India—a country so full of culture, history and extremes that it takes up its own subcontinent! As the birthplace of one of the oldest cultures in the world, it should be no surprise that everything about this country is rather complex. On the one hand, India represents one of the fastest growing economies in the global community. As the world changes, India keeps up. Many know this country for its IT, medical and engineering success stories, not to mentioned the thriving customer service and call-centre businesses. Yet, this fast paced business culture is also entwined with customs and traditions more ancient than written history.
India takes up the majority of the Indian subcontinent at the head of the Indian Ocean. It shares borders with Bangladesh, Burma (Myanmar), Bhutan, Nepal, China and Pakistan. It is also neighbours with the island nation of Sri Lanka. Its capital city is New Delhi, which is in the north. However, its largest city is coastal Mumbai. Despite its massive size, India prefers to remain on a single time zone. Indian Standard Time (IST) is five and a half hours ahead of Universal Coordinated Time (UTC).
Traditional Indian society is dominated by a social class system, known as the caste system. This hierarchy determines what place an individual holds in society based on family lineage. The belief is that each group, or caste, comes from a different part of the deity’s body. This system determines who a person should marry and what kind of job they might pursue.
Despite the ongoing existence of such strict social systems in today’s India, these days many Indians take more modern views on class and gender equality. Yet, whether your hosts are traditional or modern-minded, many customs are consistent. For example, it is important to remember to remove your shoes whenever you enter a home or temple. And, despite the heat in many areas, conservative attire is greatly appreciated. Clothing should not be too revealing and should at minimum cover shoulders and knees.
Travellers to India have many practical matters to consider. For Australians, travellers will need a visa as well as a passport. Visas are not available on arrival. Although Australian nationals are eligible for the India eVisa, it is advisable to begin the process well in advance. Visa applications can be made up to thirty days before arrival. However, travellers must apply at least four days in advance of their arrival.
India is a land of many languages. The most widely spoken of these is Hindi, spoken as a native or second language by almost half of the population. English is also widely spoken as a second language. Other languages include Telugu, Tamil, Bengali, Marathi, Urdu and Gujerati, among others.
With a country as large as India, the climate varies widely. You can find hot and humid tropical climates in the south or crisp alpine climates against the Himalayas in the north. With so much diversity, it is almost always the best time to visit India somewhere. India technically has six seasons, however these can be broken into three distinct seasons: summer, monsoon and winter. Generally speaking, between the months of November and March the climate tends to be the most universally pleasant. During this time, weather tends to be cooler and dryer throughout most of the country.
India’s currency is the Indian Rupee. On average, Australian tourists can expect their dollar to buy roughly 44 and a half rupees. It is worth noting that, due to restrictions, Indian currency can be difficult to obtain prior to arrival in India. However, credit cards are widely used and ATMs are readily available in most cities. Tipping is becoming increasingly expected in tourism service industries. Guests may tip up to 10% for appreciated service on meals. Visitors should plan to keep a supply of small rupee notes (10-50 rupees) for hotel staff or taxis.
Transportation in India, especially in the larger cities, can be quite an adventure! Be prepared to experience traffic like no other. Be cautious, especially if renting a vehicle and self driving. Transportation options vary between cities. However, generally taxis, rickshaws and tuk-tuks (small motorbike powered taxis) are plentiful. It is best to secure a taxi summoned by your hotel. A practical tip is to get the phone number of a trusted taxi driver and call him for repeat business as you explore the city. Be wary of drivers who have “broken” meters or seem to get lost and wander. If possible, agree on a price before entering the vehicle.
Trains are a popular way to experience India. They can often be used as part of a metro transit system. If traveling longer distances in India, trains are the best and safest option. The community on the train is an experience in itself!
When visiting a country as expansive and as rich in history as India, it can be impossible to decide what to see and do! However, there are some definite highlights that tourists simply mustn’t miss.
India has an abundance of cities. There is definitely something for everyone. But with limited time, there are a few essential cities to include on your itinerary.
If it is ancient culture and spirituality that you seek, Varanasi is the city for you! Established more than 3200 years ago, this ancient city is believed to have been founded by the god Shiva. It is also known as Benares and it sits on the banks of the holy river Ganges.
If movie stars and mega cities are more your style, head to Mumbai! The largest city in India with an astounding 20.7 million people, Mumbai is a place of extremes. Spend the morning learning about the economic systems of one of the largest slums in the world at Dharavi. In the evening, rub elbows with the glitzy and glamorous stars of India’s thrilling Bollywood film industry. Formerly Bombay, this city has a wealth of history to explore as well, such as the Gateway of India.
Of course, travellers can’t miss India’s capital city, New Delhi. Situated in the heart of northern India, Delhi has a little something of everything a traveller might want. Spend days exploring this country’s rich history in Delhi’s selection of museums. Or, get lost in one of the city's lively bazaars.
Don’t forget to visit another of India’s capitals, Kolkata. In the days of the British Empire, Kolkata, then called Calcutta, was the acting capital. Now, it is mostly a centre for culture, architecture and the arts.
Speaking of places to visit, a trip to India wouldn’t be complete without a stop at her most famous landmark. The Taj Mahal is one of the most recognisable of India’s icons. The pearly white domes of this great mausoleum are a lasting tribute to a powerful love. Emperor Shah Jahan constructed the expansive building and lush manicured gardens for his beloved wife, Mumtaz Mahal, after her death. Although this is a site that can’t be missed, do be prepared for heavy crowds. Scams and pickpockets are also a high risk in this area.
Another famous site worth a visit is the Golden Temple in Amritsar. This is the most holy site in the Sikh religion. Come for the beautiful architecture and stunning gold leaf decor. Stay to witness the spectacular sight of tens of thousands being fed meals 24 hours a day. The meals are a ritual act of community, are open to anyone, free of charge. Remember to dress conservatively for this site.
While we are on the subject of food, India’s incomparable cuisine is another iconic experience. Don’t just eat it! Why not learn to cook it? Cooking classes are available throughout the country, but Udaipur is an especially good choice. Go a step further and try to learn a regional specialty! India’s cuisine is often considered to be one of the most flavourful in the world. What better place to learn the difference between cardamon and turmeric?
When you have finished your meal, wash it down with another symbol of India: tea! The history and culture of tea in India have their roots in the British East India Company. As the world’s largest tea producer, tea plantations can be explored in many parts of the country. However, one of the best places for a tea experience is Darjeeling.
Something else that simply can’t be missed is the laid back tranquility of the Kerala Backwaters. Located on the southern Malabar Coast, this series of saltwater pools and lakes creates a peaceful relief from the chaos of the cities. Travellers can best explore this region by houseboat. Be careful, you may not want to leave!
While in Kerala, don’t miss another natural experience at the Begur Wildlife Sanctuary. Visit between December and May to watch as the abundant water holes host a variety of local wildlife. Spot elephants, buffalo and even tigers or leopards! Even if you miss the animals, the lush foliage will be an experience as well.
When you have had enough nature, spend some time getting swept up in India’s film industry: Bollywood! Bollywood is India’s version of Hollywood, but don’t underestimate them! Although Hollywood still grosses more in revenues, Bollywood produces more films and sells more tickets. Bollywood films are large productions with flashy costumes and lively musical numbers. Most films feature a happy ending. Lose yourself in the latest Shah Rukh Khan or Deepika Padukone hit at Liberty Cinema in Mumbai. Or, be a part of the action yourself by taking a Bollywood dance class or a studio tour! However, beware! Many tour companies offering “Bollywood Tours” are scams, so be sure to check the reviews!
If you are lucky enough to be visiting in October or November, you might celebrate Diwali! Lasting for five days, this festival of lights is one of the liveliest and most festive in India. Although Diwali is celebrated throughout India, Haridwar and Varanasi are especially good places to experience the festival. Many locals will light thousands of lanterns, called diyas, and set them afloat on the water.
Finally, before you leave, don’t forget to catch a game of cricket! This passion is something that people of Australia and India both share. Visitors can likely find an amateur game being played in almost any park. However, the true fan will want to visit Eden Gardens in Kolkata for the ultimate cricket experience.
The beauty, culture and history of India make it a country that can’t be missed. However, the combination of immense population, myriad beliefs and widespread poverty means that safety issues are inevitable. The wise traveler should take certain precautions.
Many travellers experience issues with their health while in India. The most common complaint is the notorious “Delhi Belly.” The combination of rich and unfamiliar foods with poorer sanitary conditions frequently leaves tourist feeling unwell. The safest places to eat are hotels and busy restaurants. It is best to avoid the street vendors. Utensils often remain unclean and using your own (carefully cleaned) hands might be smart. Never drink water from the tap. Ask for bottled water with a sealed cap.
Unfortunately, drink spiking and food drugging is increasingly common. As nice as the gesture might seem, it is better not to eat food given by strangers. Many travellers report being drugged and robbed after accepting food from strangers, especially on trains.
High levels of pollution may also affect your health while traveling in India. Particularly in mega cities such as Mumbai and New Delhi, where millions of people cause significant traffic and waste, pollution is a major problem. Visitors with lung or asthma related illnesses should plan accordingly and wear a mask.
India’s transportation systems pose another risk to your health. Traffic patterns, especially in major cities or on highways, will leave many tourists clinging to each other in fear. Exercise extreme caution if driving yourself. When riding in taxis or as a pedestrian near roadways, always stay alert!
Health issues aside, petty crime is the most likely problem to confront tourists. Theft, muggings and especially pickpocketing are all too common. Be mindful of what you carry and even more mindful as you carry it! Leave valuables in the hotel safe box. Better still, leave them at home! Be aware in crowds and guard against that quick hand that could have your wallet in a flash.
Scams are abundant in India and many tourists have fallen prey to them. Always be alert. If something feels wrong or “too good to be true,” it probably is. Inform yourself of the common scams being run in the area, such as fake bargain gem retailers. Always buy tickets from licensed agencies. Educate yourself about your surroundings and the general lay of the land to prevent drivers taking the long way. Unfortunately, the extreme poverty in parts of India have made skilled scam artists out of many.
Finally, in a country as diverse as India, it is natural that not everyone agrees. Sadly, this means that political tension and terrorism are a reality. Stay up-to-date on current affairs before and during travel. Research each region you will visit. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade issues current and on-going notices and warnings where necessary.
With a few well thought out plans, the thrilling spectacle of India can be your dream vacation!