The Festival of Holi commemorates the spring season. // © 2013 Shutterstock
Okay, so maybe you’ve seen Agra’s Taj Mahal at sunset, toured the forts and palaces of the Pink City and ridden an elephant to Delhi’s Red Fort. But if you think you’ve seen all India has to offer, think again. India is the seventh-largest country in the world with 28 states and a biodiverse landscape that encompasses the snow-covered Himalayas in the north, the tropical rainforests and beaches of the south and the lush jungles of central India that are filled with tigers, antelope and wild buffalo.
“For me, India wasn’t about forts and palaces, although those aspects of the country are amazing on their own. It was about being open to discover the magic of a culture that has existed for so long,” said Daniel Tobey, product manager for Alluring Asia. “Visiting India is like walking into the past in many ways and connecting to that history is essential.”
What follows are eight unique experiences that return visitors just can’t miss.
A Festival to Dye For
If you find yourself suddenly covered with dye from head to toe, you have stumbled into a Festival of Holi celebration in northern India. The Hindu Festival of Color takes place at the end of the winter season, typically in March, and marks the beginning of spring.
While travelers can “play Holi” and throw powder paints at each other in just about any major city in the north, including Delhi and Jaipur, one of the biggest and most unique celebrations takes place in Barsana in the state of Uttar Pradesh.
Barsana is credited as the birthplace of Radha, the wife of the Hindu god Krishna, and legend says that the two gods played Holi here in their youth.
Unlike other Holi events, women take on a special role by playfully hitting men, who come appropriately dressed in padded outfits, with wooden sticks. It is believed that, in the ancient times, the women of Barsana protected themselves from outsiders with wooden staffs. Barsana’s modern interpretation is a humorous — albeit bizarre — mock battle that ends with some men cross-dressing and dancing in public.
Kerala, located at the southwestern tip of India, is famous for its ecotourism options. Among them are kettuvallams (rice boat) journeys on the scenic backwaters of Kerala. In the old days, kettuvallams were used to transport rice and spices, staples of the population. Rice equated to money and wealth, and those who controlled the supply of rice were considered to be the region’s powerful, influential people.
Today, kettuvallams have been converted into houseboats that feature all the creature comforts of a hotel, including furnished bedrooms with modern toilets, a lounge area and a kitchen. Overnight stays booked through the Casino Group of Hotels are all-inclusive and include an attentive captain/cook.
A River Runs Through It
The River Ganges, personified by Hindus as the goddess Ganga, is regarded as the holiest of rivers in the Hindu religion.
“One of the most impactful experiences [travelers] can have in India is a visit to the holy banks of the River Ganges in Varanasi, the religious center of Hinduism in India,” said Larry Kwan, president of Pacific Delight Tours. “Even for non-Hindus, the trip can be considered a pilgrimage of sorts as one discovers how truly important the river is to India’s culture.”
Each day, in Varanasi alone, approximately 60,000 practitioners walk down the city’s ghats (steps that lead to a river bank) to bathe themselves in the river and wash away their sins. Take a boat ride along the river to observe how life revolves around the Ganges, from everyday tasks, such as laundry, to ritualistic prayer ceremonies that incorporate floating clay dishes filled with rose petals. While exploring the Ganges by boat, keep your eyes out for susu, blind freshwater river dolphin, who have managed to survive in one of the world’s most densely populated, and polluted, areas.
In the 1960s, The Beatles famously paid a pilgrimage to the small town of Rishikesh where they immersed themselves in transcendental meditation and yoga. The small northern India town, which is situated in the foothills of the Himalayas and along the River Ganges, now bills itself as the Yoga Capital of the World and offers a staggering number of yoga ashrams (spiritual retreats) where guests can study the philosophy of yoga, learn different styles of yoga, meditation and chanting, and live the yogic lifestyle for the duration of their stay.
With more than 1,000 guestrooms, Parmarth Niketan is the largest and best-known ashram in Rishikesh. A typical weeklong course costs $400 and includes an aggressive schedule of Hatha yoga classes, vegetarian meals and a modest room with a private bathroom — in addition to Ayurveda massages, a river rafting or mountain climbing activity and local sightseeing.
“You can’t expect luxurious accommodations at Rishikesh’s ashrams. They are clean and minimal in their offerings,” explained Annabella Arya, director of India Tourism Los Angeles. “This is important [for students] because yoga is about leading a simple, healthy life.”
Eye of the Tiger
You have to hand it to a country whose national animal is the Royal Bengal Tiger. India’s beloved 500-pound beasts freely roam several game parks in central India, the most popular being Kanha National Park and Bandhavgarh National Park, which was once the reserve hunting ground for the Maharaja. Thankfully, the tiger populations in these parks are on the rise, thanks to the conservancy efforts of the World Wildlife Fund and government bodies who are working to double the tiger population in India and Nepal by 2022.
In addition to wild tiger, visitors can expect to see bison, barasingha (swamp deer), sloth, jackal, hyena and the occasional leopard. At Bandhavgarh National Park, visitors have a 99 percent chance of a tiger sighting and, with a little luck, they might even catch a glimpse of the park’s elusive white tigers.
Riding the Rails
From the 15th to early 19th centuries, India’s Maharajas were among the wealthiest, most bejeweled rulers on the globe, famous for their opulent lifestyles. Fittingly, the royals only traveled in grand style — in private, fully staffed railcars. Nowadays, anyone who can afford the finer things in life can travel across India much like the Maharajas did in one of several luxury trains. The all-inclusive journeys include elaborate, multi-course meals, guided sightseeing and the services of a butler.
The Palace on Wheels is India’s oldest and most famous luxury train, often requiring advanced bookings up to a year out. Maharajas’ Express, which launched in 2010, is India’s newest and most expensive option (an eight-day trip runs between $5,160 and $23,700 per person, depending on the cabin category). Additional trains include the Royal Rajasthan on Wheels, Deccan Odyssey and the Golden Chariot, among others.
Most first-time visitors to India typically explore the Golden Triangle (Delhi, Agra and Jaipur) in northern India but, by doing so, they miss out on the incredible ancient temples that the south has to offer. Among them are Aurangabad’s Ajanta and Ellora caves. Both sites are comprised of monolithic religious monuments and are designated with UNESCO World Heritage status.
Ajanta’s 30 Buddhist caves have retained their brilliant 1,500-year-old paintings that depict the lives and times of the Bodhisattvas and Buddha. The caves were used as monasteries and prayer halls by Buddhist monks for close to nine centuries and contain some of the top masterpieces of Buddhist art in India.
The Ellora Caves were painstakingly carved with chisels over the course of a century and represent the three dominant religions of the time — Jain, Hindu and Buddhist — living in harmony with one another. Kailash Temple, which appears to be a free-standing, multi-storied temple, is the crown jewel of Ellora. It was carved out of a single rock from the top down — a showcase of immaculate precision and fastidious planning that was handed down over three generations.
Madurai Temple Complex
Madurai, the “Athens of the East,” is one of south India’s oldest cities, dating back more than 2,500 years. The ancient city flourished during the Nayak Dynasty (1623 to 1655 A.D.) when some of the most striking buildings in the city, including the brightly colored Meenakshi Temple, were perfected.
With its 12 ornate gopurams (towers), which range in height from approximately 130 to 165 feet, and its central temple tank, Meenakshi is a constant hive of worship and activity.
“Among many daily rituals, the most fascinating is the celestial wedding between the two deities that is conducted by the chief priest each evening,” said Max Ali, director of group operations, Sita World Tours. “Visitors also have an opportunity to climb the tallest gopuram for a spectacular view of the city.”
Packing It In
India is more than the Golden Triangle, and those who want
to delve a little deeper will appreciate an itinerary that’s off the beaten
track. Several tour operators, including Sita World Tours, Pacific Delight
Tours, Alluring Asia and Cox & Kings, are looking to attract repeat
visitors to India with experiences that range from a jungle safari in
Ranthambore National Park to cruising south India’s scenic backwaters.
Pacific Delight Tours
The 14-day India Cultural & Safari Experience by Pacific
Delight Tours features a game drive through Ranthambore National Park (famous
for its Bengal tigers), a boat excursion on the
River Ganges, a Hindu Aarti offering ceremony in Varanasi, Delhi’s UNESCO World
Heritage sites, Jaipur’s Amber Fort, Bangalore (known as India’s Garden City)
and more. Land-only prices start at $3,499 per person, based on double
Sita World Tours
On Sita World Tours’ 12-day Silks & Spices tour, guests
will visit Bangalore, Chikmagalur, Mysore, Cochin, Kumarakom, Thekkady, Madurai
and Chennai. Highlights include Mysore’s Brindayan Gardens, a Kathakali dance
performance in Cochin, a cruise along the backwaters and waterways of
Kumarakom, a Puja ceremony at the Meenakshi Temple in Madurai and more. Land
only, November and December departures begin at $2,395 per person, based on
Cox & Kings
Cox & Kings combines the cultural and natural wonders of
India and Nepal on the 20-day Classical Journey of India & Nepal escorted
tour. Guests will visit Agra, Delhi, Jaipur, Kathmandu, Khajuraho, Mumbai,
Ranthambore, Udaipur and Varanasi. Highlights include Old Delhi's Red Fort, a
flight over the scenic Himalayas, a traditional Nepalese feast in Kathmandu, a
cruise on the River Ganges, a game drive in Ranthambore and more. Land only,
November and December departures start at $12, 415 per person, based on double