INDIA LOOMS LARGE in the traveler’s imagination. There’s just so much here: thousands of years of history spanning countless dynasties and kingdoms, land area of over 1.2 million square miles (it’s the world’s seventh-largest nation), the rich heritage that comes from being the birthplace of dozens of spiritual traditions, the colors of art and fashion both ancient and cutting edge, and a modern population that exceeds 1.2 billion people.

Pretending to be able to choose a handful of pictures to fully represent a country this expansive is certainly impossible, if not also insulting. Instead, the 23 images below are intended to give a sense of this great diversity, and offer a taste of what you might find on a visit, whether you’re headed to the beach or to the world’s highest mountain peaks. Enjoy.


Pushkar Camel Fair

Every year in the fall, the town of Pushkar in northwestern India hosts its five-day Camel Fair, the largest event of its kind in the world. The main focus has been and remains the buying, selling, and trading of thousands of camels, but the modern fair has become a tourist draw for both local and foreign visitors, with music, food, contests, and all kinds of non-camel goods for sale.
Photo: A Vahanvaty


Munnar tea plantation

Sure, 1.2 billion people live in India, but the country is big. There are plenty of places you can go to get away from the crowds. Check out this view of a tea plantation in the mountains of Munnar, in Kerala in the far southwest.
Photo: himanisdas


Taj Mahal in silhouette

The most recognizable structure in India, if not the world, the Taj Mahal was famously built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan as a final resting place for and monument to his wife. Nearly 400 years later, the UNESCO World Heritage Site attracts around three million visitors each year. This photo composite helps show why.
Photo: Madhavan Muthukaruppan


Tibetan monk

Buddhism is only one of many spiritual traditions that originated in India. For here it spread throughout Asia and the world, and in the case of Tibetan Buddhism has come full circle as many practitioners, including the Dalai Lama himself, continue to find refuge India after being driven from Tibet. Most Tibetan communities lie in the north of the country, but there are plenty of others; this portrait was taken at a monastery in Kushalnagar, Karnataka.
Photo: Jai Kapoor


Colors of the sari

The sari is the traditional article of clothing for women in South Asia, and though it's recently become popular in the West—particularly among travelers—it's been around for an estimated 4,000 years or more. The concept is simple: A long strip of cloth is wrapped around the waist and then draped over the shoulder. But within this simplicity lies space for infinite expression, as shown by these rice farmers in Odisha.
Photo: Trocaire


Nubra Valley, Ladakh

India stretches from the tropical Laccadive Sea in the south up to the highest places on the planet: the Himalaya. That's where you'll find the Nubra Valley, at an elevation of 10,000 feet, with the Shyok and Nubra Rivers separating the Ladakh and Karakoram Ranges. It's a 100-mile journey over high mountain passes from Leh, the closest sizable town, to access this view.
Photo: alex hanoko


Varanasi boatman

Few cities anywhere are as storied as Varanasi. It's one of the oldest continuously inhabited places in the world, with archaeological evidence dating its origins to at least 1100 BC. Hindu lore pushes it back even further, citing the god Shiva as its founder. It's also considered India's spiritual capital, with an estimated 23,000 temples and 84 ghats along the Ganges River, where pilgrims come to bathe, perform rituals, and cremate the dead.
Photo: C.K. Tse


Jantar Mantar, Jaipur

In the 1700s, Maharaja Jai Singh II of Jaipur ordered the construction of five complexes housing instruments to accurately calculate the time of day and the movements of celestial bodies. These complexes are known as Jantar Mantar, and the one in Jaipur is the largest. It features 19 astronomical instruments, including the world's largest stone sundial. Seen above is the observation tower used to view the sundial.
Photo: Barb Gannon


Holi Festival

The ancient Hindu festival of Holi celebrates spring and is held during the run-up to the vernal equinox. Involving many rituals, it's now most associated with the throwing of brightly colored powders and solutions.This image was actually taken outside of India—the festival is celebrated all over the world by Hindus and non-Hindus alike.
Photo: Janssem Cardoso


Vagator Beach

India has 4,700 miles of coast, touching the Arabian Sea to the west and the Bay of Bengal to the east. This shot was taken at Vagator Beach in Goa, a foreign tourist hot spot going back decades.
Photo: nedim chaabene


Auto rickshaw, Mumbai

There are plenty of big cities in India, but Mumbai dwarfs them all. As many as 18 million call this seaport in the western state of Maharashtra home. It's considered the hub of commerce as well as entertainment in the country—this is where all those Bollywood films get made.
Photo: aphotoshooter


The view from Khardung La

Traveling north from Leh, the road rises into the mountains until it tops out at the pass of Khardung La, 17,582 feet above sea level. But even here you can still get higher, as evidenced by the Himalayan peaks that surround in all directions.
Photo: shankii


Sadhu in Varanasi

The term sādhu translates as "holy man" (sādhvī is the female version); these ascetics have renounced worldly possessions and concerns to focus on their spiritual practice and the attainment of enlightenment. Clad in saffron robes, face paint, or sometimes nothing at all, they belong to different sects that provide training and guidance. You'll see them all over the country, though Varanasi is home to a particularly high concentration.
Photo: Lyle Vincent


Agra Fort

Less than two miles from the Taj Mahal, in the city of Agra, stands another impressive structure. Agra Fort was built by the Mughals in the 1400s and subsequently fought over by a handful of famous kings and emperors, a testament to the long and complex history of this country.
Photo: Colin Tsoi


Athirappally waterfalls, Kerala

At Athirappilly, the Chalakudy River plunges in multiple 80ft falls, creating one of the most spectacular waterfalls you've probably never heard of. Find it in the state of Kerala, 40 or so miles northeast of Cochin International Airport, and visit between June and October for peak flow.
Photo: Mehul Antani


Yoga by the temple

Yoga originated in India (it's thought to be at least 2,500 years old), and the country still draws both novices and expert practitioners looking to hone their skills. In this portrait, internationally renowned instructor Mariko Bhakti holds a pose at Virupaksha Temple in Hampi, Karnataka.
Photo: Ramnath Bhat


Hill fort, Sikkim

Up until 1975, the Indian state of Sikkim was an independent kingdom, a Himalayan enclave bordered by Bhutan, Tibet, and Nepal. With so many neighbors, defense of the kingdom was vital, and you can see evidence of this in the old forts still standing around the state.
Photo: Matt Paish


Varkala Beach

The state of Kerala stretches for hundreds of miles along the Arabian Sea, but Varkala is the only spot where the land meets the water in cliffs, giving it an especially scenic beach. There's a temple here too, as the water is believed to have cleansing properties.
Photo: Thejas Panarkandy


Meenakshi Amman Temple

The Meenakshi Amman Temple is the most prominent landmark in the city of Madurai, on India's southeast coast in the state of Tamil Nadu. The Hindu holy site features 14 different gateway towers, each around 150 feet tall, and some 30,000 sculptures.
Photo: Marcin Wichary


Triund Hill, McLeod Ganj

McLeod Ganj, known also as Upper Dharamsala and "Little Lhasa," is the site of Tibet's government-in-exile, and many people visit to study Tibetan Buddhism. Hikers should look for the six-mile trail up to Triund Hill, where you can rent a tent and camp for an awesome sunrise view.
Photo: Rignam Wangkhang


Henna hands

Henna is another Indian cultural innovation. Dye made from the henna plant is applied to the skin, hair, and fingernails for decorative purposes on special occasions, weddings in particular.
Photo: rishiprabhu


Bundela Cenotaphs, Orchha

At Orchha in central India, 15 of these cenotaphs or funerary monuments stand along the southern bank of the Betwa River, paying tribute to the Bundela kings who ruled the area starting in the 1500s. Several other historical sites can be found nearby, including forts, palaces, and temples.
Photo: Dennis Jarvis


Jaigarh Fort mosaic

This image of a mosaic from Jaigarh Fort near Jaipur is a good one to end on. All of those colors, all of those figures and patterns—it's a nice stand-in for India at large, where so much is contained you couldn't possibly ever experience it all. But it sure is fun to try.
Photo: Dennis Jarvis