In this post I wanted to share some of the uniquely Indian experiences that you might not have heard of, or maybe didn’t know was possible.
When you think of travelling to India, you probably have visions of visiting the Taj Mahal, doing a yoga retreat or simply relaxing on a tropical beach. And whilst these things are all great experiences that should be enjoyed on an India trip, there’s a lot more to see and do.
Having spent several months touring around this fascinating country, I want to outline some of the best things to do in India.
The Best Indian Experiences
India is such a vast and varied country, with stark contrasts wherever you look. From hot, humid jungles to dry, arid deserts, towering Himalayan mountains to white sand beaches.
In one moment you experience unbelievable generosity and in the next it’s constant hassle. India is a country with a long and varied history and a claimed acceptance of all religions and beliefs.
There are so many India highlights that it’s hard to keep the list down to just twenty, so consider this a good place to start planning that perfect India itinerary. As this sub-continent is so big, I’ve arranged these India highlights into the states where they take place.
Take a camel safari in the Thar Desert
The Thar Desert or Great Indian Desert as it is also known, is the 17th largest desert in the world. This large arid region located in northwestern India forms a natural boundary with Pakistan. The state of Rajasthan is largely made up of this huge desert, 10% of which is comprised of sand dunes.
In Rajasthan it’s possible to enjoy a camel safari out into these sand dunes. It makes for a fun (and slightly uncomfortable) experience of rural desert life. In Rajasthan there are several places where you can go for a camel safari, including Jaisalmer, Bikaner, Pushkar and Jodhpur. The overnight camel safari from Jaisalmer was a definite highlight of my time in northern India.
On this tour we first took jeeps out of the city and into the desert beyond. At this point we were given our trusty steads (I know a stead refers to a horse, but what’s the right term for a camel?) and set off into the dunes. My camel was particularly moody as he had recently had a thorn pulled out from the pad of his foot. Poor guy.
We rode the camels for around 1.5 hours until we reached our modest desert camp. After saying farewell to our camels and enjoying a customary cup of chai, we clambered to the top of the dunes to watch sunset.
Our camel drivers/jeep drivers/camp hosts cooked us up a fabulous meal over the fire, and then we huddled around to watch a folk music and Kalbeliya dance show, performed by local artists. With our bellies full of curry and our thirsts quenched with beer, we then retired for the night and spent the evening sleeping under the stars.
Watch a Rajasthani puppet show
Puppet shows are a popular form of entertainment in Rajasthan. These puppet shows involve a number of wooden dolls brightly dressed in colourful clothes, attached with strings to the puppeteer. The puppeteer moves the puppets around to tell a story, with the accompaniment of singing and drumming from another member of the troupe.
I arranged a puppet show for my group during our visit to Jaipur. The puppeteer was located at the hotel where we were staying, so he set up his stage right there in the hotel gardens.
After a brief introduction to Kathputli (puppets of Rajasthan) we were treated to a show lasting around 45 minutes. We were then given the chance to test our own puppeteering skills and let me tell you, it’s much harder than it looks!
Admire the intricately carved pillars at Ranakpur
Ranakpur is the most beautiful temple in India. Fact. Well ok, maybe just in my humble opinion, but I’m probably right 😉 I had no expectations about this temple before my visit and I was absolutely blown away by its beauty.
Following a divine vision, construction on Ranakpur temple began in the 15th century. The main temple has 1444 marble pillars, 29 halls, 80 domes and 426 columns. The most staggering fact is that the 1444 pillars were all individually carved and no two pillars are the same!
This temple is located in the Pali district of Rajasthan and is a good option for a day trip from Udaipur. Since this is a Jain temple, visitors are not permitted to wear any leather products such as belts or watch straps, so these can be left at lockers outside.
There is an entrance fee and an extra charge for cameras, phones and iPads. They even search you with a scanner before you enter the temple so you have been warned! The entrance fee to the temple also includes an audio guide, which is well worth listening to.
There is a dining hall at the entrance to the complex serving Jain food. For around 100 INR join the locals in eating an environmentally friendly, guilt free meal.
Befriend the vermin at Karni Mata Temple aka the Rat Temple!
Close to the city of Bikaneer you can find a temple visit like no other. An Indian experience which might cause nightmares for some!
Karni Mata is a Hindu temple dedicated to the deity Karni Mata, but this temple is more famously known for housing over 25,000 rats. Whilst the temple itself isn’t anything spectacular, the main attraction here is to witness the rats scurrying along corridors, out of doorways and if you’re lucky, over your feet.
Yes that’s right, having a rat run over your foot is considered good luck in this temple!
There are several stories behind the rats at Karni Mata temple, but my favourite is the one which suggests that when a 20,000 strong army deserted a nearby battlefield, they came to the town to seek refuge. However, Goddess Karni Mata considered desertion as a sin, so rather than punish them with death, instead she changed them into rats and provided the temple as their eternal home.
Whatever legend you choose to believe, a visit to the rat temple will certainly challenge natural instincts that might ordinarily have you leaping away from these fury creatures. But here’s the real challenge – since it’s a temple, all those who enter are required to take off their shoes!
Top Tip: If you speak nicely to the shoewala outside, he will kindly provide you with some shoe covers to put over your feet.
Watch a Bollywood movie with the locals
You might have watched Bollywood movies before, you might even be a fan. But there is nothing quite like seeing a Bollywood movie at a jam packed Indian cinema. This is such a fun Indian experience and it’s seriously not to be missed.
At Indian cinemas there is audience participation. When a handsome actor appears on the screen for the first time, everyone cheers. When there’s a massive explosion the crowd cheers. When there’s a sexy scene, the crowd cheers.
Basically, whatever is going on in the movie, the audience reacts with whooping and shouting and cheering. All of which is guaranteed to leave you with a huge smile on your face.
Obviously you can watch movies at any cinema around India, but one place where you are guaranteed a full house is at Raj Mandir in Jaipur.
Go on a tiger safari
Before I travelled to India the one Indian activity I knew I had to arrange was a tiger safari. For me it was a must-do. Or I at least had to try, since I know that seeing wildlife is never guaranteed.
So to make this dream become a reality, I planned a trip to Ranthambore National Park where we scheduled in several tiger safaris. There are lots of National Parks in India where you can go on tiger safaris but I chose this one based on logistics.
We got very lucky on our safaris and my dream came true with some magical tiger sightings. In this post I explain exactly how you can plan a visit to Ranthambore National Park.
Have an audience with the Dalai Lama
This is officially the hardest thing to do on this list! After fleeing Tibet for fear of persecution, the Dalai Lama made his new home in India, at Dharamshala.
At his Indian home the Dalai Lama holds private audiences, although the application is quite involved. You can read how to go about it here. He also holds public teachings which are easier to attend, if your schedule is flexible enough.
However, the hillside town of Dharamshala is a pretty Indian destination and is worth a visit regardless. There are some great hikes on offer here during the summer months.
During our time in Dharamshala we visited the Dalai Lama temple (Tsuglagkhang Complex). We planned our trip there to see monks during a debating session, which is highly entertaining. Debating sessions happen everyday at 1:30pm (except Sundays).
Do you follow the Dalai Lama on Instagram? He’s pretty awesome!
Watch the Wagah border closing ceremony
India and Pakistan have a delicate relationship to say the least. However, there is a ceremony that takes place everyday at the Pakistan/Indian border, where both sides come together to make light of this relationship.
At the Wagah-Attari border every evening before the border gates are closed for the night, visitors can observe one of the most bizarre and surreal tourist attractions I’ve ever witnessed. This ceremony is the Wagah border ceremony and I explain more about in this post.
See the ‘Putting to bed’ ceremony at the Golden Temple
The Golden Temple in Amritsar is a strikingly beautiful Sikh temple, with a dome roof gilded from pure gold. If you only see one Sikh Temple in India then this should be the one! The Golden Temple is a massive pilgrimage sight for followers of the Sikh faith. This temple is part of larger complex which includes a large pool known as the pool of the nectar.
Every evening the Guru Granth Sahib (the Holy Book) is placed upon an embroidered pillow and carried from the temple, along a promenade to a marble building (Akal Takht) to “rest” for the night. If you’re prepared to queue, you can join the worshippers along this promenade as this procession takes place.
See a Kathakali cultural show
Ok, hold on now as things are gonna start to get a little weird! The Kathakali dance show is a cultural performance that tell stories of Hindu myths and legends. This very unique dance uses facial expressions and hand movements to represent words and themes, and is something that everyone should experience on a trip to Kerala.
There are options to see this show in several places around Kerala, the most popular being the Kathakali Centre on Fort Cochi and Varkala Cultural Centre in Varkala.
I saw this bemusing performance at the very hot Varkala cultural centre. Although the show technically doesn’t start until 7pm you are advised to arrive an hour before to watch performers apply their makeup. This was quite interesting but I’m not sure I needed to watch it for a whole hour! The show itself then lasts for an hour.
To see a clip of this performance watch the video below. Skip to 1min33 if you don’t want to watch it all 😉
Cruise the Kerala backwaters on a houseboat
Kerala is famous for its palm tree lined beaches and network of backwater canals. One must do activity on a visit to Kerala, is to cruise along the backwaters on a luxury houseboat.
Like most backwater tours my houseboat experience started in Alleppey. For my group I had rented two beautiful houseboats, each equipped with 5 ensuite bedrooms, a dining room and chill out area.
Sound amazing? Yes it was!
This is one fabulous way to escape the noise and chaos of India. Sit back and relax as you wind your way around this huge waterway system.
Join worshippers in the inner sanctum at Srikalahasteeswara Temple
If you’re really looking to get off the beaten path in India, then this is the place for you. Srikalahasti temple is located in the town of Skrikalahasti and is one of the most famous Lord Shiva temples in India.
What made this visit a memorable experience in India for me, was that we were able to visit the inner sanctum. As non-hindus, access to the inner part of the temple is usually prohibited. Often non-hindus are not allowed to enter the temple at all. However, in this jam packed temple we were able to line up and join in the chaos, as worshippers came to pay their respects to the shiva linga.
See the Buddhist caves of Ajanta
Although India might be known as a Hindu country, it’s actually the place where Buddhism was born. Take a visit to the rock cut Buddhist caves of Ajanta to see the ancient paintings and rock-cut sculptures, which have been under UNESCO protection for nearly 30 years.
There are 30 caves at Ajanta dating as far back as the second century BC. However, it’s the murals painted later in the fifth century, that stand out as being some of the best paintings of the ancient world.
Even today, visitors can still see the original blue and green colours in the paint work. It makes the horrendous drive along pot-holed covered roads worth the effort!
Tour the Dharavi slum in Mumbai
The inclusion of this might be an unpopular one for many, as poverty tourism is a contested topic. To be honest, the concept of visiting slums has always been a strange one for me. The thought of going on a tour to see where and how people in poverty live, made me feel quite uncomfortable. However, I read some reviews about the tours with Reality Tours and was encouraged by what I read.
The company offer tours of Dharavi in order to highlight all the good things that are going on there, rather than focusing on the obvious negatives. They have a no camera policy to protect the privacy of the residents and for me this changed the focus of the tour. It meant that we were forced into observing and learning what was going on, rather than simply wandering around taking photos of poor people. Also, 80% of the profits made by the company are used to invest in education and health care for people in the community.
I asked our guide, who was from Dharavi herself, how she felt about westerners visiting on these slum tours. She said said she was proud to show off the productivity and resourcefulness of her neighbourhood, and her only wish was that it would be referred to as Dharavi, rather than a slum.
I really enjoyed this tour. It took me out of my comfort zone and was a real eye opener. The moral debate of these tours with remain, but by choosing not to go on one won’t stop their existence. At least I know the tours are providing jobs for Dharavi residents and that money I paid for this tour is being put to good use.
Get blessed by an elephant
Hampi is another UNESCO site on this list and is the ruined remains of the last great Hindu kingdom of south India. Set amongst an incredible landscape of boulders, palm trees and rice paddies, the town of Hampi is a place where you plan to stay for a few nights and end up staying a few weeks. It’s one of the prettiest places in India to visit.
The main tourist attraction are the ruins of Hampi themselves. Must sees in Hampi are the Stone Chariot and musical pillars of Vittala Temple, the elephant stables, the royal enclosure and Virupakasha Temple.
Virupakasha Temple is a functioning temple and to visit you must be dressed accordingly. Just inside the main gate you will find an elephant who, if you hand over some rupees, will give you a “blessing” by placing his truck on your head.
Elephants in captivity might again be a controversial topic but it’s my understanding that the elephant here is well cared for. I spoke to the mahout (elephant handler) who said he had been with this elephant for the last 10 years.
Chuckle at the Erotic temples in Khajuraho
You will likely visit many temples on a tour of India, but I challenge anyone to visit the temples of Khajuraho without having a little chuckle. These UNESCO temples are famed for their niagara-style architecture but also for their erotic sculptures.
This huge group of temples is dedicated to both Hinduism and Jainism and though they are famed for the saucy soultpures, only 10 % of the carvings actually have a sexual theme. The rest of the artwork represent scenes from everyday life and scholars argue that sex is just another part of essential everyday life so it’s no big deal.
Fair enough you might think, just another part of normal life…..that is until you get to the sculptures of bestiality!
Visit the tribal markets in Odisha
Few travellers make it over to the east coast of India, aside for a visit to Kolkata. However, there are some fantastic cultural experiences to be had in this part of the country and it quickly became my favourite area of India. The state of Odisha (formerly Orissa) is home to many tribal villages. On various days of the week villagers bring their produce to sell at the market.
On my tour of India we visited two incredibly colourful markets. We saw the Paraja tribes at the Monday markets in Kakriguma, and the Dongriya Kondh tribes at Chatikona Wednesday market. Kakiriguma has a very local feel to it whereas Chatikona felt slightly more touristy, with tribes people touting souvenirs as well as local produce.
Spot Irrawaddy dolphins on Chilca lake
Chilca lake, near the town of Puri, is the second largest brackish water lagoon in the world. This lake is an absolute paradise for bird watchers, but the lake is also home to a very unique mammal – the endangered Irrawaddy dolphins.
I was unaware these dolphins existed outside of the Irrawaddy river, where I’ve been lucky enough to see them before. However, over 150 dolphins are reported to live here and can be viewed by taking a boat trip out onto the lake.
Ride in a classic Ambassador taxi
For me, Kolkata is one of the best destinations in India. One uniquely Indian experience on offer in Kolkata is to take a ride in a peela (yellow) Ambassador taxi. These classic cars, modelled on the old British Morris Oxford III, were launched in 1958 and fit in well with the colonial architecture of the city.
However, demand for these cars is dropping as traditional taxi drivers struggle to compete with the likes of Uber, so enjoy your ride in one of these icons as they may soon become a thing of the past.
Discover the best places for street photography in Kolkata in this post!
Observe the Losar celebrations at Dali monastery
One of the highlights of my time in Darjeeling was visiting the Dali Monastery. We took the short cab ride to this monastery to observe monks during puja (daily prayers.)
However, as chance would have it, our visit coincided with the Losar celebrations. This is a festival to celebrate Tibetan New Year. On this day monks perform a series of dances and rituals to mark the beginning of a new cycle. This really was a magical Indian experience to remember.
Losar is based on the lunar calendar and typically happens in February.
As I mentioned at the start there are many more amazing experiences on off in incredible India but this is a good place to start. If you have any questions about these experiences I’d love to hear from ya!
Don’t forget to buy your travel insurance before you fly!
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