Welcome to Travel Planning 101. Find country specific information about where you are going and what to do to prepare to get there!
- Travel highlights of the country.
- Fun facts and background information.
- History notes, facts on currency, health, holidays and transportation.
- Pre-departure tips, when to go, and visa information.
- Information on weather and electricity plugs.
- Suggestions on things to do if you have extra time to explore on your own.
Places To See
The Buddhist caves of Ajanta date from around 200 BC to 650 AD, predating those at Ellora. As Ellora developed and Buddhism gradually declined, the Ajanta caves were abandoned and eventually forgotten. But in 1819 a British hunting party stumbled upon them, and their remote beauty was soon unveiled.
The caves' isolation contributed to the fine state of preservation in which some of their remarkable paintings remain to this day. Ajanta is listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
Many of the caves are dark and a torch comes in useful. If possible, avoid coming here on weekends or public holidays when Ajanta can get very crowded with tourists and very persistent hawkers.
There's a free guarded cloakroom near the entrance where you can safely leave gear, so it is possible to arrive on a morning bus from Jalgaon, look around the caves, and continue to Aurangabad in the evening, or vice versa.
Described as the most extravagant monument ever built for love, this poignant Mughal mausoleum has become the de facto tourist emblem of India. Many have tried to sum up its beauty, but even the poets of the time were unable to do this magnificent building justice.
The spectacular white marble mausoleum seems as immaculate today as when it was first constructed, although in recent years there has been growing concern about the damage that atmospheric pollution is causing the Taj.
The Taj was built by Emperor Shah Jahan as a mausoleum for his second wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died in childbirth in 1631. The death of Mumtaz left the emperor so heartbroken that his hair is said to have turned grey overnight.
The Taj is accessed through an outer courtyard which has gates facing west, south and east (most tourists enter from the west gate which is closest to the car park). Entry to the inner compound is through a vast red sandstone gateway on the south side of the forecourt, inscribed with verses from the Quran in Arabic.
The Taj Mahal stands on a raised marble platform at the northern end of the ornamental gardens. Purely decorative white minarets grace each corner of the platform. The red sandstone mosque to the west of the main structure is an important gathering place for Agra's Muslims.
Sunset is an extremely impressive time to see the Taj - the white marble first takes on a rich golden sheen, then slowly turns pink, red and finally blue with the changing light.
Fringing the coast of Kerala and winding far inland is a vast network of lagoons, lakes, rivers and canals. Travelling the backwaters is one of the highlights of a visit to Kerala. The larger boats are motorised but there are numerous smaller boats propelled by punting with a long bamboo pole.
The boats cross shallow, palm-fringed lakes studded with cantilevered Chinese fishing nets, and travel along narrow, shady canals where coir (coconut fibre), copra (dried coconut meat) and cashews are loaded onto boats. Along the way are small settlements where people live on narrow spits of reclaimed land only a few metres wide.
Although practically surrounded by water, they still manage to keep cows, pigs, chickens and ducks and cultivate small vegetable gardens. Prawns and fish, including the prized karimeen, are also farmed, and shellfish are dredged by hand to be later burnt with coal dust to produce lime.
A comprehensive listing of backwater tours throughout Kerala is available in the brochure The Backwaters of Kerala Tourist Guide, available from tourist offices. The brochure includes prices and telephone booking contacts. More information is available on their website.
Khajuraho's temples were built during the Chandela period, a dynasty that survived for five centuries before falling to the Mughal onslaught. Most date from one century-long burst of creative genius from 950 to 1050 AD. Almost as intriguing as the sheer beauty and size of the temples is the question of why and how they were built here.
The temples are superb examples of Indo-Aryan architecture, but it's the decorations with which they are so liberally embellished that have made Khajuraho famous, especially the erotic sculptures. Around the temples are bands of stonework showing many aspects of Indian life a millennium ago - gods and goddesses, warriors and musicians, real and mythological animals.
The temples are divided into three groups, with the western group the most popular and the only group that attracts an entry fee. You can wander the eastern and southern groups for free.
This is perhaps the liveliest fort in India - about 25% of the old city's population resides within the fort walls. There are homes hidden in the laneways, and shops and stalls are swaddled in the kaleidoscopic mirrors and embroideries of brilliant Rajasthani cloth.
Sadly, the fort is suffering from tourism numbers and government indifference and is on the World Monuments Watch list of 100 endangered sites worldwide. Built in 1156 by the Rajput ruler Jaisala, the fort crowns the 80m/262ft-high Trikuta Hill. The fort is entered through a forbidding series of massive gates leading to a large courtyard. The former maharaja's seven-storey palace fronts onto this. The 360° views from the summit are spectacular.
India is blessed with a huge number of festivals, some so spectacular that you would be a fool to miss them. They start with the secular Republic Day Festival in Delhi each January, which includes elephants, a procession, and plenty of military might and Indian princely splendour. Holi, in February/March, is one of the most exuberant Hindu festivals in the north of India. It marks the beginning of spring and basically involves throwing coloured powder and water over as many people as you can in one day.
The 10-day Shi'ite Muharram festival, also in February/March, commemorates the martyrdom of the Prophet Mohammed's grandson. It's marked by a grand parade and dedicated penitents scourge themselves with whips in religious fervour. It's best seen in Lucknow, the principal Indian Shi'ite city; its timing varies with the Islamic calendar. The massive Kumbh Mela festival commemorates an ancient battle between gods and demons for a pitcher (kumbh) containing the nectar of immortality. During the fight for possession, four drops of nectar fell from the pitcher and landed in Allahabad, Haridwar, Nasik and Ujjain. The mela is held every three years rotating through these four cities.
Don't mistake the great Rath Yatra (Car Festival) for a rally race. This spectacle in Puri in June/July involves the gigantic temple car of Lord Jagannath making its annual journey, pulled by thousands of eager devotees. One of the big events of the year in Kerala is the Nehru Cup Snake Boat Race on the backwaters at Alappuzha (Alleppey), which take place on the second Saturday of August.
The festival of Ganesh Chaturthi in August/September is dedicated to the popular elephant-headed god, Ganesh. It's celebrated widely, but with particular enthusiasm in Mumbai and Pune. Shrines are erected, firecrackers let off, clay idols are immersed in rivers or the sea, and everyone tries to avoid looking at the moon.
September/October is the time to witness the Dussehra (Durga Puja) Festival, which is perhaps at its most spectacular in Kullu, Mysore, West Bengal and Ahmedabad.
October/November is the time for the huge and colourful Camel Fair at Pushkar in Rajasthan. Diwali (or Deepavaali) is the happiest festival of the Hindu calendar and is celebrated over five days in October/November. Sweets, oil lamps and firecrackers all play a major part in this celebration in honour of a number of gods.
There are also usually holidays during major festivals. These vary from state to state.
When to go?
Climate plays a key factor in deciding when to visit India. Keep in mind that climatic conditions in the far north are distinctly different to those of the extreme south.
Generally, India's climate is defined by three seasons - the hot, the wet (monsoon) and the cool, each of which can vary in duration from north to south. The most pleasant time to visit most places is during the cooler period: November to around mid-February.
Around October the monsoon ends for most of the country. This is when India sees most tourists - however, it's too late to visit Ladakh (May to October is the optimum period). During October and November it's generally not too hot and not too cool (although October can still be hot and/or humid in some regions). In the thick of winter (around mid-December to mid-January), Delhi and other northern cities can become astonishingly cold, especially at night - and it's bone-chilling in the far north. In the far south the temperatures become comfortably warm during this period.
It's worth checking the dates of particular festivals - you may be attracted or repelled by the chaos (and jacked-up prices) that attend them. There are virtually no festivals in May/June. The wedding season falls between November and March, when you're likely to see at least one lively procession through the streets.
Travel Visa Overview
You must get a visa before arriving in India and these are easily available at Indian missions worldwide. Most people travel on the standard tourist visa, which is more than adequate for most needs. Student visas and business visas have strict conditions and also restrict your access to tourist services such as tourist quotas on trains. An onward travel ticket is a requirement for most visas, but this is not always enforced (check in advance), except for the 72-hour transit visa.
Six-month multiple-entry tourist visas (valid from the date of issue) are granted to nationals of most countries regardless of how long you intend to stay.
*** Visa update: Any holder of a tourist visa who wishes to visit another country during their stay in India must wait at least two months before re-entering. This time will be factored into the total duration of your visa (usually either 90 or 180 days). Obviously, this new condition reduces the number of times you can come and go from India, however it is possible to apply for a more flexible arrangement through your nearest Indian Mission/Post. See the FAQ section of the Indian Ministry of Home Affairs website for more information.
South African/Indian-style plug with two circular metal pins above a large circular grounding pin
European plug with two circular metal pins
This is mainly a problem in trekking areas.
Not every headache is likely to be meningitis. There is an effective vaccine available which is often recommended for travel to these areas. Generally, you're at pretty low risk of getting meningococcal meningitis, unless an epidemic is ongoing, but the disease is important because it can be very serious and rapidly fatal. You get infected by breathing in droplets coughed or sneezed into the air by sufferers or, more likely, by healthy carriers of the bacteria. You're more at risk in crowded, poorly ventilated places, including public transport and eating places. The symptoms of meningitis are fever, severe headache, neck stiffness that prevents you from bending your head forward, nausea, vomiting and sensitivity to light, making you prefer to stay in darkness. With meningococcal meningitis, you may get a widespread, blotchy purple rash before any other symptoms appear.
Meningococcal meningitis is an extremely serious disease that can cause death within a few hours of you first feeling unwell. Seek medical help without delay if you have any of the symptoms listed earlier, especially if you are in a risk area.
This serious and potentially fatal disease is spread by mosquito bites and is endemic in most countries of the region (the exceptions being Singapore and Brunei). If you are travelling in endemic areas it is extremely important to avoid mosquito bites and to take tablets to prevent this disease. Symptoms range from fever, chills and sweating, headache, diarrhoea and abdominal pains to a vague feeling of ill-health. Seek medical help immediately if malaria is suspected. Without treatment malaria can rapidly become more serious and can be fatal. If medical care is not available, malaria tablets can be used for treatment. There is a variety of medications such as mefloquine, Fansidar and Malarone. You should seek medical advice, before you travel, on the right medication and dosage for you. If you do contract malaria, be sure to be re-tested for malaria once you return home as you can harbour malaria parasites in your body even if you are symptom free. Travellers are advised to prevent mosquito bites at all times. The main messages are: wear light-coloured clothing; wear long trousers and long-sleeved shirts; use mosquito repellents containing the compound DEET on exposed areas (prolonged overuse of DEET may be harmful, especially to children, but its use is considered preferable to being bitten by disease-transmitting mosquitoes); avoid perfumes and aftershave.
Use a mosquito net impregnated with mosquito repellent (permethrin) - it may be worth taking your own.
The Aedes aegypti mosquito, which transmits the dengue virus, is most active during the day, and is found mainly in urban areas, in and around human dwellings. Signs and symptoms of dengue fever include a sudden onset of high fever, headache, joint and muscle pains, nausea and vomiting. A rash of small red spots sometimes appears three to four days after the onset of fever. Severe complications do sometimes occur. You should seek medical attention as soon as possible if you think you may be infected. There is no vaccine against dengue fever.
The symptoms in all forms of this illness include fever, chills, headache, fatigue, feelings of weakness and aches and pains, followed by loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, dark urine, light-coloured faeces, jaundiced (yellow) skin and yellowing of the whites of the eyes. Hepatitis A is transmitted by contaminated food and drinking water. Seek medical advice, but there is not much you can do apart from resting, drinking lots of fluids, eating lightly and avoiding fatty foods. Hepatitis E is transmitted in the same way as hepatitis A; it can be particularly serious in pregnant women. Hepatitis B is spread through contact with infected blood, blood products or body fluids, for example through sexual contact, unsterilised needles (and shaving equipment) and blood transfusions, or contact with blood via small breaks in the skin. The symptoms of hepatitis B may be more severe than type A and the disease can lead to long-term problems such as chronic liver damage, liver cancer or a long-term carrier state. Hepatitis C and D are spread in the same way as hepatitis B and can also lead to long-term complications. There are vaccines against hepatitis A and B, but there are currently no vaccines against the other types. Following the basic rules about food and water (hepatitis A and E) and avoiding risk situations (hepatitis B, C and D) are important preventative measures.
This diarrhoeal disease can cause rapid dehydration and death. Cholera is caused by a bacteria, Vibrio cholerae. It's transmitted from person to person by direct contact (often via healthy carriers of the disease) or via contaminated food and water. It can be spread by seafood, including crustaceans and shellfish, which get infected via sewage. Cholera exists where standards of environmental and personal hygiene are low. Every so often there are massive epidemics, usually due to contaminated water in conditions where there is a breakdown of the normal infrastructure. The time between becoming infected and symptoms appearing is usually short, between one and five days. The diarrhoea starts suddenly, and pours out of you. It's characteristically described as 'ricewater' diarrhoea because it is watery and flecked with white mucus. Vomiting and muscle cramps are usual, but fever is rare. In its most serious form, it causes a massive outpouring of fluid (up to 20L a day). This is the worst case scenario - only about one in 10 sufferers get this severe form. It's a self-limiting illness, meaning that if you don't succumb to dehydration, it will end in about a week without any treatment. You should seek medical help urgently; in the meantime, start re-hydration therapy with oral re-hydration salts. You may need antibiotic treatment with tetracycline, but fluid replacement is the single most important treatment strategy in cholera. Prevention is by taking basic food and water precautions, avoiding seafood and having scrupulous personal hygiene. The currently available vaccine is not thought worthwhile as it provides only limited protection for a short time.
Contaminated water and food can cause typhoid fever, a dangerous gut infection. Medical help must be sought. In typhoid's early stages, sufferers may feel they have a bad cold or flu on the way, as early symptoms are headache, body aches and a fever that rises a little each day until it is around 40°C (104°F) or more. The victim's pulse is often slow relative to the degree of fever present - unlike a normal fever where pulse increases. There may also be vomiting, abdominal pain, diarrhea or constipation. In the second week, the high fever and slow pulse continue, and a few pink spots may appear on the body; trembling, delirium, weakness, weight loss and dehydration may occur. Complications such as pneumonia, perforated bowel or meningitis may occur. The fever should be treated by keeping victims cool and giving them fluids (watch for dehydration). Ciprofloxacin, 750mg twice a day for 10 days, is good for adults. Chloramphenicol is recommended in many countries. The adult dosage is two 250mg capsules, four times per day. Children between eight and 12 years old should have half the adult dose; for younger children one-third the adult dose.
Climate in India varies greatly, from the arid deserts of Rajasthan to the cool highlands of Assam, allegedly the wettest place on earth. But basically India has a three-season year - the hot, the wet and the cool. The heat starts to build up on the northern plains around February and by April it becomes unbearable - expect 35-45°C (95-113°F) days in most places. The first signs of the monsoon appear in May, with high humidity, short rainstorms and violent electrical storms. The monsoon rains begin around 1 June in the extreme south and sweep north to cover the whole country by early July. The monsoon doesn't really cool things off, but it's a great relief - especially to farmers. The main monsoon comes from the southwest, but the southeastern coast is affected by the short and surprisingly wet northeastern monsoon, which brings rain from mid-October to the end of December. The main monsoon ends around October, and India's northern cities become crisp at night in December. In the far south, where it never gets cool, the temperatures are comfortably warm rather than hot.
History and Culture
It has been said that India is less a country than a continent, and it holds as many variations in religion, language, customs, art and cuisine as it does in topography. For the traveller, this cultural feast is India's great strength.
Indian art is basically religious in its themes and developments, and its appreciation requires at least some background knowledge of the country's faiths. The highlights include classical Indian dance, Hindu temple architecture and sculpture (where one begins and the other ends is often hard to define), the military and urban architecture of the Mughals, miniature painting, and mesmeric Indian music. Of course, India's creativity continues to thrive, its most lively contemporary expression being filmi culture.
Pre-20th Centure History
India's first major civilisation flourished for a thousand years from around 2500 BC along the Indus River valley. Its great cities were Moenjodaro and Harappa (in what is now Pakistan), which were ruled by priests and held the rudiments of Hinduism. One theory purports that Aryan invaders swept south from Central Asia between 1500 and 200 BC and controlled northern India, pushing the original Dravidian inhabitants south.
The invaders brought their own gods and cattle-raising and meat-eating traditions, but were absorbed to such a degree that by the 8th century BC the priestly caste had reasserted its supremacy. This became consolidated in the caste system, a hierarchy maintained by strict rules that secured the position of the Brahmin priests. Buddhism arose around 500 BC, condemning caste; it drove a radical swathe through Hinduism in the 3rd century BC when it was embraced by the Mauryan Emperor Ashoka, who controlled huge tracts of India.
A number of empires, including the Guptas, rose and fell in the north after the collapse of the Mauryas. Hinduism underwent a revival from 40 to 600 AD, and Buddhism began to decline. The north of India broke into a number of separate Hindu kingdoms after the Huns' invasion; it was not really unified again until the coming of the Muslims in the 10th and 11th centuries. The far south, whose prosperity was based on trading links with the Egyptians, Romans and southeast Asia, was unaffected by the turmoil in the north, and Hinduism's hold on the region was never threatened.
In 1192 the Muslim Ghurs arrived from Afghanistan. Within 20 years the entire Ganges basin was under Islamic control, though Islam failed to penetrate the south. Two great kingdoms developed in what is now Karnataka: the mighty Hindu kingdom of Vijayanagar, and the fragmented Bahmani Islamic kingdom.
Mughal emperors marched into Punjab from Afghanistan, defeated the Sultan of Delhi in 1525, and ushered in another artistic golden age. The Maratha Empire grew during the 17th century and gradually took over more of the Mughals' domain. The Marathas consolidated control of central India until they fell to the last great imperial power, the British.
The British were not, however, the only European power in India: the Portuguese had controlled Goa since 1510 and the French, Danes and Dutch also had trading posts. By 1803, when the British overwhelmed the Marathas, most of the country was under the control of the British East India Company, which had established its trading post at Surat in Gujarat in 1612.
The company treated India as a place to make money, and its culture, beliefs and religions were left strictly alone. Britain expanded iron and coal mining, developed tea, coffee and cotton plantations, and began construction of India's vast rail network. They encouraged absentee landlords because they eased the burden of administration and tax collection, creating an impoverished landless peasantry - a problem which is still chronic in Bihar and West Bengal. The Uprising (also known as the War of Independence) in northern India in 1857 led to the demise of the East India Company, and administration of the country was handed over to the British government.
Opposition to British rule began in earnest at the turn of the 20th century. The 'Congress' which had been established to give India a degree of self-rule, now began to push for the real thing. In 1915, Gandhi returned from South Africa, where he had practised as a lawyer, and turned his abilities to independence, adopting a policy of passive resistance, or satyagraha.
WWII dealt a deathblow to colonialism and Indian independence became inevitable. Within India, however, the large Muslim minority realised that an independent India would be Hindu-dominated. Communalism grew, with the Muslim League, led by Mohammad Ali Jinnah, speaking for the overwhelming majority of Muslims, and the Congress Party, led by Jawaharlal Nehru, representing the Hindu population. The bid for a separate Islamic nation was the biggest stumbling block to Britain granting independence.
Faced with a political stand-off and rising tension, Viceroy Mountbatten reluctantly decided to divide the country and set a rapid timetable for independence. Unfortunately, the two overwhelmingly Muslim regions were on opposite sides of the country - meaning the new nation of Pakistan would be divided by a hostile India. When the dividing line was announced, the greatest exodus in human history took place as Muslims moved to Pakistan and Hindus and Sikhs relocated to India. Over 10 million people changed sides and even the most conservative estimates calculate that 250,000 people were killed. Gandhi was deeply disheartened by Partition and the subsequent bloodshed. On 30 January 1948 he was assassinated by a Hindu fanatic.
Following the trauma of Partition, India's first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru championed a secular constitution, socialist central planning and a strict policy of nonalignment. India elected to join the Commonwealth, but also increased ties with the USSR - partly because of conflicts with China and partly because of US support for arch-enemy Pakistan, which was particularly hostile to India because of its claim on Muslim-dominated Kashmir. There were clashes with Pakistan in 1965 and 1971.
India's next prime minister of stature was Nehru's daughter Indira Gandhi, who was elected in 1966. She is still held in relatively high esteem, but is remembered by many for meddling with India's democratic foundations by declaring a state of emergency in 1975. Mrs Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards in 1984 as a reprisal for controversially using the Indian Army to flush out armed Sikh radicals from the Golden Temple in Amritsar. The Gandhis' dynastic grip on Indian politics continued when her son, Rajiv was swept into power.
Despite his reputation being tarnished by widely-publicised corruption scandals, Rajiv brought new and pragmatic policies to the country. Foreign investment and the use of modern technology were encouraged, import restrictions were eased and many new industries were set up. These measures projected India into the 1990s and out of isolationism, but did little to stimulate India's mammoth rural sector. Rajiv was assassinated on an election tour by a supporter of Sri Lanka's Tamil Tigers.
The dangers of communalism in India were clearly displayed in 1992, when a Hindu mob stormed and destroyed a mosque built on the alleged site of Rama's birth in Ayodhya. The Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) were keen to exploit such opportunities, and led several disparate coalitions to power. Despite the dangers of playing communalist politics, the BJP's traditionalist Hindu stance attracted voters concerned about retaining traditional values during the sudden onslaught of modern global influences.
In 1998 India tested its first nuclear weapons. Despite international outrage, the nuclear tests were met with widespread jubilation and support for the BJP. But by April 1999 PM Vajpayee had lost his majority and was forced into a vote of confidence, which he lost by one vote. Italian-born Sonia Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi's widow, was expected to lead the Congress Party to victory, but she was unable to secure a coalition and India was forced to the polls for the third time in as many years. The BJP was returned to government with a slimmer lead.
Tensions with Pakistan flared periodically despite top-level attempts at rapprochement, and natural disasters also took their toll. In January 2001 an earthquake in Gujarat killed about 20,000 people and left more than half a million homeless. In December of that year, gunmen storming the national parliament killed 13 people, while hundreds were killed in Gujarat a year after the earthquake in conflicts between Hindus and Muslims.
The Kashmir situation threatened to escalate from border sabre-rattling to all out war in 2002 with both India and Pakistan testing nuclear-capable warheads in the region and taking the moral high ground over Kashmir. The US and UK urged their citizens to leave India and Pakistan as diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis stuttered in the background. Fortunately, by late 2003 both countries had declared ceasefires and resumed direct air links and the Indian government had historic talks with Kashmir separatists.
In 2004, with fresh elections called, the BJP were expected to win re-election. The Congress party was again led by Sonia Gandhi and gained surprising support through an exhausting grassroots campaign. So successful was she that the dominant BJP were ousted for the first time in almost 10 years. Concerned for her wellbeing, and also aware of the controversy her non-Indian origin could cause, Sonia Gandhi declined the Prime Ministerial role, sending shockwaves through her party. Instead she nominated India's first Sikh leader, an anti-corruption stalwart and economic reformist, Manmohan Singh, to lead the parliament.
The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami killed over 15,000 people and caused large scale damage along the southeastern coast of the country. The central coast of Tamil Nadu suffered the worst of the devastation with the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Pondicherry and Kerala states also hit hard. Basic aid and temporary housing made possible by the Indian government (and reinforced by a half-billion $US World Bank pledge) ensured a swift recovery.
In recent years Prime Minister Singh has gone to great lengths to firm up India's diplomatic and trade relations, particularly with former sparring partners such as Pakistan, China and the US. In July 2006 the worst terrorist bombing in over a decade killed nearly 200 people on several Mumbai commuter trains. In February 2007 a similar attack killed over 60 on the Samjauta express which runs between Delhi and Lahore. Although the attacks were linked to Pakistan-based militants, India continued to pursue a positive relationship with its neighbour including the opening of a cross-border bus service. These efforts were further threatened by the 2008 bombings in Jaipur and Ahmedabad, and by the highly coordinated terrorist attacks that killed over 170 in Mumbai, in November 2008. Though leftist Naxalite insurgents in the northeast and central south have grown more brazen in their attacks, the national economy continues to flourish and the world's largest democracy is taking a larger role on the global stage.
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