Hero 120633745 Ruth Choi 72

India strikes its visitor with a sensory, intellectual, spiritual and philosophical assault that’s unmatched by any other place on earth, all set in an awesome physical environment teeming with a resilient, indefatigable 1.2 billion­-strong population.

Every expectation – be it of beauty, mysticism, poverty, bigotry or bureaucracy – will be outdone by what hits you on the ground. When VS Naipaul wrote “there is little subtlety to India”, it was itself an understatement: whether measured in passion for cricket, film, faith or politics, India revels in the extreme, and rejects all apathy, minimalism and restraint.

The subcontinent’s sheer diversity is staggering: India ranges from tropical beach paradises to primary forests of teak and jackfruit trees where elephants roam and macaques leap; desert tundras broken by fairytale forts ruled by haughty princes with Rajput moustaches; chilly foothills clad in tea plantations and dotted with British clubhouses opening onto vistas of the world’s highest mountain peaks, through outsized metropoles whose infrastructure buckles under the weight of the unceasing movement of their vast human populations, right down to atavistic village life of tapping toddy, ploughing seed and tilling soil.

And despite the fact that India is embracing modernity with open arms, it has shunned secularism. Most of Indian society remains fiercely religious, a religiosity which remains a source of both social harmony and sporadic tension. The north holds hushed Tibetan Buddhist monasteries of frugal understatement, their air thick with incense, lit with ghee lamps, hewn into jagged Himalaya cliff faces, where prayer wheels chime and flags flutter in the high­-altitude granite desert. The south answers with riotous candy­pop Hindu confections, crammed with gaudy gods, flanked by painted festival elephants and bugle­-playing Brahmins. In between lie Muslim mausoleums, mosques of vast proportions, sprawling Sikh temple complexes plated with gold and the tombs of Sufi mystics peopled by pilgrims of every denomination.

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