India is the cradle of the human race, the birthplace of human speech, the mother of history, the grandmother of legend, and the great-grandmother of tradition.
With 16 major languages, 1,652 dialects, 5 main religions, over 2,000 castes, thousands of Gods, and the remains of over 500 former kingdoms, India is not so easy encapsulated. The country is much more diverse than most Westerners imagine. There is nothing typical about India and there is no typical Indian.
Here's a quick breakdown of the ten destinations in Northern India that will give you the best view of this larger-than-life country. From the Holy City of Varanasi to the deserts of Rajasthan and the Tibetan enclaves of the Indian Himalaya, we take you on a whirlwind tour of northern India's wildest stops for the cultural traveler.
Are you ready for Varanasi? Dirty, stinky, crowded, and at times repulsive, Varanasi is oft reported as tourist's favorite destination in India. Confused? The holiest of Hindu cities, Varanasi hugs the edge of the Ganges River where devotees come to chat, bathe, and, when the time comes, die. Heightened emotions, colorful rituals, and a total sensory overload make this an unmistakably Indian experience.
Forced to flee during the Tibetan uprising of 1959, the 14th Dalai Llama has run the Tibetan government in exile from McLeod Ganj, a suburb of Dharamshala, ever since. Home to the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts, the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, and several monasteries, this holy mountain city is a colorful slice of Tibet transplanted to the Indian hinterland.
If a few weeks in India haven't turned you into a hippie already, Rishikesh is sure to change that. This holy city at the foothills of the Himalaya is the center of the yoga universe. Old world meets New Age as spiritual seekers flock to ashrams, sort their asanas and chakras, and learn to play the tabla on the edge of the Ganges. Yet, it's not all meditation and ayurvedic tea. Rishikesh offers plenty of trekking and white water rafting opportunities for those seeking to balance the physical and mental extremes.
Though it has been the center of political unrest in recent years, Amritsar's Golden Temple remains a vital pilgrimage site, drawing millions of visitors to its glittery, gold-plated glory. Sikhism's holiest shrine, this gurdwara was completed in the early 17th century, but has suffered damage from years of fighting with both Mughal and Afghan forces. Still, it's glowing walls radiate against the milky white of Amritsar, beckoning your camera for that perfect shot.
Does ancient erotica turn you on? If so, then the Khajuraho Group of Monuments in Madhya Pradesh is the place for you. In total, 85 temples were built between the 9th and 12th centuries during the Chandela Dynasty, though only 20 have survived the test of time. Study up on the Kama Sutra or break out your medieval architecture book - these UNESCO protected wonders are sure to impress all.
Why go? Because you have to. If you arrive home without the mandatory pinching the Taj picture, your friends will send you back to India. The Taj Mahal is the iconic image of the nation. Thankfully, it is as demure and magnificent as it's hyped up to be. While you're in the area, check out the nearby Agra Fort or the historical city of Fatehpur Sikri 40 kilometers away.
Cowering in the shadow of the mighty Mehrangarh Fort, Jodhpur's jumbled streets are a maze of exotic confusion. The blue city, as it is known, is a shining gem on the edge of the Great Thar Desert. Explore the medieval bazaars of the old city, sweat through some spicy Rajasthani thali, and embark on a theatrical audio tour of Mehrangarh. Although bursting out of it's 16th century walls, entering Jodhpur is like stepping back in time to the glory days of the wildly mustachioed Maharajas.
Bask in the Rajput-era opulence of Udaipur along Lake Pichola and you will soon see why it is called the most romantic city in the East. Historic marble palaces and towering lakeside mansions hint at the grandeur of Udaipur's glorious past. A hotbed of Rajasthani art and culture, the streets are bustling with miniature paintings, string puppets, and dance shows. Udaipur is a city to be savored.
Forget Mumbai and Delhi. If you want to see the real India, warts and all, head to Kolkata (Calcutta). With a population approaching 16 million, Kolkata is India's second largest city and it feels it. The capital of the British Raj until 1911, Kolkata is a zoo of colonial artifacts, modern amenities, and age-old ideologies. A walk down the chaotic streets of Kolkata is both an explosion and a celebration of human life.
Get tea drunk in India's premier hill station while gaping at the awesomeness of the Himalaya. Don't have time to skirt into Nepal? Darjeeling has a diverse Himalayan community of Tibetans, Nepalese, Bhutanese and Bengalis. Home to the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, the region has several treks, Everest views, and one of the world's cutest trains.