Northern India is a vast, diverse region consisting of the states of Punjab, Jammu & Kashmir, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand and the Union Territories of Delhi and Chandigarh. There are other states that do not officially form part of North India, but are traditionally, as far as culture and linguistics are concerned, considered so, namely Bihar, Rajasthan, and Madhya Pradesh.
Northern India is also one of the most diverse regions on Earth in terms of its climate. Despite the general pattern of hot summers, cool or cold winters and moderate monsoons, temperatures can vary greatly in different areas of the region. The most extreme temperatures registered in inhabited regions have ranged from 50.6 °C in the town of Alwar, in Rajasthan, to −45 °C in Dras, a town in Jammu and Kashmir. Dras is said to be the second coldest inhabited town after Siberia, and even in Delhi the temperature has been known to reach as high as 49 °C! The regions of Himachal Pradesh, Jammu & Kashmir and Uttarakhand experience moderate to heavy snowfall in the winter. Northern India generally experiences six distinctive seasons: summer, from May to June; Rainy, from July to August; Cool or ‘early autumn’, from September to October; autumn, from November to December; winter, from January to February; and spring, from March to April.
The North of India is a cultural hub with a plethora of religious and historical sites and architecture. The region includes many centres of pilgrimage. Hindus travel to the centres of Varanasi, Haridwar (a Ganges pilgrimage site), Allahabad, Char Dham, Vaishno Devi, Rishikesh, and Ayodhya among others, plus the largest Hindu temple, Akshardham Temple located in New Delhi to practice their devotion. Buddhist sacred sites include Sarnath, Kushinagar and the Mahabodhi Temple, the largest in India, located in Bodh Gaya, Bihar. The important Sikh centres of pilgrimage include Hemkund, in Uttarakhand and the largest Sikh shrine, the Golden Temple, in Amritsar, Punjab. Important destinations in Sufi Islam are also in northern India – Ajmer in Rajasthan and the largest mosque in India, the Jama Masjid in New Delhi.
Northern India is also home to some of the most highly regarded architectural, archaeological and historical landmarks of India. World heritage sites like the Taj Mahal, the huge, white marble mausoleum in Agra is one of the most famous attractions in the country. The Khajuraho temples in Madhya Pradesh are also a popular world heritage site. The state of Rajasthan is home to the stunning palaces and forts of the Rajput clans. Throughout northern India there are historical sites and architecture from the ancient and medieval times of India, such as Deogarh, Sanchi and Jageshwar, plus Bronze Age sites of the Indus Valley Civilisations like those in Manda and Alamgirpur.
The Bhimbetka Caves is a Paleolithic era archaeological site where the earliest traces of human life can be found on the Indian subcontinent.
The spectacular natural environment of northern India is dominated by the Indo-Gangetic plain, the Indian Himalayas, and the Thar desert in Rajasthan. Some of the best hill destinations of India are found in the north, such as Srinagar, Shimla, Manali, and Mount Abu. Several towns in the states of Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand, present panoramic views of the snow-topped Himalayan mountain range. Adventure sports such as trekking, mountaineering, skiing and river rafting are popular in the Himalayan region, and popular activities in the Thar desert include camel and jeep safaris. The north of India is also home to several National Parks and nature reserves, such as the Jim Corbett National Park, the Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve and the Ranthambore National Park.
The big attraction in Nainital, Uttarakhand, is the Jim Corbett National Park, which was the first established in India in 1936. Since 1963 it has also been designated a tiger reserve, and serves as a protected region for the Bengal tiger. The park is known for the rich and varied wildlife and outstanding scenic beauty. Other attractions at the park include the Corbett Waterfall, and various nature or jungle safaris that allow visitors a glimpse of the birds and wildlife.
In Joshimath, Uttarakhand in the West Himalayas, the Nanda Devi National Park and Valley of Flowers National Park form the biosphere reserve that has been part of the UNESCO World Network of Biosphere Reserves since 2004. The Nanda Devi National Park is dominated by the second highest mountain in India, the Nanda Devi, at 7,817 metres tall. This rugged mountain wilderness is complemented by the gentler landscape of the Valley of Flowers, which is famous for its outstanding natural beauty featuring meadows of endemic alpine flowers. Rare and endangered animals also make their home in this richly diverse land, including the snow leopard, the Asiatic black bear, brown bear and blue sheep. Both the endemic plants and wildlife are able to stay protected due to their remoteness and because access to these parks is limited.
The massive metropolis and capital city of India is unavoidable if you are travelling directly to the north of India from another country as your flight will land at Delhi airport, the largest in the country since its renovation. New Delhi is a city of contrasts, the old beside the new, bringing the ancient past to life, while simultaneously showcasing India’s modern future. While the crumbling city of Old Delhi exists alongside the organised and sleek New Delhi, they feel like they are world apart. Delhi has a rich history and was ruled by the Mughals and later the British, and there are forts, monuments and evocative mosques, many of which are set in beautifully landscaped gardens, left over from the Mughal occupation.
One of the most notable of these relics is the Red Fort, which was the main residence of the Mughal emperors and now houses several museums. The Qutab Minar monument, is the tallest brick minaret in the world and an astounding example of early Indo–Islamic architecture that was built in 1206. There are several other historic monuments at the same site. There is also the largest mosque in India, the Jama Masjid, whose courtyard can accommodate up to 25,000 people. Near to the mosque is the sprawling Chandni Chowk bazaar on the main street of Old Delhi, a vibrant market full of spice stalls, food carts and sweetmeat shops.
At the centre of New Delhi stands the India Gate, a war memorial reminiscent of the Arc De Triomphe, built in memory of the Indian soldiers who died fighting in World War I for the British Army. The floodlights at night provide a warm glow and the gardens that line the boulevard are a popular spot to while away a warm summer’s evening. Another place that presents an opportunity to escape from the bustling city and relax in a serene environment is the Lodi Gardens that were built in 1936 by the British. The vast gardens are especially popular with yoga practitioners and joggers. The modern Bahai Temple also known as the Lotus temple as it takes the form of a lotus flower also provides a tranquil environment in the gardens and by the ponds that surround the temple for visitors to relax and maybe enjoy a picnic. The temple is constructed of white marble and as the Bahai faith is inclusive, anybody is welcome to worship here.
Another important temple is the Akshardham Temple, the largest Hindu temple in the world. The main attraction of the complex, built relatively recently in 2005 is the mandir, a fantastic architectural feat of pink sandstone and white marble, intricately carved with dancers, musicians, deities, and flora and fauna, plus 234 ornately carved pillars and nine domes! The complex also comprises: an IMAX theatre showing a specially commissioned 40 minute film; a 15-minute cultural boat ride depicting 10,000 years of Indian heritage; a musical fountain; and a sprawling garden lined with bronze sculptures reflecting India’s culture and history. To ensure you get to explore the complex fully, allow at least half a day for your visit. Many who make the trip to New Delhi, also take the opportunity to visit the site where Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated and where he lived in the final 144 days of his life, Gandhi Smriti, which is now a museum, and also the spot where he was cremated, Raj Ghat.
The Taj Mahal, in Agra, Uttar Pradesh, lies on the banks of the Yamuna River, and dates back to 1630 AD and is one of the most famous monuments in the world, let alone India. The marble mausoleum contains the body of the wife of the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, Mumtaz Mahal. The monument took 20,000 workers 22 years to build. Visits to Agra and the Taj Mahal are often part of the ‘Golden Triangle’ tourist circuit, incorporating Jaipur and Delhi.
The Golden Temple, in Amritsar in the Punjab is the spiritual capital for Sikhs and was founded by Guru Ram Das, the forth Sikh guru, in 1577. The spectacular Golden Temple attracts pilgrims attracts devotees from all over the world and is a sight to behold when its magnificent pure gold dome is beautifully illuminated at night. Amritsar is also renowned for its delicious street food.
Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh is a sacred Hindu city and a one of the main spiritual destinations in India. Varanasi is known at the city of Lord Shiva, the god of creation and destruction, Hindus’ believe that those who die here are freed from the cycle of reincarnation. Washing in the River Ganges is also thought to cleanse away all sins, and the rituals are revealed openly along the many riverside ghats, but be prepared for the filth! A stay at a hotel overlooking the river can be memorable and is highly recommended.
Udaipur, in Rajasthan is the best place to experience the regal splendour of India. Many consider this to be India’s most romantic city, with its exquisite temples, charming old mansions, beautiful gardens and majestic palaces overlooking shimmering lakes. The City Palace is particularly striking as it stretches along the eastern shore of Lake Pichola. The Palace’s unique style combines Mughal decorative techniques with Rajput military architecture. The Mewar royal family still reside in part of the palace.
Jaisalmer, in the heart of the Thar Desert in Rajasthan is known as the ‘Golden City’. This fairy tale sandstone city features an astonishing citadel, a ‘living fort’ built in 1156 that is suspended high upon a hilltop, buttressed by 99 bastions, overlooking the city. Inside the fort there are palaces, several temples and some amazing mansions, as well as other residences and shops. Another popular activity in the area are camel safaris.
Haridwar and Rishikesh
Haridwar and Rishikesh in Uttarakhand are holy sites not far from each other in the foothills of the Himalaya. Haridwar primarily attracts Hindu pilgrims and Rishikesh is popular with western spiritualists, as it is considered the birthplace of yoga. The Explore Himalayas Resort in the area can be used as a base to explore both!