India - Attractions
Don't let your first impressions of Delhi stick like a sacred cow in a traffic jam: get behind the madcap facade and discover the inner peace of a city rich with culture, architecture and human diversity, deep with history and totally addictive to epicureans.
Mix four major religions, thousands of years of history and cultural development, significant movements of different populations, invasions and colonialisation and you get one of the most vibrant and profound cultures in the world. This civilisation is evident in the plentiful historical sites around Delhi.
The Taj Mahal, described as the most extravagant monument ever built for love, has become the de facto tourist emblem of India. This poignant Mughal mausoleum was constructed by Emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his second wife Mumtaz Mahal, whose death in childbirth in 1631 left the emperor so heartbroken that his hair is said to have turned grey overnight. Construction of the Taj began in the same year and was not completed until 1653.
The emperor's hair may have given up but his eye for detail apparently remained acute - the near-perfection of the Taj's architecture does not diminish upon closer inspection; it merely comes into sharper focus. Semiprecious stones were laid into the marble in elaborate designs through a process called pietra dura. If you're planning to check out this marvel, don't forget that it's closed on Friday to all non-Muslims.
The city's other major attraction is the massive red sandstone Agra Fort, also on the bank of the Yamuna River. The auricular fort's colossal double walls rise over 20m (65ft) in height and measure 2.5km (1.55mi) in circumference. They are encircled by a fetid moat and contain a maze of superb halls, mosques, chambers and gardens which form a small city within a city. Unfortunately not all buildings are open to visitors, including the white marble Pearl Mosque, regarded by some as the most beautiful mosque in India.
Other worthwhile Mughal gems include the Itimad-ud-daulah, many of whose design elements were used in the construction of the Taj, and Akbar's Mausoleum at Sikandra which blends Islamic, Hindu, Buddhist, Jain and Christian motifs, much like the syncretic religious philosophy developed by Akbar attempted to do.
Agra is near enough to Delhi - 200km (125mi) - to be visited on a day trip. It's on the major tourist circuit so you can take your pick of transport; plane, bus, or train.
It's a shame Goa comes burdened with a reputation for louche living, because there's so much more to it than sun, sand and psychedelia. The allure of Goa is that it remains quite distinct from the rest of India and is small enough to be grasped and explored in a way that other Indian states are not.
It's not just the familiar remnants of Portuguese colonialism or the picture-book exoticism that make it seem so accessible; it's the prevalence of Roman Catholicism and a form of social and political progressiveness that Westerners feel they can relate to.
The capital of Rajasthan is popularly known as the 'pink city' because of the ochre-pink hue of its old buildings and crenellated city walls. The Rajputs considered pink to be a colour associated with hospitality, and are reputed to have daubed the city in preparation for the visit of Britain's Prince Alfred in 1853. This tradition and Jaipur's welcoming, relaxed air continue to this day.
Jaipur owes its name, its foundation and its careful planning to the great warrior-astronomer Maharaja Jai Singh II (1699-1744), who took advantage of declining Mughul power to move his somewhat cramped hillside fortress at nearby Amber to a new site on the plains in 1727. He laid out the city's surrounding walls and its six rectangular blocks with the help of Shilpa-Shastra, an ancient Hindu treatise on architecture.
Today Jaipur is a city of broad avenues and remarkable architectural harmony, built on a dry lake bed surrounded by barren hills. It's an extremely colourful city and, in the evening light, it radiates a magical warm glow. The city has now sprawled beyond its original fortified confines, but most of its attractions are compactly located in the walled 'pink city' in the northeast of the city. All seven gates into the old city remain, one of which leads into Johari Bazaar - the famous jewellers' market.
The most obvious landmark in the old city is the Iswari Minar Swarga Sul (the Minaret Piercing Heaven) which was built to overlook the city, but the most striking sight is the stunning artistry of the five-storey facade of the Hawa Mahal, or Palace of the Winds. The palace was built in 1799 to enable ladies of the royal household to watch street life and processions, and is part of the City Palace complex which forms the heart of the old city.
Numerous international airlines are based in Jaipur Towers, while for domestic flights it's easier to book through any of the big travel agents. Daily flights to Delhi are available and most continue on to Mumbai via Jodhpur, Udaipur and Aurangabad. The Rajasthan State Transport System covers Rajasthan's major cities, as do the privately owned deluxe services. Most of these places can also be reached by train.
The port city of Kochi is located on a cluster of islands and narrow peninsulas. The older parts of the city are an unlikely blend of medieval Portugal, Holland and an English country village grafted onto the tropical Malabar Coast. Down near the waterfront you can see St Francis Church, India's oldest; a 450-year-old Portuguese palace; Chinese fishing nets strung out past Fort Cochin; and a synagogue dating back to the mid-16th century. Ferries scuttle back and forth between the various parts of Kochi, and dolphins can often be seen in the harbour. Most of the historical sights are in Fort Cochin or Mattancherry. Budget accommodation can be found in mainland Ernakulam.
Indian Airlines has daily flights to Bangalore, Mumbai, Delhi, Goa, and Chennai. If flying is outside your budget, there's a whole bevy of buses that leave Kochi at regular intervals and fan out in every direction except seaward. You can easily get to any of the outlying regions either by state-owned or privately owned bus, but there are no advance reservations. Turn up, join the scrum, and hope for the best, which in this case would be a seat. Failing this, try the railway station, which has trains zipping up the coast to major destinations on a daily basis.
It may have changed its name, but for many Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) still conjures up images of squalour, poverty and urban disaster. Too few bother to discover its enchanting colonial beauty, the energy and humour of its people and the charm of the city's distinctly Bengali soul.
Kolkota isn't an ancient city like Delhi - in fact it's largely a British creation that dates back a mere 300 years. As a crumbling snapshot of British colonialism, it is unrivalled. For such a smoggy, frantic city, it is also notable for its lovely green spaces.
Mumbai is the glamour of Bollywood cinema, cricket on the maidans on weekends, bhelpuri on the beach at Chowpatty and red double-decker buses. It is also the infamous cages of the red-light district, Asia's largest slums, communalist politics and powerful mafia dons.
Many travellers spend their time cocooned in Colaba, but there's much more to explore - take the time to check out the majestic remnants of colonial history, the galleries showing the latest in Indian contemporary art, the busy markets and the evening parade of locals at Chowpatty Beach.
This charming, easy-going city has long been a favourite with travellers since it's a manageable size, enjoys a good climate and has chosen to retain and promote its heritage rather than replace it. The city is famous for its silk and is also a thriving sandalwood and incense centre, though don't expect the air to be any more fragrant than the next town.
Until Independence, Mysore was the seat of the maharajas of Mysore, a princely state covering about a third of present-day Karnataka. The Maharaja's Indo-Saracenic Palace is the town's major attraction, with its kaleidoscope of stained glass, ornate mirrors, carved mahogany ceilings, solid silver doors and outrageously gaudy colours.
The Devaraja Fruit & Vegetable Market, in the heart of the town, is one of the most colourful markets in India. The other major attraction is the 1000-step climb up nearby Chamundi Hill, which is topped by the huge Chamundeswari temple. The stairway is guarded by the famous 5m (16ft) high Nandi (Shiva's bull vehicle) carved out of solid rock. The 10-day Dussehra Festival in early October culminates in a spectacular procession of richly caparisoned elephants, liveried retainers, cavalry, brass bands and flower-bedecked images of Hindu deities.
There are no flights to Mysore, leaving the bus and train as the only options. Every 15 minutes a bus to Bangalore hurtles out of the starting blocks like a bat out of hell, as do a number of other services going to regional areas, including the Bandipur National Park. A number of private buses wil take you at a far more sedate pace to Mumbai, Goa, Chennai and Hyderabad. There are rarely long queues to book a fare at Mysore station and there are four daily express trains to Bangalore, plus the air-con high-speed Shatabdi Express, which continues on to Chennai.
The 'summer capital' of British India sprawls along a crescent-shaped ridge at an altitude of over 2100m (6890ft) in southern Himachal Pradesh. This was the most important hill station in India before Independence, and the social life here in the summer months when the Brits came to escape the torrid heat of the plains was legendary - balls, bridge parties and parades went hand in hand with gossip, intrigue and romance. Today, the officers, administrators and lah-di-dah ladies of the Raj have been replaced by throngs of holidaymakers, but echoes of Shimla's British past remain strong. The famous main street, The Mall, still runs along the crest of the ridge and is lined with stately English-looking houses. Christ Church, Gorton Castle and the fortress-like former Viceroyal Lodge reinforce the English flavour.
When you've done the obligatory stroll along The Mall dreaming of Kipling, Burton and Merchant-Ivory, it's worth exploring the narrow streets which fall steeply away from the ridge to colourful local bazaars. There's also an interesting walk to Jakhu Temple, dedicated to the monkey god Hanuman. It's located near the highest point of the ridge and offers fine views of the town, surrounding valley and snow-capped peaks. Other scenic spots nearby include the 70m (230ft) high Chadwick Falls, the picnic spot of Prospect Hill, and Wildflower Hall - the site of the former mansion of Lord 'Your-Country-Needs-You' Kitchener. The ski resort of Kufri is just 15km (10m) east, although snowfalls have been so paltry recently that there are plans to suspend tourist operations. If there is snow, the slopes are suitable for beginners and anyone with a decent plastic bag and a thick pair of trousers. Snow is most likely between January and February.
Shimla is not as well connected by air as other destinations in the Himalayas, although there are a couple of companies that will fly you out. The lack of air power is more than compensated by the number of trains and buses. Three types of bus - public, private, and those from the Himachal Pradesh Tourist Development Company (HPTDC) - connect Shimla to Delhi, and they run pretty much every day. Shimla's so-called toy train is still big enough to get you to Kalka in the north, after which you can change to the relatively large and comfortable New Delhi Queen which runs on down into New Delhi.
The most romantic city in Rajasthan, built around the lovely Lake Pichola, has inevitably been dubbed the 'Venice of the East'. Founded in 1568 by Maharana Udai Singh, the city is a harmonious Indian blend of whitewashed buildings, marble palaces, lakeside gardens, temples and havelis (traditional mansions). It boasts an enviable artistic heritage, a proud reputation for performing arts and a relatively plentiful water supply, all of which have helped make it an oasis of civilisation and colour in the midst of drab aridity.
Lake Pichola is the city's centrepiece and it contains two delightful island palaces - Jagniwas and Jagmandir - that are the very definition of Rajput whimsy. The former is now an exquisite luxury hotel. The huge City Palace towers over the lake and is bedecked with balconies, towers and cupolas. It contains a museum, some fine gardens and several more luxury hotels. Other attractions in Udaipur include the gates to the old walled city and its lovely alleyways; the fine Indo-Aryan Jagdish Temple, dating from the mid-17th century; and the lakeside Bagore ki Haveli, once a royal guesthouse, but now a cultural centre.
Despite the long list of sights and attractions, the real joy of Udaipur is finding a pleasant lakeside guesthouse, scrambling up to the roof and watching the activity at the ghats, listening to the rhythmic 'thwomp!' as washerwomen thrash the life out of their laundry, and sensing the gentle changes of light on the water as the slow days progress.
Indian Ailines has daily flights to Delhi, Jaipur, Mumbai and Aurangabad. Freqent state-owned buses run from Udaipur to other regional centres as well as to Delhi and Ahmedebad. If you bus it, choose the express; otherwise it will take forever to reach your destination. Lines into Udaipur are currently metre gauge only. They are scheduled to be converted to broad gauge, but nobody is really sure when this will happen. It's quicker in most cases to catch a bus. Taxis can take you to regional areas, but practise your negotiation skills and haggle down the price a bit before you jump in.
For over 2000 years, Varanasi, the 'eternal city', has been one of the holiest places in India. Built on the banks of the sacred Ganges, it is said to combine the virtues of all other places of pilgrimage and anyone who ends their days here, regardless of creed and however great their misdeeds, is transported straight to heaven. The easternmost city in Uttar Pradesh, Varanasi is an important seat of learning, and is the home of novelists, philosophers and grammarians. This has been reflected in its role in the development of Hindi - the closest thing to a national language in India.
Varanasi has over 100 bathing and burning ghats but the Manikarnika Ghat is the main burning ghat and one of the most auspicious places that a Hindu can be cremated. Corpses are handled by outcasts known as chandal, who carry them through the alleyways of the old city to the holy Ganges on a bamboo stretcher swathed in cloth. You'll see huge piles of firewood stacked along the top of the ghat, each log carefully weighed on giant scales so that the price of cremation can be calculated. There are no problems watching cremations, since at Manikarnika death is simply business as usual, but leave your camera at your hotel.
The best ghat to hang out at and absorb the riverside activity is Dasaswamedh Ghat. Here you'll find a dense concentration of people who come to the edge of the Ganges not only for a ritual bath, but to do yoga, offer blessings, buy paan, sell flowers, get a massage, play cricket, have a swim, get a shave, and do their karma good by giving money to beggars. It's also the best place to arrange a boat trip since there's plenty of competition among boatmen.
Apart from the many ghats lining the river, the city's other highlights include the Golden Temple, built in a roofed quadrangle with stunning gilded towers; shopping at markets famous for their ornamental brasswork, lacquered toys, shawls, silks and sitars (yes, Ravi Shankar does live here); losing yourself in the impossibly narrow labyrinthine alleyways which snake back from the ghats; visiting the nearby Buddhist centre of Sarnath; and taking the compulsory dawn river trip slowly down the Ganges.
Varanasi is on the major tourist loop, about 580km (360mi) east of Agra, and 780km (485mi) southeast of Delhi, and can be eached by plane, bus or train.