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India travel guide

Mighty castles and exquisite palaces set India’s past in stone, a backdrop to an exotic society of devout religion, timeless custom and vivid colour

India has the second largest population of the world, with about 1.15 billion people living on the subcontinent. With almost three million square kilometres ahead of you, the first challenge is deciding where to go.

Many travellers coming to India for the first time choose to visit the golden triangle – the capital Delhi, Agra with its world-famous Taj Mahal, and Jaipur, the 'pink city' with Hawa Mahal, the Palace of Winds. After a week on the move you'll start to understand why so many visitors to India end up staying for months - or years.

There are so many alternatives. Rajasthan in the northwest is the India many imagine: women dressed in brightly coloured saris, majestic palaces and forts and camels swaggering through the desert.

The capital of Maharashtra state, Mumbai, is India's fastest-moving city, home to Bollywood and a rising Indian middle class. Calcutta is widely regarded as India's spiritual centre, a seething, hypnotic cauldron of ceaseless toil.

Head south and the pace slows. Portuguese Goa, the most westernised state, with its beaches and resorts. Kerala, with rice-boats cruising idyllic backwaters and the fortified city of Cochin. Sprawling Karnataka, with the ruins of Hampi and Madurai's simmering Meneekshi Temple, packed with devotees offering sacrifice and holy elephants holding court. Tamil Nadu, vast and rural, that also includes Pondicherry, France's tiny toe-hold onto the Indian sub-continent. And if the heat gets too intense, flee to hill stations, built by the British as hot-season refuges and now happy playgrounds for India's growing middle class.

Push at the frontiers and there are more gems. Troubled Kashmir, with its houseboats and guns. Amritsar, with its 'Golden Temple' defended by pensioners armed with swords, at the heart of Sikkhism. The Himalayan foothills, where trekking routes evolved as ancient trade links to remote mountain settlements.

Wanderlust recommends

  1. Do the Ultimate. Visit the highlights: the Taj, Jaipur and the two sides of Dehli. It'll give you a flavour before you head off the beaten trail
  2. Go Home. Their home - not yours. Homestays are an increasingly popular way for middle-class Indians to liven up their lives - and for you to enter their complex world
  3. Body and Soul. Ayurvedic treatments are big in India. Book yourself a course of massage therapy at any one of the many clinics scattered throughout the land
  4. Get Cooking. Indian cuisine is there to be savoured. Take a cooking course in India and learn its complex art
  5. Chant to Purity. India's Hindu Ashrams, faith-based guest houses where even the food is included, are great places to share profound philosophical thoughts. Pondicherry - and nearby Auroville - is something of a spiritual centre
  6. Take the Train. The rail system in India is more than just a way to get around: it's an experience in its own right. Book yourself a sleeper - choosing the class according to your budget - and experience travel at the clattering pace of an ancient train
  7. Rent an Enfield. These classic motorcycles date back to 1960's production bikes - and are easy to rent (and repair, frequently). Driving them in India is something of an art: be prepared to react quickly to unexpected cattle and road-hogging trucks
  8. Riceboat Dreams. The converted riceboats that ply the backstreets of Kerala are the ultimate way to experience rural India at its most peacefully replete. Fertile soils and plentiful fish stocks mean you won't see grinding poverty here: instead the idyllic sights of shady palms, reflective paddy fields and quiet little rural churches and temples show India at its rural best

Wanderlust tips

Pack light and stay longer. There are few things you need in India that you can't buy locally, and heavy packs greatly increase stress. Your money is likely to stretch for longer than you expect and you'll also find it takes you longer, in India, to achieve what you want. Leave yourself the flexibility to extend your stay.

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