India henna tattoo
India henna tattoo © Meena Kadri

From the snow-capped Himalayas in the north to the sun-drenched coastal villages of the south, India unfolds like an ancient tapestry. The perennial rivers running down from the mountains are the lifeblood on which India has flourished. Since the first civilisations developed on the banks of the Indus river almost 5,000 years ago, India has given birth to Buddhism and Hinduism, seen the rise and fall of the Sultans and Moguls, and seen the sun finally set on the British Empire as it reclaimed independence in 1947.

The world's largest democracy presents an incredible variety of religions, languages, cultural influences and monuments. This is the country famed for the iconic Taj Mahal, the colourful festivals of Holi and Diwali, and for traditional Carnatic and Hindustani music. Art and theatre mix traditional culture with western influences, and Bollywood far outstrips its better-known US rival in terms of output and popularity on home turf.

India's landscapes are as vast as they are varied. The peaks of the Himalayas give way to the great plains of the Ganges River and the capital, Delhi. To the west lies the Thar Desert and the Great Rann of Kutch, while the west and south coast plays host to beaches and forests and vibrant cities.

India is a feast for the senses. The air is heavy with the scent of jasmine, dancers trail frenetic melodies in colourful silk saris, and cooks compose dishes from a palette of exotic spices. India's cities are a cacophony of seemingly endless traffic and a myriad of other textures, colours and movements all jostling for attention. India can be overwhelming, but its variety is part of its charm for those who brave the sub-continent.