India is a big country with an even bigger population (almost 1 in every 5 people on Earth is Indian), great diversity and a long and convoluted history, including a prolonged period of British colonialism. The latter and the struggle for independence provide the majority of heritage sites that are of dark-tourism interest today. But there are also more contemporary and at least equally grim dark “heritage” sites related to modern politics (e.g. Wagah) as well as in the industrial disasters category (Bhopal). Here's a list of all the dark places in India covered on this website, ordered roughly from north-west to south-east:
border crossing point and ceremonies
Of course, this list is far from exhaustive – especially the colonial heritage has left plenty more places associated with it. On my 2016/17 trip to India I was, for instance, also taken on a colonial-heritage tour of Etawah
, in Uttar Pradesh, which was an important centre of the 1857 rebellion (or 'mutiny' as the British rulers called it – see under The Residency
, Nicholson cemetery
). The tour was conducted by a local historian and investor and mostly themed on the the story of the then district collector and political reformer A.O. Hume
There are proposed plans to turn this into a regular heritage trail, including a museum, and when this comes to fruition it may well be worth another chapter here. The tour also included a visit to an atmospherically abandoned Christian cemetery as well as an impressive ruin (currently undergoing preservation work) of a stronghold of a local rebel dynasty in the badlands near the banks of the Yamuna River (see under photos
If you allow the the time span for dark tourism (see concept of DT
) to go even further back in history, then the world-famous Taj Mahal
could also count as a dark-tourism attraction. It is primarily India's No. 1 mainstream tourist sight, but given that it is also the world's best-known mausoleum
(that of 17th century emperor Shah Jahan's wife Mumtaz) you could argue that it is also 'dark'.
Moving into contemporary history, one might consider sites of recent terrorist
acts as potentially relevant to dark tourists (see also under Amritsar
!). This could include the 2008 co-ordinated bombing and shooting attacks in Mumbai
. One target was the luxury Taj Mahal Hotel where allegedly you can still see bullet holes from the final stand-off. But as Mumbai was too far off the rest of my itinerary I did not go there on this occasion.
The same applies to the site of one of the worst natural disasters of recent times (other than the 2004 tsunami – see under Tranquebar
), namely the devastating 2001 Bhuj earthquake
in remote Gujarat (where there is a memorial park dedicated to the victims).
I also contemplated trying to see the infamous ship-breaking yard
on the south-east coast of Gujarat. You may have seen some of the infernal images of such sites in documentaries or the feature-length film “Workingman's Death” (those ship-breaking scenes were shot in Gadani, Pakistan, though). Chittagong in Bangladesh
is another infamous example (especially for the lack of worker security, resulting in frequent serious accidents). Having seen such images on TV and on the Internet I was craving to behold with my own eyes the sight of huge supertankers deliberately beached on the seafront and then dismantled bit by bit. Alang was in a draft itinerary for a while until I was informed that apparently “the military has taken over the site” and visits were no longer possible. Shame, but what can you do ...
Similarly I was advised against visiting the equally apocalyptic-looking sites of the coal fires
) at Jharia
near Dhanbad north-west of Kolkata. In this case it was taken out of the itinerary for security reasons (the risk of muggings of foreigners in this allegedly Mafia-controlled area). Because that wasn't possible I also didn't go to Kolkata
, so I didn't see the memorial to the legendary Black Hole
in that city either (it commemorates a dungeon that British colonialists were thrown into in the late 18th century, so it's not all that relevant as a dark-tourism site today).
What I never even contemplated visiting was a slum – I am aware that there are some people who consider “slum tourism”
part of dark tourism, while others argue, and I think convincingly, that this is something altogether different and should be kept conceptually separate (see also here
for some further explanations). Slum tourism attracted quite a bit of media coverage a few years ago – and I saw many instances of it being used to give dark tourism as a whole a bad name. For me that's just another reason to stay well clear of it. And anyway, I think it would feel too uncomfortably voyeuristic for me.
Another place in India that has attracted quite a lot of attention in dark-tourism circles recently is Varanasi. This ancient city, regarded by many Hindus as 'holy', plays a particular role in the Indian custom of cremating the dead (rather than burying them) and then scattering the ashes in the (allegedly equally holy) River Ganges.
Many terminally ill people specifically travel to Varanasi to see out their final days so that they can be given a holy cremation in this special place. Dozens of cremations take place here every day, year-round. However, some of the dead, namely those whose families can't afford a proper cremation ceremony, are even just dumped in the river unburned, their corpses left to decompose in the waters ...
All this presence of death has attracted increasing numbers of foreigners as well who come specifically to watch all this. I contemplated it too, with some reluctance from the start, but in the end Varanasi was not included in my itinerary. And frankly, I was relieved. For one thing I am slightly worried by the ethical issues involved here. And I am also a bit uncomfortable in the presence of so much “holiness”.
There are in fact plenty of so-called “holy men” in Varanasi … and that includes Aghori monks, who follow a belief that transgressing certain Hindu rules actually brings them closer to their God. They cover themselves in ash (from the cremations), meditate atop or next to corpses and allegedly even practise cannibalism. (Take a look at this challenging but very interesting article
if you want to know more about this – external link, opens in a new window). The more I read about it, the less I felt any urge to go and witness this for myself. But others are clearly less “squeamish” about it … Make your own judgement.
So, there is clearly more scope for dark tourism in India, both proper solid dark tourism as well as explorations on the edge of it (or just beyond) … but whether I'll be going back any time soon, I cannot say. Lots of other places I've never been to at all yet are currently much higher on my priority list.
About India in general:
India is a huge
country, in fact the world's sixth largest by territory
. It covers most of the so-called Indian 'subcontinent', together with neighbouring Bangladesh
and Pakistan to the east and west, as well as Nepal and Bhutan in the north.
And in terms of population
India could soon overtake China
and “boast” the largest number of people of any country (with all the social and environmental challenges that brings) … the count currently stands at a whopping 1.34 billion. And despite its large territory, the population density is enormous too, roughly on a par with that of the Netherlands
and significantly ahead of, say Britain
(though still far behind that of Bangladesh
That big population also makes India the largest democracy on Earth – and a democracy it indeed is, though politics in India is an incredibly complicated game, that is pretty much impossible to fathom for outsiders (I won't even try).
Part of the reason for such complicatedness is the fact that India is predictably also very diverse culturally, both in the traditional senses (ethnic, religious, linguistic – see below), but also in terms of sheer wealth distribution. The contrast between flashy Western-like modernity and widespread utter poverty makes India a First and a Third World country at the same time, depending on where you look. Though it is hardly possible to overlook the stark contrasts as such, since shiny shopping malls often rub shoulders with sprawling grubby slums.
Culturally, in the more traditional sense, India is characterized by the (not always, but mostly) peaceful coexistence of most of the world's large religious groups, with Hindus forming the largest group, followed by Muslims, but Buddhism and Christianity are also well represented as are spin-off religions such as Sikhism (especially in Punjab in the north-west). Jainism is another specifically Indian branch of extreme religion. Jains practise an extreme form of vegetarianism which forbids even onions, garlic or root vegetables, on the basis that anything that involves ending any life, even that of a carrot, is a sin. But this is not the place to go into further details about all this religious diversity.
Nor can the very complex history of India be summarized here in any sufficient way. It's just too complex. It would take up too much space. Please refer to other sources (of which there are plenty). Here, only the period of colonialism, especially its final 90 years from the “Mutiny” of 1857 up until independence in 1947 and the era up to the present day are really relevant. Details will be touched upon wherever relevant in the individual sub-chapters.
Geographically, or rather: administratively, India is subdivided into 29 regional states
. While Rajasthan attracts a large share of mainstream tourism, the regions relevant to the dark-tourism places covered here are Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, plus the capital city Delhi
(and the restricted region of Andaman & Nicobar – see its separate country entry
Travel to/in India:
First of all: virtually all travellers are required to obtain a visa before they can enter India. For travellers from a large number countries, so called e-Tourist-Visas (e-TV) valid for 30 days can be applied for online. It sounds fairly easy, but is actually quite a lengthy process with plenty of scope for human error and technical glitches. So do make sure to allow sufficient time for this. Visa fees vary by nationality. If you want to stay longer than 30 days, or are from a country not eligible for an e-TV, you have to get a normal visa from an Indian embassy. As you would expect, nationals of Pakistan face the most severe restrictions.
Most tourists will get to India by air (and e-TVs are only valid for travel into international airports, not for crossing land borders), which is hardly surprising when you look at a map of the country and the countries it shares a land border with. Some of the border regions are contested and can't even be visited at all normally, or only with special permits (e.g. Kashmir). Getting through immigration and security can take a lot of time, both on the way in and out – so factor that in (allow about three hours with international flights).
Security can be very tight, not only at airports but also train stations, shopping malls and bigger international hotels … this is clearly due to an ongoing threat of terrorism (which is not to be taken lightly, so no moaning about all those security measures).
Getting around India can be easy and comfortable – or very uncomfortable and tricky, depending on where you're going and by what means. Internal flights and long-distance first- and second class trains (including sleepers) provide sufficiently good connections between many major cities, and buses provide the rest of long-distance public transport also in more rural parts. Local public transport is mostly provided by tuk-tuks, rickshaws and taxis, in addition to buses, and in some of the larger cities metros.
But for some of the places mentioned here that are away from main routes, you may need a car … and better hire one with an experienced Indian driver rather than getting behind the wheel yourself. Here's why:
Road traffic in India is sheer madness and chaos – more so than anywhere else I've seen in the world. They say that if you can drive in India you can drive anywhere in the world … which only partially captures the truth because if you were driving like in India anywhere in a Western country you'd be in jail before you've finished the first mile.
Theoretically, you drive on the left in India (as in Britain
and several Commonwealth countries). In practice, however, it is left, right and centre all at once and wherever else there may be the slightest gap to slip into – and it's usually the size of the vehicle that determines who gets priority … that, and honking the horn incessantly.
Nominally there may be rules of the road, but nobody pays any heed to them. The real-world rule is that you need only three things: a good horn, good brakes and good luck. One guide I had even likened Indian traffic to war! And all that aggressive driving is going on amidst streams of pedestrians, along road-side stalls, ox-carts and: freely roaming animals – in particular cows, who provide the only kind of restraint in Indian traffic. That's because cows are considered holy in India. Hitting or even killing one would mean bad karma (and chances of reincarnation as a slug). The stray dogs and monkeys, on the other hand, have to fend for themselves.
Be prepared for some weird signs you can spot all over the country. How about “Bureaucracy Today” or “Shoe Wearing Training Institute” (don't ask – I've no idea either) or “Open-Defecation-Free Village”. The latter is apparently actively promoted by the government, as I read in some Indian newspaper articles. So the establishment of more and more “ODF-zones” (as the covert euphemistic abbreviation goes) is being propagated. However, you still witness quite a lot of non-ODF practices when travelling overland through (in particular) rural parts of India.
The worst, though, is the omnipresent plastic rubbish. It's everywhere, just strewn about. In my mere three weeks in India I must have seen many thousands of tonnes of plastic rubbish. It's utterly depressing, so much so that it essentially kills all environmental hopes you may still entertain. Despite all that rubbish and pollution you see billboards optimistically advocating “green and clean Lucknow” (or Chennai, Delhi, Kanpur, …).
Air pollution is also a big problem. At least half of the world's worst cities for air quality are in India (topped by Delhi
). And indeed smog
frequently semi-cloaks the city sights you've come to see in a slightly yellowish haze. Visibility levels are even part of the daily weather forecasts.
On the other hand, despite the pressures of overpopulation, industrial growth and pollution, India is also home to several national parks, wildlife reserves and other protected patches of nature. Wildlife-watching and especially safaris in national parks are hence also an important part of mainstream tourism in India (alongside sightseeing of Moghul heritage forts and the like).
The tiger is usually the one species everybody wants to go and see – but that biggest of cats is especially elusive (I went to two tiger reserves and in six attempts never saw more than tigers' paw prints on sandy tracks). But other interesting species include leopards, jungle cats, Indian wild dogs, various deer and gazelles and the biggest bovine in the world, the gaur, or Indian buffalo – they're massive muscle-packed giants … with white socks.
Bird species are plentiful too, as are reptiles including the so-called “mugger crocodile”. One of the rarest species on Earth that can be spotted, especially along the protected Chambal River (India's least polluted river) is the gharial, a fish-eating crocodile-like creature with a distinctive long and thin “beak”-like snout (see photos
What you can do and see in India as a tourist also depends on the climate. The variation in the seasons is extreme. Summers, in the south in particular, can be unbearably hot, so it's best to go there in winter. The north and centre can be a little chilly and often foggy in winter, though. And the high-altitude areas of the Himalayas in the north can only really be visited in summer. In any case, best avoid the wet seasons (they differ regionally, so do check ahead), when national parks may be closed, roads may be impassable, and constantly being soaked by rain may not be all that pleasant.
With regard to language, India is comparatively easy for foreigners, thanks to English being an official lingua franca. In practice, only a relatively small percentage of Indians speak English as a native tongue (especially by bilingual members of the upper class), but within the tourism industry, English is usually spoken at least to some degree (if frequently with amusing twists and errors – reading menus can be side-splittingly funny). Hindi is the most widely-spoken other official national language. But there are also yet more large language groups such as Bengali, Punjabi, Urdu, Tamil, etc., etc.
Food & drink
can be an important part of travelling to India, especially if you are interested in the myriad aromas and flavours of India's spices that the country is rightly famous for. Except for the southern part, Indian food is rarely anywhere near as hot-spicy as is often claimed. In fact, as a proper chilli head I personally found it too mild almost everywhere.
However, for me as a (semi-)vegetarian
India was heaven. There are few countries where avoiding meat is so easy. Even in parts that are not themselves so inclined towards vegetarianism
with its famous kebabs), there will always be as many veggie options as there are non-veg dishes, and it's always very clearly marked. In some parts of India (especially Gujarat) it's the meat-eaters who are looked down upon and are considered the weird ones.
With regard to drinks, chai (spiced, sweet, milky tea) is king almost everywhere, but there are also regions that favour coffee (e.g. parts of the south). Apart from the usual branded cold drinks, lassi or spiced buttermilk are often good options. Quality varies widely, though, and in rather unpredictable ways. One of the best spiced buttermilks I had came in a carton and was served on a train, while a special home-made variety I tried in a top restaurant in Lucknow was pretty unpalatable (due to its intensely sulphurous aroma).
Alcohol is restricted in some parts of India (especially Kerala) and its sale and pricing is generally tightly state-controlled, i.e. prices are fixed, and only specially licensed shops can sell it – in the more restricted parts it may be available only in Western-type top hotels. And of course all imported alcoholic drinks are hugely overpriced.
Yet – perhaps surprisingly for some – India also produces its own wines (and some of them are fairly decent too), and domestically manufactured variants of standardized bland lager beers are very common (craft beer hasn't hit India yet), as are quite cheap spirits such as rum and blended “whisky” (often made in part from molasses, so it couldn't be called whisky in Europe).
What is perhaps not so well known outside expert circles is that India makes some excellent single malt whisky too. It is Scotch in style and some variants have attracted world-class top ratings by experts (google it to find out more – I'd rather abstain from advertising specific names here).
Finally, a word about money. The currency of India is the rupee (at the time of writing, early 2017, 100 INR were ca. 1.4 EUR or 1.5 USD). You can't get rupees abroad to take into India nor are you allowed to take any out of the country … in fact, at the time I went to India in December 2016/January 2017, getting cash at all was an issue – because at the time “demonetization” was a big problem:
In (allegedly) an attempt to fight corruption and so-called “black money” the government abruptly withdrew 500 and 1000 rupee notes from circulation and launched an intense campaign pushing for electronic, cash-less transactions. In practice, however, it was huge problem. Cash-free paying may work more easily within urban and elite circles, but in rural India and especially amongst the less affluent masses in general it caused chaos and severe shortages.
With suddenly only 100 rupee notes being left as usable denomination, demand outstripped supply, and changing a 2000 INR note (the only notes available at many ATMs and money-changers) became near impossible. Often ATMs ran out and subsequently remained closed. Where there were functioning ATMs and banks, long queues formed. For tourists it meant you couldn't so easily pick up anything cheap from road-side stalls or get a rickshaw ride or so on – as nobody had change.
By the time you read this, the problem should have been resolved, but you never know what other monetary plans the government may come up with next … so be forewarned – and do check ahead before you travel.
Many travellers with plenty of time on their hands (and the appropriate visa) go to India on an independent, often backpacker basis – and doing it that way does require more time and preparedness for a slow pace of travel. Since I had only three weeks at my disposal and wanted to cram as much as possible into that short space of time – and because my destinations were quite spread out over India and in some cases rather remote, I needed a pretty precisely planned itinerary, and that was also financially more “demanding” than your average off-the-peg India holiday.
- India 01 - flag
- India 02 - the mega-iconic Taj Mahal
- India 03 - Islam - mosque in Lucknow
- India 04 - Christianity - inside an Etawah church
- India 05 - Buddhism - at Sanchi monument near Bhopal
- India 06 - Sikhism - Golden Temple, Amritsar
- India 08 - Jainism - temple at Khajuraho
- India 09 - tantric position impossible, Khajuraho erotic temples
- India 10 - Satanism, maybe
- India 11 - Hinduism
- India 12 - gate with swastika
- India 13 - the swastika is actually a quite innocent ancient symbol here
- India 14 - cow worship
- India 15 - live holy cows are everywhere too
- India 16 - cow in the street not giving a monkeys
- India 17 - gaur, the biggest bovines anywhere
- India 18 - leopard in Panna NP
- India 19 - tigers are elusive
- India 20 - monkeys are more commonly spotted
- India 21 - critically endangered gharial and comparatively common mugger crocodile
- India 22 - sunrise at Satpura NP
- India 23 - badlands
- India 24 - cage birds for sale, including rabbits and puppies
- India 25 - Bollywood Schmollywood
- India 26 - elephantine worship
- India 27 - old colonial-era bungalow in Agra
- India 28 - atmospheric ruin in fog by the invisible Yamuna River
- India 29 - old mausoleums in an abandoned Christian cemetery in Etawah
- India 30 - very British-looking letter box
- India 31 - Mahatma Gandhi statue
- India 32 - cable chaos
- India 33 - railway
- India 34 - typical overload goods road transport
- India 35 - no chance
- India 36 - recent accident
- India 37 - near accident, narrowly avoided
- India 38 - semi-open-air toilet
- India 39 - completely non-ODF
- India 40 - drinking water well
- India 41 - pollution, pollution everywhere
- India 42 - non-polluted bit of protected landscape
- India 43 - sunset over the Chambal River
- India 44 - washing in river water
- India 45 - maybe they meant scamming
- India 46 - politics in India is a complicated game
- India 47 - highly charged
- Indian curries