10 Reasons to Visit India

There is enough to see and do in India for months, or even for years. A week or even two is not enough for India, but if you only have one week and you want to visit India, where could you go?

Delhi – Agra – Jaipur - Amritsar

India's most famous tourist route is the Delhi to Agra to Jaipur. It is the golden triangle. Spend a few days in India's capital Delhi and take in at least the Red Fort, visit India's most famous monument the Taj Mahal in Agra, and take a couple of days to tour the

Golden Temple in Amritsar

forts, the old palaces and the bazaars in Jaipur, the Pink City. If you have time and energy, take the Shatabdi Express train from Delhi to Amritsar and visit the Amritsar Golden Temple, Sikhism’s holiest site.

A Week on the Beach in Goa

There could be worse ways to spend a week in India than lazing on Goa’s beaches. Goa has around 100 km of coastline with sandy beaches, the best variety of food in India (including good seafood), lots of accommodation options from bamboo huts on the beach to five-star hotels, and several family-friendly beaches too. Goa gets crowded for Christmas so try to visit outside the peak of the high season.

Beaches and Backwaters of Kerala

Kerala in South India is one of India’s most beautiful parts. This tropical state has palm-fringed beaches, picturesque canals and lakes, hill stations, wildlife parks and Hindu temples. If you’re pressed for time, book a week in one of Kerala’s beach resorts in Kovalam or Varkala, and make sure to take at least a day-trip to the backwaters (the network of rivers and canals that covers much of Kerala) and try to get an Ayurvedic massage in the birthplace of this traditional Indian system of medicine.

Take a Luxury Train Tour

If money is no object, take one of India’s luxury train tours. The Palace on Wheels starts from Delhi and visits Jaipur, Udaipur, Jaisalmer, and Jodhpur in Rajasthan, and finally Agra and the Taj Mahal, all in seven days. The Deccan Odyssey starts from Mumbai and travels down the coast to Goa, returning via Aurangabad and the Ajanta caves. The tour lasts eight days. It’s all a bit rushed to my taste but at least you’ll see a lot of the country through the train window!

If you’re dreaming of some winter sun, here are six good reasons to go to India this winter:

1. Because it is one of the cheapest places in the world to have a beach holiday: try a bamboo hut on the beach in Goa for around US$2.00 a night (yes, that’s two dollars) or a comfortable guesthouse for just a couple of dollars more. Goa and Kerala have a wide range of accommodation for all budgets and the beaches in Gokarna offer some excellent value for money if you’re on a shoestring budget.

2. Because when your friends back home are suffering from the post-Christmas blues, you’ll be sipping fresh coconut water on a tropical beach in Kerala and trying to decide if you should get an Ayurvedic massage, feast on fresh seafood or just fall asleep on the beach.

3. Because in one single country you can see Hindu temples and Islamic mosques, ancient palaces and fortresses, snow-capped mountains and palm-fringed tropical beaches, jungles and deserts, huge chaotic cities and tranquil backwaters, holy cities, and five-star beach resorts.

4. Because everyone should take a train journey in India at least once in a lifetime.

5. Because once you’ve had the bisibele bath (literally hot lentil rice) in South India, the food in your local Indian restaurant back home won’t seem so spicy at all.

6. Because once you’ve had a cup of sweet, milky, hot chai at a local tea stall in India, you’ll never be able to take the weak chai tea latte at your international coffee-chain outlet seriously.

Here are five places in India to visit if you want to see some stunning temple architecture.

Shri Meenakshi Temple in Madurai

One of the largest temples in India, the Sri Meenakshi Temple in Madurai is a full-on Indian temple experience. Forget about quiet and peaceful and be ready to immerse yourself in a crowd of beggars, salespeople, touts, palm readers, pilgrims, and tourists. The temple is famous for its decorated 12 gopurams (towers) and the thousand pillared halls. The temple complex is large and there is enough to see for several hours so take your time.

How to get there: Madurai has a domestic airport and good train connections to cities in South India, as well as local and regional buses.

Rameshwaram’s Ramanathaswamy Temple

Rameshwaram is one of the most important Hindu pilgrimage places in South India. Its highlight is the Ramanathaswamy Temple, one of India’s holiest Hindu temples. The temple has a strong connection to the Indian epic Ramayana and its hero, Lord Rama, and stands on the Rameshwaram Island off Tamil Nadu’s coast.

How to get there: The nearest airport is in Madurai, over 160 km away. Trains travel between Rameshwaram and Madurai, and also Chennai where the nearest international airport is.

The Hindu Temples in Kanchipuram

Kanchipuram in Tamil Nadu is one of the seven sacred cities for Hindus and has several stunning temples, dedicated to Shiva and Vishnu. The Kailasanatha Temple is said to be the oldest in the city and dates back to the 7th century. The Sri Ekambareswarar Temple belongs to the biggest in Kanchipuram. The Kamakshi Amman temple is (unlike most of the other temples here) dedicated to Goddess Parvati, in her form of Kamakshi.

How to get there: The nearest airport is in Chennai, around 70 km away. There are trains and buses from Chennai to Kanchipuram, or you can also take a local bus or a taxi from Mamallapuram if you happen to be there to see the famous Shore Temple.

Tirupati and the Venkateshwara Temple

Tirupati, in Andhra Pradesh (around 150 km from Chennai) is a very busy pilgrimage destination and visitors from around India flock here to see the temple of Shri Venkateshwara. The temple stands on the Tirumala hills by the city of Tirupati and like many South Indian temples, it is built in the Dravidian style. The annual Brahmotsavam festival in September/October is a major event here.

How to get there: the Tirupati-Reningunta airport has domestic flight connections to many South Indian cities. You can also take a train from Chennai or many other major destinations in South India.

The Temples in Belur and Halebid

For a very different temple experience from the colorful and magnificent Tamil Nadu temples, visit the Hoysala temples in Belur and Halebid in Karnataka. The temples here were built by the Hoysalas, the rulers of Karnataka between the 11th and the 14th century. They are built of soapstone and are not as tall as the Dravidian temples with their high gopuras, but they are decorated with intricate carvings and beautiful soapstone sculptures. The Hoysalas were famous for their skilled craftsmanship and the Chennakeshava temple in Belur and the Hoysaleshwara temple in Halebid are covered in detailed carvings and decorations.

How to get there: take a train from Mysore or Bangalore to Hassan and a bus/taxi/rickshaw from Hassan to the temples. Belur and Halebid are 16 km from each other.

If you’re going to India on a spiritual journey, you may have an idea of what being “spiritual” means: you’ll float around in white robes in beautiful and exotic surroundings, at peace with yourself and the world. But India will challenge all that.

Instead, you might end up sitting for hours on a stone floor in a giant hall with thousands of others in 40 degrees heat, crammed in so tight that you can’t stretch your legs or move your arms; all just to see a glimpse of a guru with a black afro somewhere far away, while your neighbour constantly elbows you in the ribs. Ashrams in India can be shockingly lively, colourful and noisy to a Western visitor looking for peace and quiet, but it is, of course, the inner peace that counts…

Here are a few ashrams, holy cities and yoga centres in India that are popular with Westerners and accept Western visitors and students. Note that most ashrams in India have fairly strict rules regarding dress code, food is generally vegetarian and alcohol and tobacco are banned.

Sai Baba Ashram in Puttaparthi

Sri Sathya Sai Baba is one of the most famous gurus in India alive today, and his ashram attracts millions of visitors every year. Both Indian and foreign devotees flock to Prasanthi Nilayam (the Abode of Supreme Peace) in Puttaparthi in the state of Andhra Pradesh, around 120 km of Bangalore.

There are two daily darshans, or meetings with the guru; these events get very crowded and you’re likely to see Sai from far away from the back of the darshan hall, but it’s all part of life in the ashram.

Prasanthi Nilayam ashram is well organized. Accommodation is in single-sex dormitories and is very affordable and cheap food is available in several canteens. Visitors can help out in the kitchen (SEVA, or service, is big here). Check the ashram website for timings, Sai sometimes travels to his other ashrams in Kodaikanal or to Whitefield near Bangalore. There are frequent buses from Bangalore to Puttaparthi (the bus station is right next to the ashram) and trains to the Sri Sathya Sai Prasanthi Nilayam station.

Amma Ashram in Amritapuri, Kerala

Sri Mata Amritanandamayi Devi, or Amma, is incredibly popular with Westerners. Famous for hugging her devotees in darshans that can last for hours, Amma welcomes Western visitors and devotees to her ashram in Amritapuri, in South India’s Kerala. The ashram’s website has lots of tips for visiting and foreigners planning to go to the ashram should register online.

The nearest airports are in Cochin and in Trivandrum but to get from these cities to the ashram you’ll still have to travel some distance by train or a bus, or hire a car. The Alapuzzha-Kollam backwater boat used to stop at the ashram so it’s worth enquiring if you’re taking the backwater trip.

The Sivananda Ashram in Kerala

If you’re looking for a yoga holiday in India or an intensive yoga course, the Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Dhanwantari Ashram in Kerala is very popular with Westerners and offers lots of courses. Located in Neyyar Dam, in a large compound in the lush Keralan countryside, the ashram teaches yoga in the tradition of Swami Sivananda and Swami Vishnudevananda. The ashram offers short yoga holidays, month-long courses and also teaches courses the traditional Indian medical system, Ayurveda. For many courses, you don’t need any previous experience in yoga.

Rishikesh, India’s Old Yoga Capital

Rishikesh, in the foothills of the Himalayas and by the holy river Ganges, is a centre for yoga studies, ashrams, meditation courses, and very popular with Westerners. It used to be called India’s yoga capital until Mysore in South India took over. If you’re planning to study yoga or meditation in Rishikesh or visit an ashram, do some research before committing to a course and ask around; like in many other places in India, a whole industry has developed around “spirituality” and there are some fake gurus around.

Mysore, India’s New Yoga Capital

When I first arrived in Mysore in 2005 to study in the Sri K Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Institute, it was already very popular with Western yoga students. In the following years, it became madly popular, so much so that newspapers and magazines labeled Mysore India’s new yoga capital (Rishikesh being the old one).

I’ve heard there are around 50 yoga schools in Mysore now and I know that some of them have only opened in the last couple of years as a result of the Westerner influx. If you are planning to study yoga in Mysore, plan your studies well; some schools don’t accept students on a tourist visa and request a student visa instead, some may ask you to apply well in advance.

No matter how much you love traveling in India, there are times you want to get away from it all. If traveling in India starts to get to you, here are five places to go for some peace and quiet away from the crowds.

Nubra Valley in Ladakh

Nubra Valley is India’s northernmost part a tourist can visit and to get there you’ll have to cross one of the highest motorable mountain passes in the world, Khardung La. To visit Nubra you’ll need a permit and it only allows for a seven-day stay in the valley.

Trips are arranged from Leh, Ladakh, so it’s not a completely undiscovered and unspoiled place (and new guesthouses were being built as I visited in 2008 so I’m guessing visitor numbers are increasing) but it is still one of the most peaceful places in India. To get to the Nubra Valley you’ll first have to make it to Leh in Ladakh.

The Kerala Backwaters

The backwaters are a network of canals, rivers, and lakes that cover most the state of Kerala in South India, and you can explore the backwaters on luxury houseboats (often converted from old rice barges, kettuvallam), on day trips, or on public boats.

The ultimate luxury is a hired houseboat that comes with staff, including your private cook, so you can just sit back for a few days and admire the lush scenery along the canals. If you just want a day trip, the popular boat service from Alapuzzha to Kollam that was stopped for years has recently been relaunched. Kerala’s department of tourism has a list of houseboat operators.

Coorg (Kodagu) in South India

Coorg in the Western Ghats, in South India’s Karnataka, is a very special place. Mountains, coffee estates, forests, trekking paths, small villages, homestays run by local families: Coorg is a place to retreat to when the madness of the South Indian cities gets too much.

The Mountains in Sikkim

Sikkim is one of the regions in India I never managed to visit, yet one I would love to see. Fresh mountain air, Buddhist monasteries, snow-capped peaks; the perfect place to escape to. The best times to visit Sikkim are from late September to mid-November and in April and May. Avoid the monsoon season.

Lahaul & Spiti in Himachal Pradesh

The region of Lahaul and Spiti in Himachal Pradesh, just south of Ladakh, is one of the most sparsely populated regions in India (and in the world, apparently) and the perfect place to get away from the crowds. Miles and miles of high altitude desert in the rain shadow of the Himalayas, high mountains, Buddhist monasteries and very few people.

The small town of Keylong at just over 3000 meters altitude, on the Manali to Leh road, is the capital of the region. You can get to Lahaul from Manali via Rohtang La, a 3978 meters high mountain pass; Rohtang is popular with tourists on day trips from Manali but beyond the pass, you’ll find very little in terms of modern civilization (and I mean that in a good way).

The mountains passes are usually open only between May and October, and much of the area becomes snowbound for six months of the year. The Spiti valley is divided from Lahaul by the Kunzum Pass (4551 meters) and while Lahaul has green and fertile areas, Spiti is more rugged and dry.
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