Since 2500 B.C., the cultures that grew into the modern state of India have been involved in a wild dance of religion and politics that make the India of today one of the most colorful, culturally rich, hyperintense, and interesting places in the world. The culture, politics, and economic effects can run to such extremes, in fact, that tourists have often been divided in to "love" and "hate" groups when it comes to appreciating all India has to offer, in relation to the trials one must at times undergo to enjoy it. The history of the region that is now India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Nepal has evolved based in large part on the tides of religious belief. Founded in the Indus River valley on the roots of Hinduism, the millenia that followed saw the rise of Buddhism, and Islam as prominent and politically charged practices. This, coupled with the forced influence of colonizing groups such as the early Aryans and, later, the Portuguese, French, Dutch, and English; as well as the great size of India and its multitude of people, makes this country on of the most interesting from a social standpoint. The cities are crowded and bustling while the countryside may at times seem spare. The economic divide is garish and unashamed, and, while no longer sanctioned by the government, the age-old caste system is still very much in place.
But these elements only make up part of the social fabric of India. Since the Partition of Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan in the 1940s, heated political tensions--and the occasional nuclear standoff--between these two countries over rights to the region of Kashmir have had a global effect. Further Hindu-Islam conflicts have flared up in other regions within India. The west plays an increasing role in Indian culture, from the tremendous British influence, which was responsible for building everything from an internal transportation system to a strong academic program; to America and its media and fashion obsession; and the former Soviet Union with its power and influence in that region (particularly before its fall). All of these things come together at times to feel counterpoised, and at time chaotic.
Traveling in India
International flights to India typically go to Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata, Chennai, and Kerala. If coming from Europe or beyond, it's a good idea to have your accommodations organized in advance, as these flights tend to arrive in the predawn hours. This way you can go straight to your hotel or otherwise, rather than wandering the streets until sunrise.
Overland, the most traveled routes between India and Nepal are the Birganj-Raxaul Bazaar, Sunauli-Bhairawa, and Kakarbhitta-Siliguri roads. The only crossing between India and Pakistan is between Lahore and Amritsar, which is accessible by train or road. Bus service runs between Lahore and Delhi, operating four times a week, but be cautious as it could be a potential target for nationalist violence.
The state-run domestic Indian Airlines flies throughout the country, as does the international carrier Air India. There is also a glut of smaller domestic airlines, including Sahara Indian Airlines and Jet Airways, that will take you throughout India.
The infamous Indian train travel can be a colossal ordeal, but is also essential if you want to see the "real" India. Knowing the rules of the game is important if you're going to survive what could otherwise be a nightmarish experience. Stick to the express or mail trains, but experiment on all the different classes of travel to see every side of the culture. Patience is the key in all aspects of the train system, from booking fares to just about any other aspect of transportation beaurocracy. It can be frustrating to the uninitiated, but keep it together and you'll find the confusing methods that make up the Indian rails actually add up to a working system.
Buses provide another option (or, in the cases of getting to Kashmir or Nepal, maybe the only option). They range in price and comfort depending on where you are, how busy your route is, whether you use a state-run line or a private carrier, and more. The less expesive lines tend to be overcrowded, loud, and uncomfortable; some of the pricier lines may provide some relief from that and will often get you where you're going faster than the trains.
Weather in India
It bears repeating: India is a huge country. There are microclimates throughout India, and like any nation of its size, the best times of year to visit--climatologically speaking--vary depending on where you want to go. October to March tends to be the most pleasant period across the bulk of India, but monsoons, deserts, Alpine mountains, and more mean dramatic differences between localized areas. Before you go, check up on the climate of your specific destination and keep it in mind as you plan your itinerary.
Republic of India Information
Government: Federal Republic
Area: 1,229,737 sq mi (3,287,590 sq km)
Capitol: New Delhi
Official Language: Hindi
People: 72% Indo-Aryan, 25% Dravidian, 3% other
Religion: 80% Hindu, 14% Muslim, 2.4% Christian, 2% Sikh, 0.7% Buddhist, 0.5% Jains, 0.4% other
Major products/industries: Textiles, chemicals, food processing, steel, transportation equipment, cement, mining, petroleum, machinery, agriculture, livestock