The Great Indian Journey: 50 Must-Try Unique Indian Travel Experiences - Part 1

The Great Indian Journey: 50 Must-Try Unique Indian Travel Experiences - Part 1
Kumbhalgarh's wall is one of the longest continuous walls in Asia, Photo Credit: Shutterstock

Fifty exciting experiences that define our idea of travel in the country

OT Staff
March 27 , 2020
12 Min Read

Lathmar Holi
A festival where you can dress up, dance, eat delicious sweets, refresh yourself with thandai and...hurl sticks at men? Literally translating to a festival of sticks and colours, Lathmar Holi is a week-long festival in Barsana, Uttar Pradesh. Legends say the playful tradition comes from when Krishna teased Radha and her friends. They resented his advances, and decided to chase him back to Nandgaon, where he lived. Men from the area recreate this story today wearing protective gear; they provoke the ladies from Barsana with annoying songs, who in turn beat them up and dress them in feminine attire. 

Snow Leopards at Hemis
A snow leopard resting bath the Hemis National Park

The icy landscape of Hemis National Park is a call in itself, and then, there is the ever-elusive grey ghost of these lands, the snow leopard (pic). These cats are best spotted in the winter, from December to March, when they come down to hunt the mountain goats. Along the near-freezing Indus, the trek to spot the snow leopard is an adventure of a lifetime. The steep inclines, biting cold and humble homestays only add to it. When the preening cat makes an appearance, it steals your breath away. 

Bibi ka Maqbara
A look alike of the Taj Mahal, this mausoleum in Aurangabad, Maharashtra is an ode to Aurangzeb’s first and most beloved wife, Dilras Banu Begum. The resemblance isn’t uncanny—the building, often called the ‘Taj of the Deccan’, was designed and erected by the son of the principal designer of the Taj Mahal. It makes for a delightful visit, with its carved motifs, outstretched gardens and intricate design. Once the sun descends towards the horizon, the ornate structure makes for a spellbinding sight on a moonlit evening. 

India through Teas
Tea is a morning ritual that most of India swears by, but we sure are finicky about how we like it. The country, thankfully, offers fragrant varieties for all. The Glenburn Tea Estate in Darjeeling provides an unforgettable tea tour with a tea tasting station, and if you find yourself in Munnar, head to Tea Harvester, a boutique resort surrounded by tea plantations. The Kangra Valley in Himachal Pradesh is home to varieties of green and black tea, and has a number of luxurious stays and activities. Holding the title of India’s only ‘Earth Resort’, the Banasura Hill Resort in Wayanad with its lush green tea gardens is another must-visit. 

Try Vipassana
This Buddhist meditation is an introspective endeavour that unspools discovery. You give up talking, writing, eye contact, lying, stealing and intoxicants. What makes us lend our patronage? Forfeiting communication and a casual drink is no big sacrifice; it merely paves the way for full- body concentration. You scan your sensations and pains, and learn how to control your reactions. The residential programmes will have you emerge stronger as your observations fuel your self-transformation. 

The Ganga Aarti
The Ganga Aarti is a sight to behold

Treat your eyes to visual splendour in Varanasi, where the mesmerising Ganga, flowing saffron robes of the priests, golden oil lamps and a blur of people come together for a breathtaking view. Watch the synchronised spectacle from boats, on the banks of Dashashwamedh Ghat, or rent a balcony nearby. Towards the end, light lamps and send them along the river as an offering to the Ganga. To witness the Maha Aarti, visit Varanasi during Kartik Purnima. 

Pachmarhi Rock Climbing
Look, step, stop, breathe, repeat is how we’d sum up climbing rocks from the Paleolithic era. This Unesco- listed biosphere reserve in the Satpuras is hard to resist. The dark rocks give way to neatly-placed pearly counterparts that lend support. A hidden waterfall, river and cave are added bonuses. 

Qawwali Nights
Delhi’s Hazrat Nizamuddin Dargah is visited by thousands from all walks of
life. However, the place comes alive on Thursday evenings with soulful sufi music and powerful qawwali. The convergence of voices is enchanting to the senses. In addition to being witness to this devotional music, one can also gorge on some delicious kebabs after the performance. 

Eat at Rustic Khanavals
Difficult to find in big cities, these are no-frills Marathi joints keeping diverse ethno-religious backgrounds alive with every thali. Suhas Bapat Khanawal in Diveagar is famous for its vegetarian Konkanastha food, while nearby Ekvira Khanawal has great CKP (Chandraseniya Kayastha Prabhu) surmai and prawns. Patil Khanaval in Murud is hallowed for its light but loaded non-vegetarian thalis. When in Pune, head to Sadashiv Peth for the best pandhrarassa (meat in coconut broth), thalipeeth (multi- grain pancakes), and usal (sprouted bean curry). In December, grab some shengadana (dry peanut chutney) and Kolhapuri thecha (chilli relish) from rural carnival Bhimthadi Jatra to recreate the khanaval flair at home. 

Kumbhalgarh’s Great Wall
This Unesco World Heritage Site is one of the longest continuous walls in Asia, second only to the Great Wall of China. Sprinkled along the wall are hundreds of ancient palaces and temples, and an abundance of wildlife for those willing to make the climb. One of over 30 forts built by Maharana Kumbha of Mewar in the 1600s, the fortress is 80 kilometres from Udaipur and dotted with lakes. 15 kilometres of the original wall has been restored by the ASI and can make for a scenic day trek for intermediate hikers. 

Buddhist Retreat in Bylakuppe
Golden statues of Gautama Buddha in Bylakuppe
Who’d have thought you could find a slice of Tibet in southern India? About 90 kilometres from Mysuru, Bylakuppe is home to nearly 10,000 Tibetans, the second-largest settlement in India. An ideal escape from city life, the search for tranquility and serenity brings many visitors to this cluster of monasteries. The most remarkable is Namdroling, or the Golden Temple. The embellished grand pandal houses gold-plated idols of Buddha, Padmasambhava and Amitayu. 

Go Shipwreck Diving
Tales of pirates and seafarers cling to the waves of the ocean, and the shipwrecks near Minicoy in Lakshadweep lend you a glimpse of life and death at sea. Unfurl history in the lap of the ocean, swim alongside manta rays, humphead parrot fish, barracuda and if you’re lucky,
a white-tip shark. Visit between October and May, when the water and weather are kind, and you’ll get 150 feet of visibility underwater. 

The Longewala War Memorial
The famed sight of the Battle of Longewala is a must-visit day trip near the Indo-Pak border. The drive through the desert truly sets the scene for what Major Chandpuri experienced during the December of 1971, and the small memorial at Longewala brings out feelings of patriotism even in the most cynical of travellers. While there’s nothing quite like standing on the soil of action, the war memorial in Jaisalmer, two hours away, does a brilliant job of documenting the battle—you can even see captured Pakistani tanks on display. 

Boating in the Mangroves
Give the Sunderbans a break, and head further south to Baratang Island or Havelock Island for a mangrove remix. Here, you can hire speed boats, kayaks or dongis (round fishing boats) to gently take you along creeks to spot birds and local flora. Austin X Island near Mayabunder is another mangrove destination, known for spotted deer sightings, quiet white beaches and orange plantations, as is Karmatang Beach, a turtle nesting ground with grey volcanic sands and coconut plantations. Don’t feel like boating? Take a stroll on the Dhani Nallah walkway, a teak boardwalk that snakes through 713 metres of mangrove creeks. 

Mask-Making at Majuli
India’s largest river island is home to annual bhaona (traditional theatre) performances. In these shows, the use of masks to depict different characters is indispensible, and thus, the craft here dates back centuries. Earlier made of wood and clay, and later bamboo, they have three types—mukha (face), lotokai mukha (where eyes and lips can move) and bor mukha. Today, few Vaishnavite satras make such masks. They’re popular among tourists as a make- your-own souvenir. 

The Andhra Pradesh Textile Trail
If you’re on a textile hunt, Andhra Pradesh is the state to go to. Right from Kalamkari (the hand printed type called Machilipatnam and Sri Kalahasti the pen-drawn variant) to hand woven Uppada and Peddapurams with intricate gold-dipped zari work, you’ll be spoilt for choice. 

Sunsets at the Rann
Sunset at Gujarat's massive white desert

India’s largest salt plain, the Rann of Kutch in Gujarat, is a massive white desert. Divided in two distinct areas—Little Rann and the Great Rann of Kutch—the latter is where you can take in mesmerising dusky landscapes. Speaking of dusk, spend a full-moon night at the Rann to experience the salt glistening like diamonds in the moonlight. Make sure to stop by Kalo Dungar, or black hill, which is a volcanic formation and also the highest point in the Rann. It’s the perfect spot to watch the sun set over the endless saltscape. 

Vacation with an Artist
To add some zing to your next holiday, considering vacationing with an artist. VAWAA is a curated marketplace that gives travellers a chance to see the world from the lens of art and design studios. In India, they offer block printing, stoneware pottery, ceramics, bicycle making and Dokra metal art. Let your creative side blossom and come back home with a new skill! See vawaa.com 

Coffee and Coorg
Think misty hills, dense forests, roaring waterfalls and the smell of artisanal coffee beans. Resorts and plantations like Evolve Back, The Tamara and Ama Plantation Trails offer stays, food and coffee tours for eager learners in Coorg. Each plantation has its own single-origin coffee, explains the history of the region, and the production process. Bring along the book you’ve wanted to read for a while and relax with a cup o’ joe for a weekend getaway you’ll always remember. 

Kayaking at Havelock
The beaches of Havelock Island are so pristine that rarely would anyone consider exploring the backwaters. But it’s under the starry night sky that the water comes alive too. Kayaking is a magical experience here; a simple tour teaches you how to wade through the waters in the open sea, and then into the mangroves. In the darkness, aided by stars and a small lamp, one can paddle around to find blue-green bioluminescent bacteria (pic) that glow when they sense movement. From the strokes of the paddle to the outline of the kayak, everything is a speck of lit-up, bright colours. 

Try Kashmir’s Kalari Cheese
When it comes to cheese, India seldom looks beyond paneer. But in the bustling towns of Kashmir, lies a delicious local cheese and an artisanal cheesemaker with a passion. The Gujjars and Bakarwal herders of Pahalgam are known for their sour, stringy Kalari, often called maish krej or even doodh roti. At Dutchman Chris Zandee’s humble Himalayan Cheese Factory one can sample this local wonder (along with many other international varieties) and learn the art behind it too. Later, pair the flattened cheese with a cup of noon chai or some sautéed veggies for a burst of flavours. 

The Palace on Wheels
The best way to experience India would be to travel by train, especially one that pampers you to the core. Palace On Wheels offers an eight-day tour, meandering Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh and ending in NewDelhi. The train boasts of well-appointed, luxurious cabins,
a personal butler, two restaurants, a lounge bar and a rejuvenating spa. Wake up to a new location each day, and stop at tourist hotspots like the Taj Mahal, Chittorgarh Hill Fort, Jaisalmer and Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve. See thepalaceonwheels.com 

The Pot Maya Festival
This November, find yourself at Naya village in Paschim Medinipur if you love traditional art. A three-day festival, Pot Maya is an avenue to learn and understand the ancient art of patachitra. The patuas, award-winning folk artists, showcase scrolls depicting stories from mythology, history and even contemporary social issues. Tourists can indulge in workshops, and learn community history through pater gaan (folk songs). Keep an eye out for the 2020 dates! 

Explore Kuldhara’s Eerie Past
Interiors of an abandoned house in Kuldhara

If the decisions of horror movie characters turn you into a ruthless critic, we suggest a haunting adventure to put yourself to the test. Some 200 years ago, the ghost
town of Kuldhara in Rajasthan—now a skeleton of its past—was a flourishing kingdom inhabited by Paliwal Brahmins. A minister is said to have set eyes on the village chief’s daughter, whom the community refused to give up. To escape this tyranny, the inhabitants cursed and abandoned Kuldhara. It is believed that ghosts haunt the streets where silence hangs thick in the air. Currently, the government is hoping to revive and protect the monuments in the area. 

Cook and Eat in Kerala
Syrian Christians are some of the oldest Christians in the world and their creole cuisine—powerfully flavoured with coconut and vinegar—is influenced by proximity to the ancient port
of Muziris. If you’re in Kerala, local cooking classes are a meaningful window into their life. Websites like Traveling Spoon and Authenticook give you a seat at elaborate feasts, let you annoy home chefs with curious questions, and accompany them on market tours. We’d love to learn to rustle up kakka fry (clam roast) and the iconic meen moilee (fsh with coconut milk). 

This article was originally published in the February issue of the magazine.


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