India is a cricket-obsessed country and cricket is in the blood of most Indians. Seeing kids playing cricket in parks and alleys with rubber balls and makeshift wickets is an extremely common sight. About half-a dozen Indian stadiums have a capacity of over 45,000 and watching an international cricket match can be quite an experience. While the facilities in the stadiums may not be too spectator friendly (old benches instead of proper seats with backrests, monochrome scoreboards and lots of litter), the atmosphere of most matches is electrifying. Nearly all international matches have sellout crowds, and it is quite normal for fans to bribe officials and make their way in. Starting ticket prices are quite cheap; they can be as low as Rs 250 to 300 (US$6-8). India and Pakistan are all-time arch rivals, and cricket matches between the two matches attract upto a billion TV viewers. There's not much money in cricket compared to football in Europe or the NFL, but unusually enough the Indian cricket team is the richest in the world in terms of sponsorship.
If you want to buy yourself merchandise, Nike (with a limited network in India) is the kit sponsor. Cheap fake ones can be bought at most flea markets for around Rs 200.
The currency in India is the Indian rupee (रुपया rupaya in Hindi and similarly named in most Indian languages, but taka in Bengali and Assamese). It trades around 42 rupees to the US dollar, 80 to pound sterling and 63 rupees to the Euro. The Rupee is subdivided into 100 paise (singular: paisa). Take a look at the Exchange Rates Table for Indian Rupee for other currencies. 5 rupees 75 paise would normally be written as Rs.5.75 and one rupee as Re.1.
Common bills come in denominations of Rs. 5 (green), Rs. 10 (orange), Rs. 20 (red), Rs. 50 (purple), Rs. 100 (blue), Rs. 500 (yellow) and Rs. 1,000 (pink). It is always good to have a number of small bills on hand, as merchants and drivers sometimes don't have change. A useful technique is to keep small bills (Rs. 10 - 50) in your wallet or in a pocket, and to keep larger bills separate. In this way you won't be making obvious the amount of money you have available. In many cases merchants will claim that they don't have change for a Rs. 100 or Rs. 500 note. This is often a lie, as they simply don't want to be stuck with a large bill. Rather than giving up your last 6 ten-rupee notes, it is better to make them give you change.
The coins in circulation are 25 paise, 50 paise, Re. 1, Rs. 2 and Rs. 5. Coins are useful for buying tea (Rs. 5), for bus fare (Rs. 2 to Rs. 10), and for giving exact change for an auto-rickshaw.
Indians commonly use lakh and crore for "hundred thousand" and "10 million" respectively. Though these terms come from Sanskrit, they have been adopted so deeply into Indian English that most people are not aware that it is not standard in other English dialects. You may also find non-standard placement of commas while writing numerals. Rupees One crore would be written as Rs. 1,00,00,000. This format may puzzle you till you start thinking in terms of lakhs and crores, after which it will seem natural.
The Indian rupee is not officially convertible, and a few government-run shops will still insist on seeing official exchange receipts if you're visibly a foreigner and attempt to pay in rupees instead of hard currency. Rates for exchanging rupees overseas are often poor (and importation of Rupees is theoretically illegal), although places with significant Indian populations (eg. Singapore) can give decent rates.
Outside airports you can change your currency at any one of the numerous foreign exchange conversion units including banks. Some of the more common foreign exchange merchants are Western Union and Thomas Cook.
In big cities, there are now ATMs where you can get rupees against your international debit or credit card (maximum amount is 25,000 - 50,000 rupees depending on the ATM). State Bank of India (SBI) is the biggest bank in India and has the most ATM's. ICICI bank has the second largest network of ATMs, and accepts most of the international cards at a nominal charge. International banks like Citibank, HSBC, Barclays, Deutsche Bank, ABN Amro, Standard Chartered etc. have significant presence in major Indian Cities. It is always worthwhile to have bank cards or credit cards from at least two different providers, to ensure that you have a backup available in case one card is suspended by your bank, or simply doesn't work at a particular ATM.
In many cities and towns, credit cards are accepted at retail chain stores and other restaurants and stores. Small businesses and family-run stores almost never accept credit cards, so it is useful to keep a moderate amount of cash on hand.
In short, India is cheap, even for visitors from most other Asian countries. You can easily eat in India for a couple of hundred rupees a day ($4-$5) if you are willing to eat local food, and stay in basic hotels shouldn't cost you more than couple of thousand rupees ($30-$50). At the other end of the spectrum you can sleep in fancy 5 star hotels (typically range from $300 - $600) and spend lots of money on food and shopping.
In India you are expected to negotiate the price with street hawkers, but not in department stores and the like. If not, you risk overpaying many times - which can be okay if you think "well, it's cheaper than home". In most of the big cities and even smaller towns retail chain stores are popping up where the shopping experience is essentially identical to similar stores in the West. There are also some government-run stores like the Cottage Emporium in New Delhi, where you can sample wares from all across the country in air-conditioned comfort. Although you will pay a little more at these stores, you can be sure that what you are getting is not a cheap knockoff. The harder you bargain the more you save money. A few tries later you will realise that it is fun.
Often, the more time you spend in a store, the better deals you will get. It is worth spending time getting to know the owner, asking questions, and getting him to show you other products (if you have an interest). Once the owner feels that he is making a sufficient profit from you, he will often give you additional goods at a rate close to his cost, rather than the common "foreigner rate". You will get better prices and service by buying many items in one store than by bargaining in multiple stores individually. If you see local people buying in a store, probably you can get the real Indian prices. Ask someone around you — preferably so that that the shopkeeper can't hear you! — how much they would pay for an item.
Also, very often you will meet a "friend" in the street offering you to visit his or his family's shop. In about 9 of 10 cases this will simply mean that you pay twice as much as when you had been in the shop without your newly found friend.
Baksheesh -- the giving of small bribes -- is a very common phenomenon. While it is a big problem in India, indulging in it can ease certain problems and clear some hurdles. Baksheesh is also the term used by beggars if they want money from you, and also can refer to tips given those who provide you a service. Baksheesh is as ancient a part of Middle Eastern and Asian culture as anything else. It derives from the Arabic meaning a small gift. It refers as much to charity as to bribes.
Packaged goods show the Maximum Retail Price (MRP) right on the package. This includes taxes. Retailers are not supposed to charge more than this. Though this rule is adhered to at most places, at tourist destinations or remote places, you may be charged more. This is especially true for cold drinks like coke or pepsi, where a bottle (300ml) is priced around 11 to 12 Rs when the actual price is 10. Also, keep in mind that a surprising number of things do not come in packaged form. Do check for the authenticity of the MRP, sometime so it happens that the Shopkeeper may put up a sticker of his own to charge more price from you.
The shops outside the big brand shops are better for as you can get good stuff at a low rate. But watch out for the quality of the things you buy.
One of the sweetest and safest beverages you can get is tender coconut water. You can almost always find it in any beach or other tourist destinations in the south. In summer (March to July), you can get fresh sugarcane juice in many places and even a lot of fresh fruit juice varieties. Be careful as fresh juice may contain many germs besides unhygienic ice! The juice vendors do not always clean their equipment properly and do not wash the fruits either.
Make sure to try the Indian soft drinks: Thums Up, which is a cola that has a unique taste with different spices and sweeteners, and Limca, a lemon lime soda. They are both bottled by Coca-Cola alongside Coke and Sprite.
Everywhere you can get tea (chai in most North Indian languages) of one variety or another. Most common is the "railway tea" type: cheap (2-5 Rs.), sweet and uniquely refreshing once you get the taste for it. It's made by brewing up tea leaves, milk, and sugar altogether in a pot and keeping it hot until it's all sold. Masala chai will also have spices added to the mix, such as cardamom, ginger, cinnamon, and black pepper. For some people, that takes some getting used to.
While Masala chai is popular in Northern and Central India, it must be noted that people in Eastern India (West Bengal and Assam generally consume tea without spices, the English way. This is also the part of India where most tea is grown.
In South India, coffee (especially sweet "filter coffee") replaces tea as a standard beverage.
Drinking alcohol can either be frowned upon or openly accepted, depending on the region and religion of the area within which you are drinking. For example, Goa tends to be more free-wheeling (and has low taxes on alcohol), while southern areas like Chennai are less kind to alcohol, and may even charge excessive taxes on it. Some states such as Gujarat are legally "dry" and alcohol cannot be bought openly there. Alcohol is officially banned, but there is a substantial bootlegging industry, and all types of liquor can be obtained in Gujarat. If you have a non-Indian passport, you can obtain a 'liquor permit'. This allows you to buy alcohol at state-licensed shops, of which there are fourteen or so in all of Gujarat.
Favorite Indian tipples include beer, notably the ubiquitous Kingfisher (a decent lager), and rum, particularly Old Monk. Prices vary by state, especially for hard liquor, but you can expect to pay Rs.50-100 for a large bottle of beer and anywhere between Rs 170-250 for a 750mL bottle of Old Monk.
Indian wines, long a bit of a joke, have improved remarkably in recent years and there's a booming wine industry in the hills of Maharashtra. The good stuff is not particularly cheap, and selections are mostly limited to white wines, but look out for labels by Chateau Indage. 'Sula is also a good brand, and a bottle costs around Rs 500.
Illegal moonshine, called tharra when made from sugar cane and toddy when made from coconuts, is widely available in some states. It's cheap and strong, but very dangerous as quality control is nonexistent, and best avoided entirely.
In the former Portugese colony of Goa you can obtain an extremely pungent liquor, typically made from cashew nuts, known as 'Fenny' or 'Feni'.
India is the largest country in the Indian Subcontinent and
shares borders with Pakistan to the west, China and Nepal to
the north, Bhutan to the north-east, and Bangladesh and Myanmar
to the east. Sri Lanka, the Maldives and Indonesia lie to the
south-east in the Indian Ocean. It is the seventh largest country
in the world by area and, with over a billion people, comes
a close second to China in population. It's an extremely diverse
country, with vast differences in geography, climate, culture,
language and ethnicity across its expanse, and prides itself
on being the largest democracy on Earth.
Indians date their history from the Vedic Period. This is the period when the Vedas, the oldest and holiest books of Hinduism, were compiled. There has been a great dispute for the last 150 years, over dating of Vedic period based on the 'Aryan Invasion Theory', which claims that Vedic people came from Europe / Central Asia and spread their language & culture among ancient Indians. The earliest archaeological traces are from archeological findings of 7000 BC Mehrgarh, Balochistan, Pakistan which grew in advanced, planned urban towns of the "Indus Valley Civilization". This civilization peaked around 3300 BC before declining and disintegrating around 1900 BC, possibly due to a drought & geological disturbances. The excavations reveal an extremely advanced urban civilization, with no evidence of weapons or fortifications.
The Vedic civilization influences India to this day. The roots of present-day Hinduism lie in them. Some rituals of Hinduism took shape during that period. Most North-Indian languages come from Sanskrit, the language of the Vedas. These languages together with Sanskrit are members of the Indo-European group of languages. In the 1st millennium BC, various schools of thought in philosophy developed, enriching Hinduism greatly. Most of them claimed to derive from the Vedas. However, two of these schools - Buddhism and Jainism - questioned the authority of the Vedas and they are now recognized as separate religions.
Many great empires were formed between 500 BC and AD 500. Notable among them were the Mauryas and the Guptas (called the Golden Age). This period saw a gradual decline of Buddhism and Jainism. The practice of Buddhism, in particular, disappeared from the Indian mainland, though Buddha himself was incorporated into the Hindu pantheon. Jainism continues to be practised by a significant number who are ambivalent about whether they consider themselves Hindus or not.
Islamic incursions started in the 8th century in the form of raids. Gradually the raiders started staying as rulers. Soon much of North India was taken over by Islamic rulers. The most important of the Muslim rulers were the Mughals, who established an empire that at its peak covered almost the entire subcontinent except the southern and eastern extremities. The major Hindu force that survived in the North were the Rajputs. Eventually the Mughal empire declined, partly under attack from the Marathas who established a short-lived confederacy that was almost as big as the Mughal Empire. The Rajput and Mughal period of North India was the golden age for Indian art, architecture, and literature. It produced the monumental gems of Rajasthan, and the most famous monument of all, Taj Mahal. Two languages, Hindi and Urdu, took root in medieval North India. During the Islamic period, some Hindus also converted to Islam, either by force, or to escape the low social status that the caste system imposed on them, or to gain the benefits of being aligned with the then rulers. Today, some 13% of the Indian population and an overwhelming majority of Pakistan is Muslim.
South India followed a different trajectory, being less affected by the Islamic invasion. The period from 500 AD to 1600 AD is called the classical period dominated by great South Indian kingdoms. Prominent among them were the Chalukyas, Rashtrakutas and Vijayanagar empire who ruled from present day Karnataka and the Pallavas, Cheras, Pandyas and Cholas who ruled from present day Tamil Nadu & Kerala. Original literature in Tamil, Kannada and Telugu flourished during this time and has been prolific ever since. Some of the grandest Hindu and Jain monuments that exist in India were built during this time in South and East India, which were less subject to religious prohibitions on them.
European traders started visiting India beginning in the late 16th century. By the 19th century, the British East India Company had, one way or the other assumed political control of virtually all Indian lands. There was an uprising by Indian rulers in 1857 which was suppressed, but which prompted the British government to make India a part of the empire. Many Indians converted to Christianity during the period, for pretty much the same reasons as they converted to Islam, though forcible conversions ended in British India after 1857, when the British Government took over from the East India Company, and Queen Victoria promised to respect religious faiths of Indians.
Non-violent resistance to British colonialism under Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru led to independence in 1947. However, independence was simultaneously granted to the secular state of India and the smaller Islamic state of Pakistan, and the orgy of Hindu-Muslim bloodletting that followed Partition led to the deaths of at least half a million and the migration of 12-14 million people.
Free India under Nehru adopted a democratically-governed, centrally-planned economy. These policies were aimed at attaining "self-sufficiency", and to a large extent made India what it is today. India achieved self-sufficiency in food grains by the 1970s, ensuring that the large-scale famines that had been common are now history. However these policies also led to shortages, slow growth and large-scale corruption. After a balance-of-payments crisis in 1991, the country adopted free-market reforms which have continued at a meandering pace ever since, fueling strong growth. IT and Business Process Outsourcing industries have been the drivers for the growth, while Manufacturing and Agriculture, which have not experienced reforms, are lagging. About 60% of Indians live on agriculture and around 25% remain in poverty.
Relations with Pakistan have been frosty. They have fought three (or four, if you count the Kargil conflict of 1999) wars, mostly over the status of Kashmir. The third war between the two countries in 1971 resulted in East Pakistan becoming Bangladesh. China and India went to war in 1962 over a border dispute. Viewed as a "betrayal" in India, it still rankles. Though current relations are peaceful, there is still military rivalry and no land crossings between the countries. The security concerns over Pakistan and China prompted India to test nuclear weapons twice (including the 1974 tests described as "peaceful explosions"). India wants to be accepted as a legitimate nuclear power and is campaigning for a permanent Security Council seat.
India is proud of its democratic record. Constitutional government and democratic freedoms have been safeguarded throughout its 60 years as an independent country, except for an 18 month interlude in 1975-1977, when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declared a state of emergency, suspending elections and civil liberties.
Current concerns in India include the ongoing dispute with Pakistan, over-population, corruption, environmental degradation, continuing poverty, and ethnic and religious strife. But the current obsession, at least among the educated elite, is over whether India will be able overtake China in economic growth.
India is administratively divided into 28 states and 7 union territories. The states are broadly demarcated on linguistic lines. They vary in size; the larger ones are bigger and more diverse than some countries of Europe. The union territories are smaller than the states—sometimes they are just one city—and they have much less autonomy.
These states and union territories are grouped by convention into the following regions:
Mountainous and beautiful, a tourist destination for the adventurous and the spiritual. This region contains some of India's most visited hill-stations and religious places. Also includes the exquisitely scenic states of Himachal Pradesh, Uttaranchal and Jammu and Kashmir.
The country's capital New Delhi is here. The river Ganga and Yamuna flows through this plain. Many of the events that shaped India's history took place in this region.
Miles and miles of the Thar Desert. Home to the the colorful palaces, forts and cities of Rajasthan, the country's most vibrant and biggest city Mumbai (formerly known as Bombay), wonderful beaches and pristine forests of Goa and Bollywood (Indian film industry in Bombay).
A strong bastion of indigenous culture, South India features famous and historical temples, tropical forests, backwaters in Kerala, beautiful hill stations in Tamil Nadu, beaches and cosmopolitan cities in Pondicherry, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh and the wonderful lush island groups of Andaman & Nicobar (on the east) and Lakshadweep on the west.
India's mostly rural region, its largest city is Kolkata (formerly known as Calcutta), the temple cities of Puri of Lord Jagannath fame and Bhubaneswar are both in Orissa.
remote and sensitive, the country's tribal corner, with beautiful landscapes and famous for Tea Gardens. Consists of eight tiny states (by Indian standards, some of them are larger than Switzerland or Austria) popularly nicknamed as the seven sisters.
Below is a selection of nine of India's most notable cities. Other cities can be found under their specific regions.
- Delhi — the capital of India for a thousand years and the heart of Northern India.
- Bangalore — The garden city, once the sleepy home of pensioners now transformed into the city of pubs, technology and companies.
- Chennai (formerly Madras) — main port in Southern India, cradle of Carnatic Music and Bharatanatyam, home of the famous Marina beach, Automobile Capital of India and a fast emerging IT hub.
- Trivandrum — capital of Kerala and gateway to the sandy beaches and backwaters of south west India.
- Jaipur — the Pink City is a major exhibit of the Hindu Rajput culture of medeival Northern India.
- Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) — the cultural capital of India, Kolkata is home to numerous colonial buildings. It is known as The City of Joy.
- Mumbai (formerly Bombay) — the financial capital of India, "Bollywood" (Indian Film Industry) hub.
- Shimla — the former summer capital of British India located in the Himalayan foothills with a large legacy of Victorian architecture.
- Varanasi — considered the most sacred Hindu city, located on the banks of the Ganges, one of the oldest continually inhabited cities of the world.
India has many outstanding landmarks and areas of outstanding beauty. Below is a list of nine of the most notable:
- Bodh Gaya — the place where the Buddha Sakyamuni attained enlightenment.
- Ellora/Ajanta — spectacular rock-cut cave monasteries and temples, holy place for the Buddhists, Jains and Hindus.
- Goa — an east-west mix, beaches and syncretic culture.
- Golden Temple — Sikh holy site located in Amritsar
- Hampi — the awesome ruins of the empire of Vijayanagara
- Khajuraho — famed for its erotic sculptures
- Lake Palace — the Lake Palace of Octopussy fame, located in Udaipur
- Meenakshi Temple — a spectacular Hindhu temple in Madurai
- Taj Mahal — the incomparable Taj Mahal in Agra
Indian cuisine is superb and takes its place among the great cuisines of the world. There is a good chance that you'd have tasted "Indian food" in your country, especially if you are a traveller from the West, but what India has exported abroad is just one part of its extraordinary range of culinary diversity.
Indian food has well-deserved reputation for being hot, owing to the Indian penchant for potent green chilis that will bring tears to the eyes of the uninitiated. You can even find sweet cornflakes with a spicy edge and Indian candies with a piece of chili inside. To enjoy the local food, start slowly. Don't try everything at once. After a few weeks, you can get accustomed to spicy food. If you would like to order your dish not spicy, simply say so. Most visitors are tempted to try at least some of the spicy concoctions, and most discover that the sting is worth the trouble.
Cuisine in India varies greatly from region to region. The "Indian food" served by restaurants around the world is North Indian, also known as Mughlai (the courts of the Mughal emperors) or Punjabi (the people who popularized it). Mughlai cuisine makes heavy use of meat and spices. It has been heavily influenced by Central Asian cooking, hence you will find pulao (rice cooked in broth), kebab (grilled meat), kofta (balls of mincemeat) etc. Tandoori chicken, prepared in a clay oven called a tandoor, is probably the best-known North Indian dish, but for an authentic Punjabi dining experience, try sarson da saag, a yummy gravy dish made with mustard greens, with makke di roti, a roti made from maize.
North India is wheat growing land, so you have Indian breads (known as roti), including chapatti (unleavened bread), paratha (stuffed chapatti), naan (cooked in a clay tandoori oven), puri (deep-fried and puffed up), and many more. A typical meal consists of one or more gravy dishes along with rotis, to be eaten by breaking off a piece of roti, dipping it in the gravy and eating them together. Most of the Hindi heartland of India survives on roti, rice, and lentils (dal), which are prepared in several different ways and made spicy to taste. Served on the side, you will usually find spiced yogurt (raita) and either fresh chutney or a tiny piece of exceedingly pungent pickle (achar), a very acquired taste for most visitors — try mixing it with curry, not eating it plain.
A variety of cuisines can be found throughout north India, like the savory Rajasthani dishes, more akin to the Gujarati cuisine, the meat heavy Kashmiri (Wazwan) dishes from the valley of Kashmir or the mild yet gratiating Himalayan (pahari) cuisine found in the higher reaches. North India also boasts of a variety of snacks like samosa (vegetables encased in thin pastry of a triangular shape) and kachori (either vegetable or pulses encased in thin pastry). There is also a vast constellation of sweet desserts like jalebi (deep-fried pretzel with sugar syrup- shaped like a spiral), rasmalai (balls of curds soaked in condensed milk), halwa, etc. Dry fruits like almonds, cashews and pistachio are used a lot, often in the desserts, but sometimes also in the main meal.
In South India, the food is mostly rice-based. They also make greater use of pulses. The typical meal is sambhar (a watery curry) with rice, or avial (mixed vegetables) with rice. There are regional variations too — the coastal regions make greater use of coconut and fish. In the coast, it is common to use grated coconut in everything and use coconut oil for cooking, while someone from the interior could be surprised to learn that coconut oil, can in fact, be used for cooking. The South also has some great breakfast dishes like idli (a steamed cake of lentils and rice), dosa, a thin, crispy pancake often stuffed with spiced potatoes to make masala dosa, vada, a savoury Indian donut, and uttapam, fried idli with onions and other vegetables mixed in. All of these can be eaten with dahi, plain yogurt, and chutney, a condiment that can be made from practically anything. South Indian cuisine is predominantly vegetarian, though Chettinad, Andhra and Kerala cuisines use meat heavily and are a lot more spicier. Coffee tends to replace tea in the south.
To the West, you will find some great cuisine groups. Gujarati cuisine is mostly vegetarian, sweet, and makes heavy use of milk products. Gujaratis make some of the best snack items such as the Dhokla and the Muthia. Rajasthani cuisine is similar to Gujarati, but somewhat spicier. Maharashtra and Goa are famous for their seafood.
To the East, Bengali food, like South Indian, makes heavy use of rice and fish, though Bengalis prefer freshwater fish. The iconic Bengali dish is Maccher jhol, a spicy fish curry. Bengal is also famous for its sweets, and sondesh is excellent.
A lot of food has also filtered in from other countries. Indian Chinese (or Chindian) is far and away the most common adaptation: most Chinese would barely recognize the stuff, but dishes like veg manchurian (deep-fried vegetable balls in a chilli-soy-ginger sauce) and chilli chicken are very much a part of the Indian cultural landscape and worth a try. The British left fish and chips and some fusion dishes like mulligatawny soup, while Tibetan food, especially momo dumplings, are not uncommon in north India. Pizza has entered India in a big way, but chains like Pizza hut and Domino's have been forced to Indianize the pizza and introduce adaptations like paneer-tikka pizza. Remarkably, there is an Indian chain called Smokin Joe's, based out of Mumbai, which has gone and mixed Thai curry with Pizzas.
It is, of course, impossible to do full justice to the range and diversity of Indian food in this brief section. Not only does every region of India have a distinctive cuisine, but you will also find that even within a region, castes and ethnic communities have different styles of cooking and often have their signature recipes which you will probably not find in restaurants. The adventurous traveller is advised to wangle invitations to homes, try various bylanes of the city and look for food in unlikely places like temples in search of culinary nirvana.