In this episode, our explorers take you to the ultimate travelers’ destination – India. Megan McCormick blows herself away with the hot native cuisine, Holly Morris gets a close up view of Indian sanitation, Andrew Daddo tries his hand (and the rest of his body) at the ancient practice of yoga, and Justine Shapiro hugs her way to spiritual enlightenment – and that’s just the beginning of their trip across this stunning sub-continent.
India has some of the most overcrowded cities in the world. We explore the notoriously busy yet highly academic Calcutta, a city synonymous with poverty but working to overcome it, the old and new capital of Delhi, and Mumbai, India’s biggest
city. Mumbai has Asia’s biggest slum as well as some of the world’s most expensive real estate; it’s also India’s economic powerhouse and home to the world’s biggest film industry, churning out a whopping 750 films per year. Chennai is India’s southern capital where you can experience some of its faded colonial beauty in a former palace that’s now a backpackers’ hotel.
India’s popularity with travellers has given rise to all manner of accommodation catering to them and while they’re almost always cheap, remember that they’re not always cheerful, as our travelers discover. That said, there are some gems, from teepees in Goa to straw huts in the Andaman Islands, more English than England hotels in the old hill stations of Shimla and Darjeeling and the luxurious rice boats cruising the backwaters of tropical Kerala.
You can’t come to India without constantly encountering religious beliefs. The majority faith is Hinduism with its 800 deities. We make offerings to the gods, explore the ghats of the sacred Ganges River, and meet the wandering holy men called Sadhus.
In Calcutta, we visit the Kalighat temple, dedicated to the greatest goddess Kali; in Bikaner the deity is manifested in a very different way in the Kani Mata Temple teeming with hordes of holy rats. Elsewhere our travelers get a spiritual charge from a guru and stay in an ashram.
Many people come to India to visit just one in particular – the Osho ashram in Pune – begun by Bhagwan Rajneesh, a guru notorious for his views on sex and his 93 Rolls Royce cars! For something utterly different we then journey to the Indus Valley full of ancient temples and mysticism.
The religious fervor of India’s faiths has spawned many colorful and chaotic festivals. InMadurai in the south, we witness the stunning Hindu Float festival; up north, we go to Mathurafor the Hindu festival celebrating the birth of the Hindu deity, Krishna.
One of the largest Hindu festivals is held on Sagar Island in West Bengal where the Ganges meets the sea; on the winter solstice, people converge here to perform puja (prayer) to the gods and cleanse their spirits. Not all festivals are religious in nature; the Pushkar Camel Festival is an annual event where traders come from all the country to do serious business.
Travel in India is very cheap but because it’s so vast it can be a daunting prospect. Inside the cities there’s a variety of transport options ranging from the traditional rickshaw to the scarifying automotive kind and in Calcutta you’ll even find a subway system built by the Russians. Interstate travel throws up a whole lot more options, from the notoriously loud video buses, to riding a classic Enfield motorbike, to taking the train on the world’s fourth biggest rail network.
Thousands of years of civilization have given India a wealth of historic sites. Must-sees include the Rajput city of Jaisalmer in the desert, the monument to love, the Taj Mahal in Agra, andUdaipur, home of the maharajas.
Mountain escapes are an integral part of the India experience – the old British hill top retreats such as Ooty and Darjeeling offer a relaxing slice of colonial life, but if that’s too sedentary then we go trekking in some of the world’s most fabulous scenery in the Himalayas or in the northeast region of Arunchal Pradesh where we meet the Adi people.
The Indian cuisine is a real draw for travellers and there’s almost nowhere on earth that you’ll find such a rich and varied array of dishes. In Southern India we dig into a thali served up on banana leaves, eat an idli (rice dumpling) breakfast, find out just how big paper-thin dosa snacks are, before visiting Cochin in Kerala, former centre of the spice trade to see the only pepper exchange in the world. Even better, we drink sweet chai tea, party with the locals at a hot toddy bar in Kerala and sample the infamousbhang (marijuana) lassi.
Away from the cities, India has some of the best beaches and islands in the world. We head to Lakshwadeep, the beautiful coral islands in the middle of the Arabian Sea, back to the mainland to the new hippy hangout of Varkala, and then inland to the backwaters of Kerala. Up the coast we relive the sixties in the old Portuguese colony of Goa before jetting west to the Andaman Islands with their stunning untouched reefs and protected tribes. A perfect way to end a gruelling but inspiring trip to bring you the Ultimate India!
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