It's true, there may be no sunrise quite like the one across the Taj Mahal. But dig a little deeper and you'll find a thousand more unique moments await that bring you right into the heart of India's culture, heritage and landscape. Whether you're looking out for Bengal tigers in Ranthambore National Park or chomping your way through Delhi's finest street food, we've put together our five most definitive moments to get a true taste of this incredible country.
There’s no doubt about it: to see a Bengal tiger stalking out of the jungle to hunt for food is a life-affirming experience. But even more magical is seeing these mighty creatures off-guard: dozing in the grass, play-fighting, bathing in the water, cleaning their cubs. Endangered as they are, it’s increasingly hard to see these big cats in their natural habitat.
Thank goodness for Ranthambore national park, a 1700sq km conservation zone where native tigers are free to roam, protected from poaching and invasive tourism. Safaris here are restricted to a 400sq km area of the park, where wildlife experts take small groups out by jeep. Also home to leopards, hyenas, monkeys, sloths, boar, crocodiles and a variety of birdlife, a visit to Ranthambore is a chance to connect with some of the most special creatures in the world.
Imagine a city where all the walls, streets and buildings are painted blue. Now picture an enormous ochre fortress lording over it from an adjacent hilltop. No, this is not the latest Roger Dean album cover for YES – it is the city of Jodhpur, a fantasy made real. Enter its maze of twisting, narrow streets and discover a world of bazaars and shops selling piles of spices, blazing-coloured fabrics and eye-catching ceramics.
One hundred and fifty metres above, Mehrangarh fort is an irresistible draw. The largest in India, its battlements stretch up to 36m high. Inside, grand palaces and ancient streets await, with shops, restaurants and gardens offering spectacular views across the city.
Chand Baori looks rather like an Escher painting. It’s a cavernous square hole that was built around 1,000 years ago and is said to be India’s deepest 'step' well, at 64 feet, with 3,500 geometrically precise steps leading down to a bright green pond. And if you stare at it for long enough, you start to wonder which way up the stairs actually go.
Said to have been built in one night by ghosts, Chand Baori’s resident bats, crows and screeching pigeons certainly add to the atmosphere. The stepwell is believed to still haunted by a djinn (genie), which tries to stop keen visitors from ascending the steps again from the bottom up. Of course, this could just be a case of dead legs.
Take an exciting off-road drive into the semi-arid Rajasthan desert to meet the Bishnoi tribe, a 500-year-old community that conserves and protects India’s forests, plants and animals. Visit the unspoilt homes of villagers, where compassion for all life is the guiding principle for life – from checking their kindling and drinking water for insects, to sleeping out in the fields to deter poachers. See how the Bishnoi people live in simplicity and harmony with the landscape, preserving many of the customs and traditions of ancient Rajasthan.
Broaden your palate on an aromatic rickshaw journey through Delhi’s Chandni Chowk bazaar, where textile sellers rub up against greengrocers and spice merchants. You’ll walk past piles of spices, through clouds of smoke from the sizzling hotplates of street food stalls. These delicious smells will stay with you a lifetime – and even full stomachs will be hard-pushed to resist a sample or two.
Explore Chandni Chowk on our Icons of India: The Taj, Tigers and Beyond tour (from £2,243pp or £1,589pp without flights or transfers)