If you had your passport taken away and could only travel within the borders of your home nation for the rest of your life, which country would you choose?

I once heard of a traveller from India who had this exact scenario happen to him and then I thought, you know what… for a traveller he’s from probably the best country on the planet to be stuck in.

I spent two years living and travelling throughout India and I only felt like I dipped my toes in the Ganga. Here’s why: It has 1.2 Billion people, millions of gods, thousands of languages, a history that spans 4,500 years, it’s known as the birthplace of four of the world’s major religions and is one of the world’s 17 megadiverse nations for its impressive biodiversity.

The list goes on. And on. And on. Volumes can be filled writing about the country, its people, history, customs. It can deliver such a varied range of experiences of such intensity (or amusement) that people remember their India travel like few other destinations. Here’s a sampling of some top places to visit, spread throughout the country (and leaving out the obvious attractions like the Taj Mahal).

Turtuk

Since it just opened to tourism in 1974 Ladakh has recently experienced a surge of tourist traffic, particularly in the capital city of Leh—to the point where the infrastructure is starting to crumple under the load. But where tourists are choking on smog in Leh the rest of the region feels far from overrun.

One place well worth the visit is Turtuk. It just opened to tourism in 2009 so is not nearly as developed as other parts, which makes for a peaceful experience. This town used to be part of Pakistan until 1971 and has some of the most impressive scenery around with its mix of mountains, river valleys and terraced farms. When not looking around at the mountains, walking through the terraced farms and the town is a joy. These people have had relatively little outside influence in their lives and so maintain a peaceful agrarian life that makes for some ideal village therapy.

Some of the best places to travel are also not the easiest to get to. Turtuk is one such place. Since you’re travelling right up to the Line of Control (border area between India and China/Pakistan) it requires getting a special Inner Line permit, which is easy enough to get. Stopping at military checkpoints along the way isn’t a problem either. But what is a challenge is the 12+ hour drive over what some consider the highest motorable pass in the world (18,380 feet). With a winding, bumpy road that seems to go up and up forever and with 3,000 foot drops to look down at it feels like a slow-motion roller coaster, which means only those who really want to go go.

Read more about Turtuk in BORDER WALK: The tense Indo-Pak border is opening up to a brand of tourism that’s unexpectedly calm»

Varanasi

Travellers to India tend to fall into two camps: diehard Indiaphiles who go back year after year until they’ve lost count how many times they’ve gone or those who think the word India is an acronym for “I’ll never do it again.”

If there’s any one city that encapsulates the vibe of India all in one place, this is it. Varanasi can be a difficult place to travel. It’s overrun with people, traffic (human, vehicular and animal) and garbage, requiring a good amount of patience and perseverance to get around. But all that said, it’s also considered India’s most sacred city, largely because of the cremations that happen on the ghats (banks) of the holy Ganga River.

Observing this ancient ritual alone is well worth the visit, but the city also has some great attractions like nightly arati services (ceremony of light), temples, a vibrant arts scene, great food, a quirky local population of sadhus (ascetic monks) and a large university with cultural events going on. For anyone interested in Buddhism, one not-to-miss day trip is Sarnath, the site where the Buddha gave his first sermon—one of the four most sacred Buddhist pilgrimage sites.

Read more about Varanasi in LESSONS AT VARANASI: Reflecting on life and death in India’s most sacred city»

Srinigar

First off, Srinigar is in Kashmir, which is labeled by most world governments as an unsafe place to travel and because of that if you visit your travel insurance becomes void. Because so few foreigners travel here, that is one very good reason to go—considering the beauty of this city, dubbed “Paradise on Earth” it is well worth the trip.

Staying in a houseboat on the outskirts of the city’s Dal Lake can be a highlight of a trip to India, and it comes at an incredibly low cost (a small fraction of what it would cost to rent a houseboat in Kerala). With the Himalayas as a backdrop the lake is beyond beauty, and with a canoe you can paddle around and see the diverse bird life and observe the life of the people living on the lake. Then for something completely different go into the city and check out the mosques and see the other historical sites. If you get a chance try to attend a Sufi (Islamic mysticism) music event.

Read more about Srinigar in SHIKARA HO!: Hop aboard for a look at the life of Dal Lake’s boat hawkers in Kashmir, India»

Auroville

For a truly unique experience, check out Auroville. In 1968 this township was founded with the specific intent of building a community where people could live in peace and realize human unity. It has since grown into a full-fledged town of 2,300 people representing dozens of different countries around the world.

Smaller communities make up the larger town, each with specific intentions of their own that work within the context of the larger vision. Sadhana Forest is a community of volunteers who are focused on reforesting the area whereas Kalabhumi is a smaller community of artists.

At any given time there are workshops, courses and classes on a range of interests from Yoga to earth building to permaculture design. It’s possible to stay either as a guest in a guest house or as a volunteer for certain communities. Lastly, their main temple, Matrimandir, is truly a trippy experience—seeing it alone is well worth the visit. Visit auroville.org for details.

Read more about Aurovile in AUROVILLE: A universal city in the making in South India [photo essay]»

Tiruvannamalai

Like Varanasi, this is one of those cities people wonder why they visit… and why they stay for so long. Tiru has a sizeable long-term traveller and expat population who, like the many Indian migrants to the city, were drawn by the power of the great Mount Arunachala and the intense sacred spirit contained within the city.

Though it’s a small city by population it’s numbers are often much higher due to the influx of Indian pilgrims who visit the massive Shiva temple Arunachaleswar. Pilgrims come by the busload every full moon to do the Girivalam, a devotional ritual in which people walk around the mountain. And even more come for the big show, Deepam, a festival where a massive flame is lit atop Arunachala that can be seen as far as 45 km away. As the centre for so much spiritual activity and with the might of Arunachala it’s no wonder so many saints have been drawn to the city and have set up their ashrams. There are many to check out (of particular note is Ramana Maharshi’s ashram) and of course the consequent Yoga classes, Yoga philosophy classes and kirtan devotional practices going on, particularly in the winter months.

Read more about Tiruvannamalai in OM ARUNACHALA: Tiruvannamalai—a pilgrimage place for millions in India»

Dharamsala                                                                           

One of the best things about travelling to India is the opportunity to see amazing spiritual teachers. Starting in 1959, India took in many Tibetan exiles who had to flee their home from Chinese invasion, including His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

This town is where he makes his home, and is also the seat of the Tibetan government in exile. For those into Buddhism, this is a great place to study since there are meditation centres, monasteries, nunneries and all kinds of classes happening all the time all around town and in the surrounding area. And it’s not just Buddhism, but volunteering, Yoga, cooking classes, paragliding and hiking that this area is also known for.

Dharamsala is the name people use to refer to the general area, which includes the city of Dharamsala. But one of the best places to stay in this area is Dharamkot since Dharamsala and Mcleod Ganj have become quite overrun with tourists. This village is just up the mountain a short drive or walk and is backing right up against some serious Himalayan mountain trails, which makes for an immensely enjoyable experience because it combines the natural beauty with all the attractions of Dharamsala and all the activity that comes from a large population of travellers.

Read more about Dharamsala in VOLUNTEER FOR A FREE TIBET: Enabling Tibetan exiles in India»

Bodhgaya

One of the four most highly revered Buddhist sacred sites in the world, Bodhgaya is the site of the Buddha’s enlightenment under the sacred Bodhi tree. Aside from the main temple, Mahabodhi, there’s plenty of other temples and monasteries to visit as Buddhists from around the world have made Bodhgaya their home. Some of them take in visitors and offer teaching programs. There are also numerous Buddhist festivals and events that happen in Bodh Gaya that draw Buddhists worldwide since it’s such a powerful place for Buddhists.

There are also some special day trips in this area like Dungeshwari Cave, also known as Mahakala Cave, the cave where the Buddha was believed to have meditated during his six years of practicing extreme austerities, in which he fasted until his legs were as thin as bamboo sticks. It’s the period of his life where the emaciated Buddha image comes from.

With the mass of tourists, Buddhist pilgrims and the growing local population required to handle the influx, the town has grown quite busy, but the city and the surrounding countryside still retains its allure for its impressive history and the massive blast of consciousness the world received when the Buddha realized enlightenment.

Arambol Beach, Goa

Goa has an infamous history in the rave scene. One of the many genres of electronic music, Goa trance, originated here in Goa, which became a haven for party people, starting in the sixties but intensifying in the last twenty years. Though Goa is known for its parties, authorities have been cracking down in recent years, trying to turn it into more of a family-friendly atmosphere. Arambol in particular has spawned a large conscious community of long-term travellers who come back year after year to host their spiritual workshops, Yoga retreats, dance classes and a host of all kinds of other things.

If you want a nice mix of beautiful beach, a diverse range of spiritual and arts activities and a little bit of partying, Arambol provides. It has nightly drum circles and dances on the beach, a vibrant arts scene, great gourmet food (and it’s one of the few places in India you can find organic food), fun people and lots of activities, ranging from tantra workshops to hooping classes


image: boats and reflection in water via Shutterstock