India is the seventh largest country in the world by area, and the second most populous country with over a billion people, and prides itself on being the largest democracy on Earth. It's an extremely diverse country, with vast differences in geography, climate, culture, language and ethnicity.
|Currency||Indian rupee (INR)|
|Population||1.2 billion (2014)|
|Electricity||230±0 volt / 50±0 hertz (Europlug, Type D, BS 546)|
|Time zone||UTC+05:30, Indian Standard Time|
|Emergencies||112, 100 (police), 101 (fire department), 102 (emergency medical services)|
|edit on Wikidata|
the capital of India and the heart of Northern India
the garden city, once the sleepy home of pensioners, now transformed into a city of pubs and high-technology companies
the main port in Southern India, cultural centre, automobile capital of India and a fast emerging IT hub
known for pearl and diamond trading, now with major manufacturing and financial institutions and a growing IT sector
the Pink City, a major exhibit of the Hindu Rajput culture of medieval Northern India
the Queen of the Arabian Sea, historically a centre of international trade, now the gateway to the sandy beaches and backwaters
the cultural capital of India, known as the City of Joy, and home to numerous colonial buildings
the largest city and the financial capital of India, the city that never sleeps, home of "Bollywood", the Hindi film industry
considered the most sacred Hindu city, located on the banks of the Ganges, one of the oldest continually inhabited cities of the world
spectacular rock-cut cave monasteries and temples, holy place for the Buddhists, Jains and Hindus.
Sikh holy site located in Amritsar
the awesome ruins of the empire of Vijayanagara
Sun Temple, a unique example of Kalingan architecture which is a UNESCO World Heritage site
a spectacular Hindu temple in Madurai
the incomparable marble tomb in Agra, one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World
Wikimedia list article
Natural places of touristic interest in India
major Indian Hindu pilgrim sites
India has many outstanding landmarks and areas of outstanding beauty. Here are some of the most notable.
- Main temple complex in Bodh Gaya, the place where the Buddha Sakyamuni attained enlightenment, including the Mahabodhi temple
- Ellora/Ajanta — spectacular rock-cut cave monasteries and temples, holy place for the Buddhists, Jains and Hindus.
- Temple complexes in Khajuraho, famed for their erotic sculptures
India's culture and heritage is a rich amalgam of the past and the present. This vast and populous country offers the visitor a view of fascinating religions and ethnography, a vast variety of languages, and monuments that have been present for thousands of years. As it opens up to a globalised world, India still has a depth of history and intensity of culture that awe and fascinate the many who visit there.
One thing that foreign travellers need to know is that India is, in every way, heterogeneous. If they experience one set of behaviours from the locals in one part of the country, it does not mean that the same behaviour will happen in another area. To give a very simple example, a taxi driver in Mumbai will without saying a word drop his meter flag and return the exact change, while in Delhi you have to tell the driver to use the meter and hope you get your change, and in other areas taxi drivers or auto drivers don't even have meters and have fixed the rates for even short distances – and you just pay the amount demanded; if you do get an honest driver, consider yourself lucky. India shows extreme variation in most things, and one needs patience and luck to find the best. Never assume you know everything about any aspect of India; be prepared to see completely new things every day.
Humans are thought to have first migrated into the Indian subcontinent around 70,000 BCE and there are some archaeological sites for stone age India. One important one is at Mehrgarh (Pakistan), with the oldest known evidence of agriculture in the subcontinent, around 7000 BCE.
The Indus Valley Civilization (3300-1300 BCE) was one of the world's first Bronze Age civilizations and quite advanced for its time. At its peak (2600-1900 BCE) it covered most of what is now Pakistan, plus some of northern India and eastern Afghanistan. The two main archaeological sites, both in Pakistan, are Mohenjo-daro and Harappa.
Sometime after 2000 BCE, the region was invaded and conquered by the Aryans, herdsmen from somewhere to the northwest. At about the same time, related groups invaded Greece (Hellenic Greeks displacing Minoans), Anatolia or Turkey (the Hittites), Persia and other areas. All the invaders spoke related languages and many modern languages, including most of those spoken in northern India and in Europe and some in Central Asia, are descended from them. Linguists classify them all in the Indo-European language family.
Indians date their history from the Vedic Period, roughly 1500-500 BCE, after the Aryan invasion. This is the period when the Vedas, the oldest and holiest books of Hinduism, were compiled. They were in an Indo-European language, Sanskrit. Some rituals of Hinduism took shape during that period.
The Vedic civilisation influences India to this day. Present-day Hinduism traces its roots to the Vedas, but is also heavily influenced by literature that came afterwards, like the Upanishads, the Puranas, the great epics — Ramayana and Mahabharata, and the Bhagavad Gita. By tradition, these books claim to only expand and distill the knowledge that is already present in the Vedas.
In the 1st millennium BCE, various schools of thought in philosophy developed, enriching Hinduism greatly. Most of them claimed to derive from the Vedas. However, two of these schools – Buddhism and Jainism – questioned the authority of the Vedas, and they are now recognised as separate religions.
Many great empires were formed between 500 BCE and 500 CE. Notable among them were the Mauryas and the Guptas, both with their capital in the city of Pataliputra, now called Patna. Further west, the Gandharan civilisation (an independent kingdom, later part of the Maurya Empire) ruled much of what are now Pakistan and Afghanistan. Their city Taxila was a great center of Buddhist and other learning.
Later there was a gradual decline of Buddhism and Jainism. The practice of Buddhism, in particular, disappeared from India's heartland, though Buddha himself was incorporated into the Hindu pantheon. Jainism continues to be practiced by a significant number who are ambivalent about whether they consider themselves Hindus or not. Hinduism itself went through significant changes. The importance of Vedic deities like Indra and Agni reduced and Puranic deities like Vishnu, Shiva, their various Avatars and family members gained prominence.
Islamic incursions started in the 8th century. Gradually the raiders started staying as rulers, and soon much of North India was ruled by Muslims. The most important Muslim rulers were the Mughal Empire that at its peak covered almost the entire subcontinent (save the southern and eastern extremities), while the major Hindu force that survived in the North were the Rajputs. The bravery of the Rajputs in resisting invasion of their land is legendary and celebrated in ballads all over the forts of Rajasthan. Prominent among the Rajputs was Maha Rana Pratap, the ruler of Chittorgarh, who spent years in exile fighting Akbar, the third of the Mughals. Eventually, however, the Rajputs were subdued, and the Rajput-Mughal alliance remained strong till the end of the empire. This period of North India was the golden age for Indian art, architecture, and literature, producing the monumental gems of Rajasthan and the Taj Mahal. Hindi and Urdu also took root in medieval North India. During the Islamic period, some Hindus also converted to Islam. Today, some 13% of the Indian population follows Islam.
Sikhism, another major religion, was established in Punjab during the Mughal period. Relations between Sikhism and the Mughals varied over time. The Golden Temple at Amritsar was built and recognised all over the world as Sikhs major pilgrimage center. By the time of its tenth Guru - Guru Gobind Singh, however, relations were hostile, primarily due to the antagonism of Aurangzeb, the most intolerant and bigoted of the Mughals. Conflict between the Sikhs and the Mughals was one of the causes for the eventual decline of the Mughal Empire. The other cause was the challenge of the Marathas in Maharashtra, which were started by Shivaji and carried on by the Peshwas. The Marathas established a short-lived confederacy that was almost as large as the Mughal empire. Marathas lost their command over India after the third battle of Panipat, which in turn paved a way for British colonialism.
South India followed a different trajectory, being less affected by Islamic rule. The period from 500 to 1600 CE is called the classical period dominated by great South Indian kingdoms. Prominent among them were the Chalukyas, Rashtrakutas and Vijayanagara empires who ruled from present day Karnataka and the Pallavas, Cheras, Pandyas and Cholas who ruled from present day Tamil Nadu & Kerala. Among them, the Cholas, who ruled from various capital cities including Thanjavur and Gangaikondacholapuram, are widely recognised to be the most powerful of the South Indian kingdoms, with their territory stretching as far north as Pataliputra and their influence spreading as far east as Sumatra, Western Borneo and Southern Vietnam at the height of their power. Some of the grandest Hindu and Jain monuments that exist in India were built during this time in South and East India.
European traders started visiting India beginning in the late 16th century. Prominent among these were the British, French and the Portuguese. The British East India Company made Calcutta their headquarters in 1772. They also established subsidiary cities like Bombay and Madras. Calcutta later went on to become 'the second city of the empire after London'. By the 19th century, the British had, one way or the other assumed political control of virtually all of India, though the Portuguese and the French too had their enclaves along the coast.
There was an uprising by Indian rulers in 1857 which was suppressed, but which prompted the British government to take over from the Company and make India a part of the empire. This period of rule by the crown, 1858-1947, was called the British Raj. Many Indians converted to Christianity during the period, for pretty much the same reasons as they converted to Islam, though forcible conversions ended in British India after 1859, and Queen Victoria's proclamation promised to respect the religious faiths of Indians.
Non-violent resistance to British colonialism under Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi led to independence on 15 August 1947. However, independence was simultaneously granted to the secular Hindu-majority state of India and the smaller Muslim-majority state of Pakistan, and the orgy of Hindu-Muslim bloodletting that followed Partition led to the deaths of at least half a million and the migration of 12-14 million people.
India achieved self-sufficiency in food grains by the 1970s, ensuring that the large-scale famines that had been common are now history. However these policies also led to shortages, slow growth and large-scale corruption. After a balance-of-payments crisis in 1991, the country adopted free-market reforms which have continued at a meandering pace ever since, fueling strong growth. The IT and the business outsourcing industries have been the drivers for the growth, while manufacturing and agriculture, which have not experienced reforms, are lagging. About 60% of Indians live on agriculture and around 36% remain in poverty.
Relations with Pakistan have been frosty. The two countries have fought four wars, three of them over the status of Kashmir. The third war between the two countries in 1971 resulted in East Pakistan becoming Bangladesh. India continues to experience occasional terrorist attacks, many of which are widely believed to originate in Pakistan and be ordered or assisted by its military-intelligence complex.
China and India went to war in 1962 over a border dispute. Though current relations are peaceful, there is still military rivalry and no land crossings are allowed between the two countries, though one border crossing between Sikkim and Tibet was re-opened in 2006 for trade. Security concerns over Pakistan and China prompted India to test nuclear weapons twice (including the 1974 tests described as "peaceful explosions"). India wants to be accepted as a legitimate nuclear power and is campaigning for a permanent Security Council seat.
India is proud of its democratic record. Constitutional government and democratic freedoms have been safeguarded for most of its 66 years as an independent country.
Current concerns in India include corruption, poverty, over-population, environmental degradation, ongoing border disputes with Pakistan and China, cross-border terrorism, and ethnic and religious strife which occurs from time to time. India's current obsession, at least among the educated elite, is over whether India will be able to overtake China in economic growth and be an economic and military superpower.
India is a parliamentary democracy modeled on the British Westminster system. The President, indirectly elected, is the Head of State, but his position, while not entirely ceremonial, has limited powers. The Prime Minister runs the government with a Cabinet of Ministers, and in practice wields the most authority in government. The Parliament is bicameral. The Lok Sabha (House of People), the lower house, is directly elected by universal adult franchise, while the Rajya Sabha (Council of States), or the upper house, is indirectly elected. The Lok Sabha is the more powerful of the two, primarily because a majority in the Lok Sabha is required to form a government and pass budgets, and the Prime Minster by convention is always a member of the Lok Sabha. India has a vast number of political parties, and currently the BJP party has a majority in the Lok Sabha. India has a strong and independent judiciary and a free press.
India is also a federal republic, divided into states and union territories. Each of these have their own legislatures, with government run by a chief minister and a cabinet.
Street demonstrations and political agitations occur, as they do in any democracy. There is also occasional low-level political violence, but a visitor has a vanishingly small chance of getting caught in that.
Indian Standard Time (IST) is 5 hours and 30 minutes ahead of Greenwich Mean Time (GMT+5.5). Daylight Savings Time is not observed in India.
Mountains, jungles, deserts and beaches, India has it all. It is bounded to the north and northeast by the snow-capped Himalayas, the tallest mountain range in the world. In addition to protecting the country from invaders, they also feed the perennial rivers Ganga, Yamuna (Jamuna) and Sindhu (Indus) on whose plains India's civilization flourished. Though most of the Sindhu is in Pakistan now, three of its tributaries flow through Punjab. The other Himalayan river, the Brahmaputra flows through the northeast, mostly through Assam.
South of Punjab lies the Aravalli range, which cuts Rajasthan into two. The western half of Rajasthan is occupied by the Thar desert. The Vindhyas cut across Central India, particularly through Madhya Pradesh and signify the start of the Deccan plateau, which covers almost the whole of the southern peninsula.
The Deccan plateau is bounded by the Western Ghats range (which is called Sahyadri in Maharashtra) to the west and the Eastern Ghats to the east. The plateau is more arid than the plains, as the rivers that feed the area, such as the Narmada, Godavari and the Kaveri, run dry during the summer. Towards the northeast of the Deccan plateau is what used to be a thickly forested area that covers the states of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, the eastern edge of Maharashtra and the northern tip of Andhra Pradesh. This area is still forested, poverty stricken and populated by tribal people. This forest acted as a barrier to the invasion of South India.
India has a long coastline. The west coast borders the Arabian Sea and the east coast the Bay of Bengal, both parts of the Indian Ocean.
In India, it rains only during a specific time of the year. The season as well as the phenomenon that causes it is called the monsoon. There are two of them, the Southwest and the Northeast, both named after the directions the winds come from. The Southwest monsoon is the more important one, as it causes rains over most parts of the country, and is the crucial variable that decides how the crops will do. It lasts from June to September. The Southwest monsoon hits the west coast the most, as crossing the Western Ghats and reaching the rest of India is an uphill task for the winds. The western coastline is therefore much greener than the interior. The Northeast monsoon hits the east coast between October and February, mostly in the form of occasional cyclones that cause much devastation every year. The only region that gets rains from both monsoons is North-Eastern India, which consequently experiences the highest rainfall in the world.
India experiences at least three seasons a year, Summer, Rainy Season (or "Monsoon") and Winter, though in the tropical South calling the 25°C (77°F) weather "Winter" would be stretching the concept. The North experiences some extremes of heat in Summer and cold in Winter, but except in the Himalayan regions, snow is almost unheard of. November to January is the winter season and April and May are the hot months when everyone eagerly awaits the rains. There is also a brief spring in February and March, especially in North India.
Opinions are divided on whether any part of India actually experiences an Autumn, but the ancients had certainly identified such a season among the six seasons (or ritus - Vasanta - Spring, Greeshma - Summer, Varsha - Rainy, Sharat - Autumn, Hemanta - "Mild Winter"/"late autumn", Sheet - Winter) they had divided the year into.
India's rich and multi-layered cultures are dominated by religious and spiritual themes. While it is a mistake to assume that there is a single unified Indian culture, there certainly are unifying themes that link the various cultures. India's cultural heritage is expressed through its myriad of languages in which much great literature and poetry has been written. It can be seen in its music - both in its classical (Carnatic and Hindustani) forms and in modern Bollywood music. India also has a vast tradition of classical and folk dances. Art and theatre flourish amongst the bustling cities of the country, against the backdrop of the ever expanding western influences.
Indians value their family system a lot. Typically, an Indian's family encompasses what would be called the extended family in the West. It is routine for Indians to live as part of the paternal family unit throughout their lives - i.e. sons live together with their parents all their lives, and daughters live with their parents till they get married. The relationship is mutually self-supporting. Parents may support their children for longer than is common in the West, brothers and sisters may support each other, and sons are expected to take care of their parents in their old age. "Living with parents" does not carry the same stigma as it does in the US. Naturally, the arrangements are not perfect and there are strains and breakups, especially by the time the third generation grows up. Also, it has now become common for children to move away from the parental house for education and employment. Nonetheless, it is fair to say that the joint family is still seen as the norm and an ideal to aspire to, and Indians continue to care about their family's honour, achievements and failures even while they are not living together.
Despite the weakening of the caste system (which has officially been outlawed by the Indian government), India remains a fairly stratified society. Indians care more about a person's background and position in society than is the norm in the individualist West. This attitude, when combined with the legacy of colonial rule, results in some rather interesting, if unfortunate consequences. People with white skin are placed high on the societal totem pole, and they may find that Indians are obsequious towards them to the point of embarrassment. People with dark skin, however may find that they are discriminated against. If it is any consolation, Indians display similar prejudices based on skin colour and ethnicity among themselves and not just towards foreigners. (See more in the Stay Safe and Respect sections)
Holidays and festivals
There are three national holidays: Republic Day (26 January), Independence Day (15 August), and Gandhi Jayanti (2 October) which occur on the same day every year. In addition, there are three major nationwide festivals with shifting dates to be aware of:
- Diwali (Deepavali), Oct-Nov — The festival of lights, celebrates the return of the Hindu God Rama to the capital of his kingdom, Ayodhya after an exile of 14 years and victory of justice over injustice when Narakasura was killed by Satyabhama with the help of Krishna. Probably the most lavish festival in the country, reminiscent (to U.S. travellers at least) of the food of Thanksgiving and the shopping and gifts of Christmas combined. Houses are decorated, there is glitter everywhere, and if you wander the streets on Diwali night, there will be firecrackers going off everywhere including sometimes under your feet.
- Durga Puja / Navarathri/Dussehara, Sep-Oct — A nine-day festival culminating in the holy day of Dasara, when locals worship the deity Durga. Workers are given sweets, cash bonuses, gifts and new clothes. It is also new year for businessmen, when they are supposed to start new account books. In some places like West Bengal, Durga Puja is the most important festival. In the north Dussehara celebrations take place and the slaying of Ravana by Lord Rama is ceremonially reenacted as Ram Lila. In Gujarat and South India, it is celebrated as Navarathri where the festival is celebrated by dancing to devotional songs and religious observances like fasts extended over a period of nine nights.
- Holi, in March — The festival of colour is a major festival celebrated mainly in North, East and Western India. On the first day, people go to temples and light bonfires, but on the second, it's a waterfight combined with showers of coloured powder. This is not a spectator sport: as a visible foreigner, you're a magnet for attention, so you'll either have to barricade yourself inside, or put on your most disposable clothes and join the fray. Alcohol and bhang (cannabis) are often involved and crowds can get rowdy as the evening wears on.
- Ganesh Chaturthi, is celebrated all over India. Ganesh Chaturthi is festival of Lord Ganesh. Ganesh Chaturthi is most enjoyed in Maharashtra. It is the best time to visit cities like Mumbai, Pune, Nagpur.
- Christmas and New Years Day are public holidays across the country and Bank Holidays as well.
- Eid-ul-Fitr, Eid-uz-Zuha, Eid-e-Milad-un-Nabi, Yawm-e-Aashoora and Ramazaan are widely celebrated and observed as public holidays across the country.
Apart from these, each state has its own major national festival like Onam in Kerala, Makar Sankranti and Ugadi in Andhra Pradesh, Utarayan in Gujarat, Pongal in Tamil Nadu, Baisakhi for Punjab, Bihu for Assam,Rathayatra(Car festival for lord Jagannath) in Odisha,Nuakhai for Western Odisha. India is a diverse nation, and festivals are main part of life for the locals, and they provide holidays for about a week.
Religious holidays occur on different days each year, because the Hindu and Islamic festivals are based on their respective calendars and not on the Gregorian calendar. Most of them are celebrated only locally, so check the state or city you are visiting for information on whether there will be closures. Different regions might give somewhat different names to the same festival. To cater to varying religious practices, offices have a list of optional holidays (called restricted holidays by the government) from which employees are allowed to pick two, in addition to the list of fixed holidays. This may mean thin attendance and delayed service even when the office is officially open.
- A Goddess in the Stones: Travels in India by Norman Lewis (Cape 1991; US: Holt 1992), In "Goddess in the Stones", influential journalist and author Norman Lewis undertakes a journey of 2500 miles in search of the old India.
- India: A History, John Keay; "A superb one-volume history of a land that defies reduction into simple narrative... Without peer among general studies, a history that is intelligent, incisive, and eminently readable." -- Kirkus Review (starred review) (ISBN 0802137970)
- India: A Million Mutinies Now, V.S. Naipaul; "With this book he may well have written his own enduring monument, in prose at once stirring and intensely personal, distinguished both by style and critical acumen" -- K. Natwar-Singh, Financial Times (ISBN 0670837024)
- In Spite of the Gods, Edward Luce; an exceptionally insightful and readable book on the unlikely rise of modern India. (ISBN 0316729817)
- No Full Stops In India, Mark Tully; "India's Westernised elite, cut off from local traditions, want to write a full stop in a land where there are no full stops. From that striking insight Mark Tully has woven a superb series of stories which explore everything from communal conflict in Ahmedabad to communism in Kolkata, from the Kumbh Mela in Allahabad (probably the biggest religious festival in the world) to the televising of a Hindu epic." (ISBN 0140104801)
- Mother Pious Lady, Santosh Desai; An excellent account of middle class beliefs and customs from the pre-liberalisation era till date. For anyone who wants to understand the culture of present India, this is a must read where the author cuts through the chaos and confusion letting you to see things more clearly . (ISBN 8172238643 Invalid ISBNTemplate:Main other)
- Indian journals, March 1962-May 1963: Notebooks, diary, blank pages, writings. Ginsberg, A. (1970). San Francisco: Dave Haselwood Books. Travel diary written by the famous beat poet Allen Ginsberg.
- Lion: A Long Way Home, a book by Saroo Brierley.
See also the Wikivoyage article On the trail of Kipling's Kim.
Touts are ubiquitous, as in many developing countries, and you should assume that anyone 'proactively' trying to help you has a hidden agenda to part you from your money. However, in areas hardly or not at all visited by tourists, it is not at all uncommon for people who go out of their way to 'proactively' help you when you approach without expecting anything in return. During your travels in India, you will be deluged with touts trying to get you to buy something or patronise particular establishments.
There are a myriad of common scams, which range from telling you your hotel has gone out of business (of course, they'll know of one that's open with vacancies), to giving wrong directions to a government rail ticket booking office (the directions will be to their friend's tour office), to trying to get you to take diamonds back to your home country (the diamonds are worthless crystal), to 'poor students' giving you a sightseeing for hours and then with pity make you buy school books for them (tremendously overpriced from a bookstore with whom they are affiliated). There will also be more obvious touts who "know a very good place for dinner" or want to sell you a chess set on the street.
Faced with such an assault, it's very easy to get into a siege mentality where all of India is against you and out to squeeze you dry. Needless to say, such a mentality may affect any true appreciation of the country. Dealing with touts is very simple: assume anyone offering surprising information (such as "your hotel is shut down") is a tout. Never be afraid to get a second or third answer to a question. To get rid of a tout:
- Completely ignore him/her and go about your business until he goes away. This may take quite a while, but patience is key to managing India.
- Tell him "NO", very firmly, and repeatedly.
It is also beneficial to have a firm Indian friend whom you can trust. If they show you around, they will act to help you ward off such touts.
Basic strategy will help you:
- Don't get harassed, consider each problem and joy as your experience, that's why you are travelling. Isn't it?
- Hiring a qualified guide, if you manage to find a trustworthy one, will sort out your most of the problems, almost every problem.
- If you still have any issues or want to chat friendly to an Indian, then seek for an Indian tourist, or a fellow pedestrian or passenger, but never take unsolicited guidance or help which may turn out unpleasant. He/she may help you if he/she knows English but may likely know less than you about the place you're visiting.
Foreign visitors will quickly encounter the special foreigners' rates that they are charged in some places in India. This applies to some tourist attractions. This may seem discriminatory and unfair to many visitors but is practiced in most developing countries in Asia and Africa.
Some tourist attractions that are run by the Archaeological Survey of India have different rates for Indians and foreigners. These rates are prominently posted at the entrance and ticketing booths. The rates for foreigners may be as many as five to ten times those for Indians. Likewise, if you are reserving a hotel room or an airline ticket over the internet, you may find that paying in US dollars costs significantly higher. You can get an Indian friend to book in rupees and in most cases, no one will question you at the time of check in.