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In the footsteps of the Raj
India is a mystical land of seductive images and is home to one sixth of the world's population. Its intoxicating rich history can be traced back to at least 2500 BC when the first known civilisation settled along the Indus River. The influx of Moghuls in the 1520s from Central Asia maintained effective control of the north until the mid 18th century when at the end of 18th century as the Moghul Empire declined the British took control of the whole subcontinent.
India has been a democratic republic since 1947 but prior to Independence 40% of the subcontinent was ruled by royalty. Over the years India has been known for its architectural splendour, tremendous grandeur and majesty and nowhere is it more evident that in the many royal forts, palaces and homes and retreats that dot the country's landscape. It is in these royal homes that you can see the ultimate in craftsmanship of Indian artists be it in stone, clay, leather, wood. Such a rich history has spawned palaces, temples and monuments with the most frequently part visited is the Golden Triangle.
The country can be divided into three distinct geographic regions: the Himalayan region in the north, which contains some of the highest mountains in the world, the Gangetic Plain and the plateau in the south and central part. The climate in India varies from region to region but is hot and tropical with the coolest months being December to February and the monsoon rains occur in most regions between June and September. Each region has its own speciality when it comes to cuisine and curries are created from the subtle and delicate blending of spices such as turmeric, cardamom, ginger, coriander, nutmeg and poppy seed and Chai(tea) is India's favourite drink.
The jungle will lure you with its great variety of flora and fauna as diverse as its cultural fabric. The western part of the country has Gir Forest in Gujarat which is the only surviving home of the Asiatic lion, the arid Rann of Kutch also in Gujarat is home to the wild ass, the Western Ghats, which stretch along the entire west coast right up to Kerala have the Kaziaranga national park which is home to the one-horned rhinoceros and Keilbul Lamjao national park in Manipur is known for its rare Thamin Deer. In West Bengal the swamps of Sundarbans National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is home to more than 200 Royal Bengal Tigers who have developed the unique characteristic of swimming in the saline waters and are world famous for their man-eating tendencies.
In the north sanctuaries like Corbett national park are best known as tiger and leopard reserves while others in Kashmir preserve the natural habitat for the snow leopard. The Ngarhole National Park is Karnataka is home to sloth bear, jungle cat, civet, spotted deer and elephants, near Mysore is the Mudumalai sanctuary famous for gaur and wild elephant. Wandering about a sanctuary and witnessing the wildlife is a fascinating experience and nothing can match the thrill of spotting a striped predator amidst the tall grass or the wetlands, seeing herds of wild elephants in their natural habitat or watching a peacock dance in splendour.
Delhi is one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world and was a major city in the old trade routes from northwest India to the Gangetic Plains. Encounter the two sides of Delhi, New Delhi is a modern city offering Lutyens architecture whilst Old Delhi is several centuries old, with narrow, winding streets, temples and bazaars, see the Red Fort, the nearby Jama Masjid India´s largest mosque and the Qutab Minar's soaring tower.
New Delhi was declared the capital of India after India gained Independence from British rule in 1947 and lies in northern India and has a semi-arid climate with high variation between summer and winter temperatures.
The Taj Mahal is a mausoleum located in Agra and was built under Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal. The Taj is considered the finest example of Mughal architecture and in 1983 became a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In 1631 Shah Jahan emperor during Mughal´s period of great prosperity was grief stricken when his third wife Mumtaz Mahl died during the birth of their fourteenth child, Gauhra Begum. The court chronicles of Shah Jahan's grief illustrates the love story traditionally held as an inspiration for Taj Mahal. The construction began soon after Mumtaz's death with the principal mausoleum completed in 1648 and the surrounding garden and buildings were finished five years later.
Mumbai, a bustling port and commercial centre of India, was formerly known as Bombay and is the capital of the state of Maharashtra. Mumbai is the most populous city in the world and is located on seven now-merged islands and lies at the mouth of the Ulhas river off the west coast of India. Mumbai is one of the world's top 10 centres of commerce in terms of global financial flow and the city is home to Bollywood the largest film industry in the world. Located off the west coast of India, Mumbai has a deep natural sea harbour and is one of the few cities in the world that accommodates a national park, the Sanjay Gandhi National Park, within the city limits.
Chennai was formerly known as Madras and is the capital of the state of Tamil Nadu on the Coromandel coast of the Bay of Bengal. The city was established in the seventeenth century by the British who developed it into a major urban centre and naval base. By the twentieth century it had become an important administrative centre and is divided into four parts. Chennai lies on the thermal equator and is also coastal, which prevents extreme variation in seasonal temperature. For most of the year, the weather is hot and humid with the hottest part of the year is late May and early June, with maximum temperatures around 38/42. The coolest part of the year is January, with minimum temperatures around 1920 AC.
Jaipur one of the most heritage cities in India, also popularly known as the Pink City, is the capital of Rajasthan state and is built of pink stucco in imitation of sandstone. Five quarters wrap around the east, south, and west sides of a central palace quarter, with a sixth quarter immediately to the east. Jal Mahal is located in Jaipur and the Rajput style Winter Palace sits in the centre of the Man Sarobr lake. The lake is often dry in the summer but winter monsoons frequently turn it into a beautiful lake filled with water hyacinths. The Palace quarter encloses a sprawling complex, the Hawa Mahal or Palace of Winds, formal gardens and a small lake.
Nahargarh Fort crowns the hill in the northwest corner of the old city. The Amber Palace complex overlooking the artificial lake south of the town of Amber, is one of the most popular tourist sites in the city, famous for its mixture of Hindu and Muslim architecture and offering elephant rides from the town up to the palace courtyard.
Pushkar, in the state of Rajasthan is one of Hinduism's holiest places and legend relates that when Brahma killed a demon with a lotus flower the petals fell to the ground in three places. Where the petals fell lakes sprang up and one fell in Pushkar and pilgrims congregate here at this time of year to make an occasion. The cattle, horse and cattle market which is the world's largest livestock fair, and coincides with the pilgrimage which always falls at full moon during the Hindu month of November. The normally quiet town gets around 20,000 pilgrims, traders and tourists during this four day period and you will see acrobats, tight-rope walkers, snake charmers, fire eaters and more along with camel and bullock races, a very memorable trip.
In the foothills of the Himalayas, overlooked by the white peaks of Kanchenjunga the exotic town of Darjeeling has been a popular hill station since the British established it in the mid 19th century. There are the most spectacular views of the snow capped Himalayan peaks including Mt Everest and Kanchenjunga and you can enjoy the Hill Stations as a retreat from the heat of the plains.
Darjeeling Hill Station is dotted with more than 70 tea plantations and is one of the world''s most famous tea growing centres, plantations were started here in 1840's. There are a number of monasteries and temples in the area and the Himalayan Zoological Park is the only centre in India for the captive breeding of Snow Leopards. The Darjeeling Himalayan railway, nicknamed the " Toy Train" is a 610 mm narrow gauge railway from Siliguri to Darjeeling and runs through jungle, pine forests and tea gardens and is still powered by a steam engine and since 1999 has been a World Heritage Site as listed by UNESCO.
Wonder at Kashmir's flower-spangled meadows, icy mountain peaks and clear rivers and sample the world renowned Kashmiri cuisine. The quiet sparkling waters of Lake Dal surrounded by snow-capped mountains on its three sides undoubtedly mark it as one of the most beautiful lakes in India. Houseboats form an indelible part of the scenery of the Dal Lake that are always ready to take tourists to a romantic and peaceful ride on the lake and soothe their nerves as the houseboat floats over the slightly rippling waters. The shores of the Lake houses the distinct Moghul monuments and the campus of the University of Kashmir while the two hillocks overlooking the lake house Shankaracharya and Hari Parbat temples. The glorious Mughal gardens on its shores contribute to the beauty of the Dal Lake.
Ladakh, a mountainous, semi-autonomous region in northern India, borders Pakistan, the disputed region of Kashmir and the Chinese autonomous regions of Xinjiang and Tibet. Unsurprisingly, given its location, Ladakh has served as a cultural and trading crossroads for more than 1,000 years. Yet even its historical importance has not made Ladakh which is sandwiched by the Himalayan and Karakoram mountain ranges particularly accessible. Only two main roads run to the region, and snow renders them impassable for some seven or eight months each year. Ladakh can then only be reached by flights into the regional capital of Leh.
This inaccessibility has helped preserve a traditional, Buddhist culture in the region's central and eastern parts, one that in many ways resembles that of its neighbour, Tibet. Tibet, however, is 10 times the size of Ladakh and gets 250 times the number of visitors. Ladakh also does not endure nearly as much pressure to change from the Indian government as Tibet sees from the Chinese government.
The backwaters of Kerala are what have given it the sobriquet "God's Own Country". They are a network of lakes, rivers and canals fringing the coast of Kerala and were formed by the action of waves and shore currents creating low barrier islands across the mouths of the many rivers flowing down from the Western Ghat range. The network includes five large lakes linked by canals, both man made and natural, fed by 38 rivers, and extending virtually half the length of Kerala state.
Meander through these backwaters on an open boat called a kettuvallam into a timeless land replete with postcard towns and ancient trading post. The huge coconut trees provide an apt backdrop and perhaps you can even eavesdrop on the strains of an oarsman's song. More than 400 kettuvallams ply the backwaters and were traditionally used as grain barges to transport rice harvested in the fertile fields alongside the backwaters.
The Kuttanad region is a vast area of partly reclaimed land, covered with bright green paddy fields, separated by dikes. The level of water is a few feet higher than the level of the surrounding land and it is an amazing labyrinth of shimmering waterways composed of lakes, canals, rivers and rivulets. Lined with dense tropical greenery, it offers a glimpse into rural life-styles of Kerala. The village of Kumarakom is a cluster of little islands on the Vembanad Kayal, and is part of the Kuttanad region and is enthrallingly beautiful. The blue backwaters of Vembanad Kayal and the amazing shades of green of the vegetation, combines with the quietness of the place to make it an idyllic holiday destination.
Kasargod in north Kerala is a beautiful backwater destination known for rice cultivation, coir processing and lovely landscape, it has the sea to the west and the Western Ghats to the north and east. Chandragiri is situated 4 km to the southeast of Kasargod town and takes tourists to the historic Chandragiri fort. Valiyaparamba is a scenic backwater stretch near Kasargod. Four rivers flow into the backwaters near Kasargod and there are many small islands along these backwater stretches, where birds can be seen. The backwaters around Thiruvallam are a beautiful sight and are just 6 km from Thiruvananthapuram, the state capital.
It was in the late 1950s to mid-1960s that hippies started visiting Anjuna beach in Goa and started these rave beach parties wherein they would sing and dance through the night under the vast blue sky lit only by moonlight. Full Moon parties in Anjuna are still fabulous and held here for the young tourists particularly during Christmas and New Year.
Jaisalmer, nicknamed "The Golden City", is situated on the border of India and Pakistan in the state of Rajasthan. The town stands on a ridge of yellowish sandstone, crowned by a fort which contains the palace and several ornate Jain temples and lies at the heart of the Thar Desert. The climate is dry and healthy and while Jaisalmer may always have been remote it is filled with artistic structures and monuments of local historical importance and the surrounding desolate landscape evidences a stark austere beauty.
Jaisalmer's medieval mud fortress and walled township make it a popular tourist destination. This is a living fort and about a quarter of the city's population still live inside the fort. The main attractions inside the fort are Raj Mahal, the Royal Palace, Jain temples and the Laxminath temple. Camel safaris through the nearby desert dunes are popular with tourists and a few quiet days spent wandering around the town and the surrounding desert can be a wonderful way of unwinding from the chaos of the larger Indian cities.
Lake Pichola, the lake of islands, is the most celebrated lake of all that there are in Udaipur. In the backdrop of overlooking city palace this shimmering body of crystal clear blue water is a treat for the eyes and captivates the imagination of visitors in the first glimpse. Lake Pichola, the Lake of Enchantment, was originally named as the Badipol and stretched over many kilometres shimmering like a Jewel in the Crown, nestling amidst the heart of Udaipur around which the entire city revolves.
According to legends Maharna Udai Singh II was hunting in the foothills of the Aravalli Range where he met a hermit. The hermit blessed the King and asked him to build a palace on Lake Pichola that would be well protected from surprise enemies. At the time when Mughal Emperor Akbar captured the ancient capital of Maharanas - Chittaurgarh, the then Maharana Chittaur, Udai Singh moved to the blessed capital which later earned the name of Udaipur Admist the blue lake of divine beauty lies the charismatic Lake Palace, now a luxurious heritage palace hotel where inside the royal rooms are a treasure trove embellished with furnishings once crowning the personal suites of Maharahas of Udaipur. The lake remains fairly shallow due to heavy rainfalls and requires many hot season to dry up.
The Ganges is a major river in the Indian subcontinent flowing east through the plains of northern India into Bangladesh and begins at the Gangotri glacier in the state of Uttarakhand in the central Himalayas and drains into the Bay of Bengal through its vast delta in the Sunderbans. Since millenia India's Hindus have worshipped the Ganges in its personified form as the Goddess Ganaga. Varanasi is one of the continuously inhabited cities in the world dating back thousands of years and is considered holy by Hindus, Buddists & Jains.
Varanasi is often referred to as "city of temples and learning" and the culture of Varanasi is deeply associated with the river Ganges and the river's religious importance. Varanasi is a holy city in Hinduism, one of the most sacred pilgrimage places for Hindus of all denominations and a city of temples. Regions near the banks of the Ganges are extremely crowded and house several Hindu temples, narrow winding lanes and road-side shops, the main residential areas of Varanasi are situated in regions far from the ghat and are more spacious and less polluted.
Varanasi has nearly 100 ghats, most of which are bathing ghats, while some others are for cremation most built when the Marathas controlled the city. Even today many of the ghats are privately owned, Shivala or Kali ghat is still owned by the former Maharaja of Kashi. Various legends are associated with the ghats and it is believed that Dasawamedh Ghat is where Lord Brahma sacrificed 10 horses in a yajna. Manikarnika Ghat is the place where Lord Vishnu dug a pit with his Chakra and, while performing various penances, filled it with his perspiration. While Lord Shiva was watching him, his earring,(Manik), fell into the pit, and hence the name.
The Lakshadweep islands, the name means a hundred thousand islands, are situated in the Arabian Sea 400 kms off the coast of Kerala and are a collection of coral islands and atolls. They are the smallest of the Union territories of India and the country's only coral island, the underwater view at Lakshdweep is kaleidoscopic and breathtaking and the nature is unspoiled, undisturbed and serene with throngs of sandpipers on the shore.
The marine life is spectacular with sharks, green turtles, barracudas and oriental sweet lip fish and lush coconut groves, tranquil lagoons and long stretches of white sun-drenched beaches await you where the only sounds are the crash of waves and the breeze blowing through the swaying palm trees. The spell bound expanse of these stunning emerald islands unfolds itself into another world in itself. Here you can sleep by the sea with the night sky as your ceiling and have the most peaceful dreams.
Ten of the islands are inhabited out of which Kadmat and the uninhabited island of Bangaram are open to non-Indians, permits are available from the tourist office in Cochin. The peace-loving people of these islands speak a language close to Kerala and their lifestyle revolves around coconut cultivation, coir matting and fishing.
Kadmat island, surrounded on the eastern and western side by the lagoon, is a haven and was once a trading post for the ancient Romans. There are cross currents located between the islands of Amini and Kadmatdrift with schools of Fusilier and sharks. Bangaram, a place on the edge of the world, a little bit of paradise, is a tear drop shaped island surrounded by a continuous strip of creamy sand, the waters are blue-green of the Indian Ocean and offer an irresistible invitation to scuba dive.
Exquisite black coral formations along with angel fish, clown fish, butterfly, sting rays, mantas groupers etc and the wreck of the Princess Royal at 32 m, sunk in a battle over two hundred years ago, are just some of the joys of this delightful island. You might even get escorted by dolphins. The islands are reached by a twenty four sea journey from Kochin or plane to Agatti and then private boat transfer to your resort.
On the east coast of India the rich forested islands of Andaman & Nicobar lie scattered and shimmering like emeralds in the Bay of Bengal. There are 572 islands in the territory of which only some 38 are permanently inhabited and they lie along an arc in a long and narrow unbroken chain over a distance of nearly 80 kms. Most of the islands, about 550, are in the Andamans groups, 26 of which are inhabited and the smaller Nicobars comprise some 22 main islands, 10 inhabited.
The Andamans and Nicobars are separated by a channel, the Ten Degree Channel some 150 kms wide, and were shrouded in mystery for centuries because of their inaccessibility and are a paragon of beauty. The islands form an idyllic archipelago of gleaming white sandy beaches and crystal-clear, turquoise sea teeming with fish and picturesque coral reefs. The tropical rain forests loom close to the seashore and are home to a unique species of wildlife and to tribes that still haven't learned to use fire. A dense forest, which covers these islands, and the innumerable exotic flowers and birds, create a highly poetic and romantic atmosphere.
The lush green islands have a colourful historical past and the Celluar Jail was where hundreds of Indian revolutionary prisoners were imprisoned during the Indian freedom structure. Descendants of these political prisoners and the local tribes of the area are the inhabitants of modern Nicobar & Andaman. It is possible to reach the capital Port Blair by air from both Kolkata and Chennai or a weekly boat which takes three -four days. The waters around Port Blair have a spectacular bio-diversity and are wonderful conditions for experienced divers.
Cinque Island has clear emerald water with a visibility of up to 80 feet, Snake island has awesome rock faces whilst Havelock island, four hours by boat from the capital Port Blair, has largely unexplored dive sites rich in underwater marine life.
The Great Andamanese were once the largest population among the various tribes inhabiting the Andaman islands and in 1789 their population was estimated to be 10,000. By 1901 their number had decreased to 625 and by 1969 to only just 19 but by 1999 their number had increased to 41 and the Administration is doing their best to protect and preserve these tribes who have been rehabilitated to the Strait Island.
These people are foragers and today they eat rice, dal chapati and other modern food articles although at times they still go hunting and gathering and of late they have established poultry farms. They are exposed to highly communicable diseases besides unhealthy drinking habits acquired after contact with the modern day world and they are now friendly and voluntarily seek medical assistance.
The Sentinelese are the inhabitants of North Sentinel island and are probably the world's only Paleolithic people surviving today without contact with any other group or community. They are very hostile and never leave their island and very little is known about this tribe.
There is so much more to tell you about India, a stunningly beautiful country, with friendly people, rich in history and with amazing wildlife. Come to "Incredible India", meet the people and see the country for yourself. You will be amazed and l am sure will want to stay awhile, maybe buy a palace, fort or even a kettuvallam in Kerala.