India City Guide
The following is an assortment of information regarding various cities in India. Portions of the following were provided by an old friend, Jim Butler and his wife Jessica, who preceeded me to India several years earlier, and the rest was based on my personal experience.
Jim: To get to Agra, I had to back track to Delhi, spend the night, and then catch the morning train: all because the airport was closed. I arrived about 10:00 a.m. and was escorted to the Trident Hotel.
Phil: I didn't stay in Agra, but took a taxi to and from Agra for a day trip to the Taj Mahal. Taxi was a big mistake - take the train, it has to be more pleasant!
Jim: We stayed at the Highgates Hotel. Rooms very nice--shower in a stall, unlike most Indian bathrooms. Backup generator for power cuts. This is where our insect repellant was stolen because we left bags unlocked. Also, in Bangalore we discovered that most autorickshaw drivers don't know where they are going and they get lost. We had one drive us in circles and then stop at another rickshaw stand and try to charge us 30 rupees. Unlike other cities, drivers were unwilling to ask when they got lost. GREAT CHEAP RESTAURANT: Woodies on Commercial street. We got a great dinner for 66 rupees. Very fresh vegetarian food. Commercial street is also a bit out of the big tourist trap of Brigade road. Prices for clothes on Brigade tend to be fixed and higher than in other parts of India. Prices may be more reasonable on Commercial Street.
There is a cyber cafe on Brigade Road; I think the name was "Coffee Point." It looks like a Starbucks on the inside. They''ll steer you to the 100R for 30 minute computers, as they save the 60R ones for local students. You can send email to the folks back home from here. We also ate at the Orange County in the Central Park hotel at 47 Dickenson Rd off MG Rd. Good western food, but more expensive than Woodies. On the other hand, if you want to stay in a $75-80 a night hotel, this looked like a good one. The Taj Hotel restaurant is quite good, too, but pricey. Bad news on Bangalore is that it is fast becoming Just-Another-Big-Polluted-Indian-City. On the other hand, it has very good bookstores and several English-language Movie theaters. So, if you need to take a break for the Indian country-side, it can be a nice placeto be
Phil: I also stayed at the Highgates Hotel, I'd give it 3+ stars, pretty nice place, relatively speaking. There are plenty of places to eat on the next street, the Mahatma Gandhi (MG) Road, a major throroughfare. This part of the city is trying hard to be somewhat western, which is a nice break, and has a feel of some affluence.
Besides being called "the Silicon Valley" of India, Bangalore doesn't have all that much to offer in terms of tourism, I found, but the weather is wonderful. There is some kind of effect that keeps the weather warm, but not too hot, very comfortable. Internet cafes abound.
Went to visit the Bull Temple, housing the largest Nandi Bull you'll ever see. Other than that, I used it a transportation hub, and a setting off point to visit Sathya Sai Baba's Ashram in Putthaparti, Andhra Pradesh, a very pleasant four hour taxi ride. I write about this experience in my travelogue.
Jim: We spent the first night at the Sea Lord in Ernakulum and would NOT recommend it. They have central a/c, which they turn off for a big chunk of the day and evening. Only warm air blows through the vents. There are no ceiling fans, so we were miserable. Also, they played 2 games:1--they quoted a lower rate on phone and then those rooms were "unavailable" at check-in, so we had to pay more; 2—the maids take the towels and soap out of the room, so you have to call for it and they can get the tip. Finally, restaurant served LUKEWARM food, which in our minds, can be dangerous.
We switched to the Casino Hotel on Willingdon Island, which is prettier than Ernakulum, but the room cost US $70. Also, we noticed that everything was more expensive on Willingdon Island. The telephone rates to call US were higher. Buying fruit from vendors cost more. The seafood restaurant at Casino is wonderful, but pricey. I liked it better than Lalitha Mahal in Mysore and Taj Hotel in Bangalore and Willingdon Island. You have to make reservations for restaurant in advance. If I could only eat in one fancy restaurant, this is the one I'd choose. Next time, I would stay in the Abad Plaza hotel in Fort Cochin or in Ernakulum and take a taxi to Casino for dinner. Fort Cochin was very beautiful. The residents appear to have consciously decided to keep big business/industry out. I could wander the streets for hours (and did). Also, we found the people very friendly. So, staying in Fort Cochin would be great. There are normal people (versus fancy Willingdon island) and it doesn't seem like a big, overbuilt, dirty city like Ernakulum. And, its not pricey like Willingdon Island.
Greater Cochin tends to be heavily Christian, so don't be surprised if most stores and restaurants in Fort Cochin are closed on Sunday. There is no ferry service on Sunday from Willingdon Island to Fort Cochin—you have to pay rowboats instead. The ferries are great, and a ride costs only 1.6 rupees. Women should take care to sit with other women on the ferries, unless you are with your husband or boyfriend. In Cochin, the backwater boat tour is a great experience. We took one where we were on a dugout canoe drifting through the waters. It was so peaceful and quiet and we got great pictures. If we ever go back to India, I'd like to spend a week in Cochin. Kerala is great. You see schoolchildren everywhere walking to and from school--a big change from the rest of India. ALmost everyone can read; even the man who rowed our boat in Kerala could. There are Hindu temples next to Muslim Mosques next to Christian Churches--all coexisting harmoneously together. The synagogue in Cochin is also a real treat, and we enjoyed seeing it very much. The train from Kozhikode to Cochin was great.
Phil: I ended up staying at the Boghatty Palace Hotel on Boghatty Island, which is used quite often a honeymoon getaway. The room was part of a duplex cabin right on the waterfront, and was very clean. Nice views of the bay from the window. Real laid back place to cool out and hang, and the hotel has a restaurant so you don't have to leave the island if you don't want to. In 1998 they were fixing up the main hotel building, which I suspect will be very nice when they finish. The only drawback to the Hotel is that it is on an island and you have to catch a scheduled ferry (costing about 2 cents, literally) to get to the island, and most of them leave from Ernakulam, the town business center. If you miss the ferry, you'll be at the mercy of boat taxis. I'd give the Boghatty Island Hotel cabin 3+ stars. Last ferry leaves about 9:30 or 10:30 PM.
I loved Kochin, if it weren't so blazing hot. It is a set of islands and peninsulas that are heavily interconnected by ferries. Ernakulam is a bit much, very intense, but does have some interesting book stores and places to shop. Very touristy, however.
Fort Kochin is the place, zoned to prevent much commercial ruination as in the rest of India. Wonderful to walk around Jewtown, inhaling the scent of spices, meeting the locals. Check out the Mattancherry Dutch Palace, a very good museum, while in Fort Kochin. Pretty amazing wall frescoes of the Hindu pantheon. Check out the Chinese fishing nets lining the opening of the bay, a unique sight in India. I didn't do the Kathakali dance performance in Fort Kochin, but heard it was excellent.
Jessica: Jim didn't have reservations in advance. He finally found a room at the Hotel Imperial, which was clean and was ok, but nothing great. Once again, he learned the rule about advance reservations in the big cities. At the hotel Connemara, there was a great buffet that he still raves about (espec. the dessert bar). Madras has changed its name to Chennai, and the locals really like it when you call it Chennai, since this was its original name and they are proud of it.
Phil: I also didn't have reservation in advance, and ended up at the Hotel Imperial. I found it to be pretty sleazy, a dirty youth hostel kind of place. But once you get a bit seasoned, (as I was at that time), you're standards become more in synch with India, and you can handle lower quality situations with a fair amount of ease.
Jim: In DELHI: we stayed at B-57 Inn (phone 4632914 or 4694239; approx 1200R). In a residential area, it is quieter than Connaught Circle. Rooms are pretty. Showers have "geysers," meaning individual water heaters--an essential in the North. Also, the shower was in a separate stall, not the typical showerhead-in-middle-of-bathroom that you find in India. Great Chinese restaurant on Ring road, a 4 block walk away called Jade Princess—Very fresh food. We had the vegetarian stir-fry. Restaraunt is run by Tibetans and cooking was really superb.
Hotel Cosmo was in the 700R range (phone 5756299 or 5783599). Clean rooms; a/c; geysered shower, but a little loud. Then again, you learn to sleep with earplugs in India. My husband also stayed at Yatri House and said it was clean and quiet. Yatri House (and Master Paying Guest House) are very popular places to stay, so if you plan to stay there, make reservations far in advance. Yatri sometimes gets reservations a year in advance for the time around Christmas. So my advice is: once you get your tickets to fly into Delhi, call Yatri and make a reservation. Do not wait until 2 weeks before you leave. My husband waited, and he ended up getting into Yatri for 2 nights and having to move to another hotel for the final night.
All 3 hotels, Cosmo, Yatri, and B-57 have Western style toilets. [Note: if you are sensitive to soap, bring soap from home. Two of the three main Indian brands of soap we saw in hotels gave me a rash. The third, an Ayurvedic soap, was fine.] Yatri House is great and good value (and QUIET, relatively -- not like the stuff in Connaught ). Anyway, call the place, make reservation WELL ahead if it's Yatri as the Lonely Planet reference makes them very popular (nuther good reason to have the other book handy), and have them send a cab to meet you there. If your plane gets in five hours late, chances are STILL that the cab will be waiting.
In terms of luxury hotels, we had reservations at, but didn't stayin, the Ambassador. Rate was about $80 US. Hotel looked quite nice. (We didn't stay because we left Delhi early.) Some luxury hotels want you to make a deposit in India to keep the room. Also, when we left Delhi, Radisson was building a hotel near the airport. Call Radisson 1-800 number for details.
Restaraunt-wise, in addition to Jade Princess on Ring Road, I'd recommend Host (in Connaught Circle--all the rickshaw drivers know where Host is). It had very good Muglai food. Also, Karim's in Nizamuddin West had great Muglai Food. Husband also raves about a pastry shop in Connaught, but I don't remember the name. Nirula's had good pizza, he says. This was a nice touch when he was first getting used to India.
Most people want to get the hell out of Delhi and enjoy other cities in India. Delhi is quite pollutted and big. If U have only 3 weeks in India, I would not spend more than 1-2 days in Delhi, and I would use that time to equilibrate to the time difference. But that's just my personal opinion. Others like Delhi.
We had a very good travel agent in Delhi. You can take an autorickshaw to his office or just call him. They were helpful in making all sorts of arrangements and also with aiport and train station pickups. Hanif Kawa of Highland Tours & Travel; 2,Bhagat Singh Market, New Delhi. Phone (11)334-3430 or 336-0217. If Hanif is not in, ask for KamalGupta, his boss, who is also very good.
We had a very helpful, knowledgable travel agent in Delhi, who charges very reasonable prices: Hanif Kawa of Highland Tours & Travel; 2,Bhagat Singh Market, New Delhi. Phone (11)334-3430 or 336-0217. Highland is able to arrange trips to Rajisthan, tours of the "Golden Triangle": Delhi, Agra, and Jaipur, tours of Delhi area, etc. Hanif has lived in Delhi for several years now, but his family is from Kashmir, so he can do all sort of Kashmir tours (light hikes to full treks), he told us. Highland was able to arrange for reasonable hotel rates for us on short notice--it seemed that they got a discount--and they picked us up at the airport and train station. This was a great service, as in Delhi, most of the taxi drivers are waiting to rip you off big time. We primarily used Hanif and his office to set up drivers for us in Delhi, as well as some hotels and airport pickups. We hired drivers for 1/2 day in Delhi, but they can do full days and driving tours of Rajisthan, etc. Best of all, Hanif is a very nice person--very friendly and easy to deal with. Hanif took great care of us and worked with us in planning the kind of trip we wanted.
This is the reason we are recommending him. He helped us a lot on our trip to India in October-December 1996. If Hanif is not available, ask for Kamal Gupta, his boss. Kamal was also very helpful. He grew up in Delhi, and spent time studying in the U.S. Because he is a Delhi-man, he is very good at arranging things in Delhi.
(S Hanif is no longer with them, alas -- but Kamal's a good guy. He won't rip you off unless you really WANT to hire an expensive car tour of Rajasthan. )
I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to have your travel agent or hotel send a driver to pick you up at the airport when you arrive in the country. The touts really will rip you off. There are stories of people being driven to Agra "because there are no hotel rooms in Delhi" and we met people who had paid $100 cab fares. When we made our hotel reservations for the first night in Delhi, we asked the hotel to send a driver. It cost about $20-30 U.S. After that, we had our travel agent pick us up.
Also I used three of my Ben's for charity -- to a Swami I met who was a the friend of a family and I knew was real (prostheses for kids type stuff), and to a homeopath named Dr. Qasim who's a really good guy and who also helps poor kids. Qasim's worth seeing for some homeopathy to ease trip. Say hi if you go (Delhi).
Dr, Mohammed Qasim 1 Basti Hazrat Nizamuddin (near Police station -- have driver take you there, it's a long way from Connaught Place) New Delhi 110013 work: 011-91-11-463-6161 home: .................. 684-9199
Phil: Delhi was my first in India, so I went for luxury for the first two days. I stayed at the Connaught Hotel, which is rated as a high-end, four star hotel. It had the whole 'mint on the pillow' number, but it still seemed a little worn around the edges. I quickly realized if this is the high end in India, I'm about to have some interesting adventures! It had an excellent breakfast buffet. It is also nicely located in the outer Connaught Circle area, and you can walk in various directions to some interesting shopping venues, some in back alleys (but well lit and safe). Lots of excellent restaurants nearby also. Security guards keep away the beggars.
Another hotel that I would definitely recommend is the Hotel Janpath (332-0070). It is a state run hotel that is 3-4 stars but considerably cheaper than the 4 stars hotels nearby. Rooms are large, nice restaurants, classy place, relatively speaking.
It was during my stay at the Janpath (note: this is not the Janpath Guest House), that I became very ill, and was down for several days, staring at the ceiling of my hotel stricken in my bed. The hotel sent for a doctor, which was so cool - house calls!!!
I really liked Delhi, despite the absolutely, horrific, nightmarish pollution problem during November, I couldn't see past 40 yards or so Delhi is one of the top 5 cities in the world for pollution - in my book, it is probably the worst.
If you're into temples and architecture, do check out the Laksmi Narayan Mandir, The Humayan Tomb, The Bahai Lotus Temple, and the Chartarpur temple complex in South Delhi. A little time spent in the intensity Old Delhi will give you greater appreciation of the spaciousness of the Connaught Circle area.
For my early trip, I used Sun and Snow Travel, a family business, probably run by the two brother now, Anil and Mohit Bhatia. (91-11-576-3657). Not the cheapest but they gave me great service, meeting me once in the dead of night to find me a hotel room. They invited me to their home for a party with several other Americans, and it was a learning experience to witness extended family life in India.
Jim We took a car over the Western Ghats from Mysore to Calicut (Kozhikode). We ended up hiring car from travel agency, as each one we hired from the street agreed to a price, and then came back and wanted 200-300 rupees more. I think we spent 1200 rupees on the car. There is also bus service. In Calicut (Kozhikode), we stayed at the Sea Queen Hotel (phone 0495/366-604), a short walk from the beach.
Rooms were great (mattresses with real box springs), little living area, a/c, all for 600R. Restaurant was great: try the vegetable stir fry. On the downside, the hotel sells a lot of hard liquor to men. It seemed like I was the only woman there, and I don't think have stayed at the hotel if I was was not with my husband/male travelling companion. So, for a woman travelling alone or with another woman, I wouldn't stay at the Sea Queen (although you might eat dinner there).
We took the train to Cochin from here. Because we did not have advance reservations, we could not ride in the aircon car. We went first-class instead, which just means that you have an assigned seat. There are fans, but they don't work. The ride is absolutely beautiful.
Jessica: Mamallapuram, husband stayed at Hotel Veeras, which was nice & clean. Mammallapuram is about an hour from Madras. He got very pretty crafts, silk paintings, carvings and artworks at R. Moahana Krishnan, off No 40 South Mada Street, in Mamallapuram. These were among the best crafts we saw in India. He got a lot of carved elephants and birds with smaller carved elephants and birds inside them. A word to the wise: don't start buying crafts the day you arrive in India. Wait a few days, so you have a sense for what things cost. Cut all prices in half. If they say NO, or won't bargain, walk out. This usually makes them bargain. If not, go to the place down the street. You can always go back to the 1st place later if you need to.
Phil: I stayed at the Hotel Veeras, an affordable but comfortable motel. The air-con and fan worked, but there was not hot water. But India is so hot, cold showers are refreshing. You'll find many a place without hot water, get used to it!
I loved Mahabalipuram, it's a town that's neither too big nor too small, very manageable for a westerner. In fact, it's a major westerner hangout, and at times it seems the Europeans outnumber the locals. The beaches are beautiful, but dirty, be careful where you sit!
Check out Moonrakers restaurant on Othavadai Street. Good eats and good western company, if that's what you're looking for.
P:hil: Loved Bombay. As I stated in my travelogue, it looked like a little like Los Angeles, Miami and London, but buzzes like New York City. Marine Drive looks a lot like Collins Ave in Miami Beach or the Pacific Coast Highway in LA.
Bombay is the most western of the cities in India, a lot of high tech similar to Bangalore and home of the infamous Bollywood studios.
I stayed at the Sea Green Hotel, a mid-range hotel that is comfortable but nothing fancy, right on Marine Drive, with wonderful views of the the Arabian Sea. I strongly recommendmaking reservations in advance for a hotel in Bombay.
There are umerous restaurants on Veer Nariman Road which have good food. Also would recommend the Ambassador Hotel on Veer Nariman Road, if you're into high end hotels. Note that things are more expensive in Bombay. Check out the Italian eatery on the corner of Veer Nariman and Marine Drive.
Bombay is famous for it laundry service, very cheap to get your clothes done through a hotel, and an excellent service.
I found the beggar scene to be very annoying and aggressive in Bombay. And many beggars are apparently hooked on 'Brown Sugar', the local name for heroin from the nearby Golden Triangle in SE Asia. Use your discretion...
While in Bombay, I went to see the Advaitic teacher Ramesh Balzekar, a close student of Nisargadhatta Maharaj. He lives on Gamadia Road, off of Peta Road. The name of the apartment building is Sundhila or Sundlia. Lives on the 4th floor, satstang in his apartment daily. Phone number is 22-492-7725.
Jim: I stayed at the Hotel Clark, not in the guidebooks yet, but it has hot water (a must in the Himalayan foothills).
Phil: I spent one night at the Savoy Hotel, and it was so freakishly wierd, I moved out after one night. The place is haunted, IMO, just as the guidebooks say! I stayed at the Hotel Horizon, a fairly new place.
Mussourie, being a hill station at 5000+ feet above sea level, is a major getaway during the hot summer months. Arriving in October, I discovered it was off season and there were decent discounts on the hotel prices.
Mussourie seems to be a big family getaway place, and has a lot of tacky touristy shops, but even in October a nice respite from the 'heat and dust' of the lowlands.
Jim: Stayed at the Hotel Palace Plaza--not bad, but not great. Clean, but noisy and it took 30 minutes to get hot water. Room service brought bread that looked like it had been dropped on the dusty floor a few times. Hotel Viceroy next door was nicer (its not in the guidebooks yet).
The Hotel Metropol was very pretty, cost a little more than Palace Plaza but not much, and had a great restaurant. The chicken kadai was wonderful, as was the garlic naan. Even if you don't stay at Metropol, I'd recommend eating a meal there. In Mysore, the 700-800 rupee hotels were clustered at one end of main area in town, near the Palace. The Metropol, Kings Court, and Quality Inn were about 10 minutes away by Rickshaw, clustered at the other end of the main area in town. The City Palace in Mysore is truly beautiful, and well worth seeing. The grounds are well-gardened and a nice respite. The street vendors are very pushy around the Palace. One followed us for 5 blocks. Be very firm about NOwith them.
We found the best prices and quality in Mysore for clothes. We wandered through the market and then went behind it where we found this little store selling silk salwar kameez for great prices. Lalitha Mahala Palace is the fancy hotel with a very good restaurant. You can take an autorickshaw from town (have them wait for you; we bargained total fare down to around 100 rupees by walking away. If the rickshaw drops you off and leaves, getting a cab from the hotel will be pricey). Surprisingly, the crafts shops at Lalitha Mahala had really reasonable prices for high quality goods: carvings, silk paintings, etc. If you go for the meal, which is very very good, then buy crafts here.
Train from Bangalore to Mysore is beautiful ride. You can go chair class (which means aircon) or second class. It's true that the windows on aircon car are a bit yellow. But the aircon itself is very welcome. It is quite hot, even in December. And you can always walk to the back of the car and stand in the door and look out (and get the breeze).
Jim: Really liked Pondy. People diss Aurobindo, but Mother's got some great healing vibes. Very clean and nice. Try to stay at Seaside Guest House -- it was like Rs 400 for a huge AC room. Pondy's a nice break and chance to chill with some Western-level restaurants. (I didn't eat the salad, though -- wasn't in the mood to get sick, but more on this later!).
Jessica: In Pondicherry, which husband raves about, he stayed at the Sri Aurobindo ashrams. I didn't think he was going to leave Pondy, that's how nice it was. He had a giant room on the ocean for $5. There was no a/c, so he moved to another ashram house a little off the beach that had a/c, but was just as cheap. There is very good Continental food in Pondi. Also, he met really interesting and friendly people from around the world in Pondi. French-speakers tend to go to Pondi because of its French history, so he really had a chance to meet and eat with some interesting people.
Phil: Pondicherry, a former French-colony is a relatively together place, and manageable for a westerner. Though much larger than Mahabalipuram, Pondicherry has a significant western tourist scene, mainly due to the Aurobindo Ashram. All the streets are in a grid pattern, a rarity in Indian cities. It is orders of magnitude mellower than other Indian cities, but it's all relative. Pondicherry can be intense in some of the market areas.
I stayed at the Park Guest House, which is a one of the open guest houses of the Aurobindo Ashram. "Open" is a relative term, as they do ask you question regarding the purpose of your visit. They really only want spiritually oriented people in their guest houses, but they're open to others with the right vibe.
The Park Guest House was absolutely beautiful! Right on the Indian Ocean, with a wonderul lawn and a garden containing lotus flowers. The room is immaculately clean, a near miracle in India, with mosquito netting available for free. And the price was beyond cheap, less than $10.00 a night. A place where one can stay for a long term retreat. But yahoos need not apply. There is a restaurant on the hotel grounds with food appealing to the western palate.
I spent most of my time visiting the Aurobindo Ashram. Pondicherry is a nice place to walk around and enjoy the sights, no beggars to speak of, very pleasant. Had a very strange experience going to the movies to see "Armageddon" - one of the worst movies I've ever seen! The Indian movie experience is definitely worth at least one visit.
I spent several days in Rishikesh at the Hotel Ganga Kinares. It's about a mile from the center of town, which I found fairly noisy and intense, to my disappointment, and I appreciated being away from the din. Another nice feature of the hotel ist that it is situated on a bank of the Ganges River, and has a ghat leading down to the river for bathing (in Rishikesh, the water is clean and safe enough to swim in, unlike most other cities downstream). It has a decent restaurant overlooking the Ganges, a nice place to hangout for a lengthy breakfast. You can walk to downtown or catch a quick ride on an auto-rickshaw.
There are plenty of excellent destinations for sightseeing near and far. Walk about town and go to the Triveni Ghat area for a arati ceremony on the banks of the Ganges at dawn or dusk - I recommend that you take in this beautiful ceremony at least once.
The Laksmanjhula area, in the northern end of the city is a major tourist destination, and a Hindu holy site (it was said that Lord Ram's brother, Laksman escaped from demonic enemies across a rope bridge in Rishikesh, and now a steel bridge has replaced the rope structure). Also a major hangout for sadhus coming out of the mountains to beg for meals; you'll see some very interesting fellows around here, particularly the Naga Babas, with long matted hair similar to the Rastafarians.
Near town, there's the Vasishtha Gufta (cave), just outside town, Swarg Ashram area, on the other shore of the Ganges. For a day trip, take a journey to the Kunjapuri and Nilkanth temples in the Himalayan foothills.
Rishikesh is ground zero for many a trek into Indian Himalayas. I did a three day tour to the Tsungnath Temple in the Himalayas, about 12000 feet about sea level. I would recommend a journey into the Himalayas, they are magnificent and unique in their jagged and steep qualities, being a fairly new mountain range, relatively speaking.
I arranged my Himalayan trek through the travel guide at the Hotel Ganga Kinares, Bheem, a Nepalese fellow. A touch more than other guides, but thorough and reliable. If you do go on a trek by taxi, ask for Kuku Jhodri, a god among taxi drivers - you will want a reliable and safe driver through the hazardous mountain passes of the Himalayas, and Kuku is a pro at it.
Tiruvanamalai, the home of the sacred Arunachala Mountain and Ramana Ashram, is one place in India that I hope to return to sometime in my life.
I booked a room at Ramana Ashram months in advance, through the internet
The rooms at Ramana Ashram are spartan but clean: a bed, a desk and chair, and private bathroom. Bring your own sheets. Watch your food and keep the room to your door closed at all times - the monkeys are sly little thieves, and they will steal anything not bolted down. If you bring bananas onto the ashram, hide them or you'll be the star in a monkey parade. The monkeys are very mellow at Ramana Ashram, but they're still wild animals, and don't try to pet them! (as I found out, the hard way).
The food at Ramana Ashram, however, is some of the best food one will ever taste in India. It is remarkable, the system that they have down - you file into the dining hall and sit on the floor in line, in front of large banana leaves and a cup of waters. You wash the leaf with a little of the water, and wait for the servers to arrive and plop huge portions of absolutely delicious Indian food onto your leaf. They will ask you "spicy?" if you want to try the hot version that the local prefer. I tried it, and it wasn't too brutal. And when there is a feast day, they come out with extra food to the point where you just have to say "no more!". Note: if you are not amenable to eating everything with your hands (including some very hot food), bring along a utensil. South India, and in fact most of India, is a utensil free zone.
In addition to feeding the ashram residents, Ramana Ashram feeds the local sadhus and beggars everyday at 11:00am in the front parking area. Check out some of the interesting sadhus that come off the mountain for a bite of food.
You will not be asked for a fee to stay there, but you are expected to leave some kind of donation when you leave Ramana Ashram. My recommendation: if you're a westerner, give them a very large donation. They deserve it, they are one of the most together spiritual organizations in India.
Sri Ramanashram Fax: 011 91 4175 22941
If you can't stay at Ramanashram, there is the Athithi Asham, 11G-1 Manakula Vinikayar St, Tirumvanamalai
Jim: Since you're there when you are, just make sure you're in Tiruvannamali during Deepam, and go sit with Lakshmana and Saradamma (do it if at all possible -- my intuition is that this is the closest anyone will get these days, apart from totally hidden masters, to Ramana himself). Their Ashram is across road from Ramanashram... just walk out from Ashram and cross main road, kitty-corner a little to left, and walk up the small road ca. 100 yards. Big house on left with satellite dish; very reclusive but someone there or at Ramanashram will know when the Deepam Darshan sitting will be. Lakshmana also sits around Christmas time (for his birthday), forgot the actual date.
Call ahead for hotel reservations, and periodically reconfirm -- they like doing this by FAX at some places. See details below for how to find their ashram. Check Lonely Planet for details on hotels in Tiru; I stayed at Hotel Trishul and it was okay. There are other decent places too, but I think only Trishul has A.C. -- ceiling fan and window open is okay, but bring your mosquito netting.....I like the kind that open up, with scaffolding, into a mini-tent -- a pain to lug, but well worth it for the few times you desperately need it.
For these way-ahead hotel reserv's (which you only have to do once in a blue moon, but that's exactly what Deepam is), it's worth giving credit card number too -- decent hotels won't rip you off. A good alternative of Tiru fills up for Deepam is to stay in Gingee nearby (which is worth visiting anyway, en route from Pondicherrt -- old ruins amidst the greenest rice fields you've every seen) at the Hotel Shivasand. Their number is 22218 .
Here's an address for Lakshmana Swamy and adopted daughter Saradamma: Arunachala Hridayam Vanna Durga, Amman Koil St. Sri Ramanashramam P.O. Tiruvannamalai PIN 606603 Tamil Nadu, India
Across the little road is Ram Surat Kumar's ashram. Only got a glimpse of him but he's highly praised, and easier to see. If he's healthy, which he was not when I was there, he sits about every day and anyone can come.
Phil: Ram Surat Kumar has gotten fairly famous due to Lee Lozowicz and draws a large crowd of westerners for sittings in a large building in the subdivision across the street from Ramanashram. One day I was walking down the road and saw Ram Surat Kumar begin driven to a sitting in an Ambassador. Didn't feel any connection or need to check him out, however.
Nice outdoor restaurant across the street and up the road (towards downtown) a few yards. Run by a German man with four (count 'em four) Indian wives. The chai stand across the street is alway a nice place for a quick drink and good company.
To maximize the spiritual benefit of your stay in Tiru, spend as much time on Arunachala mountain, meditating in Skandashram and Virupaksha cave, the two caves that Ramana used for 17 years. They are very potent places, and in general the mountain itself is very potent and conducive to meditation. It is a destroyer of discursive thought, and I would agree that it is an emanation of Shiva.
Also do a pilgrimmage to the massive Arunachleswar Ashram, with its 11 towers. It truly feels like you have stepped into the heart of Hinduism while inside. Be sure to pay your respects to the underground temple where Ramana Maharshi was discovered in samadhi by the temple priest when he was a young man. The grounds are so large it houses a pet elephant.
Do try to do three circumambulations of Arunachala mountain - three times is considered very auspicious. If you can do it barefoot, like the locals, that's recommended, but I couldn't do it, being a tenderfoot. I did my last circumambulation in my taxi when leaving Tiru going back to Madras. Why not?
Udaipur, the "White City", situated in the Rajhastani desert southeast of Delhi, is a welcome respite from the almost ubiquitous chaos of Northern India. In Udaipur, I found that I could simply hang out without being hassled by touts, beggars, unsavory taxi and rickshaw drivers and other annoyances.
One reason for this is that Udaipur is a small city and therefore less intense than the major Indian cities. And being situated in the desert seems to have a calming effect on the residents of Udaipur.
I stayed at the Hotel Caravanseri, a lovely little hotel just a couple of blocks from the waterfront. My room was situated on the northwest corner and therefor presented a wonderful view of Lake Pichola and the Lake Palace, made world famous by the James Bond movie Octopussy.
Hotel Caravanseri is middle of the road in price, but the rooms are very clean and cute. It is popular among the Europeans, and the rooftop restaurants, offering exquisite views, is a definite plus. I had little incentives some days but to hang out on the rooftop with a few cups of masala chai.
If you're interested in having an astrology reading done by a professional astrologer, the hotel astrologer (in India, many hotels have an astrological consultant!) Pandit Shashi Pandya is excellent and his fees are very reasonable. He is both an astrologer and palmist, and uses both methods to corroborate his analysis. Like many astrologers, he is part of an unbroken succession of family astrologers, being mentored by his father (and about to begin mentoring his son), and you will receive some interesting information based on methods that are unique to his family lineage.
Phil: I came to Varanasi expecting to stay for a few days, and ended up staying over a week. Varanasi, considered the holiest city in India, has a powerful mesmerizing effect on one, particularly the area around the Ganges. A very powerful place.
Based on a friend's advice, I stayed near the Asi Ghat, the southernmost ghat in the city. I booked far in advance Hotel Ganges View, as it has become quite the popular place for westerners. And when you stay there, you'll understand why. The rooms are very 'cute' and nicely decorated (though small), and there's a nightly meal that the hotel serves which is a good forum to mingle with the other guests. The owner is a very interesting fellow (and his little white dog). The hotel has a nice veranda to watch the the Ganges and the people meandering to the Asi Ghat next door. Nice little lunch place next door. Varanasi has some very aggressive monkeys, so beware. Telephone number: 0091-0542-313218.
If you want to stay near the Asi Ghat, I recommend the Sahi Guest House next door the the Ganges View, very cheap. I stayed there for a couple of days when I lost my room at the Ganges View, and it was very inexpensive.
Another recommended place is Hotel Temple On The Ganges, a block away from the Asi Ghat. This hotel is a 6 story structure, and is a major hangout for Europeans heavily into yoga. Try to get a room facing the Ganges, more expensive, but Varanasi is cheap compared to other Indian cities. Telephone: 0091-542-312340
The rooftop restaurant at the Hotel Temple on The Ganges is an excellent place to hangout for an extended lunch during the blistering midday sun of Varanasi, with great views of the Holy Ganges.
It's definitely worth it to take several morning tours to watch the locals bathe in the Ganges, once you get over the, "I'm such a voyeur to be watching people bathe!" phase. In fact, using the boat taxis is an excellent way to get around Varanasi, and cuts out having to negotiate the chaos of the city streets.
Spend some time in Goudalia, the 'old city', considered by some to be the oldest city in the world. It is hot, narrow, and smells something awful, but it is a very fascinating place, to see a cityscape that existed long before any modern form of technology (including sewage treatment!).
Another worthwhile destination is the Manikarnika (or 'Burning') Ghat, where many people are cremated on the shores of the Ganges, considered extremely auspicious by Hindus. Look, but have respect.
If you have the time, I recommend a taxi drive to Sarnath, the birthplace of Buddhism. You will get a sense of the multi-cultural nature of Buddhism in contrast to the marriage of Hinduism and Indian culture.