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Taj Mahal in Agra

India

A kaleidoscope of colour

Our India Travel Guide

Introduction

Whether it’s your first time travelling to India or you’ve been there before, read our guide on the country’s history, etiquette, tipping culture, food, festivals and more.

At a glance

Flying time from UK
9½ hours

Time zone
GMT +5½

Currency
Rupee (Rs) = 100 paise

Language
English & Hindi, among 14 other official languages

Travel advice
Check the FCO for latest visa & travel advice

Travel Guide

Overview

Vast in both size and experiences, there is nothing understated about India, a country that can feel like an all out assault on all the senses. Nowhere else in the world provides quite such a concentrated hit of the spiritual, the intellectual, the cultural, nor quite so many contradictions.

There's the juxtaposition of immense wealth and squalor, grand old buildings and brutally desperate slums, soul-disturbing poverty, soul-uplifting spirituality, dusty villages and mega-cities. The aromas are both intoxicating and pungent, the smell of jasmine and cooking fires. There's the blare of Bollywood songs, the chants of prayer. There are the jewel bright colours of saris in the cities and kingfishers in the wild; there are elephants everywhere.

Religion too is everywhere, as reflected by some of the most intricate temples and monuments in the world. It's a source of great solace, humanity, and passion. But then passion is the pulse of India, a palpable part of cricket matches, of the filmi music heard everywhere, of the desire to survive, and for so many now, the drive to prosper. And for all the modernity that is sweeping the sub-continent, the spiritual, not the secular still dominates, the innate sense of hospitality and kindness, the civilisation of a culture thousands of years old is still strong.

All this and more plays out against a physical backdrop that is just as diverse, from snow-peaked mountains and cool foothills covered in tea-plantations, thick jungles where elephants and monkeys and tigers roam, long tropical beaches lined with palm trees, jewel-bright rice fields, dusty plains and meandering rivers - all combining to make a kaleidoscope of staggering landscapes.

Books

There are numerous guidebooks available, and we particularly recommend Footprint, Lonely Planet and Rough Guides. However, travelogues and fiction titles often offer more distinctive insights into a destination, and below is a selection of some of the best available on India. 

General reading

In Spite of the Gods: The Strange Rise of Modern India by Edward Luce . Between 2001 and 2005 Luce was the Financial Times' New Delhi-based South Asia bureau chief, and this formidably researched, immensely readable book offers both insight and humour.

India Rising by Oliver Balch. Published last year, this is the story of modern India as told to Balch by the diverse cross-section of the people he interviewed in order to get their reactions to how India is changing and how this is affecting individuals. An entirely engrossing read and as good a take on contemporary India as any.

Travels on My Elephant by Mark Shand. Well-written, incredibly funny, moving but with a light touch, this best-selling book about the author's journey across India on an elephant offers unexpected and perceptive insights into a country as eccentric as the author.

No Full Stops in India/ India in Slow Motion/ India's Unending Journey/The Road Ahead by Mark Tully. Either or all of these books on India will give you a real understanding of the complex histories, attitudes and politics at play in the country. Born in India, the author worked as the India Correspondent for the BBC for several years and has a connection to and knowledge of the sub-Continent that is almost unparalleled among western commentators.

Chasing the Monsoon by Alexander Frater. A beautifully written, romantic but real account of following the monsoon from southern India to Bangladesh, with vivid and cinematic accounts.

The Age of Kali by William Dalrymple. A series of essays examining the theme of the Hindu belief in a time called the Kali Yuga, said to be one of great troubles and problems. The author's more recent book Nine Lives is the story of religion in India told through nine different people.

City of Djinns by William Dalrymple. An impeccable account of Delhi and its multi-layered history, based on the author's time there.

White Mughals by William Dalrymple. This thoroughly researched, vividly written romance between the British Resident at the court of Hyderabad and a Hyderbadi princess offers a perspective of the British legacy in India not often explored.

The Last Mughal by William Dalrymple. Dramatic and tragic story of the last Mughal, told with Dalrymple's characteristic flair and ability to see another side of the story.

An Indian Summer by James Cameron. Celebrated for all the right reasons, this is travel writing at its finest, as Cameron captures the sounds, smells and colours of India

Maximum City by Suketu Metha. A super summation of the seething, seedy, pulsating and crazy side of Mumbai.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo. An unflinching portrait of a notorious slum in Mumbai that reads like a novel, with facts so extreme they seem unreal written up in writing lyrical enough to win a literary prize.

Scoop-Wallah by Justine Hardy. Hardy knows India and its nuances better than many western writers, and this account of her time working on The Indian Express in New Delhi is full of wit and serious insights.

Delhi: Adventures in a Megacity by Sam Miller. An engaging account of the author's on-foot exploration of Delhi and its surprises.

Sorcerer's Apprentice by Tahir Shah. The author winds his way from Kolkata to Chennai, Bangalore to Mumbai, learning along the way from sorcerers, sages and sadhus.

India: A Portrait by Patrick French. An exhaustive and affectionate examination of what it means to live in India today, looking back and looking forward.

A Million Mutinies Now by VS Naipaul. His observations can be tetchy, but Naipaul excels at capturing the subtleties of a nation like no other and this thorough study of India is no exception.

Fiction

A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry. Not just one of the best books about India ever written, this story of four friends and modern India is one of the best books ever written. A seminal read.

A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth. All of Indian life is here - from marriage to society at large - and it's one of those books you don't want to put down, despite being a heavy well over a thousand pages tome.

Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie. The narrator of this masterpiece of magic realism, historical fiction and postcolonial literature was born at the exact moment that India gained independence. Through his story Rushdie tells the story of India's transition from colonialism to freedom and beyond.

The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga. Booker-prize winning novel that caused outrage in India thanks to its unflattering portrait of a society riddled with corruption and servitude, contrasting the poverty of rural life with big city wealth and excess.

The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy. Another Booker-prize winner, a poetic but hard-hitting story of a Syrian Christian family in Kerala, torn apart by social mores and attitudes.

Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts. Far from being a Booker-contender, this is nevertheless an entirely gripping tale of underworld life in Mumbai.

Culture & etiquette

Indians are a warm, welcoming and hospitable people, and most unintentional gaffes will be forgiven, if alluded to at all. However, as always, paying heed to local customs and sensibilities will minimise the chance of causing offence.

The right-hand rule: In India, in common with other parts of Asia, the left hand is considered unclean as it is used for unsavoury functions, so it must not be used for passing or pointing. In general you should accept gifts of things given to you with the right hand, and use your right hand when shaking hands and so on, particularly for eating. You can hold the left hand for holding utensils or glasses, but not for passing dishes around, but always use your right hand if eating with your fingers, which is the norm in India.

Dress

Most Indians dress conservatively, and overly revealing or tight clothing will be offensive to most people, even in Goa, where skimpy swimwear is common - people are on the whole too polite to comment but they do mind.

Women should err on the side of cautious modesty, with arms and legs covered - shorts and short skirts are not deemed to be appropriate away from beaches. These rules are of utmost importance when visiting temples and mosques, where arms, shoulders and legs should be covered, and in many shrines and temples, both women and men will be expected to cover their heads.

Drink

Where possible it is advisable to avoid tap water - not always easy as some places will use it to wash vegetables, or to make ice. Safe filtered drinking water is available in many hotels, as is bottled mineral water. Where buying bottled water, do check that the seal is unbroken.

Tea is of course, ubiquitous in India, with some of the world's best grown in the country's hill stations. The national drink is Masala Chai, tea leaves vigorously boiled with sugar and milk, and cardamom, cinnamon, cloves and sometimes ginger, and poured into shot-glass measures all across India. Other non-alcoholic favourites include the yoghurt-based lassi, which can be sweet and savoury; nimbu pani (literally lemon water), and masala soda - soda water enlivened with lime, salt, sugar and spices.

Alcohol is widely available, prohibition, once wide-spread, is no longer an issue in most of India, other than some parts of Gujarat and a few of the northeastern hill states, and a few holy towns such as Pushkar or Hampi. Beer is widely available, and most restaurants and bars serve wine as well as a wide range of spirits. 

Festivals

Among the many highlights is Holi, the Festival of Colours, in March. It's great fun, with people throwing coloured powder and water at each other, although it can get rather rowdy. Wear old clothes, and sunglasses to protect the eyes if you want to join in the fun of this spring festival. Be aware that the consumption of bhang (cannabis) laced drink and food is a wide-spread part of proceedings and has certainly added to the reputation of this festival as an intoxicating one.

Diwali, which usually falls between mid-October and mid-November, is celebrated with particular enthusiasm in northern India, with fireworks being lit, together with candles and oil lamps, making this five-day festival a beautifully atmospheric one.

The colourful Camel Fair in Pushkar is also held in October or November, bringing traders, farmers, villagers and livestock together from all over Rajasthan.

Getting around

India offers every option of transport from rickshaws to swish new metro systems.

Within cities, most travellers will opt for the distinctive, and often rather dilapidated Ambassador taxis. Drivers usually agree to use the meter, if not, agree a fare before you get in, as with auto-rickshaws (essentially the front half of a scooter with a couple of seats fitted on the back). The latter are cheaper than taxis, and better at negotiating the insane traffic, but it can be an adventurous ride. Be aware though that some auto-rickshaw drivers do tout quite persistently for custom, in the hope that they can take you to your destination via shops or stalls where they have an arrangement with the owners, so it’s best to politely avoid these.

The above options do provide the best way of seeing a variety of places around town, and many travellers hire a taxi, rickshaw or auto-rickshaw for the day. Agree a set fee before you set off, and if you have a driver who speaks English, you may well have a guide for the day, sharing local knowledge. Tipping is usually in order, especially if using a cycle-rickshaw, as it’s a strenuous business for the cyclists.

Where possible arrange taxis or auto-rickshaws from your hotel; drivers are often known the hotel and staff can also help with communicating with drivers who may not speak much English. Local buses and trains are invariably crowded, so be aware of pickpockets, and if you’re female, of so called ‘Eve-teasers’ who, with their persistent staring and suggestive comments are usually just a nuisance, but instances of groping, assault and violent rape do occur, although very rarely involve tourists. This situation can be avoided in trains by opting for a ladies’ carriage, if you’re travelling solo or with female friends.

Trains are of course the best-known way of travelling between cities in India, and for good reason. The distances involved are huge, and Indian trains, however much standards vary, are on the whole atmospheric, with chai-wallahs, chat and the assorted aromas of snack food. Stations can be chaotic, so a guide or porter to deal with luggage and to get you on to the right train is a good idea.

At the other end of the scale, India has some of the world’s most luxurious trains, such as the Maharajas Express, Royal Rajasthan and the Palace on Wheels, which offer 3 to 7 day itineraries , travelling between many of India’s iconic attractions.

With the exception of the biggest, airports are in general less crowded and confusing than train stations, and flights can often be a better option than trains for those with shorter itineraries. Driving in India is generally not recommended, either in or between cities, as the traffic is intense, erratic and mostly unpredictable, other than the ubiquitous ‘blow horn’ signs. A hire car with a driver is undoubtedly the way to travel by road.

Your Wexas consultant will be able to organise the best combination of transport around the country to suit your needs and itinerary.

Food & drink

Indian cuisine is as diverse as every other aspect of life in India. It is one of the greatest pleasures of travelling in India, but also gives rise to concerns about food hygiene. In brief, tired buffets, even in five-star hotels and unwashed salad and tap water are the most common causes of Delhi Belly, and in fact the busiest local restaurants and freshly cooked and steaming hot street snacks can be safer options; which is just as well, as it would be a shame to miss out on the great pleasures of a trip to India by avoiding authentic food.

The other common worry is that every dish will be searingly spicy hot, when in reality, Indian food ranges from the most delicate spicing to the most robust. With literally hundreds of regional specialities to choose from, there is something for every taste to be found in India.

As in many other countries, grain is a staple, in the form of wheat-based breads in the north, or on many variations of rice in the south. Most meals - north, south and everywhere in between will consist of rice or an Indian flatbread, along with a lentil-based dish, a selection of vegetable dishes and a meat dish, often served in metal thalis, or sometimes, in the south, on a banana leaf. Wherever you are in the country, if using your hands to eat, remember to use the right hand only, as using the left is considered unclean and may give offence.

Spices of course, are fundamental. The most commonly used are cumin, coriander, black pepper (when Christopher Columbus discovered America he was actually looking for the famed black pepper grown in Kerala), turmeric, the highly fragrant cardamom, curry leaves, cloves, fresh and dried chillies, ginger, mustard seeds and saffron, each considered to have a health benefit. And of course every household and every restaurant has their own version of the deeply aromatic garam masala, the mainstay of Indian cooking, blended from a mixture of spices according to the dishes and personal preference, but usually including cumin seeds, cardamom, peppercorns, cloves and cinnamon.

Summing up the variety of dishes in India would take up an entire book. To give you a flavour of what to expect, the north is where the best tandoori food is to be found, the best kebabs, and in Muslim neighbourhoods, the best biryanis, and a bewildering variety of Indian breads, including soft puffed up puris, to flaky buttery parathas, often stuffed with a filling, fluffy naans and the simple perfection of a plain chapatti, which works as well wrapped around a simple vegetable dish as it does with juicy meat curries. The south offers plenty of fresh seafood and any number of rice-based dishes, from paper thin crépe-like dosas, made from rice flour and most commonly served with a filling of lightly spiced potato and a side order of sambar (a lentil soup) and fresh coconut chutney.

Across the country, street stalls and snacks are hugely popular, and for good reason. The pleasures of a freshly fried samosa, or pakora, or kebab roll are a big part of the Indian culinary experience. Perhaps the most interesting street snack of them all is bhel puri, particularly popular along Mumbai's Chowpatty Beach. This mix of crunchy sev - fried chickpea-flour noodles - and puffed rice, topped with diced onion and tomatoes, cubes of potato, green chillies, coriander leaves, tamarind, mixed spices and lots of lemon juice - is an extraordinarily complex, multi-layered and more-ish creation - a little like India itself.

Health

The information below provides general health advice. Always consult your doctor about vaccinations and health issues before you travel.

On the whole, common sense precautions and preparing well for your trip should cover most concerns about trips to India. The most frequently dreaded scenario is that of Delhi-belly, but it is possible to entirely avoid or minimise the chances of this by being careful when eating in restaurants, which is the biggest risk factor for contracting tummy upsets. By avoiding food that has been sitting in buffets, by peeling all fruit and by avoiding salads or raw vegetables that may have been washed in tap water, the risks are greatly reduced.

It is sensible to avoid tap water in India too. Street food is not as big a risk as assumed as long as the following principles are adhered to - eat from busy stalls with a high turnover of customers, avoid food that has been sitting around, and choose freshly prepared options, of which those plunged into (clean) very hot oil for frying should be safe, with most germs rendered safe as a result of the nuclear temperatures. People fall ill more often by choosing from tired buffets in hotels, restaurants and cafés than they do in even basic establishments where food is cooked to order and where there is a long line of customers.

It's also wise to take adequate measures against heat, humidity and dehydration by wearing appropriate clothing, hats, sunscreen and drinking adequate amounts of water.

We strongly recommend that you take out health insurance - including emergency cover - before you travel. It may not be needed, but without it, should an accident or illness occur, you could be liable for great cost and inconvenience. Wexas can advise you on the best options before you travel.

We also recommend that you consult your doctor or a travel clinic at least eight weeks before your trip, to ensure that you have the appropriate medication and advice, and to request an International Certificate of Vaccination (the 'yellow booklet'), which will list all the vaccinations you've received. We also recommend taking a look at www.masta-travel-health.com for the most up-to-date health briefs while planning your trip.

It is important to get the latest advice on Malaria too, when consulting your doctor or clinic. The risk varies depending on the specific location, season of travel and length of stay, so personalised advice is highly recommended.

Current World Health Organisation recommendations for vaccinations prior to visiting India include the following, as well as being up to date for measles, mumps and rubella vaccinations: adult diphtheria and tetanus, hepatitis A, hepatitis B, polio, typhoid, varicella, yellow fever (NB this is required by international regulation, with proof required if you have visited a country in the yellow fever zone, Sub-Saharan Africa or tropical South America, within six days prior to entering India. And for long-term travellers: Japanese B encephalitis, meningitis, rabies, tuberculosis (TB)

History

India's social, economic and cultural present is the result of a long history of regional expansion and of an ancient civilisation, beginning some 3, 000 BC with the Indus Valley Civilisation, which developed into one with sizeable cities and thriving trade. The decline of this era - the pre-Vedic age - is variously attributed to environmental disasters, or the invasion of Aryan tribes; though nationalist historians argue that the Aryans were in fact the original inhabitants of India. In any case, this time - the Vedic age - and region gave birth to two of the world's greatest epics - the Ramayana and the Mahabharta - which still inform much of Indian culture today, and to Hinduism.

The fifth century saw the unification of India, under Ashoka, who converted to Buddhism, and during his reign Buddhism spread. The next major influence was Islam, first introduced to India in the eighth century, and firmly part of the politics of the region by the eleventh century, resulting in the formation of the Delhi Sultanate. This was succeeded by the Mughal Empire, a major influence on Indian history, the impact of which is most evident in North India today, most famously in the iconic form of the Taj Mahal, built by Shah Jahan in tribute to his wife Mumtaz Mahal, who died giving birth to her fourteenth child in 1631. 

The same century saw the arrival of Europeans in India. The British, uniquely among India's foreign rulers, arrived by sea rather than through the northwest, and arrived first for trade in the form of the East India Company, rather than conquest. The ports they established - Madras, Bombay and Calcutta - became completely new centres of political and social activity, with the British dictating the economy by controlling sea-borne trade. During this period, the Mughal Empire had started to disintegrate, and India broke into smaller states. The East India Company started the process of extending their territory by stationing British troops in states where local rulers asked for protection against external attack. With more and more of the country under control, the British were increasingly in charge, although fiercely resisted by the Marathas in the west, the Mysore sultans in the south, and the Sikhs in the Punjab, where Ranjit Singh set up a Sikh state that survived until the late 1830s despite the extension of British control over much of the rest of India. By 1858 the British government and not the East India Company were effectively rulers of India, Queen Victoria was crowned as Empress of India, and the Raj became the 'jewel in the crown' of the British Empire.

Barely 30 years after this, the movement for self-government had begun, with the Indian National Congress, The Muslim League and Mahatma Gandhi all key players in the thrust for Independence, with Gandhi developing the concepts that were to become the hallmark of India's struggle for Independence. Key among these was the idea of satyagraha or 'truth force', which embodied the idea of enduring non-violence resistance to the injustices of foreign rule. As early as 1930 Congress declared that 26 January would be Independence Day, and while this is still celebrated as Republic Day in India today, Independence did not arrive until 15 August 1947 for India, and 14 August for Pakistan, as Indian astrologers had deemed 15th to be the most auspicious day. Even as Nehru made his famous speech "Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time comes when we will redeem our pledge, not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially. At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom" some Princely States had not decided to which country they would accede, most notably Kashmir, with the far-reaching consequences that remain today.

The elation of Independence was mingled with the horror of Partition, with a bloody struggle between Muslims on one side and Hindus and Sikhs on the other, as 13 million people migrated between the two new countries of India and Pakistan. Despite this most bloody of births, India has, with the exception of the two-year state of emergency during Indira Gandhi's time as Prime Minister, moved forward rapidly to establish itself firmly as a successful state and as one of the world's economic powerhouses. 

Items to pack

We've listed below some potentially usefully items that you may want to consider taking with you:

  • Passport (and photocopy)
  • Visa (and photocopy)
  • Tickets
  • Wexas travel itinerary
  • Insurance details
  • Cash (£ to be changed into Rupees on arrival), cards
  • Money belt
  • Unlocked mobile phone
  • Camera and charger
  • Power adaptor
  • Loose clothing for warm weather
  • Long trousers, floor-length skirts and long-sleeved shirts. Remember ladies must cover their shoulders, knees and head in some religious places
  • Swimwear
  • Waterproof jacket and trousers
  • Sandals or flip-flops
  • Walking boots and socks
  • Sunglasses
  • Sunscreen
  • Toiletries
  • Spare sink plug
  • Books/personal stereo/notebooks etc.

Meeting people

With the warmth and hospitality shown to visitors, often comes curiosity and what might be considered as overly personal questions. Where you come from, what you do, what your qualifications are, what your religion is, whether or not you are married are questions asked regularly, often by complete strangers; but this considered to be polite conversation and asking the same questions back will be welcomed, not thought of as nosiness.

On first meeting people, bear in mind that while handshakes are common among Indian men, it is considered rude to touch an Indian woman. If in doubt, and in any case in the very first instance, folding hands together as if in prayer and using the Indian greeting 'namaste' is most appropriate.

Language is often used in an old-fashioned and exceedingly polite way in India, abrupt, overly slangy speech may be considered rude, while casual swearing is seen as being beyond the pale.

Attitudes to time on the other hand, work the other way, as this is something that Indians are very informal about and it is pointless to become agitated about punctuality. Time here is flexible and thus often referred to as IST - Indian Standard or Stretchable Time.

The Indian headshake is not an up and down for yes, or side to side for no, it is a circular movement - and can mean anything from yes, no, or maybe. And bear in mind when asking for directions or other advice, that Indians are quite reluctant to say no, and may supply an answer even if they aren't sure of it, so do get multiple directions or opinions if you are unsure.

Money

Rupees are divided into 100 paise, but paise are seldom used and can sometimes be rejected.. Coins are minted in denominations of 50 paise, RS 1, Rs 2, and Rs 5; while notes are printed in denominations of Rs 10, 20, 50, 100, 500 and 1000. It can be difficult to use worn notes, so refuse any damaged notes when you are given them.

It is not possible to purchase Rupees before arriving in India. Try ATMs at the airport if available if you need cash on arrival, or the airport bank, although rates at the latter are not favourable. In cities, the State Bank of India and several others are authorised to deal in foreign exchange and offer better rates of exchange than large hotels, though these do offer a 24-hour service. Rupees should not be taken out of India; any spare should be exchanged before departure.

ATMs are available all over India, with Cirrus, Maestro as well as Visa and MasterCard generally accepted. Withdrawal fees are often charged, and sometimes fraud prevention measures result in travellers having their cards blocked when unexpected overseas transactions occur, so advise your bank before travelling. Credit cards and Traveller's Cheques by reputable companies are widely accepted. 

Shopping

All of India is a marketplace, with a tremendous amount of finely crafted products to choose from, from carpets to jewellery, textiles to carvings. Artisan skills are passed down from generation to generation, and it is possible to find real bargains, as well as lasting reminders of your trip.

In big cities, you may want to try the government owned emporia, filled with local handicrafts. Prices here are generally slightly higher than they are in markets and individual shops, but quality is high and prices are fixed, which appeals to travellers who don't enjoy the Indian art of bargaining, and a browse here will give you an idea of what items are worth.

For those who do enjoy the interaction of haggling and securing a bargain, then there's plenty of fun (and more atmosphere) to be had visiting the colourful stalls and bazaars. There are no hard and fixed rules about bargaining, but seasoned shoppers advise getting an idea of what others are paying or of prices at different stalls, halving the starting price, and staying good humoured throughout. Don't mention a price you are not happy to pay - and don't reach an impasse over a sum which may not be significant for you but will certainly make an enormous difference to the seller.

There are a couple of tips to bear in mind - wherever you shop, if using a credit card, make sure it's processed in front of you and only once; be aware that guides and taxi/rickshaw-drivers will often insist on taking you to shops where they get a commission - politely and firmly decline if you don't want the diversion. Also be careful about shipping - it is not unknown for the wrong items or no items at all to arrive, so it's worth using reputable shops or posting the item yourself if you have your heart set on a sizeable purchase (you will be liable for import duty when returning them to the UK). Last but not least, never buy anything from threatened species, in particular avoid ivory and Shahtoosh shawls made from the endangered Tibetan antelope, which are in any case banned from export, as are skins of all animals, and musk. Export of antiquities and art objects over 100 years old is restricted.

There's plenty left to choose from, and the following items are particularly popular with travellers:

Carpets & dhurries: The hand-knotted carpets of Kashmir (found throughout India) are second only to Persian carpets for their finesse and intricacy, and are in fact based on Persian designs. It's worth buying from a reputable dealer, and if you're after a pure silk one, checking that the carpets are in fact made from silk by scraping the fluff with a knife and burning it - if it is real silk it will shrivel to nothing, and have a distinctive smell. The carpet should state on a label on the back that it is made in Kashmir and what it is made of. Dhurries made of flat woven cotton are also widely available, with some of the best made in Rajasthan.

Textiles: From the finest embroidered silk made in Varanasi, to the ikat produced in Gujarat, Orissa and Andhra, batiks from Bengal, block-printed and vibrant cottons from Rajasthan; India has an endless variety of textiles not to mention saris of every hue; perfect for hanging on walls or using as bedspreads, or in the case of saris, wearing. Bear in mind too that Indian tailors are skilled and cheap and can very quickly create clothing to order.

Jewellery: Socialites drip in gold studded with gems, colourful glass bangles are worn by all but the very poorest young girls - jewellery is something of an obsession in India. It ranges from exquisitely delicate filigree work to chunky tribal necklaces and bangles. In this instance, it is best to shop at reputable outlets and not at stalls, if you want the real thing. 

Wood craft: Carvings, seen all over India, are also popular souvenirs, and every region has its special wood, from sandalwood in Mysore to rosewood in the south.

Metal work: The range is as vast as you'd expect, from small and finely crafted silver pill boxes to copies of Chola bronzes. A popular choice is steel spice boxes.

Stoneware: The art of inlaying has remained important in India since the Taj Mahal was created. From small coasters to big tables, it is possible to find lovely pieces of white marble inlaid with fragments of gemstones in elegant patterns. Soapstone variations are cheaper, but softer.

Tipping

A tip of Rs 50 per bag would be appropriate for a bellboy carrying luggage in moderate hotels, more in luxury hotels. If service is not included in an upmarket restaurant then a ten per cent tip is appropriate, in more modest eateries, round off the bill with small change. Taxi drivers welcome, but don't necessarily expect small tips on top of fares, while rickshaw-wallahs should be tipped. If hiring a guide for the day, then allow for 1000 – 1500 Rs, and 500 Rs for a local driver for a day. Porters at stations and airports sometimes display a fixed rate (about 50 Rs per bag) but often haggle for more - fellow passengers should be able to advise as to what a fair rate is.

Where to eat

The more upmarket hotels in India generally boast more than a couple of restaurants each, serving everything from sophisticated European dishes to Indian classics expertly cooked.

Local restaurants vary of course, but pick those that are busy and with a high turnover. Some are entirely vegetarian, but all offer great value for money. There are tourist restaurants too, serving plainer fare, such as omelettes and chips, and fast food outlets should a craving for pizza or fried chicken strike.

Perhaps the most fun are street stalls, or diners along highways or near stations - known as Dhabas, or Udipis or Bhojanalayas - as with everywhere in India, check that food has not been hanging around for too long, pick those with long lines and freshly cooked dishes to be on the safe side. It's certainly the authentic option. And, if you are invited, or if you have a home stay in your itinerary, do seize the chance for a one-off experience, as each family has its own way of preparing every dish.

Wildlife

Once teeming in wildlife, India has seen a serious decline of many species, in particular the majestic tiger. However, there is still rich and varied wildlife to be found in the country, even if it is now concentrated in national parks. Natural habitats have been eroded so much by people and domesticated animals that National Reserves and sanctuaries are now the only places where sightings of some of the rarer species can be expected, however the number of reserves is growing, and there are programmes of reforestation and to preserve the coastline in place, in an attempt to preserve and to increase wild populations.

Below is a list of some of the larger animals you can expect to see while on safari in India. It does not include the numerous bird and reptiles that can be found, nor indeed all the animals, but there are good guides available with more room to celebrate the great diversity of wildlife in India. The Indian Wildlife Insight Guide is a good starting point. 

Bengal tiger

India is one of the very few places where tigers can still be glimpsed in the wild, often lying in long grass or stealthily moving through teak forests. The tiger has no natural enemies other than humans. To see one in one of the parks is to witness something incredibly rare, and their beauty and majesty never fails to impress.

Asiatic lion

Other Indian big cats have fared even worse than the tiger. Once prevalent, the Asiatic lion is now confined to Gir National Park in Gujarat. Shaggier than African lions, with smaller and darker manes, they are still an intimidating sight, with male lions weighing up to 230 kg.

Leopards

Although the mottled grey and black snow leopard of the Himalayas can still be seen, this is such a rare occurrence that these stunning animals have a touch of myth about them now. More common are the plains-dwelling leopards, with either the distinctive dotted coats or entirely black. Despite their name, they are more often seen in forested areas, with handy trees in which to hide carcasses three times their double weight.

Other big cats

Miniature leopard cats, caracals (a kind of lynx) and jungle cats (with a distinctive ridge of hair running down their backs), can also be spotted across India.

Asian elephants

The Indian elephant can be seen all over India, used in temple processions and ceremonies and also used as beasts of burden. Although they can be tamed and form close relationships with humans (as so well described in Travels on My Elephant, by Mark Shand) wild populations exist too, but like India's big cats, under constant threat from deforestation. The Asian Elephant can be distinguished from its African counterpart by its smaller size, rounder ears and long front legs.

Indian rhinoceros

Like African rhinos, the Indian rhino has been under threat from poaching as a result of misguided beliefs in the healing properties of their horns. In the 1960s, numbers had dropped to barely 100. However the protected wildlife sanctuaries of Manas and Kaziranga in Assam are now home to some 1000 rhinos. They have just one horn, and skin like body armour.

Sloth bears

Usually forest dwelling, sloth bears are quite comical looking, with their wobbly lower lips and long snouts. Their shaggy black coats are broken by a creamy yellow 'V' shape on their chests. They are at their most active (and noisy) at night.

Deer and antelopes

India has a wide variety of deer, from the solitary and elegant sambar, the largest of them all, to the spotted chital, smaller and often seen in herds. Antelopes include the endangered black buck, the nilgai ('blue cow') and the desert-loving gazelle known as the chinkana (the one who sneezes) due to the snorting alarm call it makes.

Monkeys

Monkeys, like elephants, are associated with divine status in Hindu mythology as noble servants of the gods. The most commonly seen are the cheeky Rhesus macaques and the black-faced langurs, often found around temple areas. Both varieties are not averse to a bit of pilfering, quite used to living near humans. Wild monkeys live in extensive troupes in the jungles of India.

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