T he atmosphere, the sights, the sounds and tastes of India are so diverse that first time visitors can be overwhelmed by the intensity of the experience. From crowded cities to tranquil beaches, to bustling bazars, to five star hotels, to the magnificent beauty of a sunrise in the Himalayas, India embodies every superlative used to describe it. A land rich in history, art, music and culture - India cannot be imagined – it must be seen and experienced first hand.
Here are a few – just a few – of the highlights:
The most popular itinerary for visitors to Northern India is the Golden Triangle where tourists can see three of India’s top cultural destinations; Delhi, Agra and Jaipur, all of which have landmarks of historical significance.
Delhi, the capital, is divided into two parts, the ancient city of Old Delhi and the modern and manicured city of New Delhi.
The home of the President of the largest democracy in the world (by population) Rashtrapati Bhavan is a landmark in New Delhi. Originally intended for the British Viceroy, it was completed after India achieved independence in 1950. This vast mansion has four floors and 340 rooms in an area of 200,000 square feet. It was built with 700 million bricks, three million cubic feet of stone and a minimum of steel.
Tourists can visit Rashtrapati Bhavan on a Friday, Saturday or Sunday by booking in advance on-line and sending an image of their passport. Guests must bring the original passport to the mansion.
The Red Fort in New Delhi, built in 1648 of red sandstone was the seat of Mughal power and covers more than two square kilometers. It is surrounded by a moat and recognized for its two largest gates, the Lahore Gate (main entrance) and the ornamental Delhi Gate, used for ceremonial events.
Tourists can book guided tours to learn about the history of Shah Jahan (who also commissioned the Taj Mahal) and view the elaborate white marble Hall of Public Audiences, where he received his subjects. Every evening there is a sound and light show featuring important events in the fort’s history.
The city is the home to India’s most famous monument and one of the world’s most recognized mausoleum’s, the Taj Mahal. It was built between 1632 and 1653 by order of the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his beloved wife, Mumtaz Mahal whose tomb is enclosed within the white domed marble structure.
The colour of the Taj Mahal is said to alter with the changes of the light of day. The property includes other beautiful buildings, reflecting pools, and ornamental gardens.
In the city centre stands the palace buildings from which the Maharajas reigned. Among elaborate gardens, temples, pavilions and courtyards are structures from different eras (some as recently as the 20th century) all added to the original site built between 1729 and 1732 by Sawai Jai Singh II.
At the edge of the City Palace is the pink palace, an extraordinary landmark, built of red and pink sandstone. The Hawa Mahal (Palace of the Winds or Palace of the Breeze)has a five-story honeycomb exterior, which was built in 1799 by Maharaja Sawai Pratap Singh to allow the ladies of the royal household to watch goings-on in the city without being seen themselves.
Carved into the hills, the sprawling Amber Fort was built in 1592 by Maharaja Man Singh. It is recognized for its artistic significance blending Hindu elements (large ramparts and series of gates and cobbled paths) and Rajput elements in design.
For those who don’t wish to climb or use shuttle service, it riding an elephant for the trek up the hill from Jaipur is a unique experience.
MUMBAI (Previously Bombay)
The Gateway of India dominates the waterfront overlooking the Arabian Sea. Built intentionally for the fishing community, it was the first vision of Mumbai for travellers by sea. Today this monument is a gathering place for vendors, food stalls and photographers.
The Taj Mahal Palace is a luxury hotel overlooking the Arabian Sea that has been the residence of choice for Maharajas, royals and dignitaries. Its history includes being the first hotel in India to employ women, and the first hotel in the subcontinent to have electricity and steam powered elevators.
The opulent hotel built is a favourite spot for high tea accompanied by English delicacies and Mumbai street food.
The network of sculpted Elephanta Cave Temples on Elephanta Island in Mumbai Harbour is an Unesco World Heritage Site. The temples contain rock cut stone sculptures carved between 450 and 750 AD. Noteworthy is the 6 m-tall statue of Sadhashiva, depicting a three-faced Shiva as the destroyer, creator and preserver of the universe, his eyes closed in eternal contemplation.
The caves of Elephanta can only be reached by a 10 km ferry ride from Mumbai.
Kanha National Park is one of the largest parks in the state of Madhya Pradesh. Known for its population of Bengal Tigers, Kanha National Park covers 940 sq.km. The lush forest of bamboo and deciduous sal, and the meadows and ravines were the inspiration for Rudyard Kipling’s “Jungle Book.”
The wildlife population also includes leopards, sloth bear, and Indian wild dogs. Kanha, which is considered one of the best-managed parks in Asia, is responsible for saving the Barasingha (an unusual species swamp deer) from extinction.
The cosmopolitan city of Bangalore is known for its IT industry, its parks and its exciting nightlife. Residents take pride in their city, their culture and their comfort with the English language.
A famous 16th century monument is the Bull Temple, which is said to have been built to appease a bull that rampaged through crops of groundnuts and peanuts in the region. The legend is that bull ceased its destructive ways once the temple was erected. The people celebrated with a fair, and the now annual festival, draws farmers in hundreds who bring their newly harvested peanut crop in jute sacks and make offerings to the four metre high statue (dodda basava). The remaining crop is sold during the two-day festival.
Mysore is known as the city of palaces, but the one within the Old Fort is Mysore Palace, a grand structure built in the 14th century, destroyed and rebuilt repeatedly. The architecture is considered Indo-Saracenic and blends Hindu, Muslim, Rajput, and Gothic styles. The three-story palace is made of gray granite with deep pink marble domes and a facade of grand arches and tall pillars. Above the central arch is a sculpture of Gajalakshmi, the goddess of wealth, prosperity, good luck and abundance with her elephants.
KOLKATA (formerly known as Calcutta)
The sixth largest cantilever (anchored at only one end) bridge in the world, Howrah Bridge is considered a major national landmark in India. Spanning the Hooghly River, the bridge has no nuts and bolts. The structure is one of the most recognized bridges in the world, having been used as a back drop in a number of films, and it is certainly one of the busiest, moving 100,000 vehicles and more than 150,000 pedestrians daily.
The Maidan is a huge, lush, open parkland in the heart of the city that is as fundamental to Kolkata as Central Park is to New York City. It is home to numerous sports grounds, including the world famous cricketing venue Eden Gardens, several football grounds, and the Kolkata Race Course. The roads surrounding the Maidan are dotted with tiny greenish bungalow-tents (club houses) belonging to various sports clubs. One of the city's most celebrated landmarks, now a museum, the Victoria Memorial, a domed white marble structure set in spacious gardens, sits at one end of the Maidan.
The humble residence of Mother Theresa, the nun who was recently canonised has become a pilgrimage destination for Christians visiting Kolkata. The chapel and her simple bedroom from the 1950s until her death in 1997 are open to the public.