DESTINATION HINDUSTAN



Places to Travel

Delhi :

Your first impression of Delhi is unlikely to be a good one, particularly if it's also your first impression of India. You'll most likely notice the pollution, the crowds, the smell, the noise and the ceaseless hassles long before you notice the city's charms. But it's worth persevering: the history of this city is fascinating, and it's all around you; the bazaars of Paharganj are a wonderful introduction to India's backpacker trail; the city's monuments are among the most architectuarally striking in the country; and the food here is great.

Delhi is the capital of India, and it's also the travel hub of northern India. It's an excellent base for visiting Agra and the Taj Mahal, and the Rajasthani colour of Jaipur is less than five hours away. If you're heading north to the Himalaya or east to the ghats of Varanasi, you'll probably pass through Delhi. So you might as well grit your teeth, hold your breath and dive on in.                                                                  See Delhi Photo Album

Mumbai  

Mumbai is the glamour of Bollywood cinema, cricket on the maidans on weekends, bhelpuri on the beach at Chowpatty and red double-decker buses. It is also the infamous cages of the red-light district, Asia's largest slums, communalist politics and powerful mafia dons. This tug of war for the city's soul is played out against a Victorian townscape more reminiscent of a prosperous 19th century English industrial city than anything you'd expect to find on the edge of the Arabian Sea.                                                       See Mumbai Photo Album 

Goa

It's a shame Goa comes burdened with a history of loach living, because there's so much more to it than sun, sand and psychedelic. The allure of Goa is that it remains quite distinct from the rest of India and is small enough to be grasped and explored in a way that other Indian states are not. It's not just the familiar remnants of European colonialism or the picture-book exoticism that make it seem so accessible, it's the prevalence of Roman Catholicism and a form of social and political progressiveness that Westerners feel they can relate to. Although Hindus outnumber Catholics, skirts far outnumber saris, and the people display a liberality and civility which you'll be hard pressed to find elsewhere in India.


Calcutta

The capital of West Bengal sprawls shapelessly along the eastern bank of the Hooghly River. Once the glorious capital of British India, its urban horror story of squalor and starvation only began with Partition and a resulting massive influx of refugees. This plucky city, however, is keen to promote itself as the 'City of Joy' and, given half a chance, it reveals itself to be one of the country's most fascinating and congenial cities, the intellectual capital of the nation, and a thriving political and arts arena.

The city's 'lungs' is the Maidan, an enormous open expanse used by Calcuttans for recreation, cricket and football matches, political assemblies, yoga sessions, and grazing flocks. The area is large enough to engulf the massive Fort William, still in use today, although visitors are only allowed inside with special permission (rarely granted). At the southern end of the Maidan stands the huge white-marble Victoria Memorial, fronted by a statue of a frumpy Queen Victoria, which holds an extensive collection of British-Indian historical objects.

Calcutta's administrative centre is BBD Bagh (Dalhousie Square). The square holds both the whimsical and the brutal: on one side is the Writers' Building where 'writers' (a quaint euphimism for clerks) beaver away in the Kafkaesque labyrinth of corridors and vast chambers while quintuplicate forms and carbon copies pile up along the walls; on the other side is the GPO which was built on the site of the legendary 'black hole of Calcutta'. It was here that, on an uncomfortably humid night in 1756, over 140 British inhabitants were forced into an underground cellar causing many to die overnight of suffocation.

According to legend, when Siva's wife's corpse was cut up, one of her fingers fell at the site of what is now the Kali Temple and it remains a spectacularly grubby, place of pilgrimage. In the morning, goats have their throats slit here to satisfy the goddess' bloodlust. The city's other attractions include: the excellent Indian Museum, the largest and probably the best museum in the country (but dusty and worse for wear due to lack of funds); the Botanical Gardens, home to a 200-year-old banyan tree, claimed to have the second-largest canopy in the world (the largest is in Andhra Pradesh); and the iconic, cantilevered Howrah Bridge, considered to be the busiest bridge in the world.

Budget accommodation, cheap eateries and bars are thick on the ground in Chowringhee, south of the Howrah Bridge. Sudder St, off Chowringhee Rd, is the focal point for budget travellers. There are also lots of cinemas in this area, screening Calcuttan arthouse fare, new release Hollywood movies and their Bollywood cousins. Calcutta is no shopper's paradise, especially since a clean-up campaign has forced hawkers off the pavements, but New Market, north of Sudder St, is a good place for arguing the price of goods from clothing to caneware.

Calcutta is on the international loop and you can sometimes pick up cut price tickets at the airlines offices around Chowringhee. Calcutta's Indian Airlines offers frequent domestic flights to major Indian destinations including Delhi, Bangalore, Chennai, Mumbai, and Lucknow. Generally speaking, it's better to travel by train rather than bus but if it's a bus you're after you'll be looking at catching the dubiously named 'Rocket Service' from the Esplanade bus stand. For outbound trains, go to either Howrah station on the west bank of the Hooghly river which handles trains going to the city, or Sealdah station on the opposite side which takes you in the direction of Darjeeling and other northern regions.

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Agra

The Taj Mahal, described as the most extravagant monument ever built for love, has become the de facto tourist emblem of India. This poignant Moghul mausoleum was constructed by Emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his second wife Mumtaz Mahal, whose death in childbirth in 1631 left the emperor so heartbroken that his hair is said to have turned grey overnight. Construction of the Taj began in the same year and was not completed until 1653.

Although the Taj is amazingly graceful from almost any angle, it's the close-up detail which is really astounding. Semiprecious stones are inlaid into the marble in beautiful patterns using a process known as pietra dura. The precision and care which went into the Taj Mahal's design and construction is just as impressive whether you view it from across the river or from arm's length. Note that the Taj is closed on Monday.

The city's other major attraction is the massive red sandstone Agra Fort, also on the bank of the Yamuna River. The auricular fort's colossal double walls rise over 20m (65ft) in height and measure 2.5km (1.55mi) in circumference. They are encircled by a fetid moat and contain a maze of superb halls, mosques, chambers and gardens which form a small city within a city. Unfortunately not all buildings are open to visitors, including the white marble Pearl Mosque, regarded by some as the most beautiful mosque in India.

Other worthwhile Moghul gems include the Itimad-ud-daulah, many of whose design elements were used in the construction of the Taj, and Akbar's Mausoleum at Sikandra which blends Islamic, Hindu, Buddhist, Jain and Christian motifs, much like the syncretic religious philosophy Akbar developed attempted to do.

Agra is near enough to Delhi - 200km (125mi) - to be done as a day trip. It's on the major tourist circuit so you can take your pick of transport; plane, bus, or train.


Varanasi

For over 2000 years, Varanasi, the 'eternal city', has been the religious capital of India. Built on the banks of the sacred Ganges, it is said to combine the virtues of all other places of pilgrimage and anyone who ends their days here, regardless of creed and however great their misdeeds, is transported straight to heaven. The easternmost city in Uttar Pradesh, Varanasi is an important seat of learning, and is the home of novelists, philosophers and grammarians. This has been reflected in its role in the development of Hindi - the closest thing to a national language in India.

Varanasi has over 100 bathing and burning ghats but the Manikarnika Ghat is the most sacred of them all. This is the main burning ghat and one of the most auspicious places that a Hindu can be cremated. Corpses are handled by outcasts known as chandal, and they are carried through the alleyways of the old city to the holy Ganges on a bamboo stretcher swathed in cloth. You'll see huge piles of firewood stacked along the top of the ghat, each log carefully weighed on giant scales so that the price of cremation can be calculated. There are no problems watching cremations, since at Manikarnika death is simply business as usual, but leave your camera at your hotel.

The best ghat to hang out at and absorb the riverside activity is Dasaswamedh Ghat. Here you'll find a dense concentration of people who come to the edge of the Ganges not only for a ritual bath, but to do yoga, offer blessings, buy paan, sell flowers, get a massage, play cricket, have a swim, get a shave, and do their karma good by giving money to beggars. It's also the best place to arrange a boat trip since there's plenty of competition among boatmen.

Apart from the many ghats lining the river, the city's other highlights include the Golden Temple, built in a roofed quadrangle with stunning gilded towers; shopping at markets famous for their ornamental brasswork, lacquered toys, shawls, silks and sitars (yes, Ravi Shankar does live here); losing yourself in the impossibly narrow labyrinthine alleyways which snake back from the ghats; visiting the nearby Buddhist centre of Sarnath; and taking the compulsory dawn river trip slowly down the Ganges.

Varanasi is on the major tourist loop, about 580km (360mi) east of Agra, and 780km (485mi) southeast of Delhi, and can be eached by plane, bus or train.


Shimla

The 'summer capital' of British India sprawls along a crescent-shaped ridge at an altitude of over 2100m (6890ft) in southern Himachal Pradesh. This was the most important hill station in India before Independence, and the social life here in the summer months when the Brits came to escape the torrid heat of the plains was legendary - balls, bridge parties and parades went hand in hand with gossip, intrigue and romance. Today, the officers, administrators and lah-di-dah ladies of the Raj have been replaced by throngs of holidaymakers, but echoes of Shimla's British past remain strong. The famous main street, The Mall, still runs along the crest of the ridge and is lined with stately English-looking houses. Christ Church, Gorton Castle and the fortress-like former Viceroyal Lodge reinforce the English flavour.

When you've done the obligatory stroll along The Mall dreaming of Kipling, Burton and Merchant-Ivory, it's worth exploring the narrow streets which fall steeply away from the ridge to colourful local bazaars. There's also an interesting walk to Jakhu Temple, dedicated to the monkey god Hanuman. It's located near the highest point of the ridge and offers fine views of the town, surrounding valley and snow-capped peaks. Other scenic spots nearby include the 70m (230ft) high Chadwick Falls, the picnic spot of Prospect Hill, and Wildflower Hall - the site of the former mansion of Lord 'Your-Country-Needs-You' Kitchener. The ski resort of Kufri is just 15km (10m) east, although snowfalls have been so paltry recently that there are plans to suspend tourist operations. If there is snow, the slopes are suitable for beginners and anyone with a decent plastic bag and a thick pair of trousers. Snow is most likely between January and February.

Shimla is not as well connected by air as other destinations in the Himalayas althouth there are a couple of companies that will fly you out. The lack of air power is more than compensated for by the number of trains and buses. Three types of buses - public, private, and those from the Himachal Pradesh Tourist Development Company (HPTDC) - connect Shimla to Delhi and they run pretty much every day. Shimla's so-called toy train is still big enough to get you to Kalka in the north, after which you can change to the relatively large and comfortable New Delhi Queen which runs on down into New Delhi.


Jaipur

The capital of Rajasthan is popularly known as the 'pink city' because of the ochre-pink hue of its old buildings and crenellated city walls. The Rajputs considered pink to be a colour associated with hospitality, and are reputed to have daubed the city in preparation for the visit of Britain's Prince Alfred in 1853. This tradition and Jaipur's welcoming, relaxed air continue to this day.

Jaipur owes its name, its foundation and its careful planning to the great warrior-astronomer Maharaja Jai Singh II (1699-1744), who took advantage of declining Moghul power to move his somewhat cramped hillside fortress at nearby Amber to a new site on the plains in 1727. He laid out the city, with its surrounding walls and six rectangular blocks, according to principles of town planning set down in the Shilpa-Shastra, an ancient Hindu treatise on architecture.

Today Jaipur is a city of broad avenues and remarkable architectural harmony, built on a dry lake bed surrounded by barren hills. It's an extremely colourful city and, in the evening light, it radiates a magical warm glow. The city now has 1.5 million inhabitants and has sprawled beyond its original fortified confines, but most of its attractions are compactly located in the walled 'pink city' in the north-east of the city. All seven gates into the old city remain, one of which leads into Johari Bazaar - the famous jewellers' market.

The most obvious landmark in the old city is the Iswari Minar Swarga Sul (the Minaret Piercing Heaven) which was built to overlook the city, but the most striking sight is the stunning artistry of the five-storey facade of the Hawa Mahal, or Palace of the Winds. The palace was built in 1799 to enable ladies of the royal household to watch street life and processions, and is part of the City Palace complex which forms the heart of the old city.

Numerous international airlines are based in Jaipur Towers, while for domestic flights it's easier to book through any of the big travel agents. Daily flights to Delhi are availble and most continue on to Mumbai via Jodhpur, Udaipur and Aurangabad. The Rajasthan State Transport System covers Rajasthan's major cities, as do the privately owned deluxe services. Most of these places can also be reached by train.


Udaipur

The most romantic city in Rajasthan, built around the lovely Lake Pichola, has inevitably been dubbed the 'Venice of the East'. Founded in 1568 by Maharana Udai Singh, the city is a harmonious Indian blend of whitewashed buildings, marble palaces, lakeside gardens, temples and havelis (traditional mansions). It boasts an enviable artistic heritage, a proud reputation for performing arts and a relatively plentiful water supply, all of which have helped make it an oasis of civilisation and colour in the midst of drab aridity.

Lake Pichola is the city's centrepiece and it contains two delightful island palaces - Jagniwas and Jagmandir - that are the very definition of Rajput whimsy. The former is now an exquisite luxury hotel. The huge City Palace towers over the lake and is bedecked with balconies, towers and cupolas. It contains a museum, some fine gardens and several more luxury hotels. Other attractions include the gates to the old walled city and its lovely alleyways; the fine Indo-Aryan Jagdish Temple, dating from the mid-17th century; and the lakeside Bagore ki Haveli, once a royal guesthouse, but now a cultural centre.

Despite the long list of sights and attractions, the real joy of Udaipur is finding a pleasant lakeside guesthouse, scrambling up to the roof and watching the activity at the ghats, listening to the rhythmic 'thwomp!' as washerwomen thrash the life out of their laundry, and sensing the gentle changes of light on the water as the slow days progress.

Indian Ailines has daily flights to Delhi, Jaipur, Mumbai and Aurangabad. Freqent state owned buses run from Udaipur to other regional centres as well as to Delhi and Ahmedebad. If you bus it, choose the express other wise it will take forever to reach your destination. Lines into Udaipur are currently metre gauge only. They are scheduled to be converted to broad gauge but nobody is really sure when this will happen. It's quicker in most cases to catch a bus. Taxi's can take you to regional areas, but practice your negotiation skills and haggle down the price a bit before you jump in.

Mysore

This charming, easy-going city has long been a favourite with travellers since it's a manageable size, enjoys a good climate and has chosen to retain and promote its heritage rather than replace it. The city is famous for its silk and is also a thriving sandalwood and incense centre, though don't expect the air to be any more fragrant than the next town.

Until Independence, Mysore was the seat of the maharajas of Mysore, a princely state covering about a third of present-day Karnataka. The Maharaja's Indo-Saracenic Palace is the town's major attraction, with its kaleidoscope of stained glass, ornate mirrors, carved mahogany ceilings, solid silver doors and outrageously gaudy colours.

The Devaraja Fruit & Vegetable Market, in the heart of the town, is one of the most colourful markets in India. The other major attraction is the 1000-step climb up nearby Chamundi Hill, which is topped by the huge Chamundeswari temple. The stairway is guarded by the famous 5m (16ft) high Nandi (Siva's bull) carved out of solid rock. The 10-day Dussehra Festival in early October culminates in a spectacular procession of richly caparisoned elephants, liveried retainers, cavalry, brass bands and flower-bedecked images of Hindu deities.

There are no flights to Mysore, leaving the bus and train as the only other options. Every 15 minutes a bus to Bangalore hurtles out of the starting blocks like a bat out of hell, as do a number of other services going to regional areas including the Bandipur National Park. A number of private buses wil take you at a far more sedate pace to Mumbai, Goa, Chennai and Hyderabad. There are rarely long queues to book a fare at Mysore station and there are four daily express trains to Bangalore, plus the air-con high-speed Shatabdi Express which departs at 2.10 pm daily except Tuesday. The Shatabdi continues on to Chennai.


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Kochi (Cochin)

The port city of Kochi is located on a cluster of islands and narrow peninsulas. The older parts of the city are an unlikely blend of medieval Portugal, Holland and an English country village grafted onto the tropical Malabar Coast. Here, you can see the oldest church in India, winding streets crammed with 500-year-old Portuguese houses, cantilevered Chinese fishing nets, a Jewish community whose roots go back to the Diaspora, a 16th-century synagogue, a palace containing some of India's most beautiful murals, and performances of the world-famous Kathakali dance-drama. Ferries scuttle back and forth between the various parts of Kochi and dolphins can often be seen in the harbour. Most of the historical sights are in Fort Cochin or Mattancherry. Budget accommodation can be found in mainland Ernakulam.

Indian Airlines has daily flights to Bangalore, Mumbai, Delhi, Goa, and Chennai. If flying is outside your budget, there's a whole bevy of buses that leave Kochi at regular intervals and fan out in every direction except seaward. You can easily get to any of the outlying regions either by state-owned or privately-owned bus but there are no advance reservations. Turn up, join the scrum, and hope for the best which in this case would be a seat. Failing this, try the railway station which has trains zipping up the coast to major destinations on a daily basis.

Darjeeling

Straddling a ridge at an altitude of over 2100m (6890ft) in the far north of West Bengal, Darjeeling has been a favourite hill station of the British since they established it as an R 'n' R centre for their troops in the mid-1800s. The town remains as popular as ever and offers visits to Buddhist monasteries, tours to tea plantations, shopping in bustling bazaars and trekking in high-altitude spots to the north. Like many places in the Himalaya, half the fun is in getting there and Darjeeling has the unique attraction of the famous miniature train, which loops and switchbacks its way from the plains up to Darjeeling in a 10-hour grind of soot and smoke.

Among the town's highlights is the Passenger Ropeway, the first chairlift to be constructed in India, which connects Darjeeling with Singla Bazaar on the Little Ranjit River far below. It's a superb excursion, though not an obvious choice for vertigo sufferers. Unfortunately, the ropeway is not always in use - phone in advance to see when it's running. Nearby is the Zoological Park, which houses Siberian tigers and rare red pandas in less than ideal conditions. The animals are prey to Indian tourists who show-off by teasing and spitting at them mercilessly. The precious snow leopards are kept in a separate enclosure and get a much better deal. If you're interested in learning about the complex tea-producing process, call in at the Happy Valley Tea Estate; you can also savour some of the crop at the impressive Gymkhana Club, once the playpen of the Raj and now slouching reluctantly towards the 20th century.

Flying is the easiest and most comfortable way to reach Darjeeling, although this will still only get you to within 90km (55km) of the city. The airport is situated on the flat plains near Siliguri, at Bagdogra, but there is a connecting bus from the airport to Darjeeling. Several bus lines also operate out of Darjeeling.

Jaisalmer

This desert fortress close to Rajasthan's border with Pakistan is straight out of an Arabian fairy tale. Founded in the 12th century as a staging post for camel trains travelling between India and Central Asia, Jaisalmer is a golden sandstone city with crenellated city walls, a magnificent fortress and a number of exquisitely carved stone and wooden havelis. Seen at sunset from afar, it glows with the luminescence of a mirage.

Jaisalmer's impressive fort crowns an 80m (260ft) high hill, and about a quarter of the city's 40,000 inhabitants reside within its walls. Little has changed here for centuries, and if ever a record-breaking effort were made to pack as many houses, temples and palaces into a confined space, this would be the result. The fort is honeycombed with winding lanes, and has formidable gateways, a maharaja's palace, a ceremonial courtyard and beautifully carved Jain temples. The most beautiful of the havelis built by Jaisalmer's wealthy merchants are Patwon ki Haveli, Salim Singh ki Haveli and Nathmal ki Haveli.

Despite its incredible picturesqueness, you don't have to look very hard to realise that Jaisalmer is crumbling at an alarming rate. Its disintegration has finally brought local, governmental, tourist and archaelogical interest groups together and a 'Jaisalmer in Jeopardy' campaign has been launched in the UK.

Camel trekking is big business in Jaisalmer and it's a great way to experience the desert. Make sure you know exactly what you're getting for your money, because there's ample opportunity to be disappointed. Most treks last three to four days. The best time to go is between October and February.

Rajasthan has a reasonably reliable bus system and a fairly extensive railway system so getting to the city of Jaisalmer isn't too much of a hardship. You may find that some of the railway lines have been disrupted by recent track works designed to get you from point A to point B faster, so check local timetables for updates and changes. If you want to experience how the other half lives, you can book yourself onto the Palace on Wheels which passes through Jaisalmer on its regal route. It's a mobile hotel on wheels decked out like a traditional maharaja's state carriage. Expensive but luxurious. Jaisalmer is 795km (490mi) from Delhi.

Leh

Leh, a one-time departure point for yak trains travelling into Central Asia, is located in a small valley just to the north of the Indus Valley. These days it is part strategic military centre and part tourist town. It's main claim to fame is the Leh Palace. It was built in the 16th century but is now deserted and badly damaged, a legacy of Ladakh's wars with Kashmir in the last century. The main reason for making the climb up to the palace is for the superb views from the roof. The Zanskar mountains, across the Indus River, look close enough to touch. The palace was sold to the Archaeological Survey of India by the Ladakhi royal family and an ambitious renovation project is under way. Try to get a monk to unlock the preserved, but now unused, central prayer room; it's dusty and spooky, with huge masks looming out of the dark. It's worth escaping from the handicraft shops and backpacker restaurants to stroll around the meandering laneways of the Old Quarter and catch a glimpse of what the town used to look like before it began to accommodate tourists.

A popular day trip from Leh is the 20km (10m) excursion to the Tikse Gompa, which is picturesquely sited on a hilltop overlooking the Indus River. It has an important collection of Tibetan-style books and some excellent artwork. It's also a good place to watch religious ceremonies. The Hemis Gompa, 45km (30m) from Leh, is the largest and most important in Ladakh. It is famous for its Hemis Festival, which usually takes place in the second half of June or in early July. It features two days of elaborate masked dances watched by crowds of eager spectators. For those who haven't pumped enough adrenalin simply getting to Ladakh (see Getting There & Getting Around), white-water rafting trips on the Indus River can be organised through several agencies operating from Leh, and there are trekking opportunities in the Markha and Indus valleys.

Getting to and from Leh can be a matter of timing: flying up there between the months from June to September is usually not a problem but come the winter months it may be a different story. If the weather conditions are right you can fly to and from Delhi, Jangmur, and Srinagar. There are only two bus routes out of Leh and both suffer from the uncetainty principle: buses may not turn up so you can't buy tickets until the evening before departure. If planes can't fly and buses don't turn up, there's always the long-distance jeeps and taxis which are more expensive then the buses but have the advantage of being there.

Khajuraho

This quiet, genial, dusty village in northern Madhya Pradesh is awash with temples. Temples for everything - sun gods, sacred bulls and, more memorably, sex. Stone figures of apsaras or 'celestial maidens' pout and pose like Playboy pin-ups while mithuna, erotic figures, run through a whole Kama Sutra of positions and possibilities. It's highly salacious stuff and one reason why the temples of Khajuraho are famous throughout the world. The other reason is that they are liberally embellished with some of the finest handiwork of the Chandela period, a dynasty which survived for five centuries before falling to the onslaught of Islam. Visitors are also drawn to a dance festival, celebrated in March, which attracts some of the best classical dancers in the country - the floodlit temples provide a spectacular backdrop during the event.

The largest and most important temples are in the attractively landscaped Western Group. Externally, the temples consist of curvilinear towers with clusters of lesser turrets clinging to them, suggestive of rising mountain peaks (ahem) converging round a great central peak. Round the exterior walls are two, sometimes three, superimposed rows of gods, goddesses, kings and heroes, courtesans, couples in carnal embrace and, in some cases, friezes depicting various forms of bestiality. The interiors are just as ornate, with an open portico leading into a main hall, then a vestibule beyond which is an inner sanctum containing the free-standing cult image. In fact, the sculpture and architecture blend so perfectly that each building appears to have been conceived by a single - and highly sexed - mastermind.

Getting to Khajuraho can be a major problem. It's really on the road to nowhere and involves long bus trips over small country roads. Flying is a better option: Air Indian Airlines have a daily Delhi-Agra-Khajuraho-Varanasi flight but it's usually booked solid so book as far in advance as possible. Buses run from Agra, Ghansi, and Jhansi, and if going by rail you'll need to get off at Jhansi and continue by bus to Khajuraho.


Kerala Backwaters

The complex network of lagoons, lakes, rivers and canals fringing the coast of Kerala forms the basis of a distinct regional lifestyle, and travelling by boat along these backwaters is one of the highlights of a visit to the state. The boats cross shallow, palm-fringed lakes studded with Chinese fishing nets, and along narrow, shady canals where coir (coconut fibre), copra and cashews are loaded onto boats. Stops are made at small settlements where people live on carefully cultivated narrow spits of land only a few metres wide, and there's the chance to see traditional boats with huge sails, and prows carved into the shape of dragons. The most popular backwater trip is the eight-hour voyage between Kollam and Alappuzha, but most of your fellow passengers on this route will be Western travellers. If you want a local experience, or you simply feel like a shorter trip, there are local boats from Alappuzha to Kottayam and Changanassery.

Kollam is on the well-serviced Thiruvananthapuram-Ernakulum bus route, as well as being fortuitously placed on no less than four different railway lines. Getting there from any number of the major southern city is no problem but it's a long, long way from Delhi; 2756km (1708mi) to be exact.


Andaman & Nicobar Islands

This string of 300 richly forested tropical islands lies in the Bay of Bengal between India and Myanmar and stretches almost to the tip of Sumatra. Ethnically, the islands are not part of India and, until fairly recently, they were inhabited only by indigenous tribal people. The majority of the Andaman & Nicobar Islands are uninhabited, surrounded by coral reefs, and have white sandy beaches and incredibly clear water. This is an excellent place for snorkelling, scuba diving and lazing on the beach. Indian tourists may roam freely, but foreigners are constrained by a 30-day permit, allowing only limited travel. There are regular flights to Port Blair on South Andaman from Calcutta and Chennai (Madras); permits are issued at the airport on arrival. Infrequent boats from Calcutta and Chennai take four days to reach the islands; permits must be obtained in advance if arriving by boat.


Kanha National Park

Kanha is one of India's largest and most remote national parks, covering 1945 sq km of forest and lightly wooded grasslands supported by an extensive network of rivers and streams. The setting of Kipling's Jungle Book, there's an excellent variety of wildlife in the park including leopards, chital, sambar and, most famously, the tiger. It's possible to make elephant-back excursions into the park in the early morning and evening, though opportunities to see tigers may be decreasing because of the work of poaching gangs. Although wildlife can be seen throughout the season, sightings increase during the hotter months of March and April, because the animals move out of the tree cover in search of water. The park is closed from 1 July to 31 October.

There are direct state transport buses from Jabalpur, twice daily. They are ramshackle old buses with space being at a premium (at least until after Mandla) so don't overload yourself with baggage. The nearest railway station is just under two hours by bus away, but if you're a rail enthusiast the trip is worth it.

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