10 top reasons to visit India

Taj Mahal

Taj Mahal, Agra, India 2006

Spicy food, ancient caves and the world’s most sublime building

[Note: Originally published on Bootsnall as 10 Reasons to visit India now.]

1. The Taj Mahal. Yup, it is. The world’s most beautiful building. This is one of those rare times in life when all of your expectations will be blown away, no matter how much hyperbole you’ve been exposed to about it; no matter how many pictures you’ve seen; no matter how much poetry you’ve read. Tagore had it right when he wrote the Taj Mahal is, “a teardrop on the face of eternity.” See it at sunrise, put up with Agra, do whatever you can, but make sure the Taj Mahal is on your itinerary or you will kick yourself for eternity.

2. Sensory overload. India is a place to be experienced not visited, and the culture shock that jolts your system – often into a heightened sense of awareness and perspective – is part of the fun. So, throw yourself into the mayhem and learn as quickly as you can to enjoy it. You may find that there’s a lot to be said for chaos – and a lot to be said for learning to let go and go with the flow. At the very least, life back home will seem a lot easier to handle.

Photo of Har-ki-Pauri, Haridwar, India during aarti, Kumbh Mela 2010

Photo of Har-ki-Pauri, Haridwar, India during aarti, Kumbh Mela 2010

3. Yoga. There are many yoga teachers, schools and ashrams in India to choose from, but you don’t actually need to study yoga to absorb its essential teachings about flow, oneness and finding your inner stillness. Just about everything that happens when you’re traveling in India is an exercise in yoga. Train delay? Perfect time for meditation. Aggressive touts after you? Practise accessing your inner witness and not reacting. Dose of Delhi-belly? Go with the flow (literally) and remember this too shall pass.

4. Festivals. There’s a festival just about every day in India. You name it, and there’s a festival for it: elephants, camels, unmarried women, kites, the nectar of immortality, Krishna’s birthday, Rama’s return, etc., etc. Holi is a favourite of locals and visitors alike. Also called the Festival of Colour, people throw coloured powder at each other and eat sweets in a frenzied celebration of spring. Another favourite is Diwali. Called the Festival of Lights, it takes place in the fall. On the big night, the sky lights up in a blitz of fireworks that last hours and hours and hours and hours ….

Photo of Kanchendzonga at sunrise from Tiger Hill, Darjeeling, March 8, 2010

Photo of Kanchendzonga at sunrise from Tiger Hill, Darjeeling 2010

5. The Himalayas. Many of the world’s highest mountains – including the top three, Everest, K2 and Kanchenjunga – are part of this vast range that runs along India’s eastern border for more than 2,400 kilometres. These are also some of the world’s most sacred mountains. A visit to India is not complete without a stop at a touristy hill station like Simla or Darjeeling, or a sacred city in the foothills, like Rishikesh.

6. Spicy food. If you don’t like spicy food, don’t go to India. It’s not that you can’t avoid it …. But what’s the point?! Opinion is divided as to whether the state of Rajasthan or the southern city of Hyderabad has the hottest food, but you can find hot and spicy dishes all over the country. If you’re worried, order some dahi or curd (yogurt) or a sweet or salty lassi (yogurt drink). The yogurt quenches the fire in your mouth.

Bangle seller, Hauz Khas market, Delh 20107. Shopping in a bazaar or market. In India, a trip to the market (or bazaar) is much more than a shopping expedition: it’s full-on cultural immersion. The markets are incredibly lively, full of colourful merchandise and even more colourful characters. And some of them, like the medieval lanes of Old Delhi, are like a journey into India’s storied past. Go with the unhurried zeal of an explorer, enjoy the process of finding a treasure and get into the spirit of the place by haggling over the price. In India, the fine art of bargaining is part custom, part relationship building exercise and part spectator sport. Don’t let shyness or misplaced ethics keep you from partaking in India’s favourite pastime.

8. Beaches. India has 7,500 kilometres of coastline, and though not all of it is pristine, there are some wonderful stretches, especially in Goa (which tends to be touristy) and Kerala. Most tourists flock to the well-known beaches, which means it’s easy to get far from the madding crowd. Try Gokarna in Karnataka, the beaches of the Andaman and Nicobar islands, Tarkarli in Maharastha or Puri in Orissa. Wherever you go, you can find options at each end of the budgetary scale, from tiny beach shacks for $2 per night to seven-star luxury resorts that provide you with your own butler.

9. The caves of Ellora and Ajanta. Ajanta is older and full of Buddhist paintings; Ellora is bigger and features carvings and rock-cut architecture. They’re both within an easy drive of Aurangabad, a nondescript city about a nine-hour train ride inland from Mumbai. But the mere facts do not prepare you for the magnificence of these UNESCO World Heritage sites, second only to the Taj Mahal. The entire two days I spent exploring them I kept thinking, why don’t more people know about these!?

Buddhist cave at Ellora, near Aurangabad, India

Buddhist cave at Ellora, near Aurangabad, India

10. A long train ride. Preferably overnight. Indian Railways is the world’s largest employer, and the train system in India is extensive to say the least. There are several grades of trains – the best are Shatabdis and Rajdhanis – and three main classes: first, second and third. Second class is usually a good choice with four bunks per compartment, each separated by a curtain; but an overnight train ride in first class on a Rajdhani train is a nice treat (though don’t expect luxury, especially in the bathroom).

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7 Responses to 10 top reasons to visit India

  1. Tito February 17, 2011 at 9:02 pm #

    Looking at the world through pink-rose glasses – you’ve got them, alright!

    You sure are a very courageous woman. I’m Indian, born in one but raised in a couple of foreign countries. Walking around in Indian cities, I feel like I’m walking in a mine field, I sometimes have to fear for my life. I’m a guy and I cannot even imagine how insecure women might feel in all the limitless chaos that surrounds every puddle to tide in India. People in India, look for every chance to get out of India and the millions who cannot aren’t there because they have to but they must! Its not that I hate my own country but its just that, may be I’ve never learned how to ‘live’ in it! But you on the other hand, have not only managed to fit in but you also have embraced and appreciated it, that too for an individual who is way out of her Western comfort zone, I must say that it really is an achievement of a life time.

    I hope you find the best if not the greatest things life has to offer and I wish you good luck in everything you do. God bless and take care.


  2. Travel Blog February 23, 2011 at 6:43 am #

    I will always go for the Taj Mahal and the lovely festivals when I visit there someday. The festivals are very colorful but somewhat scary sometimes. Do you agree?

  3. Mariellen February 24, 2011 at 1:22 pm #

    Thanks for the comments. I don’t actually think I see the world through rose-coloured glasses, Tito. I see the world the way I see it, and so does everyone else. It’s true that I actively choose to be a positive person, it is my personal philosophy — but I actually do see a lot of positive in the world. I also have a very strong sense of the sacred, the spiritual and the mythical, and I always have had, even as a child. This is who I am, and I feel lucky to have this, because so many people seem to have lost it.

    But perspective and perception is everything. I grew up in Canada and I have seen and experienced some of the worst things about this culture — such as family disintegration. In India, everything is new to me, and there are many things I appreciate about a more traditional culture — such as family togetherness. Sometimes, you don’t know what you’ve got ’till it’s gone.

    This is why travel is so rewarding — it really broadens your horizons and gives you the opportunity to see things in a new way, including yourself.

    Cheers, Mariellen

  4. David April 4, 2011 at 7:36 pm #

    I’m not a big beach person so I always wonder why Western tourists tend to converge onto the beach on any country with a warm enough climate. I’d put the Indian people themselves as a tourist attraction as many can speak some English and I’ve never seen a nationality that enjoys being in photos more than Indians. Also, India is big country with a lot of diversity and long history so one really can make multiple trips to different parts of India. Easy to get off the beaten tourist trail and see some pretty amazing things. Hope to make it back there again sometime as I think I only scratched the surface of India but raising kids and holding a regular job cuts into international travel and there so many other interesting countries to visit.

  5. Mariellen April 6, 2011 at 8:29 am #

    Love your comment @David: I agree, Indian people ARE the number 1 tourist attraction in India. They tend to be very warm, very down-to-earth, very helpful, and very real. They love god, their families and and their communities, and I personally think they have very good values, overall (though of course I wish there was more gender and social equity, and less litter and pollution in India). I always maintain that India has a lot to teach the world.

  6. Thomas April 6, 2011 at 1:04 pm #

    Thank you very much Mariellen for such a great job. India is a great country regardless few facts such as poverty, corruption etc. What matters is the way you look into things. Instead of admiring the heritage, beauty, diversity, culture and so many other plus points of India, if some one peeps only into few black marks over there, it is nothing other than Indophobia. If someone says that a billion people stay there just because they MUST, I can’t help sympathize with him for such a poor perception.

    There are a lot more to explore in India , Mariellen. As it is said, ‘India is not to be visited but to be experienced’. Thank you and Welcome Back!

  7. Mariellen July 15, 2012 at 9:37 pm #

    Love your comment Thomas, thank you. And totally agree that you don;t visit India, you experience it!

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