Stretching from the frozen barrier of the Himalayas to the tropical greenery of Kerala, and from the sacred Ganges to the sands of the Thar desert, the boundaries of India encompass incomparable variety. Walk the streets of any Indian city and you'll rub shoulders with representatives of several of the world's great faiths, a multitude of castes and outcastes, fair-skinned, turbanned Punjabis and dark-skinned Tamils. You'll also encounter temple rituals that have been performed since the time of the Egyptian Pharaohs, onion-domed mosques erected centuries before the Taj Mahal was ever dreamed of, and quirky echoes of the British Raj on virtually every corner.
The world's seventh-largest country, covering more than 3 million square kilometres, India is second only to China in terms of population, which stands at over 1.1 billion. Hindus comprise eighty percent of the population, Muslims thirteen percent, and there are millions of Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists and Jains.
The most-travelled circuit in the country, the so-called "Golden Triangle" in the north, combines Delhi itself, the colonial capital; Agra, home of the Taj Mahal; and the Pink City of Jaipur in Rajasthan. East of the River Ganges meanders through some of India's most densely populated regions to reach the extraordinary holy Hindu city of Varanasi (also known as Benares), while further east lies the teeming metropolis of Kolkata (Calcutta).
South from Kolkata along the coast, Konark in Orissa is the site of the famous Sun Temple. Tamil Nadu, further south, has its own tradition of magnificent architecture. Kerala, near the southernmost tip of the Subcontinent on the western coast, is India at its most tropical and relaxed. Further up the coast, the hundred-kilometre coastline of Goa, the former Portuguese colony, is fringed with beaches. North of here sits Mumbai, an ungainly beast that reels along on an undeniable energy that, after a few days of acclimatization, can prove addictive.
Some of India's most memorable monuments lie far inland, on long-forgotten trading routes across the heart of the Subcontinent – including the abandoned city of Vijayanagar (or Hampi) in Karnataka; the painted and sculpted Buddhist caves of Ajanta and Ellora in Maharashtra; and the erotic temples of Khajuraho in Madhya Pradesh.
India's weather is extremely varied. The most influential feature of the Subcontinent's climate – the wet season, or monsoon – breaks on the Keralan coast at the end of May, working its way northeast across the country over the following month and a half. While it lasts, regular and prolonged downpours are interspersed with bursts of hot sunshine, and the pervasive humidity can be intense. At the height of the monsoon – especially in the jungle regions of the northwest and the low-lying delta lands of Bengal – flooding can severely disrupt communications. In the Himalayan foothills, landslides are common, and entire valley systems can be cut off for weeks.
By September, the monsoon has largely receded from the north. The east coast of Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, and the south of Kerala, get a second drenching between October and December, when the "northwest" or "retreating" monsoon sweeps in from the Bay of Bengal. By December, however, most of the Subcontinent enjoys clear skies and relatively cool temperatures.
Mid-winter sees the most marked contrasts between the climates of north and south. While Delhi may be ravaged by chill winds blowing off the snowfields of the Himalayas, the Tamil plains and coastal Kerala, still stew under fierce post-monsoon sunshine. As spring gathers pace, the centre heats up again, with thermometers nudging 33°C by late March. Temperatures peak in May and early June, when anyone who can retreats to the hill stations. Above the baking land mass, hot air builds up and sucks in humidity from the southwest, causing the onset of the monsoon.
The best time to visit most of the country, therefore, is during the cool, dry season, between November and March. Delhi, Agra, Varanasi, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh are ideal at this time, and temperatures in Goa and central India also remain comfortable. While never less than intense, the heat of the south becomes stifling in May and June. From January and March onwards, the Himalayas grow increasingly accessible, and the trekking season reaches its peak in August and September while the rest of the Subcontinent is being soaked by the rains.
Things Not To Miss
1 Hampi/Vijayanagar • Deserted capital of the last great Hindu empire, scattered over a bizarre landscape of giant golden-brown boulders.
2 Taj Mahal • Simply the world's greatest building: Shah Jahan's monument to love fully lives up to all expectations.
3 Palolem • Exquisite crescent-shaped beach in Goa's relaxed south, famous for its dolphins and local alcoholic spirit, feni.
4 Bandhavgarh National Park • Deep in the eastern tracts of Madhya Pradesh, this park is rich in animal and birdlife, including tigers and leopards.
5 Meherangarh Fort, Jodhpur • The epitome of Rajput power and extravagance, its ramparts towering above a labyrinthine, blue-painted old city.
6 Kaziranga National Park • Take a dawn elephant ride as the mists slowly lift: sightings of the one-horned rhino, symbol of Assam, are virtually guaranteed.
7 Varanasi • City of Light, founded by Shiva, where the bathing ghats beside the Ganges teem with pilgrims.
8 Kathakali • Kerala is the place to experience Kathakali and other esoteric ritual theatre forms.
9 Amritsar • Site of the fabled Golden Temple, the Sikhs' holiest shrine.
10 Mysore market • Jaggery, incense and garlands are made and veggies and kitsch paraphernalia are sold in Mysore's covered market.
11 Dharamsala • Perched on the edge of the Himalayas, this is the home of the Dalai Lama and Tibetan Buddhism in exile.
12 Keoladeo National Park, Bharatpur • Asia's most famous bird reserve, where millions of migrants nest each winter. The perfect antidote to the frenzy and pollution of nearby Agra and Jaipur.
13 Gokarna • The beautiful beaches on the edge of this temple town are popular with budget travellers fleeing the commercialism of nearby Goa.
14 Madurai • The definitive South Indian city, centred on a spectacular medieval temple.
15 Khajuraho • Immaculately preserved temples renowned for their uncompromisingly erotic carvings.
16 Ajanta caves • Extraordinarily beautiful murals, dating from 200 BC to 650 AD, adorn the walls of caves chiselled into basalt cliffs.
17 Zanskar • A barren moonscape with extraordinary scenery and challenging trails over the high passes.
18 Camel trekking in the Thar • A wonderfully romantic if utterly touristy way to experience the Great Indian Desert. Most visitors trek out of Jaisalmer, but Bikaner offers more variety.
19 Jaisalmer • A honey-coloured citadel, emerging from the sands of the Thar Desert.
20 Kochi • Kochi's atmospheric harbourside is strung with elegant Chinese fishing nets.
21 Fatehpur Sikri • The Moghul emperor Akbar's elegant palace complex now lies deserted on a ridge near Agra, but remains one of India's architectural masterpieces.
22 Pushkar camel mela • November sees the largest livestock market on earth, where 200,000 Rajasthani herders in traditional costume converge on the desert oasis of Pushkar to trade and bathe in the sacred lake.
23 Orchha • This semi-ruined former capital of the Bundela Rajas is an architectural gem, rising up through the surrounding jungle.
24 Manali– Leh Highway • India's epic Himalayan road trip, along the second-highest road in the world.
25 Konark • A colossal thirteenth-century temple, buried under sand until its rediscovery by the British.
26 Mamallapuram • A fishing and stone-carving village, with magnificent boulder friezes, shrines and the sea-battered Shore Temple.
27 Udaipur • Arguably the most romantic city in India, with ornate Rajput palaces floating in the middle of two shimmering lakes.
28 Varkala • This pleasantly low-key Keralan resort boasts sheer red cliffs, amazing sea views and a legion of Ayurvedic masseurs.
29 Ellora caves • Buddhist, Hindu and Jain caves, and the colossal Hindu Kailash temple, carved from a spectacular volcanic ridge at the heart of the Deccan plateau.
30 Gangotri • An atmospheric village on the Ganges that serves as a base for the trek into the heart of the Hindu faith – Gomukh, the source of the Ganges.