Food of Muslim India

Muslim restaurant, Fatehpur Sikri (786, on the wall, is a somewhat controversial mystical number in Islam)

How distinct are the Muslim and Hindu cultures of the Indian subcontinent? As we know, Indian Muslims eventually felt that their culture was different enough to warrant an entirely separate nation state, that of Pakistan, but of course Muslim and Hindu Indians have lived together for centuries and are indistinguishable in many respects. Some Muslim Indians/Pakistanis may think of themselves as ethnically distinct, tracing their family’s origins to Iran, Central Asia or even Arabia, but a quick facial read suggests that most Muslim Indians are of the same genetic stock as their Hindu bretheren. The languages of Urdu and Hindi have sadly diverted since Partition, but they are still mutually comprehensible enough that India and Pakistan constitute one market for Bollywood films.

But one argument in favor of distinctness of identity is cuisine. Most Indian foods are consumed by Hindus and Muslims alike, but there are clearly certain dishes that are more frequently served and eaten by Muslims or have definite ties to other parts of the Muslim world. (Dietary rules–such as Hindu vegetarianism–may have contributed to the development of such distinct foods.)

Restaurant just outside the Friday Mosque in Agra

The single defining characteristic of Muslim food in India (and, to an extent, Muslim food all over the world), is meat. It might have to do with the fact that many Muslim societies were pastoralists, but meat is much consumed in the Muslim world, often in the most basic grilled form–kebab. (Note, however, that while beef is consumed by Muslims outside the subcontinent, it is almost never eaten in India, even by Muslims, perhaps following the advice of Babur, see post of 2009.02.16.)

Muslim butcher in Crawford Market, Bombay

Meat on the grill, Old Delhi

Meat on the grill, Uzbekistan

One of the most famous categories of Indian food is Mughlai cuisine, which is served at some of the top restaurants in the country. Said to be the food of the Mughal court, Mughlai food is not dissimilar from the Punjabi fare that most people are most familiar with, but particularly rich and meaty.

Khyber, Bombay, one of our favorite restaurants in the world

Seekh kebab at Karim’s in Old Delhi, one of the most famous Mughlai restaurants in India. The founding family of Karim’s is said to have worked in the kitchens of the Mughal court, and some of the dishes bear the names of Mughal emperors. (Read this hilarious post on Karim’s on a great expat Delhi blog, Our Delhi Struggle.)

In addition to rich Mughlai cuisine, there are certain dishes that are especially associated with Muslims in India. Foremost among these, and perhaps one of my favorite dishes anywhere in the world, is biryani. It is said that the Nizams of Hyderabad had a biryani recipe for every day of the year, and had different dinner outfits to go with the various recipes. To this day, Hyderabad is the capital of biryani, and no biryani we have had anywhere else (and trust me, I order it often) comes anywhere close to the texture and fragrance of Hyderabadi biryani (and this, despite our not having been to the most famous of Hyderabadi biryani shops, Paradise). Muslim Indian Biryani has also become one of the most common foods in the Gulf, due to the large number of restaurants run by workers from the Subcontinent (and perhaps in some cases because the local cuisine isn’t very good!).

Biryani, served in a Muslim restaurant in Cochin, Kerala

Other dishes are even more closely tied to the religion. Haleem, a paste-like dish of slow-cooked meat with wheat, is a food that is commonly eaten for iftar (the breaking of the fast) during Ramadan, and can be found in Muslim areas in the Subcontinent.

Finally, sweets. Sweets can carry a great deal of cultural meaning and identity–desserts are often some of the most elaborate dishes of a cuisine and are tied to festivities and ritual. Traveling throughout Muslim India, one frequently encounters sweets that have connections to other parts of the Muslim world, sometimes making one scratch one’s head wondering in which direction the recipes traveled.

Rice pudding, in the form of kheer, is of course a very common Indian dish, prepared mostly for festivities but also featuring heavily in overseas Indian buffet menus, but baked rice pudding, called firni, is found particularly in Muslim restaurants. Here, a very standard form, in nice clay pots, sold in a Muslim neighborhood of Calcutta. (Similar clay pot firni is available at Karim’s in Delhi.)

Firni sutlac served in Turkey. Both in India and Turkey, one of my favorite desserts.

The first time we saw faluda, in Iran, we were somewhat puzzled at this odd, noodle-y dessert. We found faluda in both Delhi and Bombay, in somewhat different forms.

Faluda, at an Old Delhi restaurant

Faluda, at famous Badshah Cold Drink House near Crawford Market in Bombay. The red flavor, with rose water, was called the Shirazi.

Faluda, from a shop in Esfahan, Iran

Can a fruit have a religion? I hesitate to call the pomegranate a Muslim fruit, but it is definitely seen more frequently in Muslim countries. Pomegranate juice was a delightful streetside treat in the Levant. The Quran does say that the fruit is a gift from God!

Pomegranates, sold in Hyderabad

Pomegranate seeds adorn Turkish ashure, or Noah’s pudding

The Ghantewala Halwai on Old Delhi’s Chandni Chowk is said to have served the Mughal court. (To be honest, not all that tasty.)

Indian Dysfunction

People often compare India and China, the two being the billion plus population nations that are on the fast track of development and wealth. Now, of course, as anyone who has visited the two countries knows, the level of development in the two countries, at least in the most visible areas, is not at all comparable–China appears to be decades ahead. In this post, I want to identify certain aspects of modern India that appear to be simply broken. As I said in my post about Varanasi (2009.02.24)–how do they live this way??

Filth. Sometimes it feels like different cultures and societies have different attitudes toward cleanliness. It’s not only about wealth and the availability of sanitation services, but the tolerance that people develop to clutter and piles of garbage. No country is dirtier than India.

Alley in Varanasi

Why, oh why, is India so dirty? Some of it is that they have a certain acceptance of organic waste–such as animal dung, which is used for fuel–but nowadays much of the garbage is the standard consumer waste, largely plastic, that one sees everywhere else. Other countries have their dirty moments, but none come close to India. In Pushkar, Rajasthan, the holy lake became so polluted that it reached the tipping point. In a matter of days, hundreds and hundreds of huge fish died all at once, causing a stench so severe that it was difficult to pass within 50 meters of it. It had to be completely emptied out and they’re still trying to figure out how to refill it.

Children playing in the slums of Bombay and Madras

Cows eating garbage outside Madurai, Tamil Nadu

Scams and theft. This might be somewhat controversial, but there is no doubt that India has a higher rate of scams and theft (albeit non-violent) than the vast majority of other countries in the world. It is definitely not poverty alone–plenty of poor countries in the world pose no risk for the traveler in this regard and the worst Indian perpetrators are not the worst off (the actually poor are generally, as everywhere, extremely honest). Perhaps it’s the sense of competition that comes from living in such a crowded country (although the same could be said about China), or perhaps there is some cultural force at work. The absolute worst story we’ve heard, and probably the most famous, is that of an Agra restaurant that deliberately poisoned its customers in order to collect a commission from the clinic that treated them (eventually resulting in a death). We’ve been told by a fellow traveler that rickshaws immediately come to the assistance of the injured in order to collect clinic commissions. There are definitely some depraved, industrial-sized schemes in China–such as adulterated baby formula–but scams in India seem far more common.

A public safety campaign

Bureaucracy. I blame the British for this one. The level of (quite useless) bureaucracy in India is comical. Our best example of this was the time we left behind an item on a train car, which was somewhat useful to us but of almost no resale value. Immediately recognizing that we had left it on our berth with our bedding, we tried to find the laundry section or lost and found to try to recover it. We ended up in the office of the railway police, writing down a bizarrely formal letter that was dictated to us (“Dear Sirs…”) and included such useful pieces of information as our parents’ names and professions. This letter was then translated into Hindi. Anyone who has been in the backroom of an Indian office has seen the ridiculously dusty binders, piles and bags of forms and other documents that accumulate, for no use at all.

Form for buying train tickets. As I described in my post of 2009.03.05, buying train tickets in India can be bizarrely complicated, with long lines and byzantine quotas and concessions.

Infrastructure and logistics. Of course India is a third world country, but it is in many respects quite a modern one, and so some of the things that cannot be taken for granted are astonishing. Power routinely cuts out in some of India’s biggest cities, including such supposed gems of modernity as Bangalore. In one of the busiest train systems in the world, the Bombay suburban rail, there are said to be up to 3500 deaths a year. Parcels sent by mail must be sewn up in fabric and then sealed with wax, for security. One feels that, in other countries, these kinds of problems would be solved–in India, such faulty systems seem to continue year after year.

Commuting in Bombay

Mail service

Miscellaneous. I’m not sure how to categorize the rest of these items, but they are things that, in other countries, simply would not be.

A body floating in the Ganges, Varanasi. I understand that the Ganges is a holy river, but should people really be bathing in and drinking water into which dead bodies (some with infectious diseases) are tossed?

Again holy, but should cows really be free to roam downtown Bombay? Even rickshaws aren’t allowed!

Dhobi Ghat, Bombay. In a city as modern and wealthy (in many respects) as Bombay, it is bewildering that it is still more efficient to have an entire village of people doing laundry by hand than to use washing machines.

Women-only car, Bombay suburban rail. Many countries have a sexual harrassment problem, but we’ve definitely heard more stories of unwanted touching (both man on woman and man on man) from India than elsewhere.

No other country has electrical wiring like India.

Islam in India

Prayer at Nakhoda Mosque, Calcutta

The title of this post is somewhat over-general, but I did want to make certain broad points on Islam in India, as I have done in previous posts (see post of 2008.08.16 on Indonesia and 2008.11.14 on the Balkans).

India has the third largest Muslim population in the world. This is an oft-cited fact and one you’ve perhaps already heard. The Indian Subcontinent taken together has almost a third of all of the Muslims in the world, and India has just about as many Muslims as Pakistan or Bangladesh. These three countries and Indonesia are, by far, the greatest countries in terms of Muslim population–no Arab or Middle Eastern country even comes close. They are, in one sense, Islam’s center of gravity.

The history of Islam in India goes way back. Perhaps because Hindus make up the majority of India’s population and because Hinduism is by far the more ancient religion, Islam is often thought of as a relative newcomer, an alien seed taken root in the subcontinent. However, Islam is no newer to the Indian Subcontinent than it is to almost anywhere else outside of the Arab world. Parts of now Pakistan were conquered by Arab armies as early as the 8th century and parts of now India were conquered by Muslim invaders as early as the 12th century. Islam came to India as early or earlier than it came to such places as Turkey, Central Asia or West Africa.

By the time Babur, the first Mughal Emperor, arrived in India in the 16th century, Muslim rulers had been in charge in Delhi for hundreds of years, and Muslim rulers were already installed in other parts of the Subcontinent, including as far south as Golconda/Hyderabad. (post on pre-Mughal Muslim rulers of India to come)

Tombs of the Qutb Shahis of Golconda, near Hyderabad

While Islam came largely from the North (generally through conquest), it also arrived on South Indian shores (generally through trade). It is easy to think of the Delhi Sultanate or the Mughals when thinking of Muslim India, but one often forgets the significant Muslim populations of South India, some of which arose even before northern Muslim conquests as the belief washed ashore with Arab traders following the monsoon winds. Some Urdu-speaking Muslims in the North may with varying degrees of credibility associate themselves with Greater Iran/Central Asia, even going so far as to say that they are Iranian or Mongol rather than Indian, but South Indian Muslims are very much the same as their Hindu brethren–just of a different faith. (Orthodox Hinduism and harsh adherence to the caste system incentivized some Keralans to convert to Islam and Christianity.) It has been said that because of the different history, religious tension does not exist in the south as it does in the north.

Alimood Mosque near Varkala, Kerala

Sufism played a huge role in the extension of Islam in the Subcontinent. In my post of 2009.02.21 on Akbar and Fatehpur Sikri, I mentioned sufi saint Salim Chisti. Sufis played a principal role in spreading Islam throughout the subcontinent, far greater a role than direct contact with Muslim invaders from the north or Arab traders from the sea. The most famous of these is Muin-ud-din Chisti, buried in Ajmer, who hailed from now Iran and studied in Bukhara and Samarkand before arriving in now India with Mohammed of Ghor. Sufis appealed to Indians not only through personal holiness and piety, but by incorporating certain Hindu forms and practices. Sites related to sufi saints, such as the tomb of Muin-ud-din Chisti in Ajmer and the tomb of Nizamuddin Auliya in Delhi are by far the most venerated Muslim religious sites in India, and sufi practices such as the use of music are widespread. (Compare to the orthodoxy of Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb, who is said to have forbidden music altogether, for both Muslims and Hindus.)

Shrine of Khawaja Muin-ud-din Chisti, in Ajmer

Qawwali music played at the Hazrat Nizamuddin Dargah in Delhi, in the direction of the tomb

Itinerant sufis are perfect analogs of Hindu sadhus, and Indians sufis often adopt a sadhu-like form, with a different color palette (green instead of yellow or saffron).

In its expansion, Islam in the Subcontinent adopted Hindu forms and practices. Syncretism is a natural development of religion, and Islam adopted certain (relatively superficial) aspects of Hinduism in its spread across the Subcontinent. I imagine that these practices were adopted not only by sufis seeking converts but also by recent converts continuing past practices. In addition to music (which is admittedly of a totally different style than Indian Hindu music), there is the use of flowers and the importance of pilgrimage. Of course, pilgrimage exists in Islam around the world–including the all-important hajj–but it is practiced with a particular intensity in the Subcontinent. (I should note that one can see Hindus visiting Muslim sites in India, just as Muslims visit Christian sites in the Middle East.) All in all, the end result is a form of Islam that is somewhat less austere than in many other parts of the world.

Flowers for sale at the Nizamuddin Dargah

Trains in India

Varkala Station (VAK, to friends)

Especially with decent sleeping arrangements, rail is by far my favorite mode of travel. There are many reasons for this. One is simply nostalgia for the days when it was the fastest mode of travel, with the sound of the engine and the uniforms of the conductors giving one’s trip the sort of glamour seen in North by Northwest or Murder on the Orient Express. Perhaps more important, the sense of journey and distance is tangible on a train. You see the land pass by next to you, you feel the constant forward motion and the gentle swaying motion of the car. The views are far superior to the sides of highways or the blankness mostly seen outside airplane portholes. Finally, there is the sense of luxury, in terms of time and space, that it offers. Air travel feels frantic and is filled with much queueing and stress. Train travel offers far greater space, freedom and flexibility than even first class air travel, the ability to get up and walk the length of the train, have a proper meal in a dining car, and interact with other passengers.

Other than perhaps Europe, taken as a whole, or China (see my post of 2008.07.28), India is the greatest country/region in the world to explore by train. The network is extensive, covering almost all parts of the country other than the far north, and service is fairly frequent and reliable (although subject to delays at times). Especially given the relatively greater chaos and danger of Indian roads, the train is definitely the way to see India.

To the bottom tip of the peninsula

That said, Indian trains are far from problem free. Yes, I acknowledge that the Chinese system has its problems, largely in the procurement of tickets (queues can be truly horrendous and the ticket agents impatient and at times surly), but Chinese trains are, largely, clean, fast and punctual. The Indian Railway has its own set of problems with ticket purchasing, and is, in addition, a bit dirty, somewhat slow and often delayed.

Late, late, late, late

Your first step in any Indian rail journey is, of course, buying the ticket.

Ticket office, Calcutta Sealdah Station (SDAH)

Nowadays, most tourists probably opt to buy tickets online, or through an agent that is connected to the online system. Although the system seems to have improved greatly from 2003, when it was something of a joke (we ordered tickets online only to discover when picking them up in the Delhi office that the order had been handwritten into a large ledger), we have had problems getting our credit cards to work on the somewhat confusing multiple “payment gateways” and have at times had to resort to more traditional methods, in particular to access the all-important “tourist quota” (more on this later), which is not available online. That said, online ticketing is generally extremely convenient (and can be done overseas, in advance of an India trip), and it is a service that is not even available in, say, China.

International Tourist Bureau, New Delhi Railway Station (NDLS)

The most traditional method, for a foreign tourist in India, is to use one of the “International Tourist Bureaus” located in the principal Indian railway stations, such as Delhi, Varanasi and Bombay. Now, these ITBs are pretty good, and are able to access the tourist quota, but there are significant queues of foreigners and service can be very slow. Also, the ITBs cannot solve the principal ticketing problem with Indian trains, which is that tickets are often unavailable. The oversubscription of transit in India is a bit of a puzzle to us, having visited many developing countries; Indians, however poor they are statistically, seem to have time and money to travel a great deal. Now, part of that is because people migrate into cities to work, as in China, and also because people travel to go on pilgrimage, an important aspect of Hindu religious culture, but I think the main reason is simply because they can, because tickets on Indian trains can be absurdly cheap. For example, the base fare for a 1000 km trip in Second Class (unreserved) is 175 Rupees (3.50 USD), or 295 Rupees (6 USD) in (non-AC) sleeper class (compare to 2420 Rupees (49 USD) in first class on a fast Rajdhani train).

Another part of the Indian Railways ticketing puzzle is the quota system. There are numerous “quotas” for which spaces are reserved on the Indian train system, not only for foreign tourists but for all sorts of other categories of people (ladies, defense, parliament house, handicapped, etc.). Indeed, guidebooks suggest that there is *always* some sort of space available on an Indian train, if you can just persuade someone to dip into the right quota. Perhaps the most important quota, in addition to the tourist quota, is the tatkal quota, which reserves a block of seats until five days before the travel date for individuals who are purchasing tickets from the origin to the terminus of a given train. Almost as complicated as the quotas are the concessions (discounts) that are available for various classes of people, including people with various different handicaps, patients traveling for treatment, widows of wars and acts of terrorism, artists and athletes traveling to performances and competitions, etc. It is all quite byzantine.

But perhaps the most bewildering aspect of Indian train ticketing for the foreign traveler is the ability to buy tickets without a reservation, in something called RAC (reservation against cancellation, which allows you to board the train and await placement into a berth) or WL (waitlist, which requires you to keep checking your status, up to the point of departure, to see if you’ve been confirmed a seat). Now, given the quota system, and cancellations, a person with a small waitlist number is almost certain to get seat/berth in the end, and we’ve relied on this system with some confidence that we will clear. But waitlist numbers seem to go into the hundreds! How can people buy waitlist tickets numbering into the hundreds for, say, a train trip that will last two days? Are people’s schedules really so flexible that they can just keep checking and show up to the station each day, to see if they’ve cleared?

Checking the list, New Jalpaiguri and Malda Town Stations (NJP and MLDT, respectively)

* * *

The complexity doesn’t stop there. Perhaps indicative of the stratified social structure in India, with huge gaps between poor, middle class and rich, long distance trains can have more than five different classes of travel, including unreserved general seating or Second Class, (non-AC) Sleeper, AC 3 Tier, AC 2 Tier and AC First (compare to Chinese trains, which only have three classes–soft seat, hard sleeper and soft sleeper).

Even the waiting rooms are divided by class (and sometimes gender).

Second Class is a fairly horrifying prospect to the foreign traveler, at least for distances of any length. If the train is not a particularly popular one, however, Second Class can be quite comfortable, and offers the very best travel companions–friendly, down-to-earth and interactive. (Our very first time in an Indian railway station, we saw an extremely overcrowded Second Class car roll in, and were horrified, until we realized that we had better tickets, that those were the conditions we would have to face.)

Queueing for a seat in Second Class

Sometimes, plenty of room (and can always lay on the luggage rack, if not)

As long as it’s not too hot, Sleeper class is a good way to go, with windows that open and just as much room as AC 3 Tier, at less than half the cost (though do keep in mind that Sleeper class can get dusty, especially on desert runs through Rajasthan). Most of the cars on a long distance Indian train (other than the special Rajdhani trains, which are all AC) are Sleeper class, as this is the way most Indians travel.

If it’s hot, AC 3 Tier is the natural first choice. We think that AC 3 Tier offers great travel companions as well, often middle class Indians traveling with their families or well-educated younger people. Second Class riders may be the most entertaining, but AC 3 Tier riders probably offer the best conversation. AC 3 Tier comes with bedding (clean and comfortable, 2 sheets, a pillow with pillowcase and blanket), unlike Sleeper class, but is otherwise pretty much the same configuration (though with windows that don’t open).

To go a bit more upscale, one can go AC 2 Tier. While AC 2 Tier offers more room (and, sometimes, more privacy in the form of curtains that separate each set of berths), we found that AC 2 Tier is often full of overweight, snoring, middle-aged men traveling for business–our least favorite travel companions.

Finally, AC First, which comes in two- and four-person compartment configurations.

To be honest, AC First is something of a mystery to me. Yes, the first class compartments do offer more room and privacy, but when booking AC First you are not assigned a berth until you show up for the train. This means that you have no control over whether you get a two-person cabin or a four-person cabin, and I’ve even had a three-person party split up between two cabins. I would certainly be willing to pay the >50% premium over AC 2 Tier if I were assured a private cabin for me and my travel companion, but if we end up being stuck with two strangers anyway, what’s the point? Although, I should note, that AC First doesn’t seem to have the problem that AC 2 Tier does–instead of overweight businessmen, you tend to get somewhat wealthier Indians on holiday.

Enough about the various classes.

* * *

New Delhi Railway Station

Indian railway stations really deserve a separate post altogether–many horrible and amusing stories come to mind from our travels, the favorite of which is probably standing, right after having arrived on a redeye flight, on a NDLS platform with all sorts of cargo and sadhus performing morning ablutions while looking across the tracks and seeing a bunch of be-suited Indians on their morning commute–but a few things deserve mention.

First, many Indian railway stations (especially those in the main cities built during the Raj) are architectural wonders.

Bombay’s Victoria Terminus (CST) and Churchgate (CCG) Stations

Second is the availability of cheap porters (get over any shame and give them some work, and tip well).

15 Rs (0.30 USD) for 40 kilograms–not a bad deal!

Rajput porter at Bombay Central Station (BCT)

On left, a porter at New Delhi Railway Station

Third is the sometimes incredible number of people sleeping in stations awaiting their next train. The first picture is from New Delhi Railway Station, while the second is from Calcutta Sealdah.

Indian railway stations have all the modern conveniences, including urinals, lighting, fan and timetable display.

* * *

I already mentioned the different entertainment provided by one’s carmates, but there are many other ways to entertain yourself on an Indian train than conversation, comfortable sleeping and eating the surprisingly quality meals. The first is, of course, enjoying the outside scenery. Not only are there wonderful natural landscapes, but passing through rural and urban areas one sees all sorts of things that are not otherwise visible (including, especially in the early morning, unfortunately, many people’s rears, as people like to defacate near train tracks, facing away).

And, especially in Second Class, there is also the stream of people walking through the cars to sell and beg. As I did with my China train post of 2008.07.28, a selection of these:

Most importantly, chai chai get ’em chai. Every once in a while, you will still see Indian milk tea being sold in disposable clay cups–but plastic is much more common.

Some chaat (snack mix of sorts), freshly assembled

Peanuts, by the weight


Toys and appliances?

Bootleg DVDs

Now, I may have just called them beggars, but the way that hijra (traditional Indian transgendereds (see post of 2008.08.29)) operate, they’re hardly begging but rather demanding money as if by right. Fear of their powers made nearly everyone we saw give them money, although they often left us alone.

* * *

Before ending this post, it would be negligent of me not to mention that Indian trains are notorious for theft and sexual harrassment. Lock your bags in the area near you or under the bottom bunk, and keep your most important valuables with you in your bunk (and never leave them unattended). On our very first train ride, we met a Canadian couple with a decade of India experience that had some of their most valuable belongings stolen by a well-dressed, articulate man who was “helping” them. (He tried to “help” us, too, but we were luckier.) Also, from what we hear, ifyou’re a woman traveling alone, there is a chance that you’ll wake up with a man’s hand somewhere you really don’t want it to be. Traveling in a higher class probably reduces this risk, but should you find yourself in this situation, be firm and shove away the hand and yell whatever comes to mind as loud as you can.

* * *

To end this post, some pictures from the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway Toy Train. The narrow gauge train that goes up to Darjeeling is one of three famous hill station trains, the others being to Shimla in Himachal Pradesh and Ooty in Tamil Nadu. One of the daily Darjeeling runs is by steam and a charming (if slow) experience. (I should note that I found the second class seats on the Shimla train almost unbearably crowded for the five/six hour ride.)

* * *

Please note that this post focuses mainly on long-distance trains. On shorter daytime routes, such as that from Delhi to Agra, or suburban/commuter trains, there is a different arrangement of classes (generally, any class is fine). I will discuss the chaos of the Bombay suburban rail in a future post.

* * *

Awaiting the train at Delhi Cantonment (DEC)

What Things Cost in India

As I remarked in my post of 2008.12.18, some poor countries have the benefit of having a dynamic market for goods and services, where even the relatively poor can afford a great deal of market products, while many of the poorest countries suffer from a near total lack, in both supply and demand, of affordable consumer goods and services. India definitely belongs in the former category. Whether it’s because of the unusually large size of the country as a whole and its growing role in the international economy, or more likely the well-established and growing middle class, who are educated and have a place in the formal market economy, India is, both for the traveler and for the local, I believe, one of the most affordable countries in the world.

India is crazy cheap. Quality generally may not be as high as Thailand or Bali–where even quite cheap food and lodging can be truly first rate, even by international standards–but prices get even lower on the bottom end than those countries, while still well satisfying minimal expectations of hygiene, comfort and taste.

Some examples of prices in India:

Subway, Delhi – 6-9 Rs (USD 0.12-0.18)
Cycle rickshaw, Old Delhi – 15 Rs (USD 0.30)
Car hire for a day – 700-900 Rs (USD 15-20)
Taxi to Delhi airport – 250 Rs (USD 5), or twice as expensive in a radio taxi
Train from Delhi to Varanasi in 3 Tier AC – 861 Rs (USD 18)

Streetside somosa in a small town – 1-2 Rs (USD 0.02-0.04)
Upscale thali – 100 Rs (USD 2)
A dish at Khyber, an excellent high end Bombay restaurant – 300 Rs (USD 6)
Bottle of soda in a shop – 12 Rs (USD 0.25)

Cheap but clean room with bath in a smaller town – 150 Rs (USD 3)
Reasonably comfortable hotel with AC, etc., in Delhi – 1400 Rs (USD 28), in Fatehpur Sikri – 650 Rs (USD 14)

Qutb Minar admission – 250 Rs (USD 5) for foreigners, 10 Rs (USD 0.20) for Indians
Taj Mahal admission – 750 Rs (USD 15) for foreigners, 20 Rs (USD 0.40) for Indians

On foreigner pricing for admissions, see my post of 2008.07.24.