This winter, we decided to leave behind the tried and tested and venture forth into offbeat, quirky, insightful and fun new destinations that you can visit from your city. Know your country better, and know what makes it special. The best way to do so? Travel.
To help you plan a quick getaway, we bring you 5 absolutely stunning heritage circuits that you should do on a long weekend. After all, what better way to find out about our beloved country than to immerse ourselves in the peerless art, culture and historical heritage of pluralist India. So check out our list and start travelling!
Madhya Pradesh: Indore-Maheshwar-Omkareshwar
Religion, history and local cuisine are the hallmarks of this heritage trail in Madhya Pradesh. Indore, the largest city in MP, is well connected with the rest of the country by air (Devi Ahilya Bai International Airport), rail and road (NH-3 and NH-59).
A testament to the power of Indian women, Indore was planned and developed by Rani Ahilya Bai Holkar, notwithstanding the many bereavements that forced the young widow to take up the reins of the kingdom of Malwa in 1767. Spend the greater part of the day visiting the Annapurna Temple, the Bada Ganpati and the Khajrana Ganesh Temple, the Kaanch Mandir (a Jain temple with lots of inlaid glass and mirrors and chandeliers), the Chhattris (royal cenotaphs) on the banks of the Khan River and the grand Lalbagh Palace (a luxurious blend of Renaissance, Palladian and Baroque styles). Unless you have other plans, end the tour at the Rajwada. An over two centuries’ old seven-story palace of the Holkars, it reflects a combination of Maratha, Mughal and French architectural styles. A light and sound show is also held at the Rajwada. This crowded part of the city is where the traditional markets are situated, especially if you are looking for textile and ready-made clothes. A jewellery market by day, the Sarafa Bazar turns into a food street from 8pm. Do not feel surprised if you find shops that remain open into the wee hours of the morning. Car parking is difficult so better to explore on foot.
From Indore, head for Maheshwar, about 100km away by road. The old fort overlooks the Narmada River bank. Some climbing up and down is required to see the fort but worth it, especially for the sculptures and carvings. Located inside the fort are the Rajgaddi and Rajwada. A life-size statue of Rani Ahilyabai sits on a throne in the Rajgaddi. You can descend to the ghats along the Narmada from the fort. Boating in the river can be a welcome rest. Some of the popular temples in the town include Kaleshwar, Rajarajeshwara, Vithaleshwara and Ahileshwar. A must see, must buy here are the Maheshwari saris, a traditional textile popularised by Rani Ahilya Bai. These mostly cotton saris have a plain body with a reversible border (known as ‘bugdi’). The weaving centres around the fort also have a sales counter.
After Maheshwar, Omkareshwar, about 70km away by road, can be a tad disappointing, with the looks of a typical North Indian pilgrim town — crowded, river bank full of muck and garbage, priests pouncing on you with a litany of what pujas you can offer, beggars soliciting alms. The main temple complex lies on an island in the middle of the Narmada River. The main deity is Omkareshwar Shiva, one of the 12 ‘jyotirlingas’, housed in the Omkar Mandhata temple. There are two ways to reach the temple complex from the town. Either take the cable-stayed bridge or take the ferry. Or, if you are not quite religious-minded, hire a boat for a ride along the Narmada River. Observe life along the banks, the architectural style of the old temples and dharamsalas, etc.
The five-story Omkareshwar temple complex is spread along the hillock and contains innumerable shrines. The main Omkareshwar Temple is on the first floor. You can leave your shoes at any of the shops along the narrow lane leading to the main temple if you buy an offering of flowers. It is best to avoid the priests and their promises of reducing your waiting time, offer special puja, etc. Follow the local people and queue up at the main entrance (there are several entrance points but not all lead to the main entrance). Unless it is a special day, the wait time is short. Senior citizens need to be a little careful while queuing up along the staircase.
If you have some to spare, you may spend a night at the Hanuwantiya Tourist Complex operated by Madhya Pradesh Tourism, on the shores of the Indira Sagar Dam on the Narmada River. About 80km from Omkareshwar by road, via Mundi. Off the popular tourist circuit, it is a tranquil place except for the time of the annual Jal Mahotsav Festival. The boat house offers cruises across the river. You can also take a speed boat ride to the Boriyamal Island where you can go trekking, bird watching and for botanical walks.
Bihar: Bodhgaya — Nalanda —Rajgir
Embark on this circuit in Bihar to know how Buddhism came about and its popularity. Bodhgaya, where Prince Siddhartha of Lumbini (Nepal) acquired enlightenment and became the Buddha, is an extremely popular pilgrim centre. The town is about eight km away from the Gaya International Airport (also known as Bodhgaya airport). The Hindu pilgrim town of Gaya (about 20km away by road) connects Bodhgaya with the rest of the country by road and rail.
The Mahabodhi Temple complex, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is the most important place in Bodhgaya. The complex contains several holy sites, including the Bodhi Tree under which, about 2,500 years ago, Prince Siddhartha of Lumbini (Nepal) gained enlightenment and became known as the Buddha, the main temple dating back to the 5th/6th century, the Animeshlochana Temple, Cankamana or the Cloister Walk, Ajapala Nigrodha Tree, the Rajayatana Tree, etc. The temple is usually open between 5am to 9pm. In Bodhgaya, almost every nation with a Buddhist following has their own monasteries, including Bhutan, China, Japan, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Thailand. Besides, there are monasteries belonging to the lesser known sects of Indian Buddhism. These monasteries are usually open between 5am-12pm and 2-6pm. Not far from the Thai monastery is a park with the image of the Great Buddha (80feet).
Located about 85 km by road from Bodhgaya, Nalanda is the site of a famous Buddhist university founded in the fifth century. Chinese traveller Hiuen Tsang visited the university in the seventh century. Lying within a landscaped garden, the ruins of the Viharas (monasteries), the Chaityas (temples), the class rooms, speak volumes of the architectural excellence that went into planning the university. A pyramid-like structure (known as Temple Number 3), surrounded by smaller stupas, offers an expansive view of the complex. The Nalanda Archaeological Museum (open 10am to 5pm, closed on Fridays) lies opposite the entrance to the ruins. Do carry some kind of sun-protection gear and drinking water.
From Nalanda, head to Rajgir, 12km away. Domestic tourists, staying in Bodhgaya, often undertake the Nalanda-Rajgir-Pawapuri circuit on a day-long tour. But a night stay in Rajgir is recommended. The capital of the Magadhan Empire prior to Pataliputra (Patna), Rajgir is a pilgrim centre both for Hindus and Buddhists. Although its curative hot spring complex is a popular draw, the bathing enclosure leaves much to be desired by way of cleanliness. It is said that during the rainy season, Buddha used to reside at Griddhakuta Hill, a part of the Ratnagiri chain of hills. On the other end of the Ratnagiri is the Saptaparni Cave where the first international Buddhist council was organised after Buddha’s death to write down his teachings. To commemorate the 2,500 years of the first council, the Japanese Buddhist Association built a stupa above the cave and an aerial ropeway connecting it to the bottom of the hill. Only a part of the once 40-km long Cyclopean Wall remains. Built of massive undressed stone fitted together, it is one of the few pre-Mauryan stone structures found in the country. According to local people, the lost treasury of King Bimbisara may still be found if one can decipher the shell scripts (Sankha Lipi) seen on the walls of the Sonbhandar caves.
About 40km from Rajgir by road, Pawapuri is a key pilgrim centre for the Jains. It was here that Tirthankar Mahavira breathed his last in 500 BC. A Jal Mandir made of marble stands in the middle of a lake. It is said that people in their bid to collect the ashes after cremation removed so much soil that the lake was formed.
If you do not want to return to Bodhgaya, you can depart through Patna, the nearest airport and railhead, about 100km away. Avoid night travel on this circuit.
Known as the Diamond Triangle of Odisha, this circuit covering three ancient Buddhist sites is still off the popular tourist map. With an early morning start from Bhubaneswar, the nearest airport, about 90km away by road from Udayagiri, or from Cuttack, the nearest railhead, about 70km away, it is possible to complete the circuit in one day. Situated atop three hills of the Asia Hill Range, the three monasteries together made up the giant Buddhist complex of Pushpagiri, renowned in the annals of the Chinese Buddhist traveller Hsieun-tsang. Home to the tantric Buddhist way of Vajrayana, as well as home to famous Buddhist siddhas like Luipada, Odisha's long history of popular Buddhism is best exemplified at these three sites.
Udayagiri (not to be confused with the Jain pilgrimage centre of the same name near Bhubaneswar) is said to be the largest Buddhist complex unearthed yet in Odisha. Between 7th and 12th century, there existed a sprawling monastery named Madhavpura Mahavihara. Archaeological findings include a brick stupa, two brick monasteries, a beautiful stepped stone well with inscriptions on it, and rock-cut sculptures at the top of a hill standing behind.
About five km away from Udaygiri is Ratnagiri. Located in the Birupa river valley, the hilly area is rich in Buddhist antiquities. Large-scale excavations from the 1950s had unearthed two large monasteries, a big stupa, many Buddhist shrines, sculptures, and a large number of votive stupas. Patronised by the Buddhist Bhaumakara kings as well as their successors, the Somavamsis, Buddhism flourished here between 6th and 12th centuries CE.In fact, there's many similarities between Ratnagiri's art and that of the oldest of Bhubaneswar's temples, which were produced under the patronage of the same kingdoms.
Lalitagiri, the oldest site in the Diamond Triangle, is about 17km away from Ratnagiri. It's origins dates back to the 1st century CE, although much of the monuments and artwork is from the 7th to 11th centuries CE. Archaeological ruins include a huge brick monastery, ruins of a chaitya hall, a number of votive stupas and a renovated stone stupa at the apex of a rugged sandstone hillock. Do not forget to visit the museum. It has a rich collection of Mahayana sculptures consisting of colossal Buddha figures, huge figures of Bodhisattvas as well as those of popular Oriyan Buddhist deities like Tara, Jambhala and others.
Tamil Nadu: Chennai-Kanchipuram-Mahabalipuram
This popular circuit in Tamil Nadu is a celebration of Indian art and architecture. Chennai, the state capital, is an important air, road and rail transport hub into South India. Its international airport said to be fourth busiest in the country.
There is plenty to see and do in Chennai. Fort St George, which houses the administrative complex of the Tamil Nadu government, was built by the British after they bought the land from the King of Vijayanagar in 1639. Housed inside the fort are the St Mary’s Church (open 10am to 5pm daily except Friday) and the Fort Museum. A must-see is the Basilica of the National Shrine of St Thomas, said to be one of the three churches in the world to be built on the tomb of an apostle of Jesus Christ. Some of the older churches include the Holy Cross Church, St Andrews Church, St Anthony Armenian Church, St George’s Cathedral. The imposing Big Mosque or the Wallajah Church was built in 1795. A large number of Hindu temples, most reflecting the typical South Indian school of architecture, dot the city and its surroundings. The Kapaleeshwara Temple (remains closed between 1pm and 4pm), in its present form, dates back to the 17th century. Don’t miss the detailed carvings on the 37-metre-high Gopuram. The Marundeshwarar Temple, dedicated to Lord Shiva was probably built in the 11th century. It is known for the sculptures covering the pillars of the temple. The Marina Beach is the most animated landmark in the city, with people coming here for a relaxing walk, to play cricket, to enjoy the savouries sold on the beach, etc. If you have kids in tow, you may visit Arignar Anna Zoological Park and Guindy National Park (both closed on Tuesdays).
Chennai is also the place to explore south India’s various culinary delights, delve into traditional music and dance, and shop for local handloom.
From Chennai, head to Kanchipuram, 75km away by road. Known as the Silk City, because of its 400-year-old silk weaving industry, it is also a city of temples. Completed in the 8th century CE, the Kailasanatha Temple here is dedicated to Lord Shiva, and it's a stunning example of Pallava architecture. The Varadaraja Perumal Temple complex, dedicated to Vardaraja Swamy, covers an area of 23 acres and contains 19 vimanam and around 400 pillared halls. The Ekambareswara Temple, dedicated to Lord Shiva is an 11-story structure, adorned with intricate sculptures.
Depending on the time at your disposal and your liking for wildlife, you can choose to make a detour, either to the Madras Crocodile Bank or the Vendanthangal Bird Sanctuary. Or head to Mahabalipuram from Kanchipuram.
Another option, especially if you are travelling with children, can be to give Kanchipuram a miss and head to VGP Universal Kingdom (about 25km away via East Coast Road) for its various rides and thrills (vgpuniversalkingdom.in). Located adjacent to the Universal Kingdom is the VGP Snow Kingdom (snowkingdom.com), where you can enjoy snowfall and sub-zero temperatures, ride snow sleds and toboggans. From VGP Universal Kingdom, Mahabalipuram is about 35km away on the East Coast Road.
Mamallapuram or Mahabalipuram, about 60km from Chennai, on the Bay of Bengal, is known for its architectural splendour, especially its bas-reliefs and rock-cut sculptures, dating back to 7th and 8th centuries CE. The Shore Temple (a Unesco World Heritage Site), the Five Rathas (said to be chariots of the five Pandava brothers from Mahabharata), Arjuna’s Penance (an intricate bas-relief work), the rock-cut Adhivaraha Cave Temple and Krishna’s Butter Ball (a precariously-located boulder, a natural formation) are some of the popular attractions. But be ready for large crowds by day at most of the attractions. You can also visit the Cholamandalam Arts Village, about 45km from Mahabalipuram. Although many tourists prefer a day visit to Mahabalipuram from Chennai, at least a night’s stay is recommended to explore the sculptures and enjoy the local ambience.
This circuit in Karnataka is ideal for those who love to pack in a variety of destinations in one trip. Bengaluru’s Kempegowda International airport, is situated about 40km away from the city centre. The city is also well connected to the rest of the country by road and rail. Start early from Bengaluru because en route to Mysuru (Mysore), there are several places to see. About 55km from Bengaluru is Ramanagara, whose ancient granite outcrops became famous after the Hindi blockbuster Sholay was shot here. It is a popular trekking zone. An area has been marked as the Ramadevarabetta Vulture Sanctuary (RVS). From here, head to Channapatna, about 15km away. The town is famous for its wooden toys and lacquerware. There are shops along the highway where you can buy these as souvenirs. Some of the shops also have workshops inside. If you are hungry, stop at Maddur (about 20km away), the home of the Maddur Vada.
Travel another 50km to reach Srirangapatna (about 122km from Bengaluru and 20km ahead of Mysore), a river island enclosed by the Kaveri River. The island's fortress was the virtual capital of Mysore ruler Tipu Sultan. The warrior king died here in the decisive battle with the British in 1799. Looted by the British, much of his gold and other valuables, including objects of art, found their way to the British Royal Collection or museums in London. There are many things to see inside the fort including the ancient Ranganathaswamy Temple, Tipu’s mosque, and the white-domed Gumbaz. About a km away from the fort is Dariya Daulat. In the middle of a garden is Tipu Sultan’s summer palace, made entirely of teak wood.
Another five km, and you will be at the gate of the Ranganathittu Bird Sanctuary (abut 128km from Bengaluru) hugging the meandering Kaveri river. Monsoon is a good time to observe the resident birds and the seasonal migratory birds. A boat ride will take you closer to the bird colonies dotting the islets. The river is also home to marsh crocodiles.
Just as you begin to tire of the day’s journey, drive into Mysore (now Mysuru), about 19km away. The city pleasantly balances its past with the present. The city takes its name from Devi Chamudeshwari. Her temple keeps watch over the city from atop Chamundi Hill. The grand Mysore Palace (mysorepalace.gov.in) deserves to be seen both by day and night (illuminated on Sundays and public holidays from 7pm to 7.45pm). Built in the Indo-Saracenic style, it is a mix of Hindu, Muslim, Rajput, and Gothic architecture. Inside, you will see ornate ceilings, jewelled corridors, open mandapas, stained glass windows, paintings and Wodiyar memorabilia. Be prepared for long queues to see the Durbar Hall with its ornate ceiling and sculpted pillars, and the Marriage Pavilion with its chandeliers, cast-iron pillars, and Belgian stained glass arranged in peacock designs on the domed ceilings. There are several temples inside the complex. Except Sundays and public holidays, a sound and light programme is held between 7pm and 7.45pm. Other attractions in and around Mysuru include the Jaganmohana Palace, Rajendra Vilas, Jayalakshmi Vilas, St. Philomena's Church, the clock towers, the Mysore Zoo, the Rail Museum, the Wax Museum, the Sand Sculpture Museum and Brindavan Gardens. Browse through the old markets of the town for Mysore silk and sandalwood products.
Depending on the time in your hand, you can either terminate the journey at Mysore or continue to Madikeri, about three hours’ drive and a little over 120km away. The gateway to picturesque Coorg, Madikeri is an urban sprawl. So those who prefer to stay away, may opt for the various resorts tucked inside the hills and coffee estates of Coorg. Washed by the monsoon rains, the hills have an over-abundance of greenery, often dotted with silver cascades. Some of the popular attractions here are Madikeri Fort, sunset view from Raja’s Seat, the Abbey Falls and Talacauvery (the origin of the Kaveri River). When in Coorg, sampling the local Kodavu cuisine is a must.
Or you can set up a date with the gentle giants of Dubare Elephant Camp, about two km from Coorg. Once the training camp of the famous Mysore Dasara elephants, it is now managed by Jungle Lodges and Resorts
On your way to Madikeri or on the return journey, you can make a detour and visit Bylakuppe, about 40km away. Karnataka’s Little Tibet, Bylakuppe is about 50km from Mysore and 250km from Bengaluru. There are several monasteries here, the most important being the Great Gompa of Sera Jey and Sera Mey. There are also factories churning out handicraft, carpets and incense.