Purulia, West Bengal
Purulia is a land of many attractions, including trekking, tribal masked dances, Jain temples, lakes and forests. It also has a rich temple heritage. Partly hidden among a lightly-wooded area are two of the three 11th-century brick temples of Deulghata, displaying the trademark ‘rekha deul’ style of Odisha. The terracotta temple of Radhabinod in Cheliama was likely built in the 17th century. Reminiscent of Bengal’s temple architecture, its façade sports tales from mythologies and the Puranas. Today, one of the partly submerged Telkupi temples is visible from the edge of the Damodar lake, after they were submerged by the Panchet Dam.
Shettihalli Rosary Church, Karnataka
When you gain fame from a misnomer—‘the floating church’—the chances for disappointment can be high. But the Shettihalli Rosary Church in Hassan is so arresting and picturesque, that we’re ready to forgive and forget. Said to be built by Jean-Antoine Dubois, a Catholic missionary from the 1800s, and abandoned in 1960, it’s a haunting Gothic structure that’s enveloped by the Hemavathi River for about six months a year. Dubois was a failed missionary; his plans of converting the local population to Christianity never materialised, but he did become an accidental Indologist.
Visit Shettihalli Church between July and October, and you can capture incredible shots of the Gothic architecture resisting the river’s currents; arrive between December and May, and the backwaters recede, allowing travellers a closer look amidst newly-sprouted greenery. Adding to the building’s allure, reports say that the church was built with “gypsum from Egypt, glass from Belgium, paintings from Scotland,” and so on. The best time to visit is between 6am and 9am, but if you can’t make the journey, try the virtual tour on shettihallichurch.com.
The Navagraha Temple Trail, Tamil Nadu
Legend has it that Sage Kalava, suffering from leprosy, prayed to nine celestial bodies in Hinduism. They were the Navagrahas: Sun, Moon, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus, Saturn, Rahu and Ketu. The planetary deities, impressed with his devotion, offered to cure him. Brahma, offended by this blessing, cursed the nine planets with leprosy and sent them down to earth. Later, Shiva allowed them to grace their devotees from their place on earth, Vellurukku vanam (the white wildflower jungle: Suryanar Koli). A trail for devotees, the extremely ornate and colourful Navagraha temples date back to the Chola dynasty. Devotees can visit all nine temples in two days, keeping Kumbakonam as their base. Start with the Chandran Temple, and then head to Rahu Sthalam, the Arulmigu Apathsahayar Temple, Agneeswarar Shukran and Suryanar Kovil on day one. The next day, visit the Shani Temple, Naganathaswamy, Swetharanyeswarar and Vaitheeswaran Koil to complete the circuit.
Narara is an archipelago of 42 islands (33 of which have coral reefs) and lies in the intertidal zone in the Gulf of Kutch. It’s also home to India’s first marine wildlife sanctuary and national park. Boasting rich marine life like pufferfish, stingrays, sea cucumbers and octopuses, enthusiasts can actually see the happenings under the sea during low tide. Open all year, Narara is most popular in the winter and pre-monsoon. The islands have sandy beaches and mangrove swamps, creating a vital ecosystem for protection during tsunamis. It’s a protected zone, so don’t pick up shells or corals.
Pangolakha Wildlife Sanctuary, Sikkim
Located in the East Sikkim district, the Pangolakha Wildlife Sanctuary was declared a protected biosphere in 1999. Pangolakha, as a ecozone, falls at the intersection of the Palearctic and Indomalayan realms, and hosts a large variety of flora and fauna. The sanctuary’s vegetation is akin to typical alpine-temperate-subtropical vegetation. Visitors can walk through rhododendrons, silver fir, juniper, and moss-filled oak forests. The dense bamboo thickets also form an ideal habitat for red pandas —the state animal. Hathichirey is the tri-junction between Bhutan, Sikkim and West Bengal, and the Pangolakha range separates Sikkim from Bhutan. Migratory birds like the Himalayan monal, red kites, and certain eagle species pass through Nathu La and Jelep La (mountain passes). Certain high altitude lakes in the region also act as hotspots for migratory birds The region is also frequented by tigers, leopards, red foxes, musk deer, yellow-throated martens, and the Himalayan weasel. It is also home to herpetofauna like the Himalayan salamander, and hillstream fish and brown trout.
You might have heard of bidriware, the famous handicrafts made of engraved metal. But have you ever visited the city it is named after? A mountaintop capital, Bidar was the heart of medieval Deccan, and is home to 98 historical monuments raised across several timelines—a sketch-walker’s dream. Must-see sites for a first visit include the Bidar Fort, Maqbara Mahmood Gavan, the Gumbaz Darwaza (protected, interestingly, with three moats), enigmatic palaces like Tarkash Mahal and Rangeen Mahal and magnificent tombs like the Chaukhandi of Hazrat Khalil Ullah. Don’t miss the intriguing religious spots: the Narshimha Jhira Water Cave, where devotees must wade through chest-high waters, and the Gurudwara Shri Nanak Jhira Sahib, a venerated site for Sikhs. Remember to return with local laddoos, made of jaggery, dry fruit, poppy seeds and coconut.
Nestled amid gentle and rugged hills alike, Khonoma with a population of around 3,000 is a one-of-a-kind green village. The hills of this settlement are covered in terrace cultivation, growing an array of vegetables, fruits and flowers. Occupied by a fierce warrior tribe, the village resisted the rule of the British till 1880, inflicting heavy losses on the foreign soldiers. It was also a village of hunters, but the people now consciously choose to manage natural resources and focus on holistic, ecological development. This is also a birder’s territory; Khonoma is home to Blyth’s tragopan, a type of rare and highly endangered species. One can also spot the mountain bamboo partridge and the crested finchbill. Tourists can opt for small homestays, observe cane and bamboo crafts and the fine Loramhoushu weave. On the first day of September , they may join celebrations. The village collectively commemorates its birthday, with out-migrants and descendants returning from far and wide.
St Mary’s Islands, Karnataka
Off the coast of Udupi, St Mary’s Islands is a muted destination where azure waters and powdery beaches lead to raw, jagged rock formations. A cluster of four islands, tourists flock here to see a national geological monument: the columns of basaltic rock formations. Spread around the northern island and flanked by numerous coconut trees, these rocks protrude on the beach to form a crude hexagon. With summer as the peak season, most tourists visit these islands for adventure sports like jet skiing, riding speed boats and the bumpy banana boats. Birdwatchers may want to look out for brahminy kites and seagulls. Though one can’t spend the night on the islands, it is definitely worth a day trip.
South Button Island National Park, Andaman and Nicobar islands
The South Button National Park is located in the Andaman district and is part of the Rani Jhansi Marine National Park. Established in 1987, it is the smallest national park in the country. Approximately 24 kilometres from Havelock and 74 kilometres from Port Blair, South Button can easily be visited as a day trip from the former via motor boat (each way is about two hours). It’s best to visit this national park in the winter months. The island is reportedly a breeding ground for sea turtles and the endemic Andaman greyrumped swiftlet. There’s vast marine life found in the waters here: stunning coral formations, to dolphins and blue whales, dugongs to barracudas. If you’re a birder, the majestic white-bellied sea eagle can also be commonly spotted on the island.
Faridkot is a historic city named after the 12th-century saint Baba Farid. Easily accessible from Amritsar (130km; NH54) and Ludhiana (121km; NH5), it’s an eclectic tapestry of Sufi heritage and Gothic architecture. The Raj Mahal, for instance, is a 15-acre pastel palace-turned-hospital-turned-library. Yet another Gothic icon is the four-storied Victoria Clock Tower, built with unusually mixed Mughal, Gothic Revival and Neo-classical styles. The third venue is slightly obscure—a century-old bungalow on SH15, Darbar Gunj. Currently a PWD guest house, its garden is home to a modest statue of the Three Graces—one of the ladies dons a 19th-century sari blouse! Also see Qila Mubarak, one of Punjab’s oldest forts.
Vaishali , Bihar
About 70 kilometres from Patna, Vaishali is known for its religious and political significance. Capital of one of the world’s oldest republics (under the Licchavi clan between the 7th and 6th centuries BCE), the town is the gateway to Jain and Buddhist pilgrimage spots. Vasokund, on the outskirts of the town, is said to be the birthplace of the last Jain Tirthankar, Mahavira. Over the years, excavations in and around Vaishali have revealed the presence of old stupas and other buildings. The Relic Stupa marks the spot where the first mud stupa was built in the 5th century BCE to enshrine a stone casket—it held a portion of the ashes obtained after the cremation of the Buddha. Now maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), the complex remains open from sunrise to sunset. In Kolhua, on the outskirts of Vaishali, is a huge complex that houses a large stupa overlooked by an Ashokan Pillar (believed to be one of the earliest as there is no edict on it), ruins of monasteries, shrines and smaller stupas, and a seven-layered tank. There is also the Viswa Shanti Stupa nearby, and an ASI-run museum showing off statues, pots, jewellery and coins that were discovered during excavations.
Petroglyphs are remnants of the past—a story of past civilisations and the evolvement of history. The petroglyphs of Ladakh can be found alongside the Indus and are said to have been created between the 2nd and 3rd millennium BCE. The 500-odd petroglyphs are best preserved in the Domkhar Rock Art Sanctuary, about 160 kilometres from Leh. The other notable areas in Ladakh are Kharu, Khaltse and Tangtse, that boast of similar ancient rock carvings. The shapes chiseled on the rocks speak of a different time—line drawings of animals on a dark surface, to give us a hint of the past and cultural migration patterns. It is believed that the rudimentary script on the rock surface is similar to those found among tribes of Central Asia, who lived a nomadic life 2,000 years ago.
Umden is a cluster of tiny villages in the Ri Bhoi district of Meghalaya, best known for its Bhoi silk weaving practices using the eri silkworms. This sericulture knowledge has been passed down from generation to generation, and follows the old ways of natural dyeing even today. A sub-group of the Khasi tribe, the women feed the silkworms, take care of them, and when the time comes, harvest the thread to form the one of the most sought after textiles in the subcontinent: Eri, or Ryndia, silk. What makes the silk rare is that it can be extracted without killing the worm, giving rise to the name ‘peace silk’. Tourists can partially sample this way of life with lessons from skilled artisans, or explore other facets of Bhoi and Khasi heritage. Mountain bike through village trails, try a quiet walk weaving through forests and stone monoliths, sit down by streams for an afternoon of angling, and dish out your catch via cooking classes in the village.
A unique mix of French and Telugu culture separates Yanam from the herd. Located on the banks of the Godavari River, this coastal town officially became a part of India in 1954. Known for its Tuesday Market under the French Rule, and the Yanam People’s Festival held in January, it attracts a number of tourists from southern India. The town retains much of its colonial charms, with cobbled walkways along the beach and the Neelikundilu (indigo wells) from when Dutch ruled the area. While there are plenty of churches and temples for pilgrims, Yanam is a great way to avoid crowds and enjoy the peace. Best visited in winter, one can also make a trip to Hope Island and Coringa Wildlife Sanctuary for their mangrove forests from here.
Cooch Behar, West Bengal
A former royal kingdom, Cooch Behar is for those who like to travel on the slow lane. Even though the royal association has taken a backseat today, you will be able to catch glimpses of its past through its palace, temples, schools and other buildings, most reflecting European architecture. Lying in the heart of the town is the Madan Mohan Bari, a late 19th-century temple. Most of the heritage buildings are now being used for administrative work. Now converted to a museum, the palace of Maharaja Nripendra Narayan is the star attraction of this region. The double-storied brick building sports a dome fashioned after the St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican.
In the East Khasi Hills lies a village where every child has two names. One is the usual, reserved for school records and all things serious. The other, a unique tune composed by mothers after childbirth. Nobody knows the exact origins of this oral tradition, but today all 650 inhabitants know the titles of each others’ lullabies—faint hums that are closely tied to their identities for life. These tunes, known as jingrwai ïawbei in the Khasi dialect, can be up to a minute long, vary with every household, and are not repeated after a villager’s passing. Kongthong is currently the most famous out of a group of 23 whistling villages in the Khat-ar Shnong, an area shared by 12 Khasi clans. If you do plan a visit, spread out and enjoy swimming, fishing, trekking and stargazing in its pristine locales. A cultivator’s village, Kongthong is a 55-kilometre drive (and then a 10-kilometre trek) from Shillong, and nestled in hilly terrain with dense forests. This relative isolation may be why this birdsong-like tradition emerged in the first place—whistling is easier when communicating over large distances. While the jingrwai ïawbei is not at the risk of disappearing, it does face one unavoidable threat—mobile phones.
Bahu, Himachal Pradesh
Located in the Banjar tehsil of Kullu, Bahu is a small village at just over 2,000 metres above sea level, and is a great place to visit for a look into ancient temples and shrines. A number of hiking trails passing through this hamlet, and the scenic hike to the Baloo Nag Ttemple is well worth the huffing and puffing. The Sheshnag Temple is another hotspot. With meadows as far as the eye can see, Bahu is a heritage village that boasts of architecture from times past. There is also a road safety shrine made of old tyres and other vehicular parts, one of many in the region. The village is full of wood and stone houses with stone-tiled roofs, and is speckled with a variety of statues.
Maluti temples, Jharkhand
72 terracotta temples stand in a quiet huddle in the district of Dumka. Do a quick search online, and you barely find any intel. But there’s centuries of lore hidden within. The Maluti Temples were built as edifices to Bengal’s Pala rulers, followers of the Mahayana and Tantric Schools of Buddhism. The original tally was apparently 108, but mismanagement—a problem the Global Heritage Fund still identifies at the location, centuries later—caused several to bite the dust. The current ‘survivors’ portray scenes from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, and are built in the Bengali Hindu temple style. The principal building (and deity) at Maluti is of Ma Mauliksha, a goddess curiously absent from Hindu scriptures. However, she finds some resonance with Vajrayana deity Pandara, a feminine bodhisattva. Legends place Mauliksha as the elder sister of goddess Tara (of pilgrimage site Tarapith, in West Bengal). A family reunion, then, could happen a mere 23 kilometres away. See maluti.org
When Cold Play sang ‘lights will guide you home’ they surely couldn’t have known about Purushwadi’s magical fireflies. Streetlights are passé in this little village in the Akole district, about six hours away from Mumbai. Come May-June, this area becomes a hotspot for fireflies, millions and millions of them lighting up once night falls. The picturesque village is made up of about 100 families, some of whom, through an NGO, play host to visitors who come to see the spectacle. In the morning, one can walk around the village and pick berries straight off fruit trees, visit the nearby dam, help villagers in their agricultural fields, and eat a sumptuous home-cooked meal. But come nightfall, the scenery changes—if you’ve read Enid Blyton’s description of an enchanted forest, the experience isn’t far off. Villagers would earlier keep the fireflies in bottles to use as a light source but the practice has now fallen out of favour. See grassroutes.co.in
Coringa, Andhra Pradesh
The Coringa Wildlife Sanctuary is one of the largest stretches of mangroves along India’s eastern coast. The estuary region boasts of a unique biodiversity, with rare mangrove species, fishing cat, sea turtles, and otters. The sanctuary also has over 250 species of birds, of which nearly half are migratory, flying in from Central and Northern Asia, and Eastern Europe—seagulls, little egrets, brahminy kites, reef herons, black-capped kingfisher, and more. You can also find white-back and long-billed vultures here. The sanctuary has a ‘marine protected’ area, which houses over 80,000 water birds and about two dozen species of threatened birds. Spread across 235 sq km, Coringa’s ecosystem provides significant environmental as well as economic benefits. It protects the shoreline from erosion, cyclones, storms and tsunamis. It is also home to important nesting sites for Olive Ridley turtles and green turtles, and has over 200 species of breeding fin and shellfish.
Deep in the heart of Belonia in south Tripura, Pilak is a hotbed for religious art from the 8th and 9th centuries. Speckled with terracotta plaques, stupas, stone figurines and images of the bodhisattva Avolokiteswara and Narasimhan, it also hosts a three-day archaeological festival each year. Pilak also has close relations with Buddhist sites across the border, namely Mainamati and Paharpur in Bangladesh. Its images are reminiscent of the heterodogeneous creeds and sects of Hinduism and Buddhism. The Archaeological Survey of India has recently been excavating Pilak more, in order to further understand the region and its history.
On the border of Kottayam and Idukki, Vagamon reveals rows of lush tea plantations, pine forests and blooming orchids. Visit the Vagamon Lake or the Marmala waterfall for its scenic beauty. The Idukki Dam makes for quite a sight too; a double curvature arch dam, it is the highest one in Asia. You can also try paragliding, mountaineering and trekking here. Thangal Para is a rock structure that marks the resting place of Husrath Sheikh Fariduddin Baba. Christians visit Kurisumala, a Trappist Monastery on a hilltop. A trip to Vagamon is incomplete without witnessing the sunset on Mundakayam Ghat.