At the start of the year I was lucky enough to travel to India for the tenth time. Even though I hadn’t been there for many years it didn’t take long until I felt right at home.But India is the kind of place that surprises with hidden gems and unique experiences, no matter how many times you visit.
On my latest trip I found that my travel expectations had changed. Being a single parent in my late 30s meant that I didn’t want to backpack this time. Travelling with the Ekno team meant that I was able to have those unique insider experiences and also travel in safety and comfort. This time I left India with fantastic memories and great friends.
Here are my top ten ultimate Indian experiences:
- Learning the language. Although English is widely spoken and understood in India, learning a few local words really helps to break down barriers when you travel. If you are in the north Hindi is the main language whereas in the south it is Tamil. I was in the north on my latest trip and knowing a few phrases in Hindihelped me to have more unique experiences, whether I was at the local market, visiting a local or travelling on the trains. I also learnt a few simple words in Tibetan for when I was in McLeod Ganj and a few words in Urdu for when I was in Rajasthan. You can try to learn a few of the basics before you travel and if you want to know more once you are in India you can ask your guide or take a lesson with a local teacher.
- Visiting places of worship.
India is known for being deeply spiritual with a multitude of faiths. This is one of my favourite things about spending time in India, and embracing the diverse spiritual practices feels both comforting and welcoming to me. I like to start and end my tripsto India with a visit to an auspicious place of worship. In January I flew into Amritsar, home to Sikhism’s holiest site, the Golden Temple.I visited the gurdwara at night, and even though it was freezing it still buzzed with people. A highlight was visiting the langar, the free community kitchen, where I learnt to make chapati with the volunteers before enjoying a meal with the pilgrims in the community dining hall. It was a magical way to start my journey in India.
Over the next two weeks I visited many Buddhist monasteries and nunneries in Himachal Pradesh, including the Namgyal Monastery,also known as the Dalai Lama’s temple. A highlight was walkingthe kora, following the sacred path around the monasteryand turning the many prayer wheels that line the path. In Rajasthan I listened to the call to prayer as it rang out from the mosques and across the sky. On one of my last nights in India I came across a tiny temple near my guesthouse. Inside there were three elderly women and a few children. A teenage girl was chanting into a microphone and one of the women was playing a hand drum. I was welcomed into the temple and it turned out to be a beautiful moment that needed no translation.
3. Going to markets and bazaars.
On my first day in India I headed straight to the local fabric market. This is a highlight for many reasons – markets are great for people watching, for trying delicious local delicacies and of course, for shopping. On my first day I was able to pick some material that I then took to a local tailor. Having Indian clothes made is a great way to experience the culture and to feel comfortable when you are travelling around. Visiting the bazaars in each place that you travel to is also a great way to get your bearings, meet locals and discover some of the unique specialties of that region.
Attending a big fat Indian wedding. Now that you are all dressed up you need somewhere to go– an Indian wedding! In January I was truly lucky to be invited to a family wedding by Shiv, Ekno’s office manager. The wedding was a fascinating and exciting glimpse into Indian culture, traditions and family life. With the Ekno team of Shiv, Vikas, Ashish and Sharon by my side I was able to take part in this memorable and unique experience. If you are ever invited to an Indian wedding – go! Even if you aren’t planning on going to a wedding, travelling during the wedding season means that you will probably get a glimpse of a wedding party, as a lot of the festivities play out on the streets. You might even find yourself joining in and dancing to Bollywood tunes with the revelers!
- Getting festive. Attending a festival in India is an experience not to be missed. In the past I have experienced Diwali, Holi, Shivaratri, Teej, Eid, Losar and countless other smaller festivals. When I arrived in Amritsar this year there was a kite flying festival and the sky was a blaze of colourful kites as people celebrated on their roof terraces. At the end of my trip we went to a different kind of festival – the Jaipur Literature Festival – but it still had all the culture, colour, pomp and music that you would expect from an Indian festival. If you are planning a trip to India it is worth finding out what festivals occur at that time of year.
- Sharing a meal with locals.
Indian culture is welcoming and family focused, meaning that you will probably be invited to visit people at their home to share a meal. In January I visited Vikas and his family and shared a delicious home cooked meal as we sat around the fire. It was a wonderful experience and I felt very welcomed by his extended family. Even if you are travelling with a group, you canstill visit people at home. In Rajasthan we enjoyed a jeep safari and then a home cooked lunch at Chhotaram’s Homestay. All over India you will find cooking classes that take place in people’s homes, and if you don’t have time for that there is always the offer of sitting down for a chat with someone over a cup of chai (tea).
- Travelling like a local.
Home to over a billion people, India is constantly busy with people on the move. From the famed Indian Railways to rickshaws,motorbikes, iconic ambassador taxis and everything in between, the journey is just as important as the destination in India. Train travel is the ultimate for people watching whereas autorickshaws and motorbikes are great fun for covering short distances.Travelling by car is a great way of seeing life on the road and is comfortable as well. One Sunday, Ekno’s founder Sharon took me on a drive through the villages of Himachal Pradesh, meaning we could stop along the way to admire the magnificent mountain views. The day after, we departed for the plains and boarded an overnight train for Rajasthan, meaning that we could sit back and watch the world pass as by.
- Getting entertained by Bollywood. Going to the cinema in India is an experience. There will be cheering, there will be singing, there might even be people dancing in the aisles. Get swept away by all the excitement and make sure you find the time to enjoy a samosa or a cup of chai while you’re at it. If the movie doesn’t have English subtitles you will still be able to follow the basic storyline. In January Sharon and I went to see a historical movie with a local family and were entertained by the lavish costumes, song and dance numbers and beautiful cinematography. It is a must do cultural experience!
- Taking a walk. Walking in India is a great way to get out amongst people and make unique discoveries. From
early morning heritage walks in Rajasthan to strolls through markets or going on a trek, walking is the perfect way to take things at your own pace and get off the beaten path. Even just taking a stroll in the streets around your hotel can result in wonderful experiences. In Himachal Pradesh Sharon and I would go on early morning walks through the surrounding villages and fields, taking in the stunning views of the snow-capped mountains that surrounded us. It was a fantastic way to start the day.
- Relaxing with a therapeutic treatment. In India you can pick from yoga, meditation, Ayurveda and massage to name just a few.After the hustle of the streets and strain of long-distance travel, relaxing with a massage or Ayurvedic treatment is good for the body and soul. I indulged in an Ayurvedic massage at the Kayakalp centre in Palampur, near Dharamsala and I left feeling rejuvenated and full of energy.India is also the perfect place to practice or learn a form of yoga or meditation. In January I was lucky enough to be taught by Sharon’s friend and yoga teacher Hari, who came to Sharon’s house for our private lessons. No matter where you go in India, the opportunity to try one of these treatments of practices is easily organised and well worth the experience.
Even though we don’t know when it will be safe to travel again, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, it is important to remember all the wonderful experiences that we have had through travel. I’m looking forward to the day when I can return to India again.