Around And About India
How do I get there?
By Air :
The major international airports in India, which serve traffic from all over the world, are in Delhi, Mumbai (Bombay), Calcutta and Chennai (Madras). Airports tend to be on the outskirts of cities. Pre-paid taxi services and auto-rickshaws are stationed outside the terminus to get you into the city.
By Rail :
Railways do not cut across international borders in this part of the world except the Samjhauta (i.e. "understanding"!) Express that runs between Amritsar (India) and Lahore (Pakistan). However, in many cases it is possible to travel till the border by train.
By Road :
Except the Lahore-Delhi bus (4 times a week), there are no cross border coach services. It is possible to drive into India with the requisite paperwork in order. Even driving in from Nepal now requires a permit. Permits may be arranged through the Indian embassy in your country.
By Sea :
Several international cruise lines include stopovers at Indian ports. The popular destinations are Goa, Mumbai, Kochi, Kozhikode, Calcutta and Chennai. There are no regular passenger services; the service between Rameshwaram (Tamil Nadu) and Sri Lanka has been indefinitely suspended.
India is a vast country but luckily for the traveller, it is extensively linked by public transport. All major towns and cities have airports. Even very small towns are connected by rail with Indian Railways maintaining the biggest network in Asia. ‘Toy trains’ are quaint, neat and narrow gauge; pretty like the hillsides they chug up. The roads and highways may not be state-of-the art multi-lane expressways but if it’s basically about getting to places, they serve the purpose well! The bus network, privately run and state operated is extensive.
Traffic drives on the left hand side and it is possible to hire cars, but more easily chauffeur driven ones. Self drive cars are hard to come by as the government does not issue licenses for these. That’s fine, believe us, because you will appreciate your driver here! Roads are reasonably good in parts, specially the major highways. Near towns and villages they deteriorate and depending on the season, crumble into tracks in some areas. Valid documentation is an International Driver’s License. Taxis and three wheeler auto rickshaws are ubiquitous in the Indian urban and even semi rural landscape. Most small towns have motorcycle rentals.
Travel by water is not popular but there are ships to the Andamans from Calcutta, Chennai and Vishakhapatnam. Backwater cruises in converted rice boats called Kettuvalams are a delight in the lazy lagoons of Kerala.
Indrail passes are a good way of exploring the country for non-resident Indians and foreigners. They can be purchased at major railway stations in India and through travel agents. Advance reservations are necessary because this is a first come first serve service.
Government of India Tourist Office (GITO),
New Delhi 110001.
Tel: (11) 23320342, (11) 23320005, (11) 23320008, and (11) 23320266. Fax: (11) 23320109.
India Tourism Development Corporation (ITDC),
SCOPE Complex, Core 8, 6th Floor,
7 Lodhi Road, New Delhi 110 003
Tel: (11) 2436 0303. Fax: (11) 2436 0233
States have their own individual tourism boards that promote and organise travel within the state.
When to Go
The best time to visit India is between October and March. The summer heat has abated by then in the northern plains and in Rajasthan’s arid landscape. The wet Northeast becomes somewhat drier, the south becomes a breathtaking scene of swaying coconut palms and rain showers spray Tamil Nadu.
Most of India’s colourful festivals are in this period. Dussehra, which is celebrated like Guy Fawkes Day but with dramatis personae from the epic drama of Ramayana, is followed 20 days later by the festival of light, firecrackers and joyous pyrotechnics, Diwali. Come March, come Holi: coloured powder, water fights and sweetmeats!
Besides these that are universal favourites across the country, there are regional festivals. Harvest festivals, car festivals, dance festivals and numerous temple celebrations pepper south India’s calendar in December-January. Pretty Pushkar in Rajasthan holds Asia’s largest camel fair in November; Mardi Gras in Goa and the muezzin’s call heralding Id. The winter is also ideal for wildlife enthusiasts.
The major deterrent to visiting during any other time is the heat. However, the months from March-May and September-November are prime trekking time in the Himalayas, and if you plan to concentrate on hilly areas then this is a better period in which to visit.
Where do I Stay?
There’s enough variety in tourist accommodation in India for the visitor to always find comfort; degrees of luxury though will be directly proportionate to the degree of the depth of your pocket.
Hotels are graded on the star system: 5-star being fully air conditioned, with a coffee shop, multiple speciality restaurants, pool, sauna, Jacuzzi, health centre, in-house shopping and all the razzmatazz. Down to hostels, ashrams, and Public Works’ guesthouses at the other end of the spectrum: dormitory style living with rationed hot water (just about enough for a decent shave!), no-smoking no-drinking restrictions and curfew!
There are numerous other options and you’ll never be stuck in a heap because there isn’t a choice.
Even the smallest tourist destination has mid-rung establishments. Some have common bathrooms but there usually will be the option of renting a room with an attached bathroom. Some mid-rung establishments are better than others. There are many that have cosy atmosphere and make up in character what they lack in frills.
In many wildlife sanctuaries, there is accommodation in the park’s buffer zone. Forest guesthouses are very basic accommodation, and some require you to bring your own provisions, but their privileged location more than compensates.
Heritage hotels and palace hotels are probably an Indian peculiarity. Some old rajahs, especially in Rajasthan, have converted part of their palaces into hotels. These give the visitor a great shot at savouring famed Indian hospitality at its quaint and genteel best. The government is promoting Home Stays where some pre-approved families provide paying guest accommodation and this has taken off in a big way in Tamil Nadu and Rajasthan.
There are beach resorts that give you access to exclusive sand so you may sun and surf in style. Houseboats in Kashmir, hardy little huts along trekking trails and numerous camping sites only widen the range that the traveller can choose from.
What to bring
Carry a combination plug that will feed into a round-pin socket: across the subcontinent plug point sockets are round rather than flat. Winters in the north are cold but days in the plains are sometimes sunny. Carry a combination of heavy woollens and light jumpers. It’s coldest from mid-December to mid-January. Get yourself an umbrella or raincoat. It’s always raining some region or another. In the summer be armed with sun protection: sunglasses, cap/hat, cream with a minimum SPF of 20.
Bring water purification tablets, prescription medicines and an extra pair of spectacles/contact lenses (though opticians abound in cities). A sleeping bag and a bed sheet are a must for budget travellers.
Things to Do
» Dining & Entertainment
» Special Events
» Dining & Entertainment
The call of "Chai-garam" proclaims the availability of hot tea on obscure railway platforms, and if you are tempted you’ll singe your tongue to one of the truest Indian experiences with food and drink. From the steel ‘thali’ fodder that is railway dining to the gourmet meals on dull silver that is fine dining, it’s all available in India.
In the cities the most popular international cuisines are Chinese, Italian, ‘Continental’/European and Thai. Lasagna, pasta, chop suey and red curries abound on menus. The most widely available Indian foods are definitely Mughlai and south Indian. Harking back to the days of the Mughals, Mughlai cuisine relies on aromatic spices, and succulent meats either curried or roasted in a tandoor and it can be very heavy. South Indian food is predominantly vegetarian, light and tangy.
Frothy coffee that sizzles out of a bright machine, chicken burger served up in a jiffy and with a smile; fast food has come into its own in India. Many worldwide chains have set up shop in India’s cities and from Pune to Delhi, the American get-and-go eating experience is yours for the asking.
Originally the truckers’ meal deal, ‘dhabas’ have proliferated along the highways and cater to all wayfarers. These shack establishments serve some great food at hard to beat prices, but since plates are not cleaned in the clearest of waters this dining experience may not be too safe.
Theatre and the arts are feted in the urban centres of Delhi, Bombay, Madras, Calcutta, Pune and Bangalore. Hollywood fare also reaches the big screens here within a month of their American release. The Hindi movie, that quintessentially Indian phenomenon, is a must-see. Slake your thirst for nightlife and twinkle any tingling toes at the pubs, nightclubs and discos. There is little by way of entertainment in the smaller towns and cities except the cinema halls and maybe the odd locally produced cultural show.
All over India makeshift markets line streets. Paan-sellers dot market corners, villages have busy market-days, deserted mountain trails boast lone tea-stalls that count as a whole settlement, and city roads all lead to snazzy malls! While shopping has always been big for Indians, as current trends go, ‘Indian’ is now big in shopping.
Ethnic chic, glitz and kitsch, whether it’s clothes, carpets or clutter, if it’s Indian, it’s in! To name a little that could fill your bags: Kashmiri carpets that rival Persian rugs or rugged durries of natural fibre in vibrant colours and rural motifs. Perfumes extracted from the sweetest of flowers, opulent silks and block-printed cotton. Beads and trinkets, silver and gold, mirror-work Rajasthani skirts, tie-and-dye, inexpensive leather ware, and statues in metal or stone.
Look out for the bright red, yellow, green and blue handloom from the ‘seven sisters’ in the Northeast; Karnataka Bidriware (silver inlay on blackened white metal); Kanjeevaram and Benaras saris with gold woven into multihued silks; beads, bangles and other ornaments everywhere; shell craft, pretty sandals, kurta and pyjamas at Delhi’s designer shops, brass from UP, bronze in the south; Darjeeling tea, and Coorg coffee.
For the thrill seeking traveller India is an all-in-one deal. The Indian Himalayas and the many hill formations present the trekker with innumerable hiking and trekking options. The wildlife sanctuaries, whether in the ‘sholas’ of southern India or the thick teak forests of the east, whether in the ‘sal’ and ‘shisham’ jungles of the north or the scrub of the west, are for the nature enthusiast. White water rafting in the rapids of the Himalayan rivers, ‘kettuvalam’ cruises in the Keralan backwaters, snorkelling, diving, water-skiing, beach bumming along India’s extensive coastline, there’s enough to make a water lover happy. There are many centres for adventure sports like parasailing and paragliding. Skiing in the Alps it is not, but for beginners the slopes in Auli and the more difficult ones in Spiti would provide some thrill. Some hotels and clubs allow non-guests/members pay-and-play use of swimming pools and golf links.
Cricket is special in India. It’s as much about twenty-two guys and a ball as about the beat of drums and blasts from trumpets, painted faces and flag-waving, and cheering (and jeering) enthusiasm. Try and catch the buzz at least once.
India’s calendar is full of very special events: festivals of religion, harvests and culture are celebrated with aplomb. India has three national holidays when all establishments across the country are compulsorily closed: 15th August-Independence Day, 2nd October-Gandhi’s birthday and 26th January-Republic Day, which is an extravaganza of a parade.
Festivals and holidays differ in different regions and some are universally appreciated across the country. The winter festival of lights, Diwali, is celebrated in cities, towns and dusty villages with twinkling lamps and fireworks. Spring brings myriad hues to the world around and also the festival of Holi - a happily messy rite of water and colour. The harvest brings joy and festivities of another order and is celebrated as Pongal in the south, and Bihu in the east and Baisakhi in the north. Christmas in Goa is still the most special but the cheer spreads everywhere. The month of Ramadan and feasting is important to Muslims. Other important religious events include Id-ul-Fitr, Id-ul-Zuha, the Prophet’s birthday, Good Friday, Dussehra, Buddha Purnima (Buddha’s birthday) and Guru Nanak’s birthday.
Besides these, dance festivals in southern temple towns in December and car festivals of Puri and Madurai when the temple chariots are wheeled around the city, and the Nehru Cup boat race in the Kerala's backwaters (second Saturday of August) bring more occasions to celebrate.