I cannot imagine a more wonderful introduction to the people and places of my homeland than a journey to India by ship. As you stop to explore the cities and villages, you will have many rare opportunities to witness the oldest living culture in the world—and to see it both from a historical perspective and as a nation with a strong future and global vision. Traveling by ship will also allow you to experience the diversity that is India—enhancing your understanding of how a single country can actually be a subcontinent. The distances by land are huge and travel by road is often arduous, and if you simply fly from place to place, you lose the sense of cohesion among the cultures. Whether you sail from Mumbai, Kolkata, or Colombo, Sri Lanka, you will cross invisible borders between cosmopolitan cities and sleepy fishing villages, from British lifestyle influences to Portuguese architecture, from ancient gilded temples to contemporary 20th-century monuments. And you will become aware of the modern world colliding with the old as you watch elderly fishermen mending their nets on one side of the street, and children typing away at breakneck speed in the Internet cafes, now ubiquitous in the most remote villages, on the other.
Throughout this vast and varying landscape you will encounter both famous sights and ones that few travelers have been privileged to visit. And, as you disembark in ports never before visited by passenger ships, villagers who have had limited contact with overseas visitors will welcome you warmly into their microcosmic world. Each region, you'll come to notice, has its own distinctions—some subtle, some immediately evident—and its own sense of completeness. By this I mean it operates from its own base of regional power, has its temples and places of worship, its own artistic style, unique cultural day-to-day traditions, and its own cuisine defined by its own blend of spices. As a traveler, you will discover certain affinities, become drawn to a particular region simply because it speaks to you. I urge you to listen!
I am often asked to list my favorite places and within my answer is the attempt to visualize them with the wonder of new eyes. On my list of highlights are: the markets of Mumbai, bursting with brilliant color; the Portuguese flavors of Goa, from its architecture to its seafood; the timeless scenes along Cochin's canals and the silhouette of fishing nets in the sunset; the unbelievably beautiful Hindu and Jain temples at Kanchipuram and Mahabalipuram on the Coromandel Coast; the jasmine-scented city of Madurai; the elephant orphanage and sacred Temple of the Tooth near Kandy, Sri Lanka; and the moving site of Mother Theresa's Ashram and Orphanage in Kolkata.
More than just specific places though, India is, for me, a dazzling collection of impressionistic moments—a banquet for all five senses. Imagine reams of rainbow-hued silk; dazzling blue waters; flowers everywhere; glittering flashes of gold, sapphires, and rubies; energetic dancers and exuberant music; and the peaceful scene of hillside tea plantations. And the food, unique to each region, is flavored with a variety of spices blended in a myriad of ways: cinnamon, cumin, pepper, cardamom, cloves. All of this is just the beginning of India!
Above all, India is a land of gentle people, where differences are not simply accepted, but more importantly, they are tolerated. The numerous religions here—Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Christianity, Judaism, Islam—are perhaps the ultimate testimony to this confluence of peaceful co-existence. There is a palpable philosophy of connectedness that travelers seem to feel instantly—that as an individual, a family, a community, and as a nation, our own actions affect everyone. As you step into the flow of thousands of years, remember that what is important here may not be important anywhere else and vice versa. To fully appreciate this as a visitor, patience and an open mind will be your best guide.
Along with my warmest welcome, I offer this simple advice: Instead of asking Why? ask How? And with an unlocked heart India will reveal her beautiful, mysterious, and multi-faceted self to you in ways you never dreamed possible.