India is the seventh largest country in the world and a home for over 1.2 billion people. It is a land of diversity starting from the mountains in the north to the deserts in the west and the beaches in the south. The diversity doesn’t limit itself just to geography. Four world religions – Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism – originated here, whereas Islam, Christianity, Judaism and Zoroastrianism also entered India and resulted in a myriad mix of traditions and cultures. If that was not enough diversity, there are 30 different languages spoken in India.

India is not just a country; it is like 29 different countries grouped into one to create one India. And that is the reason it is always a travellers dream to visit India and experience the richness and diversity in cultures, the different colors on the street and the exuding energy in the hustle of everyday life. When you think of India, you get the picture of a giant carnival riding atop a huge elephant moving to the tune of its own rhythm.

Although, there is a whole encyclopedia worth of information already available on the places in India, but most of these cover places which are too commercialized for tourism and don’t give the true picture of India. Generally, people who are coming for the first time to India have heard of metropolitan cities like Mumbai or Delhi. However, these cities are too populated, have massive traffic problems and a high level of pollution. The population of Mumbai city alone is 10 million which is like half the population of Australia. The real India with its pristine beauty and its rich cultural heritage lies somewhere else.  So if you can’t wait to explore the real India, here are the top 10 places that you must visit in India.

1. Visit to the Taj Mahal 

Although very popular and swarming with tourists round the year but still The Taj Mahal deserves a visit, as it is an architectural masterpiece and has a place among the 7 wonders of the world. One more reason to visit it first and get it out of the way is everyone knows about it, and they will question you to death if you go back without seeing it. It is the epitome of love built by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in beloved memory of his wife Mumtaz Mahal. Its beauty is difficult to be conveyed in words but can be best described by this phrase from the Nobel Prize winner, Rabindranath Tagore who calls it “a teardrop on the cheek of time”. The best time to visit it would be on a full moon night and get mesmerized by the breathtaking beauty and splendor of the mausoleum built in white marble.

Taj Mahal
Credit: Flickr

Taj Mahal - The Epitome of Love

2. Meditate in Rishikesh

Rishikesh, often known as “the Yoga capital of the world”, came into popularity after The Beatles rocked up at the ashram of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in the late ‘60s. Being surrounded by forested hills and the presence of the holy water of the Ganges, makes it a perfect meditation retreat. The experience of early morning meditation by the side of the gushing water of the Ganges and melodious hymns of the evening aarti (prayer) in the temples is spellbinding. In case you do not already know meditation or yoga, there are plenty of ashram where classes are held for all kinds of yoga and meditation. You can also learn to play the sitar or the table at these places or just indulge yourself in the healing spas. Nowadays, it has also become popular as an adventure sports destination for white-water rafting enthusiasts both from India and abroad and is also a gateway to a lot of treks in the Himalayas.

Credit: Flickr

Lord Shiva's statue in Rishikesh

3. Trek in the Valley of Flowers

Nestled in the western Himalayas, situated at 4000 metres above sea level, the valley deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Taj Mahal in terms breathtaking beauty. Every year, the enchanting valley gets frozen during winter months, and bursts into youthful beauty, as the snow melts with the beginning of summer. During the months of July and August, the valley is splashed with color when hundreds of flowers bloom together. It was discovered by the British mountaineers Frank Smith who incidentally reached this valley after a successful expedition of Mount Kamet in 1931. Of course, the locals already knew about the existence of the valley and believed it is inhabited by the fairies. Enamored by its untouched beauty, UNESCO has endorsed it as a World Heritage site. However, the park is open to visitors only for 3 months from July to September, so plan accordingly.

Valley of Flowers
Credit: Flickr

Valley of Flowers - The Land of the Fairies


4. Immerse in the beauty of Sikkim 

The least populous state in India, Sikkim, is famous for 2 things – Mount Kangchenjunga, the world’s third highest peak at 8595 meters, and Buddhist monasteries on hilltops emerging out of the rugged terrain. Surrounded by Nepal, Bhutan and China on three sides, Sikkim is regarded as one of the last utopias on earth. The picturesque landscape of Sikkim is characterized by plunging mountain valleys, emerald alpine forests, terraced paddy fields and flowering rhododendrons. The land has a mystical aura about it ranging from the prayer wheels and black lamps present in the Buddhist monasteries to the payer flags – golden, green, red and blue - several of them, you can’t walk 10 min without bumping into one. You can also fancy a trip to the Nathula Pass, the China border. It sends a chill down your spine to see the Chinese soldiers on the other side and literally as it is at the zero point altitude where you can see water freezing. The icing on the top is the resident population here, which is very hospitable and friendly and will certainly bring a few smiles to your face.

Credit: Flickr

Himalayan trail in Sikkim

5. Enjoy the breathtaking landscape in Leh

Leh has become popular as a travel destination for thrill-seeking biking enthusiasts, as it consists of the highest motorable road in the world. The unparalleled beauty and the breathtaking journey have catapulted it to the top of the ‘list of 10 things to do before you die’. Leh is the main town of Ladakh and the highest plateau in the state of Kashmir at over 3000 meters. It was popular as a trade route between India and China until the Chinese authorities closed the borders with Tibet in the 1960s. Its culture and history are still closely related to Tibet and more than half of Ladhakis are Tibetan Buddhists. Within Leh, the must visit spot is the Shanti Stupa. Built by the Japanese monks to promote world peace, this place offers a stunning view of Leh. However, the real out-of-the-world places are at a short distance from main city. The first one is Khardung-la top – the highest motorable road in the world. The second is Nubra valley – a cold desert where you can spot double-humped camels. Finally, if you are still not convinced that you are out of this world, visit the Pangong Lake – 130 km long brackish lake with 45 km in India and remaining in China, and shaded from an ink blue to a turquoise to an aquamarine to a purple. You have to see it with your own naked eye to believe it. 

Credit: Flickr

Pangong Lake - Leh

So far, we have gone from a monument of phenomenal craftsmanship to a valley of fairies, from ‘The Yoga Capital of the World’ to the highest motorable road in the world, and from flowering terraced paddy fields to gigantic, exquisitely colored lakes. However, the journey through India has just begun. You can further enjoy backwaters floating in a boathouse or live like a king in ‘The City of Lakes’ or explore the depths of the ocean, at Top 10 Places to Visit in India - II.