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From the snow-capped Himalayas in the north to the sun-drenched coastal villages of the south, India unfolds like an ancient tapestry. At times threadbare and fading, the land stretches from desert dunes and scattered slums to the rich embroidery of ancient, jewelled palaces, and the majestic domes of forgotten empires.
Since the first civilisations rose on the banks of the Indus River almost 5,000 years ago, India has given birth to Buddhism and Hinduism, been touched by the Empire of Alexander the Great, seen the ancient empires of the Mauryas and Guptas rise and fall, and has traded with Pharaohs and Caesars.
An invasion by the Huns scattered its people until the sweeping hand of Islam saw new kingdoms rise, heralding the era of the Sultans. Defeat came again as the Mogul Emperors marched over the mountains and into the Punjab. The decline of the Mogul Empire gave way to the Marathas, who consolidated control of India just in time for the arrival of the British. The sun finally set on the British Empire as India reclaimed independence in 1947, heralding a new age of democracy.
India is a feast for the senses; where the air is heavy with the scent of jasmine and dancers trail frenetic melodies in colourful silk saris. Its cooks compose dishes from a palette of exotic spices that may leave a lingering taste of saffron or aniseed. In India's cities, the hardship of slum-living competes with the cacophony of seemingly endless traffic and a myriad of other textures, colours and movements all jostling for your attention.
India is possibly the most thrilling tourist destination of them all. It contains an astounding diversity of people, landscapes, sights and sounds. From lush jungles to sun-bleached deserts, from soaring mountain peaks to golden beaches, India has something to offer all her visitors.
Famous sights such as the Taj Mahal, Amber Palace and old Goa seldom fail to instil a sense of wonder in visitors, while the modern face of India, evident in the crowded cities and chaotic traffic, is also thrilling. It is the people, however, that live longest in the memory. They are renowned for their warm welcome, engaging conversation and obsessive-compulsive love of bargaining.
Visitors seem to be divided between those on organised tours, seeking to make the most of their time in relative comfort, and backpackers on six-month visas and flexible agendas. Despite isolated terrorist incidents and the occasional flare-up with Pakistan, India is one of the safest countries to visit, and it remains one of the best-value travel destinations in the world.
India's vibrant culture remains distinctive and unique despite years of colonial and western influence. One reason for this is the centrality of religion to Indian life, so that wherever you go, the sacred and profane exist side by side in perfect harmony. The real key to enjoying India is to go there with an open mind and an open heart.
Business in India is conducted formally, with punctuality an important aspect. Suits and ties are appropriate, and women in particular should dress modestly. If it is very hot, jackets are usually not required and short-sleeve shirts are deemed appropriate. It is customary to engage in small talk before getting down to business, and topics can range from anything from cricket to politics. Business cards are usually exchanged on initial introduction, using the right hand only.
Handshakes are fairly common, though one should wait to see if greeted with a hand, or a 'namaste' -a traditional Indian greeting of a small bow accompanied by hands clasped as if in prayer. Visitors should return the greeting. It is common for women to participate in business meetings, and hold high positions in companies, and foreign businesswomen are readily accepted. Business hours are usually from 9.30 to 5.30pm (weekdays) with a lunch break from 1pm to 2pm, and Saturdays from 9.30am to 1pm.
It is hard to generalise in a country that runs from the Himalayas to the beaches of the Indian Ocean, but broadly speaking, October to March tend to be the most pleasant months in India, when it relatively dry and cool. In the far south the best months to visit are between January and September, while north-eastern areas of India tend to be more comfortable between March and August.
The deserts of Rajasthan (west of Jodhpur) and the north-western Indian Himalayan region are at their best during the monsoon season (July to September). The mountainous regions of Himachal Pradesh and Kashmir should be visited over the summer months (May to September).
The international access code for India is +91. The outgoing code is 00 followed by the relevant country code (e.g. 0044 for the United Kingdom). City/area codes are in use, e.g. (0)11 for Delhi. International calls can be quite expensive and there are often high surcharges on calls made from hotels; it is cheaper to use a calling card.
Alternatively, there are telephone agencies in most towns which are identifiable by the letters STD for long distance internal calls and ISD for the international service. The local mobile phone operators use GSM networks and have roaming agreements with most international operators. Internet cafes are available in the main cities and resorts.
India is a tolerant society, but visitors should educate themselves about its religious and social customs so as not to cause offence: for example, smoking in public was banned in October 2008. When visiting temples visitors will probably be required to remove their footwear and cover their heads.
Generally, women should dress more conservatively than (perhaps) they are used to doing at home, both to respect local sensibilities and to avoid unwanted attention. Topless bathing is illegal. Indians do not like to disappoint, and often instead of saying 'no', will come up with something that sounds positive, even if incorrect. Social order and status are very important in Indian culture - remain respectful and obliging with elders. Avoid using your left hand, particularly when eating.
Travellers to India over 17 years do not have to pay duty on 200 cigarettes or 50 cigars or 250g tobacco; one bottle of alcohol; medicine in reasonable amounts; 59ml of perfume and 250ml eau de toilette; and goods for personal use. Prohibited items include livestock, bird and pig meat products.
240 volts, 50Hz. A variety of power outlets are used in India, but most plugs have two or three round pins.
There are a many health risks associated with travel to India and although no vaccinations are required for entry into India, travellers should take medical advice on vaccinations at least three weeks before departure. Outbreaks of Dengue fever and Chikungunya virus occur, both being transmitted by mosquitoes. Malaria outbreaks are common in areas above 6,562 feet (2,000m), particularly in the north-east of the country. Outbreaks of cholera occur frequently.
Travellers from an infected area should hold a yellow fever certificate. Food poisoning is a risk in India: all water and ice should be regarded as contaminated, and visitors should drink only bottled water and ensure that the seal on the bottle is intact.
Meat and fish should be regarded as suspect in all but the best restaurants, and should always be well cooked and served hot. Salads and unpeeled fruit should be avoided. Health facilities are adequate in the larger cities, but limited in rural areas.
Travellers should have medical insurance, and bringing a standard first-aid kit complete with a course of general antibiotics is advisable. Diarrhea is common amoung travellers to India and is best treated with re-hydration salts; however, if symptoms persist for more than two days visiting a private hospital is recommended.
Bird flu has been a problem in the past and travellers should take the necessary precautions when eating poultry and egg dishes. Rabies is also a hazard, and should you get bitten by a dog, cat or rat it is best to consult a medical practitioner immediately. Travellers to the Himalayan Mountains should be aware of the risks of altitude sickness.
Although English is generally used for official and business purposes, Hindi is the official language and is spoken by about 40 percent of the population. Urdu is the language common with the Muslim demographic. India has a total of 22 official languages
The currency is the Indian Rupee (INR), which is divided into 100 paise (singular paisa). Major currencies can be changed at banks, and authorised bureaux de changes. It is impossible to obtain rupees outside India, but no matter what time you arrive in India there will be an exchange office open at the airport.
It is illegal to exchange money through the black market and it is advisable to refuse torn notes, as no one will accept them apart from the National Bank. It is best to change money into small denominations. Travellers cheques and major credit cards are widely accepted, particularly in tourist orientated establishments. ATMs are not generally available.
Individual tourists requiring visas should preferably apply for a tourist visa and not for an ordinary visa, to avoid problems on departure. Visa extensions are possible, by applying for them through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Holders of multiple-entry Tourist Visas (visa type code "T"), with a validity ranging from above three months and up to 10 years, are required to leave a gap of at least two months between visits.
This will be noted as a stamp in their passport upon their departure from India (this rule does not apply to those visiting neighbouring countries, such as Nepal). Those wishing to re-enter before two months have expired must contact an Indian mission abroad to obtain permission, which, if granted, will be in the form of a letter. Within 14 days of re-entry, the visitor is required to register with the Foreigner's Regional Registration Office (FRRO). Any waiver of this restriction will be endorsed on the visa page in the visitor's passport.
Note that a yellow fever vaccination certificate is required, if arriving in India within six days of leaving or transiting through heavily infected areas. Also note that the following areas of India are restricted, and require that visitors obtain a permit BEFORE entering them: (Protected Areas) parts of the state of Manipur, parts of the state of Mizoram, parts of the state of Arunachal Pradesh, the whole state of Nagaland, the whole of State of Sikkim, parts of the state of Uttaranchal, parts of the state of Jammu and Kashmir, parts of the state of Rajasthan, parts of the state of Himachal Pradesh; (Restricted Areas) the whole of the union territory of Andaman & Nicobar Islands, part of the state of Sikkim.
If surface travel is involved, and nationals travel via restricted areas, they require a "pass" issued by either the Foreigners Regional Registration Office (located in each major Indian city), or the Superintendent of Police (located in each Indian district), or the diplomatic representation of India in Bhutan or Nepal.
NOTE: It is highly recommended that your passport has at least six months validity remaining after your intended date of departure from your travel destination. Immigration officials often apply different rules to those stated by travel agents and official sources.
Travellers in India must be aware of, but not paranoid about, the threat of terrorism. Recent attacks in Mumbai, Delhi, Ahmedabad, Agra and Bangalore occurred in popular tourist haunts like hotels, railway stations, markets and temples. There is the threat that public places frequented by Western tourists in the metropolitan centres (Delhi, Kolkata, Chennai, Mumbai) may be targeted in future. Tourist areas such as Goa are also at risk.
Travellers visiting large religious events are advised that these ceremonies, which attract hundreds of thousands of people, can result in life-threatening stampedes. Increased security at major airports means travellers can expect delays. On a more everyday level, there is a risk of minor property left, such as pick-pocketing - but incidents of violent crime in India are astonishingly low.
Travellers using India's vast railway network are advised to lock their baggage, and to keep it as close to them as possible. There are also always stories about India involving scam-artists - so be on your guard, and if someone offers you a 'business opportunity' that seems too be good to be true, remember that it probably is.
In India, taxi drivers do not expect to be tipped; however, tipping is expected in other services (porters, guides, hotel staff and waiters in small establishments). In tourist restaurants or hotels a 10% service charge is often added to bills. 'Baksheesh' is common in India: more a bribe than a tip, it is given before rather than after service.