Soaring upwards of 1.5 billion people, India is a country bursting at the seams with history, diverse food, unique architecture, and unparalleled spiritual dedication. From a Western perspective, especially for those never having travelled to developing nations, prepare to be tossed around in a veritable blender of Indian thrill, intrigue and complexities.
From an intensely conservative lifestyle that frowns upon drinking, smoking or even holding hands in public to a deeply rooted caste system. Westerners while still revered as rich and unique due to appearance, are quietly judged for our loose morals in behaviour and dress.
Making huge strides towards modernization, local frustration with old perceptions of the country are increasing. Snake charming is no longer prevalent and is actually illegal! And, despite Hollywood’s obsession with documenting poverty and despair, India also boasts lush green forests, pristine beaches, luxury hotels, and high class universities.
A popular UNESCO heritage sights is Qutb Minar: celebrating the Muslim conquest of India. The Iranian-style minaret, standing at 5 stories tall, was completed in the year 1220. While it can no longer be climbed, inscriptions are still clearly visible adorning its sides. The area also features a number of other unique architectural features from different eras including a mosque and the Iron Pillar of Delhi.
The Lotus Temple, a unique visual icon of New Delhi, is a Bahai House of Worship that welcomes all: regardless of religion. While no ritualistic ceremonies may be performed on site, the Bahai believe in a single unifying god and a modern return to moral values. Scriptures from any religion may be read or chanted, but public speaking or fundraising is prohibited. As one of the most visited sites in the country, this definitely should not be missed.
Textiles Market & Sarai Mohana Village, Varanasi
Taking the lead with 53%, agriculture is the largest employer in India.
At 20%, textiles is a thriving industry that produces some of the worlds finest cashmere, cottons, silks, velvets, and chiffon. If you’re sporting business wear, don’t be surprised if a local sweeps you into his shop and starts taking your measurements for a new suit! Unfortunately, the industry is also hugely responsible for child labour – employing over 400,000 under the age of 18.
The ISKCON temple houses followers of a branch of Hinduism that believe in the god Krishna above all others. Only coming to fruition in the year 1486, and being the only monotheistic religion in Hinduism, followers are very proactive about recruiting new members. Step inside for a blessing from a Guru. Keep in mind, photos inside temples are disrespectful and shoes are to be taken off and kept in lockers outside.
Escape the busy city streets and stroll through the 16th century gardens at H. tomb. Admire the large amounts of red sandstone, and head inside to visit the final resting place for this Mugul emperor and his family. Or, if you want a cocktail party tid-bit ask a local guide how the style of tombs differs for men and women.
Stretching upwards of 90 acres, watch locals enjoy their downtime at the beautiful Lodi Gardens. Cute young couples adorn the vast stretches of grassy fields, but notice the lack of public kissing and hand-holding that’s taboo in Indian culture.
The India Gate was build to commemorate the 70,000 Indian Army soliders that died during the first world war. Now a popular spot, tourists should be wary of pick pockets, camera thieves, and ruthless entrepreneurs charging for taking photos.
There are five Jantar Mantars across India that were built around 1734 that were once used as astronomical tools to predict the movements of the sun, moon and planets. From the largest sundial in the world and upwards of other thirteen unique instruments, it, until recently, was also a popular place for public protests before the act was banned from the site.
Jama-Masid is another Muslim Mosque dedicated to Shah Jahan, a Mughul emperor. It has been prone to terrorist attacks in recent years due to distaste from far-right wing groups claiming that ‘semi-naked’ tourists have been allowed inside.
The Red Fort
The Red Fort which housed the Mughals dynasty for 200 years features a number of museums and ruins to walk amongst. Aside from influencing architectural styles across India, this location is also used for the Prime Minster’s annual Independence day broadcast.
Visiting the “Spice Bowl of the World” means its a necessity to visit its most prominent spice market. Hop on a Tuk-tuk, negotiate the price in advance, and navigate the tight city roads. An Indian meal isn’t complete unless its lathered in spices or sauces! Fresh Saffron, Tumeric, Coridaner would be a crucial miss if left un-sampled. As you’ll quickly learn, there is a Masala blend for everything from meats to fruit! Tourists should be wary of adulterated (impure) spices, and how they appear to security in carry-on luggage.
Join the new wave of Hinduism architecture at the spiritual campus at “Swami-na-rye-an” “ak-shar-dahm.” Built incredibly recently in 2005, enjoy modern words of wisdom on an armada of stone elephants with inscriptions below, a hall of robotic dioramas, a massive theatre, boat ride, musical fountain night show that could compete with the best back home.
Guru Bangla Sahib (Sikh Temple)
Looking to change things up and trade in a mosque or two for a Sikh temple? Gurudwara Bangla Sahib is the most prominent house of worship. The large well at the rear of the temple is revered as having unique healing properties. The kitchen is also open to all races and religions for a free meal. Foreigners are reminded that hair-coverings are strongly encouraged and provided free of charge.
Sri Laxmi Narayan Mandir
Visit the Goddess of wealth, fortune, beauty and prosperity along with her consort at the Sri Laxmi Narayan Mandir.
Break out your fedora and adventure spirit as you visit the Tughlaqabad Fort in southern New Delhi. Freely roam these 700 year old ruins. Very short lived, it was abandoned only 6 years later. Tourists should not enter the enclosed forests due to personal security risks.
Built incredibly recently in the 1970s, the “Chatter-pur” Temple is a place of worship for “Cot-ya-yanni” — the goddess of Vengeance and Victory — where locals pray for marriage.
With three locations for Dilli Haat in Delhi, souvenirs are bountiful. With only some long-term permanent shops, every visit will be unique with the rotating handicraft vendors. Prices are always inflated for tourists, and bargaining can be uncomfortable when coming from a country where it is not common-place. As a general rule, start your bargaining at about 50% less of what is asked, but keeping in mind this is their livelihood – don’t squabble over pennies.
Agrasen Ki Baoli
Feel like your descending into haunted ruins for buried treasure as you visit Agra-sen-ki-bow-li – one of the most popular local step wells in New Delhi. While other, more elaborate, designs exist elsewhere in the country – these facilities used to collect rainwater for storage during the dry season.
Dandi March Statue
The Dandi March, also known as the Salt March, was a prolific demonstration of nonviolent civil disobedience in India lead by Gandhi that gained worldwide attention. Locals were exhausted by British rule which deemed their salt reclamation tactics illegal, heavily taxed it elsewhere, and tried to forcibly stop it.
The Holi festival which is celebrated near the end of February or early March, is a spectacle of colours unlike anything across the globe. The night prior, Hindus perform rituals infront of a bonfire praying for the destruction of internal evil. In New Delhi it has become a celebration of dance, food, joy, singing, music, and of course colours. People of all ages take to the streets to throw and smear colored powder. While in Southern India, the occasion is for more solemn religious practices.
The danger of driving in India is second only to being a pedestrian! For any children who grew up in the 80s loving Frogger, welcome to your new dream. Planning to cross a road? Make eye-contact with traffic, and begin walking promptly, but steadily across the busy city street. Traffic will slow down, or drive around you. Locals drive incredibly defensively – even if the rules of the road seem to be optional. Accidents are more likely back home than they are here.
Hiring a private pre-paid driver via your hotels concierge is the best way to transfer from New Delhi to Agra for the day. Always ask for an outside taxi, not the hotels taxi, as it will be substantially more affordable. Depending on traffic, the route should take approximately 3 hours one-way.
The Taj Mahal, being one of the seven wonders of the world, will be the first question friends ask about your trip when returning home. Take an adequate amount of time to thoroughly enjoy the fountains and landscaping around this Islamic mausoleum. Mausoleum? Yes, not a temple! It was built by Shah Jahan to tomb his favourite wife when she passed. He also cut off the hands of the 14,000 workers who built the Taj Mahal so that they could never build another one to match. A duplicate was eventually attempted, but all in black, but for unknown reasons, the foundation couldn’t be completed.
Since the drive to Agra is rather lengthy, make the best of the trip and tack on the Agra fort to your day. Originally built to house the emperors of the Mughal Dynasty, a couple hundred years later, it was defeated by the British. The evidence of the battle is still very evident with cannon ball holes adorning some of the walls!
Nahar-gur fort helped develop a defence ring around the city of Jaipur with its “Great-Wall-of-China-style” architecture and resting in a strategic spot atop the ridge-line of the local hills. While its strength was never put to the test in battle, it became an important place for the signing diplomatic agreements. For tourists, it offers a stellar view of the city below.
Known as the Water Palace, or Jal Mahal, is a palace situated in the center of Man Sagur Lake. While entry is not permitted, spectacular viewpoints are visible along the lakeside that exude an unparalleled sense of tranquility at sunset.
The city palace in Jaipur was concocted a mixture of different architectural styles: European, Raj-Poot and Islamic. While the entire complex isn’t open to the public as it still acts as the royal residence; just behind it is the Jai Niwas Garden where many locals and a plethora of monkeys hang out to play. Never attempt to pet of feed the monkeys as they can become protective or even violent!
Hawa Mahal, constructed of the same red and pink sandstone which gives Jaipur its “Pink City” nickname, was a royal residence. Its honeycomb-like design was intentional so that ladies could observe day to day life on the street without having to appear in public with face coverings. The design was also functional and allowed air to ventilate it freely; hence its English translation: Palace of the Winds.
Built primarily of marble and red sandstone, Amer Fort (or Amer Palace) is simply-put the single most important fort for any tourist to visit in Jaipur. Calling it a palace barely does it justice. With its broad courtyards, detailed architecture, and panoramic city view, its crown jewel is the Sheesh Mahal. Literally translated as a Crystal Palace, this building is adorned with miniature mirrors completely covering the walls.
Jaigar Fort is a typical fort on the hillside of Jaipur which does have a stunning courtyard and view that overlooks Amer fort, but can be skipped for the average tourist.
Located in the heart of Jaipur, Sargasuli Tower is a quick climb that offers an spectacular close-up birds eyeview of downtown.
Ramgopalji (Monkey Temple)
Climb the hills of Jaipur to trek through what feels like a mountain pass via Gal-ta Ji Temple to Ram-go-pal-ji Temple where monkeys run in hordes. Its locally known as Monkey Temple, and for that exact reason!
Have some evening time to kill? Kick back to a Bollywood flick at Jaipur’s famous Raj Mandir Cinema. Though, be prepared to put your Hindi language skills to test.
High Tea at the Hotel Taj Ram Bagh Palace
Missing home? Drop by for a colonial feeling afternoon tea (or should I say Champange) at the Taj Ram Bagh palace. Dishes are served outside or in, with all the luxury and lustre you can fathom.
Hunted Village of Bhangarh
The Haunted Village of Ban-gur gets its reputation from a an ancient legend that tells of a black wizard who fell in love with a princess. He whipped up a love potion to win her heart, but she grew wise to his trickery and threw the potion onto a boulder, which then in turn fell from the cliff and crushed the wizard. Before his fatal moments, he made a curse that the city would be destroyed shortly and no one would ever be able to live within its precincts.
Stil, to this day, warning signs appear around the premsis banning anyone from entering after sunset. Was this due to criminal activity or hauntings?
Chand Baori Stepwells
Chand Baori stepWell near the village of Abhaneri is a massive geometrical wonder. 3500 tiny steps descend 13 stories to a water cistern. This is the same location where Bruce Wayne is stuck in a pit with other prisoners and must make a leap of faith in the movie The Dark Knight Rises.
Wander amongst the Cun-hey-ree Caves near Mumbai for some impressive basalt relief work. Dating all the way back to the first century BC, numerous examples of buddhist architecture is prominent: from stupas (Buddhist shrines) to viharas (or living quarters). While a bit of a drive out of downtown Mumbai, hiring a private driver for the day and tacking on the Global Vipassana Pagoda is will make for a full day!
Global Vipassana Pagoda
The Global Vipassana Pagoda is a massive golden buddhist meditation hall north-west of Mumbai that symbolizes peace and harmony. The easiest access from Mumbai is by Uber, then ferry. Be sure to plan ample time for the ferry crossing as the line-ups are usually quite long, and are very packed. Uber is incredibly affordable in India and for a full day of service often won’t cost more than US$20.
Mumbai, previously Bombay, is well known for its massive Bollywood film industry and its luxurious celebrity homes. Producing over 300 feature films of the nearly 2,000 in India overall, it is one of the countries largest producers. Film set access is heavily restricted and visitation can only be done via tour operators.
Dharavi Slums, Mumbai
Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus
Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, also known as the Victoria Terminus, is one of many active railway stations. Many locals will commute between major cities via overnight trains for a fraction of the cost of flights. While not practical for shorter visits to India, it still makes an excellent photo op.
Gateway of India
While not to be confused with the India Gate in New Delhi, the Gateway of India in Mumbai is of very similar design. It was recently completed in 1924 to celebrate the landing of the British royalty in 1911. A popular spot for tourists, do not be surprised with hordes of locals looking to get a photo with the foreigner.
Chor Bazaar Thieves Market
Chor Bazaar, also known as the Thieves Market, in legend was known for stolen goods, but in modern reality, hosts a huge array of legitimate second hand vintage goods.
A mild sanctuary of nature amidst a busy city, the Hanging Gardens of Mumbai are a popular spot for morning yoga, or a run. While not a spectacular tourist attraction, its commonly packed with locals!
Haji Ali Dargah
Haji Ali Dargah, an Islamic mosque, is unique for its placement. Located jetting out into the ocean, visitors must trek along a walkway magnetized with garbage. While not the most scenic journey, or even mosque, the placement makes it an icon of Mumbai. While removing your shoes is a must, so is washing your feet prior to entry!
Mahalaxmi Dhobi Ghat
Nearing 150 years old, Maha-loch-smee Dhobi Ghat is a massive open-air manual laundry facility. Watch employees hard at work soaking, scrubbing, and wringing out clothing before hanging it out to dry in the open air. Individual articles of clothing can be washed for as little as 5 rupees. Everyone from large corporations, second hand dealers, and families send in their wearables.
From Mumbai, fly into Aurangabad and take day drive in a private car out to see the Ellora and Ajanta caves. Ajanta, located much farther out of the city boasts basalt caves carved out of a stiff cliff face above a river that is bursting at the seems during the wet season. The caves date back to the second security BC, and contain Buddhist paintings and carved stone sculptures — they were likely originally a place for worship and accommodation for monks.
In contrast, the Ellora caves are minutes driving from Aurangabad and are substantially more tourist-packed – and with good reason. While lacking the hillside design, the sheer detail of the Hindu and Buddhist artwork in the architecture is astonishing. With over 100 caves at this site, it makes it an easy choice if you only have time to visit one of the two. Located along a popular trade route, they were not only monasteries, temples, and a rest stop, but also an important commercial hub.
Kerala, a state in the South of India, is known for its stunning natural beauty: Hawaiian-style palm beaches, rolling hills bursting with tea and coffee plantations, and the lush backwaters which make for an amazing experience that break stereotypes of India. Visit small villages to see lyme production from crushed seashells and also rope production while gondaliered through the maze of mangroves.
Khana Tiger Reserve
While many opportunities exist to see a variety of animals in the wild, the more adventurous may opt in for a flight out to Raipur, a lengthy car drive, and a visit to the Kanha Tiger Reserve. Chalked full of animals in this natural environment, visitors are almost guaranteed to witness a tiger strolling nearby to their open-air jeep. Tours begin just before sunrise, which is prime time for a sighting.
Varanasi, one of the major spiritual hubs, is uniquely known for its position along the holy Ganges river. A number of Ghats… or stairs… walk directly into the waters.
At the Manikarnika Ghat witness the burning of human bodies atop piles of wood, which are then later remitted into the river. It is believed that salvation can be found when cremated here. It is not only rude, but completely forbidden to take photographs during this sacred ceremony. Tourists are sternly reminded to treat this as a cultural learning experience, not a chance to update their Instagram.
On the lighter side, optionally hop a boat or sit front row at the evening Aar-ti ceremony at the Da-sas-va-made Ghat. Watch as tourists and locals alike light candles and send them floating down the river as a fire offering to the Goddess Gan-ga. The ritual is said to dispell darkness. Live devotees also perform a spectacular waterside ceremony in prayer to the dieties.
Just slightly north of Varanasi is the township of Sarnath where Buddah practiced his first sermon in the deer park after attaining Enlightenment. Some buddhists believe that their practice is life is incomplete unless they make a pilgrimage here. Though, as a Westerner, seeing armies of monks take selfies at a stupa felt quite out of character!
Garden of Spiritual Wisdom
A contemporary attraction added to Sarnath is the Garden of Spiritual Wisdom. Beautifully landscaped, and primarily designed in English, it features a variety of exhibits and sculptures to relay the basics of Buddhism. The garden contains herbal plants that make up the basis of Ayurveda – a 5000 year old Indian, and yogic, natural healing solution! Regardless of your faith, the park makes for a relaxing 20 minute stroll.
The Golden Temple in the city of Amritsar is the holiest place of worship for Sikhs with upwards of 100,000 visitors per day. Surrounded by a man-made pool used for healing and purification, it was once a target of persecution and was destroyed by Muslim armies many times. Shoeless, visitors may enter the temple and pay tribute as scripture is read continuously from the Adi Granth.
In Sikhism, the Langar, or community kitchen is a fundamental part of their belief structure. Volunteers will sign up months in advance to participate in setup, food prep, cooking, serving and dish washing. People from any race, religion, caste, or gender may join for as many free meals as they can stomach, 12 hours per day, 365 days per year!
Wagah Pakistan Border Ceremony
Head slightly out of town to the only land border crossing – Waga – between Pakistan and India (formerly known as Hindustan), for the lowering of the flags ceremony. While seemingly colonial in style, the ceremony is substantially more exotic and dance-like. The two countries split after world war two, in an effort to curb bloodshed between Hindus and Muslims but the ceremony today represents not just this rivalry, but also their brotherhood and co-operation.