The Asian subcontinent’s northern tip stretches into the misty Himalayas, a land of spirituality and rascally monkeys. On an escorted tour from the Punjab into Himachal Pradesh, Beverley Watts explores the lower slopes of the world’s highest mountain range

There are two cows standing in the middle of the road, staring at us nonchalantly and flicking their tails. They’re not going anywhere in a hurry and neither are we. We’ve just arrived in Amritsar, in the Indian north-western state of Punjab, travelling on a Jules Verne escorted tour. The terrain is unsuited to coaches so we sit and wait in a convoy of Toyotas, driven by the most patient – and skilled – taxi drivers I’ve ever encountered.

‘Traffic police,’ says our driver Amrit, smiling and nodding towards the cattle. He’s used to the delays and shows not the least hint of road rage. Namaste, welcome to India! A nation where cows are holy animals and the Highway Code is pretty much ignored. I have to stop myself being a backseat driver, braking hard as motorists overtake on blind bends, scooters drive in the wrong direction and stray dogs weave through traffic. Amrit has it all under control, though, his reflexes are super-sharp.

Great British Life: All that glitters... the Sikh gurdwara Golden Temple in Amritsar, Punjab. (c) GettyAll that glitters... the Sikh gurdwara Golden Temple in Amritsar, Punjab. (c) Getty

Amrit is Sikh and in Punjab, Sikhs form the religious majority. The vivid colours of men’s turbans are as bright as the women’s fluttering saris. There’s a rainbow of headwear at Amritsar’s Golden Temple, one of the holiest shrines in Sikhism and a dazzling sight at night, reflected in a sacred pool. The marble structure is wrapped in copper and the domes are gilded with pure gold.

I remove my shoes, wash my hands and feet and swathe myself in a shawl to attend the evening Palki ceremony. Padding around barefoot, we mingle with worshippers as the bejewelled holy scripture is carried to its overnight resting place in a mystical procession.

Each morning, the ritual is reversed and new visitors arrive for Guru ka Langar, the community kitchen providing free food to anyone in need, serving tens of thousands every day. I’ve heard about this amazing canteen and am keen to see how it works. Volunteers help prepare the mountains of vegetables, stir the bubbling vats, make the chapatis and wash up. There’s an endless cacophony of clashing metal platters and whirring machinery.

Away from the hubbub, our Sikh guide Jagroop Singh invites us to visit his family home in the quiet village of Khasa. ‘Do you want a go on the tractor?’ Jagroop asks unexpectedly and how could a girl refuse? I jump up, perch above the giant wheels and we set off – trailed by giggling local children – for a quick tour of the neighbouring fields.

It feels slightly surreal and magical to be trundling along an Indian country lane on a joyride at dusk. Back at the farm, we do our best to follow a demonstration of how to tie a turban and Jagroop’s mother cooks delicious Punjabi pakoras. These spicy chickpea snacks are fried over a wood and cow-dung fire and the secret is the mustard oil.

The street food in Amritsar is wonderful. On a sightseeing and culinary excursion, I fill myself up on titbits and suffer no tummy trouble at all. Jalebi are incredibly sweet spirals traditionally formed from fermented batter and dunked in sugar syrup. They should probably be dubbed dentists’ demons.

A Bollywood film crew has taken over the courtyard of the Partition Museum, but we squeeze past the cameras to find out more about the division of British India in 1947. The violent end to colonial rule resulted in the largest migration in human history and the museum documents the personal experiences of partition survivors. Some of the refugees’ precious possessions are on display – a brass lassi tumbler, a pocket watch and a tin trunk – all with poignant stories.

The Punjab was split between India and Pakistan and at the Attari-Wagah Beating Retreat Ceremony, the Indian Border Security Force and Pakistan Rangers enact a pre-sunset drill, symbolising both rivalry and brotherhood. The daily theatrical spectacle, just half an hour west of Amritsar, draws an excited audience, many arriving in tuk-tuks.

We take our places in stadium seats, not knowing quite what to expect. Suddenly women are crowding together on the arena floor to dance wildly and sing along to patriotic songs. It’s very tempting to join in. Then the mood gets serious and the uniformed guards parade, legs kicking high in the air, before national flags are lowered and the boundary gates shut.

Our next destination is Anandpur Sahib, four hours east of Amritsar and one of Sikhism’s most hallowed places. Quietly tip-toeing through the Takht Sri Patna Sahib temple, we try not to disturb the devotees in silent contemplation. Sikhs believe in the oneness of all beings and at the Virasat-e-Khalsa Heritage Centre, a sprawling futuristic museum complex, the handicrafts, costumes and audio-visuals all bring the faith into focus.

Great British Life: Colourful decorations on sale in a store in Chandni Chowk, Delhi. (c) GettyColourful decorations on sale in a store in Chandni Chowk, Delhi. (c) Getty

Around 80% of India’s population is Hindu and as Amrit drives us into the mountain state of Himachal Pradesh – going up, up, up into the Himalayas – we pass a procession of revellers celebrating Mahalaya, the Goddess Durga’s descent from her heavenly abode. There are multiple Hindu deities and inside the 13th century Baijnath Temple, dedicated to Hindu god Shiva, I join the line to whisper in the stone ear of divine bull Nandi to share my secret wishes.

When Alexander the Great arrived in the Western Himalayas in 326 BC, Greek records note that King Porus put up fierce resistance. Now the royal family’s ancestral citadel, Kangra Fort, is a peaceful site, inhabited by only a few languid monkeys. The Katoch dynastic clan still own the adjoining Maharaja Sansar Chandra Museum and it captures a regal way of life over many centuries. A real bonus on every road trip, there’s a café too.

Tea is India’s national drink and Masala Chai is made with milk and spices, often cloves, cardamom and cinnamon. If, like me, your tea generally comes from a teabag, the flavour of a quality brew is a treat. On a lush green plateau in the Kangra Valley, tea plants were introduced in 1849. At the Himalayan Brew tea company in Palampur, the tea leaves are plucked and blended from the lush estate. I can’t go home without a box of Kangra Special Green Tea – subtle and refreshing.

Our northernmost stop is Dharamshala. Circled by cedar forests, the hill station town has hosted the Tibetan government-in-exile since 1959. Buddhist monks in burgundy and saffron robes gather around the Dalai Lama Temple in ‘Little Lhasa’. To join one of the Dalai Lama’s special blessings, email requests must be sent well in advance. But although I don’t meet His Holiness, I do spin a prayer wheel, turning the drum clockwise to ensure good karma.

Still heading higher into the clouds, we follow the winding, narrow roads to Shimla, once the summer capital of the British Raj, at a cool 2,206 metres above sea level. Here troops of red-faced macaque monkeys have become fearless, cheeky thieves. ‘Keep your distance,’ tour guide Surendra Rajawat warns me as I try to snap a photo of the marauders bouncing over rooftops. ‘And be careful not to look them in the eye.’

Shimla’s colonial past is evident in the mock Tudor Town Hall, neo-Gothic Gaiety Theatre and the stained glass windows of Christ Church. Rashtrapati Niwas, formerly the residence of the British Viceroy of India, is a majestic edifice but as gloomy as a Scottish castle.

The light-filled Oberoi Cecil (a delightful spot for lunch before exploring the bazaars) was first built as one-storey Tendril Cottage, the holiday home of Rudyard Kipling who lived at Bateman’s in Burwash, Sussex. I like to imagine the Jungle Book author hiking in Shimla Glen, as we do, on a trail through oaks, pines and rhododendrons. When I packed, I seriously misjudged the potential chilliness of Shimla’s altitude so wear several layers of clothes for our ramble.

Great British Life: The Kalka-Shimla narrow gauge railway winds its way through the mountains. (c) GettyThe Kalka-Shimla narrow gauge railway winds its way through the mountains. (c) Getty

We intend to leave Shimla on the heritage narrow-gauge Toy Train. The railway line, built by the British in 1903, crosses 864 bridges and follows a mountainous passage with dramatic views. The route is just getting back into action after 2023’s extended monsoon so instead Amrit takes us down to Kalka to catch the Shatabdi Express to Delhi, our journey’s end.

In India’s capital, the Mughal emperors’ Red Fort, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is the go-to tourist attraction but we discover less well-known Delhi locations on The Five Senses Tour with specialists No Footprints. The Jama Masjid is one of the largest mosques in India and the impressive Humayan’s Tomb, surrounded by luscious gardens, inspired the Taj Mahal.

I love the rickshaw ride through the Chandni Chowk busy market, learn to mix essential oils to create my own unique fragrance and, of course, sample more irresistible food. A simple meal of lentil dahl with crispy butter garlic naan (unlike any I’ve ever tasted in the UK) is definitely the food of gods, especially with a chilled glass of surprisingly good Sula Indian white wine.

The Details:

The Jules Verne Sikhs & Exiles 11-night tour is priced from £2,195 per person.