From the snow-capped Himalayas in the north to the sun-drenched coastal villages of the south, India unfolds like an ancient tapestry. At times threadbare and fading, the land stretches from desert dunes and scattered slums to the rich embroidery of ancient, jewelled palaces, and the majestic domes of forgotten empires.
Since the first civilisations developed on the banks of the Indus river almost 5,000 years ago, India has given birth to Buddhism and Hinduism, been touched by the empire of Alexander the Great, seen the ancient empires of the Mauryas and Guptas rise and fall, and has traded with Pharaohs and Caesars. An invasion by the Huns scattered its people until the sweeping hand of Islam saw new kingdoms rise, heralding the era of the Sultans. Defeat came again as the Mogul Emperors marched over the mountains and into the Punjab. The decline of the Mogul Empire gave way to the Marathas, who consolidated control of India just in time for the arrival of the British. The sun finally set on the British Empire as India reclaimed independence in 1947, heralding a new age of democracy.
India is a feast for the senses; where the air is heavy with the scent of jasmine and dancers trail frenetic melodies in colourful silk saris. Its cooks compose dishes from a palette of exotic spices that may leave a lingering taste of saffron or aniseed. In India’s cities, the hardship of slum-living competes with the cacophony of seemingly endless traffic and a myriad of other textures, colours and movements all jostling for attention. India can be overwhelming to the senses, but its variety is part of its charm.
230 volts, 50Hz. A variety of power outlets are used in India, but most plugs have two or three round pins.
Although English is generally used for official and business purposes, Hindi is the official language and is spoken by about 40 percent of the population. Urdu is the language common with the Muslim demographic. India has a total of 22 official languages
There are many health risks associated with travel to India and although no vaccinations are required for entry into the country travellers should take medical advice on vaccinations at least three weeks before departure. Outbreaks of dengue fever and chikungunya virus occur, both transmitted by mosquitoes. Malaria outbreaks are common in areas above 6,562 feet (2,000m), particularly in the northeast of the country. Outbreaks of cholera occur frequently. Travellers from an infected area should hold a yellow fever certificate. Rabies is also a hazard, and should you get bitten by a dog, cat or rat it is best to consult a medical practitioner immediately. Travellers to the Himalayan Mountains should also be aware of the risks of altitude sickness.
Food poisoning is a risk in India. Visitors should drink bottled water and ensure that the seal on the bottle is intact. Meat and fish should be eaten with care in all but the best restaurants, and should always be well cooked and served hot. Salads and unpeeled fruit should be avoided. Diarrhea is common among travellers to India and is best treated with re-hydration salts; however, if symptoms persist for more than two days visiting a private hospital is recommended.
Health facilities are adequate in the larger cities, but limited in rural areas. Travellers should have comprehensive medical insurance, and carry a standard first-aid kit complete with a course of general antibiotics.
In India, taxi drivers do not expect to be tipped; however, tipping is expected for other services (porters, guides, hotel staff and waiters in small establishments). In tourist restaurants or hotels a 10 percent service charge is often added to bills. ‘Baksheesh’ is common in India: more a bribe than a tip, it is given before rather than after service.
Travellers in India must be aware of, but not paranoid about, the threat of terrorism. There have been attacks in the past in Mumbai, Delhi, Ahmedabad, Agra and Bangalore. They occurred in popular tourist haunts like hotels, railway stations, markets and temples. There is the threat that public places frequented by Western tourists in the metropolitan centres (Delhi, Kolkata, Chennai, Mumbai) may be targeted in future. Tourist areas such as Goa are also at risk. Travellers visiting large religious events are advised that these ceremonies, which attract hundreds of thousands of people, can result in life-threatening stampedes. Generally speaking it is best to avoid big crowds, but this is very difficult to do in India.
On a more everyday level, there is a risk of minor theft, such as pick-pocketing, but incidents of violent crime in India are low. Travellers using India’s vast railway network are advised to lock their baggage, and to keep it as close to them as possible. Visitors should be on guard; if someone offers a ‘business opportunity’ that seems too be good to be true, it probably is.
Female travellers should note that rape is prevalent in India, and there have been incidents of rape and assault on public transport. Women should avoid travelling alone after dark and avoid travel to secluded rural areas.
India is a tolerant society, but visitors should educate themselves about the countries religious and social customs so as not to cause offence: for example, smoking in public was banned in 2008. When visiting temples visitors will probably be required to remove their footwear and cover their heads. Generally, women should dress more conservatively than (perhaps) they are used to doing at home, both to respect local sensibilities and to avoid unwanted attention. Topless bathing is illegal. Indians do not like to disappoint, and often instead of saying ‘no’, will come up with something that sounds positive, even if incorrect. Social order and status are very important in Indian culture – remain respectful and obliging with elders. Avoid using your left hand, particularly when eating.
Business in India is conducted formally, with punctuality an important aspect. Suits and ties are appropriate, and women in particular should dress modestly. If it is very hot, jackets are usually not required and short-sleeve shirts are deemed appropriate. It is customary to engage in small talk before getting down to business, and topics can range from anything from cricket to politics. Business cards are usually exchanged on initial introduction, using the right hand only. Handshakes are fairly common, though one should wait to see if greeted with a hand, or a ‘namaste’ – a traditional Indian greeting of a small bow accompanied by hands clasped as if in prayer. Visitors should return the greeting as it is given. It is common for women to participate in business meetings, and hold high positions in companies, and foreign businesswomen are readily accepted. Business hours are usually from 9.30 to 5.30pm (weekdays) with a lunch break from 1pm to 2pm, and Saturdays from 9.30am to 1pm.
The international access code for India is +91. The outgoing code is 00 followed by the relevant country code (e.g. 0044 for the United Kingdom). City/area codes are in use, e.g. (0)11 for Delhi. International calls can be quite expensive and there are often high surcharges on calls made from hotels; it is cheaper to use a calling card. Alternatively, there are telephone agencies in most towns which are identifiable by the letters STD for long distance internal calls and ISD for the international service. Buying a local SIM card is a good option, as international roaming fees can be high. Internet cafes are available in main cities and resorts and free wifi is offered at cafes and hotels in major cities.
Travellers to India over 18 years do not have to pay duty on 100 cigarettes or 25 cigars or 125g tobacco; two litre bottle of alcohol; medicine in reasonable amounts; and goods for personal use. Prohibited items include livestock, bird and pig meat products.
It is hard to generalise in a country that runs from the Himalayas to the beaches of the Indian Ocean and encompasses half a dozen climatic regions, but broadly speaking, India has a tropical climate which is dominated by monsoons, heat and humidity. Tropical hurricanes and cyclones are also part of the general weather outlook in the middle and at the end of the year, especially in coastal areas. On average, October through to March tend to be the most pleasant months in India, when it is relatively dry and cool, but the best time to visit really does depend on your destination. In the far south the best months to visit are between January and September; northeastern areas of India tend to be more comfortable between March and August; the deserts of Rajasthan (west of Jodhpur) and the northwestern Indian Himalayan region are at their best during the monsoon season (July to September); and the mountainous regions of Himachal Pradesh and Kashmir should be visited over the summer months (May to September). Whenever you visit it is bound to be hot, which is why generally the summer months are best avoided in favour of the cooler winter and more mild shoulder seasons.
ENTRY REQUIREMENTS FOR SOUTH AFRICANS
South African citizens must have a passport that is valid for at least six months upon arrival, and a visa, to enter India.
Visa extensions are not possible for tourist visas. Other visas may be eligible for extensions, which are applied for through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Holders of multiple-entry Tourist Visas (visa type code “T”), with a validity ranging from above three months and up to 10 years, are no longer required to leave a gap of at least two months between visits unless they are nationals from Afghanistan, China, Iran, Pakistan, Iraq, Sudan and Bangladesh.
Indian law does not permit dual citizenship for nationals of India. An Indian national holding dual nationality should contact their embassy or consulate for further information. Passengers in possession of an “Overseas Citizen of India” card or a “Person of Indian Origin” card, however, are liable to enter the country without a visa.
Note that a yellow fever vaccination certificate is required, if arriving in India within six days of leaving or transiting through heavily infected areas. Also note that the following areas of India are restricted, and require that visitors obtain a permit BEFORE entering them: (Protected Areas) parts of the state of Manipur, parts of the state of Mizoram, parts of the state of Arunachal Pradesh, the whole state of Nagaland, the whole State of Sikkim, parts of the state of Uttaranchal, parts of the state of Jammu and Kashmir, parts of the state of Rajasthan, parts of the state of Himachal Pradesh; (Restricted Areas) the whole of the union territory of Andaman and Nicobar Islands, part of the state of Sikkim. If surface travel is involved, and nationals travel via restricted areas, they require a “pass” issued by either the Foreigners Regional Registration Office (located in each major Indian city), or the Superintendent of Police (located in each Indian district), or the diplomatic representation of India in Bhutan or Nepal.
NOTE: It is highly recommended that your passport has at least six months validity remaining after your intended date of departure from your travel destination. Immigration officials often apply different rules to those stated by travel agents and official sources.
The currency is the Indian Rupee (INR), which is divided into 100 paise (singular paisa). Major currencies can be changed at banks, and authorised bureaux de change. It is illegal to exchange money through the black market and it is advisable to refuse torn notes, as no one will accept them apart from the National Bank. It is best to change money into small denominations. Major credit cards are widely accepted, particularly in tourist orientated establishments. ATMs are available in large cities and airports but are not generally available in rural areas.