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
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.