As I’m sure you can imagine, visiting India for the first time can be a massive culture shock, especially for people who have always kept to more westernised countries during their travels. India is a massive and often bewildering country, with a rich cocktail of different religions and cultures, not to mention some scary wildlife and crazy traffic situations! Needless to say, if you head out to India without a plan in place you’re going to have a hard time getting the most out of this fascinating country. While the whole country’s pretty unforgettable, here are a few things you simply have to try in India.
Visit Some Temples
India is one of the most spiritual countries on earth, and a centre of major world religions like Hinduism, Islam, Sikhism and Buddhism, along with countless smaller sects and offshoots of these belief systems. In a country where religion is such a central part of day to day life, it’s no wonder that India is full of fascinating temples. You’ll find many of these dominating wide open rural areas, or built into the sides of sublime mountains and caves. No two are the same, so be sure to visit a few temples during your trip. Marvel at the multi-coloured carvings of gods, demons and animals that adorn Meenakshi Sundareshwar, sample some sacred food following a ceremony at the Lord Jagannath temple in Orissa, or stifle your giggles at the erotic carvings at Khajuraho.
Look for the Big Five
From the day you arrive in India, you’ll be seeing a whole menagerie of wildlife and fauna that’s completely alien to you. However, if there’s one kind of animal native to India that stands out from all the rest, it’s its big cats. India is the natural habitat of five kinds of big cats, known by some as the “big five”. These are the Bengal tiger, the Asiatic lion, Indian leopards, clouded leopards, and snow leopards. Though it can take some doing, you may be able to spot them all during your trip to India. There are many large national parks scattered throughout India, and even if you’re not lucky enough to see even one big cat, these places make for truly fascinating days out. Just make sure you bring a guide who knows the area, essential medicines like malaria tablets, and lots and lots of water!
Run to the Hills
Although there’s all kinds of things to see and do in India’s towns and cities, these can be very crowded, and pretty overwhelming for the inexperienced westerner. If you ever feel you need to get away from it all, take a hike into some of the country’s stunning rural areas. The Indian Himalayas might make you think of students with dreadlocks and top knots heading off on a zany pilgrimage to “find themselves”. There’s no guarantee that you’re not going to bump into one of these people, but they’d have to be quite something to totally ruin your hike! The western ranges, stretching from Kashmir to Nanda Devi, have an amazing range of breath-taking viewpoints and fascinating rural communities. If you would rather not explore Kashmir on your own, there are Kashmir Tour Packages from most major cities in India. In the east, on the other hand, the uncanny Sikkim region is full of beautiful orchid forests and butterflies as big as your hand.
Relax on a Houseboat in Kerala
If you want to get a taste of rural life in India, and do it in the most peaceful way possible, then head to Kerala and hire a houseboat from one of the local depots. These are mostly converted rice boats that you’ll see dotted along the riverbanks all over the state of Kerala. The fertile lands and plentiful fish has breathed life into a stable rural community in the area, but the natural beauty hasn’t been ruined by industrialisation like so many other places. Lie back and enjoy the shade of low-hanging palm trees, the views of serene paddy fields, and the sounds of a quiet rural life just going by. If you prefer to stay at a hotel rather than a boat here is a list of the best hotels in Kerala. Kerala is one of the best places to visit in India and a great place to visit with kids.
Take Part in the World’s Most Unique Festivals
If you like your travels to be a little more fast-paced, then you’ll certainly be able to get your fill here in India. With its rich mesh of different religions and cultures, there’s no shortage of festivals and holidays to join in with in India. You probably know something about the more famous festivals, such as Holi, which is held in March, and Diwali, held between October and November. However, if you do your research, you’ll also be able to experience the odd regional festival. Kerala, for example, has the harvest festival of Onam, which lasts ten days and is basically one long feast. Aside from that, there are festivities scattered throughout the country and the year centered around kite flying, camel sports, and even a tribal-oriented hornbill festival in the eastern region of Nagaland. Indians really know how to party, so be sure to find out what’s happening during your visit.
Get A Little Spiritual
If you’ve ever seen An Idiot Abroad, you’ll know that India is something of a spiritual melting pot. Although Hinduism is the country’s native religion, you can find followers here of pretty much every major faith, as well as several you’ve never heard of before! Whether you’re a sceptic or a devotee, taking in some of the rich spirituality of India will make for an interesting experience. You can sit on the banks of the Ghats and watch rituals take place from afar, ask for some guidance from painted sadhus, or if you’re lucky, experience the spectacle of Kumbha Mela; a ritualised mass bathing held once every three years in a sacred river. If you really want to soak in all the spirituality India has to offer, you can even check in to an ashram; a faith-based guesthouse where even your food is given to you with spiritual instructions. Staying at an ashram is a great experience especially if you are traveling India solo. Even if you don’t want to stay there, many of these ashrams are open to westerners who just want to look around. Just remember that some of these are going to be more accessible to western tourists who have little knowledge of Hinduism than others!
Inspired to visit India? Here is a guide to eVisa for India to get you started with planning your trip.
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