India is a land of diversity and extremes – which is what makes it so fascinating and a great place to visit! Here are our favourite things about this colourful country, as well as some things to be aware of when you go:
The riot of colour and decoration that is all around!
Ok some guys dress in a rhapsody of brown and beige, but they are out-numbered by brightly coloured saris, salwa kameez, kurta pyjamas and turbans. Sikh turbans are often in deep purple and orange, Rajasthani turbans you can see in all shades from the bright red of the camel men to khaki green or neon pink even. Flower garlands decorate the cows, vehicles and visitors at the temples. Temples are highly colourful. Some could not be any more colourful such as the Meenaskshi temple complex in Madurai. Even elephants are beautifully painted and dressed up for ceremonies and processions.
Note of caution: Some ‘holy men’ or priests are not so holy and some tourists are very gullible, so if they ask you to watch them levitate in their cave after dark maybe give it a miss! Don’t let them bamboozle you with their holy speak to part with a large donation at the temple, or holy lake in Pushkar. It might go straight into their unholy pocket. It is such a shame, but corruption is rife in India at all levels, so be astute on your India tour.
The atmosphere is magical!
It is hard to communicate, but certain combinations of factors create an undeniably magical atmosphere. There are numerous special places that have an atmosphere unlike anywhere else and certainly unlike anywhere in the western world. It might be all the colours, sounds and smells mixed in with the beauty of the landscape and fervour of ancient religious rituals and history, plus the people and creatures that inhabit the place.
Hampi immediately springs to mind. Here the landscape is simply unreal. Huge boulders are strewn about the vast planes and a wide river runs through Hampi. It is lined by a small ramshackle town with vivid green banana plantations and all around is the vast ruins of an ancient city. Holy cows wander by and monkeys climb on the ruins and rocks. Early morning the temple elephant is taken down to the river for her bath and with a twinkle in her eye and an audience of tourists and locals she’ll be cleansed and fed bananas! It is a rare treat to witness a happy elephant wallowing and being lovingly scrubbed down by her mahout in such a lovely setting. That was definitely a magical moment!
Note of caution: Persistent touts, fake guides and creative fraudsters on the make will target places of interest to fleece tourists of their rupees. Just trust your instincts and be aware of potential scams.
The festivals are incredible!
Indians know how to let loose and go really wild at festival time. There are too many festivals to discuss across the seasons and regions, from local festivals such as Pushkar camel fair to national festivals such as Diwali. Health and safety regulations do not seem to apply during Diwali. Noise and smoke levels are overwhelming in some cities due to the amount of firecrackers going off and oil lamps being lit. There is lots of excitement, atmosphere, colour and noise mixed in with some danger too! I can recall small children letting off fireworks in the street and in my general direction! So I retreated to higher ground in Jaipur to get away from the smoke and din and get a good view of the city alight. We saw a house burning down on the horizon! It looked and sounded a bit like a war-zone but was quite thrilling and a real adrenaline rush at the same time, something for the adventurous to experience on their India trip.
Note of caution: Watch out for large excited crowds in India or anywhere for that matter, some festivals can get quite out of control and a human stampede can result in casualties. In busy areas, even crowded trams, men can take the opportunity to touch and grope female tourists or ‘eve tease’ as they call it! The sneaky lechery of some Indian men is something that I do loathe as a female traveller. It is rarely threatening, but is so infuriating!
The food is delicious!
Indian food is a big favourite of mine and something I look forward to on all my India holidays. I am pretty much vegetarian and so is a large section of the population of India, so eating out in India is always a pleasure. I think the best dishes are vegetarian. I love a simple lentil daal and chapatti as well as the more complicated and fancy dishes. All the fried spicy snacks go so well with hot weather and a sweet spicy chai or a yoghurt lassi. There is a really simple drink that is concocted by mixing fresh lime juice, sugar or salt (or both) even a dash of black pepper and then a soda water. It has to be mixed carefully otherwise it fizzes up and over the glass. It is so refreshing in the heat and is a great homemade rehydration mix. Masala dosa with coconut chutney is a treat when visiting a Southern Indian restaurant or a vegetable Thali with all the trimmings, maybe served on a banana leaf. Flavours tend to be strong and sometimes heavy on salt, spice, chilli, ginger, garlic and sugar. This diet suits the climate well. Indian sweets and desserts are often overwhelmingly rich and sweet and so you have to be in the mood, such as the fudge-like barfi.
Note of caution: Always go for the freshly prepared food or popular, busy eateries where there is a good turnover of happy customers. Trust your instincts and don’t consume anything out of politeness that does not smell/taste/look right. Avoid old rice, ice that might not be made of purified water and ice cream that may have been melted and re-frozen due to a power cut.
I love the animals and wildlife!
It’s still not unusual to see bullock carts, camel carts and elephants sharing the road with traffic and holy cows. I particularly love elephants and these can be seen in the wild at national parks and some temples have their own ‘temple elephants’ that take donations, bless visitors, and take part in ceremonies.
Cows roam the markets, beaches and streets eating up scraps and newspaper too and helping themselves at the markets. Some of the cows look like the stuff of legends, tall and serene with big horns, humps and dewlaps, dark ringed eyes and pure white hide; the kind of cows that frolicked with Krishna and the milk maids. I have travelled to India many times, but I am still excited when I see a peacock, langur, elephant, water buffalo, camel and even a vulture or two.
Note of caution: Watch out for the street dogs and monkeys that can bite or scratch, even if they initially appear friendly. They can carry rabies. I hate to see tourists befriend the dogs in Goa and feed them and make them dependent on tourists to survive. Eventually they leave to go home and leave a needy pining animal behind. Cows appear quite benign, but can also come at you horns down if you startle them. Some have quite a set of horns!