Incredible India. It’s the phrase being thrown around by the Indian government to promote tourism. Having never been to India before we were keen to use time before and during our volunteering to see if this was an appropriate term to use.
Check out Incredible India Part 1 for other places to visit!
- Varanasi – One of the holiest places in the whole of India, Varanasi is a key destination to visit the River Ganga. It is the wish of every Hindu to be born here, die or at least be cremated here. There are regular burnings of bodies at the ghats, constant ceremonies and pujas and many devout Hindus bathing in the waters. I personally wouldn’t get into the river myself, but a dawn or evening boat ride is a perfect way to experience just how important this place is for so many.
- Amritsar – Just as the Hindus have Varanasi, so the Sikhs have Amritsar. The Golden Temple surrounded by the sacred water tank is a focal point for the Sikh religion here in India. A very welcoming place, you can enter and walk around the complex for free even choosing to eat here too. It’s worth queuing to go into the temple itself where singing takes place all day long from the Guru Granth Sahib and, if you have time, there are a number of buildings around the water tank containing more detail about the importance of this holy place. Following this visit, head out to the Wagah border to see the daily closing gate ceremony between India and Pakistan. For two countries supposedly resistant to each other, this is a highly coordinated and party-like event!
- Dharamsala – When arriving in Dharamsala, it is actually McLeod Ganj that you are after. This area of the outer Himalayan range is home to the Tibetan Government-in-Exile and is not only a beautiful place to stay but an important site for the Tibetan people. The Dalai Lama, one of the most influential people of our time, is resident here and Tibetan Buddhism plays a strong role in this community. You will often see monks going about their everyday lives with plenty of opportunity to learn more and get involved. Aside from the influence of Tibet, you can choose to hike in the surrounding mountainous area to secluded waterfalls and lakes or just wander through the small town perusing the local crafts on sale or trying food from nearby regions including India, Tibet and even Bhutan!
- Udaipur – Best known for its feature in the James Bond film Octopussy (something they are still extremely proud of with nightly showings at most restaurants and guesthouses) the lake is the main feature. Within the lake sits the famous hotel (used in the film) as well as an island containing a palace which can be visited on the regular boat trips. There is also the main palace area (popular with weddings) which has a collection that will fill you in on Raj lifestyles, as well as several beautiful Hindu temples. Udaipur has an excellent selection of places to eat, all offering breathtaking views of the lake, particularly at sunset.
- Jodhpur – The Mehrangarh dominates the skyline of Jodhpur, standing proudly above the ‘blue city’ and is well worth the short hike to reach it. The blue houses below are a remanent of the former caste system and provide a distinctive dash of colour around the narrow medieval streets. The included audio guide on the fort visit provides ample background information on the history and significance of this Rajasthani outpost. For the adventurous, you can choose to zipline over the fort area with the Flying Fox zipline company.
- Bundi – A smaller version of Jodhpur but still worth a visit not least to see its ruins. Being taken over by nature (both plants and monkeys) you will feel like you are in an apocalyptic future as you wander around the crumbling remains of the former palace and fort area. Down below, in the small but bustling town, the cuisine is superb with both local and international flavours. Watch out for the pigs, cows, dogs, cats and various other roaming wildlife that runs through the streets!
- Lucknow – This is a town that rarely gets a mention on tours of the north of India due to being overshadowed by the Taj and Varanasi (which can be found in the same state). However, there are a number of points of interest for history buffs as it contains one of the most important residences of the British which became a focal point during the Siege of Lucknow. There are also a number of important sights for those of Islamic faith (though non-Muslims are more than welcome to visit) with one highlight being a labyrinth in the walls of the Bara Imambara.
Even in eight weeks of travelling every weekend, we barely scratched the surface of this diverse, historic and beautiful country. We highly recommend independent travel before, during or after a volunteering project. India is easy to navigate using the extensive and affordable rail network. It is equally a relatively safe place as long as you take necessary precautions not to make yourself a target (as you would do back home) and follow local advice. However, no matter how long you have, you will still find there is so much you didn’t get to see. We hope to return to explore the south on a future trip so if you have any recommendations or questions about where we did go, then please get in touch.