Experience traditional Indian activities with your family!
Traveling to India can be an overwhelmingly powerful experience chock-full of dichotomies. The country is known for both its ancient mystical traditions and burgeoning tech scene; breathtaking natural beauty and foul pollution; lavish metropoles and heartbreaking slums. Families that choose India as a destination must venture into the country with a flexible and positive attitude: expect delayed trains, heart-rending beggars, and at least one bout of “Delhi belly.” If you can stomach it, your loved ones will be met with over a million square miles of magnificent scenery, jovial locals, some of the oldest traditions on Earth, and mouthwatering cuisine.
While you are in India, it is imperative that your family indulges in a plethora of Indian fare, as it is indescribably delicious and undoubtedly much cheaper than any Indian eatery you have at home. Try scrumptious meals like channa masala (curried chickpeas), saag paneer (stewed spinach with fresh cheese), and the classic, kid-friendly tikka masala (veggies with a scrumptious tomato and onion sauce). Better yet, take the chance to learn how to craft these concoctions so you can create these dishes at home! Take a cooking class with your family in India and learn the secrets of this famous cuisine from the locals.
Where to go:
Delhi: Spend an afternoon with your brood concocting Northern and Southern Indian cuisine, desserts, and non-vegetarian dishes with Nitin’s Cookery Classes in the capital. As with most cooking classes, you choose the dishes you want to learn about, so have the kids come prepared with ideas for meals they love. This experience is especially suited for families because the classes are offered inside Nitin’s own family home. Email Nitin to set up a private class for about $24 USD per adult.
Dharamsala: Try cooking classes at Bhimsen, which operates out of one of the guest houses lining the main drag of McLeod Ganj. For about $7 USD per person, you can choose two dishes your family would like to create from their menu, and then spend the afternoon cooking with the operation’s chef. Then enjoy your hand-crafted meals! Don’t forget to bring a pad of paper, as you’ll need to take notes during your culinary training. If you’re feeling inspired after crafting your own Indian fare, look for a mo-mo (Tibetan dumpling) cooking class!
Saree and Kurta Shopping
One of the most iconic aspects in India is the vibrant dress. Women and men alike don bright orange, crimson, and deep azure clothes often elaborately embroidered with golden thread or glittery beads. Sarees, originating around 1800 BCE in northern India, include an undershirt and a long swath of wide fabric which is draped around a woman’s body. Men can often be found wearing kurtas (this style is popular with women as well), comprised of a long tunic worn over loose pants. Sarees and kurtas will be a cherished souvenir even if your children don’t intend to wear these clothes on a daily basis. Part of the fun of finding this traditional garb is navigating the narrow, tilted alleys, peering in shops, and meeting clothing purveyors. Photograph your kids donning their new digs and your family will have one unique holiday card!
Where to go:
Delhi: Chandni Chowk doesn’t just offer sarees and kurtas—it is also an area of Old Delhi that is exciting to explore. Drop into different shops to try on Indian dress and admire elaborate bridal jewelry. Always bargain first if you intend to buy anything—you can find sarees for as little as $10 USD if you are a skilled barterer!
Varanasi: Sarees made in Varanasi are some of those most famous because of their quality. Some can be on the more expensive side, but there is always room for window shopping! Expect to pay around $30 USD for an average-quality saree here (or settle for a knock-off).
It is impossible to write an article about traveling with children without including some sort of sweet delicacy to try! Luckily, delicious jalebis are a cornerstone of Indian tradition, and are a most pervasive find throughout the country. Jalebis are made from a sweet dough that is squeezed into a spiraled shape and deep-fried—essentially an Indian doughnut. Not sweet enough? Ask for syrup to dip your jalebi in! After a long day in the Indian sun and jostling pedi-cabs, reward your family with one (or many!) jalebis. These snacks cost as little as $.75 USD/kg, so stock up. Hunt for ones being freshly prepared for the most delectable jalebi experience.
Where to go:
Delhi: Once your children get a taste of jalebis, they’ll insist on finding them wherever they go. Follow your nose to Chandni Chowk, which has some famous jalebi spots (so if you’re exploring that region for saree shopping, you can fuel up with many a sweet treat there!). Chandni Chowk metro will land your family right in the middle of both saree shops and jalebi outposts.
Agra: You will probably make a stop in Agra to see the Taj Mahal, but did you know that Agra is also known for its unique jalebi flavors? Explore the alleys of Agra after your visit to the Taj Mahal so your children can taste-test different jalebis.
Henna, also called mehndi, is another distinct Indian tradition originating over a thousand years ago. Mendhi is a dark paste made from henna leaves mixed with oils, which is applied to one’s skin in detailed floral and paisley shapes as a temporary tattoo. Henna is usually painted on women and men alike for wedding ceremonies and important festivals like Diwali, the Festival of Lights. Men (especially from the Rajasthan region) will get henna tattoos as well, usually on their chest, shoulders, and back. These designs will last anywhere from 1-3 weeks, so let your children experiment with different designs they enjoy and take part in this unique, time-honored Indian tradition.
Where to go:
Delhi: Venture to Connaught Place, near Hanuman Temple, where henna artists are known to blanket the streets. Let your kids choose a design they like from the artist’s binder, and pay no more than $6 USD for inking both hands. Always, always, always barter! Apply oils to the mehndi to make it last longer. Your family can also find artists in most beauty parlors if you want to avoid seeking the designs from streetside stalls. Either way, marvel at the expertise of mehndi artists—the speed and skill of these craftspeople is incredible. Designs placed on the palm of your hands will last the longest.
Open-air cremations are one of the somber traditions practiced in Hindu culture, but if your brood is mature enough to handle them, they can be an eye-opening and powerful experience. According to Hindu beliefs, people must be cremated as soon as possible after death to prevent the body from obtaining additional impurities. The only people who are not cremated are holy people and young children, as they are without sin and do not require the purification ritual of creation post-mortem. Viewing a cremation is only suited for older or more mature children, for whom it can be life-changing experience. Even if you are not planning on teaching your family about these sacred burial rites, places like the Ganges River offer a wealth of other cultural experiences, like ritual bathing, evening ceremonies (aarti) and marigold offerings. The wealth of temples along the Ganges also offers opportunities to learn about Hinduism without viewing cremations.
Where to go:
Varanasi: Varanasi is the holiest city in India according to Hindus, which is why so many devotees wish to be cremated there. Take your family to the ghats (rock slabs) on the Ganges, the holiest river in India, to view cremations. Watch priests from the highest Brahman caste place boughs of sandalwood and wreaths of marigolds on the deceased. Around 80 people are cremated in Varanasi every day.
Rishikesh: Also situated on the banks of the Ganges, Rishikesh is another holy city where you can take your children to learn about Hindu cremation practices. Visit Shamshan Ghat, where there are eco-friendly cremation practices developing along the riverbanks. Efforts include utilizing less wood and diverting ash from entering the Ganges.
The Life of the Buddha
India is a predominantly Hindu culture, but there is a sizeable Buddhist population as well. India also contains some of Buddhism’s most sacred sites, which attract millions of Buddhist pilgrims each year. Take the chance to teach your little ones about one of the world’s largest religions by giving them a tour of some of Buddhism’s most important destinations.
Where to go:
Bodhgaya: Take the time to visit the main temple and see the enormous Bodhi tree beneath which the Buddha reached enlightenment. The town is filled with monks and nuns from all Buddhist traditions, and there is no shortage of meditation courses and lotus peddlers.
Sarnath: Take a day trip from Varanasi to see Sarnath, where the Buddha first “turned the wheel of Dharma,” or gave his first teachings and an enlightened being on the Four Noble Truths. The monks from one temple recite these teachings every night in Palī, the precursor to Sanskrit, and the original language of the Buddha.
Kushinagar: Pay your respects to the Buddha at Kushinagar in Uttar Pradesh, where he passed away (or reached parinirvana) almost 2,500 years ago. A burial mound was erected over Buddha’s cremation site, and a collection of parinirvana temples stands nearby. Many Buddhist nations have built temples here, which will allow your family to compare different styles of Buddhist architecture.
Before there was Bollywood, there was Hindustani music, called Shastriya Sangit, which originated in northern India almost 700 years ago. Hindustani music branched off from Carnatic music, which many Indians believe came directly from deities like Saraswati, the goddess of music and knowledge. Look out for classical Indian instruments like tablas (a pair of small drums), sitars (a guitar-like instrument with a long neck and up to 21 strings), and sarods (another stringed instrument played with a coconut-shell pick). Don your sarees and kurtas and head out to groove to some authentic Indian tunes.
Where to go:
Pune: The most well-known Hindustani music festival called Gandharva Bhimsen Festival occurs once a year in Pune, outside Mumbai. The festival was started in 1953 and now occurs in December. This festival also includes dance performances and different styles of Indian music, including Carnatic music. It is believed that once a musician plays at this festival, he has cemented his place in the classical Indian music scene. Prices differ depending on which artists you would like to see, so check online for a detailed line-up and price information.
Jallandhar: The oldest music festival in India is called Harballabh Sangeet Sammelan, which began in 1875. The gathering is named after Baba Harballabh, who is a revered Indian musician. This festival is held during the end of December in the state of Punjab, near Pakistan. Harballabh Sangeet Sammelan is also completely free, funded primarily by grants and donations—so take your entire family and enjoy the music!
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