Known for its iconic sights, expanding cities and a huge population, India also has rural areas and undiscovered corners, even in some of the busiest states.
Finding a balance of both and getting under the skin of this fascinating country is our recommendation to get the most out of a trip here.
Relax in a Keralan homestay
Kerala is a beautiful part of India with fascinating colonial cities, tea-clad hills as far as the eye can see, remote national parks, scenic rail journeys, stunning Backwaters and palm-fringed beaches. A wonderful opportunity to learn more about local life and culture in Kerala is to stay in one of the homestays, where you can meet and spend time with local people.
India specialist Lauren recommends Dewalokam
At Dewalokam you can stay with the delightful José and Sinta on their organic farm. The location couldn't be more peaceful with a river bordering the property and spice plantations all around.
A large emphasis is put on food with all of your meals included as part of your stay, which typically consists of Keralan fare eaten communally with other guests — a great opportunity to exchange stories. During the day José and Sinta can take you on a walk around their farm, show you the local village and temple, share great areas for bird spotting and also offer cookery lessons.
Meet the people of Kalimpong
Perched within the northeast state of West Bengal, Kalimpong is just under three hours' drive east from the well-known colonial hill station of Darjeeling. Its location in the Himalayan foothills means it's surrounded by beautiful scenery.
India specialist Sarah explains why we support Kalimpong Village Discovery Tours
Kalimpong Village Discovery Tours work with Mondo Challenge, a UK-based charity who assist local communities by providing volunteer teachers. Visitors are invited into the local community, the schools and often the houses of the villagers who welcome you in with a cup of chai. Profits go directly to the villages as well as toward filtered drinking water and irrigation supplies for crops.
I spent the day walking between villages, being met with big smiles and warm handshakes.
My local guide showed me local flora and fauna en route and explained the way of life here. I thoroughly enjoyed my time in a classroom with youngsters practising their English and spent the late afternoon in a family home, where they kindly let me help prepare, cook and devour the rice and dhal dinner. Although simple, the food was delicious, but you do need to be prepared to sit on the floor and eat with your hands the traditional way.
Give something back in rural Rajasthan
One of the best ways to experience India is to immerse yourself into the community; a stay at Araveli Cottages and Tented Camp allows you to do just that - and support the local villagers too. The Araveli project is operated by Me to We, the social arm of the charity Free the Children of whom we are big supporters. Their aim is to break the cycle of poverty and help communities become self-sufficient by improving education, sanitation and providing access to basic healthcare.
India specialist Rosie describes her visit to Araveli Cottages and the work of the charity Free the Children
I took part in yoga before a mixture of Hindi lessons, organized walks, art classes and pujas (blessings). There wasn't a construction project taking place during my visit, instead I helped local women and their daily chores; from collecting water and making chapattis, to feeding the animals and teaching the children some basic English. The camp has luxurious tents and cottages, lush grounds and gardens all near a peaceful lake. Dinner is enjoyed communally and there's always something going on; the evening dance performances got everyone talking and some joining in.
See another side of Mumbai
Many only experience India's largest city as a stopover destination between flights. There's much more to this lively metropolis and some of our more unusual excursions allow visitors to see 'behind the scenes' and experience the contrasts which make this city so fascinating.
India specialist Helena describes two of the excursions she experienced
In Mumbai I got to see how the laundry in hotels gets done on an imaginable scale. The dhobi ghat (open-air laundry) is where thousands of pieces of laundry are delivered each day from across the city. The dhobi-wallahs (laundry workers) soap, scrub and pound the dirty laundry in concrete wash pens before pressing it and returning each item to its original owner.
Spending time at the Sankraman and Balaji Film Studios is an eye-opening experience.
For a complete contrast, experience the lights, music and glamour of Bollywood. Get behind the scenes of what's currently in production, listen in at the sound studio and get involved (if you like!) at a Bollywood dance workshop. Equally fascinating and fun, it's a great peek into India's glitzy side.
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