The world’s most famous monument to love, which features on every first-timer’s Indian itinery. Built by the seventeenth-century Mogul emperor Shah Jahan to enshrine the body of his favourite wife, the vast mausoleum stands on the banks of the Yamuna Ruver in the city of Agra, just a couple of hours’ train ride from Delhi. It’s worth staying in a hotel that’s close by the Taj, so you can visit it at sunrise and/or in the moonlight, when the play of light on marble is especially memorable, and the site is less crowded (more than 20,000 visitors a day flock here). Not surprisingly, Agra is one of the worst places for touts, hawkers and hassle, so have your polite rebuffs at the ready.
India’s desert state is deservedly the most popular region in the country, with its glorious forts at Jaipur and Jodhpur, magnificent maharajahs’ palaces, and flamboyantly clad citizens. Graceful waterside temples, exquisite mansions, and the lovely City Palace make lakeside Udaipur a definite must-see, and the remote desert town of Jaisalmer, built entirely of honey-coloured sandstone, as another gem – and a departure point for overnight camels, strike out into the state’s two most famous national parks; the lakes and swamps of Keoladeo National Park support huge breeding colonies of cranes, storks, flamingos and ibis, while Ranthambore National Park is one of the easiest places in India to see a wild tiger.
The south of India has a quite different feel from the north, and the state of Kerala is particularly appealing because it seems less crazy and intense than the rest of the country. Kerala is most famous for its beach resort at Kovalam, and for the more low-key travellers’ enclave at Varkala. The other big draw down here is the chance to go boating through the inland waterways near Allapuzha, but the tourist boat-rides are uninspired and overlong, so it’s more rewarding to travel through the narrower rivers by local ferry bus. Kerala’s Delightful old port city of Kochi is full of historic churches and warehouses built by European and Chinese merchants, and regularly stages traditional, elaborately costumed Kathakali dance performances.
Cradled by the soaring peaks of the Himalaya and Karakoram ranges, Ladakh is a fascinating high altitude outpost of Tibetan culture and religion. One of the furthest-flung parts of the country, this arid, stark mountainous region, dotted with tiny pockets of fertility, offers some of the best trekking in India, from easy two-day strolls to treks of several weeks across the exceptionally remote and spellbindingly beautiful Zanskar region. The other highlights are the temples; Alchi, Tikse and Hemis are the best known, the last of these especially famed for its masked dances at festival time.the popular two or three day road journey from the lively hill town of Manali to Ladakh’s main town, Leh, is one of the great Asian road trips, with high-altitude passes and stunning scenery.
Any huge Indian metropolis can scare the life out of a first timer, but all visitors should have, and will probably be unable to avoid, the city experience at some point. The chaotic capital of Delhi coasts Mogul palaces inside the Red Fort, sweeping thorough fares in New Delhi and the ultramodern Baha’I Temple, which is often favourably compared to the Sydney Opera House. Kipling’s “city of dreadful night”, kolkata, is famously warm-hearted and literary with dozens of bookshops and a reputation for intellectual liveliness. Varanasi lines the banks of the sacred River Ganges, where pilgrims immerse themselves in the waters and cremate their dead on the banks. Mumbai boasts a Louis Vutton store, some of the best, and most expensive, food in the country, but also some of the most awful poverty.
Go on safari
India has a fabulous variety of wildlife including wild elephants and leopards, but its real claim to fame us that it is one of the best places on the planet to spot tigers. The best known national parks are Ranthambore in Rajasthan and Kanha in Madhya Pradesh, but the newer park of Pench, near Nagpur, is a less crowded option.
The beach front raves are no more but the 100-kilometre-long strip of beaches has something for everyone. And don’t forget to venture inland to the palm groves, rice fields, markets and Portuguese-style facades that characterize the heart of the Goan state.
Cool out at hill station
Get away from the steamy heat of the plains in Kodaikanal in the Western Ghats, Ooty (Udhagamandalam) in the Nilgiri Hills, Munnar in Kerala or Darjeeling in the Himalayan foothills; fine scenery (stunning vistas of Kanchenjunga, the third-highest mountain on the world from Darkjeeling), trekking, tea and often quaint journeys all add to the character and charm.
Through the high profile of one resident, the Dalai Lama, and as the result of the Chinese occupation of Tibet, Dharamsala – the seat of the Tibetan government in exile – is now world famous. Thanks to the large Tibetan population and influence in the area, this is a great place to take meditation courses, shop for Tibetan trinkets, see Tibetan folk opera and even, if you get lucky, shake hands with the Dalai Lama himself. It is also a good place to arrange local treks into the Dhauladhar range.
At the heart of the Holy city of the Sikhs stands the sumptuous sixteenth-century Golden Temple, encircles by a sacred lake and constantly thronged by pilgrims in their finest ceremonial dress. You can easily spend half a day absorbing the ritual goings-on of the temple: arrive here at sunrise for the most awesome effect of gilt on water, then walk slowly through the long white marble colonnades that frame the lake; cross the causeway to enter the Golden Temple itself; and finally join the pilgrims for the free meal of chapatti and dhal, dished out to all visitors twice a day.
The 25 Hindu and Jain temples here date back to the tenth century and are built of sandstone, with almost every facade carved into exuberantly in graphic and beautiful detail of encyclopedia of Kama-Sutra like entanglements.
Gangotri Glacier trek
The sacred frozen source of the River Ganges is spectacularly positioned amid spiky snow-clad peaks at 5000m above sea level, but is fairly easily reached along seventeen-kilometre pilgrims’ route.
Play an extra in an Indian film
India’s film industry, known as Bollywood, is based in Mumbai and produces twice as many movies as Hollywood each year. Non-Indians are invariably needed to pad out the cast, so hang out at the city’s Salvation Army Red Shield Hostel, where many movie hopefuls are recruited.
Snorkeling and diving in the Andaman islands
This rarely visited archipelago of two hundred picture-perfect islands lies 100km off India’s east coast. Tourism is a growing industry and the main areas are unaffected by the 2004 tsunami – it’s all about as far off the beaten track as you can get in India.