The chilly winter winds have started to replace the lovely autumn season and many parts of the country are set to give you picture-perfect backdrops. If you have reasons enough to step out of your comfort zone, these places are just perfect for a short break this month.
Nestled amid evergreen hills that line the southernmost edge of Karnataka is the luscious Kodagu (Coorg) region, gifted with emerald landscapes and hectares of plantations. A major centre for coffee and spice production, this rural expanse is also home to the Kodava people, who are divided into 1000 clans. The uneven terrain and cool climate make it a fantastic area for trekking, bird-watching or lazily ambling down little-trodden paths winding around carpeted hills. All in all, Kodagu is rejuvenation guaranteed.
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Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh
Varanasi is the India of your imagination. One of the most colourful and fascinating places on earth, surprises abound around every corner. This month Varanasi will be all decorated with lamps on the occasion of Dev Deepavali. Leading up to the day each year that the gods are said to descend to Varanasi – fifteen days after Diwali – the ghats along the Ganges glow in the flames of thousands of tiny oil lamps, thousands more of which are launched on the river each night. It’s an incredible and fitting spectacle for the so-called ‘City of Light’.
Kutch, India’s wild west, is a geographic phenomenon. The flat, tortoise-shaped land, edged by the Gulf of Kachchh and Great and Little Ranns, is a seasonal island. During the dry season, the Ranns are vast expanses of dried mud and blinding-white salt. Come the monsoon, they’re flooded first by seawater, then by fresh river water. The salt in the soil makes the low-lying marsh area almost completely barren. Only on scattered ‘islands’ above the salt level is there coarse grass, which provides fodder for the region’s wildlife.
Pushkar has a magnetism all of its own – it’s quite unlike anywhere else in Rajasthan. It’s a prominent Hindu pilgrimage town and devout Hindus should visit at least once in their lifetime. The town curls around a holy lake, said to have appeared when Brahma dropped a lotus flower. It also has one of the world’s few Brahma temples. With 52 bathing ghats and 400 milky-blue temples, the town often hums with prayers, generating an episodic soundtrack of chanting, drums and gongs, and devotional songs.
Set along a steep-sided ridge, Almora is the regional capital of Kumaon. These days you’ll find colonial-era buildings, reliable trekking outfits and a couple of community-based weaving enterprises. Head to the pedestrian-only cobbled Lalal Bazaar, lined with intricately carved and painted traditional wooden shop facades. It’s a fascinating place to stroll, people-watch and shop. On clear days, you can see Himalayan snow peaks from various spots around town.
Wayanad region is arguably the most beautiful part of Kerala. Encompassing part of a remote forest reserve that spills into Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, Wayanad’s landscape combines mountain scenery, rice paddies of ludicrous green, skinny betel nut trees, bamboo, red earth, spiky ginger fields, and rubber, cardamom and coffee plantations. It’s also an excellent place to spot wild elephants.
Sanchi, Madhya Pradesh
Rising from the plains, 46km northeast of Bhopal, is a rounded hill topped with some of India’s oldest Buddhist structures. Emperor Ashoka built the Great Stupa at Sanchi, a domed edifice to house religious relics, near the home town (Vidisha) of his wife Devi. Sanchi became an important Buddhist monastic centre and over the following centuries further stupas and other monuments were added. Today, the remarkably preserved Great Stupa is the centrepiece of Sanchi’s World Heritage–listed Buddhist monuments.
Bodh Gaya, Bihar
The crucible of Buddhism, Bodh Gaya was where Prince Siddhartha attained enlightenment beneath a bodhi tree 2600 years ago and became Buddha (the ‘Awakened One’). In terms of blessedness, this tiny temple town is to Buddhists what Mecca is to Muslims. Unsurprisingly, it attracts thousands of pilgrims from around the world every year, who come for prayer, study and meditation.
Sundarbans, West Bengal
Home to one of the largest concentrations of Royal Bengal tigers on the planet, the 2585-sq-km Sundarbans Tiger Reserve is a network of channels and semi-submerged mangroves that forms the world’s largest river delta. Tigers lurk in the impenetrable depths of the mangrove forests, and also swim the delta’s innumerable channels. Cruising the broad waterways through the world’s biggest mangrove sanctuary (now a Unesco World Heritage Site) and watching wildlife is a world away from Kolkata’s chaos.
Founded in 1577 by the fourth Sikh guru, Guru Ram Das, Amritsar is home to the spectacular Golden Temple, Sikhism’s holiest shrine and one of India’s most serene and humbling sights. The same cannot be said for the hyperactive streets surrounding the temple, but they’re a delight to walk through for a sensory overload of sights, sounds and smells. Indulge in a food tour to treat your taste buds.
Manali, Himachal Pradesh
Surrounded by high peaks in the beautiful green Beas valley, with mountain adventures beckoning from all directions, Manali is a year-round magnet. Backpackers come to hang out in the hippie villages around the main town; adventurers come for trekking, climbing, rafting and skiing; Indian families and honeymooners come for the mountain air and a taste of snow on the 3978m Rohtang La pass. It makes sense to unwind and feed up here for a few days while organising your trip into the mountains.
If not for its crazy traffic and rampant urbanisation, Nagaland’s agreeable capital – scattered across a series of forested ridges and hilltops – could easily rub shoulders with the best hill stations of India. That said, it’s still a nice place to stop by on your tour of the Northeast, and the festive Christmas week is a particularly beautiful time to be in town.