From the untouched beauty of the Andaman Islands to the sense-dazzling spice markets of Goa, our India specialists know this colourful country from top to bottom.
A - Z of India
This is India – but not as you know it. Crystal clear waters, beaches of powder-soft white sand and unfurling jungle, out in the middle of the ocean. The Andaman Islands form an archipelago stretching across the Bay of Bengal, over 1,000 kilometres from the Indian mainland. To protect the indigenous tribes settled here for millennia, most of the 572 islands are off limits to visitors. The beauty of the dozen open for business, such as Havelock, prove it’s a tourism hotspot in waiting. Wanderlust is driving savvy travellers to its pristine shores, and luxury resorts are popping up to accommodate them.
The best time to visit the Andaman Islands is between October and March, though its tropical climate makes it a year-round destination. Radhanagar, Havelock’s most popular beach, is the perfect spot to watch the sunset. As the sun slips across ruby skies into the ocean, the effort to make it here feels more than worth it.
As the world’s largest film industry, Bollywood has been delighting movie goers for over a century with tales of romance, drama and action. Close to 2,000 films come out of Mumbai every year, selling enough tickets to put half the world’s population in cinema seats. The music and dance routines are especially famous. Heroes take centre stage, while troupes of brightly dressed dancers support them. The soundtrack of the latest hit Bollywood film can be heard ringing out from taxis, markets and nightclubs across the country.
If you fancy yourself as the next Amitabh Bachchan or Aishwarya Rai, or just want an insight into the Bollywood film industry, A&K can arrange tours which place you behind the scenes – and even on set. Learn your hastas in a dance workshop, meet cast and crew during filming, get into the spirit with a cinema screening and try your hand at some Bollywood dialogue in a recording studio. Who knows, you could shimmy your way into the next box office hit.
Each spring, the streets of India are awash with colour as Hindus celebrate the festival of Holi. But several Indian cities remain colourful the year round, including Jaipur. How Rajasthan’s capital became known as the Pink City is the stuff of legend. In 1876, the Maharaja was keen to impress Prince Albert who was on a tour of India. Going beyond painting the town red, he literally painted it pink – the colour of hospitality. As you’ll see during your Jaipur visit, it’s been a tradition ever since.
Jodhpur is another of Rajasthan’s jewels – though more sapphire than quartz. Its Old Town is a jumble of box buildings, most painted Shiva-blue. Theories abound as to why the colour became a favourite here, but the characteristic shade earned Jodhpur the nickname of the Blue City.
Many Indian cities boast colourful epithets. There’s Udaipur, the White City, with its resplendent marble buildings; Nagpur, the Orange City, where oranges blossom during monsoon showers; Jaisalmer, the Golden City, whose buildings of sandstone sit amidst desert dunes, and more besides.
If you're keen to explore both of these colourful cities in more detail, we suggest taking a look at our Classic Northern India suggested itinerary.
The most famous Hindu festival, Diwali is a celebration of light overcoming darkness. For five days each year, India marks the occasion with prayers, gift giving and fireworks. Everything is aglow with flickering diyas (oil lamps), which twinkle like stars on the surface of the Ganges.
The people of Jaipur know how to celebrate Diwali festival. The city is incandescent, its pink buildings draped in golden lights and elaborate tableaux. Wander the illuminated market stalls of the Old City to mingle with locals and sink your sweet tooth into festive sticky treats.
And where better to celebrate the Festival of Lights than the City of Lights? During Diwali, the famous embankments of Varanasi sparkle with row upon row of diyas. Watch pilgrims take a soul-cleansing dip in the Ganges, light your own lamp and visit the eclectic market stalls hawking everything from silk saris to fresh flowers.
Every Indian city has its own twist on Diwali, from Kolkata to Panaji. It’s the perfect time to experience India’s culture and charm.
Ganesha is depicted with the head of an elephant in murals throughout India, but the pretty pachyderm can be found beyond the tomes of Hindu mythology. You can spot Indian elephants grazing on grassland, splashing in rivers and wandering into villages across the country.
The Indian elephant is the smaller cousin of the African elephant, though it still weighs in at a hefty five tonnes. It’s said the forests of India once teemed with them, but human encroachment on the elephant’s territory has had a devastating impact on its population. Thankfully, government-sponsored programs such as Project Elephant are working to reverse this downward trend.
Several national parks offer the chance to see Indian elephants in their natural habitat. Go on safari in Kaziranga National Park to watch herds grazing on the aptly-named elephant grass carpeting this vast reserve. In Eravikulam National Park, the elephant
India has one of the world’s fastest growing economies. Yet the World Bank estimates that one in five Indians remains in poverty. Children growing up in slums and neglected rural conurbations have little access to education. In response, Abercrombie & Kent Philanthropy (AKP) is giving a helping hand to school projects across India.
AKP has also partnered with Digantar School in rural Jaipur. The school’s unique curriculum aims to transform the local community by expanding the horizons of the next generation.
Elsewhere in Rajasthan, Hansraj Children’s Home is tackling the high drop-out rate and illiteracy of Udaipur’s girls. AKP proudly sponsors its efforts, improving facilities for the 100 girls who study here.
Visit these valuable projects during an A&K holiday to India to see the friendly faces of the students and teachers first-hand.
Flowing 2,525 kilometres from its source in the Himalaya, the Ganges is both a sacred river and a lifeline. Hindus believe it descends from the heavens, and celebrate this fall from the firmament either in May or early June each year during Avatarana. They bathe in its waters to rid themselves of sin, lift and release cupfuls to honour the gods, and even bottle it for use later during holy rituals.
As well as its religious significance, the Ganges is a lifeline for over 400 million Indians. Its waters are used for bathing, cooking and washing; hydroelectric projects harness its energy to power homes; its tributaries irrigate the agricultural plains along its course and its basin supports fisheries that feed the people who live here. Pollution has become a major problem, with human and industrial waste saturating the river and posing risks to the environment and the population. National and international efforts are seeking to improve the situation, however, with projects aimed at restoring the sacred Ganges to its former glory.
Straddling five countries in Asia, the Himalaya form a world-famous mountain range with iconic ice-capped peaks. It’s a draw for intrepid explorers and photographers alike, offering dizzying vistas, peaks and mountain passes. The Himalaya also carry a religious significance to Hindus. The Bhagirathi river, fed by glacial waters from the mountains, forms the source of the Ganges, considered sacred in India. Built on Bhagirathi’s banks at a breath-taking altitude of over 3,000 metres, the town of Gangotri is visited each year by Hindu pilgrims seeking the seat of the goddess Ganga.
Also within the Indian foothills of the Himalaya, Hemis National Park in Ladakh has become a tourist hotspot (despite its chilly climes). Travellers visit here in the hopes of spotting the elusive snow leopard in its icy habitat – there could be as many as 6,500 wandering the mountains of Central Asia. As it’s an endangered species, sightings of the shy big cat are rare, but few places offer a chance as high as Hemis.
Having been under British rule in one form or another for centuries, Indians first mobilised politically in pursuit of swaraj (self-rule) during the late 1800s. The Indian National Congress, established to give educated citizens a voice, had become a party in pursuit of independence by the time Mahatma Gandhi joined. Gandhi’s ideology of nonviolent resistance inspired fellow nationalists and made him a famous figurehead for the movement.
Decades of struggle in the 20th century culminated in the 1947 declaration of independence, and the tricoloured Swaraj Flag was hoisted for the first time over an independent India. The country’s first prime minister, Jawahar Nehru, announced: “At the stroke of today’s midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom.”
Gandhi’s assassination and the bloodshed of partition proved the path after Indian independence remained rocky. But, to cries of “Jai Hind”, India had finally become the master of its own fate.
The Jama Masjid (‘Friday Mosque’ in English) was finished in 1656. It took 5,000 workers to build it from the ground up, toiling under the command of Shah Jahan. The fifth Mughal emperor is best known for commissioning the Taj Mahal, though the Jama Masjid was his final architectural project. It lies a couple of kilometres away from another of Jahan’s marvels, the Red Fort, built out of the same red sandstone eight years earlier and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Kabaddi is a 1,000-year-old sport, and the official game of several Indian states. Played on a grid of two halves, opposing teams of seven compete for glory over 40 minutes. One player from the offensive team goes on a 30-second ‘raid’, crossing into the defensive side’s territory. The raider must tag as many of the opposition players as possible, then return to their half of the arena without being tackled. But there’s a catch. The lone raider must do all their tagging in one breath, chanting “kabaddi” the entire time.
If you’re confused, don’t worry. You can leave the complexities for the referees to worry about. Kabaddi takes place all over India, from stadiums with measured courts to streets with makeshift grids drawn in the dirt. This isn’t your usual schoolyard game of tag – it’s a fast and furious contact sport. But it’s also a lot of fun to watch. If you fancy being courtside during a bout of kabaddi or two, A&K can add it to the itinerary of your luxury Indian holiday.
One of India’s most popular drinks, lassi is a mix of yoghurt, water and spices served in shops, on street corners and during festivals throughout the country. Its traditional form, chaas, is savoury, with the simple addition of salt and water to the yoghurt base. But there are recipes calling for all sorts to be thrown in, everything from honey to buttermilk, turmeric to cumin and mangos to strawberries. Even a derivative of marijuana called bhang is added during the colourful Hindu festival of Holi – one way to reach a higher plane.
During an A&K tour sampling the cuisine of Agra, visit lassiwallahs as they whip up the famous yoghurt smoothie. Or follow this lassi recipe to create your very own:
Mix together 200ml of yoghurt and 50g of sugar with a hand blender. Add a few coarsely ground almonds, pistachio nuts and some powdered cardamom, stirring thoroughly. Then pop it in the refrigerator to chill for 15 minutes. Once it’s cool, pour the mix into shot glasses from a height to form a foam. Top with thick, fresh cream, grated pistachio and broiled saffron – and enjoy! Lassi is the perfect way to take the edge off India’s summertime heat.
Muhatma Gandhi was an iconic figure in India’s struggle for independence. He challenged an empire and became the ‘Father of the Nation’ – but his greatness didn’t happen overnight.
A shy boy from Gujarat, few would have imagined the impact Gandhi was to have in later life. He trained as a barrister in England, but was too anxious to cross-examine witnesses, leading to his failure at the bar back in then-Bombay. It was during his 21 years in South Africa challenging discrimination that Gandhi discovered his calling.
On returning to India, Gandhi became a proponent of self-rule, and developed his famous form of nonviolent resistance – satyagrah. Finally, in 1947, India declared independence. Gandhi lived less than a year in a free India, assassinated by a fellow Hindu nationalist in 1948, but long enough to see the shackles of colonialism shaken off his beloved homeland.
Discover more about Muhatma Gandhi on a visit to New Delhi. Located within a 10-kilometre radius, the National Gandhi Museum, Gandhi Smriti and Dandi March all deserve a visit.
During you’re A&K holiday to India, you’ll probably hear a namaste or two. In fact, our knowledgeable India team will offer you a warm namaste upon arrival. This common Hindu greeting derives from the Sanskrit word namah – to bow, and te – to you, so can be translated as ‘bowing to you’. It’s typically used when welcoming guests, and accompanied with hands clasped in prayer along with a slight bow. But, as English is India’s second official language, you can never go wrong with a simple ‘hello’.
If you want to impress the locals with a few more Hindi phrases, these essentials should get you by:
• Yes – haan
• No – nahi
• How are you? – aap kaise hain? (to male) / aap kaisee hain? (to female)
• I am fine – main acha hoon (if you’re male) / main achee hoon (if you’re female)
• Thank you! – dhanyavad!
• How much is it? - yeh kitne ka hai?
• Goodbye – alvida
Every street in Old Delhi offers a glimpse of authentic India. The walled city is chock-full of bustling bazaars and honking tuk tuks. Explore the spices, sweets and saris on sale in Chandni Chowk, an old market square that runs through the middle of the city. At the western end lies Khari Baoli, one of Asia’s largest wholesale spice markets. Along with spices of every colour under the sun, dried fruits, nuts and seeds are piled high on carts to be haggled over. One of the best things to do in Old Delhi has to be exploring the city by rikshaw, with an experienced guide at the helm.
The legacy of 17th century emperor Shah Jahad can be spotted all over Old Delhi. Jama Masjid, a grand mosque commissioned by the ruler, lies less than a kilometre away from Chandni Chowk. Across from the mosque is the Red Fort, the main residence of the ruling Mughal dynasty for two centuries. Its fortified walls and great gates are reminders of the power this empire once wielded.
Palaces & Peacocks
The peacock is the national bird of India, found all over the country. The male peafowl’s iridescent train has made it a symbol of beauty and grace here. It also has spiritual significance to Hindus; Kartikeya, the god of war, is depicted riding a peacock, and the bird’s colourful feathers adorn Krishna’s crown.
Because of its hallowed status, peacocks are found within the decorations of countless Indian palaces. Take the Peacock Gate of Jaipur’s City Palace, a doorway surrounded by peacock motifs whose plumes form a dazzling pattern. The Maharana of Udaipur had a similar idea. His towering City Palace has an entire plaza named after the flamboyant bird – The Peacock Courtyard. Not to be out-done, Mughal emperor Shah Jahan commissioned The Peacock Throne. The seat of unrivalled opulence cost twice as much as the Taj Mahal, and remained in Delhi’s Red Fort until it was captured as a trophy by the Persians and lost to the annals of time. Find out more on our Peacocks and Palaces suggested itinerary.
In the Mehrauli neighbourhood of Delhi lies one of India’s national treasures. The Qutb complex is an array of buildings left behind by Islamic conquerors, and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Many of the structures were built using the rubble of Jain temples, including the Qutb Minar, the tallest brick minaret in the world. This resulted in a unique blend of Jain, Hindu and Islamic architecture. Standing at a vertigo-inducing 73 metres high, the minaret overlooks one of India’s oldest mosques – the Quwwat-Islam Masjid. Its intricate carvings incorporate exquisite floral patterns and Arabic calligraphy.
One of the mysteries of the Qutb complex is the Iron Pillar of Delhi. The seven-metre high kirti stambha (victory column) has an almost supernatural resistance to corrosion. It was erected in honour of Vishnu as early as the third century, but has held up to the elements (as well as a cannonball strike) remarkably well. Visitors used to clasp the pillar behind their backs for good luck, but it’s now ringfenced – perhaps to keep in whatever sorcery preserves it. Our Discover India itinerary offers the perfect introduction to India and includes a visit to Jaipur.
Rudyard Kipling would write so fervently that his white trousers were forever dappled with ink spots. Whilst living in British India, he’d fill the local newspapers with his short stories of the Raj, of local Indians, of conflicting social conventions.
But it was from a snug cottage in Vermont that he wrote The Jungle Book. He penned the series in just four years, at the same time as a collection of short stories, a novel and an assortment of poetry. It’s a wonder there was any ink left after 1894.
Over a century since it was first published, the tales of a boy raised amid animals in the Seoni forest have become classics. Go on safari in Pench National Park to see the inspiration for The Jungle Book. Here you can spot the fearsome Bengal tiger (Shere Khan), the honey-loving sloth bear (Baloo) and the Indian wolf (Akela), and more favourites from the books. If you’re especially keen on eyeing the tiger, though, Ranthambhore is famous for them, with over 60 prowling the national park.
Spices have shaped India’s history since camel caravans from Calcutta would carry sackfuls across the border. They were hot stuff, once more valuable than gold, and their lucrative trade routes were fought over for centuries by empires. Now it’s impossible to imagine Indian cuisine without them.
If you fancy cooking an authentic Indian curry, make sure you’ve got the essential spices. Cumin is used both whole and ground in a wide variety of curries for a rich flavour. Black cardamom adds a smoky quality and is often found in garam masala blends. You should also have cloves, cinnamon and black pepper. Our A&K team on the ground can guide you to one of India’s lively spice markets to stock up. Delhi’s Khari Baoli is full of colourful spices piled high and sold wholesale, Mapusa in Goa hosts a regular Friday bazaar, and Kochi in Kerala has a bustling spice market of its own. Maharaja Spice in Jodhpur is a shop stocking every flavour you need, without the chaos of the street market.
Famously described as a teardrop on the cheek of eternity, the iconic Taj Mahal rises over the bank of the Yamuna river in Agra. It was commissioned in the 17th century by emperor Shah Jahad as a mausoleum for his beloved wife following her untimely death. It took an astonishing 20,000 people working over two decades to complete. The grandest of romantic gestures is now a World Heritage Site, one of the New7Wonders of the World and attracts 8 million visitors every year.
The Taj Mahal underwent a thorough spring clean in 2017, restoring its sparkle inside and out. It even received a facial. The process involved applying clay to the building’s surface, stained yellow from years of air pollution, returning it to its former ivory shade. To appreciate it anew, arrive at sunrise as the warm light reflects off its white dome and four towering minarets. The sight is spectacular.
Called the ‘Venice of the East’, Udaipur is an oasis in sun-baked Rajasthan. Its whitewashed buildings nestle shoulder-to-shoulder, surrounded by shimmering water and verdant mountains.
The contiguous lakes that lap at Udaipur’s edges are artificial, created over centuries to meet the city’s growing demand for water. A stand-out attraction, Lake Pichola’s tranquil surface is ideal for boating from one of the jetties.
340 metres above Lake Pichola, perched on top of a mountain, sits the Monsoon Palace. It looks like a fortress, but the Maharana who built it intended the structure to be used to track monsoon clouds. The views over Udaipur from this height are breath-taking. The palace’s dramatic position even earned it a cameo in James Bond film Octopussy.
Hidden amongst the alleyways is the City Palace. Built over 400 years, the whitewashed complex is an architectural marvel, containing 11 interlinked palaces. Wander through the twisting corridors connecting them to explore the lavish carvings and intricate detail. It’s a glimpse into the age of the Udaipur Kingdom.
Varanasi is one of the oldest continuously-inhabited cities in the world. The city is famous for its ghats – stepped embankments sloping into the Ganges. Believed to have been built by Brahma, the Dashashwamedh Ghat is a must-see. Aarti takes place here every evening, a ritual of worship that illuminates the riverbank with lamplight. A little further upstream is the Manikarnika Ghat. It’s thought Hindus cremated here will receive moksha – salvation from the birth-death cycle. It’s common to see bodies, wrapped in colourful cloth, being eased out into the Ganges to be swept along in its slow stream heavenward.
One of the best times to visit Varanasi is during Dev Deepawali. Known as the ‘Diwali of the Gods’, it takes place under the light of a full moon between November and December. More than a million diyas (oil lamps) line the ghats and float on the Ganges, as thousands of pilgrims perform aarti along the riverbank. During the festivities, take a boat ride to see Varanasi aglow from the water – the atmosphere is unforgettable.
A neighbour to the Arabian Sea, Indian Ocean and the Bay of Bengal, mainland India has over 6,000 kilometres of coastline. But inland, it also boasts a large network of navigable waterways, from the Ganges in the north to the Buckingham Canal to the south. These channels weave through tropical forests, lush wetlands and sacred cities.
Lying on the Malabar Coast, Kerala is a paradise of green. From as early as 3,000 BC, the state exported spices from its port to lands as far-flung as Africa, earning it the epithet of the ‘Spice Garden of India’. Its famous backwaters offer a glimpse of a more relaxed India, a world away from the hustle and bustle of the country’s urban centres. Stay on a houseboat as it navigates the channels through this scenic region. Or canoe along sacred rivers past coconut palms and rice paddies. India’s waterways offer a unique way to experience the beauty of this country, see all the highlights on a Classic southern India tour.
Goa is usually visited for three reasons: sun, sea and sand. There’s more to enjoy here than the beaches, however, including the region’s unique Indo-Portuguese cuisine. With the Arabian Sea a stone’s throw away, it’s no surprise fish features prominently on the menu. And so does coconut, plucked from the ubiquitous palms that crane their necks sunward. And it wouldn’t be Indian without a little spice, would it?
Xacuti (pronounced sha-koo-tee) is a delicious Goan curry cooked with complex spices. The sauce blends white poppy seeds, chillies and coconut milk with an aromatic masala. It’s often added to chicken, lamb or prawns. To pick up the essential ingredients for Xacuti, visit one of Goa’s spice markets; Mapusa’s Friday bazaar is wonderfully chaotic, while Chaudi’s market is altogether calmer. Sellers here sit cross-legged on tarpaulin with their offerings of spices in front of them, all in bowls piled high in conical form. Enjoy a xacuti curry with rice or roti – ideally while on the gorgeous shores of Goa.
Yoga has many definitions, but its Sanskrit translation is ‘connection’. Connection of mind, body and soul. Nobody knows exactly how old it is, only that the body-bending discipline was developed in India millennia ago. Yoga came to the attention of the Western world in the late 19th century, brought by Hindu monks and propagated by keen Indologists. Now everybody and their mother is au fait with the Sun Salutation, and sales of yoga pants are through the roof. There’s even an International Yoga Day – every 21 June.
To begin your journey to yogic excellence, master the basic positions (asanas) first. Mountain is the simple starting point for all standing poses, whilst Downward-Facing Dog takes a little more practice. Keep in mind your body’s limitations – overstretching yourself is a quick way to strain or tear something. So, go at the pace your body allows you. Better yet, visit one of the many yoga retreats in India to benefit from the expertise of a yogi or yogini.
Zen is a perfect state of self-awareness and balance. Though Japanese, the word derives from the Sanskrit expression dhyāna, a core part of India’s religions and synonymous with meditation. Tourists seeking that zen mindset flock to India. Vedic retreats, yoga camps and meditation centres are everywhere from Delhi to Kochi, providing guidance for mind, body and soul.
Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism were established in India. When you’re not busy balancing your chakras, visit some of the country’s spellbinding temples. Dedicated to Shiva, Meenakshi Temple in Madurai is a major pilgrimage site. Its towering gopurams (gatehouses) are a riot of colour and intricate carvings. More understated, though just as grand, is the Virupaksha Temple in Hampi. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it’s over 1,000 years old and only just survived the invasion of Muslim Sultanates that razed the surrounding city to the ground in the 16th century. With that kind of turmoil firmly in the past, India’s temples provide a spiritual sanctuary. The perfect place to find a zen state of mind.
- Tailor-made holidays
- Small group journeys
- Tailor-made holidays
Explore the wonders of northern India with a trip that takes in historic palaces, romantic lakes, bustling bazaars and colourful temples
Discover the warmth of India with our suggested southern India itinerary
Discover northern India on this nine-night holiday.
For those in search of tiger, our tiger safaris in India offer the chance to see this elusive creature in the wild
Circle the globe by private on an Inspiring Expedition by Geoffrey Kent.
Delve into dynamic Delhi and marvellous Mumbai on this two-week tour of India
- Small group journeys