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6 ways to experience the best of India

Words by David McGonigal

India is a diverse land of wild extremes from deserts to mountains, waterways to forests. A country where incredible wealth stands alongside wretched poverty, it offers perhaps the world’s greatest travel experiences. Here are six remarkable highlights.

Wild tigers

To join the few who have seen a tiger in the wild is a special thrill indeed. At Ranthambore National Park in Rajasthan, the ruins of a thousand-year-old fortress loom above a forest rich in wildlife. The gorges are home to leopards and sloth bears. More than 50 tigers also live here and the habits of the native blue bull, or nilgai, they hunt have turned them diurnal so they may be seen during daylight hours — especially between November and May.

The Sariska Tiger Reserve is also in Rajasthan, near the city of Alwar. It’s a dry, deciduous forest area so the animal population is drawn to the waterholes. The hides and watchtowers provide excellent opportunities to see a variety of wildlife, including sambar deer, nilgai, and sloth bears. There are leopards, too and, after the resident population of tigers were all poached by 2005, the introduced population is growing.

Bombay’s tiffin-wallahs

Lunchtime in Bombay reveals one of the world’s strangest rituals: the daily flow of tiffin box deliverers is a typically complicated Indian solution to the simple problem of lunch. It has endured for more than a century because Bombay office workers want home cooking. Traditionally called tiffin-wallahs, more recently it has become common to hear them referred to as dabbawalas.

The daily ritual is commonplace: after Mr X has left for work, his wife prepares his lunch of chapati, dhal, rice and curry, and loads it into a metal container about the size of a large thermos. A local collector takes it to the railway station and sends it to Victoria Terminus under the surveillance of another tiffin-wallah. Upon arrival, it ends up on a platform along with hundreds of other tiffin boxes.

These are all quickly sorted and despatched so by lunchtime without fail, Mr X will find his hot lunch outside his office door. Watching scores of tiffin-wallahs sprinting through the lunchtime crowds is a highlight of any visit to Bombay. Harvard and FedEx have both studied the almost foolproof system and it was the basis for the successful 2013 film, The Lunchbox.

Image credit: Matt Ragen / Shutterstock.com

Palace hotels

The Maharajas of India lived in a style we can only dream about, but many of their palaces now operate as hotels. The decor is opulent, the food excellent, and the standard of service very high. The surprise at some is that, while the cost of a suite is not cheap, it’s nowhere near the price the opulence would suggest.

Rajasthan has a disproportionate number of these royal retreats. The best known is the Taj Lake Palace of Udaipur, floating like a marble isle in the middle of Lake Pichola.

Jaipur offers two palace hotels. The Taj Jai Mahal Palace resembles a fantasy palace with soaring minarets, high ceilings and balconies laced with marble filigree. The Rambagh Palace was originally a hunting lodge built in 1835. After some four million rupees were spent on it in the 1920s, it became a very grand palace. It’s a cool, airy building filled with precious art works, silk embroideries, fountains, and marble.

The Umaid Bhawan Palace in Jodhpur was once one of the world’s most impressive private residences — it took 3000 artisans 13 years to build it. Today, guests luxuriate in baths carved from a single piece of marble and dine in lavishly appointed banqueting halls.

Erotic art of Khajuraho

It’s reassuring to discover that people never change. Standing in the middle of a fertile plain near Jhansi is the temple complex of Khajuraho, built about 1000 years ago. Made of sandstone, only 25 of the original 85 buildings still stand.

The walls of the temples are elaborately carved with figures of astounding vitality. About 10 per cent of the carvings are unashamedly erotic and it has been suggested that these represent the Kama Sutra. Others say they reflect the gratification of earthly desires as a step towards tantric liberation. It’s a display worth seeking out.

Shimla and the Indian Himalayas

In the strong dawn light of an Indian winter, the houses and shops that fill the steep hillside of Shimla appear as a patchwork design of stone, wood, roofing, and television aerials. From the point on the ridge aptly named Scandal Point from the days when this was the Raj’s escape from summer on the Ganges plains, one looks out on an icy mountain rampart to the north. These are the Indian Himalayas.

During the summer months of May and June, Shimla is full of Indians escaping the heat so accommodation can be hard to find. In winter, there’s frost on the ground, snow on the hills, and the illusion of a European alpine town is strong.

Taj Mahal

Agra’s Taj Mahal remains surreal and perfect from the first distant glimpse to close inspection. Described as “a tear on the face of eternity,” it is an enduring statement of love, commissioned by emperor Shah Jahan as a mausoleum for his wife, Mumtaz Mahal (who died while giving birth to her 14th child).

The success of the Taj lies in the fact that it is both subtle and enormous. From the entrance gateway, the white marble glows as if luminous. Close up, one can see the astonishing detail within each decorative flower, made of semiprecious stones that covers the walls. It is easy to spend days just viewing the Taj Mahal in all its moods as the light changes.

READ MORE: 7 top picks for a European river cruise

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