To me, India has always represented the ultimate adventure; a mystic land, rich in history and culture, full of secret spots to discover.
For as long as I can remember, I dreamed of seeing the Virupaksha Temple in person and catching a glimpse of an actual tiger, or taking in the grand majesty of the Taj Mahal and immersing myself in the Festival of Colours.
So when I indulged my inner travel bug with a backpacking trip around India, I was ready for the adventure of a lifetime. What I saw was very much a melting pot of a country, shaped by its complex history and unique culture, driven forward by its people.
By travelling off the beaten track, I got to see more than just your usual tourist traps. What I saw was a very different India; one full of natural wonders and architectural marvels, exotic culture and unique insights into life. There’s too much to cover in one sitting, but here are some of the highlights.
A World of Natural Wonders
Geographically, the country sits in one of the planet’s most volatile zones. Its climate and location can wreak havoc on the landscape and people’s lives. Cyclones, droughts, landslides and flash floods all make the news once in a while, but it is their frequency and ferocity that have a lasting effect on the country.
The silver lining of such an eventful region though is the phenomenal natural landscape. Rugged Himalayas to the north, tropical Indian Ocean to the south, and all manner of deserts, wetlands, forests, caves, coastlines, lakes and rivers between.
Some noteworthy natural wonders to visit:
- Dudhsagar Falls
Translates to “Sea of Milk” this four-tier waterfall is on the Mandovi River and is a picture-perfect, jaw-dropping example of a waterfall
- Living Root Bridges
There is something about the thrill of a rope bridge, but a living root bridge is a whole other story. A once in a lifetime experience that really gives you the best of both worlds, at one with nature and adventure
- Floating Lakes
The floating lakes, with their polka dot “phumdis” islands, look unreal. Part of India’s unique landscape, they are a great sight to see first-hand
- Doddabetta Peak (Nilgiri) or Manali (Kullu Valley)
Rugged mountains are part of what makes India’s scenery so breath-taking. Manali is simply stunning, offering everything from snow sports and lakes, to Hindu temples and Buddhist monasteries. Doddabetta Peak is part of the blue mountains, with plenty of lush pine forest and lakes, as well as unique wildlife to see
- Bandhavgarh National Park
If, like me, you dream of spying a real life tiger or deer, this is the national park for you. Thanks to the high density of this big cat’s population, a safari trip (by Jeep or Elephant!) means a good chance of seeing a Bengal in the flesh.
Embracing Cultural Delights
Indian culture is both vibrant and varied. The diversity of India can be found in its languages, its music, its cuisine, and more. One thing is certain though; you need to experience it all first-hand.
You could argue that “Indian culture” is almost too broad a phrase, as you will find a number of different cultures across the country, all influenced by different ancestry, religions, philosophy, historical events and customs.
For a sample of India’s cultural delights, check out:
- The Food
One of the most incredible things about India is the food. How it looks, how it smells, and of course, how it tastes! Spices and herbs are used a lot for flavour, and there are lots of vegetarian dishes to get stuck into. Curry (which originated in India) will make an appearance or two, and it is certainly worth noting Indian confectionery. Interestingly, the food is regionally split, with very different tastes found in northern, southern, eastern, western and north-eastern cuisine.
- The Entertainment
Indian culture is very much centred on its art forms; music, dance, film and epics. From formal and narrative dances to more free and folksy moves, dance is considered a high form of art, romantic, expressive, communicative and fun. Music is also integral to Indian culture, deeply rooted in its history. From traditional folk to contemporary Indian pop, there is a music style for every occasion (note: I am not a firm fan of authentic sitar and tabla music!). Films often incorporate or adapt traditional Epics, using song and dance as key parts of the story – and the Bollywood scene is big!
- The Festivals
The festivals in India follow the different schools of religious and philosophical thought, and this is superb because with such a multi-cultural and multi-religious population, festivals are in no short supply. Popular events are the Hindu Holi or Festival of Colours (where you have likely seen people throwing powdered dyes) and Buddhist Vesak (a celebration that involves offerings of flowers, candles and joss-sticks for the teachers or monks) and Hindu Bathukamma (a festival of flowers).
The influences on Indian architecture are as broad as those on the culture – eclectic to say the least. There are ancient villages and temples, influenced by tribal and religious (Buddhist, Hindu, Islamic) styles. In towns and cities, colonial rule brought Victorian and Gothic styles too, which can be seen in some of the older buildings in Mumbai and Delhi. Yet more architectural change can be seen in newer cityscapes, with a mix of art deco and contemporary backdrops making for a very cosmopolitan feel.
A broad snapshot of India’s architectural styles can be seen at landmarks like:
- Lotus Temple
A contemporary temple in New Delhi, this is certainly a noticeable landmark. Constructed to imitate a lotus from the ground and the air, it is certainly unique
- Taj Mahal
Considered one of the new seven wonders of the world, this white marble mausoleum is one of the world’s most famous landmarks.
- Khajuraho Temples/ Virupaksha Temple
A feat of ancient engineering, as well as a stunning example of archetypal Indian architecture, these temples are well worth a visit, just to see the carvings
- ChhatrapatiShivaji Terminus
A pristine example of the Victorian influence on Mumbai architecture, this terminus building is an imposing and impressing part of the city’s skyline
- Ajanta/Ellora Caves
Centuries old, these monuments are cut out of caves and surrounded by stunning natural beauty; still standing as a World Heritage Site, in their lifetime they served as monasteries, temples and shelter
A New Perspective
One of the most remarkable things about India is its personality. Despite the destinations and cultural experiences, I was most captivated by the life and the spirit of its cities and villages, as well as those living within.
Cities like Mumbai and Delhi are having a growth spurt. Their personalities are bright, big and growing. They are either at or working towards the forefront of the world economy, science, technology, etc. It is an exciting place to be and an exciting transition to witness.
Village life is an eye-opener too. These people have a far harder life than many of us can imagine, faced with floods and famines. However tough rural life gets though, villagers are usually content – but that doesn’t stop them working to better themselves and their circumstances. They don’t simply accept handouts from charity. They will work with a charity to combat poverty and water crises in a sustainable way.
This is the kind of determination and personality that demands respect and admiration; more than a place to explore, India is a country to learn from.
My incredible Indian adventure was an exhilarating and educational experience; one which I highly recommend to those of you in love with exploring the world and all it has to offer. It enabled me to discover natural and man-made wonders, and challenged both my own whimsical idea of the country, and the narrow media narrative that it is a charity-case of a nation. India was everything I hoped for and more!