Despite rapid modernization, India retains a fascinating culture and allure unlike that of any other country. Within its borders lie sweeping deserts and dense forests, opulent palace hotels and bustling cities, and expressions of deep colonial influences mixed with ancient traditions and modern society. Here, Mr. Harper shares his thoughts on why India remains a compelling visit for both first-time and experienced visitors alike.
Andrew Harper Staff: How has India changed since your first visit?
Andrew Harper: India has changed out of all recognition since I first visited the country in 1981. Back then, India was in a time warp, brought about by Nehru’s socialist experiment: there were few modern hotels, few cars and the main domestic airline was state owned. Even in Rajasthan there were few tourists, and a man at the Umaid Bhawan Palace in Jodhpur, which was then falling to pieces and chiefly inhabited by hundreds of peacocks, claimed that I was the first westerner he had met since Independence in 1947. For the visitor in 1981, India was less comfortable, but much more exotic than it is today. You found yourself immersed in the culture of immemorial India, whether you wanted to be or not. And the giants of the recent political past, Gandhi and Nehru, then felt close enough to touch. India continues to modernize rapidly and in the major cities its citizens are addicted to mobile technology, just like people everywhere else. The spread of comfortable hotels and the quality of the resorts in India continues to increase—the big difference is that these are now aimed at the domestic as much as the international market.
AHS: What surprises most first-time visitors to the country?
AH: India, apart from the more salubrious parts of New Delhi, is not for the fainthearted. The country has extraordinary beauty, but India is—and probably always will be—a paradox. India can be dusty and cacophonous, but it also produces moments of sublimity more reliably than anywhere else.
"You could spend a hundred lifetimes there and still only scratch the surface."
AHS: What advice do you have for travelers making their first visit?
AH: Don’t try to do too much. India doesn’t like to be hurried. Most first-time visitors usually visit only Uttar Pradesh (Delhi), Maharastra (Mumbai) and Rajasthan, which is still the place that first-time visitors find most compelling. And with the help of a good guide, you can escape the tourist crowds. Be sure to go at the right time of year, from October to March. The best months in northern India are November and February. From mid- March until the monsoon, it is infernally hot. Read about India’s culture, history and food in advance—it will make your trip far more rewarding. And do heed the health warnings and take the appropriate preventative measures. Otherwise it is extremely easy to get sick.
AHS: What about India compels travelers to return?
AH: Its extraordinarily complex and ancient culture—India is a world unto itself. The grandeur of the architecture. The utterly delicious food, when you have acquired a taste for it. The attractiveness of the people: Every day you see young men and women of heart-stopping beauty. The scent of the earth and the flowers after the rains. The majesty of the landscape, especially that of the Himalayas. The sense that India is infinite, the feeling that you could spend a hundred lifetimes there and still only scratch the surface. The intelligence, charm and humor of the Indians themselves.
AHS: And what makes you want to return for another visit?
AH: I will always want to return to the Himalayas, which are the most beautiful mountains in the world. Walking in the foothills of 25,500-foot Nanda Devi when the crimson rhododendrons are in full bloom is an almost psychedelic experience. So are the colors of the men’s turbans and women’s dresses in Rajasthan. As Diana Vreeland famously observed, “Shocking pink is the navy blue of India.” I love the food; I love the people; I love the intensity of life in India.
AHS: Name three places any visitor to India must see.
AH: Well, everyone has to see the Taj Mahal, even though it is crowded and Agra is not a particularly nice place. I’ve always loved Udaipur. The Lake Palace is a travel cliché, but there’s a reason: it’s stunning. If you want to understand Indian culture, you have to learn a little about Hinduism and the place to do that is Varanasi on the Ganges. But over the years, I have come to love the mountains best: the foothills of Kanchenjunga in the east; Himachal and Uttarakhand in the central Indian Himalayas; and Ladakh, right up on the border of Tibet.
AHS: With 1.2 billion people, India is the world’s second most-populated country. Do you have suggestions for getting off the beaten path?
AH: The cities are incredibly crowded, and take some getting used to. If you want to experience extreme culture shock, then check into a top hotel in New Delhi and spend your afternoon by the pool. Then, as it begins to get dark, ask your guide to take to you to Chandni Chowk, the main market, in Old Delhi. Much of rural India, with the exception of Bihar, is quite serene—as are the forested areas in the center of the country, where the main tiger reserves like Kanha and Bandhavgarh are to be found. And then there are the Himalayas.
AHS: What makes Indian culture distinctive?
AH: India is bounded on two sides by the sea and in the north by the world’s highest mountains. And it is a very ancient country, which over millennia has developed a culture that is unlike any other. It has a vast population and there is a sense in India, as there is in China, that the rest of the world is in some ways irrelevant. India has its own mythology, the Mahabharata, and its own holy books, the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita, and it is self-sufficient.
AHS: Geographically, India is the seventh-largest country in the world. How do you recommend travelers get from one region to another?
AH: Not by road! Indian roads are appalling and extremely dangerous. The standard of driving is atrocious. I only travel by car when there is no alternative. The trains are safe and First Class AC is comfortable and reasonably clean. But don’t expect the TGV or the Shinkansen. The planes, however, are much improved, as are the airports.
AHS: What local dishes do you recommend?
AH: Indian food is place specific. In the north the staple is wheat, so breads of various kinds, naan, chapattis and so forth. In the south, where it rains more consistently, the staple is rice. The people in the north eat meat, though not beef, whereas elsewhere they are chiefly vegetarians. On the west coast, in Mumbai and farther south in Goa, there is an abundance of seafood so menus feature fish and prawns. But everywhere in India people prefer food that is highly spiced and they find Western cuisine to be bland and boring.
AHS: Do you have any advice about safety for visitors?
AH: If you are traveling with the assistance of a company like Andrew Harper and staying in the best hotels, there are very few security issues. I have never felt unsafe in India. The curse of India is communal violence, chiefly between Hindus and Muslims. But foreigners are exempt from that. The chief danger in India is the deplorable standard of driving by Indian truck drivers. If you want to stay safe, fly whenever possible.
Click here to read the full interview with our editor-in-chief in the Traveler magazine.