India will sideswipe you with its size, clamour and diversity - but if you enjoy delving into convoluted cosmologies and thrive on sensual overload, then it is one of the most intricate and rewarding dramas unfolding on earth, and you'll quickly develop an abiding passion for it.
Nothing in the country is ever quite predictable; the only thing to expect is the unexpected, which comes in many forms and will always want to sit next to you. India is a litmus test for many travellers - some are only too happy to leave, while others stay for a lifetime.
The country's glorious diversity means there's an astonishing array of sacred sites, from immaculately kept Jain temples to weathered Buddhist stupas; there's history around every corner, with countless monuments, battle-scarred forts, abandoned cities and ancient ruins all having tales to tell; and there are beaches to satiate the most avid sun worshipper. On a personal level, however, India is going to be exactly what you make of it.
India's southern coast and island territories were hit hard by the December 2004 tsunami, resulting in property damage and loss of life. Much of the area has now fully recovered.
Several Indian regions are prone to flashes of conflict. Spats over the Jammu and Kashmir territory in particular periodically push India and Pakistan to the brink of war. Internally, Jammu and Kashmir (as distinct from Ladakh) have been subject to political violence since the late 1980s and the hundreds of militant groups operating in the state. Consular advice should be sought before entering this region.
This advice extends to any area bordering Pakistan in Rajasthan, Punjab and Gujarat. Although such advice helps in keeping abreast of the latest developments, bear in mind that terrorist attacks can occur without warning.
For some time the Kulu & Parvati Valley region of Himachal Pradesh has had a reputation for foreign tourists going missing and drug-related violence. Police crack-downs on drug plantations and trafficking have made the area safer, but visitors need to take plenty of care. Consular advice should be sought before travel to Assam, Nagaland, Tripura and Manipur in north-east India. There are militant groups operating sporadically in some rural areas of Bihar, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, West Bengal and Orissa.
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Visas: Six month multiple-entry visas are now issued to most nationals regardless of whether you intend staying that long or re-entering the country. Only six-month tourist visas are extendable. Most Indian embassies and consulates won't issue a visa to enter India unless you hold an onward ticket. Be careful to check whether your visa is valid from the date of entry or the date of issue.
Health risks: cholera (This diarrhoeal disease can cause rapid dehydration and death. Cholera is caused by a bacteria, Vibrio cholerae. It's transmitted from person to person by direct contact (often via healthy carriers of the disease) or via contaminated food and water. It can be spread by seafood, including crustaceans and shellfish, which get infected via sewage. Cholera exists where standards of environmental and personal hygiene are low. Every so often there are massive epidemics, usually due to contaminated water in conditions where there is a breakdown of the normal infrastructure. The time between becoming infected and symptoms appearing is usually short, between one and five days. The diarrhoea starts suddenly, and pours out of you. It's characteristically described as 'ricewater' diarrhoea because it is watery and flecked with white mucus. Vomiting and muscle cramps are usual, but fever is rare. In its most serious form, it causes a massive outpouring of fluid (up to 20L a day). This is the worst case scenario – only about one in 10 sufferers get this severe form. It's a self-limiting illness, meaning that if you don't succumb to dehydration, it will end in about a week without any treatment. You should seek medical help urgently; in the meantime, start re-hydration therapy with oral re-hydration salts. You may need antibiotic treatment with tetracycline, but fluid replacement is the single most important treatment strategy in cholera. Prevention is by taking basic food and water precautions, avoiding seafood and having scrupulous personal hygiene. The currently available vaccine is not thought worthwhile as it provides only limited protection for a short time), dengue fever (The Aedes aegypti mosquito, which transmits the dengue virus, is most active during the day, and is found mainly in urban areas, in and around human dwellings. Signs and symptoms of dengue fever include a sudden onset of high fever, headache, joint and muscle pains, nausea and vomiting. A rash of small red spots sometimes appears three to four days after the onset of fever. Severe complications do sometimes occur. You should seek medical attention as soon as possible if you think you may be infected. There is no vaccine against dengue fever), hepatitis (The symptoms in all forms of this illness include fever, chills, headache, fatigue, feelings of weakness and aches and pains, followed by loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, dark urine, light-coloured faeces, jaundiced (yellow) skin and yellowing of the whites of the eyes. Hepatitis A is transmitted by contaminated food and drinking water. Seek medical advice, but there is not much you can do apart from resting, drinking lots of fluids, eating lightly and avoiding fatty foods. Hepatitis E is transmitted in the same way as hepatitis A; it can be particularly serious in pregnant women. Hepatitis B is spread through contact with infected blood, blood products or body fluids, for example through sexual contact, unsterilised needles (and shaving equipment) and blood transfusions, or contact with blood via small breaks in the skin. The symptoms of hepatitis B may be more severe than type A and the disease can lead to long-term problems such as chronic liver damage, liver cancer or a long-term carrier state. Hepatitis C and D are spread in the same way as hepatitis B and can also lead to long-term complications. There are vaccines against hepatitis A and B, but there are currently no vaccines against the other types. Following the basic rules about food and water (hepatitis A and E) and avoiding risk situations (hepatitis B, C and D) are important preventative measures), malaria (This serious and potentially fatal disease is spread by mosquito bites and is endemic in most countries of the region (the exceptions being Singapore and Brunei). If you are travelling in endemic areas it is extremely important to avoid mosquito bites and to take tablets to prevent this disease. Symptoms range from fever, chills and sweating, headache, diarrhoea and abdominal pains to a vague feeling of ill-health. Seek medical help immediately if malaria is suspected. Without treatment malaria can rapidly become more serious and can be fatal. If medical care is not available, malaria tablets can be used for treatment. There is a variety of medications such as mefloquine, Fansidar and Malarone. You should seek medical advice, before you travel, on the right medication and dosage for you. If you do contract malaria, be sure to be re-tested for malaria once you return home as you can harbour malaria parasites in your body even if you are symptom free. Travellers are advised to prevent mosquito bites at all times. The main messages are: wear light-coloured clothing; wear long trousers and long-sleeved shirts; use mosquito repellents containing the compound DEET on exposed areas (prolonged overuse of DEET may be harmful, especially to children, but its use is considered preferable to being bitten by disease-transmitting mosquitoes); avoid perfumes and aftershave. Use a mosquito net impregnated with mosquito repellent (permethrin) – it may be worth taking your own), meningococcal meningitis (This occurs in trekking areas only. Not every headache is likely to be meningitis. There is an effective vaccine available which is often recommended for travel to these areas. Generally, you're at pretty low risk of getting meningococcal meningitis, unless an epidemic is ongoing, but the disease is important because it can be very serious and rapidly fatal. You get infected by breathing in droplets coughed or sneezed into the air by sufferers or, more likely, by healthy carriers of the bacteria. You're more at risk in crowded, poorly ventilated places, including public transport and eating places. The symptoms of meningitis are fever, severe headache, neck stiffness that prevents you from bending your head forward, nausea, vomiting and sensitivity to light, making you prefer to stay in darkness. With meningococcal meningitis, you may get a widespread, blotchy purple rash before any other symptoms appear.Meningococcal meningitis is an extremely serious disease that can cause death within a few hours of you first feeling unwell. Seek medical help without delay if you have any of the symptoms listed earlier, especially if you are in a risk area.), typhoid (Contaminated water and food can cause typhoid fever, a dangerous gut infection. Medical help must be sought. In typhoid's early stages, sufferers may feel they have a bad cold or flu on the way, as early symptoms are headache, body aches and a fever that rises a little each day until it is around 40°C (104°F) or more. The victim's pulse is often slow relative to the degree of fever present - unlike a normal fever where pulse increases. There may also be vomiting, abdominal pain, diarrhea or constipation. In the second week, the high fever and slow pulse continue, and a few pink spots may appear on the body; trembling, delirium, weakness, weight loss and dehydration may occur. Complications such as pneumonia, perforated bowel or meningitis may occur. The fever should be treated by keeping victims cool and giving them fluids (watch for dehydration). Ciprofloxacin, 750mg twice a day for 10 days, is good for adults. Chloramphenicol is recommended in many countries. The adult dosage is two 250mg capsules, four times per day. Children between eight and 12 years old should have half the adult dose; for younger children one-third the adult dose)
Time Zone: GMT/UTC +5.5 (Indian Standard Time)
Dialling Code: 91
Electricity: 240V ,50Hz
Weights & measures: Metric
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India is blessed with a huge number of festivals, some so spectacular that you would be a fool to miss them if you were remotely within spitting distance. They start with the secular Republic Day Festival in Delhi each January, which includes elephants, a procession, and plenty of military might and Indian princely splendour. Holi in February is one of the most exuberant Hindu festivals in the north of India. It marks the end of winter and basically involves throwing coloured water and red powder over as many people as you can in one day.
The 10-day Shi'ite Muharram festival commemorates the martyrdom of Mohammed's grandson. It's marked by a grand parade and dedicated penitents scourge themselves with whips in religious fervour. It's best seen in Lucknow, the principal Indian Shi'ite city; its timing varies with the Islamic calendar. The massive Kumbh Mela festival commemorates an ancient battle between gods and demons for a pitcher (kumbh). During the fight for possession, four drops of nectar fell from the pitcher and landed in Allahabad, Haridwar, Nasik and Ujjain. The mela is held every three years rotating through these four cities.
Don't mistake the great car festival Rath Yatra for a rally race. This spectacle in Puri in June/July involves the gigantic temple car of Lord Jagannath making its annual journey, pulled by thousands of eager devotees. One of the big events of the year in Kerala is the Nehru Cup Snake Boat Races on the backwaters at Alappuzha (Alleppey), which take place on the second Saturday of August.
The festival of Ganesh Chaturthi in August/September is dedicated to the popular elephant-headed god Ganesh. It's celebrated widely, but with particular enthusiasm in Maharashtra. Shrines are erected, firecrackers let off, clay idols are immersed in rivers or the sea, and everyone tries to avoid looking at the moon.
September/October is the time to head for the hills to see the delightful Festival of the Gods in Kullu. This is part of the Dussehra Festival, which is at its most spectacular in Mysore and Ahmedabad.
November is the time for the huge and colourful Camel Festival at Pushkar in Rajasthan. Diwali (or Deepavali) is the happiest festival of the Hindu calendar and is celebrated over five days in November. Sweets, oil lamps and firecrackers all play a major part in this celebration in honour of a number of gods.
15 Aug - Independence Day
2 Oct - Gandhi Jayanti
26 Jan - Republic Day
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Currency: Indian Rupee
If you stay in cheap hotels, always travel 2nd class on trains and learn to subsist on dhal and rice, you could see India on just USD10.00 a day. If you prefer a few more creature comforts, like a simple private room with a bathroom, a varied diet, and occasional 1st class rail travel on long journeys, count on around USD20.00-USD25.00 a day. Staying in mid-range hotels, eating in decent restaurants, and occasionally hiring a car and driver will cost around USD30.00-USD40.00 a day. If you don't want to set foot anywhere other than converted maharaja's palaces, and five-star international hotels, budget as if you were travelling comfortably in the West.
Indian currency notes circulate far longer than in the West and the small notes in particular become very tatty - some should carry a government health warning. You may occasionally find that when you try to pay for something with a ripped or grubby note that your money is refused. You can change old notes for new ones at most banks or save them and use them creatively as tips. Don't let shopkeepers palm grubby notes off on you as change - simply hand them back and you'll usually be given a note slightly higher up the acceptability scale. Keep a supply of smaller denomination notes - there is a perpetual shortage of small change.
Tipping is virtually unknown in India, except in swanky establishments in the major cities. Baksheesh, on the other hand, a term which encompasses tipping and a lot more besides, is widespread. You 'tip' in India not so much for good service but in order to get things done. Judicious baksheesh will open closed doors, find missing letters and perform other small miracles. In tourist restaurants or hotels a 10% service charge is often added to bills. In smaller places, where tipping is optional, you need only tip a few rupees, not a percentage of your bill.
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Don't let your first impressions of Delhi stick like a sacred cow in a traffic jam: get behind the madcap facade and discover the inner peace of a city rich with culture, architecture and human diversity, deep with history and totally addictive to epicureans.
Mix four major religions, thousands of years of history and cultural development, significant movements of different populations, invasions and colonialisation and you get one of the most vibrant and profound cultures in the world. This civilisation is evident in the plentiful historical sites around Delhi.
The Taj Mahal has become the de facto tourist emblem of India. This poignant Mughal mausoleum was constructed by Emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his second wife Mumtaz Mahal, whose death in childbirth in 1631 left the emperor so heartbroken that his hair is said to have turned grey overnight.
The city's other major attraction is the massive red sandstone Agra Fort, also on the bank of the Yamuna River. Stunning walls, a maze of superb halls, mosques, chambers and gardens which form a small city within a city. Unfortunately some of these buildings are closed to visitors.
It's a shame Goa comes burdened with a reputation for louche living, because there's so much more to it than sun, sand and psychedelia. The allure of Goa is that it remains quite distinct from the rest of India and is small enough to be grasped and explored in a way that other Indian states are not.
It's not just the familiar remnants of Portuguese colonialism or the picture-book exoticism that make it seem so accessible; it's the prevalence of Roman Catholicism and a form of social and political progressiveness that Westerners feel they can relate to.
The capital of Rajasthan is popularly known as the 'pink city' because of the ochre-pink hue of its old buildings and crenellated city walls. The Rajputs associated the colour pink with hospitality, and reputedly daubed the city in preparation for the visit of Britain's Prince Alfred in 1853.
Jaipur is a city of broad avenues and architectural harmony, built on a dry lake bed surrounded by barren hills. It's an extremely colourful city that radiates a magical warm glow in the evening light. The most obvious landmark in the old city is the Iswari Minar Swarga Sul, which overlooks the city.
The port city of Kochi is located on a cluster of islands and narrow peninsulas. The older parts of the city are an unlikely blend of medieval Portugal, Holland and an English country village grafted onto the tropical Malabar Coast. Most of the historical sights are in Fort Cochin or Mattancherry.
Down near the waterfront you can see St Francis Church, India's oldest; a 450-year-old Portuguese palace; Chinese fishing nets strung out past Fort Cochin; and a synagogue dating back to the mid-16th century. Ferries scuttle back and forth around Kochi and dolphins can often be seen in the harbour.
Formerly Calcutta and, more rarely, Kolcutta, Kolkata by any name still conjures up images of squalor, poverty and urban disaster. Too few bother to discover its enchanting colonial beauty, the energy and humour of its people and the charm of the city's distinctly Bengali soul.
Kolkota isn't an ancient city like Delhi - in fact it's largely a British creation that dates back a mere 300 years. As a crumbling snapshot of British colonialism, it is unrivalled. For such a smoggy, frantic city, it is also notable for its lovely green spaces.
Mumbai (AKA Bombay) is the glamour of Bollywood cinema, cricket on the maidans on weekends, bhelpuri on the beach at Chowpatty and red double-decker buses. It is also the infamous cages of the red-light district, Asia's largest slums, communalist politics and powerful mafia dons.
Many travellers spend their time cocooned in Colaba, but there's much more to explore - take the time to check out the majestic remnants of colonial history, the galleries showing the latest in Indian contemporary art, the busy markets and the evening parade of locals at Chowpatty Beach.
This charming, easy-going city has long been a favourite with travellers since it's a convenient size, enjoys a good climate and has chosen to retain and promote its heritage rather than replace it. The city is famous for its silk and is also a thriving sandalwood and incense centre.
Until Independence, Mysore was the seat of the maharajas of Mysore, a princely state covering about a third of present-day Karnataka. The Maharaja's Indo-Saracenic Palace is the town's major attraction, with its kaleidoscope of stained glass, ornate furnishings and carved mahogany ceilings.
This was the most important hill station in India before Independence, and the social life here in the summer months when the Brits came to escape the torrid heat of the plains was legendary - balls, bridge parties and parades went hand in hand with gossip, intrigue and romance.
Today, the officers, administrators and lah-di-dah ladies of the Raj have been replaced by throngs of holidaymakers, but echoes of Shimla's British past remain strong. The famous main street, The Mall, is lined with stately English-looking houses. Shimla sits at an altitude of over 2100m (6890ft).
The most romantic city in Rajasthan, built around the lovely Lake Pichola, has been dubbed the 'Venice of the East'. Founded in 1568 by Maharana Udai Singh, the city is a harmonious Indian blend of whitewashed buildings, marble palaces, lakeside gardens, temples and havelis (traditional mansions).
It boasts an enviable artistic heritage, a proud reputation for performing arts and a relatively plentiful water supply, which make it an oasis of civilisation and colour in the midst of drab aridity. The lake is the city's centrepiece and contains the island palaces of Jagniwas and Jagmandir.
For over 2000 years, Varanasi, the 'eternal city', has been one of the holiest places in India. Built on the banks of the sacred Ganges, it is said to combine the virtues of all other places of pilgrimage and anyone who ends their days here is transported straight to heaven.
Varanasi has over 100 bathing and burning ghats. The best ghat to hang out at and absorb the riverside activity is Dasaswamedh Ghat. You'll find a dense concentration of people who come to the edge of the Ganges not only for a ritual bath, but to do yoga, offer blessings, and follow other pursuits.
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