You’ve seen the beaches and the hills, and know the way to these places like the back of your hand. But have you ever wondered about the hidden places that lie in-between – like the tiny cafe that serves that perfect cuppa, small hamlets that are overshadowed by grand mountains, or the monastery that houses the best of local art? Believe it or not, India is full of unseen places waiting to be discovered. Here’s our list of the first 10.
Chopta is the prettiest spot on the Ukhimath-Chamoli road that connects Kedarnath with Badrinath via a clearly more picturesque, somewhat shorter route. This sleepy little place, 35km up from Ukimath, is really just a bend in a very narrow, thickly forested mountain road. It’s the quaintest place you are likely to see en route, along with the famed bugyals (meadows) of the state peeking through towering trees, framed by snowy mountains in the distance. Chopta is the springboard for a 5km trek to Chandrashila Peak and Tungnath – one of the Panch Kedar (sacred Shiva temples) in Garhwal, including Kedarnath, Rudranath, Madmaheshwar and Kalpeshwar. You can opt for a pony to carry you up.
Moorang, Himachal Pradesh
A land seeped in mythology, Kinnaur is believed to be home to the mystical Kinners (of Kinnaur); part human, part god. It is said that the Pandavas chose this remote region to spend their last year of exile. Indeed, the prevailing polyandrous traditions among tribal communities, as well as most primordial edifices, are assigned to their mythical presence here. One of these, the Pandava Fort, reportedly built by them at Moorang village (about 40km from Kalpa) is remarkable for its distinct mud silhouette crowning a rocky hilltop. It comes into view at Jangi, your veer-off point from NH22 towards Moorang (10km), and it takes the better part of the day to get here from Kalpa. You should visit the fort that is presently home to the local deity, Ormig Devta.
Phugtal Gompa, Jammu & Kashmir
Possibly the remotest monastery in Zanskar, Phugtal Gompa is also one of the most spectacularly located – it is set in a mountain cave on the sheer mountain face of a gorge through which a tributary of the Tsarap River (also known as the Lingti or Lungnak) flows. The gompa traces its history back to the 12th century and has at least one old chapel with relatively well-preserved frescoes. Since there’s no road to get there, trekking to Phugtal – possible in one long day, better in two – is easiest using the south-bank trail from Padum. Rather than returning to Padum, many trekking groups continue to Darcha on the Manali Road (around four days) but you’ll need proper gear and a guide to cross the 4980m Shingo La.
Gajner Wildlife Sanctuary, Rajasthan
One can take a jeep safari to the Gajner Wildlife Sanctuary, 32km away from Bikaner and sight antelopes, wild boar, chinkara, nilgai, black buck and fox. Admission to the wildlife sanctuary is through Gajner Palace and the hotel organises these wildlife safaris for non-guests as well. It costs Rs. 2500 per jeep. One can also take a boat ride on the Gajner Lake for Rs. 250 per person for half an hour.
Ranganathittu Bird Sanctuary, Karnataka
This small sanctuary, comprising six islets in the Kaveri River, is located a stone’s throw away from Srirangapatna town. With their riverine reed beds, these isles are the favoured nesting places of painted openbill and woolly-necked storks, common spoonbills and black headed ibis, amongst others. The trees are home to colonies of flying fox, while the odd marsh crocodile is routinely spotted. The best season for sighting water birds is June to November, while in December, you can spot migratory birds.
Varsey Rhododendron Sanctuary, West Bengal
In the far southwest corner of Sikkim, close to the India–Nepal border, lies the Varsey Rhododendron Sanctuary, known to be the native habitat of more than 500 species of rhododendrons. Well off the tourist track, this exotic forest can be accessed by a two-hour trek through enchanted pine forests from the village of Hilley, about 28km from Pelling. Hemmed by the Singalila Ridge, the forest bursts into a riot of colours in April and May and is a sight to see.
Swamimalai, Tamil Nadu
Located 31km from Thanjavur, this town is famous for its temple of Lord Muruga in his incarnation as Swaminatha, the mentor of Swami or Shiva. The temple commemorates the legend that even as a little boy, Muruga was so full of wisdom that he was able to explain the concept of ‘Om’ to his father, Shiva. Swamimalai is also where the world famous Thanjavur bronze icons are manufactured, especially the exquisite dancing Nataraja. Individual sculptors and little factories jostle for space in the small town to create the much-sought after icons. Many are willing to explain and demonstrate the actual process of making the icons, something that’s worth watching.
Velneshwar Beach, Maharashtra
This can be covered en route to Ganpatipule, but it’s more enjoyable as a detour because it gives you a chance to take the backwater ride on the ferryboat – twice. Famous for its pastel-coloured Shiva temple, this fishing village ambles along at a quiet pace until March every year when all tranquility is disrupted for the Maha Shivratri fair. The beach hasn’t really made it to any major tourism map yet, which is probably why, when you go here, you may be the only one there.
Daroji Sloth Bear Sanctuary, Karnataka
Just 17km from Hampi, the immaculately clean and well-maintained Daroji Bear Sanctuary is home to (amongst other animals) 120 sloth bears; they can be seen roaming a wide gorge from a watch tower. The bears are given their food at 2pm, so it’s best to get here an hour later, when you can watch them from a relatively closer spot. You can even drive up to the watch tower.
The towns of Moodbidri and Karkala on NH13 make for a daylong detour from Mangalore. The epithet ‘Jain Kashi’ is attached to Moodbidri, a small town packed with Jain shrines. There are 18 important Jain temples in this seat of Digambara culture, of which the Thousand Pillar Basadi is the most important. Over 600 years old, its architectural features are a fascinating mix of oriental, Nepalese and Hoysala influences. The other two temples worth visiting are Guru Basadi and Vikarama Shetty Basadi.
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