India for the First Time Traveller
Bustling and serene, timeless yet irrepressibly on the move, India dazzles and delights like no other place on earth. Here are some tips for the traveller considering a first journey to India.
Where to Travel?
India’s most populous city, Mumbai crackles with an energy that simply must be experienced firsthand. Some of its most notable sites are remnants of British colonial rule, including the spectacular Victoria Terminus, the Prince of Wales Museum and the Gateway of India, a massive stone arch built to commemorate the visit of George V in 1911. In addition to the monument itself, the square that fronts it is a hub of humanity, drawing throngs of both visitors and locals.
If your idea of India includes the rustic serenity of its countryside, then Kerala is not to be missed. There is much to see here – including the extraordinary Hindu murals of the 16th-century Dutch Palace in Kochi – but the main attraction here is the peaceful backwaters of Kumarakom, best explored by traditional rice barge. As your boat snakes up the narrow canals, the sights and sounds of daily life on display on the banks are a feast for the senses.
Udaipur & Jaipur
For monumental architecture, Agra justly steals the show with the Taj Mahal (see below), a must-see if ever there was one. Yet Udaipur to the west has its share of treasures, nestled in some of the most beautiful landscape in the country. The City Palace rises from the bank of Lake Pichola like a white marble mountain. In nearby Jaipur, Amber Fort is sprawling and spectacular, and its Palace of Mirrors gorgeous, but be sure to include time to visit the Eklingji temple complex, located outside the city. The carvings on the more than 100 shrines here have to be seen to be believed; moreover, it is a place of deep reverence and spirituality, an unmistakable part of the fabric of local life.
Agra & the Taj Mahal
If you ever worried that the Taj Mahal might not live up to the superlatives that poets and historians have applied to it, worry no longer. No photograph does the Taj Mahal justice. It looks as if it were painted onto the sky and is both strikingly simple and graced with fine details – particularly the pietra dura (inlaid stonework) of the cenotaph and the subtle variation in the monument’s marble skin. Visit at both sunrise and sunset, and see for yourself how the Taj Mahal soaks up the colors of the surrounding sky, changing hues as you watch.
India’s other great metropolis is Delhi, and like Mumbai, it’s a wonderful place to experience day-to-day India at its most energetic. A visit here is likely to include the Gandhi Memorial, an appropriately simple marble slab that marks the spot where the slain leader was cremated in 1948. You may also want to see Humayun’s Tomb, built in 1572. With its symmetrical design and formal position at the heart of an immaculate garden, the tomb prefigures many of the techniques that would reach culmination in the Taj Mahal.
What to Eat?
For even the casual epicurean, there is no question: you cannot miss Indian cuisine at its freshest and most authentic. There are myriad variations in Indian cooking between and even within regions, but a few general rules apply. A typical Indian entrée consists of a spicy curry or stew of vegetables or meat, accompanied with rice, roti (flatbread) for scooping, and perhaps a small salad. Being a predominantly Hindu country, beef is rare in India, so meat dishes consist of chicken or savory lamb. Indian menus can be daunting to those unfamiliar with the dishes; an excellent option is the thali, a sampler plate of native dishes that allow you to experience much of a region’s culinary diversity in a single sitting. Use the side dish of yogurt, along with the roti or naan, to tame any excessively spicy food.
When to Go?
Much of India’s climate is tropical, and the summer months can be uncomfortably hot, so plan to travel in fall, winter or spring. The southern parts of India, including Kerala, are tropical and remain warm all year round; if you plan to travel both north and south, you need to pack for two different climates.
Who Should Travel to India?
Anyone with a love of history, culture and deep spirituality; anyone with a passion for beauty, whether natural or manmade; and anyone with the desire to meet some of the most open and welcoming people on earth. In short...just about everyone should experience India during their lifetime.