There’s more to India than the Taj Mahal. From the backwaters of Kerala in the south to the tigers of Ranthambore in the north, we've put together our five favourite wonders in this incredible country
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.
Jodhpur is a glimmering mirage of baby blue and cornflower. Enter its maze of twisting, narrow streets and discover a world of bazaars and shops selling piles of spices, blazing-coloured fabrics, eye-catching ceramics and enough traditional clothes, jewellery and slippers to deck out the rest of the county.
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.
Stepwells are large wells dug into the ground with descending steps that, in medieval times, allowed villagers to walk right down to the edge of the pool. There are probably around 3,000 of them still existing in northern India, all steeped in folklore and tales of the supernatural. And the most impressive is Chand Baori in Abhaneri, Rajasthan.
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, 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.
If the holy sites start to blend into one, the seaport town of Mahabalipuram offers something quite unique: a huge complex of 7th-century Hindu cave temples carved into the rock. Of the Hill Monuments, Vahara is the only one used for daily worship. Four carved lions keep watch at its entrance, and inside are sculptures of Vishnu in such forms as a wild boar and a three-legged dwarf.
Shore Temple is also a little different. Dating from the 8th century, it’s believed to be a remnant of the legendary Seven Pagodas – a series of magnificent temples that have, until recently, been the stuff of fiction. But one effect of the devastating 2004 tsunami was that a 7th-century stone lion was uncovered near the temple, along with the remains of a sunken city underneath the water just a few metres from the shore.
Time passes slowly on the backwaters of Kerala, where traditional houseboats drift up and down its narrow canals. One of the prettiest villages is Kumarakom, a lush and fertile cluster of small islands on the Vembanad Lake.
This is a world away from modern India: locals live in wooden houses perched on stilts above the water and sit along the banks, fishing and washing. Children splash, swim and play about on the water's edge. Kingfishers, cormorants, herons and ducks flock to its 14-acre bird sanctuary, a treat for the eyes and ears.
The best way to experience the area is by kettuvallom – a traditional houseboat made from jackfruit wood, coconut fibre and bamboo poles. It's the ideal setting to enjoy the fragrant, coconut-based curries the region is famous for. Sleep on board and enjoy an incredible view of the starry night sky, accompanied by a frog chorus that would leave Paul McCartney humbled.
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.