Top 10 Things To Do In India
By Jemma Dicks
India is a country like no other. It’s a full-on assault on the senses: bursting with colour, buzzing with life and everywhere you go the enticing aroma of spices fills the air.
It’s almost impossible to experience everything that India has to offer in one single trip. You could spend years on the subcontinent and not even scratch the surface.
For those who are limited on time, I have put together a list of my top 10 things to do in India.
1. Pujas and priests in Pushkar
The holy town of Pushkar is a hive of activity and, as is typical in India, it's almost impossible to pass a shop without the shopkeeper attempting to lure you in with promises of "no pressure" and "best prices".
The town is one of the oldest in India and lies on the shore of Lake Pushkar. You can easily walk around the lake as it's not particularly large, but be sure to remove your shoes if you come within 20 feet of the water’s edge as the water is considered by Hindus to be holy.
When you first arrive in Pushkar, you are very likely to be accosted by a priest or someone acting on behalf of a priest (though it won't always be obvious that there is any connection). You will be urged to take a small handful of flower petals and perhaps some rice. Then you will be encouraged to make your way to the water's edge to perform a Puja, a Hindi prayer ritual.
Women go to one spot and men to another - never together. The cynical would suggest that this is perhaps so that the priests can request a donation from two people rather than one, if you happen to be travelling as a couple for example.
If you do perform the Puja with a priest, be prepared to recite the names of all your family, friends, and loved ones - living and departed, as you sprinkle the petals, rice and water into the lake and over yourself! If you have temporarily forgotten the name of your great grandmother's sister, twice removed - start researching now.
2. Unwind in Udaipur
Udaipur is a charming city on the edge of Lake Pichola and is famed for being the most romantic city on the subcontinent. It was without doubt my favourite place in India although I struggled to see what made it particularly ‘romantic’.
Nevertheless, I decided to use the ‘romantic’ tag as an excuse to break the tradition of staying in backpacker hostels, and opted for a slightly more plush haveli right on the lake’s shore.
There’s plenty to do in Udaipur, from hiking in the surrounding country-side to trying your hand at some traditional Indian cooking.
Alternatively, you could do what I did – not a whole lot! I spent 4 days ambling along the calm (by Indian standards) streets, dodging the occasional cow, eating fine food, downing every flavour of lassie under the sun and just generally watching the world go by.
3. The Mehrangarh Fort in Jodhpur
The blue city is a maze of narrow, winding alleys flanked with spice shops and the stalls of street vendors. The Mehrangarh Fort looms quite majestically over the city, dominating the skyline.
By the time I reached Jodhpur, I had seen my fair share of Indian forts and therefore went to pay the Mehrangarh a visit with some reluctance. It far surpassed both my expectations, and the high standards that had been set by the forts I had previously explored.
I opted for an audio guide as I far prefer to wander at my own pace and choose at what points I want information. The guide was fantastic and didn’t bombard the listener with too much information or assault the ears with overzealous and over-loud music.
One of the most fascinating, but at the same time horrifying, aspects of the fort was that of several hand-prints set into the inside wall, close to the innermost gate. These are the hand-prints left by the Maharaja Man Singh’s many wives before they sacrificed themselves upon his funeral pyre in an ancient custom known as sati.
4. Camel safari in Jaisalmer
Jaisalmer is not too far from the Indian border with Pakistan and therefore a fair old distance from the more frequented cities of Rajasthan. The main reason we were heading there was to go on a camel safari. We took the train there from Jodhpur. The journey was long, quite uninteresting and not particularly scenic.
My boyfriend was convinced that we had missed a trick by not taking the 12 day camel trek between the two cities. He had heard about this trip and thought it would be an adventurous way of travelling to Jaisalmer. I wasn’t so convinced it was a good idea to commit to such a long journey when neither of us had ever ridden a camel before.
We arrived in Jaisalmer and spent a few days exploring the fairy-tale fort. It was very different to other forts that we had visited in that people lived and worked within its walls. The whole place was buzzing with life.
We eventually set off for a 2 day camel safari and within half an hour were pleased we had opted against the 12 day trek. The funny creatures did not make a comfortable ride at all and belched and farted continuously.
We rode for hours into the dessert, just the two of us plus our guide, before making camp in the middle of nowhere. After sitting around the fire drinking chai and eating daal, we bedded down for the night with just a couple of blankets for warmth.
We slept in the open with no tent and during the night all manner of creatures came to nose around. At one point I woke to find a cow within a foot of my face. I also found that a stray dog, who had taken a liking to me the previous day after I gave it some food, had nestled itself under the blankets next to me.
It was a freezing cold and sleepless night and I loved every minute of it. It was topped only by a stunning sunrise the following morning.
5. Taj Mahal in Agra
Of course the Taj Mahal had to feature somewhere on this list. In all fairness, I’m not quite sure what I can say about it that hasn’t already been said before.
It’s a little oasis of calm in an otherwise typically frantic Indian city. Having said that it is as expected, crammed with tourists all vying for the best photo position.
The Taj itself is so perfectly symmetrical that it is almost impossible to take a straight picture of it. It’s mounted on a platform so that the only backdrop is that of the sky – a genius idea and certainly something that makes for better photo opportunities.
What we didn’t realise, and something I’m not sure I have ever heard about the Taj, is that due to its close proximity to the river, it is often surrounded by quite a thick mist. I had been in India for 5 weeks and every day had been clear and sunny bar this one. Having since spoken to many travellers, I have found that this is surprisingly common. They don’t tell you that in the guide books!
Nevertheless, the Taj Mahal is spectacular and a must for any visit to India. I also thoroughly enjoyed watching the chipmunks and parrots that call the Taj gardens home squabble over food.
6. The Ghats in Varanasi
Love it or hate it, Varanasi will likely end up being the most memorable place you visit in India. The city sits on the river Ganges and is regarded by Hindus as among the most holy of places in which to die.
Ghats (staircases) line the bank of the river and here, life and death is played out publicly every day. Women clad in beautifully coloured saris bathe themselves and their children in the dark water, farmers encourage their buffalo to take a dip and scrub the mud from their bodies, and adolescents swim to cool down.
At special burning ghats, the cremation of deceased Hindus is carried out at the river’s edge 24 hours a day, every day. The dead are carried through the streets and down to the water, before being placed on a funeral pyre.
Towers of wood loom over these burning ghats - all are of differing varieties and this is reflected in the price. The wood is weighed very precisely on huge scales to ensure that there is no waste. The amount of wood used on the funeral pyres is the exact amount needed to completely consume a human body – no more and no less.
The river and its banks seem at all times to be cloaked in a thick mist, but it’s always possible to make out the distant flames of a funeral pyre. This only adds to the eeriness of the place.
A boat ride down the length of the ghats at dawn is an experience that should not be missed!
7. A pocket of France in Pondicherry
Pondicherry, often referred to simply as Pondy, is a former French colony on the eastern coast of Tamil Nadu. Beautifully coloured colonial townhouses line the cobbled streets of the old French quarter of town, completing the picture-postcard look.
Unsurprisingly, Pondicherry is a popular destination for French tourists as their native language is still spoken here. It’s also a great place to gorge on delicious French food, enjoy cheap beer and unwind through yoga and meditation.
8. The Meenakshi Amman temple in Madurai
The southern city of Madurai is home to the historic Hindu temple of Meenakshi Amman. The city skyline is dominated by the temple’s ornate gopurams (towers), each of which is adorned with elaborate and colourful carvings of heroes, gods and demons.
Access to certain parts of the temple is restricted, allowing entry only to Hindus who come to worship, but there’s no shortness of shrines and carvings to discover.
You could spend several hours exploring the temple’s corridors and admiring the exquisite ceiling paintings.
The stairs surrounding the central fountain make for a perfect spot to watch the sun set.
9. Beaches and backwaters in Kerala
The tropical state of Kerala, in Southern India, is perfect for a spot of rest and relaxation. Travelling in India can be enthralling and frustrating, hectic and exciting, but Kerala is the place in which to unwind.
The beach resorts of Kovalem and Varkala are perfect for soaking up a bit of sun. The laid-back, hippy town of Varkala sits perched upon cliffs overlooking the Arabian Sea. It’s the ultimate destination for backpackers looking to stock up on the baggy trousers and tie-dye t-shirts. Similarly, it’s easy to while away the days chilling out in the cafes that line the palm-fringed beaches of Kovalem, tucking into a plate of delicious vegetable pakhora.
If you struggle to find beer on the menu, don’t despair. Ask the waiter if they serve it and they will most likely bring it to you in a mug. I fail to remember whether this was due to parts of Kerala being dry or because many of the cafes lacked a license – or possibly a mix of both!
Kerala is perhaps most famous for cruises along the backwaters in luxurious rice barges. We chose to explore the backwaters around the town of Alleppey, but realised too late that we were visiting in the midst of the Pongal festival, during which many residents from Tamil Nadu travel to Kerala for their holidays. Hence, there was a severe lack of rice barges and those that were available were charging extortionate rates.
We opted instead for a four hour motorised canoe trip down the narrower waterways. It cost us the equivalent of about £2 and we had the boat completely to ourselves. The lush scenery was breath-taking and there wasn’t another boat in sight. The only thing that could have made the experience more tropical would have been sipping from a fresh coconut – so we bought one from a local farmer and did just that!
10. The Golden Temple in Amritsar
Amritsar was not a place that I ever made it to. At the time of my visit to India, there was quite a lot of tension at the nearby border with Pakistan and we were advised against travelling to the city.
I have included it on this list because, whilst the city itself is infamous for traffic and air-pollution, the Golden Temple is often regarded as among India’s most humbling sights and one of the most memorable places in which to celebrate Diwali.
It is top of my list of places to go when I return to India!
I hope you found this blog useful. I’d love to hear your feedback. Have you been to India? What was the highlight of your trip? Have you got some good tips for readers regarding things to do in India? Please leave your comments below.
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