From a tiny, squirrel-loving sanctuary in Tamil Nadu to a blink-and-miss town in Uttarakhand, here’s where India keeps its secrets
1 Uttarakhand, Jageshwar
WHY GO NOW Revel amid myths and deodars
It’s almost meditative, watching fat glistening dewdrops hang off sharp needles of deodars on a freezing winter morning. At our lodge, my family of four and I sip endless cups of ginger-and-spice-flecked pahari chai and suck on a rock of jaggery. We can hear a meandering rivulet gurgle across the street. Time stops in Jageshwar, a little-known village in Uttarakhand’s Almora district—but the myths and stories that do the rounds of its streets are alive and kicking.
“That tree you see there,” says Bhuwan Chandra, manager and resident storyteller of our lodge Van Serai, pointing at a thick trunk that splits into five individual deodars, “they call it the Panch Pandavas.” A thinner, smaller deodar grows right beside the tree. “That must be Draupadi,” adds Chandra. Everyone in this languid, spiritual village dotted with ancient shrines, is a storyteller and spins their own version of mythological tales, Chandra says. “If you stay long enough in Jageshwar, around its ancient shrines, with long peaceful hours to while away, you’ll do the same,” he smiles. A few metres from our lodge is a shrine that looks like an eight-foot pile of rocks: The Rin Moksh blesses those with pending debts. “If you have EMIs, you should pray here,” laughs Chandra.
Jageshwar hides another secret deep in the folds of its deodars—a cluster of 124 cut-stone Shiva temples built between the seventh and 13th centuries. The main cluster, the Jageshwar Temple Complex, has over 25 big and small shrines dedicated to Shiva and other deities—all hemmed in by the Jataganga river. Little wonder that Chandra has another story to tell. “A large deodar stands at the centre of it with thick, snake-like exposed roots, falling over the river like a Hindu saint’s jata (matted hair). The Pandavas washed their sins here before heading to the Himalayas.”
At day’s end, the temperature hovers around four degrees. The deodars, stoic as ever, cast long shadows at every bend and shrine. We do a quick round of a museum attached to the temple, which houses 160 rare sculptures, some dating back to the eighth century. Back at our lodge, a hot traditional meal awaits us, soaked in the goodness of ingredients locally sourced, perhaps just earlier in the day. Madira bhaat, a coarser version of locally-grown rice, ragi rotis served with jholi (cucumber and black lentil pakodas cooked in buttermilk curry) add to the warmth that has encased me in Jageshwar. A bowl of kheer doubles it. In spite of a full belly and sore feet, we order another round of pahari chai. Because Chandra has new stories to tell. —Radhika Raj
2 Assam, Hoollongapar Gibbon Sanctuary
WHY GO NOW Spot six Indian primates and India’s only apes
When staying in the forest rest house right outside the Hoollongapar Gibbon Sanctuary, expect to wake up to a sunny morning—even at 4.30 a.m.—and the calls of a greater racket-tailed drongo. The 21-squarekilometre protected area near Jorhat is dominated by hollong trees and home to the endangered western hoolock gibbon, believed to be India’s only ape species. The sanctuary is also home to six other primates: the capped langur, pig-tailed macaque, stump-tailed macaque, Assamese macaque, rhesus macaque, and the nocturnal Bengal slow loris.
Cars are not allowed inside the forest, so make sure to have a sturdy pair of shoes for your long walks. Keep an eye out for giant earthworm mounds and colourful butterflies. If you visit in the monsoon, be prepared to trudge through a moist forest with dense overgrowth. Some parts might be submerged and difficult to access but the trails are usually open.
Rhesus macaques can be seen both in and around the periphery of the forest hanging out in groups of four or five. At dusk, the forest is a beautiful mosaic of light and shadows, and the coats of capped langurs glow a brilliant golden-orange. While it’s not very difficult to spot these two primates, the stump-tailed macaques—though they live in big groups of 40 to 50—are extremely shy and said to vanish in the blink of an eye. The forest lovingly protects these creatures in its fold.
Spotting a hoolock gibbon at the spot where a troop of macaques frolicked moments ago is a delight. The small black (male) and grey-brown (female) acrobats of the forest negotiate their way through the upper branches of trees, with the ease of someone familiar with every bough and leaf. It’s impossible not to fall in love with them the moment they peer down at you with their inquisitive eyes. —Sutirtha Lahiri
3 Puducherry, Sita Cultural Centre
WHY GO NOW Culture cruising and meditative silence
In Pondicherry—Puducherry, if you will—Tamil, French and Creole legacies ensure that diverse cultural elements take the lead when it comes to travel experiences. While the café-crusted promenade and the bright houses in the French and Tamil quarters invite instant curiosity, it helps to have professional help if you’re looking for a more immersive cultural experience.
The Franco-Indian Sita Cultural Centre on Kandappa Mudaliar Street is a great gateway for quick-and-deep dives into Pondy’s cultural milieu. Sign up for classes that train you in cycling, photography or yoga. Feeling adventurous? Unleash your hidden knack for French or traditional Tamilian cooking through related courses. Here, you can familiarise yourself with sundry art forms; it doesn’t have to be a tough call between the rice-and-chalk-dust kolam paintings and the ancient martial art of kalaripayattu—you can do both. And should you come out of the courses a glorious ball of energy, head to Gratitude Heritage homestay (www. gratitudeheritage.in), a restored artiste’s retreat lined with writing desks and meditative silence. Put pen to paper the good old way, or lounge by yourself in the common areas. Who knows what creative fate awaits your culture cruise by the sea? —Sohini Das Gupta
4 Sikkim, Darap
WHY GO NOW Homestays in a hamlet haven, away from Gangtok’s bustle
Every year, swarms of tourists descend on the town of Pelling, 120 kilometres offthe capital Gangtok, for stellar views of Mount Khangchendzonga. It’s special, no doubt, but quainter charms lie just eight kilometres away in the village of Darap.
Ditch the local jeep and hike all the way; the Himalayas keep company to the right, in all their snowy, glistening glory. Unlike Pelling, where hotels are springing up faster than ever before, Darap is full of intimate homestays run by locals. Ask for Indra Subba (everybody knows everyone in Darap), a mountaineer from the Limboo community who lovingly built his homestay with a little help from friends. His family rustles up a most delicious traditional meal of millet pancakes, phulaurah (buckwheat) fritters, and local greens. No lofty peaks call out in Darap, but a walk around its rice fields, alleys and a hilltop shrine, are enough to make you believe in magic. —Kareena Gianani
5 Himachal Pradesh, Chail
WHY GO NOW Live amid cedars and scandals
Chail, a Himalayan hill station around 45 kilometres from Shimla, has its roots in a royal scandal. Developed in 1891 over 75 acres of luscious alpine forests, it was built as the summer capital of the maharaja of Patiala, Bhupinder Singh, after he was exiled by the British from Shimla for allegedly having an affair with an officer’s daughter. The local guides in Shimla often stop at ‘Scandal Point,’ to show the spot from where the couple eloped.
At the heart of the town is Chail’s main attraction, The Palace—a grand two-storey grey stone building built by Singh, lined with ornate teak furniture, life-size court portraits, velvety curtains and looming crystal chandeliers. The real charm however lies in little wooden cottages on the property that are linked by narrow mud paths.
Our scarlet log hut, with mirrors on the ceiling and suggestive paintings—is almost at a kilometre’s distance from the main complex. “This is for our couples,” the attendant sheepishly tells me and my husband. “But if you see other cottages, they are best suited for a writer or an artist.” Chail has several such hidden cottages with nothing but cedar-line paths, valleys and macaques for miles. Set deep in the forest, our cottage faces a dense forest valley. When clouds descend, the cottage is enveloped in a misty white haze. When the clouds recede, you see clear blue skies and the brightest stars at night. The hill station also has the Chail Wildlife Sanctuary with a healthy population of leopards, pheasants, barking deer and birds. But we had to only walk a few steps away from our doorstep to spot the rare khalij pheasant and red-billed blue magpies.
The Palace’s restaurant and bar serve a mix of north Indian and Continental dishes and cocktails. But Chail opens up to people better in the small shoplined lanes of Chail Bazaar, over platefuls of hot crispy pakodas with coriander and chilly chutney. (hptdc.in.) —Radhika Raj
6 Tamil Nadu, Grizzled Squirrel Wildlife Sanctuary
WHY GO NOW Scamper with giant squirrels
A protected area for a squirrel? We won’t blame you for thinking we’re kidding. The Grizzled Squirrel Wildlife Sanctuary near Srivilliputhur in Tamil Nadu, formally
known as Srivilliputhur Wildlife Sanctuary is a 488-square-kilometre reserve that protects the vulnerable grizzled giant squirrel, found only in the Western Ghats and highlands of Sri Lanka. Unlike its urban counterpart, Srivilliputhur’s resident squirrel is rather large. Yet, the brown-and-white, pink-nosed rodent is a shy creature, freezing at the spot to avoid detection. However, thanks to the park’s conservation efforts, it is easy to spot one scampering about trees or nibbling on fruits.
The sanctuary can only be accessed on foot. Although the path is well marked, do take along a guide. Srivilliputhur is also home to elephants, leopards, Nilgiri tahr, the Malabar pied hornbills and long-billed vultures, and about 220 butterfly species. —Sutirtha Lahiri
7 Jammu & Kashmir, Srinagar, and beyond
WHY GO NOW ‘Water trek’ across placid lakes
No visitor to Kashmir returns without taking a shikara ride on Dal Lake. We suggest going a step further—and ‘water trek,’ as Kashmiris prefer to call it.
From April to October, private operators in the region organise four-night expeditions by shikara that take you beyond Dal Lake, into the lakes of Manasbal, Wular and Nigeen, some in districts outside Srinagar. You’ll go with a guide and cook, camp every night beside a new lake, and experience the state as a local sees it best.
Nigeen Lake, named after the jewel inset of a ring, is an offshoot of Dal Lake and flanked by willow and poplar trees. Wular Lake in Bandipora district is one of Asia’s largest freshwater lakes, home to avian species like the Himalayan golden eagle, black-eared kite and Indian roller, with its waters teeming with carp and trout. Manasbal Lake in Ganderbal district is accessible via a shikara through the Jhelum river, and is a sight to behold in the summer when its waters are covered with lotus blooms. Do try lotus root, a Kashmiri delicacy (prices typically begin from 15,000 per person, including food). —Lubna Amir
8 Arunachal Pradesh, Old Dirang
WHY GO NOW Walk through a medieval stone city
Home mainly to the Monpa people of Arunachal, the town of Dirang in the West Kameng district sits on a hilly spur above the Dirang river. An online search will throw up little about the town, but wander about and you’ll spot stone fortifications rising up the hillside. Frayed prayer flags flutter above walls adorned with Buddhist motifs and emblazoned with the words ‘Dirang Dzong.’ There is little to no information about the origins of the dzong. Some say it dates back nearly 500 years, other versions trace it to between the 17th century and mid-1800s.
Inside the fortified area, narrow alleys are lined with Monpa style houses of stacked stone and carved wood, built to withstand the harsh weather. A clutch of families live in these homes, some of which are also estimated to be about 500 years old. Women sit in tiny gardens, setting out red chillies and vegetable peels to dry; bunches of fat yellow corn hang outside homes. Locally grown red finger millet grains and maize are used for local brews, such as raksi and bhangchang.
At the settlement’s centre is a locked Buddhist temple, and an eerie stone tower with latched doors. Locals say this used to be a prison. From the top of the fort’s walls, one can see the Dirang river and the Khastung Gompa. —Malavika Bhattacharya
9 Uttar Pradesh, Jaunpur
WHY GO NOW Lessons in Mughal history in a little-known town
When it comes to India’s hidden treasures and culturally vibrant towns, few places surprise as much as Jaunpur.
It is widely accepted here that one does not return from Jaunpur without tasting Beniram Pyarelal’s famous imartis. On the hunt for the syrupy sweet, walk across the Shahi Bridge on the Gomti River. Also called the Akbari Bridge, the arched stone structure with chhatri viewpoints is the favourite subject of stories. Proud locals tell tales of the Mughal emperor ordering the construction of the bridge, and of it being rebuilt after the Nepal-Bihar earthquake of 1934. In fact, the structure also finds mention in Rudyard Kipling’s poem, “Akbar’s Bridge.”
Imartis taste best when they are fresh out of the fryer. After you’ve had them, go explore the nearby Shahi Qila. Right beside the bridge, the fort’s quadrangle premises house a two-storey residential and administrative building, a mosque, and the most stylish hammam.
Next, walk to the famous paanwallah by the Atala Mosque, about five minutes away. The paan is excellent, and the sheer size of the 15th-century stone mosque, the intriguing frescoes in the prayer hall, and the curiosity of visitors exploring Jaunpur’s secrets transform this little-known town into a delicious memory. —Stuti Agarwal
10 Jharkhand, Jamshedpur
WHY GO NOW Get the true taste of Steel City
Jamshedpur, the city where India’s first steel plant was set up, attracted many men of enterprise. The flavours of different communities coalesced to make Jampot, as the city is lovingly called, a true melting pot when it comes to food.
L.N. Krishna Iyer ran away from his home near Palakkad after his mother hit him with a broom and caught a train to Tatanagar. Here, he opened The Madrasi Hotel in 1935 which rustles up crisp dosas with sambar and filter coffee. Jamshedpur Boarding’s well-worn kitchen has been serving up Kolkata-style fish curry meals and chara pona (baby rohu) since 1942.
There’s no one dedicated street or iconic dish from Jamshedpur—there are plenty. Ramesh Kulfi, a humble meatchawal shack started by Ramesh Prasad in 1972, serves his Devghar special mutton at the, cooked in ghee, onion and hand-ground masalas into a thick gravy. In the Sakchi area, Surendar Kewat patiently roasts littis—wheat flour patties filled with spiced sattu (toasted gram flour)—on a smoky iron griddle, and douses them in desi ghee.
There are more culinary masters. In Bistupur, Bhatia Shakes offers juices and shakes sourcing the choicest of ingredients—local buffalo milk, langda mangoes from Bihar, litchis from Muzaffarpur, pineapples from Siliguri and rose petals from Howrah. Nearby Mewa Lal Bhuja Bhandar is run by a family of bhujwalis, who roast snacks on heated sand. They stack chikki, tilkut, til patti, badam patti, ramdana laddu and the intriguing gud cigarette, a crunchy jaggery stick. Restaurateur and Madhuri Dixit fan Pappu Sardar of Manohar Chat has a quirky invention, a mixed chaat, a fruit salad with samosa, chana and chips, topped with mixture. In addition to his lip-smacking sweets, Satbir Singh of Bhatia Jalebi (in picture) also flaunts his invention: an “ulta clock” that tells the right time. —Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy
11 Lakshadweep, Minicoy
WHY GO NOW Dive alongside fish and wrecked German ships
Just north of the Maldives, Lakshadweep is India’s answer to the gorgeous atolls of the island nation. Lakshadweep’s 36 islands— only 10 of which are inhabited—seem to have jumped out of a postcard. Its waters also nurture a wealth of marine life. It’s a tad complicated to get to India’s smallest Union Territory, but the journey is worth it for diving enthusiasts. Agatti’s airstrip is the archipelago’s only one. Ships from Kochi also take visitors to Agatti and the Kavaratti, Kalpeni, Minicoy, Kadmat and Bangaram islands. (One needs a travel permit from the Society for Promotion of Nature Tourism and Sports.)
In the waters off the islands, divers can spot manta rays, colourful corals and schools of fish, and maybe even a green or hawksbill turtle. The waters off southernmost Minicoy might be of special interest to divers who’d happily mull over history even while underwater—the island’s blue expanse is the site of wrecks of German steamships. It is a rare sight, how the coral and seaweed-wrapped propellers, boilers, and other machinery cradle some of Lakshadweep’s loveliest sea creatures. —Rumela Basu
12 Kerala, Poovar
WHY GO NOW Sail on palm-fringed backwaters that aren’t in Alleppey
While in India’s southern tip, a cruise on the backwaters may be de rigueur, but given the popularity of Kerala it’s best to eschew the familiar for the unexplored. In other words, think Poovar instead of Alleppey, using Thiruvananthapuram as a base instead of Kochi.
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