coast have fascinating temple complexes. During the 8th-13th centuries, Bhubaneswar (pop. 411,000), the largest of the three, boasted 7,000 temples. Today, 500 can still be visited in town and in the nearby Dhauli Hills. Konarak, 40 mi/64 km east of Bhubaneswar, is known for its 13th-century Sun Temple, one of the most impressive shrines in India. The temple is in the shape of a chariot for the sun god - enormous "wheels" and other carvings decorate the side of the building. Puri (pop. 125,000), 37 mi/48 km south of Bhubaneswar, was built in the 12th century as a holy Hindu city, and even today pilgrims stream in to visit the Jagannath Temple. Non-Hindus can't enter the temple, but the area is worth visiting to watch the people come and go. All the buildings are covered with chiseled figures of mythological figures, elephants and erotica. Plan three nights for the area. If you're going to Puri in June and July, book early; 200,000 pilgrims will also be in town for the Rath Yatra Festival, when 45-ft-/14-m-high chariots transport the image of Jagannath through the streets. Bhubaneswar is located 300 mi/485 km southwest of Kolkata.

Bijapur

This city (pop. 187,000) has many interesting Islamic monuments. See the Gol Gumbaz, a huge domed tomb with an amazing whispering gallery (any slight noise on one side of the dome can be heard perfectly on the opposite side - and can even echo up to a dozen times). Visit the museum, the Ibrahim Roza tomb, the citadel and some of the dozens of other mosques and Muslim monuments. 535 mi/860 km southeast of Mumbai.

Bikaner

Called the Desert City, Bikaner (pop. 416,000) is stark, yet beautiful - great Hindu and Mughal art is preserved there. Similar in setting to Jaisalmer, Bikaner is a walled city with an important 16th-century fort containing many intricately carved palaces and temples. The fort is remarkably well preserved - it was attacked many times, but never conquered. 240 mi/385 km west of Delhi.

Bodh Gaya

It was in this town (pop. 27,000) that Buddha attained enlightenment under a bodhi tree - which you can still visit. Bodh Gaya has many interesting temples, notably the Maha Bodhi temple, an ornate structure believed to have been built more than two millennia ago. (Much of the original building was destroyed by invaders in the 11th century and rebuilt with assistance from the Burmese government in the late 1800s.) The town also contains a number of meditation centers, many of which offer multi-day courses and retreats. Northeast of Bodh Gaya are the ruins of Nalanda University, once home to 10,000 Buddhist students, 2,000 teachers and nine million texts. Beside the ruins is a small museum. Nalanda is still the site of a Buddhist research center. 225 mi/365 km northwest of Kolkata.

Chandigarh

The capital of two states, Hariyana and Punjab, this city (pop. 505,000) has impressive modern architecture. The city was designed by the great French architect Le Corbusier, who was commissioned for the job by the Indian government. The High Court Building is a standout. Less aesthetic but equally interesting is the Rock Garden, which is decorated with castoff items and industrial and household junk. It represents the 12-year labors of a single man, who built the garden to protest environmental degradation. Chandigarh requires one night (it's usually seen as a halfway stop between Delhi and Srinagar). 150 mi/240 km north of Delhi.

Chennai

The city formerly known as Madras is the fifth-largest in India (pop. 6,648,000) and among the most ancient. Located in the cradle of Indian Christianity, the city is where the first missionaries arrived nearly 1,900 years ago - there are some very old churches. Visit the Basilica of San Thome (where St. Thomas, Christ's apostle, who's buried there, is said to have preached); St. Thomas Mount (a church marks the spot where St. Thomas is said to have died); and the Church of St. Mary, the oldest Anglican church in India (it's within the walls of Fort St. George, a 17th-century fort). Other sights include the grand British-built Old Government House; the lighthouse (for its view - be prepared for a strenuous climb); the central flower market and the very fine Marina Beach, one of the longest in India. Although it's not much to look at, visit the icehouse (also known as Vivekananda House, it's now a hostel), where ice was once stored after arriving by ship. Travelers interested in Indian art should check out the Government Museum, which houses noted collections of ancient bronze and stone sculpture.

Among the interesting Hindu temples in Chennai are Kapaleeswarar, Mallikarjuna and Chennakesava. Also visit the Sri Parthasarathy Temple, built by the Pallava rulers in the 8th century and renovated by the Vijayanagar rulers in the 16th century. It's one of the oldest temples in the city. Check the arts pages of the local newspapers to see if there's a performance of Bharatanatyam, an ancient dance style developed in Tamil Nadu. About 80 mi/130 km northwest of the city is Tirupati, a temple devoted to the Hindu god Balaji, who is known as "the giver of wealth." Tirupati is not especially ancient or beautiful, but it is the richest temple in India. Thousands of travelers and pilgrims arrive every day to make an offering at the temple - which often includes shaving the head - in hopes of winning favor with Balaji. The surrounding town, thanks to the temple's income, is better maintained and manicured than most.

There are also several must-see ruins outside Chennai. The Mahabalipuram ruins, 37 mi/60 km south of Chennai, date from the 7th century and consist of a cave temple, shore temple, monolithic rathas (rock-carved temple chariots) and bas-reliefs (truly among the world's finest). Kanchipuram includes several temples, among them 8th-century Kailasanatha Temple, Ekambaranathar Temple and Vaikunta Perumal Temple. If you're in the area at noon, go to Tirukalikundram (a hill), where a priest uses kites to feed birds (the birds don't always cooperate). 640 mi/1,030 km southeast of Mumbai.

Darjeeling

Set at 7,000 ft/2,135 m, Darjeeling (pop. 73,000) is a bit off the beaten path, but worth the effort to visit. This pretty resort built among tea plantations is one of the cool hill stations, where the rulers of the British Raj could escape the heat of the summer. The place now attracts tourists (primarily upper-class Indians) bent on the same advantages of natural air-conditioning.

Half the fun of visiting Darjeeling is getting there. The famous "toy train" huffs and puffs and climbs to more than 8,000 ft/2,400 m along a narrow-gauge track before reaching the city (you might remember the train from the movie Around the World in 80 Days). The trip begins in Siliguri and takes about eight hours to climb 50 mi/80 km. If you want to save time, take a taxi up and the train down, but be sure to purchase your return ticket in Siliguri - you can't reserve a first-class (or air-conditioned) return ticket in Darjeeling.

Darjeeling is built among hills, and visitors can expect to do a lot of climbing up and down stairs to get from one street to the next (the highest reaches of town are where most tourist development is, the middle level is the turf of middle-class Indian residents and the lower level is where the working-class and native tribal population lives). There's not a lot to do except relax, listen to the Buddhist monks call the faithful to worship on their long, red horns and look at the pretty views.

One sight worth mentioning is the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, a training school for mountain climbers. Its museum features memorabilia from the first ascent of Everest, and documentary films are often shown (Sir Edmund Hillary's climbing partner, the Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, taught at the institute until his death in 1986). You can tour a tea plantation, but if you do, you may not want to drink Indian tea again - the leaves are normally sifted onto the unclean floor (but you can take solace in the fact that tea leaves are boiled). There's also a depressing zoo (its main attractions are Siberian tigers and yaks), botanical gardens, two Buddhist monasteries, a racetrack and a cable car that connects Darjeeling to the village of Singla Bazar. From mid April until the end of June, it's usually possible to see Mt. Kanchenjunga, the third-highest mountain in the world, from town. The best view is at dawn atop Tiger Hill, 7 mi/11 km away. We're also told that Everest, 140 mi/225 km distant, can be seen, but we've never had any luck trying. Once the rainy season has started, the town is likely to be enveloped in fog, which adds a pleasant spookiness. Mirik, about halfway between Darjeeling and Siliguri, is another hill resort. Mirik offers mountain views, a lake, tea estates and is a good alternative if Darjeeling is fully booked. Two nights in Darjeeling will be enough for the curious; five nights for those in need of rest. Darjeeling is 310 mi/500 km north of Kolkata.

Delhi

Ancient and modern India come together with startling results in Delhi, the nation's capital and third-largest city. While you may stay in a gleaming high-rise hotel with all the latest conveniences, you can step outside and watch a lawnmower pulled by a bullock. Though parts of the city are well planned, with manicured English-style gardens, other areas are crisscrossed by dark, congested alleys that dead-end into centuries-old mosques and palaces.

Officially two separate cities, the old city of Delhi and New Delhi are really two parts of one sprawling metropolis. New Delhi, largely built by the British, is clean and modern with broad, tree-lined boulevards. Old Delhi, considerably less clean, is noted for spectacular Mughal architecture dating back to the 10th century.

This juxtaposition of old and new is, of course, what makes this city of 10 million residents such a fascinating place. Visitors will find that its long history and mix of cultures have spawned an array of architectural wonders, religious sites, eclectic museums and sumptuous cuisine that will assail all of your senses.

Dharmsala

Set in a thick forest with grand Himalayan peaks looming in the distance, this small town in northern India (pop. 18,500) is best known as the home of the Dalai Lama. Since 1959, when the Buddhist spiritual leader fled Chinese-occupied Tibet, Dharmsala has become a haven for Tibetan exiles and refugees as well as a frequent destination for Buddhists worldwide. The Dalai Lama himself spends a fair bit of the year traveling, but Dharmsala still remains a stirring and intriguing place. The upper part of the town, known as McLeod Ganj, is where the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government-in-exile reside. Sometimes referred to as "Little Lhasa" (the Tibetan capital), upper Dharmsala teems with markets, craft sellers, small restaurants and guest houses. Monks in oxblood robes stroll about amid flapping, colorful prayer flags and make chit-chat with other locals as they head to and from their various monasteries. Shoppers can find excellent handmade Tibetan carpets.

Among Dharmsala's Buddhist attractions are the Dalai Lama's Namgyal Monastery, the Tibetan Children's Village (which houses and educates some 2,000 students) and the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts. The institute routinely puts on traditional Tibetan musical and dance performances, culminating in the 10-day Folk Opera Festival in mid April. The Kangra Art Museum contains collections of indigenous sculpture, pottery, painting, costumes and jewelry dating back to the 5th century. A number of meditation retreats are sponsored in Dharmsala throughout the year, many of them open to visitors. About 300 mi/500 km north of Delhi.

Ellora And Ajanta

Ellora and Ajanta aren't cities, but ancient sites filled with wonderful religious carvings and paintings. Ellora is a collection of 34 cave-shrines, chiseled out of solid rock between the 4th and 9th centuries. The oldest carvings honor the figures and stories of Buddhism, the middle period work is devoted to Hinduism and the last phase is devoted to Jainism. The marvel of these hand-carved temples is that they were chiseled out of the hillside from the top down. Probably the most incredible site is the immense Kailash Temple, a hindu shrine twice the size of the Greek Parthenon. It took 800 workmen some 150 years to build, and it's clear why. Walk through the rooms of the temple and admire the details in every wall - it's really very impressive. Cave 12 is a three-story domicile that was used as monks' quarters during the 7th century. The monks' beds and pillows were, like everything else, carved out of the rock. Don't miss the colonnaded hall of Cave 33, the hall of Cave 10 and the Ravana rock carvings - we were simply astounded by their beauty.

Ajanta is more touristy than Ellora, largely because its caves are considerably older and often even more impressively sculpted. The earliest date back to the 2nd century BC, and several of them have retained color in their painted frescoes (all the surfaces of both sites were once painted). Nearly all of the carvings are devoted to Buddhist stories and characters. Pay particular attention to the sculpted wall panels, beautiful facade and court of Cave 19. (Also at Ajanta, take a look at the geodes and other crystal minerals being sold by the local kids - some are great bargains.)

Unless time is really tight, don't try to see both sites in one day. Plan the better part of a day at each, but allow time to stop at a few other attractions along the way. Among them are the Bibi-ka-Maqbara (a poor imitation of the Taj Mahal built for Emperor Aurangzeb's wife), Daulatabad (an old ruined fortress - the guide will tell you grisly stories about the fort's torturers) and the town of Paithan, where gold and silk embroideries are woven, based on designs copied from the caves. Allow at least one or two days to visit the caves. Ellora and Ajanta are both about 200 mi/320 km east of Mumbai.

Game Parks

India's game parks hold almost as much adventure, mystery and beauty as their African counterparts and contain many similar animals: hyenas, jackals, wild dogs, antelope, buffaloes, elephants, monkeys, crocodiles and a splendid assortment of large and colorful birds. But India is the only destination in the world where you can see lions, tigers and bears in the wild. As a bonus, the park fees are generally lower, and many parks are easily reached by public transportation.

However, more patience is required of a visitor to Indian parks. You're unlikely to see vast herds of animals, a common site in most African safari parks. The major attractions of Indian parks are often solitary animals that prefer a cover of thick forest - they're usually seen only at dawn or dusk. We don't specifically recommend going during the hot, dry spring weather, but if you do, you'll encounter fewer people and the animals will be easier to find (usually around the water holes).

Below is a brief description of some of the major parks. Others that should be seen if you're already in the neighborhood include: Shivpuri, for demoiselle cranes and sambar and chital deer (270 mi/430 km south of Delhi); Manas, for elephants, rhinos and hog deer (near the Bhutan border - it may require special permission to visit); and Jaldapara, for rhinos, leopards, monkeys and many birds (also near Bhutan - may also require special permission to visit). The best months to go are November and February.

Bandhavgarh: Tigers, black-faced langur and rhesus monkeys, and many other animals roam this park, which is in the state of Madhya Pradesh. The park also has a fort still owned by the maharajah of Rewa (visits are possible). The park is open November-June.

Bandipur and Nagarahole: These two parks sit on the border where the states of Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala meet. They are home to Asian elephants, gaurs, sambar and chital deer, antelope and wild pigs. The Karapura area is a good place to see leopards.

Bharatpur (Keoladeo Ghana): One of the most important bird sanctuaries in the world, Bharatpur lies just an hour's drive from the Taj Mahal in Agra. Shallow lakes, divided by a network of dikes and roads suitable for strolling, are home to more than 350 species of birds, including three types of herons, four of egrets, three of storks and two of cranes (including the rare Siberian crane, in winter months). The park can be seen by walking, bike buggy or bicycle. It's advisable to take along one of the local guides for the day (in addition to knowing the names of all the birds, they also know the locations of python dens). Winter (October-January) is the park's best season, as migratory birds triple the number of species represented.

Corbett: Easily accessible from Delhi, this park has been developed to accommodate tourists. Visitors taking park-sponsored elephant rides are likely to see herds of elephants and several varieties of deer. If you're lucky, you'll see tigers, leopards and sloth bears. Tours to the park can be easily arranged in Delhi. November-May is the best season; after February, it can be very hot.

Dudhwa: On the Nepalese border in the state of Uttar Pradesh, this park is home to tigers, some leopards and reintroduced one-horned rhinos. This is also a good area for bird watching. The best time to visit is December-May. The Dudhwa rail station lies within the park.

Gir: Situated near the Arabian Sea northwest of Mumbai, this park is the only home of the Asiatic lion (it's slightly smaller than the African variety, with a thinner mane). If you don't spot a lion in the wild, attend a park-sponsored lion show (a tame animal is tethered - and screened from tourists - and lions show up to investigate). There are also several species of deer, wild boars, four-horned antelope and leopards in the park. Visit October-June.

Kanha: In central India, this excellent large park was Rudyard Kipling?s inspiration for The Jungle Book. Unfortunately, it is not easy to get to if you haven't rented a car. Jabalpur, the nearest rail station, is 105 mi/170 km away, and Nagpur, the nearest airport, is 158 mi/270 km away. From those junctions, the rest of the trip is via uncomfortable local buses. Tigers, monkeys and the rare barasingha deer are likely to be seen. It's best visited November-May.

Kaziranga: This park in northeastern India is one of the best in the country. It's home to the great Indian one-horned rhino (whose numbers are rapidly being depleted by poachers), hog deer, barking deer, elephants and waterfowl. It's best seen by riding an elephant. The best time to go is October-March. Special permission must be obtained to visit the park; for information, contact an Indian embassy/consulate or, in India, a Foreigners Regional Registration Office.

Mudumalai: We think this is the nicest park in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, as well as one of the best in India. Visit from February-May and September-October to enjoy rich bird life, leopards, elephants, deer, monkeys and wild pigs. Elephant rides are easily arranged.

Periyar Tiger Reserve: In the southwestern state of Kerala, this is the best elephant sanctuary in India, despite its name, although it does have tigers, as well as monkeys, wild boar and sambals. Walking tours are offered, but the best way to see the reserve is to take a boat ride on the manmade lake, which is surrounded by the wildlife areas. The park should be visited October-May. Avoid going during the monsoon season (June-September) when most animals keep out of the heavy rains in the dense foliage.

Ranthambore: This is more a tiger reserve than tourist game park. Once there, you'll have to hire a private driver and jeep in town to tour the 243-sq-mi/392-sq-km park. A 1,000-year-old fort is just outside the park's gates (which are part of an old fortification). Surrounding the impressive park (tigers, deer, waterfowl and crocodiles are seen there) are gorges and cliffs. November-February is the best time to visit the reserve.

Sariksa: In Rajasthan, this park features night rides on a spotlight-equipped minibus. Visitors will likely see four varieties of antelope, peacocks and wild hogs (and if they are lucky, tigers, leopards and porcupines). You can stay in government-run bungalows or Hotel Sariska Palace, a former maharajah's hunting lodge.

Sunderbans: In West Bengal, this is the sanctuary with the highest tiger concentration, but it's not easy to tour. The area is so often flooded that many tigers have evolved with webbing between their toes. It's also home to several species of deer, wild boars, crocodiles, gangetic dolphins and birds. Only the well-traveled, adventurous visitor should undertake a journey there. The best time to visit is September-May.

Gangotri

A tiny village nestling 10,000 ft/3,000 m up in the Himalaya, Gangotri - along with nearby Badrinath, Yamunotri and Kedernath - is one of the four great mountain shrines in the Garwhal Himalaya, a vast region of primeval forest and towering mountains. It's also the base for a one-day hike to the source of the Ganges (beware rock slides), which emerges from an ice cave at the snout of the Gangotri Glacier some 13,800 ft/4,200 m above sea level. Accommodation in Gangotri is alarmingly basic: Heavy winter snow forces residents to move down the mountain for six months of the year. There is no electricity and little heat, so nights are often spent huddled under thick woolen quilts. It's a 14-hour journey by clattering bus from Rishikesh to Gangotri. 200 mi/320 km northeast of Delhi.

Goa

Goa (pop. 1,343,000) was settled by the Portuguese in 1505 as the seat of the Catholic Church in the East - it only became part of India again in 1961 (when India invaded to liberate it from Portugal). Goa is one of India's prime tourist locations, thanks to its picturesque location on the Mandovi River, between the Western Ghats and the Arabian Sea. (Unfortunately, package tours from Europe in recent years have changed a charming Portuguese ex-colony into a sprawl of budget hotels and bars.) The state's Portuguese heritage can still be seen in its plazas, cathedrals and architecture. (A few Portuguese even insist that Goa retains more old world heritage than most of Portugal.) A fun way to explore Goa is by renting a bike or scooter. They are easily available, but you must have an International Drivers License, and your passport will generally be kept as a guarantee.

Although it's best known for its 65 mi/105 km of magnificent, palm tree-lined beaches along the Arabian Sea (and as a famed gathering place for hippies in the 1960s), Goa has other attractions of significance. Among them are the Portuguese Catholic Church of Old Goa, St. Anne's Church (an ornate marvel from the 1600s) and the Basilica of Bom Jesus (most of the mummified body of St. Francis Xavier is exhibited there on occasion). The surrounding countryside is dotted with luxurious old estates built by wealthy Indians (many of whom converted to Catholicism), including Braganza Palace, which is open to the public. (For those interested in Portuguese India, Diu and Daman are two other former Portuguese outposts.)

If time permits, take the 20-hour boat ride between Goa and Mumbai. Plan to stay two nights if you aren't interested in beaches or up to seven nights if sand and water are important. 350 mi/560 km south of Mumbai.

Gulmarg

Set at an altitude of 8,900 ft/2,700 m, this Kashmiri resort area has four ski lifts and a golf course. Gulmarg is also a base for area treks (if time doesn't permit a long hike, there's an easy half-day walk that circles the city, affording excellent views). In the winter, this area can be quite a bit colder than nearby Srinagar. 400 mi/645 km northeast of Delhi.

Hampi Ruins

Take a bus from the railway town of Hospet to see the extensive ruins of this former capital of an old Hindu kingdom. Elaborate relief carvings as well as Hindu shrines (still in use) are the main attractions. Allow a full day and wear comfortable shoes. The ruins are spread over a huge area. 350 mi/565 km southeast of Mumbai.

Hyderabad

Founded in 1591 by Mohammed Quli Qutub Shah, Hyderabad (pop. 7,000,000) is now India's fourth-largest city. Although it was under Muslim rule for centuries, Hyderabad is architecturally different from any other Mughal-founded city. Its best-known landmark is the rectangular Charminar, which has four minarets. Other sights include the Mecca Masjid Mosque, Faluknama Palace, Golconda Fort and Salar Jung Museum (excellent art and jade collection). Nearby Hanamakonda Hill has a beautiful temple, with 1,000 pillars and a statue of Nandi. Allow one day. 400 mi/645 km southeast of Mumbai.

Jaipur

The Pink City (pop. 1,460,000) is a walled Rajasthani capital famous for its unusual rose-colored sandstone architecture. Local maharajahs built quite a few magnificent structures there. Two are must-sees: The early-18th-century Jantar Mantar is the largest and best preserved of the five observatories built by the astronomer prince Jai Singh II. The observatory complex is fascinating - the prince built the huge stone structures to measure the local time and the declination of stars and planets and to predict eclipses. The other must-see within the city is the city palace and museum, which was once a beautiful royal residence. It contains excellent examples of Rajasthani and Mughal art and architecture.

Also of interest are the Palace of the Winds (known as Hawa Mahal), whose facade is adorned with elaborate, perforated screens - it's one of the most photographed monuments in India (and a nearby market sells many hand-decorated textiles, a regional specialty); Jal Mahal, a maharajah's summer palace; and Tiger Fort (yet another royal residence). Not far out of town are the 18th-century Amber Palace and Fort. The palace is, in our opinion, the finest and best preserved in the country. The fort is less impressive, but should also be seen (while the walk is nice, you can also ride an elephant between the two).

One very full day in Jaipur is enough to see most of the sites, but we really recommend two days. At least one of them should be spent seeing the sights of Jaipur itself and another half day seeing the Amber Palace. (If time is short, skip Jal Mahal and Tiger Fort.) 155 m/250 km southwest of Delhi.

Jaisalmer

We love the Oasis of Jaisal. (It's easy to see where the name came from - it's the only inhabited spot for miles around in the Great Indian Desert.) Built of a uniform-colored desert sandstone, Jaisalmer is dramatically perched on a flat-topped hill. The town offers several interesting Jain temples and intricately carved buildings (known as havelis) jammed within the confines of its walls. The city is a collection of narrow alleys, delicate latticework and two medieval estates (the Patwon-ki-Haveli and Salim-ki-Haveli). Before sundown, walk to the inns and rest houses just below and to the west of the town or take a camel ride out to the Bada Bagh, a collection of royal stone cenotaphs just north of the city walls. As the sun goes down, the stones of the entire town take on the shades of the fading sky - it's a magical sight. Another attraction there is the colorful clothing worn by the local people (they wear brilliant colors, perhaps to make up for the starkness of the surrounding terrain). If you're interested in a camel ride into the desert, take a jeep excursion from town to a nearby camel station. 410 mi/660 km southeast of Delhi.

Jodhpur

The city (pop. 506,000) that gave its name to riding breeches is dominated by an imposing fort sitting on top of a hill. Inside the walls of this citadel is a collection of buildings famed for their beautiful and colorful decorations. One especially nice room, the Royal Harem, is filled with extraordinary latticework. (Also within the fort's walls, you'll probably have the opportunity to see colorfully clad snake charmers.) Watch for the gate that's nearly covered with white handprints. This is the suttee gate, marked by women as they exited the city just before going down the hill to throw themselves onto their husbands' funeral pyres.

For a true taste of maharajah luxury, try to overnight in the Umaid Bhavan Palace, where the present maharajah of Jodhpur lives. Half of the palace has been turned into a hotel (the potentate and his family inhabit the upper floors). 300 mi/485 km southwest of Delhi.

Kargil

Mostly inhabited by Arab-speaking Shiites, Kargil is the second-largest city in Ladakh, the eastern two-thirds of the state of Jammu and Kashmir. While there's not really much to see or do there, the bus from Srinagar to Leh stops in Kargil overnight. 400 mi/645 km north of Delhi.

Kashmir

In the northwestern corner of India, this beautiful, mountainous area has been a trouble spot since India was partitioned in 1948. At that time, the Hindu ruler chose to be incorporated into India rather than Pakistan, despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of the population was Muslim. These days, India and Pakistan contest parts of Kashmir and periodically exchange fire over the border. Militant attacks are frequent. Jammu, Kargil and especially Srinagar are considered unsafe for tourists. There has also been a rise in support for traditional Islamic tenets: the photographing of women has been prohibited, and movie theaters, bars, health clubs and video-rental outlets have been shut down.

In times of calm, though, Kashmir can be wonderful. It contains breathtaking views of the Himalaya, and there's great trekking in the area - much of it can be undertaken by inexperienced hikers (tenting equipment can be rented in Srinagar). Located 290 mi/465 km north of Delhi.

Khajuraho

Situated in the middle of a beautiful region of hills, lakes and 10th- and 11th-century Chandela-dynasty temples, this town seems ordinary enough, but the exquisitely carved temples make it a must-see. These temples are best known for their erotic carvings (this is a favorite honeymoon spot for Indians; the carvings - which leave little to the imagination - are regarded as an educational experience). Originally there were 85 temples, but many were destroyed by the British, and only 22 are still in even fair condition. Be sure not to miss Kandariya Mahadeo Temple and Khajuraho Temple, the Khajuraho Museum, the Lakshman Temple (beautiful carvings of women), the Amorous Couple at Devi Jagdamba Temple, the Vraha Temple (dedicated to the god Shiva) and Parvati Temple. Plan at least a full day there. Several adequate hotels are found near the temples. The most convenient way to visit Khajuraho is by plane from Varanasi or Delhi. 310 mi/500 km south of Delhi.

Kochi

Kochi (pop. 686,000), once visited by King Solomon and the intended destination of Columbus, is called the Queen of the Arabian Sea. Its beautiful lagoons, lakes and greenery offer a lovely setting for a stay of three nights. Long famed in the history books, Kochi (formerly known as Cochin) offered refuge to Jews more than 2,500 years ago. Be on the lookout for the Pardesi Synagogue built in 1568 and street signs indicating Jew Town. (Surprisingly, descendants of those Jews still survive. We noticed a sign above a doorway that read: "J.E. Cohen, Advocate and Tax Consultant, Synagogue Lane, Jewtown." A Star of David was worked into the iron grille of Mr. Cohen's windows for good measure.) Jew Town is also home to a number of craft and antique stores. Most allow you to buy a large shipping container that can be filled with merchandise and then shipped back to your home country.

The first European colony in Kochi was founded by the Portuguese in the 16th century, and their influence can still be detected. They were followed by the Dutch and, eventually, the British - the cosmopolitan mix of cultures makes the city fascinating. Try to find the tombstone marking the original burial place of Vasco da Gama (his remains were later sent to Portugal) at St. Francis Church, and visit some of the city's other churches, temples and mosques.

Stop by the two academies that teach and give public demonstrations of Kalaripayatt, believed to be one of the oldest martial arts in the world, or check local arts listings to attend a Kathakali play, the traditional story-plays of Kerala performed by men. To learn more about the culture of Kerala, take the 6-mi/10-km ride to Edapally to visit the Museum of Kerala History.

At some point in your stay, take a small launch over to Bolghatty Island to view the British governor's residence (now a hotel and a nice place for tea or dinner). If you're interested in shopping for rosewood and shell handicrafts or pepper and exotic spices, go to Mahatma Gandhi Road. We also thoroughly enjoyed our half-day boat trip on the canals to nearby Alappuzha. Kochi is 670 mi/1,080 km southeast of Mumbai.

Kolkata

Formerly known as Calcutta, India's second-largest city (pop. 14,000,000) is fascinating and awful. For many people, 24 hours in this teeming east coast metropolis is about all they can take - the poverty, slums (bustees) and filth are enough to make this a once-only destination for some. But there are also enough beautiful things to justify a three-night stay.

Visit the Marble Palace mansion (to see the paintings and statues), the Jain Temple, Dakshineswar Hindu Temple (12 Shiva shrines), Belur Math (a Buddhist monastery) and the Victoria Memorial; climb the Octherlony Monument (218 steps up to a spectacular view of the city); and see Dalhousie Square (interesting architecture) and the Nakhoda Mosque. The city is also the home of Mother Teresa's Ashram Home of Children, a visit to which can be an emotional and enlightening experience. Skip the zoo, but spend time in the Maidan (market), walking around and meeting the people. Also worth a long look is the Indian Museum, a classic 19th-century British institution with collections of ancient art and relics beginning from India's Buddhist era.

As in many large Indian cities, Kolkata has a fascinating train station (Howrah Station), which is worth a visit even if you're not taking a train. A microcosm of Indian life, Howrah is filled with thousands of people milling about, eating, sleeping and even living in its interior. Just outside the station is one of the city's most recognized monuments, the massive steel Howrah Bridge across the Hooghly River. If the volume of people in the station didn't impress you, the mass movement of humanity on this bridge certainly will. Also fascinating is the subway, which has marble-adorned stations and which people actually line up to board. A less modern form of transportation is equally abundant in Kolkata - the hand-pulled rickshaw. A few years back the Indian government tried to take them off the streets, but relented in the face of opposition from the pullers themselves.

About five hours northwest of Kolkata is the small town of Bishnupur, which holds a number of impressively carved terra-cotta temples dating back to the 1600s. Kolkata is 815 mi/1,310 km southeast of Delhi.

Kollam

Kollam (pop. 168,000) is usually seen by visitors as the starting point for a boat trip down the tropical inland waterways to the town of Alappuzha. Kollam is an ancient city with traces of Portuguese, Dutch and British influence. There's a nice government rest house available for overnight stays. 760 mi/1,220 km south of Mumbai.

Ladakh

Ladakh is the name for the eastern two-thirds of the state of Jammu and Kashmir. It's in a beautiful Himalayan range, characterized by a desolate moonlike landscape and snowy peaks (it's inaccessible by road during the winter). We have waited weeks for the roads to clear in the past. Ladakh is extremely dry because the mountains keep clouds out, resulting in rainfall levels as low as in the Sahara. In some ways, it's more purely Tibetan than the Tibet of today: When Tibet was swallowed by China in the 1950s, the Chinese did their best to dilute Tibetan culture. Ladakh's Tibetans, however, have carried their traditions forward unimpeded. That's not to say Ladakh is untouched by outside influences - the area has been open to tourists since the mid 1970s, and substantial changes have occurred, especially in Leh. There are still sections, however, that seem to have remained unchanged for centuries. Adventurous travelers can get around on the uncomfortable old buses that ply the roads, while others will want to take an escorted tour. Some of the treks through the area include white-water rafting.

As the sky-high (11,499 ft/3,505 m) capital of Ladakh, Leh is where most tourists stay while visiting area monasteries. It's a fun town to walk around - you may see sidewalk magicians, monks chanting, old women spinning prayer wheels and Tibetan refugees selling wares in the market. Leh Palace, which resembles Tibet's Potala, is in such disrepair that it's not worth going in, but the view from the entrance is quite grand. The Leh Gompa (a gompa is a monastery), which is in good shape, has interesting artifacts and is within walking distance from town. It's worth seeing, though it's not as nice as many of the gompas in the outlying region. Alchi is the oldest gompa accessible by public transportation from Leh. It has a huge old wooden god painted with scenes from Buddha's life and many interesting wood carvings.

The 4-mi/6-km walk from the monastery to the town of Saspol is surreal. Nowhere is the moonlike landscape of Ladakh more pronounced: There's no vegetation, only stone chortens (small religious totems) dotting the sandy countryside. Among the other monasteries in the area are Shey Gompa and Tikse Gompa - take the interesting 1-mi/2-km walk between them. Tikse has a stunning two-story Buddha and is home to many very old thanka paintings (unfortunately, they're in a room so dark that it's difficult to see them).

The Lamayuru monastery, located 9 mi/15 km off the Srinagar-Leh Road and near a high pass (13,400 ft/4,100 m), looks like it belongs in Shangri-La. It's a fairly large Tibetan monastery, nestled in a valley with a thin finger of green flowing from it (the heavily cultivated banks of a stream). The first buildings on the site date back to the 10th century, making it the oldest monastery in Ladakh. At one point 400 monks lived there, though only 30 are there today. The monastery's main attraction is an 11-headed, 1,000-eyed image of the god Chanrazi. 400 mi/645 km north of Delhi.

Although a number of Ladakh treks begin in Leh, the preferred area for trekking is the more remote southwestern region of Zanskar. Treks there are much more strenuous than the walking treks from Kashmiri towns, and careful planning is necessary; the inexperienced should join an organized tour (some of the tours include white-water rafting or canoeing). It's essential that anyone trekking independently in this area take everything necessary - there are almost no provisions to be found en route. If you're going without a tour, a local guide is strongly recommended. Bear in mind that it will be very cold any time of year. It's possible to arrange a pony trek for some trails, but the local saddles are very uncomfortable. In additon, because of Zanskar's relative proximity to the troubled parts of Kashmir, travelers should exercise some caution when deciding whether and when to go. The reward for all of this, however, is a journey through a truly wonderful and remote region - it's an unforgettable experience. Leh is 390 mi/625 km north of Delhi.

Little Ran Of Kutch

This place with the playful name is a wildlife desert area worth a full day's visit to see gazelles, blackbucks, wild asses, a wide variety of birds and other animals. We suggest staying two nights. It's reached by flying to Ahmadabad and driving to Zainabad. 480 mi/770 km southwest of Delhi.

Lucknow

Located in north central India, not far from the Nepalese border, this city (pop. 1,619,000) has gardens, parks and the beautiful Bara Imambara tomb (an enormous tomb of a Shiite holy man). Lucknow is known especially for its historical role as the site of the Uprising (the British prefer to call it a mutiny) of 1857 against the British Residency. Although it was ultimately unsuccessful, it was the first dramatic act of rebellion against the Raj, and it served to fan the desire for independence (a desire that would take almost 100 years to fulfill). The Residency itself is in ruins - it was not restored after the siege - which gives it a ghostly quality. Since Poonjaji, one of the more fashionable Indian gurus, made the town his base, Lucknow has been visited by many Westerners interested in Eastern religion and meditation. 260 mi/420 km southeast of Delhi.

Madurai

Nestled down near the southern tip of India, this 2,500-year-old city (pop. 1,083,000) is famous for its Hindu and Tamil cultural attractions. A must-see is the impressive multi-towered Sri Meenakshi Temple built in 1560. Actually, you can't possibly ignore it: The temples, covered with brightly painted sculptures and statues, come in all colors, and the effect is practically psychedelic. You can climb a couple of the towers for a good view of the entire complex. Make sure you have plenty of film - the temples are most photogenic. You can observe Hindu devotees bathing in the Tank of Golden Lilies and see the Hall of 1,000 Pillars (all but the inner sanctum is open to non-Hindus). In ancient times the area around the Tank was the meeting place for the academy of poets, who are said to have evaluated works of literature by throwing them into the tank - the ones that floated were the only ones deemed worthy of consideration. Other temples are the Koodal Alagar Temple, where Vishnu is depicted in three forms, and Mariamman Teppakkulam, a small temple set in a large tank (the Teppam float festival is held in the tank every January or February during a full moon). Also visit the Tirumala Nayak Palace for its stucco arches and domes.

For a glimpse of more modern India, visit the Ghandi Museum, which holds informative displays about Ghandi's push for Indian independence. If you're interested in textiles, Madurai is an excellent place to pick up quality silk and cotton, whether raw or as garments. Allow at least half a day to see Madurai. 280 mi/320 km south of Chennai.

Mount Abu

This hill station provides a welcome relief from the Rajasthan heat. Another of those towns so treasured by the British during the Raj, it still retains a colonial feel. (Today, the town is a popular summer retreat for vacationing Indians.)

Mount Abu has been an important holy site for followers of the Jain religion since the 11th century. The Dilwara temples are some of the most intricately carved and beautiful in India. (The marble used to build these temples is the same that was used in the construction of the Taj Mahal.)

A nice small lake (Nakki Lake) offers canopied rowboats for short excursions. There are also a golf course, tennis courts and other recreational facilities, as well as a museum. 385 mi/620 km north of Mumbai.

Mumbai

Mumbai - or Bombay, as it was formerly known - remains India's city of dreams. Despite poverty and eye-watering pollution, it is so dynamic that paupers still flock there in hopes of becoming successful entrepreneurs.

Built largely by the British around one of the best-protected natural harbors in the world, Mumbai is India's business center and one of the most important commercial hubs between Singapore and Europe. It generates more than a third of the country's GNP - half of India's foreign trade moves through this busy seaport on the Arabian Sea. Mumbai is also home to the country's prolific film industry ("Bollywood"), which cranks out more feature films than any other place in the world.

You might think, then, that India's largest city would have a wealth of attractions for visitors. But the city's growth has been so rapid (from fewer than 1 million residents in the mid 1950s to more than 18 million today) that most of the energy has been focused on expanding business enterprises. High-rise hotels, designer boutiques and fine restaurants abound, but there isn't much in the way of museums or historical sites. That's starting to change as the city's Mercedes-driving executives and Cartier-bedecked socialites begin channeling their earnings into easing overcrowding and expanding the cultural offerings. The main draw of Mumbai, like much of India, remains its contradictions. Within minutes (or a few miles) you can be awestruck by the palatial houses on Malabar Hill and then depressed by the makeshift shacks and the bedraggled children in the city's other, far less affluent neighborhoods.

Mysore

In the hill country of southwestern India, this region is cooler than the coastal cities - one of the reasons so many maharajahs chose to live there. The main sights in the city of Mysore (pop. 653,000) are the Nandi Bull, carved from solid stone, and a 2,000-year-old Hindu temple. There are several interesting sights within about a 100-mi/161-km drive: Bangalore; Sravanabelagola, with its impressive 46-ft/15-m statue of Gomateshwara (a Jain saint), cut from one rock; and Belur with its 11th-century Chenna Kesava temple, Halebid temple carvings and spectacular Jog Falls (one of the highest in the world). Every 12 years the Sravanbelagola statue is anointed with thousands of pots of milk, curds, saffron, bananas and sandalwood. Mysore is 540 m/870 km southeast of Mumbai.

Pahalgam

A resort area set at 6,988 ft/2,130 m, this Kashmiri town along the Lidder River is the starting point for several treks. One of the nicest (and easiest) is to Kolahoi Glacier, which can be done in four days of walking: Stop the first night in Aru (about 7 mi/12 km - stay in a guest house or take a tent) and the next night in Liddervat (another 7-mi/12-km walk - it also has a very basic guest house). The next morning, walk to the glacier, returning to Liddervat to sleep. The following day, return to Pahalgam. If you prefer, you can ride a donkey. A more ambitious trip could be made to Amarnath Cave, site of an annual religious pilgrimage undertaken by thousands of Hindus in July-August. It's also possible to rent horses to ride into the countryside. Trout fishing in the Lidder River is allowed if you purchase a license. Line up early to pay about US$9 per day for a six-fish limit (and be forewarned that the trout run small around there). Pole rentals are available. If you're returning to Srinagar by taxi, ask the driver to stop for 15 minutes at Avantipur to tour the ruined Hindu temples (plaques at the site indicate that many of the carvings now rest in the British Museum).

Like a lot of Kashmir towns, Pahalgam is periodically the site of violent terrorist attacks, and travelers should exercise caution when visiting. In August 2000, militants attacked a pilgrim camp site (the pilgrims were on their way to Amarnath) and killed 32 people. 475 m/765 km north of Delhi.

Patna

Set along the banks of the holy Ganges River, Patna (pop. 1,100,000) was once an ancient Buddhist capital. But times have obviously changed. Today Patna is a rather poor and crime-ridden Muslim city that merits a visit only if you are already in the area. Its most interesting sites are the 16th-century Sher Shahi Mosque, the Sikh temple, the Governor's Palace, the Patna Museum (city historical displays) and the 90-ft-/27-m-tall Golghar grain-storage bin, which has excellent views of the city (and great acoustics). 530 m/850 km southeast of Delhi.

Pondicherry

A hint of the Riviera in the subcontinent, this former French colonial city (pop. 400,000) along the Bay of Bengal didn't come under Indian rule until 1954. You can still hear a fair bit of French being spoken as you stroll along its remaining seaside villas and cobblestone streets. The city is really two towns in one: La Ville Blanche, the colonials' former playground; and La Ville Noire, the crowded inland area where the native Indian population was forced to live. The distinctions have lost much of their meaning, of course, but La Ville Blanche still feels more upscale and European. Some of the notable colonial remains include the Hotel de Ville (city hall), from the 1700s, and the Church of Notre Dame, a century older. There's also a pleasant botanical garden and the Pondicherry Museum, which houses a mish-mash of relics from the colonial era. (Antique shops around town have a wonderful selection of relics that you can purchase.) The other side of town, full of markets and peddlers and families coming and going, feels much more robust and authentically Indian.

Pondicherry also has two noteworthy institutions left over from a wholly different legacy. Sri Aurobindo Ashram was built by the followers of Sri Aurobindo, a prophet/philosopher who came to the city in 1910. Auroville, a kind of utopian commune inhabited by people of diverse nationalities, was the idea of Sri Aurobindo's successor. 85 mi/135 km south of Chennai.

Poona

A regional administrative center during the British Raj, Poona is known largely as the former home of Bhagwan Sri Rajneesh, the charismatic guru whose controversial spiritual ranch in Oregon eventually folded in disarray when Rajneesh was deported from the U.S. for tax evasion. Rajneesh died in the early '90s, but his spirit lives on: Osho Commune, a huge center for meditation and spiritual search on the edge of town, continues to attract Westerners by the thousands. 75 mi/120 km southeast of Mumbai.

Rishikesh

The gateway to the Garhwal Himalaya and one of the holiest towns in India, Rishikesh has attracted poets, artists and mystics for thousands of years. Hindus regard it as highly as the Muslims regard Mecca. Meat and alcohol are forbidden, and the inhabitants display a public air of sanctimony. The Beatles came to Rishikesh in the 1960s and sat at the feet of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the Indian guru whose Transcendental Meditation Center still markets his spiritual programs with jarring capitalist enterprise to hundreds of Westerners each year. Pilgrims clad in loincloths tread the town's dusty streets or pitch camp on the banks of the sacred River Ganges, which sweeps majestically through the town and out into the great Indian plains. Head for Triveni Ghat to watch pilgrims attend the daily worship ritual known as Aarti. About 20 mi/30 km outside of town is Ananda, a luxurious Western-style spa housed in what was once a British viceroy's hilltop estate. 110 mi/180 km northeast of Delhi.

Sarnath

Site of Buddha's first discourse, Sarnath is as peaceful as nearby Varanasi is hectic. Buddha's teachings are studied in Sarnath, and its atmosphere is more like a campus than a city: It has lovely gardens, temples, a zoo, shrines, an archaeological museum and ruins. Most people go to Sarnath on a pilgrimage to see the bodhi tree that is said to be a direct descendant of the tree Buddha was sitting under when he became enlightened. A visit there will also provide a good opportunity to meet Tibetan refugees and learn about their situation. Allow a half-day excursion from Sarnath to see Varanasi. 15 mi/25 km north of Varanasi and 410 mi/660 km southeast of Delhi.

Sikkim

Sikkim (pop. 406,000) was an independent kingdom in the Himalaya until 1975, when it was annexed following a referendum. Some dispute the validity of that vote, and there is still some resentment evident toward Indians. A special permit is required to go to Sikkim and can be obtained in advance at a Foreigners Regional Registration Office in Darjeeling, Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai or Siliguri (or get permission from an Indian consulate or embassy before departure). The capital and only town in Sikkim, Gangtok, is really a rather long way to go to see beautiful mountain scenery. Be sure to visit the Tibetan-style Rumtek Monastery (beautiful mountain setting and views). Try their apple juice - it's the best we've ever tasted. 345 mi/555 km north of Kolkata.

Simla

The most famous of the British hill stations, this city (pop. 110,000) is the capital of the state of Himachal Pradesh. Set in the foothills of the Himalaya at an altitude of 6,700 ft/2,100 m, it afforded a resort-type atmosphere for the British rulers of India. It doesn't take much imagination to realize how idyllic life must have been there for the privileged during the Raj. Today, it's a popular resort for vacationing Indians (though it still more closely resembles an English village than an Indian city). There are many nice walks that can be taken in the surrounding hills - it's a great place to relax. Also see the Kulu Valley, a pleasant area of fruit orchards, rice fields and Hindu temples. 175 mi/280 km north of Delhi.

Sonamarg

The Golden Meadow (as Sonamarg translates) is the last lush green area on the road leading from Kashmir's capital Srinagar to barren Ladakh. Sonamarg is really just a small collection of stores (e.g., the Cheepest Chemist) and a government-run hotel, but it is also the starting point for a few interesting day hikes. Some 3 mi/4 km from town is the base of the Sonamarg Glacier, where local Gujar tribesmen will be happy to give you a ride on their sleds for a small fee. Or head into the Nichinai Nar Valley and follow the stream for a few hours before turning back. You'll see beautiful views of the mountains. For the more ambitious, a six-day trek reaching a maximum altitude of 13,700 ft/4,200 m can be undertaken to the town of Wangat. 400 mi/650 km north of Delhi.

Srinagar

Srinagar (pop. 606,000), at an altitude of 5,800 ft/1,800 m, is the capital of the troubled region of Kashmir. Once a favored vacation spot, Srinagar today has so many problems that it is no longer worth the trip. Frequent attacks by militants have badly crippled the educational institutions, businesses and daily lives of the local residents.

In less difficult times, Srinagar has been known for its houseboat vacations on Dal Lake and Nagin Lake, which arose after the local maharajah forbade foreigners to own land. The British, who went there to escape the summer heat, built floating castles instead.

Those accommodations range from dark, moldy, claustrophobic quarters to masterpieces of carved wood, oriental carpeting and fine furnishings. Most boats contain two or three bedrooms, a shared dining room, living room, porch and sunroof. Some, particularly those on Nagin Lake (which is farther from town), have magnificent views of the mountains. Salesmen paddle from boat to boat, peddling everything you could want, and plenty you don't want: cold drinks, fruit, nuts, fresh flowers, film, baked goods, papier-mache boxes, woolen shawls, silk carpets, leather goods, money-changing services and on and on. Some boat owners will protect guests from the scurrilous peddlers, but other owners won't - they get a cut from any sale.

If the Kashmir situation improves enough to allow a visit to Srinagar, be sure to take a nighttime ride through the floating community in one of the gaudy shikara gondolas, and visit the local market and Mughal gardens (Chashma Shahi, the Nishat Naseem and especially Shalimar, which has a nightly sound-and-light show). For exercise, climb 1,000-ft/300-m Sankaracharya Hill to see the ancient Shiva temple and beautiful views (it's within city limits).

If the floating salesmen have whetted your appetite for Kashmiri handicrafts, you may want to visit a papier-mache, carpet or wood-carving factory in town. Day trips to other lakes can also be made. Nearby Manasbal Lake is especially pretty, and the very large Wular Lake takes about a day to see. A half-day trip can be taken to the Sheikh Noor-ud-Din Wall Muslim shrine at Cherar-i-Sharif. If rest is all that you desire, two weeks in Srinagar can fly by. If you're just going to see what's there, one or two nights will do. 400 mi/645 km northeast of Delhi.

Thiruvananthapuram

Once known as Trivandrum (pop. 524,000), this tropical seaside city near India's southern tip is the capital of the state of Kerala. Built on seven hills, it has palm trees, excellent beaches and a number of historical attractions.

The city's museums are all located in the north end: the Napier Museum (traditional Keralite, Chinese, Mughal and English architecture), the Sri Chtira Art Gallery (collections owned by the royal Travancore family) and the Science and Technology Museum. The Padmanabhaswamy Temple, dedicated to Lord Vishnu and containing a seven-story tower, is the most important building in the city (it is only open to Hindus). Other sites include a fort and an excellent aquarium.

You can also take a tour through the backwater country with a local fisherman. The best beach in the area - and by far the most popular with tourists - is Kovalam, which lies a few miles southeast of Thiruvananthapuram. The sand, lined with palm trees, seems to stretch forever. There's an excellent hotel (Kovalam Beach Resort) that offers inexpensive Ayurvedic massages, or try longer Ayurvedic therapies at Somatheerum Beach Resort just a few miles north of town. Kerala's beaches are excellent for watching the local fishing technique: low-slung dugout canoes are controlled by tug-o-war teams holding ropes on the beach.

Just 54 mi/87 km southeast is Kanya Kumari (Cape Comorin), the southernmost tip of India, where the Arabian Sea, Bay of Bengal and Indian Ocean meet. The area is a good spot to rest prior to going to the Maldives or after visiting Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary.

Note: Women should not spend time on the beach alone - there have been many reports of attacks on foreign women. Thiruvananthapuram is 780 mi/1,200 km south of Mumbai.

Tiruchirapalli

Tiruchirapalli (pop. 711,000) is worth a day's visit to see the impressive hilltop Ganapati Temple, reached by climbing 434 steps (the staircase is bordered by shrines). Other steps lead the visitor to the Temple of Shiva. From atop the hill you can take in an impressive view of the Kaveri River and surroundings. While in the area, visit the massive Srirangam Temple. 700 mi/1,130 km southeast of Mumbai.

Udaipur

A fascinating walled city of 308,000, Udaipur sits on the shores of Lake Pichola. Its main attractions are its palaces (such as the white marble Maharajah's Palace, or the Winter Palace, with its beautiful inlaid tile, mirrors and mosaics of peacocks), the Jag Mandir (18th-century yellow-sandstone island palace) and Jag Niwas (18th-century granite and marble island palace). Also see the Victoria Hall Museum (local historical displays and antiques), Sahelion-ki-Bari (garden) and the 80-ft-/24-m-high Jagdish Temple. The Lake Palace Hotel, an 18th-century white building on the lake, is the former summer palace of the local maharajah. Even if you don't plan on staying there, at least take the launch over for lunch or dinner. It's a fantastic building in its own right, and the restaurants are very good. Be sure to take a boat ride around the lake. You can take a rewarding day excursion to Chittorgarh, which has the spectacular Victory Tower and the Kumbha Shyam Temple. Plan to spend two nights in Udaipur. 385 mi/620 km north of Mumbai.

Udhagamandalam

Known locally as Ooty, this was the most popular hill station in south India for colonial officials on summer holiday. (It remains a popular tourist destination and is a common location site for Indian feature films.) Attractions include the Ooty Club, St. Stephen's Church (intriguing headstones in the cemetery) and the Government Botanical Gardens (more than 2,000 species of plants). Day trips close by include a drive to Doddabetta, literally Big Mountain, which is the highest peak in the Nilgiris, and boat rentals from the Ooty Lake-Boat House. 540 mi/870 km southeast of Mumbai.

Varanasi

Whether you like it or not, Varanasi is guaranteed to stun. This city of 1,027,000 is the holiest site in India, and thousands of Hindu pilgrims tour its temples and bathe in the Ganges River to gain religious merit. Thousands more go to die and have their ashes thrown into the holy waters. You must be emotionally prepared, because the waters contain not only ashes, but corpses in various stages of decomposition, and the beggars that line the paths to the rivers are often disfigured from leprosy. If you're braced to see this, you'll want to venture down to the boats and onto the water at dawn to see an amazing and spiritually uplifting sight. Scores of people enter the water from one of 70 ghats (riverside platforms with steps) to purify themselves before the rising sun. Some perform religious rituals in the water, others just go to brush their teeth, bathe and swim. Don't even think of entering the water, however - it may be spiritually pure, but it's one of the most polluted rivers in the world. Nor should you take pictures of the cremation ghats. This is considered disrespectful and may cause people to attack you.

You can view the incredible scene from tour boats that patrol the waters at dawn. Small boats (with or without rowers) also can be hired. While you watch, cremations take place on some of the ghats (vultures will likely circle overhead). All of this incredible commotion swirls around the western bank; the eastern bank is unpopulated and almost barren.

Providing the backdrop is an incredible array of temples and ancient buildings, several of them standing at odd angles (their foundations have been eroded unevenly by flood waters). There are 2,000 temples and shrines in Varanasi, but the holiest, Vishvanatha, is closed to non-Hindus (nonetheless, the occupants of the house across the street supplement their income by letting tourists look in from above, and a viewing hole has been made in the wall at the back of the temple). The Durga Temple, which can be visited, is teeming with monkeys (hold onto your valuables). There's also a wonderful temple devoted to the Ramayana, a Hindu tale of love and adventure. The temple's walls tell the story, and in back there's a gallery of mechanically animated displays that make Macy's Christmas windows pale in comparison. There's also a lovely temple and garden on the university campus. Farther downstream on the eastern bank of the Ganges is the Ram Nagar Fort. It isn't one of the country's best, but it does have a fascinating, if gruesome, collection of weapons (from huge serrated swords to machine guns and rhino-skin shields).

Take a walking tour of the Islamic section (Muslims make up a quarter of the population). The streets are filled with Arabic music and veiled women, and it's there that Varanasi silk is dyed, dried and woven. The silk trade is at its most active on Thursday, and a walk through the neighborhood will surely lead to an invitation into a house where the living room has been converted into a loom room.

Be sure to take a half-day trip to Sarnath. Plan on spending at least two nights in Varanasi. 415 m/670 km southeast of Delhi.

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