New Delhi : As India celebrates the 70th anniversary of the nation’s independence from the British empire today, we look at different ways of engaging with the most colourful, chaotic and life-affirming country in the world. The best time to visit India is from October to March, unless you are travelling north into the foothills of the Himalayas when the air is warmer in April and May and the forests full of colour.
Trying to cover too much ground on a first visit is a mistake. You will get much more out of a leisurely exploration of a small corner, mixing just a few major tourist sites with downtime in villages or wildlife reserves. Nothing evokes the spirit of India more than strolling through a village during the sundown “dust hour” as the cattle make their way home along dirt streets to mud-brick houses bathed in a soft orange glow.
1. A journey through Kipling’s India
It’s not just India’s Independence Day drawing attention to the world’s biggest democracy. A film version of The Jungle Book, based on the work of Rudyard Kipling, one of the giants of English literature, hit the screens recently. On this unforgettable tour you will trace the world that shaped the author. You will be joined by a man The Telegraph has described as a “biographer of outstanding talent”, Patrick French, who lives in Delhi and is an expert on the late 19-century imperialism of which Kipling was a product.
Starting in Delhi, it takes in Shimla, Mumbai, two of India’s great wildlife reserves, and other heritage highlights of the country, from Buddhist stupas to rock art.
2. Kerala for foodies
Kerala has supplied the world with spices since antiquity. Its cuisine has absorbed Chinese, Arab and European influences, from the breakfast rice idlis and dosas to the ginger-and-tamarind pickle accompanying its delicate curries and fragrant birianis. Martin Randall’s Gastronomic Kerala tour includes cookery demonstrations and lunches in private homes, walks on tea and spice plantations, and visits to places associated with the spice trade including Cochin, Thekkady and Kumarakom. The tour is led by Dr Elizabeth Collingham, author of Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors.
3. In search of tigers
A Wild Cats tour, led by wildlife photographer Nick Garbutt, spends five nights in the Tadoba Reserve near Nagpur in northern Maharashtra – a vast open teak forest that gives the best chance of seeing tigers in India. There are reputed to be more than 70 tigers in the reserve which are regularly seen coming to drink at its two lakes and open waterholes. The second half of the trip focuses on the Jawai Hills near Udaipur in Rajasthan where there is a thriving population of leopards. Accommodation is in luxurious safari-style camps in the reserves. Garbutt will also hold photography workshops.
4. Classic Rajasthan
Rajasthan is the cultural centrepiece of India: the homeland of Hindu Rajput princes who fought Mughal sultans and British politicians to preserve their cultural identity. The result is a feast of flamboyant architecture and traditional arts and crafts that give pleasure at every turn. Acclaimed Scottish historian William Dalrymple gives insights into the area’s rich culture over dinner in Delhi at the start of a 12-day Discover India tour designed by Telegraph Tours. Aimed at first-timers, it takes in Delhi, Agra, Jaipur, Udaipur and a stay at Deogarh Mahal, a 17th-century fort-palace set in a small village and still run by its princely owners.
5. On the river
To cruise along the Brahmaputra River in Assam is to step back in time. Even the teak-decked riverboats are replicas of those used a century ago to bring tea planters and colonial officers into this remote part of north-east India. A particular highlight of VJV’s seven-night cruise is a safari on elephant back through the Kaziranga National Park in search of tiger and rhino. Other treats on the 12-day Assam and the Brahmaputra itinerary include visits to ancient Hindu monasteries, a tea estate, and sightseeing in Kolkata.
6. On the rails
Indian Railways has one of the largest networks in the world, reaching into every corner of the country. The view through the train window is often far more interesting than that from a car or coach. And there are plenty of opportunities to meet the locals. Transindus has a well-balanced rail tour from Kolkata to Delhi. It includes time in Varanasi and Agra as well as rides on two of India’s famous hill railways up to Darjeeling and Shimla, the location for the Channel 4 drama Indian Summers.
7. A driving adventure
The Hindustan Ambassador, based on the Morris Oxford, was the first car to be made in India in the Fifties and is still a favourite of older taxi drivers. Classic Car Journeys offers self-drive touring holidays using lovingly maintained white Ambassadors to explore the southern states of Kerala and Karnataka. Its Classic Himalaya tour in the north uses modern 4x4s and Enfield Bullet motorcycles. You drive at your own pace, supported by a team of mechanics, and meet up with the rest of the group in the evening at the next hotel.
8. A walk through village India
Village Ways pioneered walking holidays in rural India, working with communities to establish guesthouses and train guides. There’s a choice of five areas for inn-to-inn walks but the Kingdom of Kumaon is the most scenic. Designed as a tailored experience for a couple or a group of friends, you walk with a guide along gentle trails through terraced farmland and the wooded hills of the Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary in the foothills of the Himalayas. Luggage is carried separately by porters.
9. Jaipur for book lovers
Since its founding in 2006 by William Dalrymple and Namita Gokhale, the Jaipur Literature Festival has gone from strength to strength. More than 200 authors and thinkers take part in five days of talks and workshops staged in the grounds of the Diggi Palace Hotel in the heart of Jaipur. There are also concerts featuring contemporary and traditional musicians. Steppes Travel offers an escorted visit that includes a VIP access-all-areas pass, a private dinner party hosted by Mita Kapur, a literary agent, and an elephant safari and dinner at Dera Amer camp.
10. In the saddle in Kerala
Pedalling along country lanes watching India go about its daily business is a constant pleasure. Adventure tour specialist Explore offers small group cycling adventures in Rajasthan and Kerala. Its Kerala tour is graded easy and offers a diversity of rural rides from the highland coffee and tea plantations and forest hills to leisurely explorations of coastal communities and unspoilt beaches.