India is beloved by many travelers who have visited its palaces, temples, and ancient ruins, and is a coveted destination for those who have yet to go. My first encounter with the country was full of flavors and adventures. Even as someone born to the India diaspora, I was amazed by the wonders of a place that felt overwhelmingly foreign, even if aspects of its culture were deeply familiar. It is unlike any other country. Fragmented, diverse, wild, devout, and alarming, too, in many ways.
Here are 12 observations from my journey that should help when you make your trip, once the pandemic ends and it is safe to travel.
1. The Wagah Border Spectacle Is an Eye-opener
One of the oddest bits of theatre on the globe takes place daily on the imaginary line that separates India and Pakistan. The Wagah Border crossing ceremony attracts a stadium-sized crowd on both sides of the line. They come to watch the border forces of each nation parade in front of one another, goose-stepping, flexing muscles, and staring down their rivals with ferocious eyes. Then they lower their respective flags, exchange conciliatory gestures, and say goodnight. It’s a spectacle that has been going on for more than 50 years. If soldiers from the two feuding sides can get along well enough to do this, one must wonder why their governments can’t ease the tensions everywhere else.
The Indian contingent in the city of Wagah fill a stadium of about 5,000 people while the Pakistani crowd, located in Attari, is only a few hundred and are far more reserved. The Indian group features girls and women dancing unabashedly to upbeat Bollywood beats while a military version of a hypeman builds up the crowd’s enthusiasm before the goose-stepping and chest-pounding antics start.
The Wagah Border, located in the state of Punjab, is about one hour by car from Amritsar. Guided tours can be purchased for about $30, including round-trip transportation from Amritsar and entrance into the India-Pakistan Wagah Border Stadium.
2. Wake Up to India’s Coffee Country
Perhaps the most stunning realization of my visit to India was the quality of the coffee. More than 250,000 coffee growers operate in the country, with the southern state of Karnataka accounting for most of them. My java experience was at Tamara Coorg, a luxury resort on a 184-acre coffee plantation in the Western Ghats mountain range. The resort is world class in every way and includes guided coffee tours where you learn in detail what mix of beans and craftsmanship distinguishes premium, robust coffee from the rest. Each of the 29 cottages and 56 rooms at Tamara Coorg comes with its own French press and ground coffee that is so good, so smooth, it rivals the famous beans from South American countries. (READ MORE: “Tamara Coorg Rises Above in Southern India”)
3. Amritsar’s Golden Temple Inspires
Every night at around 10 o’clock the jaw-droppingly incredible Golden Temple hosts a remarkable ceremony. The Sikh religion’s holy book, Guru Granth Sahib, is placed inside a palanquin of gold and carried into the temple by eight people while worshippers chant songs from scripture. Witnessing the procession provided a level of understanding of the devoutness of the Sikhs that I had not known. And you have to give them credit — who wouldn’t want a reason to walk slowly into such an amazing building every night?
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The day experience at the temple is just as impactful, thanks to one of the most fascinating dining traditions in the world. Every day at the Golden Temple volunteers serve thousands of free, delicious vegetarian meals to anyone and everyone who enters the dining hall called the Langar. It includes dal, chapati, rice, and kir pudding. Whether you’re Sikh, atheist, agnostic, or of any faith you will appreciate the goodness involved — and the flavours, too!
4. The Zaniness of Chandni Chowk
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Dating to the 1600s, Chandni Chowk is a market and retail area that feels like it hasn’t aged since its founding. Shabby and unkempt in some parts, but with luxury items in many corners, the market is one of the leading attractions in Old Delhi. A rickshaw ride will transport you through this most bizarre of bazaars. It is a head-spinning ride that takes you into tiny passages populated by store upon store upon store of fashion retailers, spice sellers, antique dealers, and more.
The traffic is intense. At one point a car tried moving through the streets, causing a brutally long traffic jam in 104 Fahrenheit-degree (40 Celsius) heat and causing my driver to pull out his hair as he waited in agony for the disruption to end.
5. Wildlife Safari Wonders
Tigers are the draw for wildlife safaris in India but elephants, mongooses, and even black panthers are also potential sights in the jungles. The Nagarahole National Park in Karnataka offers prime viewing opportunities through game drives offered by nearby safari lodges. Consider staying at KAAV, an eco-lodge with luxury tents as well as spacious rooms located in a forest setting. (READ MORE: “A Southern India Lodge with Environmentalist Drive”)
6. Go Behind the Taj Mahal
The Taj Mahal is every bit as outstanding as its reputation. To see it from a different perspective and to understand life in Agra, the home of the Taj, take the enthralling “Beyond the Taj” experience — easily the best tour I took in India. Led by kind, honest, and hospitable guide, Vijendra (VJ) Singh, the tour includes visits with families who live in the shadow of the Taj. They welcome you to their homes, offer cooking lessons on how to make chapati and masala chai, and discuss their agrarian life.
We also dropped in on a school, where some proceeds from the tour help to provide facilities for the students. The classmates welcomed my 1-year-old son into their classroom and were delighted that he could participate, even for just a few minutes. (Agra is in the state of Uttar Pradesh, home to my maternal ancestors, and following the tour my family and I donated to help improve washroom facilities for girls. Drop-out rates among female students rise when they become adolescents and self-conscious. Modern bathroom facilities have proven to help keep them in school.)
7. The Poverty Is Stark
India is a land of the destitute. It is heartbreaking to see the depth of suffering and the unendingness of it, too. You feel helpless in the midst of homeless lepers and street people with blank eyes and desperate trinket sellers eager for your business. Among the sadness live some people who cross the line of decency and visitors need to be aware and alert. In Amritsar, along its pristine new boulevard, a pair of women hustled behind me for a half-mile, grabbing my arm and simultaneously trying to pull it free of my body and stuff it with some gewgaw that would command payment had I taken it. In Bangalore, while our bus was stopped for an extended period, a group of men spotted my Caucasian wife and exposed themselves while leering with depraved eyes. In general, there is a level of misogyny among too many men in India that is disturbing and dangerous, and a reason I have written previously that the culture of India — with its goddesses and Kama Sutra charms and Bollywood myths — is the most over-romanticized country in the world. It is a place with harsh undertones and you should arrive with open eyes.
8. The Architecture of Mysore
The former seat of power, Mysore (or Mysuru), is India’s city of palaces. You can spend a day driving from one beautiful mansion to another, learning about the history of Tipu Sultan, an emperor who thwarted the British through three wars, only to die in the fourth conflict against the colonial invaders in 1799. Under Sultan’s reign, Mysore became a major center of wealth, commerce, and military might.
The Mysore Palace remains the nation’s No. 2-visited attraction (after the Taj Mahal), hosting 6 million tourists each year. The home to maharajas like Tipu Sultan from the Wadiyar dynasty, the palace is similar to Versailles in terms of the enormity of its buildings. It includes a Hindu temple and ornate halls with European touches. Its exterior includes 96,000 bulbs that are illuminated on weekends and special occasions. (READ MORE: “A Thrilling New Jeep Tour Through Mysuru”)
Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj International is Mumbai’s dynamic airport, filled with elegant shops, outstanding and diverse food choices, and friendly staff. It has a book store with a large Mohandas Gandhi statue that also sells souvenirs and ethically made clothing. Delhi’s Indira Ghandi International Airport is similarly well-appointed, modern, and easy to navigate. Both airports have been named the world’s best by different organizations who judge such awards. Soon to join them in stature, it seems, is Bangalore’s Kempegowda International Airport, which is completing a massive renovation project that is scheduled to serve an additional 20 million passengers starting in 2021.
10. New Delhi’s Hotel Gems
The Imperial New Delhi and Andaz Delhi are two very different hotels, and both are fabulous. The Imperial is the historic showcase of the capital, with proper European-inspired hospitality and stylings. The Andaz is a sleek, modern property with hip staff members who dress in denim and carry tablet computers to check you in from anywhere in the lobby. The Imperial has two outstanding and stately restaurants while the Andaz has a market-style food emporium that serves all kinds of choices for a breakfast that would satisfy the most glutton or famished.
The Imperial is laden with history. In its early days, it was an integral part of political discussions that led to Partition and the creation of the India and Pakistan border. Now, it’s as fine of a large metropolitan hotel as you can find. The service at the family-owned property is impeccable and the artwork is museum-worthy.
The Andaz is part of the Hyatt empire and is dubbed a “concept hotel” because of its freshness and outside-the-box approach to hospitality.
11. Goa Is India for Beginners
A Portuguese colony from 1505-1961, Goa feels European and it is in many ways. Its architecture is reminiscent of Iberia and it observes numerous Catholic celebrations. There’s even a Carnival in honor of Lent. Beyond those aspects, Goa will also feel familiar to Western travelers because of its beach culture, nightclubs, laid-back atmosphere, and sense of prosperity (its GDP is the highest in the country and more than twice the average of the rest of the country, making it the wealthiest state in India). Among the smile-inducing moments I had was an encounter with a spice seller at Mapusa market who wanted me to enjoy his spices so much he gifted me 300-rupees ($4.50) worth of cardamom seeds to take back to Canada.
Goa is replete with beaches. I stayed mostly on Baga Beach, prior to the pandemic hitting. Even then, it was easy for people to spread out on the wide beach that stretches on forever. You never feel crowded and at most of the clubs the loud music doesn’t start til night so you can enjoy the sound of the waves coming in from the Arabian Sea and the sensation of nature during the day. Though it’s a touristy beach, Baga is pleasant because it’s not overly commercialized or filled with traffic day and night.
12. The Joy and Torment of the Gandhi Smriti
Gandhi’s final 144 days were spent in Delhi, starting in September 1947. His home was at the Birla House, now the site of the museum devoted to his life. Among the exhibits at Gandhi Smriti are accent boxes created by children that commemorate the non-violent Dandi Salt March of 1930 that staggered the British. Birla House is also where Gandhi was assassinated. You will be amazed anew by the Father of India when you visit — and there will be emotions, too. Be prepared for a moving experience that is a must during your stay in India’s capital city.