Difference between revisions of "India"
Revision as of 12:30, 29 June 2008
India (Hindi: भारत)  is the largest country in the Indian Subcontinent and shares borders with Pakistan to the west, China and Nepal to the north, Bhutan to the north-east, and Bangladesh and Myanmar to the east. Sri Lanka, the Maldives and Indonesia lie to the south-east in the Indian Ocean. It is the seventh largest country in the world by area and, with over a billion people, is second only to China in population. It's an extremely diverse country, with vast differences in geography, climate, culture, language and ethnicity across its expanse, and prides itself on being the largest democracy on Earth.
India is administratively divided into 28 states and 7 union territories. The states are broadly demarcated on linguistic lines. They vary in size; the larger ones are bigger and more diverse than some countries of Europe. The union territories are smaller than the states - sometimes they are just one city - and they have much less autonomy.
These states and union territories are grouped by convention into the following regions.
India has many outstanding landmarks and areas of outstanding beauty. Below is a list of nine of the most notable:
India mixes ancient civilizations, fascinating religions, 22 official languages and over 200 other languages and dialects, monuments and cultures with modern technology, economy, and media.
Indians date their history from the Vedic Period.This is the period when the Vedas, the oldest and holiest books of Hinduism, were compiled. There has been a great dispute for the last 150 years, over dating of Vedic period based on Aryan Invasion Theory which claims that vedic people came from Europe / Central Asia and spread their language & culture among ancient Indians. The earliest archaeological traces are from archeological findings of 7000 BC Mehrgarh, Balochistan , Pakistan which growed in advanced,planned urban towns of " Indus Valley Civilization" that peaked around 3300 BC before declining and disintegrating around 1900 BC, possibly due to a drought & geological disturbances. The excavations reveal an extremely advanced urban civilization, with no evidence of weapons or fortifications.
The Vedic civilization influences India to this day. The roots of present-day Hinduism lie in them. Some rituals of Hinduism took shape during that period. Most North-Indian languages come from Sanskrit, the language of the Vedas. These languages together with Sanskrit are members of the Indo-European group of languages. In the 1st millennium BC, various schools of thought in philosophy developed, enriching Hinduism greatly. Most of them claimed to derive from the Vedas. However, two of these schools - Buddhism and Jainism - questioned the authority of the Vedas and they are now recognized as separate religions.
Many great empires were formed between 500 BC and AD 500. Notable among them were the Mauryas and the Guptas (called the Golden Age). This period saw a gradual decline of Buddhism and Jainism. The practice of Buddhism, in particular, disappeared from the Indian mainland, though Buddha himself was incorporated into the Hindu pantheon. Jainism continues to be practised by a significant number who are ambivalent about whether they consider themselves Hindus or not.
Islamic incursions started in the 8th century in the form of raids. Gradually the raiders started staying as rulers. Soon much of North India was taken over by Islamic rulers. The most important of the Muslim rulers were the Mughals, who established an empire that at its peak covered almost the entire subcontinent except the southern and eastern extremities. The major Hindu force that survived in the North were the Rajputs. Eventually the Mughal empire declined, partly under attack from the Marathas who established a short-lived confederacy that was almost as big as the Mughal Empire. The Rajput and Mughal period of North India was the golden age for Indian art, architecture, and literature. It produced the monumental gems of Rajasthan, and the most famous monument of all, Taj Mahal. Two languages, Hindi and Urdu, took root in medieval North India. During the Islamic period, some Hindus also converted to Islam, either by force, or to escape the low social status that the caste system imposed on them, or to gain the benefits of being aligned with the then rulers. Today, some 13% of the Indian population and an overwhelming majority of Pakistan is Muslim.
South India followed a different trajectory, being less affected by the Islamic invasion. The period from 500 AD to 1600 AD is called the classical period dominated by great South Indian kingdoms. Prominent among them were the Chalukyas, Rashtrakutas and Vijayanagar empire who ruled from present day Karnataka and the Pallavas, Cheras, Pandyas and Cholas who ruled from present day Tamil Nadu & Kerala. Original literature in Tamil, Kannada and Telugu flourished during this time and has been prolific ever since. Some of the grandest Hindu and Jain monuments that exist in India were built during this time in South and East India, which were less subject to religious prohibitions on them.
European traders started visiting India beginning in the late 16th century. By the 19th century, the British East India Company had, one way or the other assumed political control of virtually all Indian lands. There was an uprising by Indian rulers in 1857 which was suppressed, but which prompted the British government to make India a part of the empire. Many Indians converted to Christianity during the period, for pretty much the same reasons as they converted to Islam, though forcible conversions ended in British India after 1857, when the British Government took over from the East India Company, and Queen Victoria promised to respect religious faiths of Indians.
Non-violent resistance to British colonialism under Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru led to independence in 1947. However, independence was simultaneously granted to the secular state of India and the smaller Islamic state of Pakistan, and the orgy of Hindu-Muslim bloodletting that followed Partition led to the deaths of at least half a million and the migration of 12-14 million people.
Free India under Nehru adopted a democratically-governed, centrally-planned economy. These policies were aimed at attaining "self-sufficiency", and to a large extent made India what it is today. India achieved self-sufficiency in food grains by the 1970s, ensuring that the large-scale famines that had been common are now history. However these policies also led to shortages, slow growth and large-scale corruption. After a balance-of-payments crisis in 1991, the country adopted free-market reforms which have continued at a meandering pace ever since, fueling strong growth. IT and Business Process Outsourcing industries have been the drivers for the growth, while Manufacturing and Agriculture, which have not experienced reforms, are lagging. About 60% of Indians live on agriculture and around 25% remain in poverty.
Relations with Pakistan have been frosty. They have fought three (or four, if you count the Kargil conflict of 1999) wars, mostly over the status of Kashmir. The third war between the two countries in 1971 resulted in East Pakistan becoming Bangladesh. China and India went to war in 1962 over a border dispute. Viewed as a "betrayal" in India, it still rankles. Though current relations are peaceful, there is still military rivalry and no land crossings between the countries. The security concerns over Pakistan and China prompted India to test nuclear weapons twice (including the 1974 tests described as "peaceful explosions"). India wants to be accepted as a legitimate nuclear power and is campaigning for a permanent Security Council seat.
India is proud of its democratic record. Constitutional government and democratic freedoms have been safeguarded throughout its 60 years as an independent country, except for an 18 month interlude in 1975-1977, when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi imposed an emergency and suspended human rights.
Current concerns in India include the ongoing dispute with Pakistan, over-population, corruption, environmental degradation, continuing poverty, and ethnic and religious strife. But the current obsession, at least among the educated elite, is over whether India will be able overtake China in economic growth.
Mountains, jungles, deserts and beaches, India has it all. It is bounded to the north, northeast and northwest by the snow-capped Himalayas, the tallest mountain range in the world. In addition to protecting the country from invaders, they also fed the perennial rivers Ganga, Yamuna (Jamuna) and Sindhu (Indus) on whose plains India's civilization flourished. Though most of the Sindhu is in Pakistan now, three of its tributaries flow through Punjab. The other Himalayan river, the Brahmaputra flows through the northeast, mostly through Assam.
South of Punjab lies the Aravalli range which cuts Rajasthan into two. The western half of Rajasthan is occupied by the Thar desert. The Vindhyas cut across Central India, particularly through Madhya Pradesh and signify the start of the Deccan plateau, which covers almost the whole of the southern peninsula. It is bounded by the Sahyadri (Western Ghats) range to the west and the Eastern Ghats to the east. The plateau is more arid than the plains, as the rivers that feed the area, such as the Narmada, Godavari and the Kaveri run dry during the summer. Towards the northeast of the Deccan plateau is what used to be a thickly forested area called the Dandakaranya which covers the states of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, the eastern edge of Maharashtra and the northern tip of Andhra Pradesh. This area is still forested, poverty stricken and populated by tribals. This forest acted as a barrier to the invasion of South India.
India has a long coastline. The west coast borders the Arabian Sea and the east coast the Bay of Bengal, both parts of the Indian Ocean.
Rain in India is largely because of South-West winds. The period in which these winds drive over India is called Monsoon.
In India, it rains only during a specific time of the year. The season as well as the phenomenon that causes it is called the monsoon. There are two of them, the Southwest and the Northeast, both named after the directions the winds come from. The Southwest monsoon is the more important one, as it causes rains over most parts of the country, and is the crucial variable that decides how the crops (and therefore the economy) will do. It lasts from June to September. It hits the west coast the most, as crossing the western ghats and reaching the rest of India is an uphill task for the winds. The western coastline is therefore much greener than the interior. The Northeast monsoon hits the east coast between October and February, mostly in the form of occasional cyclones which cause much devastation every year. The only region that gets rains from both monsoons is Northeastern India, which consequently experiences the highest rainfall in the world.
India experiences at least three seasons a year, Summer, Rainy Season (or "Monsoon") and Winter, though in the tropical South calling the 25°C (77°F) weather "Winter" would be stretching the concept. The North experiences some extremes of heat in Summer and cold in Winter, but except in the Himalayan regions, snow is almost unheard of. November to January is the winter season and April and May are the hot months when everyone eagerly awaits the rains. There is also a brief spring in February and March, especially in North India.
Opinions are divided on whether any part of India actually experiences an Autumn, but the ancients had certainly identified such a season among the six seasons ( or ritus - Vasanta - Spring, Greeshma - Summer, Varsha - Rainy, Sharat - Autumn, Shishira - Winter, Hemanta - "Mild Winter") they had divided the year into.
India has a rich diversity of culture and tradition, dominated by religious and spiritual themes. It's probably the only country where people of so many different origins, religious beliefs, languages and ethnic background coexist. There are 3 main sub-cultures: North, East and South. Most of the ancient Indian culture is preserved in the South which is famous for its classical arts, such as Carnatic music and classical Indian dance.
Indian is a cricket-obsessed country and cricket is in the blood of most Indians. Seeing kids playing cricket in parks and alleys with rubber balls and makeshift wickets is an extremely common sight. About half-a dozen Indian stadiums have a capacity of over 45,000 and watching an international cricket match can be quite an experience. While the facilities in the stadiums may not be too spectator friendly (old benches instead of proper seats with backrests, monochrome scoreboards and lots of litter), the atmosphere of most matches is electrifying. Nearly all international matches have sellout crowds, and it is quite normal for fans to bribe officials and make their way in. Starting ticket prices are quite cheap; they can be as low as Rs 250 to 300 (US$6-8). India and Pakistan are all-time arch rivals, and cricket matches between the two matches attract upto a billion TV viewers.  There's not much money in cricket compared to football in Europe or the NFL, but unusually enough the Indian cricket team is the richest in the world in terms of sponsorship.
If you want to buy yourself merchandise, Nike (with a limited network in India) is the kit sponsor. Cheap fake ones can be bought at most flea markets for around Rs 200.
There are three national holidays (Republic Day, Independence Day, and Gandhi Jayanti) which occur on the same day every year. Most other religious holidays occur on different days, because the Hindu and Islamic festivals are based on their respective calendars and not on the Gregorian calendar.
Here is a list of important holidays. The dates given are correct for 2007. Not all holidays are celebrated with equal fervour, or celebrated at all in all regions of the country. Different regions might give somewhat different names to the same festival. Check the state or city you are visiting for information on whether there will be closures. To cater to varying religious practices, offices have a list of optional holidays (called restricted holidays by the government) from which employees are allowed to pick two, in addition to the list of fixed holidays. This may mean thin attendance and delayed service even when the office is officially open.
Touts are ubiquitous, as in many developing countries, and you should assume that anyone 'proactively' trying to help you has a hidden agenda to part you from your money. During your travels in India, you will be deluged with touts trying to get you to buy something or patronize particular establishments. There are a myriad of common scams, which range from telling you your hotel has gone out of business (of course, they'll know of one that's open with vacancies), to giving wrong directions to a government rail ticket booking office (the directions will be to their friend's tour office), to trying to get you to take diamonds back to your home country (the diamonds are worthless crystal). There will also be more obvious touts who "know a very good place for dinner" or want to sell you a chess set on the street.
Faced with such an assault, it's very easy to get into a siege mentality where all of India is against you and out to squeeze you dry. Needless to say, such a mentality is harmful to any true appreciation of the country. Dealing with touts is very simple: first, assume that anyone doing something or for you or offering something without being asked is a tout. Second, assume anyone offering surprising information (such as "your hotel is shut down") is a tout. Never be afraid to get a second or third answer to a question. To get rid of a tout, tell him (they are invariably men) "NO", very firmly, and repeatedly. This rids you of 99% of the problems. For the most persistent touts, an angry glare and cursing or threatening to call the police will send them packing.
Citizens of most countries with a few exceptions like Bhutan and Nepal need a visa to get in. Depending on your purpose of visit, you can get a tourist visa (six months ~US $60, one year ~US $75), a business visa (6 months, one year or more, multiple entries) or a student visa (up to 5 years). A special 10 year visa (US $150, business and tourist) is available to US citizens only. Note that some Indian embassies only offers visas to residents of that country: this means you should get your visa before you leave home, instead of trying to get in a neighboring country.
It's wise to ask for a multiple entry visa even if you aren't planning to use it - they cost the same, are handed out pretty liberally and come in handy if you decide last minute to dip into one of the neighboring countries.
There are other categories for specialised purposes . The missionary visa is mandatory for anyone who is visiting India "primarily to take part in religious activities". This rule is meant to combat religious conversion, particularly of Hindus to Christianity. There have been cases where preachers have been deported for addressing religious congregations while on a tourist visa. You don't need to be worried if you are just on a religious tour of churches in India.
If you are on a Student, Employment, Research or Missionary visa, you need to register within 14 days of arrival with the Foreigners Regional Registration Office where you will be staying. If the place you are staying at doesn't have one, you need to register at the local police station . All visitors who intend to stay more than 180 days also need to be registered.
Customs and immigration
Clearing customs can be a bit of a hassle, though it has improved vastly over the the last decade. In general, avoid the touts who will offer to ease your baggage through customs. There are various rules regarding duty-free allowances — there are differing rules for Indian citizens, foreign "tourists", citizens of Nepal, Bhutan and Pakistan, non-citizens of Indian origin and people moving to India. Cast a quick glance at the website of the Central Board of Excise and Customs  for information about what you can bring in. If you are a foreign tourist and you aren't Nepali, Bhutanese or Pakistani and you aren't entering through Nepal, Bhutan or Pakistan, you are entitled to bring in your "used personal effects and travel souvenirs" and Rs. 4,000,- worth of articles for "gifts". If you are an Indian citizen or are of Indian origin, you are entitled to Rs. 25,000,- worth of articles, (provided of course you aren't entering through Nepal, Bhutan or Pakistan.) The other rules are on the web site. If you are bringing any new packaged items along, it is a good idea to carry along the invoices for them to show their value. You are also allowed to bring in 200 cigarettes or 50 cigars or 250 grams of tobacco and 1 liter (2 liters for Indians) of alcohol duty-free. Note that importing and exporting Indian rupees by foreign nationals is theoretically prohibited, although in practice there are no checks. Indian nationals can import or export up to Rs 5000,- maximum, but on trips to Nepal, this cannot include Rs 500,- and Rs 1000,- notes.
If you do not have anything to declare, you can go through the green channel clearly marked at various airports and generally you will not be harassed.
The major points of entry are Mumbai, New Delhi, Chennai and Kolkata. If you are flying in from a Western country, chances are that you will get in through one of these cities. However in recent years, to accommodate the increasing traffic, many other airports have been upgraded to take in international flights. Among these are Amritsar, Ahmedabad, Bangalore, Calicut, Cochin, Coimbatore, Guwahati, Hyderabad, Jaipur, Mangalore, Pune, Thiruvananthapuram and Varanasi. 
India has homegrown international airlines like Air India   (the merged airline formed by merging Air India and Indian Airlines). These provide good connectivity within the country. In recent years, the government has allowed Indian private airlines like Jet Airways  and Air Sahara  to go international. There are daily flights to major hubs around the world from the New Delhi & Mumbai airports. The New Delhi Airport  website has live information on all arrivals & departures.
Air India often offers the lowest rates for long haul flights to India, but has a miserable reputation for cancellations, massive delays and operating ancient aircraft. In recent years, it has steadily improved and has even been invited to join the Star Alliance, but there is still some ways to go until it can considered world-class.
From the United States, Continental Airlines  offers nonstop daily service from Newark Airport to Delhi and Mumbai; Delta Airlines  offers nonstop daily service from JFK International Airport in New York to Mumbai; Air India offers daily non-stop service to Mumbai and Delhi from JFK; and American Airlines  offers nonstop daily service from Chicago to Delhi. Various European airlines offer connecting service through their European hubs from most major US cities and various Asian airlines offer connecting service from West Coast cities to India through their Asian hubs. Jet Airways  also flies from New York to Delhi and Mumbai via Brussels.
From other parts of Asia, Singapore, Dubai and Doha have arguably the best connections to India with flights to all the major cities and many smaller ones. Air India, its subsidary Air India Express, as well as Jet Airways and Indian Airlines  all have flights to Singapore. In addition, Singapore Airlines and its subsidaries Silkair and Tiger Airways also offer reasonably good connections. If you find transiting Singapore too expensive for your liking, Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok also offer reasonably good connections. Gulf flights were till very recently dominated by Emirates, Air India, Air India Express and Qatar Airways.
There are two links from Pakistan. The Samjhauta Express runs from Lahore to Attari near Amritsar in Punjab — its future is now uncertain after the bomb blasts that occurred on 19 February 2007. The Thar Express, restarted in February 2006 after 40 years out of service, runs from Munabao in the Indian state of Rajasthan to Khokrapar in Pakistan's Sindh province; however, this crossing is not open to foreign tourists. Neither train is the fastest or the most practical way to go between India and Pakistan due to the long delay to clear customs and immigration (although the trains are sights in their own right and make for a fascinating trip). Should you want to get from one country to the other as quickly as possible, walk across at Attari/Wagah.
From Nepal, trains run between Khajuri in Dhanusa district of Nepal and Jaynagar in Bihar, operated by Nepal Railways. Neither is of much interest for travelers and there are no onward connections into Nepal, so most travelers opt for the bus or plane instead.
Train services from Bangladesh were suspended for 42 years, but the Moitree Express started running again between Dhaka to Kolkata in April 2008. The service is biweekly: A Bangledeshi train leaves Dhaka every Saturday, returning on Sunday, while an Indian train leaves Kolkata on Saturdays and returns the next day.
From Pakistan the only land crossing is from Lahore to Amritsar via the Attari/Wagah border crossing. See Istanbul to New Delhi over land. You will need a Carnet de Passage if crossing with your own vehicle and the process will likely be lengthy.
From Bangladesh there are a number of land entry points to India. The most common way is the regular air-conditioned and comfortable bus services from Dhaka to Kolkata via Haridaspur (India)/Benapole (Bangladesh) border post. Bus companies 'Shyamoli', 'Shohag', 'Green Line', and others operate daily bus services under the label of the state owned West Bengal Surface Transport Service Corporation (WBSTSC) and the Bangladesh Road Transport Corporation (BRTC). From Kolkata 2 buses leave every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday while from Dhaka they leave on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. The journey usually takes around 12 hours with a one-way fare of Rs. 400-450 or BDT600-800, roughly $8-10.
Another daily bus service by 'Shyamoli' and others under the BRTC label from Dhaka connects Siliguri, but the buses in this route do not cross the Changrabanda/Burimari or Burungamari border post. Rather, passengers reaching the border have to clear customs, walk a few hundred yards to cross the border and board the awaiting connecting buses on the other end for the final destination. Ticket for Dhaka-Siliguri-Dhaka route costs BDT 1600, roughly $20-25 depending on conversion rates. Tickets are purchased either in Dhaka or in Siliguri.
There is also a regular bus service between Dhaka and Agartala, capital of the Indian state of Tripura . Two BRTC buses daily from Dhaka and the Tripura Road Transport Corporation plying its vehicles six days a week with a round fare costing USD 10 connect the two cities. There is only one halt at Ashuganj in Bangladesh during the journey.
Other entry points from Bangladesh are Hili, Chilahati/Haldibari, Banglaband border posts for entry to West Bengal; Tamabil border post for a route to Shillong in Meghalaya, and some others with lesser known routes to north-eastern Indian regions.
See Kolkata for where to book tickets for journeys originating there
India is big and there are lots of interesting ways to travel around it, few of which could be described as efficient or punctual. Flights get cancelled, trains are delayed by hours or days, buses show up late if at all. Allow considerable buffer time for any journey with a fixed deadline (eg. your flight back), and try to remember that getting there should be half the fun.
Note that travel in much of the North-East (with the notable exception of Assam) and parts of Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh will require obtaining a Protected Area Permit (PAP). The easiest way to get one is to request it along with your visa application, in which case it will be added to your visa. Otherwise, you'll need to hunt down a local Ministry of Home Affairs office and battle with bureaucracy.
India's large size and terrible roads make flying a viable option, especially as prices have tumbled in the last few years. Even India's offshore islands and remote mountain states are served by flights, the main exceptions being Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh (although crossing over from neighboring states is fairly easy). In spite of the aviation boom over the last few years, airports have not been able to cope up with the air traffic. Most Indian airports continue to function with one runway and a handful of boarding gates. Check in queues can be terribly long, especially in Delhi and Bangalore. A few airports are not even fully air-conditioned (Coimbatore).
At one time, domestic flights were the monopoly of the government-owned Indian Airlines (now known as "Indian"). Jet Airways and Air Sahara challenged this monopoly with better service and competitive fares. In 2004, Air Deccan launched its no-frills airline. Now there are quite a few competitors and prices are a traveller's delight. Some Indian airlines charge foreigners higher fares than Indian residents. Every airline now has a website and offers competitive rates online and booking for upto 6 months in advance. Recently a lot of travel sites have come up which have made getting the lowest fare possible just a click away. Internal flights in India are occasionally hours late, especially in inclement weather (eg. winter fog in Delhi, monsoon season in Mumbai).
Here is a list of airlines in India, but there's one starting almost every month.
Keep in mind, however, that outside of big cities coverage is poor. If you need to get to a small town, low-cost airlines other than Air Deccan won't help you. You may have to rely on Indian Airlines or Jet. Flying low-cost to a metro and taking a train is not a bad idea either.
At the moment (August 2007) due to some government regulations the majority of the airlines do not accept banking cards issued outside India for payment for the tickets, beeing booked via Internet. But nevertheless it is possible to get such tickets by applying to some agencies. For example ClearTrip, Mercurytrip MakeMyTrip, Travel Guru,Jetways India, TravelMart India, Incoming India, Yatra,http://www.bookngo.co.in Book N Go],  etc. allow you to choose from a lot of possibilities to fly (different companies, times, rates) and to pay by your banking card. In this case after transaction you get an e-ticket, sent to the indicated e-mail or you print it yourself.
The earlier you book, the lower you pay. You will hear a lot about air tickets at Rs. 500 ($12), but those are promotional rates for limited seats which are sold out within seconds. In some other cases, the advertised fare may not include charges such as passenger service fees, air fuel surcharge and taxes which will be added subsequently. Nonetheless, you do get good rates from the budget airlines. Tickets for small cities will cost more than those for the metros, because of the spotty coverage noted above. Many airlines have higher fares for foreigners than for Indians. Foreigners will be charged in US dollars, whereas Indians will be charged in rupees. Indian ticket pricing has not attained the bewildering complexity that the Americans have achieved, but they are getting there. As of now, you don't have to worry about higher prices on weekends, lower prices for round-trips, lower prices for travel around weekends etc.
You can book flights online from the airline's website (most airlines have one now). It is sometimes more convenient to get tickets from the ticket agents though that will be more expensive. If you've booked on the net, just a printout and a government issued ID will be sufficient to get your boarding pass. A passport will suffice. Sometimes, you will not be asked for your ID, but don't let that make you complacent.
Procedures at airports in India are somewhat different from those elsewhere. In most cases you won't be able to check in for your flight more than an hour ahead of the scheduled departure. Also, there will be a stand where you must take your checked baggage for a security screening before you check in. To add to the confusion, all the luggage needs to be screened at high-security airports (Jammu, Srinagar, Leh, Dibrugarh, Tezpur, Jorhat and Lilabari). It isn't always obvious where you are supposed to wait to catch your flight. However, don't hesitate to ask someone if you are unsure. Most staff in airports are very helpful to foreigners and will take pains to ensure you catch your flight. There are separate queues for passengers travelling light (without hand baggage). Thanks to the fact that most Indians are incapable of doing this, these queues are less crowded. Different airlines have different standards for what they allow as cabin baggage, so err on the side of caution, especially if you are travelling by a low-cost airline.
India boasts the biggest network of railway lines in the world, and the rail system is efficient, if not always on schedule. With classes ranging from luxurious to regular, it's the best way to get to know the country and its people. You will get to see the beautiful Indian countryside first hand, and most train passengers will be curious about you and happy to pass the time with a chat.
Indian Railways is famously the world's largest employer, and at first sight it also looks like the world's largest bureaucracy, with hair-splitting divisions and designations that look quite obscure to the uninitiated. The following will help you crack the code.
Trains come in many varieties, but the broad hierarchy from luxurious to normal is as follows:
In a class of its own is the Palace on Wheels , akin to a five-star hotel, that does an eight-day loop from New Delhi with stops and tours in Jaipur, Jaisalmer, Jodhpur, Sawai Madhopur, Chittaurgarh, Udaipur, Bharatpur, and Agra. Prices are also five-star, with twin sharing from US$295/person/night in low season and trains still booked out months ahead. The Deccan Odyssey, modeled after the same idea, runs out of Mumbai but hasn't achieved the same level of popularity.
Most countries offer two classes of service, but India has no less than eight to choose from. Not all are available on all trains.
Before booking a ticket pick up a copy of Trains At A Glance, the national rail schedule (or "timetable"), from any railway station. This is updated every June and remains valid until July next year. It allows you to choose the best train for your needs, and find the name and number of the train for your destination. However, this is a general guide and does not contain detailed list of all stations, neither does it contain all the trains that ply. A more specific guide depending on the "rail zone" is available at important stations on that zone. For example, a detailed guide on trains plying in West India can be available at all major railway stations in West India. You can also get the whole schedule online www.irctc.co.in or www.indianrail.gov.in. Neither option will find connecting trains for you, so some knowledge of important stations is necessary if you are going to a remote location.
Tickets are available from travel agents as well as directly from Indian Railways' online reservation service . It is better not to buy tickets from a travel agent, as they mark up the price, and with the advent of internet booking, offer no real advantage. Train tickets are in high demand, especially during the summer and winter breaks. This means that without careful planning, it may be next to impossible to get tickets for long distance travel (for example from New Delhi to Mumbai). You can book up to 90 days in advance, but during the busy season, the tickets may get sold out quickly. However foreigners can get tickets from a quota reserved for them. In big cities, you have a specific counter or even a special office for them. If you plan to travel in 1st Class A/C tickets should be easier to get - they are in less demand. Rail passes are also available, and are called Indrail passes.
If you do not get a confirmed ("reserved") ticket, you may get one that is Waitlisted (WL) or in the Reservation Against Cancellation (RAC) status. If you've booked your ticket in advance, it will probably move from "Waitlisted" to "RAC" status or even to "Reserved" status as time goes by, because of cancellations, so it is a good idea to check it periodically and keep your plans dynamic.
You cannot get on to a reserved compartment if your ticket is waitlisted (you can only enter a General Compartment). But if you have an RAC ticket, you are allotted 'sitting' berths - i.e. in a Sleeper Coach, you and a fellow RAC ticket-holder share a berth so that both of you can travel sitting instead of sleeping. The Ticket Examiner then allots you a Confirmed (CNF) sleeping berth as and when one is available due to last minute cancellations, no-shows etc. Depending on the train, the route and the season you are travelling in, the RAC ticket may get upgraded to CNF either as soon as the journey begins, mid-way through the journey or not at all.
Five days before the departure date of a train the Tatkal quota seats become available. This allows tourists who like to plan a trip as they go to book seats closer to the day of departure, for an extra fee. Some agents don't advertise these tickets, so you may have to ask. Even with this extra quota (about 4% of the seats on a train) it can sometimes be difficult to get the train you want when you want it.
Most trains have a pantry car and if you are in the sleeper or A/C classes, you can buy meals on board the train. You can tell which trains have a pantry car because there is a "P" listed with the classes available in "Trains at a Glance". In First Class A/C, you will be served your meals by liveried waiters. The quality and hygiene can be inconsistent. Pantry car service always includes the sale of chai (tea), coffee, cold drinks and "namkeen" (chips and other salty snacks). Meals available are generally vegetable cutlet (a veggie patty) and bread or omelet and bread for breakfast and biryani and thalis (rice, dal, a vegetable, yogurt (often sour) and parathas (fried bread), and occasionally non-veg thalis (with chicken or fish)) for other meals. Chili chicken (sweet and sour chicken wings with chilis) is often available. Orders for the meal will be taken well before the meal by waiters roaming around calling out for orders. On non-pantry car services, there is often a similar service -- in this case, the order is called to the next "loading" station and you will receive your meal then. Note that this is not available on many of the less travelled trains.
If you are finicky, bring enough food and bottled water for the journey including delays: Bananas, bread, and candy bars are good basics to have. At most larger stations hawkers selling tea, peanuts, and snack food and even complete meals will go up and down the train -- though technically they are not permitted in AC class. Most important stations will have vendors selling all kinds of edible stuff, but the usual caveats about eating in India apply.
Most larger Indian train stations offer a standard set of facilities including left luggage (slow and bureaucratic but cheap and reasonably safe; you must lock your own bag and show a ticket), 1st/AC class waiting rooms (no touts or beggars), a reservation office for advance bookings and a booking office for unreserved/same-day tickets. Restaurant facilities vary widely, but the Comesum  outlets found in many tourist hotspots are reasonably priced and hygienic.
Always watch your bags, especially in and around train stations. Once on a train, lock your bags to your bunk-- under the bunk if you are on the bottom, or at your head. Make sure to also lock any exterior pockets (keep your toilet paper, and anything else you'll want on the outside). You can buy chains from chain-and-lock sellers who walk around train stations and trains.
The top bunk is best if you are the sort who likes to sleep early or late. The middle and bottom bunks are converted into seating area, so you will be forced to stay awake if everyone else in your compartment wants to stay up.
Indian trains take a long time to go anywhere. Don't just look at a map and assume a short trip, it's best to check Trains at a Glance before making your plans.
Bathrooms on Indian trains are usually of the squat variety, the cleanliness tends to deteriorate over a long trip, but at least nothing but the sole of your shoes needs to touch the toilet. It's a good idea to use the toilet elsewhere when possible.
Enjoy the train! You'll meet fascinating, wonderful people.
While you can't take a cross-country bus-ride across India, buses are the second most popular way of travelling across states and the only cheap way of reaching many places not on the rail network (eg. Dharamsala, Khajuraho).
Every state has its own public bus service, usually named "X Road Transport Corporation" (or XRTC) or "X State Transport Corporation" (or XSTC) which primarily connects intra-state routes, but will also have services to neighbouring states. There are usually multiple classes of buses. The ordinary buses (called differently in different states, e.g. "service bus") are extremely crowded with even standing room rarely available (unless you're among the first on board) as reservations are not possible and they tend to stop at too many places. On the upside, they're very cheap, with even a 5-6 hour journey rarely costing over Rs.100.
In addition to ordinary public buses, there might be also luxury or express buses available, and sometimes they even have air-conditioning. They are more comfortable, have assured seating (book in advance), and have limited stops, making them well worth the slight extra expense. Even better-class buses rarely have toilets, but long-distance buses make occasional snack and bathroom breaks.
Private buses may or may not be available in the area you are travelling to, and even if they are, the quality could vary a lot. Be warned that many of the private buses, especially long-distance lines, play music and/or videos at ear-splitting volume. Even with earplugs it can be nerve-wracking. Do not expect public restrooms at all, or even most, bus stops. Unfortunately, the bus industry is extremely fragmented and there are few operators who offer services in more than 2 or 3 neighbouring states. Travel agents usually only offer seats on private buses.
However, long distance bus operators such as Raj National Express  and KPN Travels  are currently beginning to roll out their operations across the country modelled on the lines of the Greyhound service in the Unites States. There services are excellent and they provide entertainment on board.
Regardless of class of travel, all buses have to contend with the poor state of Indian highways and the havoc of Indian traffic which usually makes them slower, less comfortable and less safe than trains. Night buses are particularly hazardous, and for long-distance travel it's wise to opt for sleeper train services instead.
You can book tickets online from www.redBus.in  (there are over 3600 routes on the site) or order home delivery with small extra charge. You can book Air Condition ( AC ) , Non-AC and Sleeper bus from this website. Tickets are only available from private operators (not from the larger state government bus services).
Driving on your own
In India driving is on the left of the road — at least most of the time. You can drive in India if you have a local license or an International Driving Permit, but unless you are used to driving on extremely chaotic streets, you probably will not want to. The average city or village road is narrow, often potholed and badly marked. National Highways are better, but they are still narrow, and Indian driving discipline is non-existent. In the past few years the Central government has embarked on an ambitious project to upgrade the highways. The Golden Quadrilateral connecting the four metros is 88% complete as of December 2005 and the roads there almost reach international standards. But it is still some time before the drivers adapt to the new roads, so if you are a foreigner, you'll be wise to put off your plans to drive on Indian roads by a few years.
Hiring driver with car
Instead, if you desire going by a car, opt for driver while renting the car. Rates are quoted in rupees per kilometer and you will have to pay for both ways even if you are going only one way. The driver's salary is so low (typically around Rs 100 to 150 per day) that it adds little to the cost of renting the car. The driver will find his own accommodation and food wherever you are traveling. A common rental vehicle is the legendary Ambassador, which is essentially an Indian-made 1956 Morris Oxford: it's large, boxy, with space for 5 passengers (including driver), and a decent-sized trunk. However, the Tata Indica is now replacing the Ambassador as the cheap car of choice. Imported international models may be available at a premium.
There are numerous advantages to having a car and driver.
It is rare to find a driver that speaks more than a few words of English. As a result, misunderstandings are common. Keep sentences short. Use the present tense. Use single words and hand gestures to convey meaning.
Make sure you can trust your driver before you leave your goods with him. If he shows any suspicious motives or behavior make sure you keep your bags with you. Conversely, if your driver is very friendly and helpful, it is a nice gesture to buy him a little something to eat or drink when stopping for food. They will really appreciate this.
Your driver may in some cases act as a tout, offering to take you to businesses from which he gets baksheesh (a sort of commission). This isn't necessarily a bad thing - he may help you find just what you're looking for, and add a little bit to his paltry income at the same time. On the other hand, you should always evaluate for yourself whether you are being sold on a higher-cost product than you want. The driver might ask for a tip at the end of the trip. Pay him some amount and don't let him guilt-trip you into paying too much.
If you rent a car for a trip to a remote destination, make sure before getting out that you will recognize the driver, and write down the license plate number. Touts at tourist areas will try to mislead you into getting into the wrong car when you leave; if you fall for this you will certainly be ripped off, and possibly much worse. Find your car and driver and ignore "helpful" advice from anyone else hanging around.
Another choice, popular with people who like taking risks, is to buy a motorcycle. The Royal Enfield is a popular choice for its classic looks, despite its high petrol consumption, low reliability, and difficulty to handle.
To be at ease on the roads one can opt for the smaller yet quicker and more fuel eficient 4 stroke bikes. They can range from 100 CC to the newly launched 220 CC bikes. Two most popular bike manufacturers are Bajaj and Hero Honda. The smaller variants (100 CC - 125CC) can give you a mileage exceeding 50 kms/liter on the road, while giving less power if one is opting to drive with pillion on the highways. The bigger variants (150 CC - 220CC) are more pwerful and one can get a feel of the power specially on highways - the mileage is lesser for these bikes anywhere between 35kms/liter to 45 kms/liter.
Preferably tourists should go for second hand bikes rather than purchasing new ones. The smaller 100 CC variants can be purchased for anywhere between Rs. 15000 to Rs. 25000 depending on the year of make and condition of vehicle. The bigger ones can be brought from Rs 30000 onwards.
The auto-rickshaw, sometimes abbreviated as "auto" and sometimes as "rickshaw", is the most common means of hired transportation in India. Most residents usually refer to them as a "three wheeler." But please note that it is not a good way to travel between cities, though you'd be surprised how far people travel in them. They vary in color. Most are green and yellow, due to the new CNG gas laws, and some may be yellow and black in color, with one wheel in the front and two in the back, with a leather or soft plastic top.
When getting an auto-rickshaw, you can either negotiate the fare or go by the meter. In almost all cases it is better to use the meter -- a negotiated fare means that you are being charged a higher than normal rate. A metered fare starts around Rs 10, and includes the first kilometer of travel. Never get in an auto-rickshaw without either the meter being turned on, or the fare negotiated in advance. In nearly all cases the driver will ask an exorbitant sum (for Indian standards) from you later. A normal fare for 10km of travel within the city would be about Rs 50, which is around a dollar and a few cents. In most of the cities, auto-rickshaw drivers are provided with a rate card that elaborately describes the fares on per kilo-meter basis. A careful tourist must verify the meter-reading against the rate-card before making a payment.
Ideally, you should talk with a local to find out what the fare for any estimated route will be. Higher rates may apply at night, and for special destinations such as airports. Finally, factor in that auto drivers may have to pay bribes to join the queue for customers at premium location such as expensive hotels. The bribe will be factored in the fare.
Make sure that the driver knows where he is going. Many autorickshaw drivers will claim to know the destination without really having any clue as to where it is. If you know something about the location, quiz them on it to screen out the liars. If you do not know much about the location, make them tell you in no uncertain terms that they know where it is. This is because after they get lost and drive all over the place, they will often demand extra payment for their own mistake. You can then tell them that they lied to you, and wasted your time, so they should be happy to get the agreed-upon fee.
If you need to get anywhere, call in advance and ask for detailed directions. Postal addresses are often stated in terms of other landmarks, as in "Opp. Prithvi theatre" or "Behind Maruti Showroom", etc. Unlike the western system of address, the Indian system uses municipal ward number, plot number, house number , land mark and the location instead of street name and block number. Finding a place will usually involve some searching, but you will always find someone out on the streets to guide you.
India has 22 official languages, namely Assamese, Bengali, Bodo, Dogri, Gujarati, Hindi, Kannada, Kashmiri, Konkani, Maithili, Malayalam, Manipuri, Marathi, Nepali, Oriya, Punjabi, Sanskrit, Santhali, Sindhi, Tamil, Telugu and Urdu. There are also other less prominent languages like Tulu, Bhojpuri that are the main spoken language of some places.
Hindi, spoken by 30% of the population, is the primary tongue of the people in Northern India. Many more people speak it as a second language. If you can afford only one phrasebook, pick up the Hindi one, as it will enable you to get by in most of India. The exceptions are the extreme south - Tamil Nadu,Karnataka, Kerala and the Northeast.
In any case, you are better off picking up as many words of the local language of the place you are going to - people are proud of their culture and language and will appreciate it if an outsider makes an attempt to communicate in it.
English is widely spoken in major cities and around most tourist places, and acts as the lingua franca among all educated Indians. English has been spoken by Indians long enough that it has begun evolving its own rhythm, vocabulary, and inflection, much like French in Africa. Indeed, much has recently been made of subcontinental writers such as Arundhati Roy, Vikram Seth, and Salman Rushdie. The English you are likely to hear in India will be heavily influenced by British English, although spoken with the lilting stress and intonation of the speaker's other native language. Indians can usually tell regional English accents apart.
One of the most delightful quirks of Indian English is the language's adherence to Pre-1950s British English which to speakers in North America and Britain will sound oddly formal. Another source of fascination and intrigue for travelers is the ubiquitous use of English for cute quips in random places. One relatively common traffic sign reads, "Speed thrills, but kills". On the back of trucks everywhere you'll find "use dipper at night" Indians are adopting more and more native words into their English. A lot of these are already well known to speakers elsewhere. Chai (tea), Guru (learned teacher/master), cummerbund (literally waist-tie), Nirvana (extinction of the separative ego) and avatar (God in human form) are words that have left their original subcontinental home. However, Indians are using English loan words in their native languages at an even more rapid pace. As India modernizes blazingly fast, it has taken from English words for modern objects that simply did not exist a few decades ago. However, more importantly, bilingual Indians in informal conversation will often switch unpredictably between English and their native language when speaking to similar polyglots, thus effectively communicating in a hybridized language that relies on the listener's ability to speak both languages. A bilingual speaker in Delhi, might for example, say "mera fever bahut bad hai" (my fever is very bad) which mixes English with Hindi 50-50 in spite of the fact that perfectly good words exist for both 'fever' and 'bad' in Hindi. This hybrid is sometimes referred to as 'Hinglish', influenced English in Singapore is termed 'Singlish') It seems that English and Hindi are indeed converging among the bilingual sections of society. While English, as a distinct language, is here to stay for now, it appears that it will eventually over hundreds of years be absorbed into the vast cultural fabric of the subcontinent.
English speaking Indians may also seem commanding to a westerner. You may hear "come here," "sit here," "drink this," "bring me that" which may sound direct and demanding to the point of being rude to northern Europeans and Americans, but is in no way meant to be impolite.
Non-verbal communication is also important. Much has been made of the confusing Indian head nod for yes and no, but the only important thing to understand is that Indians have different nods for yes, ok and no.
The currency in India is the Indian rupee (रुपया rupaya in Hindi and similarly named in most Indian languages, but taka in Bengali and Assamese). It trades around 40 rupees to the US dollar, 84 to pound sterling and 57 rupees to the Euro. The Rupee is subdivided into 100 paise (singular: paisa). Take a look at the Exchange Rates Table for Indian Rupee for other currencies. 5 rupees 75 paise would normally be written as Rs.5.75 and one rupee as Re.1.
Common bills come in denominations of Rs. 5 (green), Rs. 10 (orange), Rs. 20 (red), Rs. 50 (purple), Rs. 100 (blue), Rs. 500 (yellow) and Rs. 1,000 (pink). It is always good to have a number of small bills on hand, as merchants and drivers sometimes don't have change. A useful technique is to keep small bills (Rs. 10 - 50) in your wallet or in a pocket, and to keep larger bills separate. In this way you won't be making obvious the amount of money you have available. In many cases merchants will claim that they don't have change for a Rs. 100 or Rs. 500 note. This is often a lie, as they simply don't want to be stuck with a large bill. Rather than giving up your last 6 ten-rupee notes, it is better to make them give you change.
The coins in circulation are 25 paise, 50 paise, Re. 1, Rs. 2 and Rs. 5. Coins are useful for buying tea (Rs. 5), for bus fare (Rs. 2 to Rs. 10), and for giving exact change for an auto-rickshaw.
Indians commonly use lakh and crore for "hundred thousand" and "10 million" respectively. Though these terms come from Sanskrit, they have been adopted so deeply into Indian English that most people are not aware that it is not standard in other English dialects. You may also find non-standard placement of commas while writing numerals. Rupees One crore would be written as Rs. 1,00,00,000. This format may puzzle you till you start thinking in terms of lakhs and crores, after which it will seem natural.
The Indian rupee is not officially convertible, and a few government-run shops will still insist on seeing official exchange receipts if you're visibly a foreigner and attempt to pay in rupees instead of hard currency. Rates for exchanging rupees overseas are often poor (and importation of Rupees is theoretically illegal), although places with significant Indian populations (eg. Singapore) can give decent rates.
Outside airports you can change your currency at any one of the numerous foreign exchange conversion units including banks. Some of the more common foreign exchange merchants are Western Union and Thomas Cook.
In big cities, there are now ATMs where you can get rupees against your international debit or credit card (maximum amount is 4,000-20,000 rupees depending on the ATM). State Bank of India (SBI) ATMs usually don't accept foreign cards. Therefore, you may have to search around to find an ATM that will work with your card. Citibank has a significant presence in India, as does HSBC. ICICI bank has the second largest network of ATMs, and accepts most of the international cards at a nominal charge. It is always worthwhile to have bank cards or credit cards from at least two different providers, to ensure that you have a backup available in case one card is suspended by your bank, or simply doesn't work at a particular ATM.
In the big cities, credit cards are accepted at retail chain stores and other westernized restaurants and stores. Small businesses and family-run stores almost never accept credit cards, so it is useful to keep a moderate amount of cash on hand.
In short, India is cheap, even for visitors from most other Asian countries. You can easily live in India for a couple of hundred rupees a day ($4-$5) if you are willing to eat local food and stay in basic hotels. At the other end of the spectrum you can sleep in fancy 5 star hotels and spend lots of money on food and shopping.
In India you are expected to negotiate the price with street hawkers, but not in department stores and the like. If not, you risk overpaying many times - which can be okay if you think "well, it's cheaper than home". In most of the big cities and even smaller towns retail chain stores are popping up where the shopping experience is essentially identical to similar stores in the West. There are also some government-run stores like the Cottage Emporium in New Delhi, where you can sample wares from all across the country in air-conditioned comfort. Although you will pay a little more at these stores, you can be sure that what you are getting is not a cheap knockoff. The harder you bargain the more you save money. A few tries later you will realise that it is fun.
Often, the more time you spend in a store, the better deals you will get. It is worth spending time getting to know the owner, asking questions, and getting him to show you other products (if you have an interest). Once the owner feels that he is making a sufficient profit from you, he will often give you additional goods at a rate close to his cost, rather than the common "foreigner rate". You will get better prices and service by buying many items in one store than by bargaining in multiple stores individually. If you see local people buying in a store, probably you can get the real Indian prices. Ask someone around you — preferably so that that the shopkeeper can't hear you! — how much they would pay for an item.
Also, very often you will meet a "friend" in the street offering you to visit his or his family's shop. In about 9 of 10 cases this will simply mean that you pay twice as much as when you had been in the shop without your newly found friend.
Baksheesh -- the giving of small bribes -- is a very common phenomenon. While it is a big problem in India, indulging in it can ease certain problems and clear some hurdles. Baksheesh is also the term used by beggars if they want money from you, and also can refer to tips given those who provide you a service. Baksheesh is as ancient a part of Middle Eastern and Asian culture as anything else. It derives from the Arabic meaning a small gift. It refers as much to charity as to bribes.
Packaged goods show the Maximum Retail Price (MRP) right on the package. This includes taxes. Retailers are not supposed to charge more than this. Though this rule is adhered to at most places, at tourist destinations or remote places, you may be charged more. This is especially true for cold drinks like coke or pepsi, where a bottle (300ml) is priced around 11 to 12 Rs when the actual price is 10. Also, keep in mind that a surprising number of things do not come in packaged form. Do check for the authenticity of the MRP, sometime so it happens that the Shopkeeper may put up a sticker of his own to charge more price from you.
The shops outside the big brand shops are better for as you can get good stuff at a low rate. But watch out for the quality of the things you buy.
What to Look For/Buy
Indian cuisine is superb and takes its place among the great cuisines of the world. There is a good chance that you'd have tasted "Indian food" in your country, especially if you are a traveller from the West, but what India has exported abroad is just one part of its extraordinary range of culinary diversity.
Indian food has well-deserved reputation for being hot, owing to the Indian penchant for potent green chilis that will bring tears to the eyes of the uninitiated. You can even find sweet cornflakes with a spicy edge and Indian candies with a piece of chili inside. To enjoy the local food, start slowly. Don't try everything at once. After a few weeks, you can get accustomed to spicy food. If you would like to order your dish not spicy, simply say so. Most visitors are tempted to try at least some of the spicy concoctions, and most discover that the sting is worth the trouble.
Cuisine in India varies greatly from region to region. The "Indian food" served by restaurants around the world is North Indian, also known as Mughlai (the courts of the Mughal emperors) or Punjabi (the people who popularized it). Mughlai cuisine makes heavy use of meat and spices. It has been heavily influenced by Central Asian cooking, hence you will find pulao (rice cooked in broth), kebab (grilled meat), kofta (balls of mincemeat) etc. Tandoori chicken, prepared in a clay oven called a tandoor, is probably the best-known North Indian dish, but for an authentic Punjabi dining experience, try sarson da saag, a yummy gravy dish made with mustard greens, with makke di roti, a roti made from maize.
North India is wheat growing land, so you have Indian breads (known as roti), including chapatti (unleavened bread), paratha (stuffed chapatti), naan (cooked in a clay tandoori oven), puri (deep-fried and puffed up), and many more. A typical meal consists of one or more gravy dishes along with rotis, to be eaten by breaking off a piece of roti, dipping it in the gravy and eating them together. Most of the Hindi heartland of India survives on roti, rice, and lentils (dal), which are prepared in several different ways and made spicy to taste. Served on the side, you will usually find spiced yogurt (raita) and either fresh chutney or a tiny piece of exceedingly pungent pickle (achar), a very acquired taste for most visitors — try mixing it with curry, not eating it plain.
A variety of cuisines can be found throughout north India, like the savory Rajasthani dishes, more akin to the Gujarati cuisine, the meat heavy Kashmiri (Wazwan) dishes from the valley of Kashmir or the mild yet gratiating Himalayan (pahari) cuisine found in the higher reaches. North India also boasts of a variety of snacks like samosa (vegetables encased in thin pastry of a triangular shape) and kachori (either vegetable or pulses encased in thin pastry). There is also a vast constellation of sweet desserts like jalebi (deep-fried pretzel with sugar syrup- shaped like a spiral), rasmalai (balls of curds soaked in condensed milk), halwa, etc. Dry fruits like almonds, cashews and pistachio are used a lot, often in the desserts, but sometimes also in the main meal.
South India, in contrast, uses fewer spices and the food is mostly rice-based. They also make greater use of pulses. The typical meal is sambhar (a watery curry) with rice, or avial (mixed vegetables) with rice. There are regional variations too — the coastal regions make greater use of coconut and fish. In the coast, it is common to use grated coconut in everything and use coconut oil for cooking, while someone from the interior could be surprised to learn that coconut oil, can in fact, be used for cooking. The South also has some great breakfast dishes like idli (a steamed cake of lentils and rice), dosa, a thin, crispy pancake often stuffed with spiced potatoes to make masala dosa, vada, a savoury Indian donut, and uttapam, fried idli with onions and other vegetables mixed in. All of these can be eaten with dahi, plain yogurt, and chutney, a condiment that can be made from practically anything. South Indian cuisine is predominantly vegetarian, though Chettinad and Kerala cuisine use meat heavily and are a lot more spicier too. Coffee tends to replace tea in the south.
To the West, you will find some great cuisine groups. Gujarati cuisine is mostly vegetarian, sweet, and makes heavy use of milk products. Gujaratis make some of the best snack items such as the Dhokla and the Muthia. Rajasthani cuisine is similar to Gujarati, but somewhat spicier. Maharashtra and Goa are famous for their seafood.
To the East, Bengali food, like South Indian, makes heavy use of rice and fish, though Bengalis prefer freshwater fish. The iconic Bengali dish is Maccher jhol, a spicy fish curry. Bengal is also famous for its sweets, and sondesh is excellent.
A lot of food has also filtered in from other countries. Indian Chinese (or Chindian) is far and away the most common adaptation: most Chinese would barely recognize the stuff, but dishes like veg manchurian (deep-fried vegetable balls in a chilli-soy-ginger sauce) and chilli chicken are very much a part of the Indian cultural landscape and worth a try. The British left fish and chips and some fusion dishes like mulligatawny soup, while Tibetan food, especially momo dumplings, are not uncommon in north India. Pizza has entered India in a big way, but chains like Pizza hut and Domino's have been forced to Indianize the pizza and introduce adaptations like paneer-tikka pizza. Remarkably, there is an Indian chain called Smokin Joe's, based out of Mumbai, which has gone and mixed Thai curry with Pizzas.
It is, of course, impossible to do full justice to the range and diversity of Indian food in this brief section. Not only does every region of India have a distinctive cuisine, but you will also find that even within a region, castes and ethnic communities have different styles of cooking and often have their signature recipes which you will probably not find in restaurants. The adventurous traveller is advised to wangle invitations to homes, try various bylanes of the city and look for food in unlikely places like temples in search of culinary nirvana.
While there are a wide variety of fruits native to India, such as the chikoo and the jackfruit, the true Indian loves his mango. India produces hundreds of varieties across most of its regions. In fact, it is the world's largest producer, growing more than half the world output. The season typically is the hottest part of the year, ranging between May and July. Mangos range from small (as big as a fist) to some as big as a small cantelope. It can be consumed in its ripe, unripe as well a baby form (the last 2 predominently in pickles). Other fruits widely available to travellers are bananas, oranges, guavas, lychees, apples, pineapple, pomegranate, apricot, melons, coconut, grapes, plums, peaches and berries. Some of them are, however, available only in certain times of the year.
Even non-vegetarians will soon note that due to the Hindu taboo, beef is basically not served (except in the south and the north-east), and pork is also uncommon due to the Muslim population. Chicken and mutton are thus by far the most common meats used, although beeflike "buff" (waterbuffalo) is occasionally served in backpacker establishments.
In India eating with your hand (instead of utensils like forks and spoons) is very common. There's one basic rule of etiquette to observe: Use only your right hand. Don't stick either hand into communal serving dishes: instead, use the left hand to serve yourself with utensils and then dig in. Needless to say, it's wise to wash your hands well before and after eating.
For breads for all types, the basic technique is to hold down the item with your forefinger and use your middle-finger and thumb to tear off pieces. The pieces can then be dipped in sauce or used to pick up bits before you stuff them in your mouth. Rice is more challenging, but the basic idea is to use four fingers to mix the rice in curry and pack a little ball, before you pop it in your mouth by pushing it with your thumb.
Most of the restaurants do provide cutlery and its pretty safe to use them instead of your hand.
Eating by hand is frowned on in some "classier" places. If you are provided with cutlery and nobody else around you seems to be doing it, then take the hint.
Indian restaurants run the gamut from roadside shacks (dhabas) to classy five-star places where the experience is comparable to places anywhere in the world. Away from the big cities and tourist haunts, mid-level restaurants are scarce, and food choice will be limited to the local cuisine, Punjabi/Mughlai, "Chinese" and occasionally South Indian.
In Southern India, "Hotel" means a local restaurant serving south Indian food, usually a thali -- a full plate of food that usually includes a kind of bread and an assortment of meat or vegetarian dishes -- and prepared meals.
Although you may be handed an extensive menu, most dishes are served only during specific hours, if at all.
Tipping is unusual outside of fancier restaurants where 10% is appropriate.
One of the sweetest and safest beverages you can get is tender coconut water. You can almost always find it in any beach or other tourist destinations in the south. In summer (March to July), you can get fresh sugarcane juice in many places and even a lot of fresh fruit juice varieties. Be careful as fresh juice may contain many germs besides unhygienic ice! The juice vendors do not always clean their equipment properly and do not wash the fruits either.
Make sure to try the Indian soft drinks: Thums Up, which is a cola that has a unique taste with different spices and sweeteners, and Limca, a lemon lime soda. They are both bottled by Coca-Cola alongside Coke and Sprite.
Everywhere you can get tea (chai) of one variety or another. Most common is the "railway tea" type: cheap (2-5 Rs.), sweet and uniquely refreshing once you get the taste for it. It's made by brewing up tea leaves, milk, and sugar altogether in a pot and keeping it hot until it's all sold. Masala chai will also have spices added to the mix, such as cardamom, ginger, cinnamon, and black pepper. For some people, that takes some getting used to.
Drinking alcohol can either be frowned upon or openly accepted, depending on the region and religion of the area within which you are drinking. For example, Goa tends to be more free-wheeling (and has low taxes on alcohol), while southern areas like Chennai are less kind to alcohol, and may even charge excessive taxes on it. Some states such as Gujarat are legally "dry" and alcohol cannot be bought openly there. Alcohol is officially banned, but there is a substantial bootlegging industry, and all types of liquor can be obtained in Gujarat. If you have a non-Indian passport, you can obtain a 'liquor permit'. This allows you to buy alcohol at state-licensed shops, of which there are fourteen or so in all of Gujarat.
Favorite Indian tipples include beer, notably the ubiquitous Kingfisher (a decent lager), and rum, particularly Old Monk. Prices vary by state, especially for hard liquor, but you can expect to pay Rs.50-100 for a large bottle of beer and anywhere between Rs 170-250 for a 750mL bottle of Old Monk.
Indian wines, long a bit of a joke, have improved remarkably in recent years and there's a booming wine industry in the hills of Maharashtra. The good stuff is not particularly cheap, and selections are mostly limited to white wines, but look out for labels by Chateau Indage. 'Sula is also a good brand, and a bottle costs around Rs 500.
Illegal moonshine, called tharra when made from sugar cane and toddy when made from coconuts, is widely available in some states. It's cheap and strong, but very dangerous as quality control is nonexistent, and best avoided entirely.
In the former Portugese colony of Goa you can obtain an extremely pungent liquor, typically made from cashew nuts, known as 'Fenny' or 'Feni'.
Cannabis in its many forms — especially ganja (weed) and charas (hash) — is widely available throughout India, but they are all illegal in the vast majority of the country, and the letter of the law states that simple possession may mean years in jail.
However, in some states (notably Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh,Uttarakhand and Orissa) the one legal and socially accepted way to consume cannabis is as bhang, a low-grade preparation sold at government-licensed shops that is not only smoked, but also made into cookies, chocolate and the infamous bhang lassi, a herb-laced version of the normally innocuous yogurt drink. Bhang lassi is usually available at varying strengths, so use caution if opting for the stronger versions. It's also occasionally sold as "special lassi", but is usually easily spotted by the Rs.30-50 price tag (several times higher than the non-special kinds). An important point to bear in mind is that the effects of "Bhang" are slow and heighten when consumed with something sweet. Also, first time users may want to wait a while before consuming too much in an effort to judge their tolerance.
Choices vary widely depending on your budget and location. Cheap travellers' hotels are numerous in big cities where you can get a room for less than Rs 450 ($ 10). Rooms at guest-houses with a double bed (and often a bathroom) can be found in many touristic venues for Rs 150-200. Good budget hotels in India are not hard to find. You can find accommodation in clean dormitories for as less as Rs 50 ($1) in lots of districts in India. Inasra provides options to book these online.
Midrange options are plentiful in the larger cities. The prices vary from $ 50 to $ 100 per night. Breakfast is often included. The international Country Inn chain is expanding its network at a rapid pace. As of December 2006, they have Country Inns and Suites at Bhimtal, Haridwar, Ludhiana and Jammu. Alternatively, Neemrana offers resorts at Off-the-Beaten-Track locations. If your wallet allows it, you can try staying in former maharaja's residence in Udaipur or modern five-star hotels which are now found pretty much all over the country. The top-end of Indian luxury rests with the Oberoi, Taj, and Sheraton India hotel chains, who operate hotels in all the major cities and throughout Rajasthan. A number of international chains including Marriott and Hyatt also run major 5-star hotels in most Indian metropolises, but due to India's economic boom availability is tight and prices can be crazy: it's not uncommon to be quoted over US$300/night for what would elsewhere be a distinctly ordinary business hotel going for a third of the price. Also beware that some jurisdictions including Delhi and Bangalore charge stiff luxury taxes on the rack rate of the room, which can lead to nasty surprises at check-out time.
Two important factors to keep in mind when choosing a place to stay are 1) safety, and 2) cleanliness. Malaria is alive and well in certain areas of India - one of the best ways to combat malaria is to choose lodgings with air conditioning and sealed windows. An insect-repellent spray containing DEET will also help.
Dak bungalows exist in many areas. These were built by the British to accommodate travelling officials and are now used by the Indian and state governments for the same purpose. If they have room, most will take tourists at a moderate fee. They are plain — ceiling fans rather than air conditioning, shower but no tub, etc. — but clean, comfortable and usually in good locations. Typically the staff includes a pensioned-off soldier as night watchman and perhaps another as gardener; often the gardens are lovely. Sometimes there is a cook. You meet interesting Indian travellers this way: engineers building a bridge in the area, a team of doctors vaccinating the villagers, whatever.
A budget traveller should keep in mind that one may generally be able to get a room or dormitory at nearly all Indian train stations. These will be cheap, relatively well maintained (the beds, sheets etc. not the showers) and are secure. There are also the added bonuses of not being accosted by the rickshaw mafia, getting your bag off quickly and, for the adventurous, you are highly likely to be able to jump on a cheap public bus back to the train station, just ask. Keep in mind you must have a arrival or departure train ticket from the station where you intend to sleep and there could be a limit on how many nights you may stay.
There are many things to learn that interest foreigners all over India, but there are a few destinations that become known for certain things:
Organisation for Responsible and Community-based Tourism [] is a government registered NGO which provides cultural learning opportunities to travelers through volunteer work, workshops, cultural exchange programs etc in different states of India.
Foreigners need a work permit to be employed in India. A work permit is granted if an application is made to the local Indian embassy along with proof of potential employment and supporting documents. There are many expatriates working in India, mostly for multinational Fortune 1000 firms. India has always had an expatriate community of reasonable size, and there are many avenues for finding employment, including popular job hunting websites like monster.com
There are many volunteer opportunities around the country including teaching. India has a reasonable presence of foreign Christian missionaries, who for the most part form the non-local religious workers, since the other major religions of the world either grew out of India or have had a long term presence.
A living can be made in the traveler scenes by providing some kind of service such as baking Western cakes, tattooing or massage.
Previously, an AIDS test result was required as part of the work visa application process. As Indian hospitals are notoriously unsanitary it is highly recommended that applicants obtain test results in their home country beforehand if at all possible.
As a rule India is quite safe for foreigners. However, check with your embassy and ask for local advice before heading to Kashmir or northeast India (Assam, Nagaland, Tripura and Manipur), as both areas have long-running insurgencies. Also take extra caution when traveling at night in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Jharkhand and downmarket districts of large cities.
Unfortunately theft is quite common in places visited by tourists, but violent thefts hardly ever occur. More likely a thief will pick your pocket (see pickpockets) or break into your room. There is little risk of street robbery in India.
Some people handling your cash will try to shortchange you or rip you off. This does not exclude official ticket sellers at tourist sites, police employees at prepaid taxi stands, or merchants in all but the most upscale businesses. Count your cash before handing it over, and be insistent on receiving the correct change.
Agree on all fares and payments for services clearly in advance; some people go as far as to write them on paper! Being told that you can pay "as you like" is a sure warning sign. Don't give more than agreed, no matter what explanation is offered at the time of payment. When travelling by autorickshaw, never ever get into the vehicle if there is another person accompanying the driver. This always spells trouble for unwary travellers.
Overseas visitors, particularly women, attract the attention of beggars, frauds and touts. Beggars will often go as far as touching you, and following you tugging on your sleeve. It does little good to get angry or to say "No" loudly. The best response is to look unconcerned and ignore the behavior. The more attention you pay to a beggar or a tout -- positive or negative -- the longer they will follow you hoping for a payback. As always in India, patience is required. Wearing local clothes will decrease the amount of attention you receive.
Travelers should not trust strangers offering assistance or services; see Common scams. Be particularly wary of frauds at tourist attractions such as the temples of Kanchipuram, where they prey on those unfamiliar with local and religious customs. However, don't get too paranoid: fellow travelers on the train, or Indian families who want to take your picture on their own camera, for example, are often just genuinely curious.
Travelers should be cautious when visiting villages and rural areas in the night. Bandits occasionally abduct and rob tourists, as it is assumed they possess large amounts of wealth. But this is rare and happens most often in remote areas. Ask at your hotel to see if this is an issue in your area. Also, think twice about taking night buses or driving at night in these areas. Bandits are said to stop night buses with fake checkpoints and rob everyone inside. The frequency of this occurring is extremely low and the state governments are working hard to arrest these bandit groups, but take extra care nonetheless.
Homosexuality is illegal in India. This is rarely enforced though, evidenced by a vibrant gay nightlife existing in metropolitan areas and some (but very few) openly gay celebrities. That said, the most severe penalty for crimes relating to homosexual acts is upto 10 years.
India is a conservative country and some western habits are perceived as dishonorable for a woman in this culture.
Men and Women
No vaccinations are required for entry to India, except for yellow fever if you are coming from an infected area such as Africa. However, Hepatitis (both A and B, depending on your individual circumstances), meningitis and typhoid shots are recommended, as is a booster shot for tetanus.
Tap water is generally not safe for drinking. However, some establishments have water filters/purifiers installed, in which case the water is safe to drink. Packed drinking water (normally called mineral water) is a better choice. But if the seal has been tampered, it could be purified tap water. So always make sure that seal is intact before buying.
Fruits that can be peeled such as apples and bananas, as well as packaged snacks are always a safe option. Do not eat grapes unless you wash them thouroughly.
Diarrhea is common, and can have many different causes. Bring a standard first-aid kit, plus extra over-the-counter medicine for diarrhea and stomach upset. A rehydration kit can also be helpful. At the least, remember the salt/sugar/water ratio for oral rehydration: 1 tsp salt, 8 tsp sugar, for 1 litre of water. Most Indians will happily share their own advice for treatment of illnesses and other problems. A commonly recommended cure-all is to eat boiled rice and curd (yoghurt) together for 3 meals a day until you're better. Keep in mind that this is usually not sound medical advice. Indians have resistance to native bacteria and parasites that visitors do not have. If you have serious diarrhea for more than a day or two, it is best to visit a private hospital. Parasites are a common cause of diarrhea, and may not get better without treatment.
Malaria is endemic throughout India. CDC states that risk exists in all areas, including the cities of Delhi and Mumbai, and at altitudes of less than 2000 metres in Himachal Pradesh, Jammu, Kashmir, and Sikkim; however, the risk of infection is considered low in Delhi and northern India. Get expert advice on malaria preventatives, and take adequate precautions to prevent mosquito bites. Use a mosquito repellent when going outside (particularly during the evenings) and also when sleeping in trains and hotels without airconditioning. A local mosquito repellent used by Indians is Odomos and is available at most stores.
India is home to many venomous snakes. If bitten try to note the markings of the snake so that the snake can be identified and the correct antidote given. In any event, immediately seek medical care.
Getting vaccinations and blood transfusions in India increases your risk of contracting HIV/AIDS-even in many private hospitals.
It is VERY important to stay away from the many stray dogs and cats in india. India has the HIGHEST rate of Rabies in the world. If you are bitten it is extremely urgent to get to a hospital in a major urban area capable of dealing with Rabies. You may have to leave the country to get 1st world treatment. Dubai is the closest place. It is very important to get the rabies vaccine after any contact with animals that includes contact with saliva or blood. Rabies vaccines only work if the full course is given PRIOR to symptoms. This is a fatal disease otherwise.
If you need to visit a hospital in India, avoid small government hospitals. The quality of treatment cannot be to your expectation. Private hospitals provide better service.
Religion and rituals
The country code for India is 91. India is then divided into area codes, known locally as STD codes. See individual city guides for the area codes.
In acronym-happy India, a phone booth is known as a PCO (Public Call Office) and they usually offer STD/ISD (Subscriber Trunk Dialing/International Subscriber Dialing), or national and international long distance respectively. These are usually staffed, and you dial yourself but pay to the attendant after the call is over. Metering is done per pulse and a service charge of Rs 2 is added to the bill. Larger cities also have Western-style unmanned public phones, which are usually red in colour and accept one rupee coins.
Local phone numbers can be anywhere from 5 to 8 digits long. But when the area code is included, all phone numbers in India are 10 digits long, including cellphones (which usually start with '9'). When calling from a landline phone, the syntax varies based on where you are calling to, as India is divided into circles that are almost, but not quite, the same as states. For example, for phone number 12345678 in area code 22 (Mumbai):
Toll-free numbers start with 1-800 or 1-600, although toll-free numbers can be dialed from any landline operator certain numbers are operator-dependent: you can't call a BSNL/MTNL toll-free number from an Airtel landline, and vice versa. Toll-free numbers may not work from your cellular phone. Other National Numbers that starts with 18xx or 19xx may attract Local or Special call charges as specified by the service provider.
To dial outside the country from India, prefix the country code with 00. E.g a US number would be dialed as 00-1-555-555-5555. Calling the USA/Canada/UK over the normal telephone line will cost you about Rs. 7.20 per minute. Calls to other countries, particularly to the Middle East, can be more expensive.
India uses both GSM and CDMA and mobile phones are widely available, starting from Rs. 500. Major operators include BSNL, Bharti Airtel, Idea Cellular, Reliance India Mobile, Tata Indicom, Aircel, Spice and Vodafone. Roaming between states is seamless and roaming charges may vary between Re. 1 - Rs 1.50 per minute for incoming - Rs. 1.50 - Rs 2.60 for outgoing calls: prepaid starter kits are available for around Rs. 500, including several hundred rupees of call time, and local calls cost as little as Re. 1 per minute. Bring along your passport when applying and get ready to pose for a photo (or bring your own). Beware that talk time (unexpired minutes of talk time) and validity (the date that the sim card expires) are considered separate and you have to keep both topped up, or otherwise you may find the Rs.500 you just recharged disappearing in a puff of smoke when the one-month validity expires. Usually, when you extend the validity, you will also get extra minutes but you can buy minutes for less without extending the validity.
When calling from a mobile phone, you need to prefix the STD code even for a local call.
Note : It costs about the same to make an international call from a mobile or a fixed line (PCO) in India (as opposed to Europe). Also calling cards are virtually unheard of in India. It is quite cheap to directly dial international destinations from a mobile phone.
Internet kiosks are everywhere nowadays and they charge as low as as Rs. 10 to 20 per hour(the cost being a compromise for speed). Beware of using your credit cards online as many cases have come forward regarding credit cards thefts using keyloggers. More reliable chains include Reliance Web World and Sify iWay.
Calling overseas is also very cheap if you use the many booths that advertise 'Net2Phone' service. Basically it is calling over the Internet. The quality ranges from tolerable to excellent, and the price is very good, with calls to the USA ranging from Rs. 2 to Rs. 5 per minute.
Wifi hotspots in India are, for most part, limited. The major airports and staions do offer paid wifi at around Rs60-100 an hour. Bangalore, Pune and Mumbai are the only cities with decent wifi coverage. Most Cafe Coffee Day and Barista stores in the larger cities offer free wifi. This often comes with a cover charge, which may be used on the coffee/drinks/snacks.
Most internet users in India do not rely on wifi too much; however, GPRS datacards/USB modems are widely used. The better companies such as Airtel (GSM) and Tata indicom (CDMA) do not rent datacards, which means that you have to but them outright. Reliance charges Rs 650 per month (1GB downloading free, Rs2/mb) for a datacard/USB modem. The cheap price also means a 236mbps connection, by the way.