India is a country that has an almost mythical status among travellers and those taking a gap year. It is such a vast country in just about every sense. Geographically it is huge, the seventh largest country in the world, whilst when it comes to population only China is home to more people. India also offers enormous cultural, religious and topographical diversity.
From the captivating chaos of the surprisingly modern cities of Mumbai, Chennai and Bangalore to the remote foothills of the Himalayas; from the boundless beaches of Goa and Kerala to the dense jungle that accounts for around 20% of India’s mass, and the vast deserts around Jaisalmer, India is a country that offers something for all tastes.
For those on a gap year it has many obvious advantages beyond the seemingly endless opportunities for exploration and culture. Perhaps chief among these is the low cost of living. Despite huge growth in the economy and advancing modernisation and westernisation, India remains a very affordable country in which to travel, volunteer or study.
When it comes to the available gap year programmes in India, there are, unsurprisingly, many options. Those wishing to volunteer may be able to help in the fields of medicine, the environment or education. If self-improvement is more your aim then there is a plethora of possibilities, with cooking schools, yoga and meditation retreats and language learning placements just some of the available opportunities.
Of course, volunteering and learning are superb ways to spend time but those just wishing to gain enrichment through travel also have decisions to make. India is the birthplace to four of the major religions of the world: Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism and Jainism, and it has a commensurate number of temples, shrines and monuments. Agra’s Taj Mahal may be the most famous, but there are literally hundreds of thousands of others.
Nature lovers can spot tigers and leopards in national parks such as Ranthambore, whilst sloths, rhino, elephants and hyenas may also be seen. Birdwatching is also spectacular, with Bharatpur a highlight and easily accessible for those heading to Jaipur, New Delhi or Agra.
The vast majority of trips to India are enjoyable, exciting and trouble-free. Apart from a few areas of the country, such as Jammu and Kashmir close to the immediate border area with Pakistan, where tourists rarely venture, most places in India are safe and secure. Those on a gap year are far more likely to experience warm Indian hospitality than they are to experience any form of crime or harassment. All travellers, but especially those travelling alone, should follow the normal rules of common sense and, of course, respect local dress code and etiquette.
However, if you are happy to pose for a selfie with the locals (expect to be asked a lot, especially at tourist hotspots like the Taj Mahal!), then dealing with beggars is likely to be the only hassle most visitors to India will experience.
Most travellers to India will need a visa and you can find more information about this at the relevant page of the GOV.UK wesite. You’ll also find information there about general safety, health and local laws and customs.
When it comes to vaccinations and medical precautions such as malaria prevention, much will depend on where in the country you travel. However, most people will need at least some vaccinations and the NHS Scotland site FitForTravel is a great port of call. Alternatively, visit your local travel clinic.
The north of India is worthy of a lengthy trip in itself. It’s home to some of India’s most popular regions and cities; Delhi, Jaipur, Agra and Rajasthan. There are also world famous sights too such as the Golden Triangle (New Delhi, Jaipur, Agra), the desert beauty of Rajasthan, the historical Uttar Pradesh, and countless religious temples and sites of historical significance and grand monuments, including the Taj Mahal and the Red Fort.
The beauty of Rajasthan, with its red rock forts, orange hued deserts, and beautiful oasis cities like Jaisalmer, and Udaipur’s awesome palace on the lake should not be missed. For those who want to explore more spiritual hotspots Varanasi, Rishikesh, and Gaya will not disappoint.
Push further into northern India and you hit the foothills of the mighty Himalayan Mountain range. What a region, utterly beautiful. The Himalayas can boast 8 of the top 10 tallest mountains in the world so rest assured, the scenery is incredibly dramatic. India has three significant mountainous regions: Ladakh, the largest district in the state of Jammu and Kashmir; the undersung area of Kumaon in Uttarakhand, and the former Buddhist kingdom of Sikkim in the shadow of Kanchenjunga, the world’s third highest peak. It’s recommended to visit the high Himalaya between March and May and Sept and October, and it’s worth noting that most tourist facilities in Ladakh are only open May to September.
The best time to visit north India is between October to March during the winter season. The weather might dip down to 55 degrees fahrenheit, but the day temperatures will be higher. A lot of India's major festivals happen during these months, so you will be able to enjoy the cultural offerings of the country as well.
The winter months of October to March is the best time for you to visit the Golden Triangle - which includes Delhi, Agra, and Jaipur, and also cities like Varanasi and Khajuraho. You will be able to view the beautiful historical monuments (the splendid Taj Mahal) while enjoying the best possible weather. October to November would be a good time to explore the desert cities of Rajasthan such as Jodhpur and Jaisalmer as the desert heat will be greatly reduced, and the night winds will not be too cold. This is also the season of festivals in India and the northern part will celebrate Diwali (usually occurs in October-November) with a lot of pomp and splendour. Dusshera, a ten-day long festival, is celebrated with grandeur in Delhi. If you're looking for something unique, plan a trip to the Bikaner Camel Festival in January. March also sees the celebration of the colourful festival of Holi - which you should definitely not miss.
April to June is the peak summer season in north India. The weather tends to spike up to over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Throughout the northern states, there will be a hot sand-storm named Loo, which can disrupt your travel times. Most educational institutions are closed for summer, and it’s when Indian families tend to take their holidays. The popular tourist destinations and urban centres in each state will become crowded during this period. If you're traveling during this period, expect higher prices, and book your accommodation and travel tickets well in advance.
From July, showers begin to hit the northern states of India, and by August, the monsoon will become heavier. You can expect disruption of tourist services, and transport services, depending on where you wish to travel to. It will be more difficult to travel to remote locations within the country.