By Joseph Francis
Having travelled from the dusty deserts of Rajasthan to the verdant reaches of the tea estates of Kerala, hopscotching between the cities of India’s ancient kings to old towns left over from its colonial past, and doing it all at the behest of one seriously weathered India travel guide, these are the spots that stood out the most and the ones I think every traveller should include on their itinerary through the sub-continent.
Jodhpur is defined by the mighty bulwarks of the Mehrangarh Fort that rise right at its centre. And all around that, the tight-knit streets and winding narrow lanes of the iconic Blue City fan out in all directions, concealing a hubbub of omelette wallahs and chai stalls as they go. There’s an authentic ethnic flair to the city and a deep history to uncover to boot. Travellers would do well to head for the heights of the great fortress here in the company of a professional India travel guide, who help reveal the secrets that coalesce around the exquisite collections of palanquins, turbans, swords and elephant mounts in the exhibition rooms within. Then, on the peripheries of town, sits the impossibly beautiful Umaid Bhawan Palace, one of the last palatial builds attributed to the Maharajas.
A throbbing, pulsating, sprawling morass of a metropolis, Mumbai is now home to in excess of 20 million people. It can be found where the green and rocky Ghats of Maharashtra roll down into the Arabian Sea; a sprawl of energetic and sleepless slums and high-rises that beat to the drum of commercialism and creativity, commerce and technology like nowhere else on earth. The self-proclaimed Gateway of India (and home to the totemic sight of the same name), this city is a prime introduction to the country as a whole. Travellers here can spy out relics of the British Raj next to the bubbling vada pav stalls of Chowpatty Beach, or explore the mysterious Elephanta Caves by morning before heading out with a Mumbai tour guide to explore the industry and enterprise churning in the tight bylanes of Dharavi – the list goes on!
Since the 12th century Kochi has been one of India’s major trading ports, its countless jetties and harbours spewing out ships into the Arabian Sea, all laden with cinnamon and cloves, cardamom and tea from the hills of the Western Ghats and the plantations of Munnar deep in the Keralan state. Today, this charming city is spread between modern Ernakulam and Fort Kochi; the former a buzzing grid of metros and high-rises, the latter a quaint maze of whitewashed colonial mansions and homes courtesy of the Portuguese. It’s here, between the much-trodden streets of historic Fort Cochin that the city’s real charms lie, with an abundance of art galleries and art cafes (try Kashi and Qissa for sure!), not to mention professional tour guide services offering trips out to the famous Backwaters!
The famed city of lakes, Udaipur is the historic capital of the Rajput Mewars, a powerful dynasty that once flourished from the borderlands of Gujarat to the desert sands of the Thar Desert in Rajasthan. Today, traces of the town’s regal past can be glimpsed on every corner; between the carved and meticulously adorned alcoves and archways of the haveli houses; atop the bulbous Mughal domes of the City palace, and rising dramatically from the scintillating waters of Lake Pichola all around the historic old town. Set between the foothills of the Aravalli Hills, Udaipur’s majesty continues right to its peripheries, where horse riding excursions and hiking trails reveal the likes of the Monsoon Palace and sweeping plains of irrigated farmland all around.
Sitting just shy of the rising Himalayas, Amritsar is the jewel in the crown of India’s green bowl, Punjab. And the Golden City, in turn, boasts its own jewel in the crown: the sparkling, scintillating facades of the Harmandir Sahib, the veritable nerve centre of Sikhism. While this glorious temple makes a visit to this northern metropolis worth it on its own, the Wagah border ceremony by sunset is a military delight, and proof of India’s courtesies with its neighbours. And then there’s the aromatic line-up of spice packed foods also on offer. Yes sir, clustering in one mass of flavour, scent and activity around the peaceful hub of the Golden Temple here, visitors will discover countless restaurants and street vendors touting some of the finest North Indian fare, from aloo (potato) parathas and tandoori chicken to syrupy halwa served in thali plates so large they literally spill with dal.
One of the undisputed greats of the so-called Golden Triangle of the north, Jaipur is a town of Rajput domes and bustling bazaars, eye-watering hilltop temples and monkey-dotted ponds, alive and beating with the energy of more than six million people. Of course, the undisputed piece de resistance of the Pink city is the great Amber fort, which unsurprisingly comes top of the sub-continent’s bucket list in many an Indian travel guide. But even away from this mass of gorgeous latticework and architecture, Jaipur has oodles of surprises, ranging from block printing factories touting bespoke fabrics, to artisan jewellery markets awash with colourful gems and stones plucked from the Thar, the Bikaner hills, Kashmir and beyond!
No list of India’s must-visit cities could possibly be complete without a mention of Agra - the home of the totemic Taj Mahal. And while the great marble dome and curious intermingling of Mughal, Arabic, Islamic and Rajput trends that defines that iconic monument will always remain Agra’s primary draw, visitors would do well to remember the formidable buttresses and battlements of the Agra fort too. They come dressed in red sandstone courtesy of the Barauli quarries, still echoing with the footsteps of the Mughal emperors - the prolific Shah Jahan, the anti-hero Aurangzeb – and tagged with World Heritage monikers that make this a veritable city of UNESCO sites.
The sprawling, buzzing, bureaucratic heart of India, Delhi is an overload for the senses. Through the Ring roads and its connecting arteries, endless streams of autos, cars and buses with killer speeds weave through the smog and haze of the dusty, vibrating air above its streets. Of course, sights come by the dozen, with the Mughal stamped relics of Humayun's Tomb, the Qutub Minar and the majestic Red Fort all boasting that coveted UNESCO tag in such close proximity. Lutyens Delhi showcases the red sandstones from the British legacy, while grandiose temples like the Akshardham, and green spaces round off the tally. But that is not all. There are sweetmeats to be sampled, from sweet and sour chaats and spicy paani puris to a fantastic range of gulab jamuns and jalebis; a sensory overload indeed!
From the early 1500s onwards this outpost on the Mandovi River formed the very kernel of Portuguese India, a power that extended its tendrils of influence right across the southern section of the sub-continent, from the palm-peppered backwaters of Kerala to the sunny reaches of Pondicherry. Consequently, Old Goa, now something of an overlooked spot set between the famous beaches of Panjim and Mandrem, offers up a medley of curious Baroque and European-style elements. There’s the gorgeous red-brick and marble facade of the Basilica of Bom Jesus, matched only by the ambitious structures of the Church of St. Francis of Assisi and the Church and Convent of St Cajetan, shaped in the image of its Roman counterpart. And then there’s the overarching colonial feel; a far cry for India’s usual hustle and bustle.
The east coast’s answer to Kochi, Pondicherry rises from the palm groves that line the Bay of Bengal just a short jaunt down the coast from the sprawling powerhouse of Chennai. Dressed in European red tiles and white stucco frontispieces adorned with blooming bougainvillea, its French quarter offers a welcome respite from the throbbing metropolises that India is perhaps better known for, while its seaside location means a breezy climate that’s backed up by some windswept promenades. This last bastion of the French influence, this union territory exudes a truly continental vibe, with wide avenues, cathedrals and Francophone steak houses, as well as at Auroville, where an international community converges for lessons in peace and harmony.
Leading India’s drive into the 21st century with more tech firms and internet start-ups than you can shake an ancient Golconda diamond at, Hyderabad is now booming. But computers weren’t the first thing that brought wealth to this section of the Deccan Plateau: precious stones have been being pulled from the hills and mines around the city for almost four centuries, making Hyderabad rich beyond reckoning. It was money from this lucrative export (among others) that gave rise to the iconic Charminar of four minarets in the city’s heart, not to mention the mighty Chowmahalla Palace and the Mecca Masjid, part courtesy of the Qutub Shahis, part courtesy of Hyderabad’s later Mughal invaders. All in all, the city is now a frenetic but enthralling state capital, complete with mouth-watering biryani joints and a lively, youthful population that’s growing every day.
‘Rich’ as he’s known to most was born in not-so-sunny Swansea, South Wales, where he grew up loving sea, sand and surf. He has since moved to Poland in an attempt to fulfil his insatiable wanderlust for everything Eastern Europe. He’s travelled extensively in Asia and Europe and now runs a local travel portal.
Image Details and Licenses: https://flic.kr/p/bDMGYp (Ivan Lian, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0), https://flic.kr/p/aGcLwZ (Arian Zwegers, CC BY 2.0), https://flic.kr/p/dRxb1s (Andrzej Wrotek, CC BY-ND 2.0), Udaipur City Palace (tourHQ, all rights reserved), https://flic.kr/p/goChFe (sandeepachetan.com trav, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0), https://flic.kr/p/f349HY (Damien Roué, CC BY-NC 2.0), https://flic.kr/p/4KWuiG (particlem, CC BY 2.0), https://flic.kr/p/7uvNNU (Chris Goldberg, CC BY-NC 2.0), https://flic.kr/p/dehKoM (Ramesh Lalwani, CC BY 2.0), https://flic.kr/p/daNLto (Devaiah PA, CC BY-SA 2.0), https://flic.kr/p/6ktMW1 (BBC World Service, CC BY-NC 2.0)