Our India expert tells us six of his favourite places in India, and some of them are a little unexpected.
Having visited India as a traveller, tour leader and product manager on countless occasions, we asked our India product manager Eric Finley to tell us his top experiences in India.
I first visited India 25 years ago and I’ve been a regular traveller ever since. Although I have visited most parts of India there is still so much to explore – people have no idea how much is hidden away in every part of the subcontinent. The history is remarkable, as is the diversity – with most regions featuring their own languages and dialects, histories and cuisines. What really fascinates me is the rich living history – despite the incredible changes in modern cities like Mumbai and Delhi, you are never far from traditions that are hundreds of years old. Then there is the fantastic food, the vibrant street life, and the remarkable wildlife.
1. Kaziranga National Park
Best known for its population of Indian One-Horned Rhinoceroses, Kaziranga is one of the best wildlife experiences in Asia.
Due to its relative isolation in the far north-eastern state of Assam, Kaziranga is not on many India travel itineraries. However, this region provides some of the best wildlife experiences in Asia. Home to a large population of Indian One-horned Rhinoceroses, on my first day in the park I saw 52 of these pre-historic creatures, and the next morning watched a mother and calf grazing. From the back of an elephant we passed herds of Swamp Deer and flocks of migratory waterbirds. There are also herds of Asian Elephant, Gaur (Indian bison) and some of the last remaining wild Water Buffalo in Asia. Both Common and Clouded Leopards live in the park forests, as does a healthy Tiger population – though sightings can never be guaranteed. Over a hundred species of birds can easily be seen in a day, including the Great Hornbill and Bar-headed Geese visiting from their Himalayan breeding grounds.
Visit Kaziranga on our 4-day Kaziranga Rhino Safari, contact us for details.
2. Calcutta (Kolkata)
Calcutta’s streets heave with traffic, but are just as full of colour and history.
Few first-time visitors to India include Calcutta, now known as Kolkata, on their itineraries. Those that do are rewarded with a city which retains a style and culture unlike any other in India. Calcutta’s streets heave with traffic both vehicular and pedestrian – but they are also alive with colour and history. A heritage walking tour reveals some of India’s most impressive British-colonial architecture, with a rustic charm. There are the huge government buildings around BBD Bagh and the GPO as well as hidden temples, synagogues, churches and other places of worship – not to mention the incredible Marble Palace. Don’t miss the vast Victoria Memorial and its excellent museum documenting aspects of British-colonial rule in India as well as the city’s rich Bengali culture. Also try some of the excellent Bengali cuisine.
Visit Calcutta on one of our Ganges Discovery Voyages which include 7 days cruising the lower reaches of the Ganges River. Contact us for details.
3. Rural Rajasthan
Staying in rural Rajasthan offers the opportunity to meet local people and learn more about their lives.
Rajasthan is so rich in iconic Indian sights and experiences, that many are missed by visitors who stick to the main cities. Experience the brilliant colours of sarees and turbans in the fields and villages, sunset lighting an ancient hilltop fort, a goat-herder tending his flock or a holy flame lighting the faces of worshippers as bells ring out over a village temple. Then there is the experience of staying in one of the heritage-inspired hotels or camps – many are refurbished country homes of local royalty, finely-restored and decorated to feature rich local fabrics and furnishings. Delicious country cooking is usually on offer in the evenings, and most country lodges also have close relationships with nearby villages, allowing guests access to regional culture and the opportunity to meet local people and learn more about their lives.
Fort Cochin retains a historic ambience with giant rain trees shading the tropical streets.
Kerala’s historic trading port is now a bustling modern city but the little peninsula of Fort Cochin retains its special, historic atmosphere and a style like no other in India. There is so much that’s unique here – the pretty tropical streets, shaded by giant rain trees and lined with mansions and villas bearing features of local and European architecture, the harbour lined with high-hung fishing nets where dolphins frolic, the remnants of British, Jewish, Arab and other trading communities, the little galleries and cafes alongside old street stalls. Walk the messy atmospheric trading streets of Mattancherry where aromas of pepper, cardamom, ginger and chilli almost bowl you over, and into Jewtown with its beautiful 17th century synagogue and many curio shops.
Experience Cochin on our Spice of the South small group tour.
5. Varanasi at dawn
The timeless experience of Varanasi at dawn invokes so much spiritual history.
There is nothing quite like the timeless experience of a Varanasi dawn. Along the riverside steps known as ghats, Hindus gather quietly to reflect, pray, bathe or just take in the other-worldly atmosphere which evokes so much spiritual history. As the sun rises, gulls scatter over the still waters, bells sound from surrounding temples and the imposing rest houses and temples above. As the day’s activities gradually break the solitiude, explore the narrow lanes winding into the chaotic old town – too narrow for cars but frequently blocked by cows or carts or a passing scooter. Stop for chai or lassi, explore a local market and see the city come to life, as it must have for centuries.
Varanasi is included on our Iconic India small group tour.
The ancient Tibetan Buddhist culture is possibly at its purest in Ladakh.
Physically and culturally, Ladakh is spectacular. Isolated in the high Himalayas, Ladakh is a high altitude desert, with snow-covered peaks dropping into cold desert valleys, where a patchwork of colour erupts along the riverbanks for the short summer when locals cultivate stone fruits, nuts and barley and the region opens briefly to the outside world. Apart from its pristine mountain environment, it is the ancient Tibetan Buddhist culture which makes this place so different. This ancient form of Himalayan Buddhism survives at possibly its purest here, since Tibet came under the control of China. The dramatic ancient monasteries like Hemis and Thikse sit high on rocky peaks, commanding incredible vistas, and to hear the monastery horns being blown across silent valleys is to truly travel into another time and world. Minimum altitudes are around 3000 meters so take a day to acclimatise.
Try our 6 days Ladakh Mountains and Monasteries independent package, contact us for details.