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. At times threadbare and fading, the land stretches from desert dunes and scattered slums to the rich embroidery of ancient, jewelled palaces, and the majestic domes of forgotten empires.
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, been touched by the empire of Alexander the Great, seen the ancient empires of the Mauryas and Guptas rise and fall, and has traded with Pharaohs and Caesars. An invasion by the Huns scattered its people until the sweeping hand of Islam saw new kingdoms rise, heralding the era of the Sultans. Defeat came again as the Mogul Emperors marched over the mountains and into the Punjab. The decline of the Mogul Empire gave way to the Marathas, who consolidated control of India just in time for the arrival of the British. The sun finally set on the British Empire as India reclaimed independence in 1947, heralding a new age of democracy.
India is a feast for the senses; where the air is heavy with the scent of jasmine and dancers trail frenetic melodies in colourful silk saris. Its cooks compose dishes from a palette of exotic spices that may leave a lingering taste of saffron or aniseed. In India's cities, the hardship of slum-living competes with the cacophony of seemingly endless traffic and a myriad of other textures, colours and movements all jostling for attention. India can be overwhelming to the senses, but its variety is part of its charm.