India is huge. Think north for mountains, British raj period forts and fabulous Indian Palaces, and the Himalayas in the north. Think south for really fiery curries, beaches, the Kerala backwater cruises and sun and sand in Goa.
This will just cover some of the main sights of the north.
Most will fly into either Delhi or Mumbai. Delhi is the nation’s capital, Mumbai its biggest city. Delhi is made up of the Old City – tiny winding laneways, ancient mosques and temples, rickshaw drivers and cows in the streets. Great spice markets and street food if you are really careful.
New Delhi is what happened when the British decided to build. Wide streets and boulevards, squares and fountains. Trees and parks, and the main buildings of government. They offered their buildings to the Maharajahs and they basically said why would we want to live in these hovels? When you see their palaces you will understand what they mean. From Delhi most tourists will take the Golden Triangle tour or a variation of it. Delhi, Agra and Jaipur. Agra is home to the first thing most people think of when you say India – the Taj Mahal. It also is home to the Red Fort which is still half occupied by the Indian Military. The Taj Mahal does not disappoint, is worth the early start to see it in the cooler morning air and with fewer people. There is a smaller version of the Taj Mahal you can visit as well. Nowhere near the same scale but all the techniques used in the Taj Mahal were tried out in the baby Taj and it is lovely in its own right.
About 45 minutes from Agra is the mosque and palace complex of Fatepur Sikri, another world heritage site. Although the hawkers can be very insistent in the mosque, once clear of there the palace is wonderfully atmospheric and the complex has many different features from the usual buildings, including an amazing audience chamber where the king was literally raised above anyone seeking his presence, and both a public entertainment area and a private bathhouse. Gorgeous red stone glows in the sunlight.
Across to the west is Jaipur – one of my favourite place in India. The Pink City truly is – right down to the letter boxes. The façade of the Palace of the Winds is actually the place from behind which in earlier times the women could look out onto the streets and see the life of the ordinary people that they were not permitted to take part in. The Amber Fort is a revelation. Midway up a hill with fabulous views over the valley, a formal garden in the lake and more rooms than you can count as well as courtyards and meeting spaces, the Amber Fort was the summer home and also winter palace of the local maharajah. The inlaid tiled and mirrored ceiling was his present to his wife who missed the stars because she was not permitted outside, so she could see a version of the night sky. Extraordinarily beautiful and it glows amber in the morning sunlight.
In an extended version of the Golden Triangle you can go further west again to Udaipur, where I visited last September. The famous Lake Palace is there, the summer palace of the City palace in the heart of the city on a man made lake. Udaipur is greener, cleaner and wealthier than much of Rajasthan. It has a strong sense of its own history and resisted the British raj and earned respect for doing so. About a 45 minute drive from Udaipur in the middle of nowhere is the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, a heritage working hotel that you can stay in if you choose. If you get a chance visit a village and meet the locals and the kids. One of the best things you can do!
The Ganges is sacred to India, and the most sacred city is Varanasi. This is where you will see people bathe in the waters for healing, and where many people are farewelled in funeral pyres. North and you are into the Darjeeling area famous for tea plantation and the place the British escaped the summer heat.
Don’t be afraid of India. It is fascinating and beguiling, and the food is fabulous.