There’s much more to a country as vast as India than postcard iconography and clichéd expectations. By Audrey Gillan
It’s almost impossible to describe India with just one word, because it’s so vast and diverse — made up of coastal and inland states, mountainous borderlands to the north and beautiful beaches in the south. So when traveling through India — even just across a couple of states — one stop on the journey can be completely different from the next.
The most popular route in Northern India is that of the Golden Triangle — traveling through Delhi, Agra and on to Jaipur. It’s a good idea to start in New Delhi, India’s capital city — with wide boulevards, lush gardens and classical architecture designed by Edwin Lutyens during British colonial rule. Here are grand government buildings including Rashtrapati Bhawan, the official residence of the president of India, and India Gate, a war memorial that sits astride Rajpath, a ceremonial boulevard.
Greater Delhi is home to more than 10 million people; that density is palpable in jam-packed Old Delhi’s warren-like streets and higgledy-piggledy buildings. Visitors should head to Chandni Chowk and seek out street food and aromatic spices piled up in bright-colored mounds in the bazaar.
Jama Masjid is one of the oldest mosques in India and was built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in the 17th century, with domes and minarets carved from marble and sandstone and a courtyard that can house 25,000 worshippers.
There’s also Qutb Minar — at 240 feet the largest brick minaret in the world — and Humayun’s Tomb, a mausoleum that was the model for Mughal architecture. Built in 1570, it was the inspiration for the Taj Mahal, the next stop on most journeys.
To get there, travelers must first journey to Agra, a city with relatively little to recommend it other than its prime location. It’s next to the white marble temple built by Shah Jahan to honour his queen and great love Mumtaz Mahal, who died while giving birth to her 14th child. Break up the long drive to Jaipur with a stop at Fatehpur Sikri, a mammoth fortification built by the Emperor Akbar in 1569 and deserted just 14 years later because its high location ultimately led to a paucity of water. An epic poem in red sandstone, it’s a ghost city where pavilions and palaces echo a past grandeur.
The third corner of the Golden Triangle is Jaipur in Rajasthan, dubbed the Pink City after its buildings were painted in honor of a visit from Prince Albert in 1876. Built on a grid system, roads are 108ft wide and buildings no higher than 54ft. This is a glorious and relaxed city, where just walking the streets and gazing at the architecture is a delight. Must-sees are the Hawa Mahal, known as ‘the Palace of Winds’, built in 1799 by Maharajah Sawai Pratap Singh to resemble the plumage of a dancing peacock. Outside of the city, Amer Fort is a 17th-century hilltop city stronghold that was home to the Rajput maharajas before they moved to newly-built Jaipur. Mughal, Rajput and Hindu influences flow in the architecture. Sheesh Mahal, a mirrored palace that looks like a giant glittering inlaid jewellery box, is worth seeking out.
From Jaipur, one should venture further out into the desert wilds of Rajasthan, taking the train from Jodhpur to Jaisalmer, or spend a few days at Ranthambore National Park for a chance to see tigers, deer and hyena.
Visitors can fly to Mumbai in search of the city’s trail of fabulous Irani cafés that are still caught in a time-warp, looking just the same as when they were created by Zoroastrians fleeing from persecution in Persia in the late 19th century. Signature dishes include sweet chai laced with cardamom. Renowned restaurant Britannia & Co’s most popular dishes are beri pulao (a kind of chicken biryani with barberries, cashews and caramelized onions), bun maska (buttery buns) and the sali boti (mutton curry flavored with jaggery and vinegar). Boman Kohinoor, the restaurant’s 94-year-old owner, still works the floor every single day.
For many, no visit to India is complete without a pilgrimage to the sacred River Ganges in the north. Varanasi, in Uttar Pradesh, is one of the oldest cities in India and the country’s spiritual capital, with ghats along the riverbank for bathing and cremation. Even though it’s the holiest of cities, this is still India, so it’s also frantically busy.
By contrast, southern India is as far from frenetic as you can get. The pace of life slows to a crawl on the southern beaches in Goa. Depending on the choice of beach, visitors can find themselves
hanging out with only a few laid-back cows and some yogis for company, or tripped-out hippies banging on a bongo drum at dawn.
From Goa, take the train down through the state of Karnataka to Kerala. The smell of cardamom, black pepper and other spices grown here sweetly fills the air and the flavours the sublime food — it is more coconuty and subtle than elsewhere in India. Kochi (Cochin) was once a fort town and destination of spice merchants and its architecture is a gorgeous mix of Portuguese, Dutch and British mansions.
For most though, this is the place to really float on the backwaters that are the lagoons and lakes in the ghats inland from the Arabian Sea coast by drifting on a houseboat, catching birdlife
and aquatic mammals.
Darjeeling, set in the foothills of the Himalayas in eastern India, offers hiking and hill trekking, water rafting and adventure sports, but for many it’s the flora and the famous tea that are the biggest draws.
Further down the east coast, Pondicherry is a French colonial city that’s aptly known as the Indian Côte d’Azur. There’s a kind of boho-chic way to life here, food that sublimely fuses French with Indian, and a French quarter where promenades are lined with palms and beautiful heritage buildings.
Madhya Pradesh: The Hidden Heart of India
This is India’s undiscovered state with a wealth of treasures that many tourists don’t notice on the map — which is a shame as this place (the name means heart land) is home to the Bengal tiger. About 60 of the big cats roam through Bandhavgarh National Park’s 111,000 acres of forest, while Kanha is the state’s largest animal reserve offering the most frequent tiger sightings.
Kanha’s ravines, grassy meadows and sal and bamboo forests served as the inspiration for Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book. Deep in the park is Bamni Dadar, known for its spectacular sunsets and the possibility of sighting sambar, barking deer, gaur and four-horned antelope. Bandhavgarh is named after the highest hill in the park and features 10th-century shrines, temples and hand-carved hermit caves within tropical forests, steep rocky hills and valleys. As well as the big, striped cats, it is home to leopard, muntjac, wild boar, rhesus monkeys and sloths.
Madhya Pradesh is also the location of what has been described as ‘a stone-age Louvre’: Bhimbetka is an enormous collection out prehistoric caves adorned with paintings. Fifteen of these shelters created in the rocks and decorated by human hands have been opened to the public. This rock art, from the upper paleolithic to the medieval period, is near Bhopal with its fabulous old city and its plethora of mosques, serpentine alleys, chowks, milling crowds, exotic havelis and crowded bazaars.