Spotlight on India & Sri Lanka
India. It’s the birthplace of medicine, the originator of four world religions, and the place where curry was born. Yum! India is everything to everyone: luxury, squalor, exquisite beauty and terrible misery. You’ll find cutting edge hi tech and Stone Age agrarianism, sometimes side by side. Bollywood movies glamorize the country, while box office hits like Slumdog Millionnaire show a good deal more grit and grime.
India is a vast land of 1,200,000 square miles and home to 1.2 billion people. There are also 122 languages spoken by more than 10,000 people, and thousands of languages in total. If you want to have some fun with numbers, that’s 1,000 people per square mile and 10,000 square miles per language!
Sri Lanka is a bit like India in miniature. The shape of a drop of water, it boasts eight World Heritage Sites, mountains and beaches, tea plantations and rain forest, temples, cities and villages—all in a space about the same size as the island of Cuba. Together, they form a tantalizing duo and a magnetic pull for travelers.
Set a group of travelers on the loose in India, and the only thing they might all gravitate to without fail is the Taj Mahal. Otherwise, there are so many very good examples of literally every kind of attraction imaginable that you could criss-cross the subcontinent for years and never repeat an experience.
Here are three excellent itineraries that represent the best of north India, south India, and Sri Lanka:
The Ganges, Taj & Raj
This 12-day tour beginning and ending in Delhi hits some of the highest points of northern India, centered in photogenic Rajasthan, with a trip to holy Varanasi on the Ganges and of course the Taj Mahal in Agra.
Varanasi is the spiritual heart of India and the birthplace of Hinduism. It is the oldest city in India—older than most world religions—including Christianity, Islam and Judaism. A highlight is a visit to the ruined monasteries of Sarnath, the place where Buddha preached his first sermon, and to the Ganges, jammed with ghats and pilgrims, some of them bathing—swim at your peril!
An overnight sleeper train from Varanasi takes us to Agra’s Taj Mahal. This 17th Century marble mausoleum built by Emperor Shah Jahan for his second wife took 17 years to complete and employed a workforce of over 20,000 people. Construction materials were procured all over India, with marble from Rajasthan transported by over 1000 elephants.
Next up is a two-night stay at a sprawling palace in a smaller Rajasthani city, Karauli. Enjoy a camel cart ride, explore an organic dairy or just sit back and watch how life in Rajasthan unfolds away from the tourist trail.
Back into the melee we go in Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan where traditionally dressed Rajput men wearing colorful turbans and sporting magnificent moustaches make their way through streets packed with cars, camel carts, rickshaws, trucks and bicycles. Explore the City Palace—an amazing complex with various courtyards and connecting buildings—as well as fascinating museums displaying royal costumes and weaponry, the Old Bazaar and the Palace of the Wind.
There’s lots more, including a visit to Sariska National Park, the former hunting reserve of the Royal family of Alwar. The Park is home to rhesus monkeys, boar, sambar (deer), langur (monkeys) and a variety of predators such as leopard, hyena and, of course, tigers.
Accommodation: This voyage emphasizes comfort, with 4 nights in historic hotel, 7 nights in comfortable modern hotels, and 1 night on an overnight train.
Classic South India
This 15-day tour takes in the best of southern India on both coasts, starting on the Bay of Bengal in Chennai and finishing on the Arabian Sea in Trivandrum. Life in the south is slower than in the north, so if you are linking these trips together, plan your experience accordingly!
Using a variety of transport, we will come face-to-face with the culture, religion and history of this region in its rural towns, small fishing villages and pungent spice plantations. This is a fabulous part of India and we follow the road less traveled—without sacrificing too many creature comforts.
We begin in Chennai (formerly Madras), site of the first major settlement of the East India Company in 1639 and now the fourth largest city in India. It’s busy, noisy and often extremely hot, but also surprisingly efficient and orderly by Indian standards. The Government Museum is worth a visit, and for motorcycle enthusiasts the Enfield Factory tour is a must.
Next up is the scenic fishing village of Mamallapuram and Auroville, an experiment in international living. Pondicherry is just down the road, unmistakably and charmingly French, complete with a Hotel de Ville, French consulate and police who wear red "kepis" hats and belts. The town is known for its leather goods and hand-made paper products. With its French influence, many of the shops have a distinctly European feel.
In Madurai you’ll have the chance to visit the National Gandhi Museum and learn more about the 'Father of the Nation'. Then it’s on to Munnar, an old British hill station that’s refreshingly cool. Enjoy the nearby tea garden and the Tea Museum. More refreshing altitude is up next, with the Periyar National Park and Tiger Reserve set high in the ranges of the Western Ghats. Enjoy a guided nature walk in the hope of glimpsing sambar, bison, elephant, spotted deer, tiger and leopard, then take an evening tour of a local spice plantation and relish a delicious meal prepared by the owner's family.
There is more, including the snake boats of Allepy, the Dutch Palace of Kochi, and Kovalam Beach, one of the most popular in India. All in all this is a thoughtful, tranquil trip that captures the essence of life in southern India. Aṉupavikka!
Accommodation: Accommodation is predominantly tourist class (3-4 star), with comfortable hotels throughout.
Sri Lankan Highlights
Sri Lanka has been described as “the finest island of its size in the world”. Behind the beautiful coastline lies a lush interior with thick jungles and vast palm and rice plantations cut by high waterfalls and rushing rivers. Add a long and colorful history, Buddhist temples, spice gardens and abundant wildlife and you have the makings of an extraordinary 8-day journey.
From the state capital of Colombo, relish the drive through verdant countryside, a mix of coconut palms, rice fields and banana plantations, through Kurunegala to Dambulla. This is the site of the magnificent Cave Temple and for many the most impressive sight in Sri Lanka. There are over 80 caves in total, with 5 containing statues, paintings and murals related to Lord Buddha. Sri Lankans of old used these caves as well, since tombs have yielded bones as old as 2,700 years.
Cycling in the countryside is up next, with a leisurely pedal through a series of small villages to Dambalawewa Lake. You’ll have a good chance of seeing some bird life here including Egrets, Brahmany Kites, Kingfishers and Bulbuls. Enjoy a traditional Sri Lankan lunch in a local village, then kick back and relax to prep for the following day.
From Dambalawewa Lake we visit Polonnaruwa, the 10th Century capital of Sri Lanka and home to numerous temples, palaces, Buddhist stupas and remarkable sculptures. After lunch we move on to a singular sight and experience. The 5th Century rock fortress of Sigiriya rises 600 feet straight up from the plains, like a jellybean on a flat table. Used as a safe haven from invaders, the route to the top is up a series of steep steps and gangways, ultimately yielding a most rewarding view of the surrounding countryside.
Other attractions include the picturesque village of Kandi, an optional excursion to Knuckles Rainforest in the Knuckles Mountain Range (resembling the knuckles of a clenched fist), a visit to the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage, and Peradeniya Botanical Gardens, home to many species of orchid and other plants unique to Sri Lanka.
Accommodation: A good standard of hotel accommodation throughout, all with swimming pools and complete facilities.
And that’s India and Sri Lanka. Or at least a tiny scratch on the surface of the most remarkable, populated, intricate, beautiful, squalid, rich and poor land in the entire world. If the trips described above don’t hit the mark exactly, click here for several dozen other Indian & Sri Lankan itineraries. These are two countries that everyone should visit at least once!