India's Essential Sights

India is a land of extremes where incredible wealth stands alongside wretched poverty. It offers a richness of travel experiences. If you look upon the chaos which is the daily street scene of any Indian city, a maelstrom of turbans, taxis, beggars, trucks and camel carts and give a sign of contentment that you here, you're addicted to travel.

But how do you deal with a destination where you'd need a year just to explore the tourist sites? Well, for a start you need a list of essentials. Here's my selection of 10 highlights. Keep your eyes open for hundreds more along the way.

1. Taj Mahal, Agra

The Taj Mahal remains surreal and perfect from the first distant glimpse to close inspection. As emperor Shah Jahan's mausoleum for his wife Mumtaz Mahal (who died at 39 while giving birth to her 14th child) it is an enduring statement of love. It has been described as "a tear on the face of eternity".

The success of the Taj lies in the fact that it is both subtle and enormous. From the entrance gateway, the white marble glows as if luminous. Close up, one can see the astonishing detail within each decorative flower made of semi precious stones that covers the walls. It is easy to spend days just viewing the Taj Mahal in all its moods as the light changes. For an unusual viewpoint, pay the exorbitant fee demanded by boat owners to take you across the river.

2. Bombay's tiffin wallahs

Every lunch time in Bombay reveals one of the world's strangest rituals. The daily flow of tiffin box deliverers is a typically complicated Indian solution to the simple problem of lunch. It has endured for more than a century because Bombay office workers want home cooking.

So, after Mr X has left for work his wife prepares his chapatti, dhal, rice and curry and loads it into a metal container about the size of a large Thermos. A local collector takes it to the railway station and sends it to Victoria Terminus under the surveillance of another tiffin wallah. Upon arrival, it ends up on a platform along with hundreds of other tiffin boxes.

These are all quickly sorted and despatched so by 12.30 without fail, Mr X will find his hot lunch outside his office door. Watching scores of tiffin wallahs sprinting through the lunchtime crowds is a highlight of any visit to Bombay.

3. Khajaraho's erotic carvings

It's reassuring to discover that people never change. Standing in the middle of a fertile plain near Jhansi is the temple complex of Khajuraho that was built about 1000 years ago. Made of sandstone, only 25 of the original 85 buildings still stand. The walls of the temples are elaborately carved with figures of astounding vitality. About 10 per cent of the carvings are unashamedly erotic and it has been suggested that these represent the Kama Sutra. Others say they reflect the gratification of earthly desires as a step towards Tantric liberation. It's a display worth seeking out.

4. Kashmir and Ladakh

Jahangir wrote of Shalimar Garden in the Vale of Kashmir that "if there is a Paradise on earth, it is here, it is here, it is here". Unfortunately, political violence is tearing Kashmir apart at present so this is not the time to visit. When it settles down, travellers will return to the houseboats of Dal Lake to appreciate one of the most beautiful natural settings on earth.

To the east of Kashmir lies Ladakh which is also known as Little Tibet. This barren and remote land not only looks like Tibet but it is populated by people with similar beliefs who only came in contact with the modern world less than 30 years ago.

5. Shimla and Indian Himalayas

In the strong dawn light of an Indian winter, the houses and shops that fill the steep hillside of Shimla appear as a patchwork design of stone, wood, roofing and television aerials. From the point on the ridge aptly named Scandal Point from the days when this was the Raj's escape from summer on the Ganges plains, one looks out on an icy rampart to the north. These are the Indian Himalayas.

Between May and June Shimla is full of Indians escaping the heat and accommodation can be hard to find. In winter, there's frost on the ground and snow on the hills and the illusion of a European alpine town is strong. The best accommodation is the Oberoi Clarkes Hotel. As one of Mr Oberoi's first properties it has been frozen in a time warp and has furnishings, food and service that any patron of a Katoomba guest house in the 1950s will instantly recognise. It perfectly fits its setting.

6. Republic Day Parade

India is the most colourful nation on earth. This is patently evident at the Republic Day parade in New Delhi each January 26. Bands of turbaned Rajastanis riding perfectly groomed camels, elephants in bejewelled cloths, Indian bands dressed in kilts and swirling patterns of brightly dressed ttroops make this the ultimate display of national character. Then comes dancers who transformed the roadway into a swirling mass of myriad colours. The whole kaleidescope of colour flows down the Janpath past the President, Prime Minister and hundred of assembled dignatories.

Like Rio's Mardi Gras, Delhi's Republic Day parade is worth planning a trip around. Travel agents can arrange tickets but security is very tight so it's necessary to plan well ahead.

7. Dharamsala's Living God

In 1959 His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama, set up the Tibetan government in exile in McLeodganj near Dharamsala. This thriving Tibetan community feels rather like a suburb of Kathmandu. Tea shops, and jewellery stands full of turquoise are complemented by burgundy-robed monks. The snowy peaks of the Dhauladhar Range tower overhead.

Meeting the main attraction of McLeodganj is a hit and miss affair because His Holiness is often away. But when he is here he gives frequent public audiences. To attend one you have to register at the Security Office in town. Private audiences must be arranged months in advance.

At the public audience I attended there were about 150 new refugees from Tibet. In traditional Tibetan society the best these people could hope for was that one day they would meet someone who had seen the Dalai Lama. So, to be touched by him is a highlight of their lives. It was for us too.

8. Here be Tigers!

To join the few who have seen a tiger in the wild is a special thrill indeed. At Ranthambhor National Park the ruins of a thousand year old fortress loom above a forest rich in wildlife. The gorges are home of leopards and sloth bear. Fifty tigers also live here and the habits of the native blue bull they hunt have turned them diurnal so they may be seen during daylight hours - especially between November and April.

The Sariska Tiger Reserve is also in Rajastan, near the city of Alwar. It's a dry deciduous forest area so the animal population is drawn to the waterholes. The hides and watchtowers provide excellent opportunities to see a variety of wildlife, including sambar, nilgai, sloth bear - and leopard and tiger.

9. Festivals

It has been calculated that there is a festival somewhere in India ever day of the year. No matter when one plans to visit, it's worth checking if there will be a festival.

Typically Rajastan has more than its fair share. The best known is the Pushkar Camel Fair each November when the tiny town outside Ajmer is filled with some 200,000 traders and 50,000 cattle making it a spectacle never to be forgotten. It's a non-stop babel of barter among the colourfully clad locals.

However, there are other fairs such as the huge Nagaur Fair in January/February when thousands of camels, bullocks and horses change hands. The start of the year is also the time of the Desert Festival in Jaisalmer (including a camel dance!). In fact there is a festival for every month - including the magnificent spectacle of the Jaipur Elephant Festival in March/April with its elephant races and elephant polo.

10. Palace Hotels

The Maharajas of India lived in a style we can only dream about but many of their palaces now operate as hotels. The decor is opulent, the food excellent and the standard of service very high. The surprise bonus at some is that the cost of a suite is the equivalent of an Australian motel room.

Rajastan has a disproportionate number of these royal retreats. The best known is the Lake Palace hotel of Udaipur, floating like a marble isle in the middle of Lake Pichola.

Jaipur offers two palace hotels. The Jai Mahal Palace resembles a dream palace with soaring minarets, high ceilings and balconies laced with marble filigree. The Rambagh Palace was originally a hunting lodge built in 1835. After some four million rupees were spent on it in the 1920s it became a very grand palace. It's a cool, airy building filled with precious art works and silk embroideries, fountains and marble.

The Umaid Bhawan Palace in Jodhpur was once one of the world's most impressive private residences - it took 3000 artisans 13 years to build it! Today, guests luxuriate in baths carved from a single piece of marble and dine in lavishly appointed banqueting halls.

In the sandalwood-trading city of Mysore one of the Maharajah's spare palaces has been converted into the luxurious Lalitha Mahal Palace Hotel.

Best Box

Best Food

Like everything else about India, its food is a paradox. You can have the most sublime meals here but you can also encounter food that is a health hazard. The two extremes are largely related to price: the good cheap meal is not an Indian institution.

After many trips to India I've found that the easiest way to stay healthy in India is to turn vegetarian. One of the best Indian meals I have ever had was at the Dum Phukt restaurant in Delhi's Maura Sheraton & Towers Hotel. The cuisine is unusual: many of the dishes are partially cooked in the tandoor then left to simmer in casserole bowls covered with a pasty top to retain moisture and flavour. It's a style of cooking worth seeking out.

Best Hotels

India can be daunting and the best way to avoid culture shock is to stay at good hotels. The best are those of the Delhi-based Oberoi group. In Delhi there are two Oberois: the older, colonial-style Oberoi Maidens Hotel in spacious gardens in Old Delhi and the modern Oberoi in New Delhi. There are others throughout India. Bookings can be made through Oberoi's Australian office on (02) 247 6061. (should be 267 3277 - fax 267 3221)

Best Bureucracy: Visas

You need a visa to visit India as a tourist. Apply well in advance.

Best Seasons to visit

India covers such vast area with great climatic variation that it is hard to generalise. Bisected by the Tropic of Cancer, it stretches from the latitude of the Amazon in the south to a point level with San Francisco in the north.

The best time to visit Bombay and Delhi is around Christmas when temperatures are relatively low. The time to avoid these cities is pre-monsoon and into summer (say from April onwards to August) when they become saunas.

Best route: Getting there

Qantas flies to Bangkok or Singapore from where connections can be made on Air India to all major gateways in India. Alternatively, Thai International flies into India from Bangkok and Air India operates out of Perth to Bombay.

Best next step

For information about India contact the Government of India Tourist Office, Level 1, 17 Castlereagh St, Sydney NSW 2000, Tel (02) 232 1600.

David McGonigal © David McGonigal Pty Ltd