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India : Not Just a Land of Snake Charmers
International media sources often present countries in the light that best suits their corporate interests. South Africa, for example, is either the continent’s beacon of democracy or a country on the brink of violent self-destruction. Similarly India is also looked as a nation stricken with mass poverty, violence and overpopulation; let me shed some light on India that I live in. Born and brought up in India I find it to be a series of enigmas that I find it difficult to describe. We have the world of the software houses with employees that seem well versed in a specific language but naive when it comes to understanding business. There are the call centers that foreigners like to complain about and solve their dilemma. India has a space program and atomic bomb. ISRO (Indian Space Research Organisation) have successfully launched rocket for mars mission which costed 34 millions cheaper than the movie “The Martian”; and also holds record of launching 104 satellites in single mission. Sitting upon layers upon layers of history, there is perhaps no other country on Earth as India is. It is a land which has a rich ancient history and deep cultural roots. A visit to India is sure to be unlike any other place one can visit in the world. Here are some reasons to visit the world largest democracy:
1. Incredible Diversity.
There is an incomprehensible amount of diversity in India, and yet amidst the diversity there is unity. Geographically, India is quite diverse from highest snow-capped mountain range in the north to the pristine beaches in south, golden desert in west and lush green with living root bridges and tribal territory to the east. India has over 15 regional language and literally thousands of local languages and dialects, which sometimes make it difficult even for Indians to roam around in different regions.
I remember visiting Southern region of India along with my friends. We planned to hire a “tuk tuk” (rickshaw) for the whole evening. The problem arise when the driver could only speak the local language; we tried to explain him with help of hand gestures and few English words we thought which he could understand that we need to hire the vehicle for the whole evening, which lead to total confusion and disaster. When we reached our destination he asked for full payment. I told him we would pay him once we return back to our hotel which resulted into a comic argument of hand gesturing, sign language with few English words thrown here and there. Luckily we spotted a cop and explained him our situation, he spoke to the driver and found out the cause of confusion. After some exchange of not-so-polite words, cop informed us, much to our dismay, that drivers had charged us double to drop us to the beach as it was quite far away from the city. Guessing that we were tourist, the cop went over and spoke to the driver and informed us that the driver will wait for 2 hours and return us back to our hotels for the same decided rate. We went on to enjoy our evening; while returning back, the driver asked if we would try some authentic local treats as the shop was on our way back. We returned to our hotel late evening after tasting some finger-licking delicacies and tipping the driver 100Rs for his friendly and helping nature.
2. History and Architecture
India is an exceptionally beautiful and architecturally diverse country with forts, palaces, churches, mosques, temples, monuments and ancient ruins. Home to the world’s oldest civilization, the Indus valley civilization, its architectural styles have evolved under the influence of countless dynasties as well as the colonial period. There are currently 35 UNESCO World Heritage-listed sites (as of July 2016) across the nation, making India a treasure trove for history buffs and design and architectural enthusiasts.
From the Islamic architecture in the north to hill forts and cave temples in western region to rock cut and temple architecture in south and Buddhist architecture in Eastern region, India boost of many architectural styles and techniques. My personal favorite is the Taj Mahal and it’s a must-see. I’ve been there twice and can confidently say that there isn’t any man made structure that comes close to its beauty. The Taj Mahal is a truly beautiful piece of architectural art, with a romantically sad story to accompany it. Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore described it as “a teardrop on the face of eternity.” It is widely considered one of the most beautiful architectural wonders ever created. A visit to this white marble mausoleum needs to be on every traveler’s list.
Food alone is enough to convince oneself to travel to India. Indians take their food very seriously, and the cuisine, just like the country itself, is incredibly diverse. Northern Indian cuisine is heavily influenced by Persian and Mughlai styles of cooking, you’ll taste lots of thick, creamy curries that are moderately spicy. You’ll sample clay-oven Tandoor recipes with thick gravy and naan bread. My favorites include mutton rogan josh, parathas and tandoori chicken.
East will provide you with plenty of fish curries and tortilla-like bread called chapattis. Southern Indian cuisine is commonly characterized by the use of coconut, seafood, rice and also wafer-thin filled crepes called dosa / masala dosa.
Vegetarians are also well catered for in India as large populations of Hindus are vegetarian. There’s plenty of spice if you’re looking for it, sweets covered in silver and yogurt-based drinks to beat the heat. The best food is prepared within local homes, not in restaurants.
4. Folk and Performing Art.
India has an abundance of folk art, which is kept alive in the small rural communities and is being revived in the big cities. Each region has a unique dance style, music, handicrafts, and more. My house is decorated with rural artwork; the artists and craftsmen are so talented and use the few materials they have to their fullest potential. All the artwork is unique, one-of-a-kind, and handmade, and usually has a story or meaning behind it that offers some cultural insights.
India is famous for its various performing arts and especially the classical Indian music. Music is an important part of the Indian society and many notable world musicians have originated from India since the ancient times. The Carnatic influence from the 13th and the 14th century AD plays a major role in shaping traditional Indian music. There are, however, various forms of folk music which display a distinctive sound and feel which is specific to their region of origination. The music is usually performed using Indian stringed and percussion instruments which further facilitates the production of a unique blend of sounds.
Indian Dance arts are few of the most complex and expressive dance forms in the world which has developed as a type of dance-drama form. Most of the classical dances originated in different parts of India and also imbibed elements from other parts off country. Dance forms like Kathakali, Bharatnatyam, Kathak are a few to check out while visiting India.
5. Religion, Culture and Spirituality
In India, religion and spirituality are intricately intertwined with everyday life. India is home to all of the major religions of the world and is the birthplace of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism. Observing the local people engaging in their daily rituals and prayers is a profoundly intimate experience. Many people also come to India to find spirituality, practice yoga or attending a meditation retreat in an ashram. Most tourists consider visiting India as they want to experience the various cultures and traditions which are often unique. Indian weddings are few of the most amazing experiences one must try out. Our dresses are colourful and varied in styles like Sari, Salwar Kameez, Dhoti, Lungi , Sherwani, etc all renowned for their aesthetics.
I’ve had a chance to experience an evening aarti (fire worship) along the Ganges River at Varanasi. We Hindus believe that Ganges River transports the prayers of believers to heaven and a dip in the river is said to purify the soul. Many observant Hindus make a pilgrimage to Varanasi, India’s oldest city, to participate in ceremonies or to cremate the dead along the banks of the Ganges. Varanasi a grand dame among the ancient cities in the world is hyper focused on the act, and art, of passing on. Here, you’re literally and very publicly surrounded by the intimate rituals of death, where sights manage to be both beautiful and direful. Perhaps because it’s one of the few places that will force you, willingly or not, to contemplate life, you should definitely visit Varanasi while you’re still very much alive.
6. Festivals And Fairs
India is a melting pot of religions, from mainstream religion with millions of followers to obscene cults and everything in between. It’s fascinating to learn the striking similarity and difference among all these religions, and even more compelling to witness the kind of religious tolerance found here. Many of my friends and I celebrate holidays and festivals of numerous religions, regardless of our own spiritual beliefs. Indian calendar is full of various festivals. The color filled festival of Holi and the vibrant and enlightening festival of Diwali is one of my favorites.
A large number of fairs are also held in India from time to time. People from far and wide come to take part in these fairs. In fact, many plan their vacations according to the time of occurrence of these fairs. Pushkar Fair, Ajmer Fair and Surajkund Crafts Fair are some of the famous fairs of India. The Kumbh Mela, and the colourful and grand Goa Carnival are extremely popular among the locals as well as the tourists.
7. The Chaos and Adventure
In India chaos always beats Logic. ALWAYS. Embracing the chaos is an important part of a trip to any region of India. There will be endless traffic jams, crowded streets, delays, incessant honking of horns, swerving motorbike and rickshaws and many invasions of personal space. Everyone drives like this in India, myself included, horns blaring, cars, buses and motorcycles clustered together all bumper-to-bumper, every driver forcing their vehicle into the smallest crevice despite how impossible it looks to human eye. It is something you’ll have to experience once in lifetime. Learning to relax and going with things happening in “Indian style” will facilitate enjoyment and some exciting memories.
No matter where you travel to in India, a keen sense of adventure follows you everywhere you go. India is a country that can’t be explained; it must be experienced. A walk down the street here in India is a mixture of sights, sounds, and smells: people yapping into cell phones, beggars clanking their collection of pocket change, colorful saris, chaotic traffic constantly honking, savory smells of street food, the muggy heat in full sunshine. It’s a kind of chaos that somehow flows when you least expect it, and you definitely won’t find it anywhere else. Whether you’re riding around the beaches of Goa, trekking snow-capped mountains in the north, or even just navigating the chaotic streets of Delhi and Mumbai, travelling in India is one big adventure!
Local people in India, particularly in the rural areas, are some of the kindest and most hospitable people you’ll ever encounter. Whether you’re invited into a local’s home for a traditional meal or just simply wander the streets and encounter children playing, you’ll surely be touched by the warmth of the locals.
In my travels I’ve came across many such kind, genuine and helpful people. I remember travelling to the western region of India with my family and extended family in a mini bus. One afternoon while travelling through some remote lush green area, we decided to cook our own food and have a picnic somewhere nearby. While we had some cooking ingredients the problem was we weren’t carrying cooking utensils. We came across a small modest house on the roadside and decided to check if they could help us a bit. As we approached the dwelling we heard some music and saw some people dancing. As we approached nearer a sweet middle-aged couple welcomed us and enquire if everything was alright or if we needed any assistance, to which we asked if they would lend us some of their cooking utensils to cook our lunch. The couple shook their head in denial and insisted that we dine with them as they were preparing for their daughter’s wedding and have already cooked enough food for everyone. We proceeded to our next destination with our stomach and heart full.
Other experience that I remember of is the one while I was travelling to Delhi (which recently have earned a reputation of being unsafe for women) from Mumbai all by myself. I had some official work to take care of, and had to visit Delhi on a short notice. I had to travel by train because i had been to Delhi before many times and was comfortable travelling in train. I boarded Rajdhani Express and commenced my journey towards Delhi. Being a talkative and social person I quickly hit off with fellow passenger. They were quite surprised to hear that I was travelling to Delhi all by myself. After reaching Delhi one of my fellow passenger insisted that he would like to accompany me and drop me off to my hotel just to make sure I reach safely. Truth is I was bit skeptical of accepting his help but he wouldn’t budge, he dropped me off at the hotel and gave me his contact number just in case of emergency. While boarding my return train back to Mumbai I called him up to thank him.
Another train travel I remember is when I was travelling to Kerala with my friends for the very first time. It was a 40hr long tiresome journey, and we reached at around 9:30 pm but tragedy struck when we got down at the station, it was completely deserted except for few passengers who had disembarked with us. There were no cabs or rickshaws to drop us off at the hostel. A couple who was travelling with us saw our confused and scared faces and asked if we had booked any cab to drop us off at the hostel. Learning that we haven’t booked any means of transport and this was our first time here in the city they made some calls to arrange some transportation. Honestly we were bit scared to accept their help as we had met them a few hrs ago and barely knew them. But all our doubts vanished when we saw an Army jeep swerved around and halted in front of us. The couple shared some pleasantries with the driver and provided him with our hostel address. We thanked the couple and made way to our destination with another act of kindness filling our heart with gratitude.
There's a saying in India, "Athithi Devo Bhava", which means "the guest is God". Indians consider it a huge honor to have guests in their home, and go out of their way to please them. There's nothing like Indian hospitality. And, as a result of the growing popularity of home stays in India, there are plenty of opportunities to experience it. Many home stays are far from the humble abodes you may expect too.
There are high chances that you may experience more scenic views, visit beautiful cities, find extraordinary architectural building/ ruins, taste some delectable cuisines than what India has to offer, but I can promise you one aspect that is going to take you by surprise and also deeply touch you on your India tour is the warm hospitality of Indian.
Come experience our culture, tradition, history, art and above all our hospitality.