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ICONIC India Travel Guide | Where to go in India

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India Travel Guide | Journey to India, Part 2

Use our India travel guide to experience a world that glows in brilliant technicolor, rich with beauty.

Discovering India is a study of contrasts. As noted by the brilliant Cambridge University economist, Joan Robinson, “Whatever you can say about India, the opposite is also true.”

Let us plan your trip with our India travel guide, focusing on several of her best, ICONIC destinations and properties. Everywhere you go, you will see and experience India’s fascinating world of opposites.

SIX SENSES FORT BARWARA

As India is a study in contrasts, I recommend a visit to India that reflects a broad range of experiences, including those from dense cities to serene oases. About a three hour drive from Jaipur, is a newly curated oasis, Six Senses Fort Barwara. The hotel/resort is the beautifully restored Fort Barara overlooking the Barwara River. It is the first Indian property of the acclaimed Six Senses group. The Barwara Fort was constructed originally in the 14th century. The hotel incorporates two original palaces (East wing and West wing) and two temples all within the walled fort. East Wing suites overlook the Aravali range while the West Wing suites overlook the Barwara village.

Six Senses Fort Barwara

Guests enjoy the three restaurants and various activities offered, in addition to the famed Six Senses Spa. Sunrise and sunset hikes and meditation are favorite ways to experience the natural and mystical beauty here. Their cooking classes are fun and provide organic farm to table food as well as the sharing of history, traditions, and happiness while also learning techniques and tricks for making an Indian meal. An historical walk in and around this 14th century, majestic fort reinforces the benefits of restoration and preservation of the self and everything around us. Enjoy a perfect wilderness picnic surrounded by nature and deep forest vibes. In the evening, enjoy sundowner cocktails or mocktails while watching the sunset. I trust you are ready to go!

RANTHAMBORE NATIONAL PARK

Further connect with nature with a 45-minute-drive to your next destination, Ranthambore National Park, a vast wildlife reserve with tigers. This is one of the best locations in India to see these majestic predators in their natural habitat. Often, tigers can be spotted even during the daytime, busy hunting and taking care of their young. Ranthambore is also a famous heritage site because of the picturesque ruins that dot the park. Tucked between the rugged Aravalli and Vindhya hills, the park boasts a spectacular landscape filled with border-strewn highland plateaus, lakes and rivers. 

Until 1970, it was a hunting ground for the local maharajas and is now a protected refuge for hundreds of species of birds, mammals and reptiles. Ranthambore is one of India’s finest examples of dry deciduous forest interspersed with grassland. Among the scattered ruins of the Ranthambore Fort, you may even spot tigers! Your private park drives are arranged with an experienced naturalist in open 4×4 jeeps. A visit to Ranthambore National Park is a treat for wildlife and nature lovers—and there are exceptional hotel/lodge options nearby.

AGRA WITH KEOLADEO NATIONAL PARK & FATEHPUR SIKRI EN ROUTE

From Ranthambore’s pristine nature to one of the most magnificent man-made structures, travel to Agra and visit the Taj Mahal. En route, the contrasts of India continue.

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KEOLADEO NATIONAL PARK

Keoladeo National Park, formerly known as Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary, is one of the finest bird sanctuaries in the world. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The park is home to over 370 species of birds and animals. It was also known as the breeding ground for the rare and elusive Siberian crane. Keoladeo National Park offers well-defined treks which can be covered on foot, or by cycle or rickshaws. In fact, the park management has trained the rickshaw pullers in bird watching and they make for extremely knowledgeable guides. The best times to visit are from October to February to see migratory birds and from August to November to witness the resident birds. Visitors may also see sambar deer, chital deer, nilgai antelope and Indian boar.

FATEHPUR SIKRI

Next, stop to visit the ruins of the city of Fatehpur Sikri, a UNESCO World Heritage site, that is about 22 miles from the Taj Mahal. The city was completed in 1585 by Mughal Emperor, Akbar, as his capital but a shortage of water compelled him to abandon the city. This is one of the best examples of Mughal architectural splendor at its height. Its architecture, a blend of Hindu and Islamic styles, reflects Akbar’s secular vision. In fact, Fatehpur Sikri Mosque is said to be a copy of the mosque in Mecca and its designs, derived from Persian and Hindu architecture.

AGRA

Agra is the home of the Taj Mahal. The city flourished under the patronage of the emperors Akbar, Jahangir and Shah Jahan and attracted artisans from Persia and central Asia. The place to stay is the Oberoi Amarvillas, built in a style inspired by Moorish and Mughal architecture. The hotel is located 2,000 feet from the Taj Mahal and all rooms, suites, lobby and bar offer breathtaking views of the Taj Mahal. The Taj Mahal never disappoints, and I recommend visiting at both sunset and sunrise to view it bathed in different light. Security is tight at the Taj entrance so take nothing with you except your wallet and camera.

The Taj Mahal is a huge mausoleum complex commissioned in 1632 by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan to house the remains of his beloved wife. Although it was a memorial to Shah Jahan’s love for his deceased wife, it was also a symbol of power, wealth and aesthetic values of the Mughal Empire. Constructed over a 20 year period on the southern bank of the Yamuna River in Agra, the famed complex is one of the most outstanding examples of Mughal architecture, which combined Indian, Persian and Islamic influences. 

At its center is the Taj Mahal itself, built of shimmering white marble that seems to change color depending on the daylight. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1983, it remains one of the world’s most celebrated structures and a stunning symbol of India’s rich history. It is a masterpiece of architectural style in conception, treatment and execution. It has unique aesthetic qualities in balance, symmetry and harmonious blending of various elements. The color combination of lush green scape, reddish pathway and blue sky over it showcases the monument in ever changing tints and moods. Only when you are up close can you appreciate the exceptional relief work in marble with meticulous inlays of precious and semi-precious stones including jade, crystal, lapis lazuli, amethyst and turquoise. It is stunning.

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There is more to Agra than the Taj! Near the gardens of the Taj Mahal stand the important 16th century Mughal monument known as the Red Fort or the Agra Fort, a UNESCO World Heritage site. This powerful fortress of red sandstone encompasses the imperial city of the Mughal rulers. It comprises many fairy tale palaces, such as the Jahangir Palace and the Khas Mahal built by Shah Jahan; audience halls, such as the Diwan-i-Khas; and two very beautiful mosques. For shopping, Agra remains famous for handicraft products such as inlay work on marble, carpets, jewelry and embroidery work.

VARANASI

Do not miss Varanasi, a highlight of a visit to India. Varanasi is one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world and the holiest in Hinduism. To travel from Varanasi from Agra, there is an excellent highway and train options between Agra and Delhi. Then, there are non-stop flights from Delhi to Varanasi throughout the day.

Varanasi’s unique culture is associated with the river Ganges, where life and death intermingle. For religious Hindus, a pilgrimage to Varanasi is a goal in life. Devout Hindus flock to the ghats (steps leading to the river) of the Ganges praying with the belief that bathing in the waters of the sacred river will result in the remission of their sins, while the ashes of the dead are scattered in the water to break the cycle of reincarnation. Start exploring with a tour along the ghats. Pilgrims and holy men abound. Every site, sound and person are rich and complex.

Each evening, as dusk descends, the Ganga Aarti is performed at the three holy cities of Haridwar, Rishikesh and Varanasi in India. It is a very powerful, peaceful, joyous and uplifting spiritual ritual. In the evening, visit by boat and be among the faithful experiencing the Ganga Aarti Ceremony performed at the Dashashwamedh Ghat, one of the holiest of all ghats in Varanasi.  The beautiful, mesmerizing and highly choreographed ceremony is performed to show gratitude and respect to the river and ask for its blessings.  

Here, the Aarti is performed on a stage by a group of young pandits (priests), all draped in saffron-colored robes. It commences with the blowing of a conch shell and continues with the waving of incense sticks in elaborate patterns and circling of large flaming lamps that create a bright hue against the darkened sky. The movement of the lamps held in the pandits’ hands, is tightly synchronized to the rhythmic chants of hymns and clang of cymbals. The heady scent of sandalwood thickly permeates the air, and you will be surrounded by all who have come. Thousands of tiny candlelit lamps made of leaves and marigolds are set afloat paying tribute to the river. It is truly inspirational!

At dawn, return to the river by boat when the river is bathed in a luminous yellow light as colorful throngs of pilgrims perform their morning devotions and to observe the cremations.  Every day at Manikarnika Ghat, the largest and most auspicious cremation ghat, approximately 100 bodies are separately cremated on fresh pine wood pyres along the river’s edge. The ghat operates around the clock, every day of the year.  It is believed that if one is cremated in Varanasi, and their ashes are released into the sacred and purifying water of the Ganges, their reincarnation cycle will end, and they will reach Nirvana.

About 6 miles away, visit Sarnath, where Gautam Buddha gave his first sermon about the basic principles of his philosophy which later became Buddhism. The site houses a number of Stupas (monuments), excavated ruins of monasteries and the Ashoka pillar with the four sided lion’s head which is also the national emblem of India. The museum has a rich collection of sculptures comprising numerous Buddha and Bodhisattva images, considered amongst the best specimens of Buddhist art.

ANANDA IN THE HIMALAYAS AND RISHIKESH

Next, take a non-stop flight to Dehradun in the Himalayas and you will be met and driven about one hour to “Ananda in the Himalayas” (“Ananda”). Anada is a destination spa resort designed with classic elegance in the colonial hill architectural style and blends seamlessly with the lush surrounding landscapes. Ananda is located on a 100 acre Maharaja’s Palace Estate, surrounded by graceful Sal forests and overlooking the spiritual town of Rishikesh and the Ganges River Valley.

Ananda, one of the finest spa resorts in the world, integrates traditional ayurveda, yoga and Vedanta teaching with international wellness experiences, fitness and healthy organic cuisine to restore balance, harmonize energy and create a sustainable journey towards a healthier, enriched lifestyle. Many guests love to explore and hike in this beautiful part of the Himalayas, including hiking on a 1,000+ year old trail along the Ganges River.

Just 13 miles away is the city of Rishikesh, which is a fantastic benefit of staying at Ananda. Rishikesh offers a lot of options. Outdoor activities including kayaking on the bays and top quality white rafting with a mix of easy to difficult rapids on the Ganges River. 

Rishikesh is home to numerous yoga centers, meditation centers and the Kailas Ashram Brahma Vidyapeetham which is a 130-years old institution dedicated to promoting and preserving Vedantic studies. Moreover, Rishikesh is a Hindu pilgrimage destination of the holy Ganges River. Sites include the ancient temples of Bharat, Shatrughna and Lakshman.

I highly recommend being there during sunset to experience the inspirational Ganga Aarti ceremony of Rishikesh. It is a much more intimate, relaxed and less theatrical experience than the Aartis at Haridwar and Varanasi, so some prefer it for these reasons and, therefore, find it to be more spiritual.

DELHI

There are several non-stop flights from Dehradun to Delhi which is a convenient gateway city for flights to India and to fly home.

Although Delhi is chaotic with terrible air pollution, it is interesting, vibrant and worth exploring. Delhi is an important commercial, transport and cultural hub, as well as the political center of India. Great tourist sites include Humayun’s Tomb, the Lotus Temple, the Lodhi Gardens, the National Museum of New Delhi and the President’s Palace, as well as lots of shopping opportunities, including Connaught Place Market and Khan Market.

For me, a highlight and empowering culmination of a visit to India and Delhi includes visiting the communal kitchen of the Gurudwara Bangla Sahib in Delhi that feeds 35,000 free meals each day, 24/7. During the height of the CoVID pandemic, it distributed 75,000 meals per day to the needy and CoVID affected. This is one of the most prominent and beautiful Sikh gurdwaras. Gurdwara is a place of assembly and worship for Sikhs.

At a Sikh gurdwara, visitors of any background can seek shelter, comfort and food through the institution of langar, the free community kitchen open to all. Everyone sits on the floor as a sign of equality. The communal kitchen cooks simple, fresh, wholesome, vegetarian meals without any fuss or rush. It is run by volunteers. Its efficiency is a study in organization and how to feed so many so well with a focus on feeding the very poor. 

The Sikh tradition, known in the Punjabi language as Sikhi, was founded over 500 years ago in India. There are more than 25 million Sikhs around the world, which makes Sikhism the world’s fifth largest religion. Sikhi teaches a message based on the principles of love, divine oneness and social equality. The Sikh religion rejects all social distinctions that produce inequities, including gender, race, religion and caste. All people are equally divine and deserve to be treated as such. Safe travels home and Namaste!

Sample Itinerary

A “Best of the Best of Northern India” recommended itinerary with luxury accommodations: 

(1) 3 nights in Mumbai at Taj Mahal Palace or Oberoi Mumbai

(2) 3-5 nights in Goa at St Regis Goa Resort or Taj Exotica Resort & Spa

(3) 2-4 nights in Udaipur at Oberoi Udaivilas, Taj Lake Palace or Leela Palace

(4) 2-3 nights in Jawai Conservation Reserve at SUJAN JAWAI

(5) 3 nights in Jodhpur at Taj Umaid Bhawan Palace or RAAS Jodhpur

(6) 1-2 nights in Jaipur at Taj Rambagh Palace, Oberoi Rajvilas or Rajmahal Palace RAAS Jaipur

(7) 2-4 nights at Six Senses Fort Barwara

(8) 2-3 nights near Ranthambore National Park at SUJAN Sher Bagh or Oberoi Vanyavilas Wildlife Resort

(9) 2-3 nights in Agra at Oberoi Amarvilas

(10) 2-3 nights in Varanasi at Taj Nadesar Palace or Brij Rama Palace

(11) 3-5 nights at Ananda in the Himalayas

(12) 1-3 nights in Delhi at Oberoi New Delhi, The Imperial, The Lodhi, Leela Palace, Taj Mahal New Delhi, Oberoi Gurgaon (near DEL airport)

NOTE: All hotels above are great for weddings and milestone events!
Plus, add to the list above: Taj Falaknuma Palace in Hyderabad, RAAS Devigarh in Rajasthan and Mihir Garh in Rajasthan.

THE GIFT OF GIVING

The American Indian Foundation (AIF) is committed to improving the lives of India’s underprivileged, with a special focus on women, children, and youth. In a country where extreme contrasts of wealth and poverty coexist in everyday life, we hear hopeful stories of India’s rise and rapid growth. However, 800 million people – more than the entire population of Africa – live on less than two dollars per day in India. AFI has created countless opportunities for India’s poor to live successful, productive lives while creating impactful change at an unprecedented scale, changing the lives of more than 8.4 million of India’s less fortunate. 

The American India Foundation is committed to catalyzing social and economic change in India and building a lasting bridge between the United States and India through high-impact interventions in education, livelihoods, public health, and leadership development.

To get involved, find out more and give, go to www.aif.org

READY TO GO

To book your business and leisure travels worldwide, call on David Rubin and his team at DavidTravel. In 1996, David moved from a successful law practice, followed a deep passion for travel, and launched his travel company. For more than a decade, David has been on both the Travel + Leisure Magazine “A-List” and the Conde Nast Traveler Magazine “Specialist List” of the best travel advisors in the world. DavidTravel delivers unparalleled style, attention to detail, and insider access uniquely responding to each client’s goals, budget, interests and dreams.

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