India has always been a place of longing, a country promising peace and prosperity. Who has once been to India, won’t be able to forget it for a lifetime. Many authors and poets have honored this great country; these are the best books on India, the best novels set in India
Siddhartha – Hermann Hesse
An absolute classic of German and world literature. In the 60s, this book inspired many long-haired seekers to go to the east, where they looked for peace. Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha is the story of a young man on the quest for truth. Along the way, he meets many masters and teachers (among those the historical Buddha). Set in ancient India, this wonderful novella evokes India’s eternal spirituality, while also being a heart-touching story of self-discovery. Written in a simple yet very poetic tone, this book has influenced many young people, and continues to do so til today.
Shantaram – Gregory William Roberts
You will find this book in any hostel and bookstore in India. A true story, It tells the incredible adventure of Gregory William Roberts. Convicted for robbing a bank, Shantaram’s protagonist escapes from an Australian prison and flees to Mumbai, where he acquaints himself with the local gangster scene. He lives in a Mumbai slum, land a job in Bollywood, becomes a weapon dealer, goes to Afghanistan… Shantaram is a crazy tale of wild adventure, but also an emotional portrayal of daily life in Mumbai and India. It’s a long book, but believe me, you will be blowing right through it!
Kim – Rudyard Kipling
This well-known book by Rudyard Kipling tells the story of Kim, an orphan boy living in Lahore, Pakistan. He teams up with an old Buddhist monk, and together they travel all across India in search of a Holy River. They pass Lucknow, Shimla and the great Gangetic plains, an meet gangsters, saints and villagers. Kipling’s famous novel also deals with the Great Game, the conflict between Britain and Russia in Central Asia. The road Kim and his travel companion take still exists today: the GT (Great Trunk) Road connects Afghanistan with Bangladesh, and is one of Asia’s oldest major roads. The BBC recently included Kim in its list of the UK’s “best-loved novels”.
India: A History – John Keay
The Indian subcontinent is home to many cultures, religions and traditions. The world’s first mega civilizations sprung up from here. Later, numerous kings, emperors and conquerors shaped its history. This very detailed book by John Kay is the best history of India. Some of the stories are so bizarre and epic, and told in such a compelling manner, that you’ll forget you are reading a work of non-fiction. Whoever wants to understand India’s past and present, should read John Keay’s India: A History, as it definitely is one of the best books on India, and its rich traditions and culture.
Into India – John Keay
Another great book by John Kay. Into India is much more personal than India: A History. In this book, the British author recounts his many years of traveling through all of India. He visits small fisher villages and India’s holiest places, megacities and mountain passes – while always reflecting on the country’s past as well as current events. This book mixes travel writing, journalism and historical study into an exciting and very informative read. A must-read for anybody wishing to dive deep into the history and identity of India!
Indian Journals – Allen Ginsberg
In 1952, before the Beatles came to Rishkesh in the late 60s, thus putting India on the map for all Hippies and seekers, Allen Ginsberg spent about half a year in the north of the country. Allen Ginsberg is the most important poet of the Beat Generation, to which also Jack Kerouac and Bill Burroughs belong. Ginsberg’s Indian Journals are raw and uncompromising: he tells of his experience smoking opium with the Sadhus of Varanasi, he recounts his meeting with various saints, poets and hustlers. The Journals are also a wonderful document of an India before the technological boom, and a must-read for any Ginsberg fan and India lover!
A Passage to India – E. M. Forster
This might be one of the most famous novels set in India. Written by English author E. M. Forster, it is full of interesting characters and great story-telling. While reading this classic of 20th century literature, you will learn a lot about the time of the British Raj and the Indian independence movement of the 1920s. An important part of the story takes place in the Barabar Caves, which are India’s oldest rock-cut caves, dating back to the 200 BC. A Passage to India was also turned into a great movie directed by David Lean.
Midnight’s Children – Salman Rushdie
This is the definitive work of fiction on Indian independence and the partition of India of 1947. Through the lens of Rushdie’s Magic Realism, a touching story of struggle, migration and hope is told. Locations such as Mumbai, Lahore (Pakistan) and Dhaka (Bangladesh) are described in a vivid manner, while the major themes of Indian history and culture are dealt with in a highly readable fashion. Midnight’s Children is, according to Penguin Books, one of “The Great Books of the 20th Century” – and without question among the best books on India!
Kanthapura – Raja Rao
Raja Rao is considered one of the first great Indian novelists who wrote in English. His work is deeply influenced by Indian spirituality and philosophy. This becomes evident in Kanthapura, a rather short but very beautiful novel. It takes place in a small village in South India, against the backdrop of the Indian independence movement. Moorthy, a young man heavily influenced by Ghandian thought, fights for caste equality – a fight that is met with intrigue and violence. Kanthapura is a beautiful and spot-on portrayal of life in South India, and a great way to learn about Ghandi’s philosophy of non-violence!
City of Djinns – William Dalrymple
Scottish historian, writer and India-connoisseur William Dalrymple has lived in Delhi for many years. His passion for and knowledge of the country and its history become visible in City of Djinns – A Year in Delhi. In it, the author presents us with various fascinating characters – such as surviving members of the British Raj – and explores Delhi’s troubled history. No book has done a better job at capturing the atmosphere of India’s capital than this great travelogue. Dalrymple’s love for Delhi – his home for many years – shines through on every page. That’s why it is the perfect preparatory reading for anybody wanting to visit Delhi, or India, for that matter.
The Best Books on Indian Spirituality
- The Bhagavad Gita: One of the most important books of Hinduism
- The Dhammapada: A central text of Buddhism; sayings of the Buddha
- The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna: Sayings of the great 19th century mystic
- Be As You Are: The Teachings of Hindu Saint Sri Ramana Maharshi
- Light on Yoga: The best book on Yoga philosophy, by B.K.S. Iyengar
The Best Hindi Language Books
Looking to learn Hindi? This article contains the most useful phrases for travelers in India, as well as Hindi numbers, Hindi greetings and more: Hindi for Travelers in India.
If you want to expand your knowledge of Hindi, you might want to get a Hindi language book. Thus, you will be able to form your own sentences, read and write using the Devanagari script, and much more. These are the best books to learn Hindi with.
The Best India Travel Guides
This post contains affiliate links, meaning, I recommend products I’ve used or know well and may receive a commission if you purchase them too (at no additional cost to you).