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Our Activity Level rating system ranks adventures on a scale of 1 to 5 to help you determine if a trip is right for you. See the descriptions below for more information about the physical requirements associated with each rating.
Activity Level 1:
Travelers should be able to climb 25 stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 1-2 miles over some uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last at least 1-2 hours at a time. Altitude can range from zero to 5,000 feet.
Activity Level 2:
Travelers should be able to climb 40 stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 2-3 miles over some uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last for at least 2-3 hours at a time. Altitude can range from zero to 5,000 feet.
Activity Level 3:
Travelers should be able to climb 60 stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 3 miles over some steep slopes and loose or uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last for 3 or more hours at a time. Altitude can range from 5,000 to 7,000 feet.
Activity Level 4:
Travelers should be able to climb 80 stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 4 miles over some steep slopes and loose or uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last for 4 or more hours at a time. Altitude can range from 7,000 to 9,000 feet.
Activity Level 5:
Travelers should be able to climb 100 or more stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 8 miles over some steep slopes and loose or uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last for 4 or more hours at a time. Altitude can range from 10,000 feet or more.
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Watch this video showcasing what makes this country so unforgettable
Meet Parveen, a salon worker, and learn about how his profession conflicts with his standing as a Brahmin caste member in northern India, the region we explore on this adventure.
Watch your fellow travelers favorite films & videos
Sikkim - India’s Paradise Upstairs
Sikkim's Himalayan beauty is even more captivating in black and white.
Produced by Sajid Ahmed
India at a Crossroads
Get a sneak peek into India's fascinating 2014 election, a time of deep division between classes and political identities in India.
Produced by Poh Si Teng and Malavika Vyawahare ©2014 The New York Times
India: Varanasi and Bangalore
Follow the Grannies on Safari through two of India’s most fascinating cities.
Produced by Regina Fraser and Pat Johnson
A Brief Intermission
Enjoy a calming interlude of rainy-day scenes from the mountain villages of Sikkim, India.
Produced by Nihal Anand
India’s Festival of Lights
See how Indian families prepare for and celebrate Diwali—the “Festival of Lights.”
Produced by David Conover and Compass Light Productions
There are pros and cons to visiting a destination during any time of the year. Find out what you can expect during your ideal travel time, from weather and climate, to holidays, festivals, and more.
In February and March, two climates influence weather on the Indian subcontinent—springtime in the north brings low humidity with slightly cooler temperatures, and the south experiences high moisture and higher humidity. These are popular months to travel, with mild temperatures and generally clear, sunny days.
Also known as the "Festival of Love," Holi is celebrated throughout India and Nepal—and in Hindu communities across the globe. Traditionally a thanksgiving festival for the spring harvest, Holi is at its most vibrant for two days in northern India. Participants cover each other in brightly-colored dye, and parade through the streets while traditional music provides a whirling soundtrack.
Watch this film to discover more about India
Travelers meet Indian schoolchildren, search for tigers in Ranthambore National Park, and more throughout this vibrant and fascinating itinerary.
Between April and June, temperatures soar across India. As wild animals venture out in search of water, elephants and tigers can be spotted on early-morning excursions in places like Ranthambore National Park. Parts of the north experience the hottest temperatures of the year, although the Indian Himalayas remain mild. In the south, rainy season brings high humidity and frequent thunderstorms. Hill stations across India provide a respite from the heat, with comparatively mild temperatures and shady forests. And although less than three percent of the Indian population is Christian, Easter is widely celebrated with gift exchanges and festive carnivals.
July marks the beginning of monsoon season in India, with the rains hitting the southwest first. As the season progresses, monsoons make their way up the west coast through September, growing progressively weaker. By the time it reaches the north, the climate feels similar to European summers—with mild, more comfortable temperatures and passing showers. High water levels make this an ideal time to cruise the Ganges River in places like Varanasi, where sunrise and sunset bring pilgrims from around the country to the riverbanks for religious ceremonies.
Monsoon season begins in the northeast, which leaves the rest of northern India warm and sunny—prime season for tourism. Some of India's most iconic festivals, such as Diwali, are celebrated throughout the country.
India shines during the celebration of Diwali, the Hindu "Festival of Lights," which honors the victory of light over darkness, knowledge over ignorance, and success over failure. Along with prayers to the fertility god Lakshmi, Diwali inspires breathtaking fireworks displays, parades, and music throughout India.
India's Golden Triangle—Delhi, Agra, and Jaipur—experiences its most comfortable temperatures at this time of year, and sites like the Taj Mahal can be crowded, especially during the Christmas season. Nights are cool throughout the country, and downright cold in rural areas—layers are encouraged.
In November and December, northern India experiences pollution and poor air quality due to farmers burning their fields. Travelers with respiratory health issues are advised to wear a mask while exploring, especially in cities.
The Pushkar Camel Fair in November is Rajasthan's most quirky—and most famous— festival. Farmers, villagers, traders, and tourists gather to do much more than trade livestock—this fair celebrates all things camel-related and beyond. Events include camel races, camel beauty pageants, camel dance recitals, a cricket match, and a mustache competition.
Click on map markers below to view information about top India experiences
Kerala & Cochin
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Settled over 4,000 years ago, Varanasi is perhaps the world’s oldest city. And in that time, it has become the spiritual heart of India. It is the epicenter of Hindu devotion, where pilgrims come to bathe in the Ganges, offer prayers, and cremate their dead. But it is also here that Buddhists believe that Buddha gave his first sermon. For visitors of any faith, it is a powerful thing to witness the aarti ceremony at night, when sadhus show their devotion by raising flaming lamps and swinging incense, a ritual as majestic as it is mystical. Enjoying a boat ride on the sacred river, during the cooler morning and evening hours, is a perfect way to witness the ordinary ebb and flow of daily life here in this timeless city.
Travel to Varanasi, India, where Hindu believers come to pray, bathe, and do laundry in the sacred water of the Ganges River.
One of the world’s most famous structures—and arguably its most romantic—the Taj Mahal was famous as a testament to Shah Jahan’s enduring love for his queen Mumtaz Mahal after her death. Made of the finest marble and inlaid with gemstones, it would be a masterwork alone simply based on the materials. But it is also famous for its symmetrical design, the depth of perspective created by the long pool approaching it, the way it is framed by its quartet of minarets. Mughal territory sprawled across 2.5 million miles at its peak, and the Shah brought in the best masons, stone-cutters, calligraphers, painters, sculptors, and dome-builders from across the entire empire and into Persia, so that his monument would be unparalleled in its perfection. Finished in 1653, the “Monument of Love” has become one of the greatest architectural treasures on Earth and was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983.
India’s waterways have distinct and memorable personalities. The backwaters of Kerala, where freshwater and seawater mingle, are an interlacing series of lakes, lagoons, rivers, and canals. Gliding past palm trees aboard traditional houseboats, one of the classic pleasures of Kerala is just soaking in the verdant landscape, with terns and cormorants winging overhead, while frogs and mudskippers ruffle the water. Cochin is the “Queen of the Arabian Sea,” the port city that attracted the best sailors of China, Arabia, Holland, and beyond. We see the massive cheena vala, fixed-position fishing nets as large as 50 feet across, so big in fact that it requires 4-6 men to operate them. Originating as the import of traders from imperial China, today the cheena vala are the symbols of the seaside city.
Roam Kerala's streets, lagoons, temples, and fields to see how this vibrant destination turns daily life into a rythmic dance.
In the seventh century, the bustling heart of the Pallavas dynasty was the port city of Mahabalipuram. And the epicenter of the city was the stunning Shore Temple dedicated to the Lords Shiva and Vishnu. Perched overlooking the Bay of Bengal, the complex is a collection of temples, statues, and caves carved into the local rock. According to legend, the Pallava king ordered that everything be made from the existing rocky landscape which had already endured the ravages of time and the sea, and would ensure its longevity. Visitors today find intricate and detailed carvings, including Arjuna’s Penance, a massive relief—100 feet long and 45 feet high—depicting a scene from the Hindu epic, the Mahabharata. Other icons include the Pancas Rathas, five chariots each carved from a single monolith of pink granite, and rock-cut Varaha Cave temple. Along the Tamil Nadu coast, neighboring fishing villages like Kokilamedu keep centuries-old traditions alive, and fisherman still begin their trips by offering puja (Hindu prayers) to the same deities honored by the temple.
India’s capital is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities on Earth, and has had at least eight incarnations over the past 3,000 years, from the ruins of ancient Indraprastha to the seat of the British Raj. Home to countless historic and architectural treasures, Delhi is a cosmopolitan blend of India’s many cultures—with sights as diverse as men in magenta turbans spreading out blankets laden with snake oil and silk saris; worshippers streaming to and from Hindu temples, Jain shrines, Sikh gurdwaras, and Islamic mosques; spice stalls heaped with coriander, saffron, cumin, and tea; and narrow alleys aglow with gold jewelry. Highlights of Old Delhi—the 17th-century city built for the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan—include Raj Ghat, a memorial dedicated to Mahatma Gandhi; Jama Masjid, one of the largest mosques in India; and Chandni Chowk, the city’s bustling 300-year-old bazaar. Treasures in New Delhi, the section of the sprawling city laid out in the early 20th century by the British, include two towering symbols of the city: India Gate, a memorial to members of the Indian Army who died in the First World War; and the world’s tallest brick minaret, Qutab Minar, a soaring tower of victory begun in the twelfth century that is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Learn how the variety of spices in Delhi provides the city with some of the world’s most unique cuisine.
Jaipur is known as the “Pink City.” Capital of India’s romantic state of Rajasthan, the entire city of Jaipur was cut from massive blocks of sandstone and painted a distinctive rosy tone. Surrounded by crenellated walls and dotted with towers and palaces, Jaipur is one of India’s first examples of urban planning. The city was founded just as the Mughal Empire was falling in the early 18th century, by Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh, an avid scientist, architect, and astronomer. Singh laid out his city in a grid pattern of broad, tree-lined avenues, and neat squares—and ensured that each aspect of his design was based on geometric harmony. One of the city’s highlights is his observatory, Jantar Mantar, a brilliant collection of sandstone sculptures in geometric configurations. Some are nearly 30 feet high, and all have specific functions—to measure the sun’s angle from the Earth, fix the position of planets, and measure time. Samrat Yantra, the highest structure in the compound, acts as a giant sundial. Its shadow displays the time of day and remains accurate to two-tenths of a second.
There is a famous Rajasthani proverb that asks, “Je na dekhyo Jaipario, To kal men akar kya kario?” It means, “What have I accomplished in my life, if I have not seen Jaipur?”
Immerse yourself in India with this selection of articles, recipes, and more
Learn about the importance of the Indian sari, and how it serves as a distinction between Indian women.
Find out more about the life of Rudyard Kipling, and some of his most famous works of literature.
Follow along and witness a sacred Hindu tradition in the lively city of Varanasi.
These festivities are nothing short of unique with a mustache competition and a turban tying contest.
Get a taste of Delhi’s savory street food in your own home with this recipe for traditional chaat.
Cardamom, cinnamon, cloves—the list of popular India spices goes on and on. Learn about their significance to Cochin.
Discover the sweet side of Southern India with this recipe for pineapple kesari.
Bring the flavors of India into your kitchen by trying this dal recipe with a refreshing twist.
Pamela Schweppe, from Dispatches
Elegant. Flattering. Dressy yet casual. Sound like a critique from a fashion magazine? Actually, those descriptions can be applied to a garment that dates to the Indus Valley civilization of 2800-1800 BC: the sari.
Derived from a Sanskrit word meaning “strip of cloth,” the sari consists of a single length of fabric, usually about six yards in length. Because piercing fabric with a needle is considered impure in the Hindu culture, the sari is draped rather than sewn, accentuating gracefulness and sensuality. Traditionally, the sari is wrapped around the waist and draped over the shoulder, leaving the navel—an ancient symbol of life and fertility—exposed.
There are variations to this style, as you might expect after 5,000 years. In fact, you can usually tell where a woman hails from by the way her sari is draped. However it is styled, the sari, which is believed to have been designed originally for temple dancers, is renowned for the freedom of movement it allows.
Historically, the fiber used to create the sari has been pure—100% cotton among the working classes and silk for the wealthy. Many fabrics are woven in intricate patterns or depict objects with symbolic significance. Fish, for example, represent an abundance of food and wealth. The elephant is a royal figure. A warrior is represented by the conch. Wear a parrot to symbolize passion or paisley to portray fertility.
Colors are also symbolically charged. Yellow is a sacred color, often worn by new mothers. Green, the traditional color of Islam, is a favorite of Muslim women, though it once was the chosen color of the merchant class. Many Indian brides wear a red sari to their wedding, whereas white is the color of mourning. High-caste Hindus avoid blue, which is the color for the working class. And even today, you might be hard pressed to find a black sari, since black is the color of sorrow and misfortune.Styling of the sari underwent a revolution during the British Raj, when petticoats and blouses were added. Fabric choices and designs have also evolved over time. Nevertheless, the sari remains a wardrobe essential for the women of India, especially for rituals and special occasions.
Mark of distinction
Another distinctive aspect of an Indian woman’s appearance is not apparel but rather body decoration: the bindi, a small red or maroon dot on her forehead, between her eyebrows. The location of the bindi is important, as it has been considered a seat of energy and wisdom since ancient times.
In northern India, the bindi signifies that the woman is married. It is also a symbol of her social status. By contrast, in southern India, women of all ages, including young girls, may wear a bindi. Throughout the subcontinent, however, a woman must wipe off the red bindi if her husband dies. She may wear a black bindi instead—sad, but preferable to no bindi at all, which is considered bad luck.
John Bregoli, from Dispatches
Do you remember when visions of India first took root in your imagination? For me, it was as a young boy. I was alone in my room, late at night. Hidden under the covers in a makeshift fort, I was secretly reading The Jungle Book by the glow of a flashlight. Baloo the bear, Bagheera the panther, and a cast of vivid characters introduced me to Mowgli, a boy raised by wolves in a strange and exotic land called India.
Perhaps your first introduction to India came through a water-bearer called Gunga Din. Or was it a roguish adventurer named Peachy Carnahan, or maybe a young stowaway called Harvey Cheyne? These were just a few of the characters who populated Rudyard Kipling’s India—a mysterious land of soldiers and shamans, beggars and blowhards, scoundrels and saints. Kipling’s stories made him one of Britain’s most popular poets and novelists—and in 1907 he became the first English writer to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.
But Kipling’s reputation has vacillated. While his children’s stories remain popular some 75 years after his death, he was reviled in some circles for what many considered an intolerant and jingoistic viewpoint, based largely on his enthusiastic support of British imperialism. Kipling is now being reconsidered through a far more nuanced lens—even in India, where the country’s first prime minister, Jawarhal, Nehru, once claimed his favorite book was Kim. Kipling’s harshest social critics, however, cannot assail his gift as a master of the literary narrative. “If history were taught in the form of stories,” Kipling himself observed, “it would never be forgotten.”
So who was this man who would become Kipling? Was he an extremely talented writer who just happened to be a racist and shill for British imperialism? Or was he the literary heir to Dickens, a beloved children’s author and extraordinary poet and novelist who simply mirrored the popular 19th-century view of the world? And what did the prolific author really think about India—did he love the country or was he mocking her?
Joseph Rudyard Kipling was born on December 30, 1865, in Bombay (now Mumbai), India, where his father was a teacher at a local art school. The first few years were pleasant enough for young Ruddy, as he was commonly called, but the idyll of those early days ended abruptly in 1871, when he and his three-year-old sister were shipped off to a boarding school in Devon, England. Over the next five years, Kipling would suffer physical abuse at the hands of a cruel family with whom he boarded. The experience left him with a lifetime of emotional scars, although he would reflect on the experience much later in his life this way: “I had never told anyone how I was being treated. Children tell little more than animals, for what comes to them they accept as eternally established.”
Thankfully, things improved a bit for Kipling at his next school. From 1878 until 1882, he attended the United Services College at Westward Ho in Devon, England. While his nearsightedness (he was just about blind without glasses) and physical frailty resulted in his being mercilessly bullied, this is where Kipling developed a love of literature. The school’s headmaster encouraged Kipling’s literary ambitions by having him edit the school paper, and widely praised the poems the boy wrote for it. In fact, when Kipling sent the poems back to India, his father had them privately printed—and Schoolboy Lyrics, as the 1881 collection became known, represented Rudyard Kipling’s first published work.
In 1881, Kipling and his sister journeyed back to Lahore, India, to reunite with their parents. Finally back “home,” Kipling wasted no time in embarking on his career. At the tender age of 16, he had his own office and was given the title of assistant editor of an Anglo-Indian publication, the Civil and Military Gazette. Over the next several years, the young journalist and budding writer traveled throughout India, as well as to the United States. During this period he published dozens of essays, poems, and short stories, including his first major success, Barrack-Room Ballads in 1892, followed by The Man Who Would Be King, Gunga Din, Wee Willie Winkie, and many others.
As a journalist in India, Kipling immersed himself in all facets of Anglo-Indian culture. And it can be argued that no other author writing in English has written so much, so well—and in so many genres—as Kipling. But did he get India right? If not, it wasn’t for lack of trying. Few books of the day captured the people, culture, and religious diversity of India better than Kim. In what many consider Kipling’s masterpiece, Kim is an adventure story about a young British orphan who roams the alleys and hills of colonial India surviving on his wits—through theft, begging, and spying for the British. Couched in this remarkable tale are vivid depictions of India’s teeming masses with all their myriad beliefs and superstitions. And it all rings true because Kipling lived those words.
At times, Kipling even wrote in Indian voices—a risky venture for less talented authors. The narrator of one of his stories, Dray Wara Yow Dee, is an Indian Sikh. He wrote another story, A Sahib’s War, through the eyes of a local Muslim. In The Bridge Builders, he describes the exotic appearance of Indian laborers and constructs a wild plot device (involving opium) that allows him to invoke the entire pantheon of Hindu gods. The story is about a team of English engineers who are building a bridge over the Ganges and are worried about an impending flood. To me, the story is classic Kipling. And it should give pause to his detractors—because why does someone so in awe of the British and their ability to “build” an Empire construct a story that mercilessly mocks them? The crux of The Bridge Builders concerns the limited imagination of the English and their ineptitude in controlling nature. And Kipling does indeed poke fun at the English in many of his tales—but it is important to note that he does not mock Indian culture.
Kipling’s India was not just a country that resided deep in his imagination. He wrote about real places—even in his most imaginatively plotted tales. Kipling found his inspiration for The Jungle Book in Kanha National Park, an enchanting area still dense with bamboo forests where tigers lurk. The Indian city where the street urchin Kim runs across rooftops honing his gift for espionage is Lahore (now some 15 miles inside Pakistan). Kipling prowled the streets of Kolkata (now Calcutta) to gather inspiration for a collection of his stories called The City of Dreadful Night and Other Places. Other destinations depicted in Kipling’s work include Jodhpur, Benares (now known as Varanasi), Jamalpur, and many more.
Kipling was also fascinated by the military—but not just British soldiers. While he undoubtedly felt the courage and resourcefulness of the British soldier was second to none, he also gave credit where credit was due. And in India, this was with the bold and fearless Sikhs, about whom Kipling wrote frequently. Kipling’s views on war, however, would evolve through his lifetime. His early portraits of British soldiers during peacetime were lighthearted and entertaining, yet always authentic. His later military tales were informed by the horrors of World War I. They included Mary Postgate and The Gardener, two works that are powerful reminders of agony and loss brought about by war.
And Kipling would know about agony and loss firsthand, too. His only son, Jack, was 17 when World War I broke out in August of 1914. Jack was desperate to join up and “thrash the Hun,” but when he tried to volunteer, he was turned down because of his poor vision—just like his dad’s. Rudyard, however, pulled some strings and got his underage boy enlisted as a trainee officer. Soon after entering active duty, however, Jack was killed in the Battle of Loos at the age of 18. Had it not been for Kipling’s intervention, of course, Jack would not have been in the trenches in the first place. Kipling was haunted by this fact, and at the end of the war, he wrote: “If any question why we died/Tell them, because our fathers lied.”
But we are getting ahead of ourselves. Kipling left India while he was still in his 20s. While the success and fame that began to gather around him from his stories about India was thoroughly agreeable, the oppressive heat was not. Lahore, where Kipling was based, was more like a searing furnace, and it wreaked havoc with his already frail health. The heat, overwork, and an alleged growing dependency on opium, morphine, and the local Indian hemp called bhang would soon drive Kipling to the verge of a nervous breakdown.
So Kipling left the Indian subcontinent—the land he had come to know and love deeply—to return to England and further his career as a writer. He soon met and married an American woman, Carrie Balestier, who was visiting London at the time. Kipling lived for a while at his wife’s Vermont home (where he would write Captains Courageous), but then returned to England in 1899—alone. He purchased a house in Sussex, which would remain his home (between stints ofworld travel) for the rest of his life.
Kipling went on to produce a staggering number of works over the course of his lifetime—from fables and essays to novels, short stories, and poems. Many people, however, received their first exposure to the Indian subcontinent not through Kipling directly, but through films made from his works.
The classic 1939 movie Gunga Din, starring Cary Grant and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., represented one of the very first depictions of India by Hollywood. While certainly presenting a romanticized stereotype of India, this story of three British soldiers and a native Indianwater bearer battling against the revival of a secret Indian cult remains one of the most rousing male-bonding action films ever made. The Jungle Book, of course, has been brought to life in films several times, including two remakes by Disney. But for my money, it’s the glorious 1942 version, a lush and beautifully photographed production starring the Indian actor Sabu, that remains the best. Then, in 1950 a film depiction of Kim was released, a little-seen but well-regarded adventure story about a British orphan who roams the alleys and hills of colonial India surviving on his wits.
It wasn’t until 1975 that one of the best film adaptations of a Kipling work was produced. The Man Who Would Be King, directed by John Huston, is based on the famous short story written by Kipling during his time as a journalist in India. The film version vividly captures the life story of Daniel Dravot and Peachy Carnahan (portrayed by Sean Connery and Michael Caine, respectively), two British soldiers who journey beyond the Northwest frontier to remote “Kafiristan” and attempt to con their way into becoming kings.
The film—like Kipling’s short story—is essentially an epic satire of imperialism (something Kipling-bashers should keep in mind). When asked if they are gods, Peachy replies, “Not gods—Englishmen. The next best thing.” And from a speech to the locals by Daniel Dravot: “Now listen to me, you benighted muckers. We’re going to teach you soldiering. The world’s noblest profession. When we’re done with you, you’ll be able to slaughter your enemies like civilized men.” And I still chuckle every time I think about Peachy and Danny shouting “God’s holy trousers!”
So was Kipling the imperialist racist that many accuse him of? Who knows … with such a prodigious output of work, it’s difficult to speculate just what Kipling’s true attitudes and opinions were. In his writings, he spoke from many different viewpoints—men and women of all social classes, both Indian and British. But he did certainly speak often in the voice of racist British soldiers.
During his lifetime, Kipling witnessed the pinnacle of the British Empire, as well as its rapid decline. To the British of the day, India was its crowning jewel—and great wealth extracted from the subcontinent flowed daily into the country’s coffers. Most Victorian-era British believed Indians were indeed an inferior race, one requiring the influence of Europe for enlightenment. While much of Kipling’s writings do indeed reflect this sentiment, his work also clearly recognizes that the superiority of the British in India was an illusion—one largely held together by material advantages. Many of his stories, in fact, broadly lampoon the myth of this widely held belief. Look at the final lines of the poem Gunga Din, where a racist British officer concedes that the lowly Indian water-bearer is the superior being:
“Though I’ve belted you and flayed you,
By the livin’ Gawd that made you, You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din!”
Kipling died on January 18, 1936, in London and was buried in Poet’s Corner at Westminster Abbey. Authors are always falling out of favor with changing literary tastes. It’s anyone’s guess where the pendulum will eventually rest with regards to Kipling’s literary stature. But no one can say he wasn’t an extraordinary storyteller.
In 1910, Kipling published Rewards and Fairies, a collection that contained his famous poem If, an exhortation to seize the day. In a 1995 BBC opinion poll, it was voted Britain’s all-time favorite poem.
It’s a typically humid night in Varanasi. Our wooden rowboat bobs rhythmically in the ink-black waters of the Ganges as we pull closer to Manikarnika ghat—a broad, steep staircase leading down to the river’s banks. Here, in India’s most sacred city, there are more than 100 similar structures made of wood and stone, but this particular one is special: It is a “burning” ghat—one of only two in the entire city—and it is where Hindus gather, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to perform the ritual cremation of their dead. Even though we are several hundred feet away from the brightly burning flames, I am starting to feel uncomfortable. I remind myself that if Hindus aren’t bothered by the public nature of this tradition, I certainly shouldn’t be. For the estimated 900 million Hindus worldwide, making a pilgrimage to the holy city of Varanasi—and, more importantly, dying and being cremated here—is what they aspire to most in this world.
Millions of devout Hindus have traveled to Varanasi to liberate the souls of their loved ones, and themselves, from the cycle of reincarnation known as samsara, a fundamental principle in Hindu philosophy. For Hindus, each new physical form provides an opportunity to further perfect the soul, bringing them one step closer to the ultimate goal of moksha, or liberation. For most, this cycle takes several lifetimes to complete. There is, however, a way to hasten the outcome—and that’s where Varanasi comes into play.
Many Hindus come simply to immerse themselves in the holy water of “Mother Ganga,” as the act is said to absolve bathers of any sins incurred during their current, and previous, lives. But many more, particularly the elderly and infirm, journey to Varanasi for the privilege of dying here, to achieve the “perfect bliss” of moksha. For this reason, numerous hospices surround the city’s two “burning” ghats: Manikarnika, the larger of the two, is reserved for Hindus only, while Harishchandra performs funeral rites for believers of all faiths, including Buddhists, Muslims, Christians, and Jains. Between them, the two ghats perform more than 300 cremations every day.
While death is an inescapable element in Varanasi, it does not overshadow the city. Quite the contrary, in fact: as one of the most densely populated cities in India, Varanasi literally teems with life.
Prior to my evening boat ride on the Ganges, I had the opportunity to observe this firsthand. Because the streets near the river are too narrow to accommodate large motor vehicles, the best way to reach the ghats is via cyclo-rickshaw or on foot. My husband and I chose the former. Nothing short of exhilarating, our rickshaw journey also revealed the essence of Varanasi—a city bursting at the seams with all manner of sights, smells, and sounds, from the sacred to the profane. Setting off, we pass by groups of saffron-robed saddhus (holy men) smoking their hash-filled pipes. Wallahs (vendors) push wooden carts laden with fresh fruits and vegetables, and metal thermoses filled with fragrant masala chai (a milky, sweet, and spicy tea). The neon-lit storefronts blare the infectious, high-pitched sounds of bhangra music. Arriving at our destination, we clambered down from our rickshaw and—keeping our eyes peeled for the omnipresent piles of cow dung that decorate Varanasi’s streets—made our way to the top of the Dasaswamedh ghat to observe the aarti ceremony that is performed nightly.
Aarti is a ritual of devotion that involves the lighting of a lamp or candle to signify the divine spark that shines within each of us. In Varanasi, this ceremony has been customized, and intricately choreographed, to pay homage to Ganga, the river goddess. The air is thick with smoke from sandalwood incense as we watch a handful of young male priests, clad in form-fitting shirts and flowing, pajama-like pants, climb onto raised wooden platforms. From loudspeakers positioned near the shore come rhythmic drumbeats and monotone singing. Facing the crowd, the priests light a series of large brass lamps, or diyas, holding them aloft in a series of graceful, sweeping motions as they solemnly chant their mantras.
Arriving at Dasaswamedh ghat again early the next morning, it feels like a totally different place. There are still people crowding the steps, but the speakers now are silent, the strings of bulbs festooning the platforms unlit. But the absence of these elements only serves to enhance the devotional aura. In this holiest of holy Indian cities, the most sacred time of day is dawn.
Climbing aboard another rowboat, we set sail for a closer look at how the Hindu faithful welcome the start of a new day. We glide silently past men in dhotis (loincloths), knee-deep in the sacred water, hands clasped in prayer … women in gem-colored saris scooping up water in metal pots and pouring it over their heads … saddhus sitting cross-legged on the stone ghats, deep in meditation.
We also pass by dozens of yoga students and their guru, performing sun salutations at the water’s edge … children running barefoot along the ghats and playfully splashing each other while bathing in the river … washermen and women vigorously slapping laundry against flat, smooth stones. It’s a peaceful, tranquil scene—one made all the more enchanting by the amber glow of the sun, which is steadily rising above the horizon. I am struck by the contrast: Once again, I am floating along the Ganges in a rowboat, gliding past temples and ghats, watching Hindus perform highly personal rituals of prayer and absolution in a public space. But now, instead of wanting to close my eyes, I feel uplifted by the beauty and promise this new day brings. Here, the sun inches ever higher, its rays transforming the surface of the Ganges to liquid gold and bathing us all—Hindus and Christians, residents and visitors—in a rich, rosy hue … the color of hope.
by Catherine Groux
The Indian state of Rajasthan (aptly known as the Land of Kings) is renowned for its lavish palaces, thriving tiger population, and, of course, its wide array of festivals. Among these many celebrations are the Pushkar and Nagaur festivals—both of which serve the primary purpose of encouraging locals to buy and sell livestock. However, if you attend Pushkar or Nagaur, you’re bound to see far more than cattle. Here, among the lively festivities, are some of India’s most colorful (and most bizarre) competitions—appealing to both locals and foreigners, regardless of their skill sets.
Longest mustache competitionDuring Rajasthan’s annual Pushkar Festival, one of the most popular—and unusual—events is the longest mustache competition, in which locals sport impressive facial hair they’ve spent years growing. Typically, contestants arrive with their mustaches wound tightly on their face in a bun-like shape, and when the contest begins, they (literally) let their hair down. Some of the mustaches are so long that they touch the ground, allowing their owners to swing them wildly in the hope of gaining support from the lively crowd.
Horse and camel dancing contestYou’ve probably seen your fair share of dance competitions, but India’s Nagaur Festival takes this concept to a whole new level. Here, you can see colorfully dressed (and extremely well-trained) horses and camels prancing around a ring to the rhythmic pounding of a drum, often balancing on their hind legs to create the illusion of dancing. At the end of the “dance” competition, judges pick the best horse and camel and give their owners a small prize.
Turban-tying contestWhile many of the competitions at the Pushkar Festival cater to locals, the annual turban-tying contest is for foreign couples only. During this popular contest, the couples put their skills to the test, as one person attempts to adeptly—and quickly—tie a turban around their partner’s head. The first couple to create a proper turban wins.
Water pot raceDuring this women-only competition, tourists vie against locals to see who can run across a field the fastest while balancing matkas—Hindustani for “earthen pots”—on their shoulders or atop their heads. But here’s the real challenge: these colossal pots are filled with water. Contestants typically get soaked while sprinting to the finish line, inciting onlookers to erupt in laughter and cheers. Whoever is the first to cross without dropping their pot is announced the winner.
Tug-of-war competitionYou probably haven’t thought about this game since middle school, but locals who attend the annual Nagaur Festival tend to take their tug-of-war very seriously. Throughout the festival, you’ll probably see several tug-of-war matches, as women (often dressed in colorful saris) and men showcase their strength by pulling a sturdy rope away from the other team. While the game itself is simple, this event tends to draw a large, energetic crowd.
by Lyette Mercier, from Dispatches
Delhi is also known for its chaat, street food eaten by residents and visitors too busy for sit-down meals. The tradition of on-the-go food is so entrenched that Delhi boasts shops and stalls that have been in business for a hundred years or more. Anything goes with chaat—a word derived from the Hindi word for “a taste” and Prakrit for “to eat noisily”—from kebabs to fried, spiced vegetables to mango sandwiches. You can even find samosas (fried flour-dough dumplings) stuffed with everything from the traditional spiced potatoes to chow mein or pasta and tomato sauce.
The most famous Delhi-specific chaat is certainly the parantha, a pan-fried flatbread. Simultaneously crisp, soft, and chewy, you can find paranthas featuring potatoes, cauliflower, peas, mint, and even sugar. With so much opportunity for variation, paranthas are popular for every meal. The bread is so closely associated with Delhi that a street in Chandni Chowk is named for the parantha-vendors who have been present there for over a century: the Parathewali Gali.
Ingredients:Dough:2 cups whole wheat flour¼ teaspoon salt (optional)1 teaspoon oil or gheeWater as needed
Filling:1 large onion, finely chopped1 green chili, mincedGaram masala powder, red chilipowder, and salt to tasteOil or ghee for frying
by Andrea Calabretta, for O.A.T.
Once, the peppers and cloves that continue to grow in such abundance here were as valuable as gold and silver.
The tantalizing fragrance of cinnamon, with hints of cardamom and sweet clove, permeates the air as you approach the Cochin spice market. Then come hints of nutmeg and notes of ginger, followed by the more pungent perfume of dried chili. As you wander the stalls—displaying brightly colored barrels of aromatic powder, foot-long sticks of cinnamon, and neatly wrapped packets of star-shaped anise—the scents grow stronger. Buyers and sellers haggle noisily over shelves bearing delicately carved wooden vessels containing yellow turmeric, and woven baskets piled high with green cardamom pods.
At the center of the market, men unload trucks bearing huge burlap sacks of spice, releasing more intense aromas into the air. In storefronts and doorways, men and women work quickly to sort and package it. In the nearby godowns, or warehouses, sacks of spices are piled floor to ceiling, and the scent of pepper becomes so strong that, for the uninitiated, it is almost impossible to breathe.
This is the Cochin spice market, where for centuries people have engaged in the trade of aromatics—so prized for their heavenly scents that they inspired men to sail over the horizon into uncharted waters, risking their lives.
Though a popular tourist region today, Cochin’s world-class status came not from tourism but from trade. Many favorable elements combined to make this so. The warm climate and rich soil, kept fertile by the Kerala backwaters, are ideal for the cultivation of spices, and a flood in the Middle Ages created a harbor well suited to sheltering ships. Some records claim that the spice trade here flourished even earlier—as far back as three thousand years, with traders from ancient Greece. Others say it initiated with Arabian and Chinese tradesmen at the beginning of the Common Era.
At the heart of the complex history of the spice trade in Cochin sits a unique community known as the Cochin Jews. Jewish history in this region is said to date back to 2,000 years ago. The Cochin Jewish community came to dominate the local spice trade, occupying an area of the city called “Jew Town,” with its famously fragrant spice market. Due to the network of Jewish populations with commercial trading interests around the world, Cochin’s Jewish leaders could perpetuate and enhance the city’s reputation as a center of spice trade.
Everywhere in Cochin, signs of foreign influence remain—especially in the iconic Chinese fishing nets that line Cochin’s harbor, said to have been brought by sailors from the court of Kublai Khan. The Age of Exploration (between the 15th and 17th centuries) carried a surge of Europeans to these shores, and their mark lingers in Dutch-style homes and palaces; in the white-washed bungalows and basilicas erected by the Portuguese; and in the infrastructure and language brought by the British. It was primarily the spices of South India that lured outsiders to this fertile coast. Once, the peppers and cloves that continue to grow in abundance here were as valuable as gold and silver.
Today in Cochin it is possible to follow the peppercorn from its origins, climbing along a vine, to its final destination—ready for export to the kitchens of Europe and Asia and the United States. You begin in a boat on the backwaters, making your way down the narrow waterways that criss-cross this tropical landscape. Just outside the Cochin city limits, small spice farms appear along the banks of the canals. At many of these farms, you’ll notice a distinctive vine of the pepper plant covered in small flowers and clusters of tiny green balls, growing up the trunks of trees. When the first few balls ripen and turn red, the still green and unripe pods are picked from the vine, cooked briefly in hot water, and left to dry in the sun. As they dry, the skin around each pepper seed becomes black and wrinkled, taking on the familiar appearance of peppercorns found on any American dining table.
Once the pepper crop is harvested and dried, the farmer sells it to a local dealer, who normally buys pepper from several local villages. When his stock is big enough, the dealer sells it to a larger spice trading company for storage and export. Today, many spice-processing factories and warehouses are located on Bazaar Road in the Matancherry neighborhood of Cochin. From here, they are distributed around India or exported on container ships from the harbor at Willingdon Island.
At the Kochi International Pepper Exchange, it is possible to visit the trading floor where premium-grade pepper is bought and sold. When a bid comes in via the telephones that line the walls, a commotion begins among the traders at the only pepper exchange in the world. Pepper accounts for one-fifth of the world’s spice trade today, and nineteen percent of that is still produced in India.
Today the cuisine of Cochin showcases with gusto its local spices—and its diversity of foreign influences, from the Chinese to the Portuguese. Because its occupants have been Muslims, Christians, Hindus, and Jews, Cochin’s menus reflect a variety of religious beliefs surrounding food and offer both vegetarian and non-vegetarian specialties. Sampling local dishes is a fine way to discover why the spices of South India have been such prized commodities throughout the ages. Cochin’s cherished aromatics also appear in local perfumes, and as you stroll the city’s streets, it’s easy to find essential oils containing enticing blends of local spices. Ayurveda, a system of traditional medicine native to India, recommends using spices such as turmeric, cumin, coriander, and fennel to promote good health, and several Ayurvedic clinics stand throughout the city.
As the spices of South India remain prominent in the modern world, it isn’t difficult to imagine a time when men and women around the world yearned for these precious seasonings, and when kings and queens commissioned navigators to seek them out across vast continents and oceans.
from Harriet's Corner
Fruit kesari can be served in a variety of ways and for occasions large and small. This grain- and pineapple-based pudding is often served as a dessert at weddings and festivals, but can also be enjoyed for breakfast throughout India’s southern states. Named for its saffron-yellow color, ("kesari" is saffron in the Indian language) kesari is easy to make, but prepared traditionally, requires some ingredients typically found in Indian markets. With very little prep and cook time, this smooth, refreshing treat will transport you to the south of India in no time!
½ cup rava (semolina can be substituted)1 cup sugar¼ cup finely chopped canned or fresh, ripened pineapple3 Tbsp ghee (clarified butter)6 cashew nuts, broken into small pieces1 tsp pineapple extract or juice1 ½ cup water1 splash yellow food coloring
In a country as expansive as India, it’s no surprise that there are many flavors and varieties of the same meal throughout the nation. Dal—a thick stew eaten with rice in southern India, and with both rice and roti flatbread in northern India—is one such dish. This version features mango, which is not only refreshingly fruity but lends a brilliant hue reminiscent of the saris you'll see in India.
As always, Indian food offers many wonderful options for vegetarians, since most Indian religions forbid consumption of meat. But you can serve this alongside a nice piece of lean grilled chicken, too.
1 cup yellow lentils4 cups water1 tsp salt, divided1/2 tsp ground turmeric1 Tbsp canola oil1/2 tsp cumin seeds1 medium onion, chopped4 cloves garlic, minced1 Tbsp minced fresh ginger1/2 tsp ground coriander1/4 tsp cayenne pepper2 mangoes, peeled and diced1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro
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