Visiting India is an experience unlike any other. Sure, its got some of the best beaches and definitely some of the tallest mountains in the world, but India’s unique charm lies in the colorful and amazing chaos of its culture that conjures magic upon every visitor. Between its pristine natural beauty and its ancient culture, here are the best things you can experience only in India.
Kerala’s Onam festival is famous for two things – elaborate floral decorations and meals so extravagant that they put Louis of France’s birthday dinner to shame. With a usual minimum of 24 items in a single meal (or as many as 60!), Onam Sadhyas represent the very best of Kerala’s rich cuisine.
The thick, greenish bhang is prepared during some Hindu festivals, and is proof that no one knows how to party quite like the Indians do. Prepared using cannabis and a mix of spices, ghee, milk and mangoes, bhang has been in continuous use in India since 500 BC! Its potency is legendary, so consume with care!
Indians do weddings just like they do their festivals – with colors, food, music, and dancing (a lot of dancing!) And unlike Western traditions of matrimony, Indian weddings can last as long as five days and include games, traditional ceremonies, extravagant decorations and a ridiculous amount of sweets! The ‘Big-Fat-Indian-Wedding’ is a must-see affair, and no trip to India is complete without witnessing one.
Holi is one of the key reasons why India is called the land of colors. Celebrated every year during the traditional Indian month of Phalguna (between February and March), Holi is an ancient Indian festival marking the onset of spring. Filled with fun, frolic, and lots of colors, Holi has since become one of India’s biggest cultural exports and is now celebrated by Indian and foreign communities all over the world. But one has to come to India to witness the true flavor of this mesmerizing festival.
Indians are famous for their love of cricket. And while the gentleman’s game might’ve originated in the British Isles, the game has truly found a home in India. India now has more than 44 international cricket stadiums (more than twice that of England) and has hosted the Cricket World Cup thrice. And although the game finds enough fervor all across the country, watching a cricket match at Mumbai’s Wankhede Stadium or Kolkata’s Eden Gardens is an experience unlike any other.
This annual festival is one of the largest gatherings of camels in the world, and takes place in the Thar Desert in the state of Rajasthan. With more than 200,000 visitors, the fair is a cultural extravaganza unlike any other. Craftsmen from across Rajasthan set up shops in the middle of the desert, making the fair the best place to go handicraft and handloom shopping.
While it definitely is an amazing experience, this one isn’t for the faint-hearted! Mumbai’s local train system, generally known only as the ‘local’, is one of the most crowded modes of transportation anywhere in the world. And while it is a matter of great discomfort for anyone not accustomed to it to travel in the local, the trains in Mumbai are a microcosm of India’s chaotic culture. Millions of commuters get through the commute listening to (or singing) bhajans (devotional songs), or shopping for everyday essentials or decorative paraphernalia from hawkers who board the trains at different stops.
The Santhome Basilica in Chennai is not just one of India’s oldest churches, it is also one of the Catholic Church’s most important pilgrimage sites. Built over the tomb of St. Thomas, one of the 12 apostles of Jesus Christ, the Basilica has been in existence for nearly 500 years. However, the history of the tomb it was built upon dates back nearly 2,000 years!
While the West has Woodstock and Glastonbury, India is home to some major music festivals of its own. The biggest is the Margazhi Music Season in Chennai, which takes place in December and January. With over 1,500 individual performances of Carnatic music by some of the art’s biggest names, the festival is quite literally the biggest, at least in terms of sheer size. For anyone with an ear for Indian classical music, there is simply no better place to be.
While India may not be home to Mt. Everest, the country is home to some of the tallest peaks in the world and covers a large part of the Himalayan mountain range. Some of the tallest peaks in India include Kangchenjunga (8586 mts) in Sikkim, which is the third tallest mountain peak in the world, along with Nanda Devi (7,816 mts) and Kamet (7756 mts) in the Garhwal. Whether you want to climb any of these peaks or not, the Himalayan regions of India also offer incredible natural views and vibrant cultures.
This one is for all the adrenaline junkies out there. Natural beauty isn’t the only thing the Himalayas are known for–they are particularly notorious for having some of the craziest and most dangerous roads in the world. Thousands of trucks and other vehicles make the trip across winding mountain roads every day. Some of the most dangerous mountain highways in India include the Zoji La Pass segment of the National Highway 1D between Srinagar and Leh, the Leh-Manali Highway, and the Khardung La Pass near the picturesque Nubra Valley. Located at altitudes of several thousand meters, these highways give ‘riding high’ a whole new meaning.
India is home to over two-thirds of the world’s wild tiger population. And while you might’ve seen captive Bengal tigers at zoos all over the world, seeing one roaming wild in its own terrain is an experience unlike any other. The best reserves and national parks to go on a tiger safari in India include Corbett National Park, Ranthambore National Park, and the Pench Tiger Reserve.
Apart from their pristine natural beauty, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands are also famous for being home to the last remaining tribal populace that is yet to be contacted by the modern world. The Sentinelese tribal people of the North Sentinel Island have resisted contact with the outside world and react violently towards outsiders. While it is illegal and forbidden to try and contact the Sentinelese, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands are a repository of some of the oldest extant tribal cultures.
When it comes to rainfall, none have it rougher than the tiny cluster of hamlets in the Indian state of Meghalaya, called Mawsynram. On average, the town receives a whopping 467 inches of rainfall a year–enough to drown a three-story building! While one would think the place would practically be a lake with that kind of water, the town actually features a lush green landscape that is spotted with numerous perennial waterfalls and streams. Don’t forget to carry an umbrella.
The kitchen at Amritsar’s Golden Temple feeds around 100,000 people on an average every day! It does so as part of a centuries-old tradition called langar, initiated by the founder of Sikhism, Guru Nanak. It’s purpose is to feed the poor and engage the community in seva, or service, a chief tenet of Sikhism. Every day the kitchen serves over 200,000 rotis, dal and vegetable preparations. Having a meal at a langar is not only a culinary experience, it is also a spiritual one.
This mega-festivity takes place at four pilgrim sites every twelve years. By sheer numbers, it is the largest human gathering in the world. The estimated attendance at the month-long 2013 Kumbh Mela at Prayag (Allahabad) was a whopping 120 million–nearly twice the population of the UK! It is also estimated that a mind-boggling 30 million visitors were recorded on a single day, on the 10th of February.
Depending on where you are in India and which culture you follow, New Year is always around the corner. Several of the traditional cultures and religions celebrate their own New Year, each with different rites and celebrations. While local ones such as Tamil, Telugu or Bengali New Years are celebrated mainly in the respective states, others such as Nowruz (Parsi New Year) are celebrated by the adherents of the tradition across the country. By merely counting the major states and religious denominations, India celebrates New Year on 17 different occasions within a single calendar year!