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India is the largest country in the Indian Subcontinent in the south of Asia. Though it is the seventh largest country in the world by area, it is second only to China in population. It is also an extremely diverse country, with vast differences in geography, climate, culture and ethnicity across its expanse.
India is administratively divided into 28 states and 7 union territories. The states are broadly demarcated on linguistic lines. They vary in size; the larger ones are bigger and more diverse than some countries of Europe. The union territories are smaller than the states - sometimes they are just one city - and they have much less autonomy.
These states and union territories are grouped by convention into the following regions.
India has many large and famous cities. Below is a list of the most well-known. Other cities are listed under their specific regional section.
As the birth place of several world religions, India is home to many sacred and holy sites:
India mixes ancient civilizations, fascinating religions, 22 official languages and over 200 other languages and dialects, monuments and cultures with modern technology, economy, and media.
Indians date their history from the Vedic Period which historians place between 2000 and 1000 BC. This is the period when the Vedas, the oldest and holiest books of Hinduism, were compiled. The earliest archaeological traces are from the Indus Valley Civilization which peaked around 1800 BC before declining and disappearing around 1500 BC, possibly due to a drought. The excavations reveal an extremely advanced urban civilization, with no evidence of weapons or fortifications. There is a major dispute over whether Vedic people were the same as the Indus Valley people, with the majority of the historians arguing that they were later migrants, who encountered a civilization in decline, and may have hastened that decline. The minority view says that the Indus Valley people were in fact the Vedic people.
The Vedic civilization influences India to this day. The roots of present-day Hinduism lie there. Most North-Indian languages come from Sanskrit, the language of the Vedas. In the 1st millennium BC, various schools of thought in philosophy developed, enriching Hinduism greatly. Most of them claimed to derive from the Vedas. However, two of these schools - Buddhism and Jainism - questioned the authority of the Vedas and they are now recognized as separate religions.
Many great empires were formed between 500 BC and AD 500. Notable among them were the Mauryas and the Guptas. This period saw a gradual decline of Buddhism and Jainism. The practice of Buddhism, in particular, disappeared from the Indian mainland, though Buddha himself was incorporated into the Hindu pantheon. The rituals of Hinduism as we know them today took shape during that period.
Islamic incursions started in the 8th century. Gradually the raiders started staying as rulers. Soon much of North India was taken over by Islamic rulers. The most important of these rulers were the Mughals, who established an empire that at its peak covered most of present-day India and Pakistan, except the southern and eastern extremities of India. But they too declined, partly under attack from the Marathas who established a short-lived confederacy that was almost as big as the Mughal Empire. During the Islamic period, many Hindus converted to Islam - some of them due to force, some to escape the low social status that the caste system imposed on them and some to gain the benefits of being aligned with the then rulers. Today, some 12% of the population is Muslim.
European traders started visiting India beginning in the late 16th century. By the 19th century, the British East India Company had, one way or the other, assumed political control of virtually all Indian lands. There was an uprising by Indian rulers in 1857 which was suppressed, but which prompted the British government to make India a part of the empire. Many Indians converted to Christianity during the period, for pretty much the same reasons as they converted to Islam earlier, though forcible conversions almost ended in British India after the British government took over in 1857.
Non-violent resistance to British colonialism under Mohandas Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru led to independence in 1947. The subcontinent was divided into the secular state of India and the smaller Islamic state of Pakistan.
Free India under Nehru adopted a democratically governed centrally planed economy. These policies were aimed at attaining "self-sufficiency". India in fact achieved in foodgrain production by the 1970s, ensuring that the large-scale famines that had been common through its history were now history. But these policies generall led to slow growth and large-scale corruption. After a crisis in 1991, the country adopted free-market reforms, which have continued at a meandering pace ever since, fueling strong growth over the past few years. IT and BPO industries have been the drivers for the growth, while Manufacturing and Agriculture, which have not experienced reforms, are lagging. About 60% of India's population depend on agriculture and around 25% remain in poverty.
Relations with Pakistan have been frosty. They have fought three (or four, if you count the Kargil conflict of 1999) wars, mostly over the status of Kashmir. The third war between the two countries in 1971 resulted in East Pakistan becoming Bangladesh. China and India went to war in 1962 over a border dispute. Viewed as a "betrayal" in India, it still rankles India and though current relations are peaceful, there is still a military rivalry, and no land crossings between the countries. The security concerns over Pakistan and China prompted India to test nuclear weapons twice (Its 1974 tests were described as "peaceful explosions"). India wants to be accepted as a legitimate nuclear power and is hankering after a Security Council seat.
India is proud of its democratic record. Constitutional government and democratic freedoms have been safeguarded throughout its 58 years as an independent country, except for a brief 18 month interlude in 1975, when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi imposed an emergency and suspended human rights.
Current concerns in India include the ongoing dispute with Pakistan, overpopulation, corruption, environmental degradation, continuing poverty, and ethnic and religious strife. But the current obsession, at least among the educated elite, is over whether India will be able overtake China in economic growth.
Mountains, jungles, deserts and beaches, India has it all. It is bounded to the north, northeast and northwest by the snow-capped Himalayas the largest mountain range in the world. In addition to protecting the country from invaders, they also fed the perennial rivers Ganga, Yamuna (Jamuna) and Sindhu (Indus) on whose plains India's civilization flourished. Though most of the Sindhu is in Pakistan now, Five of its tributaries flow through Punjab. The other Himalayan river, the Brahmaputra flows through the northeast, mostly through Assam.
South of Punjab lies the Aravalli range which cuts Rajasthan into two. The western half of Rajasthan is occupied by the Thar desert. The Vindhyas cut across Central India, particularly through Madhya Pradesh and signify the start of the Deccan plateau, which covers almost the whole of the southern peninsula. It is bounded by the Sahyadri range to the west, and the Eastern Ghats to the east. The plateau is more arid than the plains, as the rivers that feed the area, such as the Narmada, Godavari and the Kaveri run dry during the summer. Towards the northeast of the Deccan plateau is what used to be a thickly forested area called the Dandakaranya which covers the states of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, the eastern edge of Maharashtra and the northern tip of Andhra Pradesh. This area is still poverty stricken and populated by tribals. This forest acted as a barrier to the invasion of South India.
India has a long coastline. The west coast borders the Arabian sea and the east coast the Bay of Bengal.
In India, it rains only during a specific time of the year. The season as well as the phenomenon that causes it is called the monsoon. There are two of them, the Southwest and the Northeast, both named after the directions the winds come from. The Southwest monsoon is the more important one, as it causes rains over most parts of the country, and is the crucial variable that decides how the crops (and therefore the economy) will do. It lasts from June to September. It hits the west coast the most, as crossing the western ghats and reaching the rest of India is an uphill task for the winds. The western coastline is therefore much greener than the interior. The Northeast monsoon hits the east coast between October and February, mostly in the form of occasional cyclones which cause much devastation every year. The only region that gets rains from both monsoons is Northeastern India, which consequently experiences the highest rainfall in the world.
India experiences at least three seasons a year, Summer, Rainy Season (or "Monsoon") and Winter, though in the tropical South calling the 25 C weather "Winter" would be stretching the concept. The North experiences some extremes of heat in Summer and cold in Winter, but except in the Himalayan regions, snow is almost unheard of. November to January is the winter season and April and May are the hot months when everyone eagerly awaits the rains. There is also a brief spring in February and March, especially in North India.
Opinions are divided on whether any part of India actually experiences an Autumn, but the ancients had certainly identified such a season among the six seasons ( or ritus - Vasanta - Spring, Greeshma - Summer, Varsha - Rainy, Sharat - Autumn, Shishira - Winter, Hemanta - "Mild Winter") they had divided the year into.
India has a rich diversity of culture and tradition. It's probably the only country where people of so many different origins, religious beliefs, languages and ethnic background coexist.
There are three national holidays (Republic Day, Independence Day, and Gandhi Jayanti) which occur on the same day every year. Most other religious holidays occur on different days, because the Hindu and Islamic festivals are based on their respective calendars and not on the Gregorian calendar.
Here is a list of important holidays. The dates given are correct for 2006. Not all holidays are celebrated with equal fervour, or celebrated at all in all regions of the country. Different regions might give somewhat different names to the same festival.
Incredible India - India Tourism Ministry official website (http://www.incredibleindia.org/)
Citizens of most countries with a few exceptions like Bhutan and Nepal need a visa to get in. Depending on your purpose of visit, you can get a tourist visa (six months normally), a business visa (one year or more, multiple entries) or a student visa (up to 5 years).
There are other categories for specialised purposes 2 (http://passport.nic.in/visrules.htm). Of particular importance is the missionary visa that is mandatory for anyone who is visiting India "primarily to take part in religious activities". This rule is meant to combat religious conversion, particularly of Hindus to Christianity. There have been cases where preachers have been deported for addressing religious congregations while on a tourist visa. You don't need to be worried if you are just on a religious tour of churches in India.
Rules and validity of visas will differ based on citizenship. Check the website of the Indian embassy, consulate or high commission in your country 3 (http://goidirectory.nic.in/missions.htm) or contact the local office 4 (http://meaindia.nic.in/cgi-bin/db2www/meaxpsite/indmission.d2w/embassies).
If you are on a Student, Employment, Research or Missionary visa, you need to register within 14 days of arrival with the Foreigners Regional Registration Office where you will be staying. If the place you are staying at doesn't have one, you need to register at the local police station 5 (http://www.airportsindia.org.in/aai/immigration/regist-req-f.htm). All visitors who intend to stay more than 180 days also need to be registered. Addresses and telephone numbers of the FRROs can be found here 6 (http://www.airportsindia.org.in/aai/immigration/immigration.htm).
The major points of entry are Bombay, New Delhi, Madras and Calcutta. If you are flying in from a Western country, chances are that you will get in through one of these cities. However in recent years, to accommodate the increasing traffic, many other airports have been upgraded to take in international flights. Among these are Amritsar, Ahmedabad, Bangalore, Cochin, Guwahati, Hyderabad, Pune and Thiruvananthapuram 7 (http://www.airportsindia.org.in/aai/airports-frame.htm)
India has homegrown international airlines like Air India 8 (http://www.airindia.com/) and Indian 9 (http://indian-airlines.nic.in/) (formerly known as "Indian Airlines"), but they manage to be both more expensive and provide poor service. You are better off getting in on a foreign carrier. In recent years, the government has allowed Indian private airlines like Jet Airways 10 (http://www.jetairways.com) and Air Sahara 11 (http://www.airsahara.net) to go international. There are daily flights to most imaginable places on Earth from a wide array of Indian Airports.
There used to be a train that ran between Lahore in Pakistan and Attari near Amritsar in Punjab. It was called the Samjhauta Express. Samjhauta means Understanding in Hindi. But the service has been suspended after it broke down in 2002 (The understanding, not the train.) However it was never a popular service with international travellers as it took too long to clear the entire train through customs and imigration. Should it restart, you are still better off using the road crossing.
Buses from Nepal cross the border daily, usually with connections to New Delhi, Lucknow, and Varanasi. Hovever it's cheaper and more reliable to take one bus to the border crossing and another from there on. The border crossings are (India/Nepal side) Sunauli/Bhairawa from Varanasi, Raxaul/Birganj from Calcutta, Kakarbhitta from Darjeeling, and Mahendrenagar-Banbassa from Delhi.
The main route for travellers crossing between India and Pakistan is from Amritsar to Lahore. Despite the tensions between the two countries, there is a steady trickle of travellers passing this way. The immigration procedures can be lengthy. Expect to take most of the day to go between Lahore and Amritsar on local busss. Normally it's possible to get a direct bus from Amritsar to the border, walk to the other side and catch a direct bus to Lahore, although you may need to change at some point on route. The direct Delhi-Lahore service is currently suspended and due to restart in January 2006, though it was far more costly than local buses, not any faster, and would mean you miss seeing Amritsar.
Now there is bus service across the 'Line of control' between Indian and Pakistani Kashmir too. Whether or not non-Kashmiris can use this crossing is not clear, it is likely more hassle than it's worth.
At one time, domestic flights were the monopoly of the government-owned Indian Airlines (now known as "Indian"). Jet Airways and Air Sahara challenged this monopoly with better service and competitive fares. In 2004, Air Deccan launched its no-frills airline, heralding the low-cost revolution. Now there are quite a few competitors and prices are a traveller's delight. Here is a list of airlines in India, but there's one starting almost every month.
Keep in mind, however, that outside of big cities coverage is poor. If you need to get to a small town, low-cost airlines won't help you. You may have to rely on Indian Airlines or Jet. Flying low-cost to a metro and taking a train is not a bad idea either.
The earlier you book, the lower you pay. You will hear a lot about air tickets at Rs. 500 ($12), but those are promotional rates. Seats are extremely limited and get sold out within hours. But nonetheless, you do get good rates from the budget airlines. Tickets for small cities will cost more than those for the metros, because of the spotty coverage noted above. Many airlines have higher fares for foreigners than for Indians. Foreigners will be charged in US dollars, whereas Indians will be charged in Rupees. Indian ticket pricing has not attained the bewildering complexity that the Americans have achieved, but they are getting there. As of now, you don't have to worry about higher prices on weekends, lower prices for round-trips, lower prices for travel around weekends etc.
It is possible to book flights online from the airline's website (if it has one!), though sometimes tickets are available from a travel agent, but not on the net. If you've booked on the net, just a printout and an id will be sufficient to get you on the plane.
Procedures at airports in India are somewhat different from those elsewhere. In most cases you won't be able to check in for your flight more than an hour ahead of the scheduled departure. Also, there will be a stand where you must take your checked baggage for a security screening before you check in. It isn't always obvious where you are supposed to wait to catch your flight. However, don't hesitate to ask someone if you are unsure. Most staff in airports are very helpful to foreigners and will take pains to ensure you catch your flight.
India boasts the biggest network of railway lines in the world, and the rail system is efficient, if not always on schedule. With classes ranging from luxurious to hellish, it's the best way to get to know the country and its people. You will get to see the beautiful Indian countryside first hand, and most train passengers will be curious about you and happy to pass the time with a chat.
There are five basic classes: General, Sleeper, 3-tier A/C, 2-tier A/C and 1st class A/C. Not all classes are present on all trains.
Before booking a ticket pick up a copy of Trains At A Glance, the national rail schedule (or "timetable"), from any railway station. It alows you to chose the best train for your needs, and find the name and number of the train for your destination. You can also get the whole schedule online www.irctc.co.in. Neither option will find connecting trains for you, so some knowledge of important stations is necessary if you are going to a remote location.
Tickets are available from travel agents as well as directly from Indian Railways. It is better not to buy tickets from a travel agent, as they mark up the price, and with the advent of internet booking, offer no real advantage. Train tickets are in high demand, especially during the summer and winter breaks. This means that without careful planning, it may be next to impossible to get tickets for long distance travel (for example from New Delhi to Bombay). You can book upto 90 days in advance, but during the busy season, the tickets may get sold out quickly. However foreigners can get tickets from a quota reserved for them. In big cities, you have a specific counter or even a special office for them. If you plan to travel in 1st Class A/C tickets should be easier to get - they are in less demand. Rail passes are also available, and are called Indrail passes. Find out more information for International tourists 23 (http://www.indianrail.gov.in/intert.html) or book your travel 24 (http://www.irctc.co.in/).
If you do not get a confirmed ("reserved") ticket, you may get one that is Waitlisted (WL) or in the Reservation Against Cancellation (RAC) status. If you've booked your ticket in advance, it will probably move from "Waitlisted" to "RAC" status or even to "Reserved" status as time goes by, because of cancellations, so it is a good idea to check it periodically and keep your plans dynamic.
You cannot get on to the train if your ticket is waitlisted. But if you have an RAC ticket, you are alloted 'sitting' berths - i.e. in a Sleeper Coach, you and a fellow RAC ticket-holder share a berth so that both of you can travel sitting instead of sleeping. The Ticket Examiner then allots you a Confirmed (CNF) sleeping berth as and when one is available due to last minute cancellations, no-shows etc. Depending on the train, the route and the season you are travelling in, the RAC ticket may get upgraded to CNF either as soon as the journey begins, mid-way through the journey or not at all.
Most trains have a pantry car and if you are in the sleeper or A/C classes, you can buy meals on board the train. In 1st Class A/C, you you will be served your meals by liveried waiters. The quality and hygiene can be inconsistent though. If you are finicky, bring enough food and bottled water for the journey including delays: Bananas, bread, and candy bars are good basics to have. At most larger stations hawkers selling tea, peanuts, and snack food will go up and down the train, but don't count on this being enough for a 18 or 40 hour journey. Most important stations will have vendors selling all kinds of edible stuff, but the usual caveats about eating in India apply.
Always watch your bags, especially in and around train stations. Once on a train, lock your bags to your bunk-- under the bunk if you are on the bottom, or at your head. Make sure to also lock any exterior pockets (keep your toilet paper, and anything else you'll want on the outside).
Indian trains take a long time to go anywhere. Don't just look at a map and assume a short trip, it's best to check trains at a glance before making your plans. Bathrooms on Indian trains are of the squat variety, the cleanliness tends to deteriorate over a long trip, but at least nothing but the sole of your shoes needs to touch the toilet. Its a good idea to use the toilet elsewhere when possible.
Enjoy the train! You'll meet fascinating, wonderful people.
While you can't take a cross-country bus-ride across India, buses are the second most popular way of travelling across states. Every state has its own bus service which primarily connects intra-state routes, but will also have services to neighbouring states. There are usually multiple classes of buses. The ordinary buses (called differently in different states, e.g. "service bus") are extremely crowded with even standing room rarely available, and extremely dirty. In addition, they tend to stop at too many places. There might be luxury or express buses available, and sometimes they even have air-conditioning. They are more comfortable, have assured seating, and have limited stops.
Private buses may or may not be available in the area you are travelling to, and even if they are, the quality could vary a lot. Unfortunately, the bus industry is extremely fragmented and there is no bus company that you can rely on throughout the country.
In India driving is on the left of the road. You can drive in India if you have a local license or an International Driving Permit, but unless you are used to driving on extremely chaotic streets, you probably will not want to. The average city or village road is narrow, often potholed and badly marked. National Highways are better, but they are still narrow, and Indian driving discipline is non-existent. In the past few years the Central government has embarked on an ambitious project to upgrade the highways. The Golden Quadrilateral connecting the four metros is 88% complete as of December 2005 and the roads there almost reach international standards. But it is still some time before the drivers adapt to the new roads, so if you are a foreigner, you'll be wise to put off your plans to drive on Indian roads by a few years.
Instead, if you desire a car, you rent both the car and a driver with it. Rates are quoted in rupees per kilometer and you will have to pay for both ways even if you are going only one way. The actual rate will vary by region. The driver's salary is so low (typically around Rs 100 to 150 per day) that it adds little to the cost of renting the car. The driver will find his own accommodation and food wherever you are traveling. A common rental vehicle is the old, but reliable, Ambassador. This is a large, boxy, official-looking car, with space for 4-5 passengers (including driver), and a decent-sized trunk.
There are numerous advantages to having a car and driver.
It is rare to find a driver that speaks more than a few words of English. As a result, misunderstandings are common. Keep sentences short. Use the present tense. Use single words and hand gestures to convey meaning.
Your driver may in some cases act as a tout, offering to take you to businesses from which he gets a baksheesh (http://dictionary.reference.com/search?q=baksheesh). This isn't necessarily a bad thing - he may help you find just what you're looking for, and add a little bit to his paltry income at the same time. On the other hand, you should always evaluate for yourself whether you are being sold on a higher-cost product than you want. The driver might ask for a tip at the end of the trip. Pay him some amount and don't let him guilt-trip you into paying too much.
Another choice, popular with people who like taking risks, is to buy a motorcycle. The Enfield is a populer choice for its classic looks, despite its high petrol consumption, low reliability, and dificulty to handle.
The auto-rickshaw, sometimes abbreviated as "auto" and sometimes as "rickshaw", is the most common means of hired transportation in India. Most resident's usually refer to them as a "three wheeler." But please note that it is not a good way to travel between cities, though you'd be surprised how far people travel in them. They vary in color. Most are are green and yellow, due to the new CNG gas laws, and some may be yellow and black in color, with one wheel in the front and two in the back, with a leather or soft plastic top.
When getting an auto-rickshaw, you can either negotiate the fare or go by the meter. In almost all cases it is better to use the meter -- a negotiated fare means that you are being charged a higher than normal rate. A metered fare starts around Rs 10, and includes the first kilometer of travel. Never get in an auto-rickshaw without either the meter being turned on, or the fare negotiated in advance. In nearly all cases the driver will ask an exhorbitant sum (for Indian standards) from you later. A normal fare for 10km of travel within the city would be about Rs 50, which is around a dollar and a few cents. In most of the cities, auto-rickshaw drivers are provided with a rate card that elaborately describes the fares on per kilo-meter basis. A careful tourist must verify the meter-reading against the rate-card before making a payment.
Ideally, you should talk with a local to find out what the fare for any estimated route will be. Higher rates may apply at night, and for special destinations such as airports. Finally, factor in that auto drivers may have to pay bribes to join the queue for customers at premium location such as expensive hotels. The bribe will be factored in the fare.
Officially, India has 22 national languages (http://indiaimage.nic.in/languages.htm), namely Assamese, Bengali, Bodo, Dogri, Gujarati, Hindi, Kannada, Kashmiri, Konkani, Maithili, Malayalam, Manipuri, Marathi, Nepali, Oriya, Punjabi, Sanskrit, Santhali, Sindhi, Tamil, Telugu and Urdu. There are also other less prominent languages like Tulu, Bhojpuri the main spoken language of some places.
Hindi, spoken by 30% of the population, is the primary tongue of the people in Northern India. Many more people speak it as a second language. Your Hindi phrasebook should enable you to get by in much of India. The exceptions are the extreme south - Tamil Nadu and Kerala and the Northeast. In Tamil Nadu and Kerala, it is inadvisable to speak in Hindi, as there is a residual hostility to the language dating back to the hamhanded policies of the 1960s. In any case, you are better off picking up as many words of the local language of the place you are going to - there is a good chance that in rural areas, the old and the less-educated will not know Hindi.
English is widely spoken in major cities and around most tourist places, and acts as the lingua franca among all educated Indians. English has been spoken by Indians long enough that it has begun evolving its own rhythm, vocabulary, and inflection, much like French in Africa and Spanish in South America have taken on glittering cultural lives of their own. Indeed, much has recently been made of subcontinental writers such as Arundhati Roy, Vikram Seth, and Salman Rushdie. The English you are likely to hear in India will be heavily influenced by British English, although spoken with the lilting stress and intonation of the speaker's other native language. Indians can usually tell regional English accents apart, similar to the South American ability to tell Argentinians from Colombians.
One of the most delightful quirks of Indian English is the language's adherence to Pre-1950s British English which to speakers in North America and the British Isles will sound oddly formal. Another source of fascination and intrigue for travelers is the ubiquitous use of English for cute quips in Random places. One relatively common traffic sign reads, "Speed thrills, but kills". On the back of trucks everywhere you'll find "tata bye bye".
Indians are adopting more and more native words into their English. A lot of these are already well known to speakers elsewhere. Chai (tea), Guru (learned teacher/master), cummerbund (literally waist-tie), Nirvana (extinction of the separative ego ) and avatar (God in human form) are words that have left their original subcontinental home. However, Indians are using English loan words in their native languages at an even more rapid pace. As India modernizes blazingly fast, it has taken from English words for modern objects that simply did not exist a few decades ago. However, more importantly, bilingual Indians in informal conversation will often switch unpredictably between English and their native language when speaking to similar polyglots, thus effectively communicating in a hybridized language that relies on the listeners ability to speak both languages. A bilingual speaker in Delhi, might for example, say "mera fever bahut bad hai" (my fever is very bad) which mixes English with Hindi 50-50 in spite of the fact that perfectly good words exist for both 'fever' and 'bad' in Hindi. Such mixed phrases are easily understood by most listeners --although not always encouraged-- and are becoming increasingly common. This hybrid is sometimes referred to as 'Hinglish' (much like Chinese/Malay-influenced English in Singapore is termed 'Singlish') It seems that English and Hindi are indeed converging among the bilingual sections of society. While English, as a distinct language, is here to stay for now, it appears that it will eventually over hundreds of years be absorbed into the vast cultural fabric of the subcontinent.
English speaking Indians may also seem commanding to a westerner. You may hear "come here," "sit here," "drink this," "bring me that" which may sound direct and demanding to the point of being rude to northern Europeans and Americans, but is in no way meant to be impolite.
Non-verbal communication is also important. Much has been made of the confusing Indian head nod for yes and no, but the only important thing to understand is that Indians have different nods for yes, ok and no."
The currency in India is the Indian Rupee. It trades around 44 rupees to the US dollar and 52 rupees to the Euro. The Rupee is subdivided into 100 paise (singular paisa). Take a look at the Exchange Rates Table for Indian Rupee (http://www.x-rates.com/d/INR/table.html) for other currencies.
Common bills come in denominations of Rs. 5, Rs. 10, Rs. 20, Rs. 50, Rs. 100, Rs. 500 and Rs. 1000. It is always good to have a number of small bills on hand, as merchants and drivers sometimes don't have change. A useful technique is to keep small bills (Rs. 10 - 50) in your wallet or in a pocket, and to keep larger bills separate. In this way you won't be making obvious the amount of money you have available. In many cases merchants will claim that they don't have change for a Rs. 100 or Rs. 500 note. This is often a lie, as they simply don't want to be stuck with a large bill. Rather than giving up your last 6 ten-rupee notes, it is better to make them give you change.
The coins in circulation are 25 paise, 50 paise, Rs. 1, Rs. 2 and Rs. 5. Coins are useful for buying tea (Rs. 5), for bus fare (Rs. 2 to Rs. 10), and for giving exact change for an auto-rickshaw.
In principle you can live in India for a couple of hundred rupees a day. At the other end of the spectrum you can sleep in fancy 5 star hotels and spend lots of money on food and shopping.
Outside airports you can only change US dollars, and sometimes UK sterling pounds. In big cities, there are now ATMs where you can get rupees against your international debit or cr card (maximum amount is 4,000-20,000 rupees depending on the ATM). State Bank of India (SBI) ATMs usually don't accept foreign cards. Therefore, you may have to search around to find an ATM that will work with your card. Citibank has a significant presence in India, as does HSBC. It is always worthwhile to have bank cards or cr cards from at least two different providers, to ensure that you have a backup available in case one card is suspended by your bank, or simply doesn't work at a particular ATM.
In the big cities, cr cards are accepted at retail chain stores and other westernized restaurants and stores. Small businesses and family-run stores almost never accept cr cards, so it is useful to keep a moderate amount of cash on hand.
In India you are expected to negotiate the price. If not, you risk overpaying many times - which can be okay if you think "well, it's cheaper than home". Recently (2004), in most of the big cities and even smaller towns, retail chain stores are popping up - where the shopping experience is essentially identical to similar stores in the West. There are also some government-run stores like the Cottage Emporium in New Delhi, where you can sample wares from all across the country in air-conditioned comfort. Although you will pay a little more at these stores, you can be sure that what you are getting is not a cheap knockoff. Even in government-run stores, bargaining is expected.
Often, the more time you spend in a store, the better deals you will get. It is worth spending time getting to know the owner, asking questions, and getting him to show you other products (if you have an interest). Once the owner feels that he is making a sufficient profit from you, he will often give you additional goods at a rate close to his cost, rather than the common "foreigner rate". You will get better prices and service by buying many items in one store than by bargaining in multiple stores individually.
Also, very often you will meet a "friend" in the street offering you to visit his or his family's shop. In about 9 of 10 cases this will simply mean that you pay twice as much as when you had been in the shop without your newly found friend.
Baksheesh -- the giving of small bribes -- is a very common phenomenon. While it is a big problem in India, indulging in it can ease certain problems and clear some hurdles. Baksheesh is also the term used by beggars, who can be found throughout India, if they want money from you. Baksheesh is as ancient a part of Middle Eastern and Asian culture as anything else. It derives from the Arabic meaning a small gift. It refers as much to charity as to bribes.
What to Look For/Buy
Indian cuisine is superb, and has recently begun to take its place among the great cuisines of the world. However, it would be incorrect to classify the cuisine of the Subcontinent under one culinary banner. The varied geography of the country has evolved a rich cuisine reflected in the diversity of ingredients. Indian bread (roti, naan) is the staple in most of the wheat growing plains of Northern India, while the wetter South and East are the domain of rice farming. The rich, mughal style of cooking favored in the North is vastly different from the spicy fish curries of the coastal South. Yet there is a common base to the diverse cooking styles that coexist in the country. Like most Asian cuisines, the ingredients range from exotic (lotus roots, rose petals) to completely unfamiliar tropical offerings. And like other Asian cuisines, Indian food relies heavily on spices to flavor everything from eggs to eggplant.
While Indian food has a reputation for being hot -- owing to the Indian penchant for potent green chilies that will bring tears to the eyes of the uninitiated -- this is a largely incomplete description. Aromatic spices such as nutmeg, cinnamon, cardamom, and cloves are equally important as the astonishing variety of red and green chillies, and peppercorns. If you want to enjoy the local food, start slowly. Don't try everything at once. After a few weeks, you can get accustomed to spicy food. If you would like to order your dish not spicy, ask for "no chili, no black pepper and no white pepper". Most visitors are tempted to try at least some of the spicy concoctions, and most discover that the sting is worth the trouble.
Indians like their dishes very spicy, you can even find sweet cornflakes with a spicy edge and Indian candies with a piece of chili inside.
Owing to a large number of vegetarian Hindus, Indian cuisine has evolved an astonishingly rich menu that uses no meat or eggs. At least half the menu of most restaurants are devoted to vegetarian dishes. Visiting vegetarians will discover a culinary treasure that is found nowhere else in the world.
Some restaurants - especially those where buses stop after hours and hours of driving - can be very dirty. In this case it might be good to check if there's another one on the opposite side of the street. Fruits that can be peeled such as apples and bananas, as well as packaged snacks are always a safe option. Do not eat grapes.
In Southern India, "Hotel" means a local restaurant serving south Indian food, mostly Thali -- a full plate of food that usually includes a kind of bread and an assortment of meat or vegetarian dishes -- and prepared meals.
Like everything in India, the English names of dishes are spelled differently in different places (sometimes in two neighboring restaurants) owing to the various ways in which Indian names can be transliterated into English. Not so different from the multiple spellings of Chinese dishes in restaurants all over the Western hemisphere.
Although you might get a big menu, most dishes are served only in specific hours. A Tandoor is an Indian clay oven. This style of cooking is common in the North and is called Tandoori cooking. A Tandoor features prominently in Mughal cuisine which was popular with the Muslim rulers of North India.
Eating by hand
In India eating with your hand (instead of utensils like forks and spoons) is very common. There's one basic rule of etiquette to observe: Use only your right hand, as the left hand is used to clean yourself in the bathroom. Don't stick either hand into communal serving dishes: instead, use the left hand to serve yourself with utensils and then dig in. Needless to say, it's wise to wash your hands well before and after eating.
For breads for all types, the basic technique is to hold down the item with your forefinger and use your thumb to tear off pieces. The pieces can then be dipped in sauce or used to pick up bits before you stuff them in your mouth. Rice is more challenging, but the basic idea is to use four fingers to pack a little ball, which can then be dipped into curry before you pop it in your mouth by pushing it with your thumb .
Eating by hand is frowned on in some "classier" places. If you are provided with cutlery and nobody else around you seems to be doing it, then take the hint.
One of the sweetest and safest beverages you can get is tender coconut water. You can almost always find it in any beach or other tourist destinations in the south. In summer (March to July), you can get fresh sugarcane juice in many places and even a lot of fresh fruit juice varieties. Be careful as fresh juice may contain many germs besides unhygienic ice! The juice waalas do not always clean their equipment properly and do not wash the fruits either.
Everywhere you can get tea (chai) of one variety or another. Most common is the "railway tea" type: cheap (2-5 Rs.), sweet and uniquely refreshing once you get the taste for it. It's made by brewing up tea leaves, milk, sugar and spices altogether in a pot and keeping it hot until it's all sold.
You can also get "masala tea": black tea with a blend of spices. That takes some getting used to.
Drinking alcohol can either be frowned upon or openly accepted, depending on the region and religion of the area within which you are drinking. For example, as you can imagine, Goa tends to be more free-wheeling (and has low taxes on alcohol), while southern areas like Chennai are less kind to alcohol, and may even charge excessive taxes on it. Some states such as Gujarat are legally "dry" and alcohol cannot be bought openly there. Alcohol is officially banned, but there is a substantial bootlegging industry, and all types of liquor can be obtained in Gujarat. If you have a non-Indian passport, you can obtain a 'liquor permit'. This allows you to buy alcohol at state-licensed shops, of which there are fourteen or so in all of Gujarat.
Choices vary wildly depending on your budget and location. Cheap travellers' hotels are numerous in big cities where you can get a room for less than Rs. 100. If your wallet allows it, you can try staying in former maharaja's residence in Udaipur or modern five-star hotels in New Delhi and Bombay. The top-end of Indian luxury rests with the Oberoi, Taj, and Welcomgroup hotel chains, who operate hotels in all the major cities and throughout Rajasthan. A number of international chains including Mariott, and Hyatt also run major 5-star hotels in most Indian metropolises.
Two important factors to keep in mind when choosing a place to stay are 1) safety, and 2) cleanliness. Malaria is alive and well in certain areas of India - one of the best ways to combat malaria is to choose lodgings with air conditioning and sealed windows. An insect-repellent spray containing DEET will also help.
Dak bungalows exist in many areas. These were built by the British to accommodate travelling officials and are now used by the Indian and state governments for the same purpose. If they have room, most will take tourists at a moderate fee. They are plain - ceiling fans rather than air conditioning and usually no refrigerator - but clean and comfortable. Typically the staff includes a pensioned-off soldier as night watchman and perhaps another as gardener; sometimes there is a cook. You meet interesting Indian travellers this way: engineers building a bridge in the area, a team of doctors vaccinating the villagers, whatever.
Yoga, ayurvedic massage and language are the courses most often looked for by foreigners. For example, Hardwar and Rishikesh are popular places for yoga courses. Varanasi has a famous university with Hindi classes.
Foreigners need a work permit to be employed in India. A work permit is granted if an application is made to the local Indian embassy along with proof of potential employment and supporting documents. There are many expatriates working in India, mostly for multinational Fortune 1000 firms. India has always had an expatriate community of reasonable size, and there are many avenues for finding employment, including popular job hunting websites like monster.com!
There are many volunteer opportunities around the country including teaching. India has a reasonable presence of foreign Christian missionaries, who for the most part form the non-local religious workers, since the other major religions of the world either grew out of India or have had a long term presence.
Unless you are a professional or want to live in a polluted city the work options are pretty slim. This is not a country to make money in unless you are very imaginative and somewhat of an entrepreneur. A living can be made in the traveler scenes by providing some kind of service such as baking Western cakes, tattooing or massage.
As a rule India is quite safe for foreigners. However, check with your embassy and ask for local advice before heading to Kashmir or northeast India (Assam, Nagaland, Tripura, Meghalaya and Manipur), as both areas have long-running insurgencies.
Unfortunately thefts are quite common in places visited by tourists, but violent thefts hardly ever occur. More likely a thief will pick your pocket (see pickpockets) or break into your room. There is little culture of muggings in India.
When travelling by autorickshaw, never ever get into the vehicle if there is another person accompanying the driver. This always spells trouble for unwary travellers.
Westerners, particularly women, attract the attention of beggars, frauds and touts. Beggars will often go as far as touching you, and following you tugging on your sleeve. It does little good to get angry or to say "No" loudly. The best response is to look unconcerned and ignore the behavior. The more attention you pay to a beggar or a tout -- positive or negative -- the longer they will follow you hoping for a payback. As always in India, patience is required.
Westerners should not trust strangers offering assistance or services. Be particularly wary of frauds at tourist attractions such as the temples of Kanchipuram, where they prey on those unfamilar with local and religious customs. See Common scams.
Female travellers in India
India is a conservative country and some western habits are perceived as dishonorable for a woman in this culture.
Going to India, you have to adapt to a new climate and new food. Most travellers to India will get at least minorly ill during their stay there even Indians who return back from brief stay abroad. However, with precautions the chance and severity of any illness can be minimized. Don't stress yourself too much at the beginning of your journey to allow your body to acclimatize to the country. For example, take a day of rest upon arrival, at least on your first visit. Many travellers get ill for wanting to do too much in too little time. Be careful with spicy food if it is not your daily diet.
No vaccines are required for entry to India, except for yellow fever if you are coming from an infected area such as Africa. However, Hepatitis (both A and B, depending on your individual circumstances), meningitis and typhoid shots are recommended, as is a booster shot for tetanus.
Tap water is generally not safe for drinking. However, some establishments have water filters/purifiers installed, in which case the water is safe to drink. Packed drinking water (normally called mineral water, if the seal has been tampered it could be purified tap water, so always make sure that seal hasn't been tampered).
Diarrhea is common, and can have many different causes. Bring a standard first-aid kit, plus extra over-the-counter medicine for diarrhea and stomach upset. A rehydration kit can also be helpful. At the least, remember the salt/sugar/water ratio for oral rehydration: 1 tsp salt, 8 tsp sugar, for 1 litre of water. Most Indians will happily share their own advice for treatment of illnesses and other problems. A commonly recommended cure-all is to eat boiled rice and curd (yoghurt) together for 3 meals a day until you're better. Keep in mind that this is usually not sound medical advice. Indians have resistance to native bacteria and parasites that visitors do not have. If you have serious diarrhea for more than a day or two, it is best to visit a private hospital. Parasites are a common cause of diarrhea, and may not get better without treatment.
In some places during the monsoon, malaria is quite common. However, if you intend on staying in the major cities, or in the mountains, and will not be venturing into areas that are known to have pockets of endemic malaria, you may not need anti-malarial medication. Different anti-malarial medications have different side effects, cost, and levels of effectiveness. Common examples are the fairly mild Doxycyclin (an antibiotic), and Mefloquin aka LariamTM (which causes nightmares, depresion, and/or other psychological side effects for some people). While it is quite necessary in jungle areas near the Nepal border during the rainy season, the best protection against malaria is to avoid areas that are known to harbor populations of the plasmodium-bearing mosquitos, and to avoid being bitten as much as possible. See the Wikipedia article for more details.
If you need to visit a hospital in India, avoid government hospitals. The quality of treatment is poor and can even be dangerous. For example, some hospitals re-use needles and don't properly sterilize them. Private hospitals provide better service.
The country code for India is 91. India is then divided into city codes. See individual city guides for the city codes.
When calling long distance within India, prefix a '0' to the city code. While calling from outside India, omit the leading zero. For example, Bombay has the city code of 22. So to call within India , you dial 022 number and to call from outside India, you dial + 91 22 number. To dial outside the country, prefix the country code with 00. E.g a US number would be dialed as 00 1 555 555 5555
As a traveller, you will find many long distance public phones, called STD/ISD Booths (Subscriber Trunk Dialing/International Subscriber Dialing), an Indian jargon for national and international long distance respectively. These are booths with an attendant. You dial yourself but pay to the attendant after the call is over. Metering is done as per pulse and a service charge of Rs 2 is added to the bill.
Calling the USA/Canada/UK over the normal telephone line (referred to as ISD) will cost you about Rs. 7.20 per minute. Other countries are more expensive.
Internet kiosks are everywhere nowadays. Calling overseas is also very cheap if you use the many booths that advertise 'Net2Phone' service. Basically it is calling over the Internet. The quality ranges from tolerable to excellent, and the price is very good, with calls to the USA ranging from Rs. 2 to Rs. 5 per minute.
Skype or GoogleTalk is also widely available in the many Internet Cafes.
Wi-fi hotspots are a rarity in India except in some coffee shops in the metros.