25 Breathtaking Experiences You Must Have In India

The Nat Geo team share their favourite India memories.  
Carvings at ajanta
The carvings of Ajanta and Ellora date back to the 2nd century B.C. Photo: Leon Yaakov/Flickr/Creative Commons (http://bit.ly/1jxQJMa)

Ajanta And Ellora In Aurangabad, Maharashtra

We scoured the rock-cut caves of Ajanta and Ellora one August, through light showers that drenched the valley in green. We stumbled around, awed by stunning sculptures and the luminous details of paintings that sprung to life under the guide’s torchlight. I hummed notes at every recess that promised to be a good echo chamber. Ajanta’s paintings revealed a bygone India we hadn’t dreamed of–the ladies sporting rather modern hairstyles and jewellery, with enchanting scenes of court and daily life. Ellora suggested religious harmony with its beautifully carved, adjacent Hindu, Buddhist and Jain shrines. Each year, Ajanta and Ellora crumbles a little more; we didn’t see the same sights that friends had mentioned from their visits years before, but there was a huge sense of walking through an elaborate treasure chest whose wonders could definitely not be examined in a weekend. –Saumya Ancheri, Assistant Web Editor

Ajanta is around 97km/2hr from Aurangabad. Ellora is around 30km/45min from Aurangabad.

Midnight Coracle Ride In Hampi, Karnataka

By day, coracles across the Tungabhadra river in Hampi, Karnataka, sail past ochre boulders dotted with little shrines. But my indelible memory of a coracle ride came from bad planning. Recently, a friend and I missed the last boat out from Hampi to Anegundi. He managed to call a boatman for help who soon arrived, a lone figure looming in the darkness of the night. Seated in that bobbing, bowl-shaped coracle, I could hear the oar rhythmically cutting through the Tungabhadra’s inky waters, and see a gopuram in Hampi, silhouetted in the distance. Suddenly, the boatman began rotating the coracle. It was both terrifying and intoxicating, looking up at the night sky swirling with stars. Dizzy, we silently acknowledged that we’d rather miss every last boat back just to feel that rush again. –Kareena Gianani, Associate Editor

Wagah Border Ceremony In Punjab

The Wagah Border Ceremony draws hundreds of visitors every evening. Photo: Giridhar Appaji Nag Y/Flickr/Creative Commons (http://bit.ly/1jxQJMa)

The Wagah Border Ceremony draws hundreds of visitors every evening. Photo: Giridhar Appaji Nag Y/Flickr/Creative Commons (http://bit.ly/1jxQJMa)

The atmosphere at the beating retreat ceremony at the Wagah border dividing India and Pakistan, is not unlike that at a cricket stadium. There’s passionate chanting, lots of whistling and singing, and tricoloured paraphernalia everywhere. The focus of attention is on the two massive gates painted in the colours of the respective national flags. Intimidating officers (Indians dressed in striking khaki-and-red uniforms, and Pakistanis in black) high-kick their way to their respective gates, indulge in a good-natured, albeit fierce, staring contest and finally lower their flags. Beyond the green-and-white gates, I could see Pakistanis cheering their guards along. I was struck by how similar we were—our clothes, our faces, our skin—and yet here we were on opposite sides of the border, nothing but a line drawn 69 years ago on a map. –Kamakshi Ayyar, Features Writer, Web

The Wagah border is around 31km/40min from Amritsar.

Sleep By The Roar Of A Himalayan River

Camping by a river bank in Kashmir guarantees a deep, restful sleep. Photo: Vahishta Mistry

Camping by a river bank in Kashmir guarantees a deep, restful sleep. Photo: Vahishta Mistry

There are two kinds of silence: the absence of noise and the presence of something so powerful, it mutes out even the most niggling thoughts. Such is the roar of Kashmir’s rivers, as they make their way down from their lofty Himalayan sources. My favourite way to soak in their glory is to camp on a riverbank, but there are a great many boutique hotels and homestays around Kashmir that are within proximity of icy, swirling beasts like the Sind, Indus, and Zanskar. Spend your days hiking along the river, picking pebbles and wild flowers from its bank, but tuck in early for the night: the deep, restful sleep that the sound of the river brings is something else. –Neha Sumitran, Web Editor

Ima Keithel In Imphal, Manipur

Visiting local markets is one of my favourite ways to forge a connection with a new place. On a recent visit to Manipur, I touched, smelled and tasted my way through the crowded aisles of Ima Keithel in Imphal. Also known as Mothers’ Market, because all the stalls are run by women, it was nothing short of a wonderland for me. I remember the smiling ima who sat surrounded by her pouches of the electric king chilli powder, looking like a purveyor of magical potions. And the young woman who gently sprinkled water on the mound of delicate lotus blossoms in front of her. When I spotted something I didn’t recognise, the imas invited me to taste it. I came away with a stash of ingredients that kept the memories of my visit alive long after. –Neha Dara, Deputy Editor

Read more here.

Camping With The Family In The Himayalas

Pitch a tent with the family in the midst of the gorgeous Himalayas. Photo: Neha Sumitran

Pitch a tent with the family in the midst of the gorgeous Himalayas. Photo: Neha Sumitran

It’s never too early to introduce children to the joy of camping in the Himalayas. We took our little girl at two. Skipping through grassy meadows laden with ladybirds, having both parents’ undivided attention—it was bliss. Besides learning to love the outdoors, camping beside India’s snowy peaks always generates a closetful of lasting and happy family memories for all of us. Adults too, even if they’ve never slept in a tent or trekked in the mountains, find that it is one of the best ways to unwind and focus on the things that matter: Starry skies, crisp air scented with pine, the warmth of the sun in the day, and a campfire and loved ones close by at night. –Niloufer Venkatraman, Editor-In-Chief

Night Hike In Periyar Tiger Reserve, Kerala

It was a rainy moonless night, with the glimmer of wet leaves and the expectant breath of a forest going about its business in the dark. In the cool air, nutty and floral scents shifted every few steps we took. For three hours, my father and I picked our way through the buffer zone of the Periyar Tiger Reserve between two armed forest guards on their night patrol. We saw the black blur of a Malabar giant squirrel, herds of barking deer with their shining eyes and high-pitched call, fireflies, and a huge owl whose wings silently sliced the air. Tigers, elephants and bison were spotted more in the summer, we were told, but I didn’t mind. The suspense and sense of the forbidden was exhilarating, particularly when, at my request, the guards momentarily switched off their torches so we could experience the dark from the inside. –Saumya Ancheri, Assistant Web Editor

Periyar Tiger Reserve in Thekkady is around 157km/4.5hr from Kochi. For the Jungle Scouts hike, see here; slots from 7p.m.-4a.m.

Prehistoric Cave Art In Bhimbetka, Madhya Pradesh

India’s largest repository of prehistoric art lies in the open forest gallery of the Bhimbetka caves in Ratapani Wildlife Sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh. Painted scenes of hunting, dancing, rituals and forest life are scattered across the fantastically shaped sandstone rock shelters, whittled by wind, sun and rain. The art holds clues to our food habits and beliefs 20,000 years ago, and images of giraffe and ostrich that are no longer found in the wild here. The emotion is often raw and palpable, whether it is a victorious horseback hunter or a swaying dancer. Located on one of the world’s oldest geological formations, Madhya Pradesh is a storehouse of weird and wonderful sights that are really hard to choose between. If you’re a culture buff, visiting Bhimbetka’s natural canvas of our oldest art is an experience so profound, it’s bound to leave you speechless. –Saumya Ancheri, Assistant Web Editor

Bhimbetka is around 45km/1.15hr from Bhopal. To read more, see here.

Morning Chanting In Tabo Monastery In Spiti, Himachal Pradesh

The Tabo Monastery is believed to be among the oldest operating Buddhist enclaves in the Himalayas. Photo: Nivedita Ravishankar/Flickr/Creative Commons (http://bit.ly/1jxQJMa)

Tabo Monastery is among the oldest operating Buddhist enclaves in the Himalayas. Photo: Nivedita Ravishankar/Flickr/Creative Commons (http://bit.ly/1jxQJMa)

Tabo is among the most beautiful—and spiritually potent—places I have visited in the world. The little town lies in the remote Spiti Valley of Himachal Pradesh, lined with apricot trees and guarded by the mighty Himalayas. Look closely at the rugged mountainsides and you might notice gouged-out hollows in the rock: caves where monks from the Tabo Monastery meditated, sometimes unto death. Visit the town for its gentle energy, stilling views, and for the morning ritual at the monastery, attended by over 100 robed monks. Their deep, synchronised chanting is loud, powerful and unforgettable. –Neha Sumitran, Web Editor

A Forest Of Fireflies In Purushwadi, Maharashtra

During mating season, in the weeks before the monsoon arrives, the fireflies of Purushwadi put on a spectacular show. The trees of this Maharashtrian village are filled with tiny fluorescent bugs that use their natural light to signal to the females. The hour or so that I spent sitting in that clump of trees, surrounded by these glow-in-the-dark insects under a moonlit sky, was nothing short of magical—like something out of a fairy tale. –Kamakshi Ayyar, Features Writer, Web

Purushwadi is around 225km/4hr from Mumbai. Read more here.

 

Releasing Baby Turtles In The Ocean At Velas, Maharashtra

Every year, hundreds of female olive ridley turtles make their way to the shores of Velas, an otherwise non-descript village in Maharashtra. Each mother lays about 100-150 eggs in holes she digs with her powerful flippers. And every year between end-Feb and April, clutches of these eggs hatch and tiny baby turtles emerge to make their way to the ocean. Watch them slowly drag themselves across the sand at the turtle festival organised by Chiplun-based NGO Sahyadri Nisarga Mitra. The festival aims to educate travellers about these delicate creatures and allows them watch the babies slowly making their way to the ocean. Even more awe-inspiring, is knowing that each of these little females will come back to this very beach many years from now to hatch their own eggs—no matter where in the world they live. –Neha Sumitran, Web Editor

Velas is around 218km/5hr from Mumbai. Read more here.

Sunset And Sunrise At The Great Rann Of Kutch, Gujarat

The Great Rann of Kutch in Gujarat is an endless sweep of salt marsh, stark and mesmerising. A few years ago, I visited the stretch, which is spread over Kutch, and Sindh in Pakistan. I was a tad emotional to be so close to my Sindhi roots, to a place I had heard childhood tales about but had never seen. With salt squelching under my feet, I walked across the Rann around sunset, watching birds flying homeward. It was transcendental: streaks of fierce oranges and blushing pinks splashed across the skies, the tangerine sun dipping below the horizon. I returned early the next morning. On that biting December morning, I shivered and squirmed, waiting, for several long minutes. But finally, dawn broke and the skies came alive again. –Kareena Gianani, Associate Editor

The Great Rann of Kutch is best approached via Dhordo, around 86km/1.45hr from Bhuj