Originally created 07/03/05

Diversity of India charms visitors



Tourists who find the Caribbean ho-hum and have exhausted the casinos in Las Vegas can really push the envelope with a visit to India.

A trip to India falls into the "adventure" category, though this is not white-water rafting or rock climbing. The country is so diverse, so exotic, and so alien, that it's a keen adventure in itself.

Of course, the British have known this since the beginning of past century. Though India earned its independence in 1947, most people speak English and most of the signs in the cities are in English.

A good place to start is Bombay (now called Mumbai), a bustling city of 16 million that testifies to the dichotomy of India - with its cutting-edge technology and primitive roots. You'll find excellent restaurants and elegant hotels. There's Bollywood, India's thriving film industry, frenetic discos, Internet cafes and persistent beggars in public squares.

The massive diversity of India can be alarming and - even for the seasoned traveler - is best seen on a tour. There are many qualified touring companies, but one of the best is Cox & Kings, which has been negotiating India since the 18th century. A full-day's tour in Mumbai runs about $100 per person, including lunch, a driver and guide. Cox & Kings has a handy Web site, www.coxandkingsusa.com.

To uncover the real India, you need to visit the countryside. A two-hour flight north to Udaipur transports you to the state of Rajasthan and another world.

The maharana (as he's called) still presides here. He operates three hotels, two of them in the massive City Palace built by his ancestors in 1567. A three-hour tour of the City Palace is barely enough to absorb the architecture, the workmanship and the murals.

There are several luxury hotels in Udaipur, but the Udaivilas Resort is a hotel so breathtaking that you'd swear you've stumbled onto Xanadu. Situated on 50 acres that overlook Lake Pichola and the City Palace, each room sports its own semiprivate swimming pool, a 24-hour butler and a staff that remembers how you like your coffee. Deluxe rooms run $450, not a bad price for living like a maharajah. For more information, visit www.udaivilas.com.

About 70 miles northwest, winding through the Aravali Mountains, lies the tiny village of Ranakpur and its famous Jain Temple. Jainism is a branch of Hinduism whose adherents so devoutly believe in nonviolence that some priests wear small masks to avoid killing insects they might breathe in.

Not only is the temple constructed of more than 1,000 hand-carved marble columns but it's also a gathering place for the people of this rural area; women in colorful saris, men in chunky turbans (the color defines the mood of the wearer) and Jain nuns garbed in pristine white.

The road to Ranakpur was, at one time, part of the silk route, and traveling this two-lane highway is like slipping back in time. You'll see women balancing jugs of water on their heads, bullocks drawing water from hand-dug wells to irrigate the fields, and jubilant grooms celebrating an impending marriage. Here in the "real India" you'll also spy camel caravans, village witch doctors consulting on a case, and Gypsies (who originated in India) plying their blacksmith skills. The trek to Ranakpur is worth the entire trip to India.

From Udaipur farther north lies New Delhi, the seat of the government, which boasts the famous Red Fort, Jama Masjid (the largest mosque in Asia), Humayun's tomb and a gigantic flea market that sports far more people than fleas.

A two-hour express train trip from Delhi will speed you to Agra and the world-famous Taj Mahal. Built by a Mughal emperor as a mausoleum for his dead wife (he had three of them), the Taj is one edifice that actually lives up to its press. Carved of white marble (on top of brick) with inlays of semiprecious stones, the Moorish structure is absolute perfection from any angle.

The Amarvilas Hotel in Agra is another "pleasure dome" with a breathtaking view of the Taj from every room. Its Web site is www.amarvilas.com.

IF YOU GO

Immunizations: Check with your doctor or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (www.cdc.gov/travel) on the immunizations for travel to India.

Security: Observed as in any international site, but India has one peculiar rule: no loose batteries on domestic flights in your carry-on luggage.

Electricity: 220-volt; most outlets require a three-pronged adapter. Better hotels provide both adaptors and step-down transformers for Western appliances. It's wise to take a flashlight in case of a blackout.

Crime: Visitors are considered guests, and few crimes are perpetrated against them, though be prepared to be a curiosity, especially in Agra.

Beggars: Aggressive in the cities. If you give to one, you will be inundated.

Customs: Shorts and bare arms are discouraged in mosques. Some mosques require you to shuck your shoes. You often are charged an extra fee to take in your camera, and video cameras usually are not permitted.

Tipping: Taxi drivers are not tipped, though a tour guide and driver should get about $5 a day at the end of the tour.

Train travel: The express from New Delhi to Agra takes two hours, but is tricky without a guide. No stations are announced, and you have exactly three minutes to disembark in Agra. Do not eat the food provided with the first-class ticket.

When to go: October through March to avoid the monsoon and intense heat.

Getting there: Singapore Airlines has a new flight from Los Angeles via Singapore to Mumbai. There also are flights via Singapore from Newark and New York.

Visas: Visas are required. Apply at your nearest Indian consulate. The cost is $60, or you can utilize travel expediters at Travel Document Systems Inc., www.traveldocs.com. The expediters charge an extra $45.