India is a vast country, roughly divided -- for the purposes of this guide -- into North, East, and South.
The south (again, for the purposes of this guide), accessed most conveniently via Mumbai (state capital of Maharashtra), refers to Goa, Karnataka (with an excursion to Hyderabad, capital of Andhra Pradesh), Kerala, and Tamil Nadu.
The north refers to Rajasthan, its southern neighbor Gujarat, and to the west of these states, the nation's capital, Delhi, and the sprawling states of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, which lies in the very heart of the country. Northeast of Delhi lie the largely unvisited states of Haryana and Punjab (the big exception being the Golden Temple at Amritsar, one of India's most wonderful attractions), and -- moving directly north of Delhi -- Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh and Ladakh (one province in the state of otherwise-unsafe Jammu and Kashmir) in the Himalayas.
The east refers to Jharkhand (not a tourist destination), West Bengal (centered around Kolkata, or Calcutta), Orissa (with top attraction Konark), and, moving north into the Himalayas again, the mountain state of Sikkim and the tea-growing hill station of Darjeeling. Seven more states lie farther east (north and east of Bangladesh); their infrastructure is virtually nonexistent. Because travel in these areas is considered less than safe, they are not covered here, with the exception of two outstanding wildlife reserves in Assam.
The largest differences lie between the northern and southern regions. The former offers predominantly a plethora of medieval Mughal and Rajput architecture, ancient cities, deserts, camel safaris, heritage accommodations, tiger parks, Buddhism, and the snowcapped peaks of the Himalayas. The latter is rich with beautiful beaches, Ayurvedic spas, ancient Dravidian/Hindu temples, cosmopolitan colonial coastal towns, and a generally more laid-back atmosphere. We suggest that rather than try to cover both the north and the south, concentrate your energies on one. If you do decide to combine the two, stick to two states, or you'll find yourself exhausted at the end of your vacation.
Mumbai (Bombay) & Maharashtra -- Teetering on the edge of the Arabian Sea, its heaving population barely contained by palm-fringed beaches, India's sexiest city is a vibrant, confident metropolis that's tangibly high on energy. The state capital of Maharashtra, this is home to many of the subcontinent's best restaurants and great hotels. It's also the ideal starting point for a tour south along the Konkan railway to Goa and beyond. Whichever you choose, do plan for an eastward jaunt to the ancient rock-cut caves of Ajanta and Ellora, Maharashtra's startling World Heritage Sites, and -- if you have any interest in the esoteric or want to immerse yourself in meditation -- schedule some time in Pune, where the Osho International Meditation Resort is the country's most upmarket spiritual center.
Goa -- Nirvana for flower children since the late 1960s, Goa still attracts a cosmopolitan mix of youngsters who cruise from beach to beach, looking for action. But Goa is more than a party in paradise. A Portuguese colonial heritage has left an indelible mark on this tiny enclave (India's smallest state), from cuisine to architecture, with plenty to see. And if the crowded beaches and vibrant markets leave you gasping for solitude, you can still find the original Goan paradise on far-flung beaches or in quiet boutique hotels, reviewed in detail in this book.
Karnataka & Kerala -- Traveling south along India's west coast, you will pass through untouched Karnataka; it's possible you'll overnight in the hip city of Bangalore. From there you can head to Hyderabad, the 400-year-old capital of Andhra Pradesh, as famous for its food and minarets as for its burgeoning software industry; or south to Mysore, "City of Incense"; or to the coast, where you can indulge in yoga and Ayurvedic rejuvenation at Om Beach. Whatever you do, set aside time to explore the lost city of Hampi, arguably Karnataka's most evocative attraction, or to join the Jain pilgrimage to anoint the giant feet of Lord Gomateswara, said to be the largest monolith in the world. There's more besides, but who can tarry long when Kerala, "God's own country," awaits? South India's top destination, particularly for the well-heeled traveler in search of pampering and relaxation, Kerala offers ancient backwaters plied by houseboats, herds of wild elephant, coconut-lined beaches, and, of course, the ancient healing art of Ayurveda.
Tamil Nadu -- Occupying a long stretch of the eastern Indian Ocean coastline, India's southernmost state seems little touched by the foreign influences that contributed to the cultural developments in the north. This is where you'll find India's most superb Dravidian temples, from Mamallapuram (7th c. A.D.) to the Madurai temple complex (16th c. A.D.). When you're all templed out, there's always Pondicherry, the former French coastal town where traditional Indian snack joints feature signs proclaiming MEALS READY -- BIEN VENUE and loincloth-clad locals converse in flawless French.
Delhi, Madhya Pradesh & Uttar Pradesh -- Entered through Delhi, capital of the largest democracy in the world, the central states of Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh are the real heart of India, where great rulers battled for power over vast swaths of India, and where you'll find arguably the densest concentration of top attractions on the subcontinent. From the "seven cities" of Delhi, it's a short train or road journey to Agra, home to the Taj Mahal and other superb examples of medieval Mughal architecture. From there you can either head west to Rajasthan, or east -- via the erotic temples of Khajuraho, considered the pinnacle of Hindu medieval architecture -- to the ancient city of Varanasi, India's holiest pilgrimage site, where the faithful come to die on the banks of the sacred Ganges to achieve moksha -- liberation from earthly life. To escape the well-beaten tourist track, head south to the vast plains of Madhya Pradesh, to Bandhavgarh National Park, one of the best places to see tigers in Asia.
Rajasthan & Gujarat -- With crenelated forts and impregnable palaces that rise like giant fairy-tale sets above dusty sun-scorched plains and shimmering lakes, Rajasthan -- literally "land of princes" -- epitomizes the romance of India. Whether you choose to linger in the untainted medieval atmosphere of little towns like Bundi and Shahpura, browse the bumper-to-bumper shops in Jaipur, track tigers in Ranthambhore, overnight on the lake in the beautiful city of Udaipur, or explore the world's oldest living fort in Jaisalmer, you will want to see it all. Meanwhile, Gujurat, immediately south of Rajasthan, is where you can explore a number of intriguing ancient sights in and around the capital city of Ahmedabad, including the magnificent Modhera Sun Temple and the 900 beautiful Jain temples atop the holy mount of Shatrunjaya. And you can venture into the remote, arid, barren, bleak and beautiful province of Kutch, a part of Gujarat where you'll encounter several distinctive ethnic tribes, including the nomadic Rabari people who are known for their intricate embroidery and ornamental adornments.
Himachal Pradesh & Ladakh -- Bordered by Tibet to the east, Himachal Pradesh incorporates great topographic diversity, from vast, bleak tracts of the rust-colored high-altitude Trans-Himalayan desert to dense green deodar forests, apple orchards, and cultivated terraces. Together with Ladakh (known as "Little Tibet"), this is also where you'll find India's largest concentration of Buddhists, their atmospheric gompas (monastic temples, including Tabo, the World Heritage Site in Spiti) a total contrast to the pageantry of Hindu temples. An easy -- and highly recommended -- detour from the region is to Amritsar to view the Golden Temple, arguably the most spiritually satisfying destination in India.
Uttarakhand -- Comprising the pre-Vedic territories of Garhwal and Kumaon, the mountains of the central Himalayan state of Uttarakhand are riven with ancient Hindu pilgrimage routes, and offer wonderful trekking routes. Nonhikers come here to practice yoga at Rishikesh on the banks of the holy river Ganges, or to take a road trip through the less-traveled parts of Kumaon, possibly ending their sojourn looking for tigers in Corbett National Park, which vies with Ranthambhore for accessibility from Delhi.
Kolkata (Calcutta) & the East -- Kolkata, the much-maligned capital of West Bengal, never fails to surprise the visitor with its beautiful albeit crumbling colonial architecture, sophisticated Bengali culture, and wonderful restaurants and hotels. From here you can either head north to the cooling breezes of West Bengal's hill station, Darjeeling, famous for its tea, and on to the Buddhist state of Sikkim (in many ways even more remote than Himachal Pradesh); or head south to Orissa to visit the monolithic Sun Temple at Konark, yet another of India's awesome array of World Heritage Sites.
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.