As a secular nation, all religions and faiths have the freedom to flourish, and even though this may result in the occasional friction, the celebration of its many festivals is proof that all Indians have a rare quality of joie de vivre and spontaneity.
Public holidays embrace occasions from different faiths (causing, predictably, a loss of working days) as well as more recent but secular celebrations. Traffic jams are created as the Sikhs offer prasad or consecrated food and sweetened water to millions of commuters on the birth anniversaries of their ten gurus or sacred leaders. Processions of the elephant-headed god Ganesh, or the ten-armed goddess Durga, or the tazias of Muharram may wreak havoc on the roads, but who can resist their magnetic pull? In Puri, the annual procession in which the chariot of Jagannath, the Lord of the Universe, is pulled by frenzied crowds of people, and lent itself to the creation of the phrase juggernaut’.
Almost as much fun are other celebrations, such as the beautiful floats and marching ranks of the annual parade on January 26, the day on which the Constitution was adopted, giving rise to the Republic Day. The snake-boat races in the backwaters of Kerala on the occasion of Onam, the colourful fertility festival of Holi in spring, the lamp-lit, fireworks-exploding magic of Diwali, the burning effigies of Dussehra, the goodwill of Id, the miracle of Christmas and Easter... India hardly lacks in revelry. Added to this are the literally hundreds of folk festivals and fairs in India, which make the country ideal for those in search of year-round activity and entertainment.
India, in fact, lacks by way of nothing when it comes to attracting the visitor. For thousands of years, it has welcomed those who came to its shores. Some came as scholars, journeying from lands as far as China or Europe or West Asia, to write about its fabled fortunes. Others came to share in its wealth, to trade. Some came as settlers, others as invaders, while many came to study at its fabled universities. The country attracted artisans and craftsmen, performers and artists, men of learning and erudition as well as those who found their fortunes in pillaging its legendary wealth. They came for her spices and her silks, her cotton and her craftsmanship. If India failed to post sufficient defense against those who came to pillage, it was because the warrior kings were often to busy protecting their kingdoms against each other to concern themselves with the outsider. In time, the legendary wealth from her Somnath temple would be looted repeatedly. Nadir Shah would trounce the country to carry away the fabulous Peacock Throne and the Kohinoor diamond. Her priceless manuscripts would be ransacked or, even worse, destroyed, the temples defaced - but every time, India would spring back - more resilient than before - to restore her treasures in an unbroken link of patronage, learning and craftsmanship.
Today, the visitor is still spoilt for choice, even though all he may carry back with him are his memories, or souvenirs, of a visit to India. There is nothing that prepares him for the first shock of seeing the Taj Mahal, the most beautiful monument in the world, and the most photographed. In a city that was once the capital of the Mughal Empire, replete with sandstone and marble palaces and memorials, the Taj Mahal is awe-inspiringly, achingly beautiful. Guests often complain of chronic monument fatigue when travelling in India - there is just too much to see, making it impossible to absorb. From Delhi’s forts and Islamic architecture to its more recent colonial capital building, any hop in any direction will open up destinations where history survives by way of its phenomenal architecture. The princely kingdoms of the western state of Rajasthan are rich with a tapestry of forts and palaces and temples, as is Gujarat. Ancient towns hum with activity around temples and mosques that date to a hoary past. Majestic forts become commonplace after a while, the natural wonders cease to raise any more admiration as lush greenery gives way to silt-rich plains where once armies camped for months to lay siege against their enemy. Hindu and Buddhist sculptures abound, ancient walls guard rare archaeological treasures, and Jain temples exhibit no restraint when it comes to carving deities and heroes on every available marble surface within their precincts.
The problem in India is not of finding something to do, but of a surfeit of sightseeing. No wonder, when R&R becomes necessary (even a holiday can be exhausting), it can be gratefully availed by the seaside, the most popular choice being Goa. or in the high mountains where isolation and solitude are a welcoming change - if you can resist the urge to sightsee some more, of course, for there is no place where history does not lurk around the corner.
While India has absorbed the cultures of the various invaders and traders who came to India and made it its own (the grand lndo-Saracenic school of architecture that absorbs Indian, specifically Rajput, influences with Mughal and colonial, being just one example, and particular only to India), there are more visible influences that have been retained in different pockets once governed by foreign powers. The churches of Goa, for example, as well as its villas and mansions, developed a hybrid architecture that was the result of Portuguese colonisation of the region. The British built many of its cities - Kolkata with its Gothic and Elizabethan influences, Mumbai which can claim to have the largest stretch of Art-Deco buildings in the world, and New Delhi which combined the architectural influences of the modern world when creating the finest example of Indo-Saracenic architecture, chiefly in the building complex of what is now the Rashtrapati Bhawan. The Dutch, the French and even the Chinese have left behind their traces, making the exploration of India an exciting journey into the mosaic of its past.
Just as deeply as its architecture was influenced, India’s greatest contribution to the world has been its cuisine. This takes the form of the Indian restaurant in cities of the developed world, but that can hardly claim to do justice to its extraordinary range, which can only be sampled in India. For, in the country everything from religion to climate influences the palate. If India has the largest body of vegetarians to be found together at any one place, it also offers a vast choice of meats to those for whom it is part of a daily diet. If there are communities that shun even strong’ vegetables I and herbs such as garlic and onions, there are others for whom a meal would be incomplete unless it was well tempered with incendiary spices. Naturally, through time, Central Asia, Europe and other parts of the world have left behind hints of their cuisine, now absorbed into a greater pan-Indian repertoire. Not only is the food of each region different, that of states varies hugely, and even within the same city, communities eat differently The so called Indian curry’ is more an English coinage for its vast variety gravies and sauces, no two of which are alike. The best way to discover India is, predictably, the stomach.
Fortunately, the cities now feature a large number of regional Indian restaurants, as well as sometimes improbable experimentation by way of the global trend of fusion foods, making dining out an endless feast of pleasure. For a break, every now and then, international cuisines are to be found just as conveniently. Particularly popular are Thai, Chinese and Italian food, and chains of fast-food, American-style eateries dominate the city skyline emblazoned with the logos of McDonalds, Wimpy, Subway, Domino’s and a host of their Indian variations.
India gained its independence from the British in 1947, and set itself a course of economic development that was geared towards protecting local industry. The result was protectionism that led to loss of technological know-how from the more developed countries of the West. In spite of an extremely sound educational curriculum, Indian professionals and entrepreneurs found themselves unable to exploit their talent, and Indian industry failed to compete in the international arena despite a huge pool of skilled manpower.
The last decade has seen the winds of liberalisation sweep through India, freeing the many shackles that had tied it down. Even though it is not akin to the pace of development in China, the steady improvement in the Indian economy has sustained itself through a period when most major economies were in trouble, To a large extent, this is because Indians, who have greatly enhanced the health and service industries of the world, have made the transition to become leaders in information technology. Not only are Indians powering many of the IT-led mega-corporations of Silicon Valley, they have turned India into one of the largest feeders for the industry. And now, the call-centre industry has found a global address in India as its trained professionals offer their services for round-the-clock international feeds in the face of rapidly changing communications.
India too is changing. And rapidly. Even as it retains its cultural and historical links with a past that is its greatest asset, and looks to tourism as one of its sunrise industries, it has come to terms with itself as a part of the modern world. Pubs, bars and nightclubs fare mushrooming as they attempt to keep up with an accelerated demand as the country opens up to the world. There has been a rush of development in sectors such as housing, and new townships are being built with technical assistance from international partner. India has become a major hub for the automobile manufacturing industry, exporting components. A project is underway to link the major cities through a network of international-quality highways, and public transport is being improved. In cities such as Delhi, an underground Metro system has been partially commissioned (Kolkata was India’s first city to have a Metro), and air pollution has been arrested through such ingenuous devices as the use of CNG made compulsory for all forms of public transport.
The bug of health and fitness has hit everybody, and health clubs and fitness centres are as much the rage as the more traditional practices of yoga and meditation, now better packaged for urban regeneration. Similarly shopping, one of the greatest pleasures to be experienced in India, has now been contemporarised at the retail level. Shopping malls have been introduced, generating a whole new, urban culture, with brand shopping (Indian brands have held out surprisingly strongly against their global counterparts in terms of both quality and price points) made more fun along with the experience of food courts and cinema multiplexes.
Indian cinema – Bollywood, has always had a huge following - not surprising considering every sixth person in the world is an Indian - but the policy to allow cineplexes has proved a catalyst in the generation of a boom for the Indian entertainment industry. India has always made the largest number of films in the world, usually musical potboilers. However, crossover films, greater experimentation, and even more lavish cinema are now taking Indian cinema to the crossroads of global entertainment. Television programming has grown by leaps and bounds, as have channels - not surprising in a country that has nineteen officially recognised languages (English being one of them), and hundreds of dialects. It is anticipated that India may soon make major strides in cornering the software for the global television and film industry, just as it begins to take great strides in the business of live entertainment.
In part, this became possible when Indian beauty queens (and later, men too) began to win international pageant titles with an almost expected regularity. This generated an interest in live entertainment packaging, and the title - holding Miss World, Miss Universe, Mr. World soon became role models for the birth of a new industry. Currently, Indian models are in demand on the world stage, Indian actors are working in international projects and have become brand ambassadors for luxury products, the Indian fashion industry has become hugely popular with its designers being courted by global buying houses, and India has emerged as a manufacturing hub for high quality design products. Contemporary Indian art is finding new galleries to exhibit, and Indian artists are commanding prices that would have been considered impossible only a few years ago.
Through all this, if there is one thing that has remained steady, it is the country’s hospitality industry. Already well developed with a number of Indian hotel chains and travel agency companies, it has become even more professional now as it has linked with international partners. If there is one thing that has remained unchanged, it is the quality of service - always the best in the world.
Today’s hotels come in many avatars - they may be city hotels or business hotels or convention hotels, they may be luxury resorts with spas, or destination spa resorts, or hideaways for weekends close to the suburbs. Their sizes may vary, but one thing you can always count on: you’ll have the best time of your life, no matter what the purpose of your visit.