India is a mystical land that presents the traveller with a bamboozling array of unforgettable experiences. Apart from its ancient spiritual framework, India's vastness also challenges the imagination, being home to one sixth of the world's population.
India has an intoxicatingly rich history, which has spawned a number of exquisite palaces, temples and monuments. The most frequently visited part of India is the Golden Triangle, comprised of Delhi, Agra and Jaipur. Meanwhile, the people-packed cities of Mumbai (Bombay) and Kolkata (Calcutta) have a bustling, colorful charm, while theholy city of Varanasi and the awe-inspiring temples of Tamil Nadu are rewarding places of pilgrimage. For those in search of tropical bliss, there are the palm-fringed beaches of Goa and Kerala. And for fresh air and serenity, India ripples with pristine mountains and hills, from the towering beauty of the mighty Himalayas to a bevy of beautiful pine forests, orchards and babbling streams.
India shares borders to the northwest with Pakistan, to the north with China, Nepal and Bhutan, and to the east with Bangladesh and Myanmar. To the west lies the Arabian Sea, to the east the Bay of Bengal and to the south the Indian Ocean. Sri Lanka lies off the southeast coast, and the Maldives off the southwest coast. The far northeastern states and territories are all but separated from the rest of India by Bangladesh as it extends northwards from the Bay of Bengal towards Bhutan. The Himalayan mountain range to the north and the Indus River (west) and Ganges River (east) form a physical barrier between India and the rest of Asia.
The weather is hot most of the year with variations from region to region. The coolest weather lasts from around December to February, with fresh mornings and evenings and mostly sunny days. The really hot weather, when it is dry, dusty and unpleasant, is between March and June. Monsoon rains occur in most regions in summer anywhere between June and early October.
Western Himalayas: Srinagar is best from March to October; July to August can be unpleasant; cold and damp in winter. Shimla is higher and therefore colder in winter. Places like Gulmarg, Manali and Pahalgam areusually under several feet of snow from December to March and temperatures in Ladakh can be extremely cold. The mountain passes of Ladakh are accessible from July to October.
Required clothing: Light- to mediumweights are advised from March to October, with warmer wear for winter. Weather can change rapidly in the mountains and therefore it is important to be suitably equipped. Waterproofing is advisable.
Northern Plains: This extreme climate is typically warm inland from April to mid-June, falling to almost freezing at night in winter between November and February. Summers are hot with monsoons between June and September.
Required clothing: Lightweights in summer with warmer clothes in winter and on cooler evenings. Waterproofing is essential during monsoons.
Central India: Madhya Pradesh state escapes the very worst of the hot season, but monsoons are heavy between July and September. Temperatures fall at night in winter.
Required clothing: Lightweights are worn most of the year with warmer clothes during evenings, particularly in winter. Waterproofed clothing is advised during monsoon rains.
Western India: November to February is most comfortable, although evenings can be fairly cold. Summers can be extremely hot with monsoon rainfall between mid June and mid September.
Required clothing: Lightweights are worn most of the year with warmer clothes for cooler winters, and waterproofing is essential during the monsoon.
Southwest: The most pleasant weather is from November to March. Monsoon rains fall anywhere between late April and July. Summer temperatures not as high as Northern India although humidity is extreme. The coast benefits from some cooling breezes. Inland, Mysore and Bijapur have pleasant climates with relatively low rainfall.
Required clothing: Lightweights. Waterproofing is necessary during the monsoon. Warmer clothes are worn in the winter, particularly in the hills.
Southeast: Tamil Nadu experiences a northeast monsoon between October and December and temperatures and humidity are high all year. The hills can be cold in winter.
Required clothing: Lightweights. Waterproofing is necessary during the monsoon. Warmer clothes are worn in the winter, particularly in the hills.
Northeast: March to June and September to November are the driest and most pleasant periods. The rest of the year has extremely heavy monsoon rainfall.
Required clothing: Lightweights. Waterproofing is advisable throughout the year and essential in monsoons, usually from mid June to mid October. Warmer clothes are useful for cooler evenings.
WHERE TO GO ?
Delhi has two parts: New Delhi, India’s capital and the seat of government, is a modern city, offering wide tree-lined boulevards, spacious parks and the distinctive style of Lutyens’ architectural design; ‘Old’ Delhi, on the other hand, is a city several centuries old, teeming with narrow winding streets, temples, mosques and bazaars. Must sees include the Red Fort and the nearby Jama Masjid (India’s largest mosque) both built in the mid-17th century at the height of the Moghul Empire. Also of note is the Qutab Minar’s soaring tower built in 1193 by Qutab-ud-din immediately after the defeat of Delhi’s last Hindu kingdom. At the base of the tower is the Quwwat-ul-Islam Mosque built in the same period using stone from demolished Hindu temples. Delhi attracts the finest musicians and dancers offering an ideal opportunity to hear the sitar, sarod and the subtle rhythm of the tabla, and to see an enthralling variety of dance forms, each with its own costumes and elaborate language of gestures. Theaters and cinemas show films from all over India, and the city has some of the country’s finest restaurants offering many styles of regional cuisine.
To the east of Delhi is the state of Uttar Pradesh, through which flows the sacred River Ganges. Built along its bank is the wondrous city of Varanasi, India’s holiest Hindu location. The town itself is a maze of winding streets, dotted with temples and shrines. Lining the river are a series of ghats which, at dawn, are thronged with pilgrims and holy men performing ritual ablutions and prayers.
Delhi lies at the apex of the ‘Golden Triangle’ – an area filled with ancient sites and monuments. In the southeast lies Agra, city of the fabled Taj Mahal. This magnificent mausoleum was built by Shah Jahan as a monument to his love for his wife, Mumtaz, who died in childbirth in 1631. Shah Jehan was later imprisoned by his own son in the nearby Red Fort, another major attraction whose massive red sandstone walls rise over 65 feet and measure 1.5 miles in circumference. Other important landmarks are Akbar’s Palace, the Jahangir Mahal, the octagonal tower Mussumman Burj and the Pearl Mosque. An hour outside Agra is Fatehpur Sikri, the town Akbar built as his new capital but abandoned after only a few years. This town is now no more than a ghost town but is definitely worth seeing if you have time.
The southwestern pivot of the triangle is Jaipur, gateway to the desert state of Rajasthan. Known as the ‘Pink City’ because of the distinctive color of its buildings painted in preparation for the visit of Britain’s Prince of Wales in 1853, Jaipur is a town of broad, open avenues and many palaces. The Amber Palace, just outside the city is spectacular and the facade of the Palace of the Winds within the city walls is an essential photo stop. Also worth seeing is Jai Singh’s City Palace and the Jantar Mantar Observatory. To the southwest is the most romantic city in Rajasthan, Udaipur, built around the lovely Lake Pichola and famed for its Lake Palace Hotel, it has been dubbed the ‘Venice of the East’. To the north, in the center of the Rajasthan desert, is Jodhpur, with its colorful, winding lanes and towering fortress. Near Ajmer is the small lakeside town of Pushkar. It is a site of religious importance for Hindus and it is here that every November the fascinating Camel Fair is held. Jaisalmer is a charming oasis town, once a resting place on the old caravan route to Persia. Among its attractions are the camel treks out into the surrounding desert.
To the south of the ‘Golden Triangle’ is the huge state of Madhya Pradesh. Its greatest attractions lie close to the northern frontier. Less than 160km (100 miles) from Agra is the great ruined fortress at Gwalior. To the east lies Khajuraho with its famous temples and friezes of sensuously depicted figures – a must for any visitor.
Less than 320km (200 miles) to the north of Delhi is Shimla, the greatest of all hill stations, surrounded by finely scented pine forests and the rich beauty of the Kulu Valley.
Jammu and Kashmir
In the far north, reaching into Central Asia, is the extensive mountain region of Kashmir, formerly a popular summer resort (visitors are now advised to consult government advice before visiting this area), and the valley of the River Jhelum. The gateway to the region is Jammu, a town surrounded by lakes and hills. The temples of Rambireshwar and Raghunath number among its most impressive sights. Jammu is the railhead for Srinagar, the ancient capital of Kashmir, and favorite resort of the Mughal emperors. It was they who built the many waterways and gardens around Lake Dal, complementing the natural beauty of the area. Among the attractions are the houseboats where visitors can live on the lakes surrounded by scenery so beautiful it is known as ‘paradise on earth’. Srinagar is also a convenient base for trips to Gulmarg and Pahalgam. Gulmarg offers fine trout fishing, and enjoys the distinction of having the highest golf course in the world. From here there are good views of Nanga Parbat, one of the highest mountains in the world. It is well placed as a starting point for treks into the hills and mountains. Pahalgam is another popular hill resort and base for pilgrimages to the sacred cave of Amarnath.
More exotic, though less accessible, is the region of Ladakh, beyond the Kashmir Valley. It is a mountainous land on the edge of the Tibetan Plateau which is still largely Tibetan in character. The capital, Leh, is situated high in the Karakouram mountain range, through which passed the old Silk Road from China to India and Europe.
The principal metropolis of Western India is Mumbai, the capital of the state of Maharashtra, a bustling port and commercial center, with plate-glass skyscrapers and modern industry jostling alongside bazaars and a hectic streetlife. Many of the country’s films are made in the famous Mumbai studios. The city also boasts one of the finest race tracks in India, the Mahalaxmi course. There is a pleasant seafront with a palm-lined promenade and attractive beaches such as Juhu, Versova, Marve, Madh and Manori. On the waterfront is Mumbai’s best-known landmark, the Gateway to India, whence boats leave on the 10km (6 mile) journey across the busy harbor to the Elephanta Island. The island is famous for the eighth-century cave temples, on whose walls are large rock carvings, the finest of which is the three-faced Maheshmurti, the great Lord.
To the east of Mumbai is Aurangabad, the starting point for visits to two of the world’s most outstanding rock-cut temples. The Buddhist cave temples at Ajanta date back at least 2000 years. Cut into the steep face of a deep rock gorge, the 30 caves contain exquisite paintings depicting daily life at that time.
The caves at Ellora depict religious stories and are Hindu, Buddhist and Jain in origin. The Temple of Kailasa is the biggest hewn monolith temple in the world. Southeast of Mumbai are several fine hill stations, notably Matheran with its narrow gauge trains, and Mahabaleshwar. The thriving city of Pune with its peaceful Bund Gardens and its cultural attractions is also in this area.
To the north of Mumbai lies the state of Gujarat, renowned for its silks, as the birthplace of Mahatma Gandhi, and as the last refuge of the Asian lion, found deep in the Gir Forest. Ahmedabad, in the east of the state, is the principal textile city of India, producing silks which are famous throughout the world. Ahmadabad is also the site of Sabarmati Ashram, founded by Mahatma Gandhi, from where his ideology of non-violence is still promoted. Gandhi’s birthplace is some 320km (200 miles) to the west, in the fishing village of Porbandar.
To the south of Maharashtra lies Goa. The 100km- (60 mile-) long coastline offers some of the finest beaches in the subcontinent. Goa was Portuguese until 1961, and there is also a charming blend of Latin and Indian cultures. Panaji, the state capital, is one of the most relaxed and elegant of India’s cities. The town is dominated by the huge Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, but the shops, bars and pleasant streets are its main attraction. ‘Old Goa’, only a bus ride away from Panaji, displays a bewildering variety of architectural styles. Buildings of note include the Basilica and the Convent and Church of St Francis of Assisi. In nearby Ponda is the 400-year-old Temple of Shri Mangesh, which is said to be the oldest Hindu shrine.
Goa’s infamous hippies are being replaced by backpackers, Indian visitors and package tourists. Full moon parties still take place in Anjuna but are smaller and less authentic than in the heady days of the 1960s. Anjuna is also famous throughout Goa for its Wednesday flea market. If you are looking for beautiful, quiet beaches head for the South between Benaulim and Palolem. Accommodation in the region includes the luxury resort of Aguada, the Taj holiday village and the Aguada hermitage. There are also good, simple hotels and cottages for rent in villages along the coastline, notably Calangute, Baga and Colva.
Goa also has several wildlife sanctuaries, including Bondla in the hills of western Ghats, where wild boar and sambar can be seen in their natural habitat. The region is famous for its food – an array of dishes, both Indian and Portuguese – as well as for its colorful festivals, including the spectacular Carnival held on the three days leading up to Ash Wednesday.
The south is the part of India least affected by incursions of foreign cultures through the centuries. It is here that Indian heritage has survived in its purest form.
The regional capital is Chennai (formerly Madras), India’s fourth-largest city and capital of the state of Tamil Nadu. Chennai is the cradle of the ancient Dravidian civilization, one of the oldest articulate cultures in the world. It is also home of the classical style of Indian dancing and a notable center of temple sculpture art. Sprawling over 130 sq km (50 sq miles), the metropolis has few tall buildings and enjoys the relaxed ambience of a market town rather than the bustle of a huge city. From Chennai Lighthouse there is a fine view of the city that includes many churches which tell of the city’s strong Christian influence, first introduced in AD 78 when the apostle St Thomas was martyred here.
Chennai, however, is largely a commercial city and the center of the area’s rail, air and road networks, and serves as a good starting point from which to explore the south.
Within the state are several important religious centers, notably Kanchipuram, which has an abundance of temples, and whose striking gopurams, or gateways, are decorated with sculptures of gods and goddesses. Inland is Madurai, with a large and bustling temple, and Thanjavur. Also worth visiting is Tiruchirappalli, which has a fortress built atop a strange boulder-shaped hill that dominates the town.
Further south, along the coast, is Pondicherry, an attractive town with a distinctive French style, and beyond, Rameswaram, once the ferry link to Sri Lanka.
To the west lies the state of Kerala, where many of India’s major coastal resorts are to be found. Among the finest is Kovalam, offering unspoilt beaches with increasingly modern amenities, including luxury bungalows and a number of hotels (some including a swimming pool). Only a few miles away is Trivandrum, the state capital with its famous Padmanabhaswamy Temple. Further inland is the Periyar Game Sanctuary which has a rich and varied wildlife. Other resorts include Cranganorre, Alleppey and Kochi.
Further to the north is the state of Karnataka, which has fine, unexplored beaches at Karwar, Mahe and Udupi. The state’s capital is Bangalore, an affluent city which is the center of electronics and engineering industries, but has many charming parks and gardens. To the southwest lies Mysore, where incense is manufactured.
Karnataka has a number of important religious and historical sites, including the ruins at Hampi to the north of Bangalore, and the vast statue of Lord Bahubali at Sravanabelagola, north of Mysore.
To the east of Karnataka is the state of Andhra Pradesh, with its capital at Hyderabad, offering a well-stocked one-man museum. Visakhapatnam, the fourth-largest port, is 220km (350 miles) to the east.
Far away to the east across the Bay of Bengal are the Andaman Islands, a lushly forested archipelago which has exotic plant life and a wide variety of corals and tropical fish, making it a major attraction for snorkeling enthusiasts. The islands’ capital, Port Blair, can be reached from Chennai and Kolkata (Calcutta) by boat or air. Visitors should note that the islands are subject to special entry restrictions and a Restricted Area Permit may be required; see the Passport/Visa section for details.
The largest city in India and hub of the east is Kolkata, the capital of West Bengal. Established as a British trading post in the 17th century, it grew rapidly into a vibrant center. Its colonial heritage is reflected in the buildings of Chowringhee Street and Clive Street, now Jawaharlal Nehru Road and Netaji Subhash Road. The city is filled with life and energy. It is a major business center and offers fine markets and bazaars. It is also the center of much of the country’s creative and intellectual activity, including the subcontinent’s best film-makers. Central Kolkata (Calcutta) is best viewed from the Maidan, the central area of parkland where early morning yoga sessions take place. The city’s Indian Museum is one of the finest in Asia. Other attractions include the white marble Victoria Memorial, the Ochterlony Monument (Sahid Minar) and the headquarters of the Rama Krishna movement. Across the river are the Kali Temple of Dakshineshwasar (Belur Math headquarters of Ramakrishna Movement) and the Botanical Gardens.
Bihar and Orissa
To the west is the state of Bihar, with the religious center of Bodhgaya, a sacred place for both Hindus and Buddhists. To the south, in the state of Orissa, are three temple cities. Foremost is Bhubaneswar, a town in which there once stood no less than 7000 temples, 500 of which have survived. Largest of these is the great Lingaraja Temple, dedicated to Lord Shiva. A short journey away to the south of Bhubaneswar lies Puri, one of the four holiest cities in India, now being developed as a beach resort. In June and July, Puri stages one of India’s most spectacular festivals, the Rath Yatra or ‘Car Festival’, at which pilgrims pay homage to images of gods drawn on massive wooden chariots. A short distance along the coast to the north is Konarak, known for its ‘Black Pagoda’ – a huge solitary temple to the sun god in the form of a chariot drawn by horses. The sculpture has a sensuous nature similar to that of Khajuraho, and is counted amongst the finest in India.
To the north of Kolkata (Calcutta) is one of the great railway journeys of the world, the ‘Toy Train’ to Darjeeling. The last part of the line runs through jungle, tea gardens and pine forests. Darjeeling straddles a mountain slope which drops steeply to the valley below, and commands fine views of Kanchenjunga (8586m/28,169ft), the third-highest mountain in the world. It is the headquarters of the Indian Mountaineering Institute, as well as the birthplace of Sherpa Tenzing. It is also a world-renowned tea-growing center.
A bus journey of two-and-a-half hours takes one to Kalimpong, a bazaar town at the foot of the Himalayas. From here a number of treks can be made to places offering fine panoramas of the mountains.
Further north is the mountain state of Sikkim. The capital, Gangtok, lies in the southwest. The main activity for visitors is trekking, although it is still in its infancy and facilities are minimal. At the moment, travel for non-Indian residents is limited. Trekking is allowed only in groups, while individuals may only visit Gangtok, Rumtek and Phodom. The nearest railheads are Darjeeling and Siliguri, on the slow but spectacular line of India’s northeast frontier railway.
Assam and Meghalaya
Even further to the east are the states of Assam and Meghalaya. Assam is famous for tea and wildlife reserves, and can be reached from the state capital of Guwahati. The tiger reserve of Manas is also rich in other varieties of wildlife, while in Kaziranga it is possible to see the one-horned rhinoceros of India.
Shillong, the capital of Meghalaya, is the home of the Khasi people. The region is filled with pine groves, waterfalls and brooks and is described as the ‘Scotland of the East’.
India’s coast has some of the most beautiful beaches in the world. Below are listed both well-known resorts, such as Goa, and several lesser-known beaches. Hotel facilities and accommodation are also indicated. Further information may be obtained by consulting the main Where to Go sections. Major beaches include:
Baga Beach, Calangute and Colva Beach. 5-star hotels with private beaches: Cidade de Goa, Fort Aguada Beach Resort and Oberoi Bogmalo Beach. It has reasonably priced hotels, tourist cottages, a tourist resort and youth hostels.
Juhu Beach; crowded 5-star hotel complex.
Ashok Beach resort. 5-star hotel complex, including beach cottages, Halcyon Castle and Kovalam Palace Hotel. Hotel Samudra, Kerala Tourism Development Corporation, is reasonably priced. Kovalam Beach gets crowded during the peak tourist season (November to March).
Fisherman’s Cove at Covelong beach resort; shore cottages by the shore temples at Mamallapuram (which also has a beach resort).
3- and 4-star hotels, tourist bungalows, youth hostels. Major Hindu pilgrim center.
These include: Andhra Pradesh: Bheemunipatnam, Machilipatnam, Maipadu and Mangiripundi. Goa: Ankola, Bhatkal, Gokarna, Honnavar and Karwar. Gujarat: Chorwad, Dahanu, Daman (UT), Diu (UT), Dwarka, Hajira, Tithal and Ubhrat. Cheap hotels, holiday homes. Karnataka: Mahe (UT), Mangalore, Udupi (Hindu pilgrim center) and Ullal (smaller beach resort, Summer Sands, cottages). Kerala: Cannanore, Quilon, Varkala. Maharashtra: Off Mumbai – Madh, Manori and Marve. Cheap hotels – Murud Janjira. Holiday homes – Erangal. Orissa: Golpalpur on Sea, Oberoi Hotel. Tamil Nadu: Kanya Kumari, Karikal (UT), Pondicherry (UT), Rameswaram and Tiruchendur. West Bengal: Digha – reasonably priced hotels, tourist bungalows.
Note: UT = Union Territory.
Hill stations have long been popular among Indians and foreign visitors alike for providing a relaxing and salubrious retreat from the heat of the plains. Further information on some of the places mentioned here may be found by consulting the information above.
Popular hill stations
These include: Kashmir: Leh in Ladakh, Pahalgam, Srinagar and Gulmarg for lakes, houseboats, good hotels, tourist reception centers. Himachal Pradesh: Shimla (various types of hotels, tourist bungalows), nearby Kufri (winter sports center, skating rink, skiing facilities), Kulu, Manali (reasonably priced hotels, log huts, travelers lodges and tourist bungalows). Uttar Pradesh: Nainital boasts a lake boat club, Almora, Mussoorie, Ranikhet (reasonably priced hotels, tourist bungalows, clubs, youth hostels), Ropeway (hotels and tourist bungalows). West Bengal: Darjeeling, RA, Kalimpong for mountaineering. Maharashtra: Khandala, Lonavla, Mahabaleshwar, Matheran, and Panchgani. Meghalaya: Shillong. Sikkim: Gangkok (RA, hotels). Tamil Nadu: Ootacamund, Udagamandalam, Kodaikanal and Silvery Lake – hotels, tourist bungalows.
Lesser-known hill stations
These include: Himachal Pradesh: Chamba, Dalhousie, Dharamsala, Kangra, Keylong, Nahan and Paonta Saheb. Kashmir: Batote and Sonamarg. Uttar Pradesh: Dehra Dun and Lansdown. West Bengal: Mirik. Madhya Pradesh: Pachmarhi. Maharashtra: Panhala. Gujarat: Saputara. Rajasthan: Mount Abu. Tamil Nadu: Coonoor, Kotagiri and Yercaud. Kerala: Munnar, Periyar and Ponmundi. Karnataka: Mercara. Andhra Pradesh: Horseley Hills. Bihar: Netarhat. Assam: Haflong.
Below is a description of the most important trekking areas in India. For further practical details on trekking, see the Activities section.
Jammu and Kashmir
Jammu and Kashmir is India’s northernmost state, and the one which is best-known for trekking. It is an extravagantly beautiful land of flower-spangled meadows, wild orchards, spectacular coniferous forests, icy mountain peaks and clear streams and rivers. The capital, Srinagar, is the base for many treks, notably to the blue Zabarwan Hills and Shankaracharya Hill. The three other main bases in Jammu & Kashmir are Pahalgam (100km/62 miles from Srinigar) in the Lidder Valley, the base for treks to sacred Amarnath, Aru, Lidderwat and the glacial lakes of Tarsar and Tulian; Gulmarg (51km/32 miles from Srinagar), from which treks can be made to the crystal tarns of Apharwat and Alpather, the upland lakes of Vishansar and Gangabal and the Thajiwas Glacier; and Sonamarg, in the Sindh Valley, the base for treks into the surrounding mountains.
Srinagar is also the roadhead for trips into the arid plateau of Ladakh, a country of perpetual drought, the home of wild asses and yaks and with high ranges that have some of the largest glaciers in the world outside the polar regions. Leh, the divisional capital, lies on an ancient Silk Road and is the base for spectacular treks across this remarkable landscape.
Further south, excellent trekking may be had in the vicinity of Jammu, the railhead to the Kashmir Valley. The three main centers are Kishtwar, Doda and Poonch.
The landscape of this province ranges from the barren rocks and raging torrents of the valleys of Spiti and Lahaul in the north to the southern orchard country of Kangra and Chamba. Treks from Manali include the Bhaga River to Keylong, and then on to the Bara Shigri glacier or over the Baralacha Pass to Leh (see above). Kullu, in the center of the province, is set in a narrow valley between the towering Himalayas and the River Beas, and is famous for its temples and religious festivals. Treks from here traverse terraced paddy fields and on to remoter regions of snow and ice. The view from the Rohtang Pass is particularly spectacular. The town of Dharamsala, in the Kangra Valley area, is the base for treks into the Bharmaur Valley over the Indrahar Pass, and on to other still higher passes beyond. Chamba, situated on a mountain above the Ravi River, is named after the fragrant trees which flourish around its richly carved temples. Treks from the nearby town of Dalhousie lead to the glacial lake of Khajjiar and to the passes of Sach and Chini. Shimla, once the summer capital of the British, is a high hill station and the base for treks into Kullu Valley via the Jalori Pass and on to the Kalpur and Kinnaur valleys.
Set high in the Garhwal Himalayas, this region (which is sometimes referred to as the Uttarakhand) abounds in myths and legends of the Indian gods. It is also where the source of the life-giving ‘Ganga’ is to be found; indeed, many of the great rivers of northern India have their headwaters in this land of lush valleys and towering snow-ridged peaks. Mussoorie, a hill station much used by the British to escape the searing heat of the plains, is an excellent base for treks into the Gangotri and Yamounotri valleys. The source of the Ganga at Gaumukh can also be reached from here. Another hill station, Rishikesh, is situated just north of the sacred city of Hardwar, and is the base for treks to another holy shrine, Badrinath. A particularly rewarding stop en route to Badrinath is the breathtaking Valley of Flowers, which is in full bloom in August. Other destinations include Hemkund Lake, Mandakini Valley and Kedarnath, one of the 12 Jyotirlings of Lord Shiva with a beautiful temple.
This region, which stretches from the Himalayas in the north to the green foothills of Terai and Bhabar in the south, consists of the three northeastern Himalayan districts of Uttar Pradesh, all of which are particularly rich in wildlife. One of the major trekking centers is Almora, an ideal base for treks into pine and rhododendron forests with dramatic views of stark, snow-capped mountains. The Pindiri Glacier and the valley of Someshwar can be reached from here. Another base is Nanital, a charming, orchard-rich hill station. It is the base for short treks to Bhimtal, Khurpatal and Binayak Forest. Ranikhet, with a magnificent view of the central Himalayas, is the base for treks to Kausani. The view from here is one of the most spectacular in India, and inspired Mahatma Gandhi to pen his commentary on the Gita-Anashakti Yoga.
Darjeeling and Sikkim
Dominated by the five summits of mighty Kanchenjunga, the Darjeeling and Sikkim area of the Eastern Himalayas is also a region of gentle hills and dales, pine forests, turquoise lakes and babbling streams. One of the best ways of arriving in the area is by the ‘Toy Train’ from New Jalpaiguri. The town of Darjeeling is the home of the Everest-climber Tenzing Norgay and also of the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, and is the base for both low- and high-level treks. Destinations include Tiger Hill (offering a breathtaking view of the Himalayas), and the peaks of Phalut, Sandakphu, Singalila and Tanglu. To the north, Sikkim is a wonderland of ferns and flowers, birds and butterflies, orchids and bamboo, forests of cherry, oak and pine, all set among slowly flowing rivers, terraced paddy fields and blazing rhododendrons. Deep in the interior are Sikkim’s famous monasteries, their white prayer flags fluttering against a deep blue sky. The capital is Gangtok, a convenient base for treks into the mysterious north and east of the region, to sacred Yaksum, Pemayangtse and the mountains near Bakkhim and Dzongri.
The Aravallis, remnants of the oldest mountain range in the subcontinent, resemble outcroppings of rocks rather than mountains and are virtually barren except for thorny acacias and date palm groves found near the oases. The main resort in the region, Mount Abu, stands on an isolated plateau surrounded by rich green forest. A variety of one-day treks are available from here, all of which afford the opportunity to visit some of the remarkable temples in the region, notably Arbuda Devi Temple, carved out of the rock face and offering spectacular views across the hills. Guru Shikhar, Gaumukh and Achalgarh Fort can all be reached during one-day treks from Mount Abu.
This range straddles central India and forms the northern border of the Deccan. The main hill station is Pachmarhi, a beautiful resort of green forest glades and deep ravines overlooking red sandstone hills. Short treks can be had from here to the Mahadeo and Dhupgarh peaks.
The Western Ghats run parallel to the west coast of India from the River Tapti to the southernmost tip of the subcontinent. The mountains are lush and thickly forested and although they cannot claim to have the awesome majesty of the great Himalayas, the region has many features of great natural beauty. The hill station of Mahabaleshwar, in the north of the range, is the highest in the area and is considered an ideal base for trekkers. Other popular bases and trekking destinations include Lonavala, Khandala, Matheran and Bhor Ghat, a picturesque region of waterfalls, lakes and woods. Further south in Karnataka is Coorg, perched on a green hilltop and surrounded by mountainous countryside. Madikeri is a take-off point for treks in this region. The Upper Palani hills in Tamil Nadu are an offshoot of the Ghats, covered in rolling downs and coarse grass. Kodaikanal is the attractive base for two short treks to Pilar Rock and Green Valley View. Courtallam, also in Tamil Nadu, is surrounded by dense vegetation and coffee and spice plantations; rich in wildlife, it is also one of the most beautiful areas of the Western Ghats.
The gentle heights of southern India, a world away from the daunting Himalayas, are friendly and approachable with treks made simple by moderate altitudes and a pleasant climate. Sometimes known as the Blue Mountains because of their lilac hue, they are noted for their orange orchards, tea gardens, wooded slopes and tranquil lakes. There are three major trekking centers here: Ootacamund (popularly known as Ooty) is the base for walks to the Wenlock Downs, the Kalahatti Falls and Mudumali Game Sanctuary; Coonoor, conveniently situated for Drogg’s Peak and Lamb’s Rock; and Kotagiri, the oldest of the three, whose sheltered position enables it to offer many shaded treks to explore the tranquility of the Nilgiris.
The Indian peninsula is a continent in itself, the geographical diversity of which has resulted in a vast range of wildlife, with over 350 species of mammals and 1200 species of birds in the country. There are 90 national parks and 411 wildlife sanctuaries in the country. Each region has something special to offer: the hangul is restricted to the valley of Kashmir in northern India, the rhino is found in isolated pockets along the Brahmaputra River in the east, the black langur in the Western Ghats, and Western India is the home of the last remaining Asiatic lions. Two of India’s most impressive animals, the Bengal (or Indian) tiger and the Asiatic elephant are still found in most regions, though their population has shrunk drastically.
Most of India’s wildlife finds refuge in over 200 sanctuaries and parks around the country. The following list refers to some of the more important of these. Accommodation often needs to be booked in advance, either by direct application or through the local State ITDC or the controlling authority of the respective park.
Dachigam Wildlife Sanctuary (Kashmir): Broad valley; mountain slopes; rare hangul deer, black and brown bear, leopard; heronry.
Govind Sagar Bird Sanctuary (Himachal Pradesh): Bird sanctuary with crane, duck, goose and teal.
Corbett National Park (Uttar Pradesh): Himalayan foothills near Dhikala; Sal forest and plains; tiger, elephant, leopard and rich birdlife. Excellent fishing in Ramganga River.
Dudhwa National Park (Uttar Pradesh): Nepal border; tiger, sloth bear and panther.
Valley of Flowers National Park (Uttar Pradesh): When in bloom this ‘roof garden’ at 3500m (11,500ft) is a glorious blaze of color. Permits are required to enter.
Sariska National Park (Rajasthan): About 200km (125 miles) from Delhi. Forest and open plains; sambar (largest Indian deer), cheetal (spotted deer), nilgai (Indian antelope), black buck, leopard and tiger; good night-viewing.
Ranthambhor (Sawai Madhopur – Rajasthan): Hill forest, plains and lakes; sambar, chinkara (Indian gazelle), tiger, sloth bear, crocodiles and migratory water-birds.
Bharatpur National Park (Keoloadeo Ghana Bird Sanctuary) (Rajasthan): India’s most outstanding bird sanctuary; many indigenous water-birds; huge migration from Siberia and China; crane, goose, stork, heron, snakes, birds, etc.
Bandhavgarh National Park (Madhya Pradesh): Situated in the Vindhyan Mountains, this park has a wide variety of wildlife including panther, sambar and gaur.
Kanha National Park (Madhya Pradesh): Sal forest and grassland; only home of barasingha (swamp deer), tiger, cheetal and gaur.
Shivpuri National Park (Madhya Pradesh): Open forest and lake; chinkara, chowsingha (four-horned antelope), nilgai, tiger, leopard and water-birds.
Krishnagiri Upavan National Park (Maharashtra): Formerly known as Borivli, this park protects an important scenic area close to Mumbai (Bombay). Kanheri Caves and Vihar, Tulsi and Powai lakes; water-birds and smaller types of wildlife. Lion Safari Park nearby.
Tadoba National Park (Maharashtra): Teak forests and lake; tiger, leopard, nilgai and gaur. Night-viewing.
Sasan Gir National Park (Gujarat): Forested plains and lake; only home of Asiatic lion, sambar, chowsingha, nilgai, leopard, chinkara and wild boar.
Nal Sarovar Bird Sanctuary (Gujarat): Lake; migratory water-birds; indigenous birds include flamingo.
Little Rann of Kutch Wildlife Sanctuary (Gujarat): Desert; herds of khur (Indian wild ass), wolf and caracal.
Velavadar National Park (Gujarat): New Delta grasslands; large concentration of black buck.
Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary (Kerala): Large artificial lake; elephant, gaur, wild dog, black langur, otters, tortoises and rich birdlife including hornbill and fishing owl. Viewing by boat.
Vedanthangal Water Birds Sanctuary (Tamil Nadu): One of the most spectacular breeding grounds in India. Cormorant, heron, stork, pelican, grebe and many others.
Point Calimere Bird Sanctuary (Tamil Nadu): Particularly noted for its flamingo, also for heron, teal, curlew and plover, black buck and wild pig.
Pulicat Bird Sanctuary (Andhra Pradesh): Flamingo, grey pelican, heron and tern.
Dandeli National Park (Karnataka): Park with bison, panther, tiger and sambar. Easily accessible from Goa.
Jawahar National Park (includes Bandipur and Nagarhole National Parks (Karnataka), and the Wildlife Sanctuaries of Mudumalai (Tamil Nadu) and Wayanad (Kerala): Extensive mixed forest; largest elephant population in India, leopard, gaur, sambar, muntjac and giant squirrel. Birds include racquet-tailed drongo, trogon and barbet.
Kaziranga National Park (Assam): Elephant grass and swamps; one-horned Indian rhinoceros, water buffalo, tiger, leopard, elephant, deer and rich birdlife. Elephant transport is available within the park.
Manas Wildlife Sanctuary (Assam): On the Bhutan border, rainforest, grassland and river banks; rhino, water buffalo, tiger, elephant, golden langur and water-birds; fishing permitted.
Nameri National Park (Assam): Tiger and water-birds; fishing permitted.
Palamau Tiger Reserve (Bihar): Rolling, forested hills; tiger, leopard, elephant, sambar, jungle cat, rhesus macaque (monkey) and, occasionally, wolf.
Hazaribagh National Park (Bihar): Sal forested hills; sambar, nilgai, cheetal, tiger, leopard and occasionally muntjac (larger barking deer).
Sundarbans Tiger Reserve (West Bengal): Mangrove forests; tiger, fishing cat, deer, crocodile, dolphin and rich birdlife. Access and travel by chartered boat.
Jaldapara Wildlife Sanctuary (West Bengal): Tropical forest and grassland; rhino, elephant and rich birdlife.
Similipal Tiger Reserve (Orissa): Immense Sal forest; tiger, elephant, leopard, sambar, cheetal, muntjac and chevrotain.
Chilika Wildlife (Bird) Sanctuary (Orissa): Migratory birds, flamingo, Siberian ducks, heron and Teal Comorant.
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