Northern tour This starts in Delhi (2) and goes via Bhopal (2) and Jabalpur (1) to Kanha (3), one of the most outstanding reserves in Central India, with a very rich habitat and still little visited. It continues to Khajuraho (2), where there is a chance to see magnificent 10th-century temples, en route to Agra’s (2) magnificent Taj Mahal and the abandoned city of Fatehpur Sikri before arriving at the peaceful bird sanctuary at Bharatpur (2), excellent for waterside birds.
Between the new city and the River Yamuna, Shah Jahan built a fort. Most of it was built out of red lal (sandstone), hence the name Lal Qila (Red Fort), the same as that at Agra on which the Delhi fort is modelled. Begun in 1639 and completed in 1648, it is said to have cost Rs 10 million, much of which was spent on the opulent marble palaces within.
Southern tour This starts in Chennai (2) to visit the bird sanctuary of Vedanthangal and Mahabalipuram (2), by the sea, with its ancient temples. Then travel down to Trichy (2) to climb up the rock fort and see the great temple of Srirangam on the banks of the Kaveri. From there the route continues to the hill station of Coonoor (1) going up to Udhagamandalam (Ooty) (1) on the Blue Mountain Railway (if it is running), then on to the rich wildlife sanctuary of Mudumalai- Bandipur (3). Travelling north into Karnataka, you can visit the beautiful national park of Nagarhole (3).
YTemples, forts and palaces
Golden Temple, Amritsar
The spiritual nerve centre of the Sikh faith, every Sikh tries to make a visit to the temple and bathe in the holy water. It is an immensely powerful and spiritual experience, with an all-pervasive air of strength and self- sufficiency. Visitors of all faiths are welcome.
On the roughly triangular-shaped Trikuta Hill, the fort stands 76 m above the town, enclosed by a 9-km wall with 99 bastions (mostly 1633-1647). Often called the Golden Fort because of the colour of its sandstone walls, it dominates the town. You enter the fort from the east from Gopa Chowk. The inner, higher fort wall and the old gates up the ramp (Suraj Pol, Ganesh Pol, Hawa Pol and Rang Pol) provided further defences. The Suraj Pol (1594), once an outer gate, is flanked by heavy bastions and has bands of decoration which imitate local textile designs.
Red Fort, Delhi
Taj Mahal, Agra
Of all the world’s great monuments, the Taj Mahal is one of the most written about, photographed, televised and talked about. To India’s Nobel Laureate poet, Tagore, the Taj was a “tear drop on the face of humanity”, a building to echo the cry “I have not forgotten, I have not forgotten, O beloved” and its mesmerizing power is such that despite the hype, no one comes away disappointed.
Hawa Mahal, Jaipur
The ‘Palace of the Winds’ (circa 1799) forms part of the east wall of the City Palace complex and is best seen from the street outside. Possibly Jaipur’s most famous building, this pink sandstone façade of the palace was built for the ladies of the harem by Sawai Pratap Singh. The five storeys stand on a high podium with an entrance from the west. The elaborate façade contains 953 small casements in a huge curve, each with a balcony and crowning arch. The windows enabled hawa (cool air) to circulate and allowed the women who were secluded in the zenana to watch processions below without being seen.
Hampi, in Karnataka, is the site of the capital city of the Vijayanagar Hindu Empire that rose to conquer the entire south of India in the 14th century. It is an extraordinary site of desolate temples, compounds, stables and pleasure baths, surrounded by a stunning boulder-strewn landscape. Little of the kingdom’s riches remains; now the mud huts of gypsies squat under the boulders where noblemen once stood, and the double-decker shopfronts of the bazaar where diamonds were once traded by the kilo is now geared solely towards profiting from Western tourists and domestic pilgrims. Away from the bazaar, there is a unique romantic desolation. You’ll need at least a full day to do it justice.
One date that remains constant is Makar Sankranti (14 January), marking the start of the northern journey of the sun. In West and North India this is the time of the Kite Festival. The clear blue winter sky comes alive with delicate tissue paper squares of every hue as children and adults skilfully manipulate the ends of their glass-encrusted threads to ‘cut‘ and down their rivals‘ kites.
In the south, the winter festival is Pongal, the Tamil Harvest Thanksgiving, when cows and bulls are specially honoured in recognition of their invaluable contribution to village life. They are allowed to share the first rice which is ritually offered to the Sun God. Swathed in garlands, their long horns painted in vivid colours, the cattle are taken around neigh- bouring villages accompanied by bands of rustic musicians and cheering children.
Rath Yatra of Orissa
Under the blazing summer sun in June, the Raja of Puri, dressed as a humble servant of the gods, ceremonially sweeps the path before the massive wooden raths, or temple chariots, in the great Rath Yatra of Orissa in Eastern India. The chariot, drawn by hundreds of heaving men and watched by thousands of pilgrims, carries Jagannath and his brother and sister on their slow annual journey from the temple. This was the ceremony that led early English observers to borrow the name of the god for any apparently unstoppable vehicle, or ‘juggernaut‘.
Spring brings new hope and the promise of plenty. Holi, which coincides with the March/April full moon, is marked by the lighting of great bonfires to symbolize the triumph of good over evil in the burning of the insatiable demoness Holika, who demanded a diet of children. If you venture out you may find it hard to escape the coloured powder and water thrown in remembrance of the romantic Lord Krishna who engaged in similar playful games with his favourite milkmaids. Take great care though, as the revelry can get out of hand.
The nine autumnal nights of Navratri in October culminate in the great Dasara celebration commemorating the victory of Rama over the supposedly invincible 10-headed King Ravana who had stolen his beautiful wife Sita. The Ramlila, drawing on Ramayana stories, is enacted for nine nights leading up to the 10th (dasara) when gigantic bamboo and paper effigies of the evil giant and his aides are set alight amidst great jubilation. Bengalis celebrate the festival by communal worship or Puja of the triumphant mother goddess Durga riding a lion who defeats the buffalo demon after a great battle. On the 10th night, her splendid image, together with those of her four children, is taken in procession by cheering crowds to be immersed in the waters of the holy river, returning clay to clay.
Perhaps the most striking of all festivals is Diwali which follows soon after Navratri, on the dark night of the new moon in October-November, when row upon row of little clay oil lamps (now often enhanced by strings of electric bulbs) are lined up on window ledges and balconies, in remem- brance of the lights which greeted Rama‘s return after 14 years in exile. The night sky bursts out with spectacular displays of fireworks while deafening firecrackers take passers-by by surprise.
When to go
India is divided almost exactly in half by the Tropic of Cancer, stretching from the near- equatorial Kanniyakumari to the Mediter- ranean latitudes of Kashmir – roughly the same span as from the Amazon to San Francisco, or from Melbourne to Darwin. Not surprisingly, climate varies considerably and high altitudes further modify local climates.
In most of India, by far the best time to visit is from the end of the monsoon in October to the end of March. However, there are important exceptions. The hill stations in the Himalaya and the Western Ghats are beautiful in the hot months of April to early June. Parts of the western Himalaya can be excellent until September though it can be very cold and sometimes wet in the spring.
The monsoon season lasts from between three and five months depending on the region. If you are travelling in the wetter parts of India during the monsoon you need to be prepared for extended periods of torrential rain and disruption to travel. However, many parts of India receive a total of under 1000 mm a year, mainly in the form of heavy isolated showers. Rainfall generally decreases towards the northwest, Rajasthan and northern Gujarat merging imperceptibly into genuine desert. Tamil Nadu in the southeast has an exceptional rainfall pattern, receiving most of its rain in the period of the retreating monsoon, October to December.
Some of the country’s great festivals such as Dasara and Diwali (celebrated across India) and Pongal (celebrated in Tamil Nadu) take place in the autumn and winter. In Rajasthan, local camel and cattle fairs and the Desert Festival among the dunes are added attractions during these seasons.
Sport and activities
India has a wealth of opportunities for adventure sports. Such thrills can be combined with more conventional sightseeing. Apart from the activities listed here, you can also try ballooning, heli-skiing, hang-gliding, mountain or rock climbing and even motor rallying. There are even ski resorts in Himachal Pradesh (namely Manali and Narkanda) but don’t expect them to compare to Western resorts.
http://www.delhibird.net, www.orientalbird club.org, http://www.sacon.org. Bird Link, email@example.com, is concerned with conservation of birds and their habitat.
The country’s diverse and rich natural habitats harbour over 1200 species of bird of which around 150 are endemic. Visitors to all parts of the country can enjoy spotting oriental species whether it is in towns and cities, in the countryside or more abundantly in the national parks and sanctuaries. On the plains, the cooler months (November to March) are the most comfortable for a chance to see migratory birds from the hills, but the highlands themselves are ideal between May and June and again after the monsoons when visibility improves in October and November. Water bodies large and small draw visiting waterfowl from other continents during the winter.
It is easy to get to some parks from the important tourist centres. A Birdwatcher’s Guide to India, by Krys Kazmierczak and Raj Singh (published by Prion Ltd, Sandy, Bedfordshire, UK, 1998), is well researched and comprehensive, with helpful practical information and maps.
Some prime spots include: Chilika Lake in Orissa; Keoladeo Ghana National Park in Rajasthan; Nalsarovar Bird Sanctuary in Gujarat; Pulicat Lake in Andhra Pradesh; Ranganathittu Bird Sanctuary in Karnataka; Saharanpur Bird Sanctuary in Delhi; Taroba National Park in Maharashtra; and Vedanthangal Bird Sanctuary in Tamil Nadu.
Today’s camel safaris try to recreate something of the atmosphere of the early camel trains. The guides are expert navigators and the villages that are passed through along the way add colour to an unforgettable experience, if you are prepared to sit out the somewhat uncomfortable ride.
Cycling offers a peaceful and healthy alter- native to cars, buses or trains. Touring on locally hired bicycles is possible along country roads – ideal if you want to see village life in India and the lesser-known wildlife parks. Consult a good Indian agent for advice. For example, a week’s cycling trip could cover about 250 km in the Garhwal foothills, starting in Rishikesh, passing through the Corbett and Rajaji national parks over easy gradients, to finish in Ramnagar. Expert guides, cycles and support vehicle, accommodation in simple rest houses or tents, are included.
Shekhawati and Kumbhalgarh Wildlife Sanctuary, pages 392 and 481.
Gaining in popularity, the conditions are similar to camel safaris with grooms (and often the horse owner) accompanying. The best months are November to March when it is cooler in the day (and often cold at night). The trails chosen usually enable you to visit small villages, old forts and temples, and take you through a variety of terrain and vegetation from scrub-covered arid plains to forested hills. The charges can be a lot higher than for a camel safari but the night stays are often in comfortable palaces, forts or havelis.
Andaman Islands, page 853; Goa, page 1285; Lakshadweep, Minicoy and Amindivi Islands, page 1074.
Snorkelling, parasailing, windsurfing and waterskiing are popular along the long stretches of unspoilt coastal India. Scuba-diving centres are on Vainguinim Beach and Bogmalo in Goa, on Havelock Island and the Marine National Park in the Andamans, and on Bangaram in the Laccadives. Courses are well run and cost US$85 for an introductory dive, US$400 for 4 days, or US$600 for a 2-week Dive Master course. Coastal resorts in Kerala and Goa also offer fishing trips and dolphin viewing.
For local operators.
The snow-fed rivers that flow through regions such as Sikkim offer excellent whitewater rafting. The popular waters range from Grades II-III for amateurs (Zanskar, Indus) to the greater challenges of Grades IV-VI for the experienced (eg Chenab, Beas, Sutlej, Rangit, Tons). Trips range from a half day to several days and allow a chance to see scenery, places and people off the beaten track. The trips are organized and managed by professional teams who have trained abroad. The rivers can sometimes be dangerous in August and September when the water levels are high.
Trekking in India
The Himalaya offers unlimited opportunities to view the natural beauty of mountains, unique flora and fauna and the diverse groups of people who live in the ranges and valleys, many of whom have retained cultural identities because of their isolation. The treks described in this book are only for guidance. They try to give a flavour of an area or a destination. Some trails fall within the ‘Inner Line’ for which special permits are required .
Types of trekking
There are some outstandingly beautiful treks, though they are often not through the wilderness that ‘trekking in the Himalaya’ conjures up. Nevertheless, trekking alone is not recommended as you will be in unfamiliar territory where you may not be able to communicate with the local people and if injured help may not be at hand. Independent trekkers should get a specialist publication with detailed route descriptions and a good map. Remember, mountain topography is subject to constant change, and tracks and crossings can be affected very rapidly. Speak to those who know the area well and have been trekking to the places you intend to visit.
Backpacking/camping Hundreds of people arrive each year with a pack and some personal equipment, buy some food and set off trekking, carrying their own gear and choosing their own campsites or places to stay. Serious trekkers will need a framed backpack. Supplies of fuel wood are scarce and flat ground suitable for camping rare. It is not always easy to find isolated and ‘private’ campsites.
Trekking without a tent Although common in Nepal, only a few trails in India offer the ease and comfort of this option. Exceptions are the Singalila Ridge trail in the Darjeeling area, the Sikkim Khangchend- zonga trek, the Markha Valley trek in Ladakh and some lower-elevation trails around Shimla and Manali. On these, it is often possible to stay in trekking huts or in simple village homes. You carry clothes and bedding, as with youth hostelling and, for a few rupees a night you get a space on the floor, a wooden pallet or a camp bed or, in the more luxurious inns, a room and shower. The food is simple, usually vegetable curry, rice and dhal which, although repetitive, is healthy and often tasty. This approach brings you into closer contact with the local population, the limiting factor being the routes where accommodation is available.
Locally organized treks Porters can usually be hired through an agent in the town or village at the start of a trek. Porters hired in the bazaar may be cheaper than agency porters but can be unreliable. Make sure they are experienced in carrying loads over distances at high altitude. They will help carry your baggage, sometimes cook for you, and communicate with the local people. A good porter will know the area and some can tell you about local customs and point out interesting details en route. Away from roads, the footpath is the principal line of communication between villages. Tracks tend to be well graded and in good condition. In remoter areas away from all habitation, tracks may be indistinct and a local guide is recommended. Although some porters speak a little English (or another foreign language) you may have communication problems and misunderstandings. Remember, you may be expected to provide your porter’s warm clothing and protective wear including shoes, gloves and goggles on high-altitude treks.
Hiring a sardar (mountain guide) and crew is more expensive but worthwhile since they will speak some English, take care of engaging porters and cooks, arrange for provisions and sort out all logistical problems. A sardar will cost more and although they may be prepared to carry a load, their principal function will be as a guide and overseer for the porters. Make sure your sardar is experienced in the area you will be travelling in and can provide references which are their own and not borrowed.
Using a trekking agent Trekking agents based in Delhi or at hill stations (eg Dehradun, Shimla, Manali, Dharamshala, Leh, Darjeeling, Gangtok) will organize treks for a fee and provide a sardar, porters, cooks, food and equipment, but it requires effort and careful thought on your part. This method can be excellent and is recommended for a group, preferably with some experience, that wants to follow a specific itinerary. In some areas, a pre-arranged itinerary must be followed, as required by the government, and to allow porters to arrive at certain points on schedule. You can make arrangements from abroad in advance; often a protracted business with faxes and emails. Alternatively, wait until you get to India but allow at least a week to make arrangements.
Fully organized and escorted treks This is where a company or individual with local knowledge and expertise organizes a trip and sells it. Some or all camping equipment, food, cooking, decision-making based on progress and weather conditions, liaison with porters, shopkeepers, etc, are taken care of. When operating abroad, the agency may take care of all travel arrangements, ticketing, visas and permits. This option has the advantage of being a good, safe introduction to the country. You will be able to travel with limited knowledge of the region and its culture and get to places you may not have reached alone and without the expense of completely kitting yourself out. You should take full note of any advice in the preparatory material you are sent, as your enjoyment greatly depends on it.
An escorted trek will involve going with a group; you will camp together but not necessarily walk together. If you are willing to trade some of your independence for careful, efficient organization and make the effort to ensure the group works well together, the experience can be very rewarding. Ideally there should be no more than 20 trekkers (preferably around 12). Companies have reputations to maintain and try to comply with Western concepts of hygiene. Before booking, check the itinerary – is it too demanding, or not adventurous enough? Is the leader qualified and familiar with the route? Also make sure both you and the trekking company understand exactly who is to provide what equipment.
These vary with the area you plan to visit and the elevation. Autumn is best in most parts of the Himalaya though March to May can be pleasant. The monsoons (mid-June to end-September) can obviously be very wet and localized thunderstorms can occur at any time, particularly in the spring and summer. Start your trek early in the morning as the monsoon approaches. It often continues to rain heavily up to mid-October in the eastern Himalaya. The Kullu valley is unsuitable for trekking during the monsoons but areas beyond the central Himalayan range, eg Ladakh, Zanskar, Lahul and Spiti, are largely unaffected. Be prepared for extremes in temperatures in all seasons and come prepared with light clothing as well as enough waterproof protection. Winters can be exceptionally cold; high passes can be closed and you will need more equipment. Winter treks on all but a few low-altitude ones (up to 3200 m) are only recommended for the experienced trekker accompanied by a knowledgeable local guide.
Trekking is permitted in all areas other than those described as Restricted or Protected and within the ‘Inner Line‘; you may not go close to the international boundary in many places. Often, destinations falling within these ‘sensitive‘ zones, which have recently been opened for trekking, require treks to be organized by a recognized Indian travel agent for groups of at least four, travelling on a specified route, accompanied by a representative/liaison officer. Sometimes there are restrictions on the maximum number of days, season and type of transport used. The ‘Inner Line‘ runs parallel and 40 km inside the international boundary. Kaza (Himachal Pradesh) , how- ever, is now open to group trekkers though overnight stays are not allowed at Puh, Khabo or Sumdo. Other areas now open to tourists include Kalindi Khal (Garhwal), Milam Glacier (Kumaon), Khardung La, Tso Moriri and Pangong (Ladakh), Tsangu Lake, Lachung and Yumthang (Sikkim) and Kameng Valley (Arunachal Pradesh). On arrival in India, government-approved trekking agencies can obtain permits relatively easily, usually within three or four days. It can be much slower applying for trekking permits from abroad and may also slow down your visa application. Some restricted areas are still totally closed to foreigners. For other restricted areas, permits are issued at the Foreigners‘ Regional Registration Offices in Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai (and sometimes at a local FRRO), from immigration officers at some points of entry, and sometimes at the district magistrate‘s. There are also entrance fees for the various national parks and conservation areas which can be as much as Rs 350 for foreigners.
Himalayan environment trust code of practice
Deforestation Do not make open fires and discourage others from making one for you. Limit use of firewood and heated water and use only permitted dead wood. Choose accommodation where kerosene or fuel-efficient wood-burning stoves are used.
Litter Remove it. Burn or bury paper and carry away non-degradable litter. If you find other people’s litter, remove it too. Pack food in biodegradable containers.
Plants Do not take cuttings, seeds and roots – it is illegal in all parts of the Himalaya.
Water Keep local water clean. Do not use detergents and pollutants in streams and springs. Where there are no toilets be sure you are at least 30 m away from a water source and bury or cover. Do not allow cooks or porters to throw rubbish in streams and rivers.
Begging Giving to children can encourage begging. Donations to a project, health centre or school may be more constructive.
Be aware of local traditions and cultures; respect peoples’ privacy, and ask permission before taking photographs; respect holy places, never touching or removing religious objects, and removing shoes before entering temples; be aware of local etiquette, dressing modestly particularly when visiting temples and shrines and, while walking through villages, avoiding shorts, skimpy tops and tight-fitting outfits.
How big is your footprint?
The travel industry is growing rapidly and increasingly the impact is becoming apparent. This can seem remote and unrelated to an individual trip or holiday, but air travel is clearly implicated in global warming and damage to the ozone layer and resort location and construction can destroy natural habitats and restrict traditional rights and activities. With this in mind, individual choice and awareness can make a difference in many instances; collectively, travellers can have a significant effect in shaping a more responsible and sustainable industry. In an attempt to promote awareness of and credibility for responsible tourism, organizations such as Green Globe 21 (http://www.greenglobe21.com) offer advice on selecting destinations and sites that aim to achieve certain commitments to conservation and sustainable development. Generally these are larger mainstream destinations and resorts but they are still a useful guide and increasingly aim to provide information on smaller operations. Of course travel can have beneficial impacts and this is something to which every traveller can contribute – many national parks are part funded by receipts from visitors. Similarly, travellers can support small-scale enterprises by staying in locally run hotels and hostels, eating in local restaurants and by buying local goods, supplies and crafts.
As well as respecting local cultural sensitivities, travellers can take a number of simple steps to reduce, or even improve, their impact on the local environment. Environmental concern is relatively new in India. Don’t be afraid to pressurize businesses by asking about their policies.
c Litter Many travellers think that there is little point in disposing of rubbish properly when the tossing of water bottles, plastic cups and other non-biodegradable items out of train windows is already so widespread. Don’t follow an example you feel to be wrong. You can immediately reduce your impact by refusing plastic bags and other excess packaging when shopping – use a small backpack or cloth bag instead – and if you do collect a few, keep them with you to store other rubbish until you get to a litter bin.
c Filtered water or bottled water Plastic mineral water bottles, an inevitable corollary to poor water hygiene standards, are a major contributor to India’s litter mountain. However, many hotels, including nearly all of the upmarket ones, most restaurants and bus and train stations, provide drinking water purified using a combination of ceramic and carbon filters, chlorine and UV irradiation. Ask for ‘filter paani’; if the water tastes like a swimming pool it is probably quite safe to drink, though it’s best to introduce your body gradually to the new water. If purifying water yourself, bringing it to a boil at sea level will make it safe, but at altitude you have to boil it for longer to ensure that all the microbes are killed. Various sterilizing methods can be used that contain chlorine (eg Puritabs) or iodine (eg Pota Aqua) and there are a number of mechanical or chemical water filters available on the market.
c Bucket baths or showers The biggest issue relating to responsible and sustainable tourism is water. Much of northwest India is afflicted by severe water restrictions, with certain cities in Rajasthan and Gujarat having water supply for as little as 20 minutes a day. The traditional Indian ‘bucket bath’, in which you wet, soap then rinse off using a small hand-held plastic jug dipped into a large bucket, uses on average around 15 litres of water, as compared to 30-45 for a shower. These are commonly offered except in four- and five-star hotels.
c Support responsible tourism Spending your money carefully can have a positive impact. Sleeping, eating and shopping at small, locally owned businesses directly supports communities, while specific community tourism concerns, such as those operated by The Blue Yonder in Kerala and Village Ways in Uttarakhand , provide an economic motivation for people to stay in remote communities, protect natural areas and revive traditional cultures, rather than exploit the environment or move to the cities for work.
c Transport Choose walking, cycling or public transport over fuel-guzzling cars and motorbikes.
Sustainable tourism projects
In a country of a billion people, conservation efforts can only succeed when they bring real, tangible benefits to local communities, while eco-tourism worthy of the name also has to provide you, the traveller, with an unforgettable experience. The following ventures in sustainable tourism are among India’s very best.
The Blue Yonder, River Nila, Kerala
The River Nila flows through some of Kerala’s richest scenic and cultural landscapes, exercising a Ganga-like influence over the spiritual and artistic life of northern Kerala. The Blue Yonder’s tours, born of a desire to halt degradation of the river, have had a transformative effect on local cultures. Journeying by jeep, hand-propelled thoni boat and bamboo raft, passionate local guides introduce guests to classical musicians, snake worshippers and sand miners, and decode unforgettable folk performances a million miles removed from the tourist spectacle proffered by the big resorts. In doing so, the tours demonstrate – to the locals as much as travellers – that the river and its traditions are integral elements of a sustainable, fruitful future. For further information, see http://www.theblueyonder.com.
Anant Van, Bandhavgarh NP, Madhya Pradesh
Anant Van epitomizes the inter-relationship between forests, the community and tourism. A self-described ‘homestay’ of two earth- and-stone cottages and two tented cottages, the atmosphere is a cross between rustic-chic resort, ashram and organic farm. The building materials, as well as being locally sourced and sustainable, are intentionally designed to be degradable so as to ensure a continuous supply of work for local craftsmen. Guests are encouraged to look beyond the standard tiger tours and become heartily involved in social and environmental ventures, from restoring natural forest cover on the 9-ha property to sharing knowledge with kids at a nearby school. For further information, see http://www.anantvan.com.
This project, planted in four remote villages in the sublime mountain landscape of Sikkim, takes the time-honoured B&B concept and transposes it to a Himalayan stage: you stay as a family guest, sharing meals around their kitchen table, joining in the cardamom harvest, and toasting new-found friendships over gourds of hot, head-lightening chhang. Each village runs its homestay program independently, but all share the principle of spreading income fairly among the community, while deliberately limiting the scale of the operation to maintain the authentic village atmosphere. For further information, see http://www.sikkimfoundation.org.
Village Ways, Kumaon, Uttarakhand
Village Ways offers extended walking holidays in the peaceful and stunningly beautiful Himalayan foothills around Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary. Guests explore the oak, pine and rhododendron forests in the company of trained local guides, and spend each night in a traditional-style guesthouse, built, owned and managed by the local village tourism committee. Lodgings are simple but comfort- able, and give a flavour of the Kumaoni way of life while incorporating modern refinements such as solar water heating and lighting. The five villages involved benefit from a strong sense of community ownership, heightened awareness of environmental issues and, crucially, a sustainable source of wealth in a region that until recently offered few opportunities. For further information, see http://www.villageways.com.
Sunderbans Jungle Camp, West Bengal
This rustic eco-resort supports a number of social development programmes in the Sunderbans region, the last strong- hold of the fearsome, amphibious Royal Bengal tiger. The lodge was initially established to finance a group of poachers- turned-conservation-volunteers; it now provides an income to villagers in a region where poaching and revenge killings of tigers were rife. Tourist rupees are also funnelled into medical camps, book banks and an evening school for the adjacent village. The lodge is jointly managed by Kolkata-based Help Tourism, who run an intriguing array of eco-tours throughout northeast India. For further information, see http://www.helptourism.com.
Shaam-e-Sarhad, Hodka, Gujarat
Set in northwest Kachchh, one of India’s driest and furthest-flung regions, Shaam-e- Sarhad offers a chance to stay in a traditional mud-walled bhunga and meet the tribal craftswomen who produce some of India’s most exquisite embroidery. Guided by interpreters from Hodka village, guests can interact directly with local people, and learn the finer points of Kachchhi handicrafts in workshops with the artisans. Hodka is part of a government project supporting similar village tourism enterprises in Orissa, Bihar, Andhra Pradesh and elsewhere.
India on page and screen
Books to read
VS Naipaul’s A Million Mutinies Now (Penguin, 1992) is a ‘revisionist’ account of India which turns away from the despondency of his earlier two India books (An Area of Darkness and India: a wounded civilisation). RK Narayan has written many gentle and humorous novels and short stories of South India such as The Man-eater of Malgudi, Under the Banyan Tree and The Grandmother’s Tale (London, Penguin, 1985). Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things (Indian Ink/Harper Collins, 1997) is an excellent first novel about family turmoil in a Syrian Christian household in Kerala. Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children (London, Picador, 1981) is a novel of India since Independence, offering at the same time funny and bitterly sharp critiques of South Asian life in the 1980s. The Moor’s Last Sigh (Viking, 1996) which is of particular interest to those travelling to Kochi and Mumbai. Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy (Phoenix House London, 1993) is a prize-winning novel of modern Indian life. William Dalrymple’s City of Djinns (Indus/Harper Collins, 1993, paperback) is a superb account of Delhi, based on a year living in the city, while The Age of Kali, published in edited form in India as In the Court of the Fish-eyed Goddess, is his second anecdotal but insightful account.
Films to watch
A darker, grittier cousin to Slumdog Millionaire, this is the heartbreaking tale of a country boy’s encounters with drug addicts, thieves, pimps and the police, as he struggles to survive the big city and earn a measly Rs 500 to send to his mother.
In 1930s Varanasi, a child widow, a young prostitute and a devout older woman challenge the structures that shunned Hindu widows who refused to burn with their husbands in sati. The powerful and beautiful final instalment of Deepa Mehta’s Elements trilogy had to be filmed in Sri Lanka after protesters threw the original Varanasi film set into the Ganga.
If you think cricket is boring, this 2001 classic might change your mind. Aamir Khan, Bollywood’s De Niro, leads a team of drought-stricken Gujarati farmers in a desperate match against the brutal Captain Russell. If they lose, Russell gets to double their land tax and ruin the village. If they win, the raj loses face and its taxes.
A poetry-writing scholar has trouble supporting his family after he leaves Varanasi to pursue his ancestors’ priestly vocation. Considered Satyajit Ray’s best film, this portrayal of life in a Bengali village unfolds with a John Ford eye for quiet realism – partly because Ray cast only one actor in the entire film, filling the other parts with ordinary villagers.