India is full of beautiful, colorful, over-the-top fashions, but your visit here probably shouldn't include lots of fancy things from your own closet. Make it a point to buy Indian statement pieces during your travels if that's your thing, keeping the original contents of your suitcase simple: shirts made of plain cotton or cotton-synthetic blends and a couple of pairs of comfortable pants—all of which can be washed easily and worn again throughout your trip. Avoiding completely synthetic fabrics that don't breathe is key, since much of India is hot year-round, with temperatures topping 110 degrees or more in the summer months. Delicate fabrics just don't respond well to vigorous Indian washing and powerful detergents, let alone profuse amounts of sweat. Dry cleaning is available across every city and in all major hotels, but even if you think it's a safe bet, quality can vary significantly among dry cleaners, and they tend to use harsh chemicals.
Don't worry about looking too casual—India is not a dressy society. If an upscale function or fancy dinner at a big-city restaurant is on the itinerary, men can often get away with just a formal shirt and pants. Women can wear a simple dress or a dressier blouse with pants and heels.
Bring sunglasses, a bottle of high-SPF sunblock (the amount of protection in sunblock sold in India is questionable) and two good pairs of footwear—sandals with rubber soles and lightweight walking shoes are smart options. Skip anything that's difficult to maneuver in, such as hiking boots—unless you'll be trekking in the north—since you'll often be required to remove your shoes to enter religious sites.
It’s especially important is to dress modestly, particularly at sacred sites. In such places, long pants are appropriate for men; women are advised to stick to below-the-knee skirts, dresses, or neat pants. T-shirts are fine, but the male topless look should be left to wandering sadhus (Hindu ascetics). Women may want to avoid wearing tight tank tops or tops that are sheer or have plunging necklines, except in nightclubs and upscale restaurants, as even moderately revealing clothing can attract unwanted attention. Longer shorts are more socially acceptable than short shorts when not at the beach, except for children. You’ll attract stares if you wear a long Indian tunic as a dress or a midriff-baring sari blouse as a top. One-piece bathing suits are the norm for women at public pools frequented by Indians, but bikinis are common at beach resorts and large hotels that cater to a foreign clientele.
Things to keep handy at all times are toilet paper and moist towelettes or hand sanitizer, especially on long train trips. Few public restrooms provide toilet paper or a way to wash your hands thoroughly. In any case, there probably won't be any hand towels, so a handkerchief for drying your hands is also useful. Consider also carrying a money pouch or belt, a basic first-aid kit, and a small flashlight. Good sanitary napkins are sold in India, but women should pack their own tampons unless they don't mind using ones without applicators, which are generally the only kind available in India.
If you visit in monsoon season, bring a collapsible umbrella. Instead of bringing your own rain boots, buy a cheap pair once you arrive, or just don some flip-flops. Locals call rain boots gum shoes. In winter, bring a sweater or a light jacket for cool evenings.
If you have a young child, it's probably not worth the bother of packing a stroller: sidewalks in Indian cities often have cracks or even holes, and in any case they don't usually have enough space for them. Be extra careful in Delhi and Mumbai, as streets are crowded and cars unforgiving. Pack all necessary medications as well as rash creams, zinc oxide, sunscreen, diapers, and diaper wipes.
Although major brands of disposable diapers, as well as Nestlé instant baby cereals, are available in most cities, they can be hard to find. Powdered milk produced by such companies as Amul and Nestlé is readily available, as is sterilized (UHT) milk sold in sealed boxes. Use those products instead of looking for fresh milk, which needs to be boiled properly—in fact, it's a wise precaution to boil UHT milk as well. If you run out of formula, Lactogen is a reliable Indian brand. Bottled mineral water and packaged snacks—potato chips, cookies, chocolate bars, fruit juices, and soft drinks—are sold throughout India. Though not nutritious, such snacks are often preferable to food that may be spicy or not entirely hygienic. If you're heading out for a day of sightseeing, ask your hotel staff if they can pack a lunch for your child. A small hot pot or kettle can be useful for making instant soup or noodles, which are widely available throughout India.
If you'll be taking any air-conditioned trains, bring a few pieces of warm clothing, as the cars get very cold. Leggings help protect against mosquitoes in the evening, hats shade faces from the sun, and rubber slippers or sandals are always practical. A few pairs of socks can come in handy. If you plan to travel by car bring a portable car seat. Choose accommodations that are air-conditioned or have rooms equipped with mosquito netting to protect your child from mosquito bites. Pack plenty of insect repellent as well as a 3-square-foot piece of soft cloth netting (available in fabric stores), which you can drape over a carriage or car seat to shield your child from insects. Pellet repellents that plug into the wall and release a mosquito-repelling scent are available in stores across India, and are effective in keeping a room mosquito-free. It's a good idea to purchase such a gizmo on arrival (try Good Knight or ALLOUT).