Flights usually depart London in the evening.
The group flight will arrive in Delhi in the morning and we transfer to our hotel. Those who have made their own flight arrangements will join us at the hotel during the day. The rest of the day is free to relax or explore Delhi.
Today we have a morning sightseeing in Old Delhi including the famous Red Fort and Jamia Masjid (India's largest mosque); in New Delhi we see the fine colonial buildings, built by the British Raj in the early years of the 20th century and set in spacious tree-lined boulevards, these now house various Indian governmental departments. We then board our overnight sleeper train to Varanasi, India's most sacred city.
We arrive at Varanasi in the morning and transfer to our hotel. Varanasi, located on the river Ganges, is one of the holiest cities in India and stands at the centre of the Hindu universe. As such, the city lives and breathes Hinduism: there are thousands of pilgrims, wandering holy men (Sadhus), religious leaders and casual visitors. It is a city to get immersed in by exploring its maze of narrow lanes, ghats, the many temples and watch the Hindu ceremonies that occur around the clock. There is time to explore the emporiums specialising in silks and brocades or maybe take a massage by the banks of the Ganges.
Just before dawn, we take a boat out on the Ganges to witness the extraordinary spectacle on the ghats, the steps leading down to the river. Every day thousands of Hindu pilgrims come to these three miles of riverbank to immerse themselves in the waters of the holy Ganges. The rest of the day is free to continue exploring the city or relax at the hotel. In the late afternoon we board the overnight train to Agra.
After arriving in Agra and checking in at our hotel we visit the imposing Red Fort of Akbar, third of the Moghul Emperors, whose mighty sandstone walls enclose the beautiful white marble Pearl Mosque and the palaces, halls, courtyards and fountains of his sons and successors, Jehangir and Shah Jahan.
At sunrise we visit the beautiful white marble Taj Mahal, built by the Moghul Emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his beloved wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died in 1631. The Taj is serenely beautiful and never fails to amaze a first time visitor. A few miles outside Agra is Fatehpur Sikri, the emperor Akbar's deserted royal city. The mosque, designed to hold ten thousand worshippers, the palaces, residences and halls of audience are all made of decorative red sandstone. But this magnificence only lasted 14 years, as in 1584 Akbar left Fatehpur Sikri to secure his outlying territories, leaving this city much as we see it today - in perfect condition. Continue journey to Jaipur.
Jaipur was built in the early 18th century and is a planned city of broad avenues built of sandstone and painted pink at a later stage. In the centre of Jaipur is the City Palace, formerly the residence of the Maharaja it is now a fine museum containing rare manuscripts, paintings, royal garments and weapons. Close to the palace is one of the most intriguing sights of India, the observatory of Jai Singh. This is an assembly of immense astronomical instruments made of marble and brass set in a pleasant garden. We will also see Jaipur's impressive landmark, the Hawa Mahal, or Palace of the Winds. A few miles from the main city is the splendid Amber Palace; the imposing hilltop fort contains large courtyards and interiors with fine decorations including inlaid alabaster panels and a Chamber of Mirrors. We walk up the hill and through the massive gateway to the courtyard. Jaipur is a centre of many handicrafts, such as durries (woven rugs), carpets, printed cloth, semi-precious stones, leatherwear etc. It will be difficult to leave a workshop without buying anything!
We make an early start and drive about 180 kms (approx 5 hours) to Ranthambore National Park. We stay in a lodge not far from the park entrance.
Ranthambore is one of India's tiger reserves under Project Tiger. After initial success, poaching has reduced the tiger population and seeing a tiger is by no means guranteed, however, a number of Exodus groups have seen them over the last few years. We make our first game drive today early in the morning and a second drive in the evening to increase our chances of seeing tiger. There is a huge array of other wildlife, such as several species of monkey, deer, crocodiles and bird life, which together with the scenery, make for a fascinating and exciting day. Game drives are undertaken in a large open truck (called a canter) from which we have unobstructed views of the park and the animals.
In the morning we head back into the Park for our 3rd game drive. We board the overnight train to Mumbai in the late afternoon/early evening.
We arrive in Mumbai and transfer to our hotel. The rest of the day is free to explore Mumbai.
This morning you may wish to make an optional trip to Elephant Island, (the return boat trip is about GBP3 (approx. USD5) for 3 hours and the entrance is about GBP4 (approx. USD7) per person). The main attraction is the rock-cut temples, carved between 450-740AD. The afternoon is free to explore this city including the Gateway of India Arch and the eerie Towers of Silence, on top of which the Parsees expose their dead to be devoured by the ever-present vultures.
We will take the morning train to Aurangabad and then have a short drive to the cave temple complex at Ellora, a World Heritage site. The caves date from the 6th to the 8th century AD and have been painstakingly hewn out of the hillside. There are more than 30 Buddhist, Jain and Hindu temples, crowded with finely carved images. It is thought that the caves were carved by priests and pilgrims who used this ancient trade route. The highlight of the complex is the amazing Kailasa Temple, a replica of the mountain abode of Shiva and probably the world's largest monolithic structure. Carved out of solid rock it measures 33m. In spite of its massive proportions, the temple is carved all over in the most intricate detail. Later we drive back to Aurangabad.
We drive to the caves at Ajanta. The 29 caves are spectacularly located in a pass in the Vindhya Hills and were only discovered in 1819 by a company of British soldiers on a tiger hunt. The caves were created between the 2nd century BC and the 7th century AD. They were cut from volcanic lavas in a forested ravine. They contain many carvings and beautiful wall paintings, depicting scenes from Buddhist legends. In the afternoon we drive back to Aurangabad. Later, if we have time, we can visit the Bibi-ka-Maqbara (optional) an imitation of the Taj Mahal which was built by the Moghul Emperor Azam Shah, son of Aurangzeb, as a mausoleum for his mother Rabia Ul Durani in the late 17th century.
Today is a long but beautiful drive to Bijapur (approx.9-10 hrs.). Bijapur is a small and pleasant Muslim town with fine old buildings dating back to the 14th century, when the Muslim rulers of Delhi conquered the area. The city is dominated by the magnificent Gol Gumbaz, the huge mausoleum of its 17th century ruler Mohammed Adil Shah. The Jama Masjid Mosque is one of the finest in India, with its graceful, slender minarets.
Morning sightseeing visiting Gol Gumbaz and Jama Masjid. In the afternoon we drive to Hospet, which is our base for the next two nights. The evening is free.
Today we have a full day-visit to the beautiful ruined city of Hampi. Hampi is the site of the old capital of the Vijaynagar Kings, who ruled from the 14th to 16th centuries. Once the largest Hindu empire in India the city was destroyed in a battle in 1565 by the Deccan Sultans when Islam was spreading to South India. The ruins are almost ethereal and amid the boulder-strewn landscape we can see the finely carved pillars of the Ramachandra Shrine, the old market place, plus many other temples and monuments in the South Indian Dravidian architectural style. In the evening we return to our hotel in Hospet.
Today we drive (approx 6 hrs.) over the Western Ghats towards Goa and stay at Karwar overnight to break this long journey.
We complete our journey to Goa. The state of Goa was a Portuguese colony from 1510 until it was returned to India in 1961. The great Catholic missionary St Francis Xavier came to Goa in the 16th century and his body, perfectly preserved, lies in the Bom Jesus Basilica and a large part of the Goan population is still Christian. Goa became a meeting place of east and west, where merchants could buy and sell pearls, rubies, coral, silks, Chinese porcelain and exotic spices. These days Goa is an idyllic place with tropical white sandy beaches and palm fringed shorelines. These 2 days are free for individual exploration of Goa.
You may like to visit Old Goa, the spiritual heart of Portuguese Goa. Goa was famous for its spice trading and there is a chance to visit one of the spice farms dotted around the wetter, hilly, inland areas of Goa. Another recommended trip is to the Menezes Braganza House at Chandor, a fine Portuguese mansion, which shows the opulent lifestyle of the Old Portuguese families who established great plantation estates. Or you may just want to relax and explore the golden beaches dotted along the coast.
We drive to Udupi (approx 8-9 hrs.), an important Teerthasthal (pilgrimage place) with its historical Krishna Temple. It is the cultural centre of Karnataka and has its own identity in the field of art and culture. Proceed towards Mangalore where we will spend the night.
In the morning we drive to Mysore (approx 6 hrs.), the city of royal places and spend two nights here.
Mysore is the city known for its sandalwood and the manufacture of incense sticks. It is Karnataka's second largest city. We have a sightseeing tour of Mysore and its surroundings. Just outside of Mysore is Srirangapatnam. Tipus' famous battles against both the French and the British are depicted here in the murals on the walls of his delightful summer palace. Ruins of the Fort and the Gumbaz, the family mausoleums are also here. Returning to Mysore we spend the afternoon exploring the beautifully restored City Palace. Designed by Henry Irwin and built in 1897 it is one of the largest palaces in the country and has been beautifully restored and maintained. The stained glass, wall paintings, ivory inlaid doors and ornate golden throne are all remarkable. The rest of the day is free to wander round the bazaar and maybe visit an incense making shop.
It's a beautiful drive of about five hours as we cross the border from Karnataka into Tamil Nadu. We drive through the Mudumalai and Bandipur National Parks where we may spot deer, elephant and monkeys as we drive along and leave the plains for the Niligiri Hills arriving at Ootacamund hill station where we will spend two nights.
Ootacamund is queen of the southern hill stations and was a refuge for British Officials and tea planters in Southern India. At 2,286 m. the climate is much cooler here and evenings in winter can be quite chilly. In the morning we will drive to Dodabetta Peak. At 2,638 m. it is the second highest in the Western Ghats. From the top on a clear day we can see as far as the Mysore Plateau. For those who want, there is a pleasant walk through a variety of woodland (eucalyptus, conifer, shola) to Snowdon Peak (2,450 m.) after which we walk back to the Botanical Gardens in town. The Botanical Gardens contain over 1,000 varieties of plants, shrubs and trees including orchids, set amidst beautiful lawns. In the afternoon, if there is time and the narrow gauge Blue Mountain Railway is open, we will take the delightful one-hour train journey up to Conoor.
A fairly long drive today (approx 8 hrs.) as we leave the Niligiri Hills and head to the coast winding our way through lush tea and coffee plantations. We leave Tamil Nadu and enter Kerala as the road winds through forested hillsides. The ghat journey from Coonoor is one of the most scenic in South India giving superb views of the plains below. Magnificent groves of the slender areca nut palm trees line the road en route to Cochin.
Cochin is situated on the Malabar, or 'Pepper Coast', and is one of South India's most interesting towns, believed to have been the first European settlement in India. Rich in history it retains a relaxed, quiet atmosphere. We have a sightseeing tour of Fort Cochin where most of the historic buildings are located in amongst the narrow streets. The Portuguese Vasco de Gama landed here in 1500 and began trading with the Raja of Cochin. The Mattancherry Palace was built by the Portuguese in the mid 1500's and then was largely rebuilt by its second occupants, the Dutch. Built in traditional Kerala style the wooden architecture and wall paintings are still well preserved. Jewish settlers first arrived in Cochin in 587BC and a synagogue dating from the late 1500's still stands in Fort Cochin. Although there are only now about half a dozen Jewish families the synagogue is a real gem. St Francis Church is where Vasco de Gama died in 1524 and the building reflects the new European influence in the area. The Santa Cruz Cathedral is close by and was originally used as a warehouse by the British. The Chinese fishing nets line the entrance to the harbour and were introduced by the Chinese in the late 14th century. There is also time to wander round the tiny back streets hunting for souvenirs in the many antique shops and warehouses. In the evening there is the option to see the traditional beautiful dancing of Kathakali.
We drive to Alleppey where we board our houseboats and begin our cruise along the backwater of Kerala. The houseboat cruise is one of the highlights of the trip - these enchanting houseboats; built of Anjili wood and bamboo were the traditional method of transport of goods for hundreds of years. Now they have been decorated and made into comfortable cruise boats. As our boat meanders through areas of lush tropical vegetation we have the opportunity to view not only the prolific bird life but also gain a differing perspective on village life. The cruise takes us along shallow, palm-fringed canals where coconut fibre, copia (coconut meat) and cashews are loaded on to dugouts. In the evening the boat is anchored in the backwaters and we can watch the sunset over the rice paddies. All the houseboats are comfortably equipped and have 2 twin bedded rooms with bathroom. There is a cook and boat driver and assistants for each boat and the food served is traditional Keralan fare using local produce. No trip to Kerala would be complete without the wonderful experience of the backwaters aboard these traditional Keralite.
In the morning we drive to the coastal town of Kovalam (approx 5 hrs.). Once a relaxing hideaway on the old hippie trail, this beachside town has now been discovered, but the influx of tourism has not diminished this beautiful setting.
If you are travelling on Land Only arrangements then your trip will finish after checkout on Day 30. If you are travelling on the group flight we transfer to Trivandrum airport in the early hours of the morning for our flight back to London.