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The grand tour of India - all you need to know

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As a land of remarkable diversity, with a rich and multi-layered culture, a tempo of life that varies throughout the country, breath-taking landscapes and magnificent culinary creations, India will not only peak your curiosity, but also toss up the unexpected.

 

The basics

The Republic of India is the seventh largest country in the world by area and the second in terms of population with 1,345 billion people living in the country. However, its high birth-rate makes it likely to reach the first position in less than ten years. It is an extremely diverse country, with vast differences in geography, climate, culture, language and ethnicity across its expanse, and prides itself on being the largest democracy on earth and a hub of trade in Southeast Asia.

India is a Parliamentary Democracy modelled on the British Westminster system. It’s President, Ram Nath Kovind, is elected indirectly as the Head of State. However, the position has limited power and it is actually the Prime Minister, Narendra Damodardas Modi, who has the most authority and runs the government. India is also a Federal Republic divided into states and union territories that each has its own legislatures and chief minister.

India experiences at least three seasons a year – Summer, Rainy Season and Winter – which differ from region to region. The North experiences extreme heats in Summer and very cold temperatures in Winter, although snow is usually only found in the Himalayan regions. It only rains during a specific time of the year called the Rainy or Monsoon Season. This season splits in two: the Southwest and the Northeast. The Southwest monsoon causes rains over most parts of the country, lasts from June to September and is the crucial variable that decides how the crops will turn out; whereas the Northeast monsoon hits the east coast between October and February. Only the North-Eastern of India is affected by both monsoons and consequently experiences the highest rainfall in the world.

The Constitution of India recognizes 23 official languages. Out of these, Hindi Is the main Official Language of the Union Government although there is no National Language of India. Hindi is spoken as the first language by about 40% of the population and many speak it as a second language. However, not everyone speaks or understands it, especially people in southern and north-eastern States. English acts as a subsidiary official language and is spoken as the second language for most Indians. Many younger Indians code-switch between English and their native language in their daily life. Despite this, fluency in English still varies vastly depending on education levels, occupation, age and region. Generally, most official signs are bilingual in the state language and English with signs at railway stations usually being trilingual: Hindi, English and the state’s official language. Some of the other official languages in India include Bengali, Telugu, Marathi, Tamil and Urdu.

 

History

India is a land of ancient civilization and its social, economic and cultural configurations are the products of a long process of regional expansion. Indian history begins with the birth of the Indus Valley Civilization and the coming of the Aryans, usually described as the pre-Vedic and Vedic age. The inhabitants from the Indus Valley Civilization (3300 BC – 1700 BC) are known as Dravidians and had already developed an urban culture based on commerce and sustained by agricultural trade, and developed new techniques in metallurgy and handicraft as well as producing copper, bronze, lead and tin, evident from seals and statues found such as that of the Dancing girl. Historically, it is one of the world’s earliest, urban civilisations, along with Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt.

During the Vedic Period (1700 BC – 500 BC), the Aryans were the first to invade the country. They brought with them strong cultural traditions that have shaped and still influence the Republic of India to this day. During this period, the Vedas, one of the oldest and most important books of Hinduism, were compiled. Sanskrit, one of the most ancient languages spoken by them, was used in the first documentation of the Vedas and lay the foundation for some of the languages found today in North-India. This period also saw the birth of Siddhartha Gautama (Buddha), founder of Buddhism.

The Ancient India Era (500 BC – 550 AD) saw major mathematical and astronomical advancements, many of which were ahead of their time and were rediscovered later in the West. Aryabhata theorised that the earth was a sphere that rotates about its axis and revolved around the sun. He also developed a calendar that is followed to this day.

During the Medieval Period (550 – 1526) the Islamic conquest of India started. The most important of the Muslim rulers were the Mughals, who established an empire during the Post-Medieval Era (1526 – 1818) which covered modern-day Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Bangladesh. Only the Rajputs remained as the only Hindu force in the North, but were later subdued and the Rajput-Mughal alliance was formed. This period was the golden age for Indian art, architecture and literature, producing the monumental gems of Rajasthan and the Taj Mahal; and many Hindus were converted to Islam, which is why around 13% of today’s population is Muslim. The Mughal Empire was finally defeated during India’s first war of Independence in 1857.

In 1818, the Colonial Era started with the British taking control over almost all the parts of India. It started with European powers from Portugal, Netherlands, France and the UK establishing trading posts in India. However, the later took advantage of the internal conflicts from the Mughal Empire and established colonies in the country. During this time, Calcutta became the second city of the British Empire after London. Non-violence resistance to British colonialism under Mahatma Gandhi led to Independence in 1947. After Independence, India adopted a Constitutional Government and democratic freedoms have prevailed ever since.

Today, India has become the most vibrant republic and largest democracy of the world, an influential nation in South Asia and an emerging global superpower.

 

Regions and Geography

India is administratively divided into 29 states and 7 union territories. The states are broadly demarcated on linguistic lines and vary in size. The union territories are smaller than the states (sometimes being just one city) and have much less autonomy. These states and union territories are grouped into six zones with each zone having an Advisory Council and offering a unique geography.

  • North-Eastern Zonal Council. It is the country’s tribal corner with lush, beautiful landscapes, endemic flora and fauna of the Indo-Malayan group and famous for Tea Gardens. It consists of seven tiny states popularly known as the Seven Sisters.
  • Northern Zonal Council. The country’s national capital territory, Delhi, can be found in this region. Many of the events that shaped India’s history took place in this region. It comprises part of the Himalayan Region.
  • Central Zonal Council. This region also comprises part of the Himalayan region and is therefore a great tourist destination for the adventurous and the spiritual.
  • Eastern Zonal Council. This Region is economically less developed, but culturally rich and perhaps the most welcoming of outsiders. It features Kolkata (once the capital of British India and known as Calcutta) and the temple cities of Puri, Bhubaneswar and Konark. It stretches from the mountains to the coast, resulting in fascinating variations in climate. It is also the mineral storehouse of India, having the country’s largest and richest mines.
  • Western Zonal Council. Here you can not only find the country’s most vibrant and biggest city, Mumbai, but also the world’s second largest Salt Flat, known as the Great Rann of Kutch, miles and miles of the Thar Desert, wonderful beaches and pristine forests of Goa and Bollywood.
  • Southern Zonal Council. South India features famous and historical temples, tropical forests, backwaters, beaches and the vibrant cities of Bangalore, Kochi and Chennai. The island groups of Andaman & Nicobar and Lakshadweep are also included in this region, although they present their own unique characteristics.

find out about IndiaIn terms of landscape, India has it all. In this country you can find mountains, jungles, deserts and beaches. The north and northeast of India bounds with the Himalayas, the tallest mountain range in the world. In addition to protecting the country from invaders, the also feed the perennial rivers Ganga, Yamuna and Sindhu, on whose plains India’s civilization flourished. The Thar dessert, as mentioned above, occupies the western region of the country whereas part of the eastern region is covered by a thick forest known as the Dandakaranya and is populated by tribal people. India has also a long coastline with many beaches. The west coast borders the Arabian Sea and the east coast the Bay of Bengal, both parts of the Indian Ocean.

 

Main Cities

Delhi

Delhi is the city and national capital territory of India located in the north-central region and it actually consists of two components: Old Delhi, the historic city, and New Delhi, the capital of India since 1947 and that was build in the first part of the 20th century as the capital of British India. Delhi is of great historical significance as an important commercial, transport and cultural hub and was named for Raja Dhilu, a king who reigned in the region in the 1st century BC. Delhi has been the centre of a succession of mighty empires and powerful kingdoms. Numerous ruins (historical monuments, forts and buildings) scattered throughout the territory offer a constant reminder of the area’s history. The straight and diagonal pattern of the broad tree-lined avenues in New Delhi, with extensive green spaces and wide vistas, contrast sharply with the crowded, narrow and winding streets characteristic of Old Delhi. The main east-west axis of New Delhi is Central Vista Park, which is flanked by government buildings including the Parliament of India, museums and research centres in a park-like setting. Languages spoken in the capital not only include Hindi, but also Punjabi, Tamil, Urdu and even English.

 

Mumbai

internships in IndiaMumbai is the Maharashtra state capital and the biggest financial centre in India. Formerly known as Bombay, it is the source of famous Bollywood, huge studios and produces the largest number of movies annually. The city is also home to the Reserve Bank of India and headquarters of many multinational companies are located here, making the city a centre of attraction of business and entertainment. India’s three largest companies, India Reliance Industries Limited, Tata Group and Aditya Birla Group, operate out of Mumbai. The famous Gateway of India is also located in Mumbai.

 

Kolkata

all about IndiaFor a significant period of history, Kolkata served as the capital of colonial India. The famous Victoria Memorial, a palace of white marble situated in the heart of the city, is a vivid reminder of that period of time and was built in honour of the 25th anniversary of Queen Victoria’s rule in India. It is a major port city and commercial hub, and its IT sector is currently growing at the rate of 70% with several SEZ being set leading to rapid industrialization. Some global companies with headquarters in Kolkata include ITC Limited, Allahabad Band and Uco Bank.

 

Culture

Indian Culture and traditions have become renowned all across the world. It is full of several unique customs and traditions which outsiders might find quite intriguing. Most of these originate from the Ancient Indian scriptures and texts, which have dictated the way of life in India for thousands of years.

Religious and spiritual themes dominate India’s rich and multi-layered cultures. While it is a mistake to assume that there is a single unified Indian culture, there certainly are unifying themes that link the various cultures. India's cultural heritage is expressed through its myriad of languages in which much great literature and poetry has been written. The pace of globalization was slow in much of rural India, and even in urban areas Western tastes in food, dress and entertainment were adopted with discrimination. Indian fashions have remained the norm. Indians have continued to prefer traditional cuisine to Western fare and, even though Indian youths follow the same pop culture as in the West, Indians produce their own films and music, which have been extremely popular domestically and have been successfully marketed abroad.

Throughout India, custom and religious ritual are still widely observed and practiced. Among Hindus, religious and social custom follows the samskara, a series of personal sacraments and rites conducted at various stages throughout life.

 

The namaste

indian cultureShaking hands when greeting another person from the opposite sex is considered rude, as people of opposite sex should not touch each other in public. Therefore, Indians have adopted a different way of greeting each other: the Namaste. The greeting consists in brining your palms together in front of your chest, bow slightly and simply say “Namaste”. The word literally translates to “I bow to you” and the word ‘namaha’ can also be translated as ‘na ma’ (not mine), to signify the reduction of one’s ego in the presence of the other.

 

Joint families and marriage

Indian value their family system a lot. It is common for Indians to live in a joint family where the entire family all live together: sons live together with their parents all their lives and daughters live with their parents until they get married. The relationship is mutually self-supporting. Parents may support their children for longer than is common in the West, brothers and sisters support each other, and sons are expected to take care of their parents in their old age. However, nowadays you can also find people leave their home and live on their own to look for better job opportunities, but family remains very important to them.

culture in IndiaIn India, marriage is still taken as an institution where not two people, but two families get united and boisterous celebrations full of music and dance is the norm. With arranged marriage dominating in India and parents searching for only the best for their daughters, seeing a sign that reads “wedding detective” on a highway is quite common. These detective companies provide detailed information about the groom to be and his past relationships and, once all is cleared, the couple is free to enter in matrimony. Often, these detectives even get themselves involved with close friends and family of the groom to withdraw information from them.

A special night is also celebrated before the day of marriage in which mehndi or henna, a kind of paste, is designed on the palms of the bride and is followed by some colourful dance and music. The paste is applied for a few hours or overnight and washed when it gets dried completely to give a reddish-brown colour to the palms. In certain parts of India, mehndi is also a special kind of ancient folk art.

 

Newspapers

While most of the world is slowly getting rid of printed newspapers as digital newspapers are taking over, India still believes the best way to deliver news from around the world is to hold a printed newspaper in your hand and read it. This is partly because literacy rate has risen significantly, but the internet usage rate has decreased; and partly because Indian newspapers print in all the various languages, unlike online news which only offer around 10 languages. Buying a newspaper in India is also reasonably cheaper than using the internet. And the best thing about reading these printed newspapers is that you can sell them back to a person for a price and they in turn will sell them again, which makes it a good, although different, way of recycling.

 

Take it to the streets

India is a country that likes to take things to a whole different level and the streets are where most Indians spend their time. Whether you want something to eat or need something fixed, you can rest assured that you will find it on the street and for little money. From shoe repairs, fast food, ayurvedic doctors, ear and nose cleaners, hair dressers and much more, everything can be found on the road.

 

The clothing

Dress to respect. Indians generally dress conservatively and the very traditional and ethnic, yet contemporary Indian saris are famous worldwide, and is worn with a blouse that covers the upper part of the body. Travellers should adapt to the dress code. Shorts and sleeveless shirts are frowned upon in smaller cities and rural areas, but are usually accepted in larger metropolis. However, you should always cover as much skin as possible, especially shoulders, and women should usually wear baggy clothes and not emphasize their contours. It is crucial to keep shoulders and the lower part of your body covered when visiting a religious site.

When going to a beach, make sure to know what the appropriate attire for the beach you are visiting is. Most tourist beaches have bikinis as part of the beach culture; however, Indians, especially women, are fully-clothed even at the beach. Thus, if you visit a not so touristic beach you might want to adjust to the dress code and leave the bikini at home.

 

Art and architecture

Taj Mahal IndiaArchitecture is perhaps India’s greatest glory. One of the most known examples of Indian architecture is the Taj Mahal, a masterpiece from the Mughal Empire build by emperor Shah Jahan to honour his third wife, Mumtaz Mahal. It combines elements from Islamic, Persian, Ottoman, Turkish and Indian architecture styles. The Taj Mahal is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and attracts tourists from all over the world. Another structure from the Mughal Era, the Humayan’s Tomb, is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Also notable are stepwells, such as the Rani ki Vav (“Queen’s Stepwell”) in Patan, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

There is a science behind all the temples found in India. Most temples are located along magnetic wave lines of the earth, which help in maximizing the available positive energy. The copper plate (called Garbhagriha or Moolasthan) buried under the main idol absorbs and resonates this energy to its surroundings. Going to the temple often helps in having a positive mind and garnering positive energies, which in turn lead to healthier functioning.

India is well known for its film industry, which is often referred to as Bollywood. The country’s movie history began in 1896 when the Lumière brothers demonstrated the art of cinema in Mumbai. Today, the films are known for their elaborate singing and dancing. The major classical dance traditions – Bharata Natyam, Kathak, Odissi, Manipuri, Kuchipudi, Mohiniattam and Kathakali – draw on themes from mythology and literature and have rigid presentation rules. In terms of literature, the Ramayana is one of the oldest known epic works of literature. Music is something that exists from the beginning of Indian culture and singing is common during festivities and celebrations. The diverse form of Indian culture is reflected in Indian music and you can find different forms of music such as ghazals, shayari, folk music, and many more.

India also sees a large number of festivals, mainly because of the prevalence of diverse religions and groups. The Muslims celebrate Eid, the Christians have Christmas, good Friday and so on, the Sikhs have Baisakhi (harvesting of crop) and the birthdays of their Gurus, the Hindus have Diwali, Holi, Makar Sakranti, the Jains have Mahavir Jayanti, and the Buddhists celebrate the Buddha’s birthday on Buddha Poornima. Diwali is the largest and most important holiday to India. It is a five-day festival known as the festival of lights because of the lights lit during the celebration to symbolize the inner light that protects them from spiritual darkness.

 

Customs

There’s a whole hierarchy of the body parts in Hinduism. The head is superior to the rest of the body, and the feet are lowest on the rang and considered dirty. Touching or pointing at other people with your feet is seen as disrespectful. If done accidentally, a quick gesture of apology that involves touching the offended person with the right hand and then moving the hand to the chest and to the eyes needs to be made. This also applies to books and written material, as they are considered as being concrete/physical forms of the Hindu Goddess of Learning, Saraswati. Winking, whistling, pointing or beckoning with your fingers, and touching someone’s ears should also be avoided as they too are considered rude gestures. In mosques, churches and temples it is obligatory to take off your footwear before entering. This may also be customary when entering other people’s homes. Superstitions run high in India and accepting or giving something with the left hand is considered bad luck.

The Swastika is commonly seen in India as it is considered a religious symbol for Hindus, Buddhists and Jains. It is not regarded as a symbol for Nazism in India, in fact, it had its origins in Hinduism long before the birth of Nazism and is actually the symbol of Lord Ganesha, the remover of obstacles. In India, the saying “Atithi Devo Bhavah” is also integral and means “the guest is equivalent to god”. It is a Sanskrit verse taken from the Hindu scriptures which later became a part of the “Code of conduct” for Hindu society, since the guest has always been of supreme importance in the culture.

It is customary to put up a token friendly argument with you host or any other member of the group when paying bills at a restaurant or while making purchases. In a business lunch/dinner, it is usually clear upfront who is supposed to pay and there is no need to fight. But if you are someone’s personal guest and they take you out to a restaurant, you should offer to pay anyway and insist a lot.

 

Medicine

India has a tradition of medical healing, teaching, and research that goes back more than two thousand years to the two basic medical treatises written by Charaka and Sushruta. Today, the country has four major medical systems as well as dozens of localized and tribal ones that depend on herbal treatments. The oldest of the four systems is still widely followed under the name of Ayurveda, meaning "science of long life", and is known worldwide. It is highly developed, with its own hospitals, clinics, pharmaceutical factories, and medical textbooks. It depends primarily on non-invasive herbal treatments. The diagnosis and treatment emphasize on a holistic approach.

 

Indian Cuisine

Cuisine in India varies greatly from region to region, although the daily diet of most Indians lacks variety. Depending on income, two or three meals are generally consumed. The bulk of almost all meals is whatever the regional staple might be (rice, flat wheat bread or bread made from pearl millet) usually supplemented with the puree of a legume (dal), a few vegetables and, for those who can afford it, a small bowl of yogurt. For most Indians, meat is a rarity, whereas fish, fresh milk, fruits and vegetables are widely consumed.

Indian foodNorth India is the wheat growing land and a typical meal includes Indian breads. Tandoori chicken is probably the best-known North Indian dish. For a traditional Punjabi folk dish, try dal makhana or sarson da saag. Desserts include dishes such as jalebi, rasmalai or halwa. Dry fruits and nuts like almonds, cashews and pistachio are used a lot for both, desserts and main meals. In South India, food is mostly rice-based and traditionally served on a banana leaf as a plate. Seasoning in South India differs from northern regions by its use of mustard seeds, curry leaves, pulses and a variety of souring agents such as tamarind and kokum. There are regional varieties too, with coastal regions making greater use of coconut and fish. The Wester cuisine is somewhat similar to Northern cuisine, especially Rajasthani food with their hearty textures and robust flavours; whereas Eastern cuisine is more similar to Southern cuisine making use of rice, fish and mustard due to the vast river channels and ocean coastline. Tea is the preferred beverage in northern and eastern India, while coffee is more common in the south. Coconut water is also a pretty common beverage, especially in the south and in summer you can even get fresh sugarcane juice. A lot of food has also filtered in from other countries and you can find for example Indian Chinese, British fish and chips, Tibetan and Nepali food as well as pizza.

Like most Asian Countries, you can find restaurants ranging from roadside shacks to classy five-start places where the experience is comparable to places anywhere in the world. Away from the big cities and tourist haunts, mid-level restaurants are scarce with food choices limited to the local cuisine.

In terms of etiquette when eating in India, it is very common to eat with your hands instead of using utensils like forks and spoons. One basic rule to follow when eating: always use your right hand only, as the left hand is used for dirty things. Also, don’t stick your hands into communal serving dishes. Instead, use your left hand to serve yourself with utensils. Most of the restaurants do provide cutlery and eating by hand is even frowned on in some of the “classier” restaurants.

 

Indians made significant advances in architecture (Taj Mahal), mathematics and medicine (Ayurveda) and with today’s diversity in languages, religions, food, arts and more, India is a country worth visiting with lots to offer which is why it should be included on your list of ‘destinations to visit’.

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