If you live in the developed world, the prospect of traveling to India can either fill you with dread or with awe. Both reactions, and possibly a combination, are completely appropriate. India is a cacophony of sounds, a melange of smells and a dizzying collage of visions and wonders.
I was born in India and spent the first 18 years of my life there. I visit once or twice a year with my children, and they completely revel in the assault on their senses and how different things are from home.
I am also a huge fan of exposing kids to different cultures at a young age. I believe it breeds open-minded adults who are able to truly appreciate the world’s diversity. And as exposure to diversity goes, few countries offer as much opportunity as this one. A visit to India will not leave you unmarked, and it’s a wonderfully rich experience to gift your children.
History. India’s history dates back to the Indus Valley Civilization, one of the world’s first known societies. Every corner of the country tells a story through its landscape, its architecture and its people. Centers for learning abound for those who want to deepen their understanding of ancient Indian practices like Ayurveda and yoga, and for the rest, there are enough forts, temples and palaces to give you a fleeting sense of the nation’s rich past.
Cultural diversity. India’s culture varies vastly from the north to the south and from the east to the west. Each region boasts its own language, cuisine, clothes, art and norms. Often, the common denominator is English, so tourists don’t feel so out of place after all. Most major religions in the world are represented in India, so it’s possible to find a temple, a mosque and a church within the same few square miles in the big cities.
Economic diversity. India’s economic inequality is astounding. Almost 50 percent of the population is below the poverty line, yet consumption is indeed conspicuous, with BMWs on streets and luxury brands in malls. Affluent city-dwellers spend in one night what the average man earns in a month. You can find merchandise at any price point and to suit any budget, and it’s a real eye-opener for privileged kids to see how these different classes coexist.
Natural beauty. India has some of the most magnificent landscapes in the world, though you have to escape the hustle and bustle of the major cities to find them. From the valleys of Kashmir to the backwaters of Kerala, from the tea estates of Assam to the sun-kissed beaches of Goa, there truly is something for everyone here. Indian art, jewelry and textiles are also world-famous — as is Bollywood, India’s film industry, known for its rich cinematography and beautiful actresses!
Food. There is much more to Indian food than chicken tikka masala. You’ve not truly experienced the wonders of this cuisine until you’ve tasted prawn curry and apam from the south, mithai from Bengal, street food in Mumbai and tandoori rotis from the north. As if all this isn’t enough, cities like Mumbai and Delhi have bustling restaurant scenes, combining local and international flavors to produce gastronomic experiences competing on a global scale.
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OK, you’re sold. You are going to India. But where do you even start to plan a trip?
India is a huge country and unless you are taking a couple of months off to travel, it’s hard to cover it all in one trip. If you are traveling with kids, it might also be overwhelming for an extended period of time. I’d say two weeks is good start, allowing for some down time, and to get around.
For the sake of travel, India can be broken up into four major regions.
Delhi and the north: Most people start trips to India in the capital city of New Delhi and then travel around. This makes sense because Delhi has a lot to see in terms of India’s politics and history, and because it’s an easy launchpad to some of the country’s most famous sights such as Jaipur (the Pink City), Udaipur (the “Venice of the East”), Khajurao (known for its ancient Hindu temples and sculptures), Fatehpur Sikri (former capital of the Mughal Empire), and, of course, Agra, home of the Taj Mahal.
Mumbai and the Konkan Coast: Mumbai is the “New York of India,” and people’s reactions to this city are just as to the Big Apple: You either love it or hate it. Mumbai has a beautiful collection of Art Deco and Victorian buildings, such as the famous Taj Mahal Hotel and Gateway of India. But really, one goes to Mumbai to witness contemporary India in action. Mumbai is home to Bollywood, great restaurants, shopping and bars. Those seeking a quieter pace can head South to Goa, an Ibiza-like beach town with beautiful resorts for the family.
Kerala and the south: The backwaters of Kerala are India’s lesser-known gems, offering visitors the opportunity to explore the coconut groves and paddy fields of the southern states. You can hole up in luxury 5-star accommodations or stay in rustic over-water shacks. Diving enthusiasts might also consider the Andaman or Lakshadweep islands off India’s southern coast.
Calcutta and the east: Some of the country’s most prominent cultural and historical figures hail from its east coast. From the banks of the Ganges, India’s most sacred river, to the colonial architecture of Calcutta and the temples of Bhubaneshwar, a visit to this region will provide a deep understanding of the country’s art and religions.
While there are a lot of reasons to visit India with the family, there are certain things that first-time travelers, particularly from the West, should pay attention to:
Editor’s Note: Kaamna Bhojwani-Dhawan is the founder of Momaboard.com, a website for globetrotting kids and their parents. For more of her insight, read Momaboard’s guides to Mumbai and Delhi with kids.
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