Hid­den gems: In­dia be­yond the icons

The vast sub-con­ti­nent of In­dia holds many trea­sures be­yond its most ob­vi­ous icons. Laura Gelder & Neal Bald­win look be­yond the Taj Ma­hal

Selling Travel - - Contents -

Gilded Am­rit­sar

Holy Hindu city Varanasi is a sta­ple part of most north­ern In­dia itin­er­ar­ies, but the Pun­jab city of Am­rit­sar, home to the Golden Tem­ple, is the spir­i­tual and cul­tural cen­tre for the Sikh re­li­gion and well worth a visit too.

The com­plex is com­posed of a se­ries of sparkling white build­ings ar­ranged around a serene pool, with the gleam­ing Golden Tem­ple ex­tend­ing into the cen­tre and re­flect­ing into the still wa­ter.

For a real lo­cal ex­pe­ri­ence, tourists are wel­come to eat at Guru-Ka-Lan­gar, an enor­mous din­ing room where an es­ti­mated 100,000 pil­grims come to share a meal ev­ery day af­ter pray­ing at the tem­ple. The food is sim­ple but de­li­cious.

Lit­tle Ti­bet in McLeod Ganj

When the Dalai Lama and his faith­ful monks es­caped the Chi­nese in­va­sion in Ti­bet they found a new home in the In­dian district of Dharam­sala, Hi­machal Pradesh.

Nes­tled in the foothills of the Hi­malayas, the lit­tle town of McLeod Ganj feels most un-In­dian. Prayer flags flut­ter amongst the pine trees, the smell of mo­mos - the steamed or fried dumplings beloved by Ti­betans - wafts from the lit­tle cafes and ma­roon-robed monks are ev­ery­where, sip­ping chai in cafes and play­ing pool in the lo­cal halls.

The vil­lage is a jump­ing-off point for treks into the hills, thread­ing through nearby vil­lages Bhagsu and Dharamkot, the for­mer fa­mous for its an­cient Shiva tem­ple and wa­ter­fall.

Get your Ganges in Harid­war

In­dia’s sa­cred river flows fast in Harid­war, a city serendip­i­tously lo­cated at the point where it emerges from the Hi­malayas.

Ut­tarak­hand’s holi­est Hindu city has a fes­tive vibe, less som­bre than Varanasi and its smok­ing fu­neral pyres. Ex­cited pil­grims crowd around the bois­ter­ous Har-ki-Pairi Ghat to im­merse them­selves in the ed­dy­ing wa­ter which glows with the light of float­ing can­dles by night.

Visi­tors to Harid­war can also check out Chandi Devi Tem­ple, ded­i­cated to the Hindu God­dess Chandi Devi. Perch­ing on a hill­top and reached by rick­ety gon­dola, it of­fer great views of the Ganges.

Rishikesh, the holy Ganges town which the Bea­tles fa­mously vis­ited, is an hour north.

Moun­tain air in Spiti

The trans-Hi­malayan re­gion of Spiti, mean­ing mid­dle land, is an­other piece of Ti­bet, ma­rooned in In­dia’s high al­ti­tude desert.

The stark, brown land­scape is sur­rounded by snow-capped peaks and blue skies. Monas­ter­ies cling onto craggy out­crops on the ver­tig­i­nous slopes, look­ing down on white­washed vil­lages and green bar­ley fields.

The ob­vi­ous draw is the moun­tains but mo­tor­cy­clists are lured by the spec­tac­u­lar roads which ac­cess this re­mote re­gion - old trade routes to Ladakh and Ti­bet.

Say bon­jour to Puducherry

For­merly Pondicherry, this Tamil Nadu city in the south was un­der French rule un­til 1954 and many lo­cals still speak French (or English with a Gal­lic/In­dian ac­cent).

Typ­i­cally In­dian, with its colour­ful but chaotic streets, the city feels ever-more French the closer you get to the sea. Faded pas­tel houses with peel­ing wooden shut­ters, tree-lined boule­vards, dusty squares with games of boules in-play and French bak­eries waft­ing out their wares all cre­ate a Riviera-style at­mos­phere.

Just north of the city is Auroville, an ex­per­i­men­tal com­mu­nity founded in 1968 by spir­i­tual leader Mirra Al­fassa for peo­ple from all over the world to live in har­mony. Its fu­tur­is­tic, spher­i­cal tem­ple is cov­ered in gold discs.

Kutch, In­dia’s wild west (east)

This district of the In­dian eastern state Gu­ju­rat is a ge­o­graph­i­cal phe­nom­e­non, sur­rounded by the Gulf of Kutch and the Ara­bian Sea in the south and west, while the north­ern and eastern parts are sur­rounded by the Great and Lit­tle Rann of Kutch.

Dur­ing the dry sea­son, the Ranns are vast ex­panses of dried mud and bright-white salt flats. Come the mon­soon they’re flooded by sea and river wa­ter, trans­form­ing into wet­lands.

The stark land­scape is in­hab­ited by many tribal groups who pro­duce brightly-coloured tex­tiles in­laid with glit­ter­ing mir­ror­work.

The Lit­tle Rann is home to the Wild Ass Sanc­tu­ary, a safe­ground for this rare mam­mal.

Beach break in the An­damans

With their long and empty beaches, un­spoilt forests and ocean teem­ing with pris­tine ma­rine life, the An­daman Is­lands of­fer visi­tors the ar­che­typal cast­away ex­pe­ri­ence.

Un­til re­cently, the is­lands - which form an ar­chi­pel­ago in the Bay of Ben­gal - have mainly been the pre­serve of scuba divers, but main­stream tourism is begin­ning to reach out.

Taj Ex­ot­ica Re­sort & Spa re­cently opened a 72-villa prop­erty on the Have­lock Is­lands and the re­gion is tipped to be­come a hot beach des­ti­na­tion. Flights are avail­able from ma­jor In­dian cities - go now and beat the crowds.

Arid ac­tion in Osian

The in­tri­cately-carved Jain and Hindu tem­ples in the desert town of Osian are among some of the an­cient world’s most im­pres­sive and well­p­re­served re­li­gious build­ings, yet are rel­a­tively un­known to west­ern­ers. It’s well worth mak­ing a 65km pil­grim­age from Jodh­pur to ex­pe­ri­ence the majesty of this for­mer trad­ing cen­tre.

The fact it has a tented camel camp of­fer­ing rides and sa­fari trips is an added bonus!

Hy­der­abad, cul­tural hub

At the cen­tre of south­ern In­dia, this city is a cul­tural hub, where north and south mesh to make an eclec­tic mix of food, fash­ion and art. The Charmi­nar is a mon­u­ment and a mosque and Hy­der­abad’s most fa­mous land­mark in a city char­ac­terised by grand Is­lamic ar­chi­tec­ture, but the Old City is the most evoca­tive area, with life and colour spilling out of its chai shops and spice mer­chants.

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