curry spices market in india

Diversity of India - from North to South and East to West

January 21, 2015

Most foreigners have a skewed image of what India has to offer with its tourism. That image is as skewed as what most people think Indian food is. Yes, Indian food is not just naan and chicken tikka masala. Just like the food, what India has to offer a tourist varies from region to region - from north to south, east to west, central India included. Most people simply divide India into 'North India' and 'South India'. But really, if you wish to truly explore India's diversity, you really have divide India into five distinct regions.

North India - hot and cold

holy city of Varanasi Panoramic from Ganga river
The river Ganga flows through Varanasi where some old rituals are still practiced to this day.

When most people visit India, especially using tour packages, the majority of them opt for sightseeing in and around north India. One of the most popular tourist routes is the 'Golden Triangle,' which covers India's capital Delhi, Agra (where Taj Mahal is located) and the state of Rajasthan, west of Delhi. This makes for a very convenient tour package as these three destinations are very well connected to each other. Besides Taj Mahal, other main attraction in Uttar Pradesh is the holy city of Varanasi. Renowned for being a Hindu heartland, Varanasi where some old (and sometimes controversial) rituals are still practiced to this day. The river Ganga, known to the West as 'Ganges,' flows through Varanasi.

Venture into the neighbouring state of Punjab and be astounded by the Golden Temple in Amritsar. A Sikh shrine, the Golden Temple is one of the most visited temples in India. A short drive from the Golden Temple is the Wagah Border Crossing into Pakistan. Every evening, soldiers from the Indian Border Security Force and Pakistan Rangers perform an elaborate ceremony to signal the closing of the gates.

Spituk Tibetan Buddhist Monastery
Spituk Tibetan Buddhist Monastery - located in the Himalaya mountain range of Northern India.

If you wish to cool off, head up further north. Although hill stations can be found across India, some of the most famous ones are found in north India closer to the Himalayas. Nainital, in the state of Uttarakhand, Shimla and Manali - both in Himachal Pradesh, are India's premier hill stations that receive snowfall in the winter. If you are up for adventure and can endure the chill, the drive up to Leh from Manali will show you breathtaking sights you can never find anywhere else in India. Leh is India's most enduring trekking destination, with its rugged mountains and challenging atmosphere. But don't fret, sherpa guides can be hired to help you on this arduous expedition.

As for the cuisine, much of what is popularly known as 'Indian food' abroad, is derived from Punjabi cuisine. We're talking thick gravies and a wide variety of bread. You can taste the authenticity of it all in Punjab and Delhi.

West India - royal history

Mehrangarh Fort in Rajasthan
Mehrangarh Fort in Rajasthan is one of the largest forts in India.

From Delhi, exploring the Western states of India is relatively easy. The state of Rajasthan in the north-west, with its many grand palaces, give foreign tourists the quintessential stereotype of royal India. Old cities, dry, hot, relics of royalty, elephant rides - you name it. One can even find a snake charmer on the streets, which believe it or not, is actually a rare sight elsewhere in India nowadays. Another unique experience Rajasthan offers are the magnificent sand dunes of the Thar desert, the largest desert in India, spreading well into Pakistan. Ancient cities like Jaisalmer, lie in the heart of Thar desert, and is famous for its ornate Jain temples. But if these places leave you parched, head to Udaipur, known as Rajasthan's 'City of Lakes'.

Camel caravan with sunset background in Thar desert
Ancient cities like Jaisalmer lie in the heart of Thar desert.

The western-most state of Gujarat is the birthplace of Mahatma Gandhi. Believers of Gandhi's principles make the pilgrimage to Sabarmati Ashram, Mahatma Gandhi's home, which now contains carefully preserved letters written by Gandhi himself and rare photographs from India's freedom struggle.

Both Rajasthan and Gujarat's population are predominantly vegetarians. In fact, Gujarati cuisine is famous for being rather sweet. Yes, even some of the curries!

Central India - home of the tiger

Bengal Tiger in Tiger reserve
Bengal tiger can be seen in many national parks like Kanha National Park and Bandhavgar National Park.

The heart of India is also home to its national animal, the Royal Bengal tiger. The state of Madhya Pradesh has two of India's largest tiger reserves - Kanha National Park and Bandhavgarh National park. If you wish to spot a tiger in its natural surroundings, then you have plenty of options for a tiger safari in Madhya Pradesh. The historical town of Orchha in Madhya Pradhesh is where one can find remains of grand palaces and temples dating back 400 years.

If you are seeking temples of the kamasutra kind, Khajuraho with its erotic sculptures should satisfy your needs. A little to the east is the state of Orissa, famous for the Jagannath Puri Temple and the Konark Sun Temple, both of which are considered historic architectural marvels.

The cuisine of Central India is famous for its rich sweets and cities like Lucknow (in Uttar Pradesh) is renowned for its meat preparations, mostly inspired from the Mughal era.

South India - more than just beaches

Tropical beach. Palolem beach in Goa.
South India is famous for its tropical beaches. Palolem beach in Goa.

South India is quite different from the north. Not only does the south have the largest coastal lines of India, but the languages spoken and the cuisines are distinctly different from the north. Having an extensive share of India's coastline means you find the best beaches of India in the south. The small state of Goa is where many go to party, but if you want equally beautiful beaches but without the maddening crowds, the beaches of coastal Karnataka and Kerala are where you can relax with a chilled bottle of Kingfisher beer (India's most popular beer brand).

The west coast of India still has many remnants of the Portuguese and Dutch colonists. From the cathedrals of Goa to the many forts, these structures are now popular tourist attractions. Cochin in Kerala is home to the last remaining Jew Town in India. Kerala is world famous for its backwaters and the houseboats that take you on the relaxing journey through them. For more relaxation, Kerala also offers several retreats specializing in ayurveda treatments, the ancient alternative medicine system developed in India centuries ago. The south is equally known for its tea estates, with much of it centered around Thekkady, Munnar and Ooty.

Dosa - one of the traditional South India food
Dosa - one of the traditional South India food

There is no shortage of Hindu temples in south India, but one thing to notice is how distinctly different their architecture and colours are compared to the temples of the north. Landing in the city of Chennai is a good place to start exploring the temples of the south. What's even more distinct is the cuisine down south. While much of the cuisine up north is heavy on wheat breads, rice is a dominant down south. The curries also incorporate coconut milk and meals are often eaten on a banana leaf. Seafood is a specialty of the south.

East India - unexplored wonders

Mahabodhi Temple in Bodhgaya
Mahabodhi Temple in Bodhgaya is the place where Gautama Buddha is said to have obtained enlightenment.

The eastern region of India doesn't see as many tourists as the other regions, and this is partly because of the terrain and the lack of promotion. Suffice to say, the east offers the discerning tourist quite a lot of adventure. Kolkata, formerly known as Calcutta, was the capital of India before it shifted to Delhi. This eastern megacity is a great hub to begin your exploration of the North East region. Darjeeling, a few hours from Kolkata, is world famous for the tea that bears its name. The hill station was frequented by the British during colonial times and the tea estates in the region continue to flourish to this day.

For some Buddhist wisdom, Bodh Gaya in the state of Bihar is where most devotees head. Bodh Gaya is the place where Gautama Buddha is said to have obtained enlightenment under what became known as the Bodhi Tree.

Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland, and Tripura - affectionally known as the "Seven Sisters" - make up the eastern edge of India bordering Bangladesh and China. These seven states share similarities in their culture, cuisine and geography. Each state has that one attraction that has placed them on the tourist map. For example, Meghalaya's Living Bridges are now world famous, and a bit hard to believe how they were created. Manipur's Loktak Lake is the largest freshwater lake in the northeast and is famous for the rings of vegetation that float over it.

The north eastern states are home to hundreds of tribes, and festivals such as the annual Hornbill Festival in Nagaland (held in the first week of December) showcases the wealth of the tribal culture in the region. The cuisine of the north east is distinct from the rest of India. Although rice is essential to the diet, the use of bamboo shoots and lotus stems are common in north eastern cuisine. States like Nagaland are particularly famous for their meat dishes.

One trip to India may not suffice

As you can see, India offers a lot of diversity from one corner to another. It's nearly impossible to see everything India has to offer in one visit. India goes through many seasons and the above places all show their unique charms differently with the changing seasons. As some people say, India is an open book, it's up to you how you choose to write your India story.

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