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A Complete Backpacker’s Guide to India

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Written by: James Mooney

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The Republic of India is large; it’s the world’s seventh largest country by area, the world’s second largest by population (not for long, watch out China – Ed) and the world’s largest democracy; the latter being something they’re very proud of.
India is an enigma, a country very hard to work out. It has many different faces and guises. There’s no ‘real’ India; it’s not a monolithic cultural block but rather a collection of a thousand countries all wrapped up into one. For example, it has over 20 official languages and 330 million deities. So if you’re going to India looking for some real Indian culture, you won’t find it, because there’s no ‘real’ India, but many ‘India’s’.
All it takes to witness the sheer diversity of the sub-continent is by walking 100 yard from arrivals at the airport when you land; it’s here where the melee begins. India doesn’t waste any time smacking you in face with its grace. It’s a country best taken at a slow pace…
The first night of my first time in India someone told me that India was an abbreviation. He told me that it stood for I’ll Never Do It Again and I met many travellers who shared that opinion, but I couldn’t disagree more. For India is without a doubt one of the greatest countries in the world for people, culture, history, scenery, food and nature to name but a few. Also, it’s one of the most rewarding destinations for budget minded travellers, making it even more rewarding to travel too!


Around 5,000 years ago India’s first major civilisation flourished along the Indus river valley extending for nearly a million square kilometres. They survived for roughly 1,000 years until they were finally killed by tectonic upheavals; major floods around 1700BC wiped out the majority of the Indus people and the Aryans turned up in 1500BC to finish the job off. The Indus civilisation was no more…
At the dawn of the Vedic ages the Aryans came from the north and spread through huge parts of India, bringing with them their culture and religion.
In the 4th century BC, Emperor Ashoka, one of the greatest kings of Indian history, led the Mauryan Empire to take over almost all of what is now modern India. Soon after came the Gupta’s in the north while several Hindu empires grew in the south.
In approximately the 7th century AD, a group of Parsees landed in Gujarat and became a part of the melting-pot that was becoming India. A large mix of religions were starting to appear on the sub- continent, including Hinduism, Buddhism, Jain, Judaism and Christianity. By the 15th century a man named Guru Nanak turned up and laid the foundations of the Sikh religion in the north of India.
In 1192, Mohammed Ghori, a ruler from Afghanistan, came into India and captured Delhi and much of the north. One of his military generals became the first Sultan of Delhi and during this time Islam was introduced too much of northern India.
Over the next 200 years, the Delhi sultanate took over much of northern India until ‘Timur the lame’ came from Turkey in 1398 to attack India. His army ravished the land and defeated the sultanate.
Every time India was invaded and a new ruler was instated, a little bit of their culture was created, further diluting the melting-pot of India.
In the meantime, in 1336 the Hindu Vijay Anagar Empire had been set up and became very strong down in southern India.
The Europeans (Portuguese, French, Dutch, Danish and British) started arriving in the early 17th century AD. They all held territories but it was the British who eventually controlled the majority of India, finally making it one of their colonies.
India finally gained its independence from Britain in 1947 after a long struggle led mostly by Mahatma Gandhi. In the years that followed India made huge progress in terms of development, becoming one of the world’s largest economies, being tipped to be a future super-power and big-game player.

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India has the world’s largest democracy and is very proud of the fact.
Problems can arise in certain regions when the central government makes decisions that anger the people of lower castes. However, the majority of political problems come from the north-eastern Indian territory of Kashmir due to the border conflicts with India and Pakistan.
Local politics are rife with corruption and as with many impoverished nations they struggle to combat it.


India is a very big place and travelling there is heavily affected by the weather. The best time to commence your pilgrimage is between October and March, when the conditions are pleasant across the country. The summer (April -June) can be unbearably hot in the north and extremely humid in the south.
Don’t forget the rainy season (July- September) is best avoided as heavy and frequent rainfall can make travel difficult.

Health Advice

The horror stories you hear surrounding health whilst you’re in India can be slightly off-putting, but as long as you follow certain precautions then you’ll be fine. However, saying that, it’s likely you’re going to get ill in India at some point…
While you’re in India it’s the precautions you take that can keep you healthy. I was lucky to get away with a hernia and a couple of dodgy mornings following some rather spicy curries.
It’s almost a rite of passage when travelling in India to suffer from a bout of the infamous Delhi Belly. If this happens my advice is to hole up in a nice hotel room, with plenty of water and bog roll.
To avoid getting ill, be vigilant when buying bottled water (check for plastic seals) and maybe even avoid meat. India does have the best vegetarian food in the world after all!
If buying food from street stalls make sure you only go to places busy with locals. It’s usually a sign of safe food to eat. Failure to adhere to these rules could lead to apocalyptically messy results.
Vaccinations worth getting are Tetanus, Typhoid, Hepatitis A and B and Rabies. It’s also advisable to take a course of anti-malarials.

Visa Advice

Everyone needs a visa to enter India, regardless of nationality. Indian embassies and consulates around the world usually offer six month multiple-entry visas. You can send your passport off to an Indian embassy for a six-month visa and it takes around two weeks to be granted. Multiple-entry visas can be useful for visiting other countries in the sub-continent such as Nepal and Sri Lanka.
You can go on the Indian embassy website for more information.

Getting There – Information and Prices

India has four main international airports – New Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai. So if you’re coming from the western world the chances are you’ll be arriving at one of these.
Main airlines that ply the UK-India route are British Airways, Emirates, Qatar Airways and Virgin. One of the cheapest airlines to look out for is Air India. You can get a return flight for around £300-£500 depending on the time of year you fly. Just make sure you shop around…

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Getting Around – Bus, car, plane and train

Bus – When the train system failed me in northern India I was forced to take to the buses. I decided to spend a bit more on a deluxe bus, but I still had to share my seat with two other people!! It was the proverbial chicken bus or a deluxe chicken bus if you will. But it was also good fun and if the journeys not too long it can be quite a funny experience; an essential Indian experience.
Car – If short on time then a hired car with driver can be a very worthwhile investment. It’s certainly much more comfortable than the buses.
Plane – with the recent addition of many budget airlines on the sub-continent many people are deciding to take to skies to travel around India and to avoid some monstrously long train journeys. The prices are actually quite competitive – try airlines such as Air Deccan, Indigo, Spice Jet and Go Air. Although be aware that one airline last year had an issue with one of its toilets and people were forced to sit there for three hours on a plane smelling of s***!
Train – In my opinion this is the only way to travel around India. The colonial British of old did many bad things, but building one of the world’s most intensive railway systems was not one of them. The trains can get you to nearly every corner of the country and can be very cheap. Check out these links for in depth information on the train system in India.

Top Events

  • Holi festival – Hindus celebrate the coming of spring by throwing coloured water and powders over each other. Possibly the most famous of all Indian festivals. Just make sure you don’t wear any nice clothes!
  • Diwali – The festival of lights, cue lots of fireworks and chaos.
  • Ramadan – 30 days of fasting to mark the ninth month of the Islamic calendar.
  • Pushkar Camel Fair – Lots of dancing, lots of people and lots and lots of camels.
  • Kumb Mela – The festival to end all festivals, the biggest gathering of humanity on the planet. It takes place four times over 12 years in random places. Its celebrations attract tens of millions of Hindu revellers and it’s one of the holiest Indian festivals.

Top Sites and Activities

  • Taj Mahal – Agra
  • The Ganges – Varanasi
  • The Golden Temple – Amritsar
  • Chilling on a beach – Goa
  • Be a star in a Bollywood film – Mumbai
  • Backwaters cruise- Kerala
  • Exploring ancient ruins – Hampi
  • Meet the Dalai Lama – Mcleod Ganj
  • Desert trek – Jaisalamer
  • Yak Skiing – Manali (please tell me if you manage to find this…)


India can be a fantastically cheap place to travel in, but it pays to know how much you should pay for things. Railway stations often have prepaid taxi booths with set prices, go to one of these places and avoid being ripped off.
In shops look on everything they have for sale and you should spot a mark that says M.R.P. It stands for maximum retail price, they can’t legally sell these things for any more so look at the price pay your money and leave. If they try to charge you more then call them out.

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Further Information

India can be an over whelming place to travel in. Before I went I had heard some absolutely mental stories about things that happened to travellers in India. I decided to go there expecting the absolute worst, and it turned out to be an amazing experience.
I think coming from a western country it can be a bit of an eye opener, but go there with a completely open mind and the experiences will be unrivalled. Take your time when arriving; don’t try to do pack things in, it’s not worth it. And I am certain that India will take hold of you and never leave your thoughts. It’s a country like no other.

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