Beyond India’s signature tourist destinations lies a world of discovery in the lesser-known regions, many of which offer rewarding insights and experiences to travellers with the time and inclination to look behind the scenes. Waiting for you in Central India are magnificent temples, forts, tiger reserves, the bodhi tree and incredibly colourful culture.
In the west Gujarat’s capital, Ahmedabad, has a few things to divert a visitor from just travelling through between Rajasthan and Mumbai. Apart from a range of temples and mosques there is the noted Calico Museum with its collection of ancient and modern Indian textiles.
‘Step wells’ are an Indian feature in places where water is at a premium. Delhi has several examples, Rajasthan more and in Ahmedabad there’s the Dada Hari Wav that descends seven stories into the earth. Apart from providing water the well was several degrees cooler in the hot summer months and naturally became a meeting place. The sculptural decoration on the sides and columns is skillful. The Sabarmati Ashram was set up by Mahatma Gandhi in 1917 as his base for the independence fight and to teach agriculture and literacy to the people to prepare them for the nation’s self-sufficiency. It now houses a museum presenting his extremely basic living conditions and artifacts illustrating his life.
Well we know that tigers don’t live in Africa but did you know that there are lions in India? Lions once roamed through Eastern Europe, Turkey, Russia, Western Asia and India. Today there is a pocket left in Sasan Gir Wildlife Sanctuary. Diu, an island and Daman, a seaside town, are former Portuguese territories, important for their heritage and seaside activities. The Kutch region is important for its handicrafts and textiles with each town and village producing its own styles.
While Mumbai, the Maharashtran state capital, might divert a visitor’s attention there are other attractions in the rest of the state. Nasik is a pilgrim town on the bank of the holy Godavari River and the host to the Kumbh Mela every three years (next 2018 and 2021). Consequently it’s a centre of Hindu religious activity and colour with temples and a bathing tank (bathing here liberates the soul from the cycle of life and death).
The must-see in this state is the historic rock-cut caves of Ellora and Ajanta. Caves laboriously carved out of rock by thousands of men over scores of years with just brawn, hammers and chisels. At Ellora there are 34, some Buddhist, some Hindu and a smaller number Jain. Not only have huge cavities been hollowed out but the walls have been further carved to produce astounding sculptures and surfaces for wall paintings. Ajanta has 30 Buddhist rock-hewn temples with sculptures and paintings. These are older than at Ellora with the earliest dating back to the second century BC.
Matheran is the state’s hill station, 800m above sea level. It’s a holiday destination for the locals escaping the heat of the plains with plenty of walking trails. Part of the reason for visiting is getting there on the narrow gauge train taking several hours to chug up through 20km of hillside.
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Centrally located Madhya Pradesh is easily accessed from three major gateways into India – Delhi, Kolkata or Mumbai. You’d want to come here for at least two things: the magnificent temples of Khajuraho with their erotic sculptures, and the tiger reserves of Panna, Kanha, Bandhavgarh and Pench, the latter being the location for Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book.
In the north of the state is Gwalior with its massive medieval fort atop a 3-km long outcrop of rock, the Jai Vilas Palace housing the Scindia museum with its esoteric collection of items that only an extremely wealthy princely family could acquire, for example a working silver train that transported port and cigars around a hugely long dining table.
Quiet out of the way Orchha where you can stay in a luxurious wing of the medieval Jehangir Mahal Palace. Bhimbetka with more than 600 rock shelters decorated with prehistoric paintings. Sanchi has some of India’s oldest Buddhist sculptures dating back over 2000 years old. They include some magnificently restored stupas, some temples and monastery ruins. Away from the steamy plains is the hill town of Pachmarhi with waterfalls, views, wildlife safaris, trekking and general relaxation. In western Madhya Pradesh the hill settlement of Mandu is littered with the remnants of a medieval city with palaces, tombs and monuments.
Uttar Pradesh is the heartland of Hindu India and contains so much to see. Supreme is the Taj Mahal as mentioned in the Agra section. Lucknow achieved notoriety during the Indian uprising in 1857 when a nearly successful attempt was made to turf the British out of India. The Residency complex was the centre of British power and came under sustained attack for almost half a year. Thousands were killed and the buildings were heavily damaged. The ruins remain as a sombre epitaph pockmarked as they are with cannon and bullet wounds.
Varanasi is the ancient city of life and death being one of the oldest continually inhabited places in the world and a city of ultimate holiness for Hindus. The older parts of the city lie along the banks of the Ganges and it is here that pilgrims come to bathe in the river, conduct their puja (worship) and if they are lucky, to die. Dying in Varanasi releases a person from the continuing cycle of life and death. The Ghats (river bank) is the place where all the action takes place and where you may find cremations, people bathing, dhobis (laundrymen) and offers of boat trips invading your attention. While a visit to Varanasi can be demanding, no visitor should leave India without a visit here to gain a glimpse of the colour, complexity and culture of a fascinating country.
Not many foreign visitors travel to this state but those who do are here for one reason. Siddhartha Gautama, known as the Buddha, lived most of his life in this state and achieved enlightenment under a bhodi tree in Bodhgaya. That tree, or at least a descendant many times removed, still exist within the Mahabodhi Temple complex. Buddhists from around the world come here on pilgrimage. They make a colourful and inspiring sight when conducting their acts of worship. The ruins of 5th-century Nalanda set in pleasant parklands was once the site of a huge university with more than 10,000 students and monks.
Each November and/or December, dependent like most things Indian on a full moon, a huge agricultural fair is held at Sonepur just over the River Ganges from Patna. Once you could buy an elephant here (now forbidden) but business nowadays centres around the more prosaic of animals – cows, sheep, goats etc, but in their hundreds. This is definitely a place for cultural colour and its three-week existence allows for more than one visit.
Fewer visitors come to Jharkhand as it lacks the myriad of interests of other states. However we should not ignore Betla National Park home of a few tigers, more leopards and many wild elephants. An early morning ride on top of a domesticated elephant is the best way to view the park.
Raipur, the capital of Chhattisgarh, can be easily ignored and Jagdalpur to the south should be your base. From here you can visit the tribal areas in the company of a guide. While the latter is not essential how else are you going to communicate or learn about tribal differences and cultures. If nothing else you should visit a Ghadwa community whose people are expert in bell-metal craftwork – a lost wax process casting in a brass, nickel and zinc alloy.
The tribes hold weekly markets (haats) where villages congregate in their hundreds to trade with each other. This is cultural colour at its best. Many waterfalls can be found in this state but Chitrakote is the largest at two-thirds the size of Niagara Falls. Come in the late afternoon for the pre-sunset light, stay for a drink and a meal and see the falls under floodlight.
Formerly Orissa this state that borders the Bay of Bengal has much to attract the visitor. Presumably the name change was helped by the local pronunciation of ‘ss’ which comes out as ‘sh’. The capital Bhubeneswar is a city of temples but the main attractions are on the coast.
Apart from seaside interest of bathing and seafood, the city of Puri is remown for its Jagganath Temple. Unless you are a Hindu, and can prove it, you’re not allowed inside but only peek through the entrance or sneak a view from a nearby roof terrace. Jagganath, Balbhadra and Subhadra are sibling gods and reside in the temple in the form of idols. Every June or July they are hoisted onto huge chariots (it’s where we get the word juggernaut) and hauled by thousands up the main street to another temple for their summer holidays. It’s a spectacle to come to Puri for but accommodation can be scarce.
The astoundingly beautiful Sun Temple at Konark is a must. This UNESCO-listed building is best seen in the early morning or late afternoon sun when the warmth of the light emphasises the colour of the stone work. Other attractions in the state are the tribal markets in the south west of the state, Chilika Lake and its bird life and Bhitarkanika National Park for birds, crocodiles and other mangrove dwelling beasts.