As an Indian and a solo female traveller, I get a bit overwhelmed to share travel tips for the first time visitors to India.
Even after a decade of moving from the East of the country to the North and eventually settling in the southern peninsula, it feels exciting and daunting to step out of my home and explore a lesser-known destination of this country that I call home.
Chances are I am going to meet people with whom I share only a handful of cultural nuances. Neither we speak a similar language, nor our staple food is similar.
It is highly likely that we celebrate distinct festivals as well! In this plurality, finding a slice of home in this vast expanse of the country is nothing short of an honour. I learn something new everyday, as I step out of my home. I will share all that I have learnt about India after being on the road for all these years!
Please Steer Clear of the Stereotypes defining India!
Beyond the snake-charmers and Naga Sadhus, there is a thriving population of more than a billion (I repeat, a BILLION) people living in the Indian subcontinent.
Their aspiration, dream and lifestyle might be steeped deep in destiny and spirituality, difficult to explain using logic, but they are just like people from any other part of the world. Kind, compassionate, proud, genteel, simple.
The women struggle to reclaim their rights from an outright patriarchal society. The children grow up bilingual, with a hidden aspiration to reach the moon.
A look at former president APJ Abdul Kalam’s home at Rameswaram and you know how the man ferrying newspapers during studenthood climbed the ladder of merit and earned the respect of the nation as the Missile Man of India! Stark poverty is seamlessly juxtaposed by the side of exorbitant materialistic shows.
I am unearthing different faces of Bharat, India each day everyday! It is impossible for me to put her in a bracket and suggest accordingly. However, I recommend you come with an open mind and see India as she is, a riot of colours, a living museum of thousands of years old civilization, a country deeply wounded by a partition of the century bygone.
How to plan an India itinerary for the first time visitor?
Most of the visitors come to India to visit the Taj Mahal. I think that is justified. There is hardly a monument in the whole of the world which looks as gorgeous as the Taj Mahal does.
Every Taj aficionado then proceeds to Jaipur and Delhi. Highways connect these prominent Indian destinations. If you want to see a tiger, you can allow a few days for the Ranthambore National Park, located close to Jaipur. To end the trip with a relaxing beach vacation, many choose to fly to Goa. There, the Golden Triangle of India is completed.
Please look beyond the Golden Triangle.
I do not see any problem with the Golden Triangle itinerary. In fact, it is one of the oldest established travel routes of the country, dotted with tourist infrastructures, with eye-pleasing monuments and easy flow.
But, India has so much more on offer!
If you are a first time visitor to India, you are better off starting your travel from the South or the East of the country in order to avoid tourist scams and be accustomed.
The erstwhile colonial buildings of Kolkata, which also served as the capital of undivided India during British Raj is one of the best destinations for the gourmands. Kolkata is also known as the cultural capital of India, with an array of prominent intellectual thinkers, poets, writers and filmmakers emerging from this part of the world.
The northeast of India is an astounding place with unscratched natural canvas. Only home to the dwindling figures of one-horned Rhino, Northeastern states of India are termed as Seven sisters, safeguarding ancient hill tribes and mystique landscapes.
The craggy Himalayan mountain of Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh safeguarding Tibetan culture, hidden valleys laden with rare blooms, shared tribal villages between India and Myanmar located in Nagaland, the root bridges from the cleanest villages of Asia in Meghalaya, also home to Sohra, a place that receives maximum rainfall in the world: Northeast India is a world of her own! Pristine, old and mysterious. River Brahmaputra instils life in her soul and how!
The southern part of the country is a vast peninsula, home to the sea-faring ancient civilization. Travelling in Hampi, the UNESCO site that harbours the ruins of ancient Vijayanagara empire has become mainstream ever since NYT named it as one of the top global destinations.
But to truly soak in the grandeur of the ancient Hindu temples, you have to drive down to Thanjavur in Tamilnadu and look at the Living Chola Temples! I could not believe my eyes, looking at these thousand years old structures!
What an astounding show of art and engineering marvel!
For a cultural traveller, the old Jew town of Kochi, the Kathakali dances of Kerala, the Fontainhas region of Portuguese Goa, the French town of Pondicherry are some of the beautiful destinations to experience how a slice of Europe assimilated herself with eternal Indianness.
How to obtain permits for the remote destinations in India
Due to border disputes, many of the destinations of sitting at the border straddling with China and Pakistan are off-limits to travellers who do not have an Indian passport.
This is especially applicable for destinations around Ladakh, Tawang, some parts of Rajasthan etc.
A copy of your passport and a few photographs will help you obtain these permits. Photographs are mandatory for obtaining a local sim card as well. Data is really cheap when bought in Indian network.
Festivals of India
Taking part in one of the Indian festivals is the best way to open the door to her wealth of culture!
I recommend planning a visit to Kolkata during Durgapuja to take part in the most extravagant festival of India. Not just India, I think only a handful of world festivals can ever match up to the celebration that Durgapuja is!
For a week, Durga with her 4 children is worshipped in different parts of the state. It had been considered to be a part of the UNESCO list of intangible cultural heritage! Though a Hindu festival, Durgapuja has surpassed a communal identity and involves people of every religious strata of the society!
Dol Utsab (Holi) is the spring festival of colour when locals in the northern states smear each other’s face with Abeer. Diwali is another huge festival that sees Kolkata indulging in Kali Puja. Kolkata celebrates Christmas with elan as well. Almost every metro city in India celebrates Eid through elaborate Ramadan food spreads. Ramadan food walk in Hyderabad, Lucknow, Kolkata and Delhi are all about binge-eating Biryani and kebabs!
In the southern part of the country, Onam is one of the biggest harvest festivals of Kerala. Onam Sadhya is a huge spread of meals served on banana leaf punctuated with rice and papadam!
It is absolutely safe to travel in India.
Despite all the negative PR India has earned in the world stage, I think India is not an unsafe place for solo female travellers.
It is certainly not easy, and you should not let your guards down even for a moment, especially while travelling in the NorthNorth.
Statistically speaking, almost half the population is female-gendered in India. That is close to seventy million females.
Ask yourself how all these women manage to live in the country, had it been so very unsafe.
That said, of course, there is a strict line of dos and don’ts for solo travellers. Do not befriend people on the road easily.
Stay away from crowded places. Do not wear flashy loose chains. Do not respond to catcalls on the road. Do not venture to remote places at night.
Do not drink, party, drug (strictly illegal in India). Stay away from the stray dogs. Do not start a conversation with over-enthusiastic people. Always use public transport.
Usually, the nightlife is almost non-existent in India except a few metropolises. Adhere to these basic safety rules and you are good to go! Ask for help from traffic police (or any police for that matter).
You can ask for help from women street vendors as well. I often get pleasantly surprised with their smart quips when caught in uneasy situations.
Most definitely, do not share your phone number to unknown people. Carry less cash and download a few digital payment methods which are widely accepted in Indian metro cities.
A few basic Hindi words will help you get immediate help if need be. Think Nehi (no), Haan (yes), Madat (help) etc. English is spoken and understood to a large extent here. Try writing them down because Indian English pronunciations differ a lot from that of the West.
What should you wear while travelling in India?
What you wear can actually bring in a sea-change in people’s reaction to your presence, especially when you are travelling in a rural part of the country, Covering up with a veil is very much a dominant practice among Indian women in the villages.
Besides, a scarf actually helps you from the scorching sun to a large extent.
Saree and Salwar kameez are two Indian dresses, widely used by the women. You may choose to wear one to blend in with the crowd as much as possible. For men, western wear is fine.
Try not to wear anything that shows too much skin, lest it garners undue attention.
Should you plan to visit a beach, pack a bikini which can be worn only at a handful of offbeat destinations in Goa. Burkini or similar swimwear will be fine though!
Recommended dress code for India changes drastically if you are mostly city-hopping. Urban India is comparatively more accustomed to women wearing short skirts, shorts and western attire with skin show.
This is specifically relevant if you are frequenting cafes, movie theatres and shopping malls and similar places.
Pack plenty of warm clothes if you are planning to visit the North and the Himalayan mountains.
Food to try in India
Indian food changes in taste and texture every 500 KM. The ingredients change, so does the cooking method.
The widely consumed staple in India are rice and roti, with a side of daal )lentils), a few Sabji (vegetables) and a bowl of fish or meat. The coastal states are pioneers of preparing exquisite dishes made of fish and coconut!
Apart from this, the whole country is bound by an intangible thread through Biryani! Every region claims their biryani is the best one! The Hyderabadi Nizam takes pride in their mountain goat biryani!
The Awadhi Nawab takes pride in the impeccably flavourful Biryani. Kolkata Biryani has a triumphant piece of potato. The Thalassery Biryani of coastal Kerala made space for some fish in the layer of rice and spices!
Vegetarians replaced the meat in the biryani with the addition of Paneer (cottage cheese), and that often triggers traditional biryani lovers, denying its recognition!
If you ask me, I love Kolkata Biryani the most, followed by Hyderabadi one, beaming with robust flavours!
Every Indian (and should I say people including our neighbouring countries, Pakistan and Bangladesh) eat Khichuri and Kheer as comfort food and celebratory food respectively!
There is a strong influence of erstwhile European colonists in defining Indian food of today. Cutlets and fries direct descendants of Anglical kitchen.
While quite a few Indians are vegetarian by choice, every Indian state serves meat and fish in their Thali (meal spread).
You should not have an issue to find local food if you are a vegetarian or even a vegan, though most of the roti/parathas are soaked in Ghee (clarified butter) by default.
Stay healthy while travelling in India is essential: Only eat food from vendors who have a local crowd surrounding.
Your best bait to survive a Delhi-belly is to buy and eat piping hot food served in front of you. Think Crispy Dosa or piping hot Biryani. Avoid drinking tap water.
If you are trying local moonshine (rice wines like Tody/Haria etc.), please go with a reliable guide. Deaths have been reported in the past.
Best time to visit India!
India has a humid and tropical weather barring the Himalayan region, where it snows in the winters. Best time to find some respite from the heat and explore Indian destinations is the drier months from October to February.
Budgeting for India
With a new tribe of solo budget travellers hitting the roads, travel operators are now running budget-friendly campsites and hostels in some of the prominent destinations in India.
For a decent hotel, you should account at least USD 50 for a night. I recommend spending as much to avoid shady stay. Book your train tickets four months prior to the date of journey. Flight tickets should be booked prior as well. Prices go up due to increased demand.
Responsible Travel Tips for India
You may watch a few Bollywood movies to understand the inherent drama associated with Indian society. But while dealing with the locals, please note these are real people, with real emotion and life challenges. Please do not give money or pen to children.
While exploring the jungles of India, refrain from using an elephant ride.
There are jeep safaris which last longer and give you an equal opportunity for animal sighting. Plenty of local guides conduct street walks. Grassroots, the people of Munsiyari, Dandeli Tourism, Calcutta Photo tours (by Manjit Singh Hoonja), Exotic Camps are some of the locally owned guided tours operating in different parts of the country.
Author Bio: Madhurima Chakraborty authors the Cultural travel Blog, Orange Wayfarer. Instagram, Facebook, Twitter.
She loves to capture various moments of travel through photographs and keen on exploring a destination through food and fabric.
She is an Indian but wants to be born in Africa in another life!
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