Sharing a Cup of Chai with a Perfect Stranger: You will typically be asked to sit and share a cup of chai (tea) a dozen times a day, usually by merchants keen to keep you browsing. Although you may at first be nervous of what this may entail, don't hesitate to accept when you're feeling more comfortable, for while sipping the milky sweet brew (often flavored with ginger and cardamom), conversation will flow, and you might find yourself discussing anything from women's rights in India to the individualism that mars Western society.
Helping Lord Venkatesware Repay His Debt to the God of Wealth (Tirupati, Andhra Pradesh): Tirupati, the richest temple in India, is the most active religious pilgrimage destination on earth, drawing more than 10 million devoted pilgrims every year (more than either Jerusalem or Rome!) who line up for hours, even days, to see the diamond-decorated black stone idol Lord Venkateshwara (aka Vishnu) for just a few seconds. Afterward, you stare in disbelief as vast piles of cash and other contributions are counted by scores of clerks behind a wall of glass.
Watching the Moon Rise from Pushkar Palace during the Pushkar Mela (Pushkar, Rajasthan): The sunset is a spectacular sight on any given evening, but on the evening of the full moon during the Pushkar mela, hundreds of Hindu pilgrims, accompanied by temple bells and drums, wade into a sacred lake -- believed to miraculously cleanse the soul -- before lighting clay lamps and setting them afloat on its holy waters, the twinkling lights a surreal reflection of the desert night sky. If you're lucky enough to have bagged a room at Pushkar Palace, you can watch this ancient ritual from a deck chair on the terrace on the banks of the lake.
Gawking and Being Gawked At (Dungarpur, near Udaipur, Rajasthan): As a foreigner, you may attract uncomfortably long stares (particularly on public transport), but there are a few moments that you will recall with a wry smile, like the gimlet eye of the toothless old royal retainer as he watches your reaction to the explicit Kama Sutra paintings he will reveal hidden in a cupboard of Dungarpur's 13th-century Juna Mahal -- one of the Rajasthan's undiscovered gems.
Playing Chicken with a Tata Truck: The rules of the road (which is almost always single-laned, potholed, and unmarked) are hard to understand, but it would seem that (after the cow, which is of course sacred) Tata trucks, all with HORN ON PLEASE written on their bumpers, rule the road, an assumption your hired driver is likely to test -- and you will, more than once, find yourself involuntarily closing your eyes as destiny appears to race toward you, blaring its horn.
Meeting a Maharaja (Rajasthan): India must be the only place in the world where you can, armed with a credit card, find yourself sleeping in a king's bed, having dined with the aristocrat whose forebears built, and quite often died for, the castle or palace walls that surround it. While most heritage properties are still owned by India's oldest monarchies, many of whom live there, only some (like Mandawa Castle and Deogarh Mahal in Rajasthan, and Nilambagh Palace in Gujarat) are personally managed by these urbane aristocrats.
Unraveling the Intricacies of Hinduism (Master Guest House, Delhi): Staying here is not only the best-value deal in town, but the sophisticated, charming, and extremely knowledgeable Avnish Puri will take you on a "Hidden Delhi" tour, showing you a world not seen by many outsiders, during which he will unravel Hinduism's spiritual tenets in a profoundly logical way -- no mean feat!
Being Blessed by an Elephant (Madurai, Tamil Nadu): While you may expect to see an elephant in a national park, it's always a wonderful surprise when you see one ambling down a crowded street in urban Mumbai or Delhi -- these days, though, as authorities work at instilling a modern approach, you're unlikely to see such large beasts in any India city. But outside Thirupparankundram Temple, near Madurai, the resident temple elephant waits patiently to bestow blessings on those willing to donate a rupee.
Exchanging Printed Paper for a Handmade Kutchi Rabari Woven Masterpiece (Kutch, Gujarat): Bargaining for unique textiles is a common practice in the bazaars throughout India, but when you stare into the eyes of a seminomadic Rabari woman from Kutch who has spent perhaps over 5 years crafting a particular piece, you understand that this is no mere transaction. You'll be exchanging money for an item that was made over a substantial portion of her life, and is laden with the narrative of her culture.
Rocking to the Gentle Rhythm of Lake Pichola under a Firm Hand (Udaipur, Rajasthan): Taj Lake Palace Hotel's spa boat, moored in the middle of Lake Pichola, is an expeditious vehicle of enlightenment. Book a late-afternoon treatment and emerge from your private sandalwood cabin to see the sun set over the Aravalli Hills and the City Palace lights wink at your newfound sense of peace. It's about not only the destination but how you get there.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.