Head-shaking and wrist-flicking gestures are part of an Indian's genetic makeup
Indian women can do the most difficult of tasks while dripping with jewelry
Indian Railways carries more than 20 million passengers each day and marks its 160th anniversary this year
India: you either love it or hate it. Or one day you wake up and realize where you fit into India and where India fits into you.
The country of 1.3 billion draws more than 7 million tourists a year, but there’s far more to gain than spiritual enlightenment and an expanded waistline.
Home to 28 states and seven union territories, India contains more than 800 dialects and can lay claim to some of the most varied sites in the world. From Kerala’s backwaters to Tamil Nadu’s temples, and Rajasthan’s deserts to Kanchenjunga, the third highest mountain in the world, there are endless superlatives to go around.
Here are 10:
In India, a simple hair cut is anything but. Barbers will take their scissors to wayward eyebrows, tufts of ear hair and nostrils. That’s just the beginning.
Once the customer is shorn, wet-wiped and toweled off, barbers begin a firm head, neck and shoulder massage, which can descend into facial slapping and skull-pounding known as “champi,” which is where the word “shampoo” comes from.
Be warned: their signature move is a swift neck crack, which can come as a shock to first-timers.
2. Enterprising street vendors
India’s street vendors sell the usual wares, from fake DVDs to earrings to bags of masala popcorn and roasted peanuts.
But there’s also ear-cleaning, street dentistry and pavement astrology.
Vendors possessing the presence of mind to seize any opportunity – last year when Starbucks opened in Mumbai, the queues were so long, a tea-vendor set up shop outside and sold his wares to waiting customers.
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3. Old world train travel
This year marks 160 years since the birth of Indian Railways, which carries more than 20 million passengers a day along 65,000 kilometers of track.
Thundering through cities, inching past villages, snaking along coastlines and climbing mountains, the network of toy trains, luxury trains, Shatabdi speed trains and commuter trains is lovingly known as “the lifeline of a nation.”
In terms of safety, however, there’s still far to go, owing to the trains’ decrepit state, unmanned crossings and lack of government attention.
Tip: travelers should choose the new derailment-proof Duronto trains – there’s no better way to see the country.
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4. Notorious celebrities
Hollywood stars have nothing on Bollywood stars when it comes to entourages, paparazzi and fanatic followings.
They might endorse skin-lightening creams, produce terrible films and become embroiled in one scandal after another, but almost nothing can’t dim their stardom.
Current fave Sunny Leone – a former pediatric nurse trainee in Orange Country turned porn star and now mainstream actress – is the most searched celebrity on the Internet, racking up 35 million searches in India this year.
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From Hyderabad pearls to Jaipuri gems, intricate Indian jewelry is coveted the world over, and local women are usually dripping in it.
In the markets in Rajasthan, maids sweep temples and Rabari tribeswomen in Gujarat effortlessly carry buckets, mop floors and balance heavy loads – all while wearing five-inch diameter nose rings, toe-rings, glass bangles to the elbow and gold necklaces swinging by their bellies.
6. Comfort food
From Mumbai’s Mohammed Ali Road for kebabs to Amritsar’s Lawrence Road for Makhan Fish, India’s addictive food leaves no room for worries over waistlines.
Steaming chicken kathi rolls, crunchy sweet and sour bhel puri or creamy lassi from even the starkest of roadside shacks are bewilderingly tasty and satisfying.
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India has more than 800 dialects, but it’s the head-shaking and wrist-flicking gestures that are the most dramatic means of communication and an inherent part of an Indian’s genetic makeup.
In South India, pointing a thumb toward the mouth can mean anything from “what do you want?” to “have you eaten?”
To make matters more confusing, Indians will often shake their heads from right to left to signify that they are, in fact, following what you’re saying and agreeing, rather than disagreeing.
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8. Obsessing over cricket
When the British left India, they left two real legacies: the railways and cricket.
Not just the preserve of the upper classes wearing club ties, drinking Pimms and eating cucumber sandwiches, cricket in India is a way of life, enjoyed by every class, age and sex, while cricketers are revered as gods.
Watching a live Indian Premier League match is a nighttime floodlit spectacle featuring semi-clad cheerleaders, fog horns, fireworks in the crowds, drummers and, of course, with a brand value of just less than $3 billion, a lot of extravagantly rich cricket players.
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With so many religions and cultures existing side by side in India, it’s rare for a week to go by without some sort of celebration.
Indians will normally extend invitations to anyone and everyone from next door neighbors to stray travelers who they may have met that morning on a train.
It’s wise to bring along a change of clothes when invited to share mutton biryani during Eid or set off Lakshmi banger fireworks in the street at Diwali or be doused in colored water during Holi, the festival of spring.
10. Cities in the mountains
India’s cities in the mountains, or “hill stations,” are walkers’ havens. Less well known than other hill stations, Matheran is one of many we love.
Hidden between the jungle-topped Sahyadri hills 80 kilometers east of Mumbai, it was originally used by the British to escape the Bombay heat, and is free from fume-spewing vehicles while being accessible on horseback, on foot or by the narrow-gauge toy train that trundles along tiny tracks.
Recommended: picnicking on Charlotte Lake, lookouts at Celia Point and chikki (a sweet made from groundnuts and jaggery) at Nariman Chikki Mart.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated India’s inbound tourism data. According to the UNWTO, in 2012 India had 6.649 million tourist arrivals.
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