You could spend months travelling in India and only scratch the surface of this remarkable and endlessly interesting country. If you're visiting for just a few weeks, you'll need to plan carefully. Here, India expert Jill Worrall shares her favourite experiences and most memorable moments.
The Taj Mahal
Yes, you’ve seen hundreds of images of it, maybe even think it’s too clichéd to be true, but nothing prepares visitors for the emotional impact of the Taj Mahal. It can get incredibly crowded so try to avoid Indian public holidays, make the effort to be first in the queue when the gates open for dawn viewing and don’t stick to the central paths. It is possible to stand all on one’s own to appreciate it.
Experience Varanasi at night
Certainly don’t miss a dawn boat ride along the Ganges to see the ghats (bathing steps), temples and tumble of houses on the river’s edge emerge from the mist. But in the evenings there’s Agni Pooja, a ceremony of worship where priests whirl oil lamps, performed in front of thousands of people on land and small boats.
Take a train ride anywhere…
…and preferably in second or even third class where all the action is. Join the locals, share snacks and stories, buy hot samosas through the open train windows, marvel at what seems like railway station chaos is actually a testament to Indian efficiency. For the less intrepid, take an overnight trip in a reserved first class sleeper which comes with its own linen and bunk beds.
Spend a night in the Thar desert near Jaisalmer
Open up your stack of tiffin tins and eat vege curries and chapattis under the stars and wake to the sound of your camels gurgling and complaining as they come to collect you for a ride through the dunes.
Watch the sunset over Udaipur’s Lake Pichola…
…from the Maharajah of Udaipur’s wonderfully romantic Monsoon Palace. If there’s water in the lake (and sadly sometimes there isn’t) hire a boat and cruise past the confection of palaces and gardens.
Cruise the Kerala backwaters
Lie on the bow of a converted rice barge as it glides through the Kerala backwaters and watch the coconut palms, cantilevered fishing nets and family row boats glide past. Sit up to eat rich, creamy Keralan prawn coconut curry cooked by your on-board chef.
Take your shoes off and delve into the midst of a southern India temple…
…beneath multi-coloured towers bursting with a pantheon of Hindu gods and mystical animals. Most temples welcome non-Hindus as long as you abide by the dress code and don’t expect to enter the inner sanctum. Chanting, tinkling bells, drums, fragrant mounds of flowers, flickering butter lamps and hundreds of excited devotees create an unforgettable atmosphere.
Explore the Chettiar mansions of Tamil Nadu
Leave the well-worn tourist trail and explore the improbable, romantic, sometimes terminally crumbling world of the Chettinad mansions in Tamil Nadu. It’s possible to stay overnight in some of these huge mansions with their Burmese teak floors, European crystal chandeliers and aura of faded glory. Converted havelis – elegant restored townhouses – or palaces of minor royalty can be as equally atmospheric (and easier on the bank balance).
Blow the budget even just the once and stay in a palace hotel!
If money’s no object the island palace hotel in Udaipur is the epitome of romance and luxury or stay in a wing of the Umaid Bhawan, the Maharajah of Jodhpur’s family “home” and one of the world’s largest private residences.
Interact with the locals
Touts, beggars and rapacious souvenir sellers can make visitors reluctant to interact with the locals. But aggressive panhandlers do not represent the true India. Take time to talk to the families who are sightseeing alongside you, the teachers with the classes of bubbly school kids, the chefs who make your morning dosa - mmmm, crispy hot dosa for breakfast… if I had the space, that would be number 11. With India it’s near impossible to stop at just 10 great experiences!!