Country Profile : India
The world's largest democracy and second most populous country has emerged as a major power after a period of foreign rule and several decades during which its economy was virtually closed.
A nuclear weapons state, it carried out tests in the 1970s and again in the 1990s in defiance of world opinion. However, India is still tackling huge social, economic and environmental problems.
The vast and diverse Indian sub-continent - from the mountainous Afghan frontier to the jungles of Burma - was under foreign rule from the early 1800s until the demise of the British Raj in 1947.
Economy: Fast-growing economy; large, skilled workforce but widespread poverty
Politics: 380m people voted in 2004 election; winning Congress party led by Sonia Gandhi
International: Ongoing dispute with Pakistan over Kashmir region; nuclear weapons state; world's most prolific film industry - Bollywood
But the subsequent partition of the sub-continent sowed the seeds for future conflict. There have been three wars between India and its arch-rival Pakistan since 1947, two of them over the disputed territory of Kashmir.
A peace process, which started in 2004, stayed on track despite tension over Kashmir and several high-profile bombings until the Mumbai attacks of November 2008, which police blamed on Pakistani militants. India announced that the process was on pause the following month.
Communal, caste and regional tensions continue to haunt Indian politics, sometimes threatening its long-standing democratic and secular ethos.
In 1984 Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was gunned down by her Sikh bodyguards after ordering troops to flush out Sikh militants from the Golden Temple in Amritsar.
And in 1992, widespread Hindu-Muslim violence erupted after Hindu extremists demolished the Babri mosque at Ayodhya.
Independent India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, dreamed of a socialist society and created a vast public infrastructure, much of which became a burden on the state.
From the late 1980s India began to open up to the outside world, encouraging economic reform and foreign investment. It is now courted by the world's leading economic and political powers, including its one-time foe China.
The country has a burgeoning urban middle class and has made great strides in fields such as information technology. Its large, skilled workforce makes it a popular choice for international companies seeking to outsource work.
Nuclear tests carried out by India in May 1998 and similar tests by Pakistan just weeks later provoked international condemnation and concern over the stability of the region.
The US quickly imposed sanctions on India, but more recently the two countries have improved their ties, and even agreed to share nuclear technology.
India launches its own satellites and in 2008 sent its first spacecraft to the moon. It also boasts a massive cinema industry, the products of which are among the most widely-watched films in the world.
But the vast mass of the rural population remains illiterate and impoverished.
Their lives continue to be dominated by the ancient Hindu caste system, which assigns each person a fixed place in the social hierarchy.
Full name: Republic of India
Population: 1.2 billion (UN, 2008)
Capital: New Delhi
Most-populated city: Mumbai (Bombay)
Area: 3.1 million sq km (1.2 million sq miles), excluding Indian-administered Kashmir (100,569 sq km/38,830 sq miles)
Major languages: Hindi, English and at least 16 other official languages
Major religions: Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Sikhism, Buddhism, Jainism
Life expectancy: 63 years (men), 66 years (women) (UN)
Monetary unit: 1 Indian Rupee = 100 paise
Main exports: Agricultural products, textile goods, gems and jewellery, software services and technology, engineering goods, chemicals, leather products
GNI per capita: US $950 (World Bank, 2007)
Internet domain: .in
International dialling code: +91
President: Pratibha Patil
Pratibha Patil became India's first female president in July 2007, after being voted into office by members of state assemblies and the national parliament.
Mrs Patil, the candidate of the ruling Congress Party, was previously the little-known governor of the northwestern desert state of Rajasthan. She drew criticism during the campaign over scandals involving family members, and over controversial remarks.
Supporters hailed her election as a victory for women, but critics wondered how much influence she would have.
India has had several women in powerful positions - most notably Indira Gandhi, one of the world's first female prime ministers in 1966 - but activists complain that women still face widespread discrimination.
Mrs Patil succeeds APJ Abdul Kalam, a scientist and the architect of the country's missile programme.
Indian presidents have few actual powers, but they can decide which party or individual should form the central government after general elections.
Prime minister: Manmohan Singh
Mr Singh became prime minister in May 2004 after the Congress Party's unexpected success in general elections.
The party's president, Sonia Gandhi, the widow of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, shocked her supporters by declining the top post, apparently to protect the party from damaging attacks over her Italian origin.
Mr Singh said his priorities were to reduce poverty and to plough on with economic reforms. He stated a desire for friendly relations with India's neighbours, especially Pakistan.
During his first year in office he held together a coalition which included communist allies and ministers accused of corruption. He continued to pursue market-friendly economic policies and oversaw the introduction of nuclear non-proliferation legislation.
But his promised "New Deal" for rural India - an attempt to raise the poorest citizens out of poverty - has still to bear fruit.
Manmohan Singh's government also came under intense pressure after the Mumbai attacks of November 2008, which left nearly 200 people dead and prompted a storm of criticism of security arrangements.
However, Mr Singh's Congress-led coalition scored an emphatic victory at general elections in April and May 2009, coming within 11 seats of winning an absolute majority in parliament.
The emphatic defeat of the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) confounded predictions of a close contest.
While still needing the support of some smaller parties, the government looked to be in a much stronger position to pursue economic reforms, particularly against opposition from left.
Mr Singh made his reputation as a finance minister in the early 1990s, under the Narasimha Rao government, when he was the driving force behind economic liberalisation.
When the Congress Party was voted out of office, Mr Singh became opposition leader in the upper house.
A Sikh born in West Punjab, Mr Singh is a former International Monetary Fund official and governor of India's Central Bank. He was educated at Oxford and Cambridge.
Indian broadcasting has flourished since state TV's monopoly was broken in 1992. The array of channels is still growing.
Private cable and satellite stations command large audiences. News programmes often outperform entertainment shows. Many 24-hour news channels are up and running and more are planned.
Doordarshan, the public TV, operates 21 services including its flagship DD1 channel, which reaches some 400 million viewers.
Multichannel, direct-to-home (DTH) TV has been a huge hit. Five operators - Dish TV, Tata-Sky, Sun Direct, Big TV and Airtel Digital TV - have attracted millions of subscribers. State-owned Doordarshan Direct offers a free-to-air DTH service.
Some industry sources say the number of DTH subscribers could reach 60 million by 2015. The cable TV market is one of the world's largest.
Since they were given the green light in 2000, music-based FM radio stations have proliferated in the cities. But only public All India Radio can broadcast news.
India's press is lively. Driven by a growing middle class, newspaper circulation has risen and new titles compete with established dailies.
Internet use has soared; by September 2007, around 60 million Indians were online (ITU figure).
Paris-based Reporters Without Borders says press freedom is threatened by "the violence of political parties as well as religious and separatist groups" (India - Annual report 2008).
India - the land to travel to, a haven of tourism delights, a civilization to tour through. Tourists come to India for its wealth of sights, cultural exuberance, diversity of terrain and in search of that special something, an extra punch that only India promises and delivers. Teeming with over a billion people who voice over a million concerns in fifteen hundred different languages, India is where people live with variety, thrive on diversity and are too familiar with largeness to let it boggle them. Mud huts and mansions face off across city streets. Lurid luxury and limp living are inhabitants of the same lane.
From the smoky mangroves of the Sunderbans to the steaming Thar Desert, sizzling cities like Mumbai and Delhi to the scintillating villages of Khajuraho and Hampi, from the heights of the Himalayas to the deep blue waters around the Andamans, India is a travel haven - a tour package that frustrates and delights, as demanding as it is rewarding.
It demands that the traveller be prepared for its own strange forms of tourism offerings - the crowds at Pushkar, for pushy mendicants at Haridwar, for high commercialism at spiritual retreats. But equally, it means that he be prepared for an overwhelming warmth in the people, ease of conversation, and to be stunned into speechlessness by the beauty, sometimes the manmade and often the natural.
But what exactly is it that gets two and a half million people to pack their bags, book their tickets, buy industrial size cans of suntan lotion and enough toilet paper to supply the entire population of Liechtenstein for a month, and wing their way to India? Given that this is the land of the Taj, granted too that tea, tobacco, tempestuous democracy and terrific travel are a great combination but surely that's not reason enough.
There must be more because between truisms and half-truths, India has inspired more than any one place's fair share of travel lore. And, perhaps that's what it is - the legends of India - that's what inspires people from far and near to travel here, to sort out for themselves what's true and what's just a whole lot of tourism pamphlet hype.
If that's what you're going to be doing, here's a bit of India tourism mantra to help you on your way: expect nothing and everything will be yours.
Full Name : Republic of India
Area : 3,287,263 square kilometres (1,269,219 sq mi)
Population : 1,147,995,904 (2008)
Capital City : New Delhi
People : Indian
Language : 18 official languages, 1652 dialects. English is widely spoken.
Government : Federal Republic
Head of State : President Pratibha Patil
Currency : Indian Rupee (INR)
GDP : $3.26 trillion (2008)
Exports : $175.7 billion (2008)
Imports : $287.5 billion (2008)
Ethnic groups : Indo-Aryan 72%, Dravidian 25%, Mongoloid and other 3% (2000)
Religions : Hindu 72.04%, Muslim 12.26% (of which Sunni 8.06%, Shi'i 4.20%), Christian 6.81% (Protestant 1.74%, Roman Catholic 1.62%, Orthodox 0.22%, other Christian 3.22%), traditional beliefs 3.83%, Sikh 1.87%, Buddhist 0.67%, Jain 0.51%, Baha'i 0.17%, Parsi (Zoroastrian) 0.02%, nonreligious 1.22%, atheist 0.17%, other 0.43% (2005)
Total Active Armed Forces : 1,325,000 (2006)
Declared Nuclear Power (1998) : est. 40-95 weapons (2005)
Merchant marine : 501 ships (2008)
History - The story so far
Indian history can be roughly divided into the 6 periods of Ancient India, Medieval India, the years of the Company, colonial times as part of The Raj, the struggle for Independence and finally, post-Independence. India, the geopolitical entity as she stands today is a post-Independence phenomenon. It was as recently as "the stroke of the midnight hour" on 15th August 1947 when Nehru pronounced her "tryst with destiny" that India woke "to life and freedom".
One of man's oldest civilizations was the settlement at the Indus Valley. The degree of sophistication that archaeologists found in their settlements almost belies the fact that these people lived almost 4000 years ago. The civilization had meticulously planned cities; streets met at right angles, the sewage system puts present day India to shame, and the tools and large granaries show that they knew more than a thing or two about agriculture. Seals of the Indus Valley have on them the only ancient script that is yet to be deciphered. The most important Indus Valley cities of Harappa and Mohenjodaro are in present day Pakistan.
The civilization died out in the 1500 BC. The reasons are a still a matter of contention and they range from the coming of the central Asian Aryan tribes to the changing of the course of the Indus River. While both these are true, it's difficult to ascertain that these are what brought the end of the Dravidian civilization in the Indus valley. By 300 BC the previously nomadic Aryans had settled down in the region of north India. They had brought with them Sanskrit, a member of the Indo-European family of languages akin to Latin and Greek. They also brought the spoken literature of the Hindu life-philosophy, horse-driven chariots and a social system of caste differentiation.
The following millennium saw the waxing and waning of empires. In the north the great dynasties were those of the Mauryas (300-200 BC) during which period Buddhism received royal patronage, and the Guptas during whose reign the subcontinent is said to have enjoyed a "golden period" (300-500 AD). The intervening period had new settlers like the Shakas and Kushanas forming lesser kingdoms in the area around the Ganges. The influence of these Aryan kingdoms rarely reached the south. Regional dynasties like the Andhras, Cheras, Pandyas and Cholas ruled kingdoms in the south of the Deccan Plateau and lower down the peninsula. When unable to withstand the pressures of central Asian invaders the Gupta Empire crumbled, the north got divided into strong regional kingdoms (except for a brief period from 606 to 647 under the poet king Harshavardhan). This was the time that the Rajputs grew to prominence in the west.
Within 300 years of being founded in the 7th century, Islam had reached the western parts. But it wasn't until the coming of Turkish-Afghan raiders like Mahmud of Ghazni (997 to 1030 AD) and Muhammad Ghauri (in 1192) that Islam made significant inroads to the heart of north India. The first Muslim empire was set up by a general of Ghauri's, Qutb-ud-din Aibak, which is when the Delhi Sultanate came into being. The temptation of privileges extended to the faithful, and Hinduism's own severe caste system made many convert.
The Delhi Sultanate was ridden with internal strife and saw no less than 5 dynasties come to power between 1206 and 1526. In 1526 a young Central Asian warlord who had already captured Kabul, set his eyes on the vast land that lay to the south. Tales of riches had reached his ears and Babur, descendent of Genghis Khan and Timurlane made good his ancestral legacy by defeating the Sultanate's armies in the Battle of Panipat.
In a land of oppressive heat, and such a variety of people that he could hardly make sense of it, Babur founded the Mughal dynasty. Babur began the work of bringing the delicate patterns of Islamic art, the detailed craft of miniature painting, the severe symmetry of formal garden craft to Delhi. Till Aurangzeb, the 6th king of the dynasty, the Mughals had a liberal policy of religious tolerance and that helped them weave together a largely stable and tight knit kingdom that spanned a larger territory than any previously had. It was a time of plenty and emperors like Jehangir (1605-1627) and Shah Jehan (1628-1657) could focus their attentions on art, architecture and culture. It was the time when the Taj Mahal was built, as was the Red Fort, and the coffers contained the Koh-i-Noor and the ruby and emerald studded Peacock Throne. Aurangzeb's religious zeal won him widespread resentment. The Mughal Empire began unravelling, unable to withstand the Maratha chieftain Shivaji's guerrilla warfare. The last really effective Mughal king was Bahadur Shah (1707-1712). After him Mughal power and prestige declined steadily.
The first British East India Company officials landed in India in 1602. Eventually their interests ceased to be purely mercantile as they assumed more political roles. After the Revolt of 1857, the Crown took over the reigns and India officially came to be a part of the vast British Empire. The Raj settled into ruling this vast dominion and did so till in 1947 when the country was handed back to the leaders of the freedom movement. Gandhi and Nehru led the largely non-violent movement from the front with the backing of Congress and the entire nation. However, partly because of the British 'divide-and-rule' policy and internal contradictions in the national movement itself, a communal divide came to be. When India finally achieved freedom, it was combined with the trauma of partition and the formation of Pakistan.
Nehru became the first Prime Minister of India on 15th August 1947 at the head of a Congress government. The Congress hegemony ended in the late 60s, but it came to power intermittently through the 70s and 80s. The Nehru legacy was strong enough to make both his daughter Indira (who declared the infamous internal Emergency), and grandson Rajiv, Prime Minister. In the 90s the era of coalition politics had begun and democracy had come of age.
India is a federal republic with a very strong centre. The world's largest democracy, it has universal adult suffrage above 18 years. General elections are scheduled every 5 years when the entire country participates in electing members to the Lower House of Parliament called the Lok Sabha. Members to the upper house are elected indirectly.
The head of state is the President. The head of government is the Prime Minister. In 2004 elections, NDA, the coalition lead by the Bhartiya Janta Party was defeated by the Congress. The Congress is currently the governing party and the Prime Minister is Dr. Manmohan Singh.
Though the constitution proclaims India to be a socialist country, it is in truth a mixed economy with a strong and influential private sector. Public sector undertakings controlled by the state are involved in many industries though the need for disinvestment is being increasingly felt. India has a planned economy.
It is largely an agrarian economy. Rice, wheat, oilseed, cotton, jute, tea, coffee, rubber, sugarcane and potatoes are the bulk of the produce. Livestock include cattle, water buffalo, sheep, goats and poultry. Coastal communities and those who live on riverbanks are often dependent on fishing for livelihood.
The major foreign exchange earner for India is textile, followed by Information Technology. With Indian IT professionals making it big in the United States and Indian IT companies proving to be among the best in the crop, there is new international interest in Indian professionals. Precious and semi-precious stones, leather products, engineering goods and chemicals are also exported.
Major trading partners include US, UK, Germany, Hong Kong, Japan and the UAE.
Major industries include steel, chemicals, food processing, steel, transportation equipment, cement, mining, petroleum and machinery.
Around 25% of the population lives below the poverty line.
GDP : $2.664 trillion (purchasing power parity)
Per Capita income : $2600 (purchasing power parity)
From the highest point of the Kanchenjunga peak at 8598 meters to the lowest point at 0 meters at the Indian Ocean, India is the land that spells variety.
The 7th largest country in the world, it covers a total area of 3,287,590 sq km in area. It lies in south Asia jutting into the Indian Ocean in its south, undulating over the frozen wasteland of the Himalayas in the north, braving drought in its desert-like west and surviving fierce floods in its east. A substantial portion of northern India is the fertile plain where the great Gangetic riverine system irrigates vast expanses of the land bringing agrarian well being. The Deccan Plateau in Central India is rich in minerals. The Western and Eastern Ghats fringe the southern peninsula and are the setting for coffee, tea, cashew plantations, the Nilgiri langur and gaur, and the silversmith Toda tribal.
In the north-west, Pakistan borders India, and to the east lie China, Nepal, Burma, Bhutan and Bangladesh. To the south lies the teardrop shaped island nation of Sri Lanka. Beyond the peninsula the waters of the Bay of Bengal in the east, the Arabian Sea in the west and the Indian Ocean at the very south wet the shores of India's 7000 km long coastline. Great vanquishing rivers are worshipped. The Narmada, Godavari, Krishna, Cauveri, the Brahmaputra, Ganga and Yamuna criss-cross the terrain bringing prosperity and fertility and often wreaking havoc in flood. They inspire songs and they bring misery; increasingly they are bringing hydroelectric power to millions across the country.
The Tropic of Cancer splits India in half. Sub tropical jungles house the Royal Bengal tiger, multiple species of deer and antelope, the Asian elephant, the Common, Golden and Nilgiri langurs, the one horned rhino in the forests of Assam, prides of Asiatic lions in the dry wilds of Sasan Gir in the west. And there is much more: river dolphins in the Ganges and Brahmaputra, crocodiles, waters that are teeming with mahseer, trout, carp, fresh water prawns, woods with fishing cat, civets, leopard, the cobra, krait and python, the grey mongoose, the gaur, the sloth bear.
There are over 1200 bird species including the Great Indian Bustard, the Malabar hornbill, Paradise Flycatcher, cormorants, egrets, darters and migratory Siberian cranes in the winter. India's jungles, rivers, streams are simply bursting with wildlife, much of it protected in her 80 National Parks and 441 Sanctuaries. Camels in the deserts of Rajasthan, stoic yaks, sure-footed Himalayan Tahr and mountain goats in the north extend the scope beyond just that which is typical to Asian sub tropical forests of sal, shisham and teak. There are mangrove forests in the east and evergreen conifers in the upper climes of Himachal Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir.
Common flowers include roses, bougainvilleas, sunny marigold, water lilies, lotus and fragrant jasmine. In the breathtaking Valley of Flowers a sea of lilies, poppy, daisies, holly, pansy, geranium, zinnia, petunia, fox, caryopsis dianthus, saxifrage and calendula stretches out in the shadow of towering snowbound Himalayan peaks.
In a country where topography varies wildly, climatic conditions are only bound to vary wildly too.
Classified as a hot tropical country by many, that is a definition that holds true for most of but not all of India. Exceptions include the northern states of Himachal Pradesh and Jammu & Kashmir in the north and Sikkim in the northeastern hills.
In most of India summer is hot. It begins in April and continues till the beginning of October. The heat peaks in June with temperatures in the northern plains and the west soaring above 46º C. The monsoons hit the country during this period too, beginning 1st of June when they are supposed to find the Kerala coast. Moisture laden trade winds sweep the country bringing relief to a parched northern India but devastation in the east where the rivers Brahmaputra and Ganga flood annually. Tamil Nadu in the south receives rainfall between October and December, beneficiary of the retreating monsoons.
India's extensive coastline lies almost entirely below the Tropic of Cancer. The coast is usually warm and moist, prone to heavy rains in the monsoons and high summer temperatures. The eastern coast is vulnerable to cyclones. Winters here are mild and pleasantly sunny.
Hill Stations are the happy peculiarity that came up here when British wives and officers needed to flee the oppressive heat and malaria of the plains. Quaint towns that buzz along "mall roads", tucked away in hills all over India, they are now weekend getaways at the height of summer for families and couples from India's cities.
The plains in the north and even the barren countryside of Rajasthan reel under a cold wave every year in December-January. Minimum temperatures could dip below 4º C but maximum temperatures usually do not fall lower than 12º C. In the northern high altitude areas of Himachal Pradesh, Jammu & Kashmir, Sikkim, and parts of Uttar Pradesh, it snows through the winter and even summer months are only mildly warm.
The east receives rain from April to August. September to November is relatively dry and the region only has sporadic showers. There are winter rains in December and January. This abates for two months and then it's time for the monsoon season yet again. The central plateau has similar climate to the north but the mercury does not dip as low in winter. It rains from mid-June to September.
People & Society
The fabric of Indian society is woven with myriad threads. The result is multi-textured, many layered and though this diversity has fuelled some dissension, it continues to be India's strength.
India is predominantly Hindu and it also has the world's largest population of Muslims. Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Christians (Roman Catholic, Protestant and Syrian Christian), Jews and Zoroastrians people this great land. There is phenomenal ethnic diversity too. While the people of the north are mainly Indo-Aryan, in the south they are mostly Dravidian. The tribal population in the northeast is of Tibeto-Burmese extract, while the 'adivasis' of Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat are probably proto Australoid. Language varies almost every ten miles and India's billion-strong population has a total of 1535 recognized dialects.
One of the most marked things about Indian society is the great diversity. This applies to religion, ethnicity and language as much as to the economic situation. The yawning gap between the rich and the poor is bridged by a large middle class of small businessmen, professionals, bureaucrats etc.
Most Indians actively practice their religion, and despite the creeping westernisation, most of India is socially orthodox. That means that caste distinctions have not been forgotten, man-woman interaction may be frowned upon, and the public display of affection is strictly no-no. The cow is sacred and 'all ye who forget that-be doomed'. The left hand, which is an indispensable tool for Indian ablutions, is considered impure and isn't used in passing things around.
On the whole the Indians are a warm welcoming people. The guest is next only to God and crooks and touts notwithstanding, and curious looks and probing questions notwithstanding, you'll find that they are great hosts. Their idiosyncrasies just make it all the more interesting; be patient and you will learn to love the complete package.
India probably has the most religious diversity in any country. It's the birthplace of Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism and Jainism. It's among the few places to have a resident Zoroastrian population. The Syrian Christian Church is well established in Kerala; the Basilica of Bom Jesus in Goa, old churches in Calcutta and Delhi, synagogues in Kerala, temples from the tiny to the tremendous, 'stupas', 'gompas' and the Bodhi tree, the Ajmer Sharif and Kaliya Sharif in Bombay, all reflect the amazing multiplicity of religious practice in India. Tribal people in the northeast, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat practice forms of nature worship.
Secularism is enshrined in the Constitution.
The national language of India is Hindi, which in one form or another is spoken all over the north. In the Deccan (south India), the languages are completely different. The states were formed on the basis of language so each has its own. On the whole though, dialects, accents, idioms and linguistic flourishes change every few miles. There are 18 official languages but over a thousand recognised dialects. English is widely spoken.
From DC to Dakota, Warwick to what-have-you, Indian spices are letting off steam everywhere in the whole wide world. And you come to India and realise......hey, there's nothing authentic about it! Every kitchen, every man, woman, cook, chef does it different.
A meal in the north would typically constitute chapattis or rice with dal (lentil curry) and a dish of vegetables or meat. Pappads (wafers fried or toasted to a crisp), yoghurt and pickle are usual accompaniments. The chapatti is a round flat unleavened bread of which you tear bits to scoop the curry. Variations of the chapatti are paratha, poorie, bhatoora, and Tandoori naans.
Idli, dosa, vada, sambar, uppama! In the south, too, a meal centres on a base of rice, or as in the South - Indian case, semolina preparation. The idli is a steamed rice cake and the crisp salty pancake often stuffed with potatoes is the dosa. Eaten alongside is the South-Indian dal - "sambhar", sour, hot, souped -up with vegetables. The Brahmins are vegetarian, but the rest consume sour-hot fish, mutton, and chicken with gusto. In Kerala seafood is simmered in coconut milk and delicately flavoured with curry leaves. Most Indians eat three meals, each one full-fledged.
Savoury snacks like pakoras pep the evening cuppa. Anything coated in batter (of chickpea, flour et al) and deep-fried will pass for pakora. Also, readily available on the roadside are snacks like bhel puri (spiced up puffed rice) and paapri chaat (wafers and boiled potato doused in curd and sauces). Vegetarians will feel like they've come home, specially in the south. But no matter where you are, in a plush restaurant or a roadside 'dhaba', in Kunnur or Kullu, you can be sure of sumptuous vegetarian meals.
All along the coast and extensively in the northeast fish is consumed almost as a staple. Both fresh water and sea fish are popular. Indians love their sweets. There is great regional variety and among the most popular types is the Bengali "mishti".
There's also a huge variety in drinks. Besides 'chai' (tea) and coffee, sweetened/salty churned yoghurt called lassi, the ubiquitous 'neemboo-pani' or lemon-water, fruit juice in tetra packs and aerated drinks are readily available in India. IMFL expands into Indian made Foreign Liquor and spans the entire range from beer to whiskey. Some examples of local brews are 'chaang' in Arunachal, toddy in the South and Goa's famous 'feni'.
Culture & Crafts
Music : Much of India's classical music is devotional and a lot of that, devoted to the flute playing god, Krishna. The North Indian Hindustani and South Indian Carnatic streams are distinct and both have a complex 'raga' framework. Ghazals in Urdu reflect on life and are light on the ear. Every region has a distinctive folk tradition too. Instruments that would typically accompany Indian music are the stringed veena, sitar, and the Indian drum: tabla or mridangam in the south.
Dance : The legacy of dance in India is tremendous. On temple walls, on an urban stage, in impromptu bursts by a mellow evening fire, men and women twinkle their toes in expression of joy.
The classical dances of India are numerous. Characterised by stylised movements and elaborate costumes, these dances communicate age-old tales of love, longing and rage. Kathakali of Kerala, Bharatnatyam of Tamil Nadu, Kuchipudi of Andhra Pradesh, Manipuri and Odissi from Orissa are the prominent dance forms in this country that sways to an altogether novel beat. The robust bhangra of Punjabi men, the graceful whirling of Rajasthani women, the gentle sway of northeastern dancers, vigorous tribal dances, every corner has developed it's own unique form.
Theatre : There is a robust theatrical tradition. The Yakshagana, nautanki and puppetry are ancient folk forms that live on till date. This tribe of wandering performers is on the decline but there still are occasional performances on the rudimentary stages of the rural areas. Rustic and coarse the flavour might be, but the techniques are surprisingly sophisticated. There is a growing body of contemporary work both in English and in the vernacular.
Art : The earliest specimens of Indian painting are the ones on the walls of the Ajanta Caves dating back to 2nd century BC. The typical 'figures in profile' art of India came to be when the Jain manuscripts were being illustrated. The Mughals had a huge impact on Indian art. The miniature, which had been only on palm leaves in the northeast, came into prominence. The influence of Persian art brought placid garden scenes, illustrations from myths, legends and history into Indian art. Later schools include the Bengal School of Tagore and the Company School of European influence. More recently the opulent paintings of Raja Ravi Varma, the paintings of M.F. Hussain, Jamini Roy and Ganesh Pyne among others rule the art scene.
Crafts : Word craft, handicrafts, architecture and sculpture all contribute to this rich and varied domain. Indian literature, both in English and in the vernacular, is ever more popular around the world. Handicrafts are as varied as the country itself. The Mughal and colonial structures and the temple architecture across the length and breadth of the country are testaments to the lands exciting past. Sculptures adorn temple walls, stupas, street junctions and ancient caves. The oldest schools are the Gandhara and the Mathura.
Movies : The Hindi movie industry is the most prolific in the world. Based in Bombay, hence Bollywood, this spool-spitting machine takes on the onerous responsibility of fuelling India's prime passion. There is sheer joy in the easy stereotypes of muscle-flexing machismo, leering villainy and leading ladies of Hindi filmdom, but not all Hindi films are a simmering brew of action, romance, and song and dance. There is a parallel stream of "art" cinema though it's not nearly half as popular as the "commercial" stream.
Giving competition to the Bollywood masala film is the equally spicy south Indian fare. Regional cinema is fairly popular in its local context and with serious cinemagoers.
Cricket! Oh for the love of a six-er! India grinds to a halt when the country's eleven don their colours. In cricket-crazy Calcutta, old folk gather to trash the 'new fangled' limited-overs format; in front of a million TV sets, four million pray for victory (often knowing they're praying for a miracle!) tirelessly. It's a mad-mad-mad world and in India cricket stars adorn the doors of innumerable cupboards.
Hockey, football and now the ATP tour too have a decent following.
59.5% of India is literate: 70.2% males and 48.3% females. Kerala is the model state as far as education levels are concerned boasting figures of almost 99% literacy. Higher education in India has a formidable reputation. Whether in engineering or medicine, business management or social science education, India universities are at par with the best in the world.
Places To See
Sights that enthral and appall. When Foster wrote his Passage to India in the 1920s he reached the stunning conclusion that there are "a hundred Indias". There are. And if you go out to discover each of these you can count on spending at least a year in this stupendous country with its phenomenal repertoire of surprises and delights. Blessed with probably the widest array of topographical and cultural diversity that was ever packed into one time zone, there's an India for everyone.
India's jungles, rivers and streams are simply bursting with wildlife; much of it protected in her 80 National Parks and 441 Sanctuaries. Popular ones are Corbett, Rajaji and Dudhwa (Uttar Pradesh), Kanha, Pench (Madhya Pradesh) and Sasan Gir (Gujarat).
Sariska and Ranthambor (Rajasthan), Kaziranga, Manas (Assam), Mudumalai, Bandipore and Wyanad (Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve-Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Kerala) are the other well known game sanctuaries. Keoladeo Ghana, Bharatpur (Rajasthan) is a famous bird sanctuary. Find yourself as you lose the cares of life in the city.
The temple trail in India just trails on and on and on.... winding past the monuments of man's love for the divine. The gilded gurudwara in Amritsar, ancient weather-beaten cathedrals in Goa, 'dargahs' (mausoleums) of Muslim saints and grand temples to the innumerable Hindu deities; these houses of worship are as precious as works of art.
Catch the trail as it runs through Ajmer, Delhi, Fatehpur Sikri, Varanasi, Madurai, Sarnath, Gaya, Orchha, Tanjore, Trichy, Tirupati, Mathura, Ayodhya, Jammu, Badrinath, Haridwara and Rishikesh. The legacy of spiritual succour lives on in the land of exotica. In Pune, Pondicherry, Puttaparthy and Dharamsala, Osho, Auroville, the Sai Baba and Buddhist monks explore a new life, of what is and what could be.
Explore the same along turquoise blue and breezy beaches along the coast. Windswept or sunny, India's beaches are peculiarly Indian. Crowded and cheery, sometimes dirty, always delightful, you'll find them in Kerala's Kovalam, in the Andamans and Lakshadweep, in Goa, quiet Gokarna, and 'templescaped' Puri, Kanyakumari and Mahabalipuram.
Ruins of forts, palaces, picturesque 'havelis' (large private houses) and mausoleums pepper the landscape. In and around Delhi, Agra, Rajasthan, all over the country actually, historical sites intrigue the history enthusiast.
Important sites are Hampi, Khajuraho, Mandu, Aurangabad, Bikaner, Goa, Gwalior, Jaipur, Jaisalmer, Jodhpur, Udaipur, Mahabalipuram, Tanjore and Mysore.
Museums, business centres, nightlife, large markets, embassies and consulates mark space in the bigger cities of India. Bustling with activity, bristling with high voltage energy, busy-busy-busy, New Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Calcutta, Bangalore, Pune and Hyderabad make up India's urban landscape.
The world's highest mountains form a tall 2500 km long wall along India's northeast frontier and are prime climbing territory for the outdoor types. The mountainous regions of Sikkim, Himachal Pradesh and Leh are high altitude trekking options.
The "blue mountains" of the Nilgiri Hills in the Deccan, and the lower reaches of the Himalayas in Garhwal, Kumaon and around Darjeeling are simpler and ideal for a leisurely hike.
From stark white mountains framed against sheer clear blue to forested hills that enclose rushing streams, there is endless variety for the hiker. In the hills, in tiny towns with winding 'mall roads' survive the British legacy of "hill stations". These cool getaways from the simmering plains continue to entertain weekend tourists in the summers. Shimla, Manali, Kasauli and Mussoorie in the north, Shillong, Darjeeling and Kalimpong in the east, Ooty and Munnar in the south are the most popular.
So much to do, so much to see.....so little time! That holds completely true for the Indian experience. Don't push yourself to do it all because that's well nigh impossible but choose well and plan little, open your mind and be gathered up by the experience that the world calls "India".
Around & About
How do I get there?
By Air : The major international airports in India, which serve traffic from all over the world, are in Delhi, Mumbai (Bombay), Calcutta and Chennai (Madras). Airports tend to be on the outskirts of cities. Pre-paid taxi services and auto-rickshaws are stationed outside the terminus to get you into the city.
By Rail : Railways do not cut across international borders in this part of the world except the Samjhauta (i.e. "understanding"!) Express that runs between Amritsar (India) and Lahore (Pakistan). However, in many cases it is possible to travel till the border by train.
By Road : Except the Lahore-Delhi bus (4 times a week), there are no cross border coach services. It is possible to drive into India with the requisite paperwork in order. Even driving in from Nepal now requires a permit. Permits may be arranged through the Indian embassy in your country.
By Sea : Several international cruise lines include stopovers at Indian ports. The popular destinations are Goa, Mumbai, Kochi, Kozhikode, Calcutta and Chennai. There are no regular passenger services; the service between Rameshwaram (Tamil Nadu) and Sri Lanka has been indefinitely suspended.
India is a vast country but luckily for the traveller, it is extensively linked by public transport. All major towns and cities have airports. Even very small towns are connected by rail with Indian Railways maintaining the biggest network in Asia. 'Toy trains' are quaint, neat and narrow gauge; pretty like the hillsides they chug up. The roads and highways may not be state-of-the art multi-lane expressways but if it's basically about getting to places, they serve the purpose well! The bus network, privately run and state operated is extensive.
Traffic drives on the left hand side and it is possible to hire cars, but more easily chauffeur driven ones. Self drive cars are hard to come by as the government does not issue licenses for these. That's fine, believe us, because you will appreciate your driver here! Roads are reasonably good in parts, specially the major highways. Near towns and villages they deteriorate and depending on the season, crumble into tracks in some areas. Valid documentation is an International Driver's License. Taxis and three wheeler auto rickshaws are ubiquitous in the Indian urban and even semi rural landscape. Most small towns have motorcycle rentals.
Travel by water is not popular but there are ships to the Andamans from Calcutta, Chennai and Vishakhapatnam. Backwater cruises in converted rice boats called Kettuvalams are a delight in the lazy lagoons of Kerala.
Indrail passes are a good way of exploring the country for non-resident Indians and foreigners. They can be purchased at major railway stations in India and through travel agents. Advance reservations are necessary because this is a first come first serve service.
Government of India Tourist Office (GITO),
88 Janpath, New Delhi 110001.
Tel: (11) 23320342, (11) 23320005, (11) 23320008, and (11) 23320266.
Fax: (11) 23320109.
India Tourism Development Corporation (ITDC),
SCOPE Complex, Core 8, 6th Floor,
7 Lodhi Road, New Delhi 110 003
Tel: (11) 2436 0303.
Fax: (11) 2436 0233
States have their own individual tourism boards that promote and organise travel within the state.
When to Go
The best time to visit India is between October and March. The summer heat has abated by then in the northern plains and in Rajasthan's arid landscape. The wet Northeast becomes somewhat drier, the south becomes a breathtaking scene of swaying coconut palms and rain showers spray Tamil Nadu.
Most of India's colourful festivals are in this period. Dussehra, which is celebrated like Guy Fawkes Day but with dramatis personae from the epic drama of Ramayana, is followed 20 days later by the festival of light, firecrackers and joyous pyrotechnics, Diwali. Come March, come Holi: coloured powder, water fights and sweetmeats!
Besides these that are universal favourites across the country, there are regional festivals. Harvest festivals, car festivals, dance festivals and numerous temple celebrations pepper south India's calendar in December-January. Pretty Pushkar in Rajasthan holds Asia's largest camel fair in November; Mardi Gras in Goa and the muezzin's call heralding Id. The winter is also ideal for wildlife enthusiasts.
The major deterrent to visiting during any other time is the heat. However, the months from March-May and September-November are prime trekking time in the Himalayas, and if you plan to concentrate on hilly areas then this is a better period in which to visit.
Where do I Stay?
There's enough variety in tourist accommodation in India for the visitor to always find comfort; degrees of luxury though will be directly proportionate to the degree of the depth of your pocket.
Hotels are graded on the star system: 5-star being fully air conditioned, with a coffee shop, multiple speciality restaurants, pool, sauna, Jacuzzi, health centre, in-house shopping and all the razzmatazz. Down to hostels, ashrams, and Public Works' guesthouses at the other end of the spectrum: dormitory style living with rationed hot water (just about enough for a decent shave!), no-smoking no-drinking restrictions and curfew!
There are numerous other options and you'll never be stuck in a heap because there isn't a choice.
Even the smallest tourist destination has mid-rung establishments. Some have common bathrooms but there usually will be the option of renting a room with an attached bathroom. Some mid-rung establishments are better than others. There are many that have cosy atmosphere and make up in character what they lack in frills.
In many wildlife sanctuaries, there is accommodation in the park's buffer zone. Forest guesthouses are very basic accommodation, and some require you to bring your own provisions, but their privileged location more than compensates.
Heritage hotels and palace hotels are probably an Indian peculiarity. Some old rajahs, especially in Rajasthan, have converted part of their palaces into hotels. These give the visitor a great shot at savouring famed Indian hospitality at its quaint and genteel best. The government is promoting Home Stays where some pre-approved families provide paying guest accommodation and this has taken off in a big way in Tamil Nadu and Rajasthan.
There are beach resorts that give you access to exclusive sand so you may sun and surf in style. Houseboats in Kashmir, hardy little huts along trekking trails and numerous camping sites only widen the range that the traveller can choose from.
What to bring
Carry a combination plug that will feed into a round-pin socket: across the subcontinent plug point sockets are round rather than flat. Winters in the north are cold but days in the plains are sometimes sunny. Carry a combination of heavy woollens and light jumpers. It's coldest from mid-December to mid-January. Get yourself an umbrella or raincoat. It's always raining some region or another. In the summer be armed with sun protection: sunglasses, cap/hat, cream with a minimum SPF of 20.
Bring water purification tablets, prescription medicines and an extra pair of spectacles/contact lenses (though opticians abound in cities). A sleeping bag and a bed sheet are a must for budget travellers.
Things to Do
Dining & Entertainment : The call of "Chai-garam" proclaims the availability of hot tea on obscure railway platforms, and if you are tempted you'll singe your tongue to one of the truest Indian experiences with food and drink. From the steel 'thali' fodder that is railway dining to the gourmet meals on dull silver that is fine dining, it's all available in India.
In the cities the most popular international cuisines are Chinese, Italian, 'Continental'/European and Thai. Lasagna, pasta, chop suey and red curries abound on menus. The most widely available Indian foods are definitely Mughlai and south Indian. Harking back to the days of the Mughals, Mughlai cuisine relies on aromatic spices, and succulent meats either curried or roasted in a tandoor and it can be very heavy. South Indian food is predominantly vegetarian, light and tangy.
Frothy coffee that sizzles out of a bright machine, chicken burger served up in a jiffy and with a smile; fast food has come into its own in India. Many worldwide chains have set up shop in India's cities and from Pune to Delhi, the American get-and-go eating experience is yours for the asking.
Originally the truckers' meal deal, 'dhabas' have proliferated along the highways and cater to all wayfarers. These shack establishments serve some great food at hard to beat prices, but since plates are not cleaned in the clearest of waters this dining experience may not be too safe.
Theatre and the arts are feted in the urban centres of Delhi, Bombay, Madras, Calcutta, Pune and Bangalore. Hollywood fare also reaches the big screens here within a month of their American release. The Hindi movie, that quintessentially Indian phenomenon, is a must-see. Slake your thirst for nightlife and twinkle any tingling toes at the pubs, nightclubs and discos. There is little by way of entertainment in the smaller towns and cities except the cinema halls and maybe the odd locally produced cultural show.
Shopping : All over India makeshift markets line streets. Paan-sellers dot market corners, villages have busy market-days, deserted mountain trails boast lone tea-stalls that count as a whole settlement, and city roads all lead to snazzy malls! While shopping has always been big for Indians, as current trends go, 'Indian' is now big in shopping.
Ethnic chic, glitz and kitsch, whether it's clothes, carpets or clutter, if it's Indian, it's in! To name a little that could fill your bags: Kashmiri carpets that rival Persian rugs or rugged durries of natural fibre in vibrant colours and rural motifs. Perfumes extracted from the sweetest of flowers, opulent silks and block-printed cotton. Beads and trinkets, silver and gold, mirror-work Rajasthani skirts, tie-and-dye, inexpensive leather ware, and statues in metal or stone.
Look out for the bright red, yellow, green and blue handloom from the 'seven sisters' in the Northeast; Karnataka Bidriware (silver inlay on blackened white metal); Kanjeevaram and Benaras saris with gold woven into multihued silks; beads, bangles and other ornaments everywhere; shell craft, pretty sandals, kurta and pyjamas at Delhi's designer shops, brass from UP, bronze in the south; Darjeeling tea, and Coorg coffee.
Activities : For the thrill seeking traveller India is an all-in-one deal. The Indian Himalayas and the many hill formations present the trekker with innumerable hiking and trekking options. The wildlife sanctuaries, whether in the 'sholas' of southern India or the thick teak forests of the east, whether in the 'sal' and 'shisham' jungles of the north or the scrub of the west, are for the nature enthusiast. White water rafting in the rapids of the Himalayan rivers, 'kettuvalam' cruises in the Keralan backwaters, snorkelling, diving, water-skiing, beach bumming along India's extensive coastline, there's enough to make a water lover happy. There are many centres for adventure sports like parasailing and paragliding. Skiing in the Alps it is not, but for beginners the slopes in Auli and the more difficult ones in Spiti would provide some thrill. Some hotels and clubs allow non-guests/members pay-and-play use of swimming pools and golf links.
Cricket is special in India. It's as much about twenty-two guys and a ball as about the beat of drums and blasts from trumpets, painted faces and flag-waving, and cheering (and jeering) enthusiasm. Try and catch the buzz at least once.
India's calendar is full of very special events: festivals of religion, harvests and culture are celebrated with aplomb. India has three national holidays when all establishments across the country are compulsorily closed: 15th August-Independence Day, 2nd October-Gandhi's birthday and 26th January-Republic Day, which is an extravaganza of a parade.
Festivals and holidays differ in different regions and some are universally appreciated across the country. The winter festival of lights, Diwali, is celebrated in cities, towns and dusty villages with twinkling lamps and fireworks. Spring brings myriad hues to the world around and also the festival of Holi - a happily messy rite of water and colour. The harvest brings joy and festivities of another order and is celebrated as Pongal in the south, and Bihu in the east and Baisakhi in the north. Christmas in Goa is still the most special but the cheer spreads everywhere. The month of Ramadan and feasting is important to Muslims. Other important religious events include Id-ul-Fitr, Id-ul-Zuha, the Prophet's birthday, Good Friday, Dussehra, Buddha Purnima (Buddha's birthday) and Guru Nanak's birthday.
Besides these, dance festivals in southern temple towns in December and car festivals of Puri and Madurai when the temple chariots are wheeled around the city, and the Nehru Cup boat race in the Kerala's backwaters (second Saturday of August) bring more occasions to celebrate.
Money & Business
Currency & Costs
The Indian rupee is available in denominations of Re1, Rs2, Rs5, Rs10, Rs20, Rs50, Rs100, Rs500 and Rs 1000. One rupee is split into a hundred paise, available in denominations of 10p, 25p and 50p. There are coins for Re1, Rs2 and Rs5.
The most meagre that your budget can get is $20 per day of your stay. You'll struggle with dormitory accommodation, looking for cheap grub, and trying to figure out bus routes and timings but you'll just about survive. A healthy budget in India is about thrice that. $35 a day will see you sleep in decent clean beds and wake up to an attached bathroom for morning ablutions. It'll fetch you three decent meals, a spot of shopping and some auto-rickshaw rides. This estimate has been made keeping in mind urban India. Rates and prices vary from region to region. In the south it is easy to find great mid-rung accommodation at low rung prices even in the cities. Mumbai (Bombay) and Delhi are both quite expensive. Small temple towns will be easy on the pocket; beach bumming and wildlife moonlighting may work out dirt cheap or highly pricey. So it's really about how you chose to do it.
The dollar goes a long way in India (the pound sterling, longer). The bare minimum is just under $15 a day while a top end holiday could blow through the roof. Make sure you bring enough for souvenirs though. Believe the hype: this is a treasure trove of a country!
Banks & Money Changers
Banking in India has become quite easy now. The sector has steadily opened up to privatised participation, which has bolstered the services and performance of state run entities too. Trans National banks have a sizeable presence in the larger cities, especially in the metros. There are more and more ATMs so now in India too Any Time Money is yours for the asking. In the smaller towns your banking options will be far less than in the cities. You're likely to find only minor branches of government banks that do not offer facilities such as ATM and are unlikely to change currency other than dollars and pound sterling. Also the paperwork might run into reams if the bank is yet to computerise.
Banking hours usually are 10 AM to 2 PM Monday to Friday and 10 AM to 12-noon on Saturdays.
Bank holidays vary from region to region. Major festivals are holidays though it is unlikely that a bank will be closed for longer than 2 days in a row.
Major international credit cards are widely accepted in the cities.
Exchange your money : Changing money in India can be a tedious process so change substantial amounts at a time. Not all banks accept travellers' cheques or currency other than dollars or pound sterling and if you find one that services your needs take advantage of it. Changing money anywhere but at accredited bureaux is illegal.
Moneychangers are open 24 hours at the airports (but these are invariably far from town) and in hotels. International foreign exchange providers have several branches in the larger cities. Smaller towns however, are likely to only have minor banks. Save up all exchange receipts (encashment certificates); these are required for visa extensions and other formalities, and when you want to convert rupees at the end of your trip.
Biz overview and hours : The major centres of business wheeling and dealing are Mumbai, Bangalore, Chennai, Delhi and Calcutta.
Some consider Mumbai the financial capital of India. Many corporate houses and India's showbiz industry have their headquarters in this city where sophisticated executives work hard and play hard too. Bangalore, and increasingly Hyderabad, is where the technology giants are based. Balmy climate, green avenues and great infrastructure make Bangalore the ideal place to do business. A very important port and at the centre of the textile trade is the southern city of Chennai. Heavy industry and jute is the bastion of genteel old Calcutta. Once the capital of British India, the city that's struggling under the weight of humanity refuses to let go of old world politeness. The port supports sea trade for eastern India and Nepal.
Capital city, headquarter of the Government of India, the world of busy bureaucrats; New Delhi is the place where decisions get made, deals are sealed and big contracts awarded. In the stately colonial buildings of Delhi power packs a solid punch and the biggest businesses of all are transacted.
Biz protocol : With increasing liberalisation at both the economic level and at the societal level, business protocol has begun to adhere to western standards. In the big cities expect thorough professionalism when dealing with private companies and high-ranking bureaucracy. Keep appointments, be punctual (though that's a value that Indians are only now picking up), and shake hands if one is offered or greet with hands folded in 'namaste'. You'll most likely be asked questions about family and home not because anybody wants to pry but because many Indians believe that curiosity conveys concern.
There are many women executives, often top-level management. Most will not take shaking hands amiss. Some however, are still conservative. So to ensure you don't misstep, be sensitive to how the lady greets you and respond accordingly.
Dress formally for business meetings. Women would probably be more comfortable in trousers than a skirt. Men should wear formal cotton shirts with a tie and trousers if the weather is warm. Otherwise a business suit is appropriate.
Need to Know Facts
Health & Safety
Health : The entire Indian sub continent has the same health hazards so one line of defence should cover you on all territories. The major risks to your health from the armies of mosquitoes are malaria, encephalitis, kala azar and dengue. Cover your arms and legs; be liberal with the repellent and in problem areas sleep under a mosquito net. Traveller's diarrhoea is another running problem and year after year traveller after traveller gets the 'loosies'. Ensure it's nothing nastier by avoiding green salads, uncooked food, and water that you haven't sanitised by dropping an iodine pill into.
Slightly more serious is the risk of contacting AIDS, Hepatitis B and other sexually transmitted diseases. For your sake and the sake of the people you're visiting always use a condom. Have safe responsible sex.
For climbers and mountaineers: look out for symptoms of altitude sickness/acute mountain sickness. If you ascend above 3500meters too fast you might feel nauseous, sleepless, and your head may ache. In this case your body is telling you that you're having acclimatisation problems so let's descend, buddy. Jokes aside, this is a very serious situation to be in and the only thing to do is to descend. Also carry sunscreen with minimum SPF 20 to escape sunburn.
The quality of health services is not consistent. Urban centres, particularly metros, have good hospitals, well stocked late night/all night chemists, highly competent doctors and top of the line medical services. Conversely, rural and semi-rural areas have very limited facilities. Stick to the larger cities if you are anticipating trouble. Medicines are fairly cheap in India. Though chemist shops in the cities are well stocked, it is always a good idea to take along prescription drugs.
Travellers from yellow fever areas are required to have an inoculation certificate. Prior inoculation for poliomyelitis is recommended.
Safety : India is a reasonably safe travel destination. Political disruption is usually localised and everyone's aware of there being potential trouble days ahead. Areas that may be avoided are Jammu & Kashmir and parts of the Northeast, which in any case have restricted tourist activity. Cases of mugging, theft and worse aren't completely unheard of but by and large serious crimes against travellers are few and far between.
Basic precautions :
Keep your money and travel documents close to your body (perhaps in a pouch slung around your neck, tucked out of sight under your shirt),
Keep several photocopies of your passport, insurance, travellers' cheques etc. scattered through your luggage,
Do not use a waist pouch, it may as well be a transparent plastic bag: it's that fragile and that obvious!
Do not put all your money in one place,
Be extremely alert in the dark. One of the things that protect travellers to India is the vast crowds in any place. The multitudes however, disappear into their homes at night, and you go from having a huge thick safety quilt to a flimsy sheet! Try your best to be in a familiar area when it gets dark. If you are not, at least know how you can get to that area from wherever it is that you happen to be.
Many women travellers wear the long tunic and loose pyjama dress of Indian women called the salwar-kameez and find that it substantially dissuades unwanted male attention.
If you are travelling alone, do not advertise it.
If you lose your passport lodge a First Information Report at the local police station and contact your embassy.
Weights & Measures
India uses the metric system where 100cm=1meter; 1000meters=1km, liquids are measured in litres and solids in kilograms.
220volts/ 50 hertz is the frequency at which electricity is available WHEN it is! Power cuts and 'load shedding' is a regular feature all over except Mumbai. Another reason for visiting in the colder months would be that not only do power cuts become fewer but you'll also feel the pain of them less! If your electric razor has flat-pin plug then carry a combination plug that will feed into a round-pin socket: across the sub continent plug point sockets are round rather than flat.
Customs & Duties
If you are above 17 years you may import the following in without attracting duty:
200 cigarettes or 50 cigars or 250 grams of tobacco, a litre of alcoholic drink, 250 ml perfume, gifts up to a value of Rupees 4000 (foreign passport holders), gifts up to a value of Rupees 6000 (Indian passport holders) and articles of personal use. But its best to check with the authorities for the specific details.
It is illegal to bring in drugs, gold and silver bullion, plants and coins that have gone out of use.
Post & Communications
Postal services in India are quite efficient. Letters overseas must be marked "Air Mail" or "Par Avion". It takes a week to 10 days for letters to reach the UK and the US from Delhi, Mumbai, Calcutta and other major cities. Have letters for you (surname first) addressed to the GPO (General Post Office) of the city, 'Poste Restante'. The post offices hold letters for 30 days, and you'll have to show them your passport for identification.
Parcels are a bit tedious to send or receive and often when they do finally arrive, they've been tampered with. Courier services are widely available in the cities and small towns.
"Cyber cafes" are an increasingly common fixture in India's urban landscape, in major cities and even in smaller towns. At a fixed rate that varies from city to city, locality-to-locality, you can check your mail and surf the net. Very often the Internet business is an extension of what used to be a just a "PCO".
In loopy lanes, beneath shady peepul trees, in busy markets....all over India, little yellow boards spill out of little kiosks with the cryptic letters "PCO-STD-ISD" (..... huh?) 15 years ago the telecommunications miracle swept India and today, proud bearers of that legacy, 'Public Call Offices' bring to the streets the services of 'Subscribers' Trunk Dialling' and 'International Standard Dialling'. Most offer fax services, and more and more now, Internet facilities too.
Country code for India: 0091. Codes for the metros: Delhi-011, Mumbai-022, Calcutta-033 and Chennai-044. When calling from overseas omit the zero in the city code.
It is customary to tip 10% of the bill at restaurants, but you may tip less if service charges have been included in the bill. At hotels tip 10 bucks to the bellhop, the same to the doorman 'durban'; if the service is particularly good, substantially more to the concierge and housekeeping.
Black and yellow cab drivers do not expect to be tipped. The opposite is true if you have a hired a cab for a long period. You'll find some of the most friendly and colourful service at tiny nondescript roadside stalls called 'dhabas'. A small tip, even if it is only loose change, will be appreciated tremendously.
Coolies (porters) at railway platforms have to be paid; negotiate the payment before you hire one.
English Language Media
No matter where you are in India it is never going to be difficult to find an English language newspaper. All the major dailies, and there are many in this country where the fourth estate is startlingly independent and strong, have multiple editions with at least one from every region and one on the net. There are two major weekly newsmagazines and both are easily available at kiosks all over. Even international fashion glossies have an edition coming out of India now though these are available only in the bigger cities.
Cable TV has reaped a rich harvest. Even small town India has a skyline that blooms with electronic blossoms of dish antennas and these are only going to proliferate further. BBC World Service and CNN beam the latest news; ESPN and Star Sports keep you up to date with how your club is (or is not) thrashing its rivals in UEFA; and Star (elsewhere known as Sky) beams an entire stable of entertainment channels.
The more widely accessible national channel too has some English programmes, and a daily English news segment.
FM in the metros means Music like in the rest of the world. BBC World Service and Voice of America are on the MHz bandwidth but the frequency is variable.
A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry
Swami and His Friends by R. K. Narayan
The Discovery of India by Jawaharlal Nehru
Ice Candy Man by Bapsi Sidhwa
India Unbound by Gurcharan Das
No Full Stops in India by Mark Tully
The Great Indian Novel by Shashi Tharoor
English, August by Upamanyu Chatterjee
The Age of Kali by William Dalrymple