India is a popular summer destination for European vacationers, monsoon lovers, and travelers who prefer to go against the grain. There are lots of good reasons for visiting India in the summer: the profusion of festivals, Himalayan destinations inaccessible in winter, empty tourist attractions, cheaper airfares, and slashed accommodation rates, to name a few.
If this sounds like your cup of tea, here are 11 activities to keep you busy in the summer:
1. Eat mangoes
Early summer, before the monsoon arrives, is the hottest time of year in India. The only relief comes from this sweet and succulent fruit, revered the country over.
In India, the mango is the “king of fruit.” April is when you’ll first see them in the markets and restaurants. While there are many varieties, the Alphonso is hailed as the “king of kings,” and its seasonal appearance makes the news.
2. Hike in Ladakh
In winter, the Ladakh region of India’s remote northern state is a cold, lonely, and forbidding mountain kingdom. But come summer, flowers bloom and the tourists return to admire the barren, lunar-like landscapes and traditional Indian, Tibetan, and Central Asian cultures.
Leh, the region’s capital, has some of the best treks in India. The very accessible palace and royal monastery, Namgyal Tsemo Gompa, is a great place to watch the sun rise over the Himalayas. The season’s short, though, and by mid-September it’s all over for another year.
3. Chill at a hill station
During the reign of the British Raj, the colonial rulers retreated to hill stations to escape the incendiary heat of the plains. Shimla, in the modern state of Himachal Pradesh, was the “Queen of Hill Stations.” It was from this small mountaintop town that the British ruled fully one-fifth of humanity.
Today, visitors to Shimla enjoy the laid-back vibe, Raj-era buildings, and spectacular views of the Himalayas from the The Mall — a ridge-top pedestrian-only thoroughfare that was once off-limits to Indians. Don’t miss high tea at the elegant, century-old Oberoi Cecil Hotel. Shimla is a taste of “ye olde England” in the Himalayas.
4. Sing in the rain
Monsoon is a special time of year in India. The summer rains bring welcome relief from the scorching heat of early summer and they are a symbol of fertility, vigour, and joyful abandon. Bollywood movie watchers know that when rain showers soak the hero and heroine, it’s shorthand for the lovemaking they can’t show on screen.
The southwest monsoon is expected to arrive in the southern state of Kerala each year on June 1, and it spends the next few months sweeping north across the subcontinent, lightening the hearts of farmers, children, lovers, and just about everyone else.
5. Experience bliss
Summer monsoon season is the best time for Ayurvedic treatment in India. Ayurveda, which means “science of life,” is the ancient system of traditional Indian health care that seeks to restore health through the use of diet, herbs, lifestyle advice, cleansing techniques, and — primarily — bliss-inducing oil massages.
The languid dampness opens the pores and makes the body more receptive to the medicated oils. Kerala, in southern India, is a tropical paradise on the Arabian Sea, and the best place for Ayurvedic treatment in India. Ayurvedic resorts, from the rustic to the luxurious, line the shores between white sand beaches and palm tree forests and offer a relaxing vacation as well as authentic treatments.
6. Find the source of the Ganges
The Ganges River – known in India as Ganga Mata – is the lifeline of the country and its most sacred river. One-tenth of humanity depends on its bounty for their livelihood. It cascades out of the high Himalayas in northern India, and finding its source – or sources – is a major pilgrimage activity every summer after the snows melt and the roads and villages become accessible (April to November).
The pilgrimage is called Char Dham, which means four sacred places, and bus tours from Rishikesh in Uttaranchal state can take you to all four: Badrinath, Kedarnath, Yamunotri, and Gangotri.
7. Get soaked with Ganesh
One of the biggest festivals in Maharashtra state takes place at the end of summer. It’s called Ganesh Chaturthi, and while it’s celebrated throughout India, no one does it quite like Mumbai.
For 10 days, Mumbaikars celebrate by holding cultural and social programs, eating sweets, and worshiping the popular elephant-headed god. On the 11th day — his birthday — an enormous clay figure of Ganesh is paraded through the streets of Mumbai before being immersed in the Arabian Sea. The main parade, to Chowpatty Beach, is accompanied by thousands of celebrants dancing and singing in the streets. All are welcome to join the fun.
8. Sip tea in Darjeeling
A popular hill station perched high in the Himalayas on the northern edge of West Bengal, Darjeeling also gives its name to the world’s best tea. In the 19th century, Darjeeling was the summer destination for the British in Calcutta (then the capital of colonial India).
Though Darjeeling is lashed by the summer monsoon, it still offers an escape from the heat of lower-lying regions. Enjoy the Victorian-era holiday atmosphere, views of some of the world’s highest mountains, touring the surrounding tea gardens, and Tibetan culture. Take the poignantly slow Toy Train from Siliguri and you will find yourself in tune with Darjeeling’s timeless appeal.
9. Run with the chariots
The mid-summer Chariot Festival in Puri, Orissa, attracts millions of devotees and tourists each year, who take part in an enormous procession as three mammoth, dazzling wood chariots are pulled through the streets.
It’s one of the biggest festivals in India — so big, it inspired the word “juggernaut.” The word was coined after 19th-century British spectators saw people, mad with devotion, throw themselves under the giant wheels of the Lord Jagannath’s chariot.
10. Watch snake boats compete
The Onam Festival of late August celebrates the tropical southern state’s rich cultural heritage when everything is fresh and radiant. During the 10-day festival, Kerala puts on a display of games and sports, traditional art forms, drama, and classical music.
There’s also shopping at the many festival bazaars that spring up and a Grand Feast. But the highlight is the Nehru Trophy Snake Boat Race, the biggest snake boat race in the world.
11. Celebrate Krishna’s birthday
Blue-skinned Krishna is one of Hinduism’s most important and beloved gods. He can be depicted as a cherubic baby, flute-playing lad, devoted lover — alongside his consort Radha — or as Arjuna’s charioteer during the epic battle of the Mahabharata (the basis of the Hindu bible, the Bhagavad Gita).
Inspiring fervent devotion among his followers, his mid-summer birthday (this year on August 14) is called Janmashtami. It is celebrated all across the country, but nowhere more so than in his birthplace, Mathura, Uttar Pradesh. The fun includes rituals, feasting, devotional singing, plays that depict scenes from his action-packed life, and human pyramids — formed to reach a high-hanging pot of butter, Krishna’s weakness.
Prior to boarding that flight to India, make sure you familiarize yourself with the 10 Indian Customs to Know Before Visiting India.
We’ve also published a great essay called From Mumbai to Northern India by Train which should provide some inspiration to visit this colorful nation.
For a visual account of one person’s volunteering efforts in India, check out our Photo Essay: Saving Indian Street Kids.
Also of interest is the story behind India’s Pink Chaddi Campaign.