Awesome India beckons

INDIA stretches from the frozen north of the Himalaya mountains to the tropical greenery of Kerala to the south.

INDIA stretches from the frozen north of the Himalaya mountains to the tropical greenery of Kerala to the south.

And from the Ganges River to the Thar desert, this incredible country of more than 1,2 billion people of the world's great faiths is historically a region of trade routes and vast empires.

India was ruled by the Moguls and was later colonised by the British for more than 300 years. It fought for - and gained its - independence in 1947.

The majority of the population, 82 percent, is Hindu; followed by Muslims, 13,4 percent and millions of Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Christians and people of other faiths. There are fair-skinned Punjabis and dark-skinned Tamils, the very wealthy and the very poor and then, there are millions of middle class people in between.

It is a country of pristine beaches, abundant wildlife and pulsating cities. It is also a paradise for shoppers and gourmets, but best of all, it is very cheap. As one wise young man said: "India caters for everyone, from the poorest to the richest and everyone in between."

These are just some of the reasons millions of tourists flock to India every year. According to the Indian Ministry of Tourism, 5,37 million tourists visited their country in 2008 and on average, more than five million foreign tourists tour the country every year.

Domestic tourism exceeds this figure by far because Indians believe that their beautiful country offers them the best at the cheapest prices and they are absolutely right. India has won many international tourism awards, among them the prestigious World Travel Award in 2008.

India is too vast to tour in one visit. It makes sense to choose a particular area.

We were fortunate to have been able to visit five states - Maharashtra, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Jammu Kashmir in a month and not burn out.

The country has the world's largest railway system and the trains that meander through scenic villages, deserts and skyscraper cities are usually on time. There are also air-conditioned buses or if you'd rather travel like the locals do just hail an auto rickshaw or taxi.

Mumbai (in Maharashtra) is a frantically busy city of jostling crowds of people competing with vehicles, cows and dogs.

This state's capital is cosmopolitan and offers visitors museums, caves, heritage sights, beaches, and for those who like to shop, they can do so till they drop. Mumbai also has the largest slum in the world - Dharavi.

We walked through parts of it and the residents looked at us curiously and acknowledged our smiles and greetings with "velcome" and the famous and popular Indian head-wiggle.

Gujarat has one of the fastest-growing economies in this fourth largest economy in the world.

This state is also the birthplace of Mahatma Gandhi, India's father of the nation, who led the non-violent Satyagraha movement against British colonialism and who founded the Natal Indian Congress in 1894 in South Africa, where his political consciousness began.

When in Gujarat's largest city Ahmedabad, a visit to the magnificent Jumma Masjid, which was carved out of stone in 1424, and Gandhi's Sabarmati Museum are must-sees.

In Rajasthan, the land of the Maharajas, majestic forts and palaces rise out of the sand and lakes.

In Jaipur, known as the Pink City because of the extensive use of the locally abundant pink stone, you can travel back in time and live like a Maharaja (king) or Maharani (queen).

Take a ride on an elephant back to the ornate Amber Fort, from where you can view the splendour of the area for as far as your eyes can see.

There are no words in the English language to describe the Taj Mahal in Agra, Uttar Pradesh. Magnificent, breathtaking, splendid, awesome and other such adjectives do not do justice to this symbol of love built by the Mogul Emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his wife Mumtaz.

Its beauty and scale are absolutely mind boggling. Set among meticulously manicured gardens and fountains, this architectural wonder that was built with marble, brings tears to people's eyes.

Kashmiris do not exaggerate when they say it is "heaven on earth". Its lovely lakes and mighty mountains, its beautiful people and picture-perfect scenery will want to make tourists return over and over again.

In the provincial capital Srinigar, you just have to stay in a houseboat to experience true Kashmiri hospitality and traditional cuisine.

A two-hour ride on a shikara boat on the Dhal, Golden and Open lakes, starts right in the heart of the city. Here boatmen will stop for you to buy food from a floating restaurant or shop for carpets, clothes or anything your heart desires. Or boat traders riding alongside your shikara trying to sell you perfumes, saffron, ornaments and jewellery. This is an unforgettable experience.

The floating vegetable gardens on the lakes that are tended with loving care produce an abundance of diverse vegetables. Even meat-lovers admit, poultry and other meats are no match. Unfortunately, this beautiful region is a war zone. Indian soldiers and army vehicles are all over the place and there are ongoing battles between them and Kashmiri fighters.

India is a tapestry of the most beautiful colours, friendly folk, rich history, poverty, tenacity, beauty, and of course the magic of Bollywood. It is a dream destination, which doesn't cost an arm and a leg. And, God willing, we will go back.