India is a country full of contradictions, challenges, colour and aromas, a wonderous country to tour with distinct changes from north to south and from state to state.
We spent just under 4 months travelling around the country, starting in Mumbai, the country’s most populous and wealthiest city, a great starting point for any tour.
One of the best memories I have from this city was a tour round the Dharavi Slum, the third largest slum in the world, where we were guided by a local student from the slum who took us into the heart of this bewildering network of passageways seeing local businesses, children at play and at school in a place that hums with life. It was also featured in the film Slum Dog Millionaire. Here is the link for this and other tours run by the very knowledgeable and charismatic Muhammad.
Of course there is much much more to see in Mumbai such as the India Gate, the Taj Mahal Palace hotel, Gandhi’s house and the famous and largest outdoor laundry in the world called Dhobi Ghat, to mention just a few.
From Mumbai we flew to Varanasi, one of the world’s oldest continually inhabited cities, and one of the holiest in Hinduism. Located on the banks of the river Ganges, this is where people come to wash away their sins in the sacred waters, to cremate their loved ones, or simply to die here, hoping for liberation from the cycle of rebirth.
Its a place that can be initially overwhelming but somewhere you must go to if you want to sample a spiritual Indian city in all its glory.
Whilst in Varanasi we got up early to take a boa trip on the River Ganges to see the sun rise and watch the activities (bathing and cremations!) from the water, a truly memorable experience.
A flight back from Varanasi, a place we were sad to leave in the end, had us land into Delhi, the country’s capital city. Delhi is a crazy city, overun by cars, bikes, tuktuks and people, but a must see city in any tour of India.
You see stark contrasts between the New and Old Delhi areas of the city, the ‘new’ part being full of grand architecture built during the British colonial days and the much older parts of the city with its small passageways and markets sprawling everywhere you look.
Taj Mahal – Agra
A three hour taxi or train trip from Delhi will take you to the relative calm and beauty of Agra, the home of the Taj Mahal. Now you never quite know how buildings will compare to their quoted notoriety but the Taj Mahal is something special.
Shimla is a town in the northern state of Himachal Pradesh , a 10 hour train journey from Dehli. This area is known for its hill stations, where the British colonial administration retreated to the coolness of the mountains to take reprieve from the hot and humid Indian summer months.
The British legacy in Shimla is easily seen with areas of the town littered with the influences of British architecture, from a church to a town hall or viceroy lodge, its an odd moment to see such buildings in this context.
A 3-4 hour train ride from Shimla will take you to Amritsar, a northerly city in the state of Punjab and only 30 miles from the border with Pakistan. Amritsar is another city with a rich culture, featuring the Golden Temple, the Partition Museum and much much more.
Heading back via Dehli from Amritsar we went to Sawai Madhopur, our entry in to the wonderous Indian State of Rajasthan. We stayed in an old palace near to the Ranthambore Tiger Reserve for an Indian style safari.
Jaipur – The ‘Pink City’ of Rajasthan
Jaipur is also known as the ‘Pink City’ due to colour of many of the walls and houses, made that way to celebrate the visit of Queen Victoria in 1876. Its a another fantastic Indian city, full of culture and tradition and the location of the fantastic Amber Fort, City Palace, Floating Palace along with many other attractions.
On our route to Jodhpur our timing was luckily spot on to visit the Camel fair in Pushkar, on the edge of the Thar desert on the way. This is an annual event, held in early in November where nearly half a million people come to enjoy the various treats on offer, from ‘best dressed’ camel, camel races, a fair ground and market, horses and other animals of all shapes and sizes converging for this week long event. The fair is set close to the holy town of Pushkar which is well worth visiting too.
Jodhpur – The ‘Blue City’ of Rajasthan
Jodhpur is another wonderful city in the state of Rajasthan, with the impressive Mehrangarh Fort towering 410 feet above the city.
Udaipur was one of my favourite cities in Rajasthan, not an easy pick given the richness of places to visit in this fabulous Indian state. Made famous as the setting for films like Octopussy and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, as well as some major Bollywood movies too. Its also an exclusive venue for high profile weddings in the hotels on the lake, providing privacy and luxury for the well heeled and famous.
Set across two lakes, littered with palaces, roof top bars and restaurants, aided by the coolness of the lake water, it’s an oasis of calm in India and more like an Italian lake town than anything else we encountered in India.
Goa – India’s Finest Beaches
A swift flight from Udaipur to the state of Goa and it was like landing in a different country not just a different state. Goa does have some busy towns but at the beaches the tempo is dialed right down. We were lucky enough to spend nearly six weeks over Xmas and New Years on some of these wonderful beaches.
Kerala – Alleppey – Boats and Backwaters
From the beaches of Goa we headed further south to Alleppey in Kerala, the location for backwater boat tours, a chance to see another slice of traditional India life.
Kerala – Fort Kochi
Our next stop heading south through Kerala was Fort Kochi, a port town with lots of history from its illustrious history as a centre for spice trading since the 14th century.