India is a mysterious country, full of misconceived ideas and wild stories. While the country does project a certain level of fantasy with its cow-filled streets, flashing neon colors, and abundance of animal-faced gods, India is actually quite a manageable country to visit for even a more conservative traveler. Ride on the painted elephants in Jaipur, snap pictures of the legendary Taj Mahal, and participate in the Aarti ceremony on the banks of the Ganges River. From New Delhi to Khajarajo, Northern India provides a cultural and historical welcome to the country of India.
1. New Delhi
The hub for international flights to Northern India, New Delhi provides many people’s first impression of India. From the armored guards in the airport and the occasional cow roaming the sides of the highway, to the brightly colored saris filling the streets, Delhi is a loud, colorful, and constantly active city. Begin your visit with the Jama Masjid Mosque, the largest mosque in all of India. Here you can see the influence from the Mongolian invaders, known as Mughals. Expect to be handed a robe if you are not deemed appropriately dressed for the religious icon.
As you exit, grab one of the waiting rickshaws for a ride through the local marketplace. Not your ordinary market, this is a warren of sari shops, spice stalls, book vendors, wedding calligraphers, electronics, bolts of raw fabric, and anything else you could imagine, all teeming with people, wild animals, cars, and wagons. Pass by the India Gate, a similar landmark to Paris’s Arch de Triumph, and end your day at the Qutub Minar complex, a collection of ancient structures surround by lush greenery, and locals eager to snap a picture of the visiting tourists.
Known as the Venice of the East, the allure of Udaipur is hard to miss. Stroll through the city’s central road and wander past the shops overflowing with pashminas, harem pants, and traditional Rajasthani shoes. The royal palace rises up from the street, located ideally on the banks of Lake Pichola. This palace on a hill provides the perfect view of the Lake Palace, a royal retreat located on an island in the center of the lake. Take a boat ride to explore the Lake Palace further, stroll through its gardens, and end your day with a lakeside dinner and a nighttime view of the calming waters.
Jodhpur, known as the blue city, is one of Rajasthan’s more interesting cities. The Mehran Garh fort sits on a hill overlooking the city, while the azure buildings clump together in the surrounding foothills to create a postcard perfect view. Debates rage over the origin of Jodhpur’s blue color; some say it was to cool down the houses, others claim it represented the home of the Brahman priests, while others still claimed it prevented mosquitoes from flying too close. However, one verdict is clear: Jodhpur’s charm is hard to miss.
Visitors can spend a peaceful afternoon in the royal crematorium surrounded by lush greenery, fluorescent pink rose petals, and the soothing sounds of local musicians. Pay your respects to the former maharajas before you tour the fort itself. The imposing walls, and cannon riddled archways are proof of its strength and fortitude, protecting its city through India’s numerous civil wars. As the sun sets, don’t miss dinner on the rooftop terrace of Pal Haveli, a former nobleman’s home that now serves up one of the best views of the city at night alongside heaping plates of naan and chicken tikka.
The pink city of Jaipur holds a certain glamor that crops up out of the Rajasthani countryside. The early mornings are ideal for riding the exotic painted elephants up towards the Amber Palace. With surrounding views of the Amber fort and the Jaipur landscape, the elephants may have to fight for your attention, even with their brightly decorated trunks. Revered for its gem stone industry, the palaces of Jaipur reflect the city’s main commerce with brightly colored paintings made from actual crushed stones.
Visit the Amber Palace during the day, when its mosaic walls shine as brightly as its hall of mirrors. Take advantage of the afternoon shadows with a visit to Jantar Mantar, the local observatory. There you can study the various sundials and astrology tools used to follow the path of the sun and the stars before computers existed. End your visit with a view of Hava Mehel, the imposing pink wind palace. This unique structure contains only one wall with over 150 windows, created as a shield for the royal women during the numerous parades and streets festivals.
Home to the legendary Indian tigers, Ranthambhore brings to mind exotic imageries of British diplomats and maharajas hunting together in the outback. Now protected in a national preserve, the few remaining tigers are left to roam the countryside in peace, save for the daily jeeps packed with camera toting tourists. Join one of the daily safari tours for a chance to spot the famed tigers, along with a host of other wild animals including antelope, black-faced monkeys, crocodiles, water hens, and leopards.
After the tour, visit one of the many women’s cooperatives in town. These collectives aid local women by giving them job opportunities, some even allowing the women to work right from home. The perfect spot to pick up some locally made gifts, don’t forget to get your hands painted with henna for the ultimate Indian souvenir.
The name might not ring an immediate bell, but the city of Agra is home to one of the most famous structures in the world, the Taj Mahal. Filled to the brim with visitors from around the globe, as well as pilgrims from the tiny country villages across India, Agra is the center of India’s tourism economy. Hire a guide to really get the full Taj experience and learn about the romantic story behind the building’s creation. Designed to resemble the Koran’s depiction of Heaven, the Taj Mahal’s white towers gleam in the sun, exposing their intricately carved bodies that are still being cared for by the same families that designed them.
Visitors are welcome to sit in the lush gardens, alone with their thoughts as they admire one of the world’s greatest creations. Once you have taken enough photos of the Taj, don’t miss the Red Fort of Agra, the previous home of five generations of the royal family of Agra. There you can catch another view of the Taj Mahal from an elevated distance.
The draw of Khajaraho is undoubtedly its exotic western temples. While the culture and beauty of the city is evident, the pornographic Hindu temples located here are what put Khajaraho on the tourist map. Depictions from the book of Kama Sutra are carved into the outer walls of the temples, showing very clear scenes of various sexual positions.
The temples are spread throughout a large complex filled with flowering plants, trees, and an abundance of butterflies. The eastern temples were built for the Jain religion and are therefore a much tamer visit than their western counterparts. The Jains believe in prophets rather than gods, and are firm believers in non-violence and peaceful existence. Enjoy both sets of temples during the day, and if you’ve still not had your fill, enjoy a light and sound show in the gardens of the western temples, where English and Hindi versions are shown nightly.
Home to the holy Ganges River, Varanasi is a pilgrimage for both Indians and tourists. With its location high on the west and low on east, Varanasi is the ideal place to worship the sun, and is considered the holiest place for one to breath their last breathe. Indeed cremation is one of the booming industries of Varanasi, and on any given day you can view the cremation ceremony on the banks of the river. Just don’t be surprised when the deceased’s ashes are poured in the water, just a few feet away from the local bathers and laundry services.
Explore the city streets, and make sure to pick up some local silk products, one of Varanasi’s key industries, but the real excitement is the nightly Aarti ceremony, best viewed by boat. The Brahmans perform a ritual of thanks each night to the Ganges River using fire, incense, music, and prayer. Thousands of people gather on the banks and by boat to watch this synchronized performance, and offer their own bit of thanks to the holy water on the banks of Varanasi.
Read more: India Top Tips for Travel
All photos courtesy of Leora Novick.
- Leora Novick