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75 places that will make you fall in love with India again

From trekking to spiritual travels and nature reserves, 75 great places to see and spend time in around India

August 13, 2022 / 10:06 PM IST
Umngot river flows between two rocky mountains in Meghalaya. But you don’t look at the mountains. You look at the river. The water is so clean that passing boats appear to be floating on it. (Image: Vikramjit Kakati via Wikimedia Commons 4.0)

Umngot river flows between two rocky mountains in Meghalaya. But you don’t look at the mountains. You look at the river. The water is so clean that passing boats appear to be floating on it. (Image: Vikramjit Kakati via Wikimedia Commons 4.0)

Nature is a cruel mistress. Once you give her your hand and let her lead you away from Instagramming hoards - who scream with delight at the first sight of snow or a beach or a sunset - she will show you calm lakes that reflect snow peaks, brooks with crystal-clear water, forests by the beach where the wind whistles, and yes, beaches where the high tide is but two inches deep.

But first she will make you walk. And how. Desk junkies who pride themselves on being gym-fit will hear Nature laugh in their faces when the hands of the porter take away the ‘daypack’ that contains your water bottle, NaDCC tablets, bug patches, trail bar wrappers and the phone banks so you can follow them on that last 300 ft.

It happened to me and I also submitted to being gently pushed by those hands towards the campsite. You cannot complete any trek without the mad skills of men like Mahesh Rawat and porters who carry food and tents, or you’d be lost in the mountains. A salute to mountain guides everywhere. And to the endless cups of tea they ensure you have when you sit mesmerised by the views.

1. Betab Valley and Aru Village

They don’t call the Northernmost part of the country ‘Paradise on Earth’ for nothing. The mountains are gorgeous at any time of the year. Srinagar, Gulmarg, Sonmarg, Pahalgam are stunning. Even better are the tales the shepherds will tell you about vengeful apsaras who were disturbed by a stray sheep. You might guess why the beautiful Hajan Valley is now called Betab Valley, but once you get over the commercialisation of this tourists' paradise (the beautiful Dal Lake has houseboat called Rolex, Buckingham Palace as well as Dilbar Majnu), head out to Aru village (ahead of Pahalgam, 11 km upstream Lidder River) and you will fall to your knees and become a believer. The stunning meadows are the greenest of green and you can step out at night and look at the night sky. Since the little village is not neon lit, the Milky Way is clearly visible. And no, you won’t have tourists running amok with their tripod and selfie sticks.

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As with any mountainous region, after the monsoons and before the cold really sets in is a great time to visit, but remember the land under your feet needs to be respected, slipping on the rocks will cause so much hurt, your retirement community will be fed up of stories you will tell about dangerous meadow treks…

2. Pir Panjal Pass

The trek is long but simple enough for NCC cadets to traipse through. What was once called The Mughal Road (Maharaja Ranjit Singh used it to conquer the mountain region), is a National Highway today. It connects us to Poonch and Rajouri villages. It's the trek up Peer Ki Gali from Aliabad Serai that you should be taking. And a visit to the place of meditation of a holy man Sheikh Ahmad Karim (there is a handprint of the saint there) is a must. The place is so beautiful, I visited it right before the rains set in and even in the brownness of the mountains, the vibes are calming.

3. Lahaul And Spiti

It’s the Spiti and Lahaul regions of Himachal Pradesh that will leave you stunned. To whet your appetite for bigger and better trips, start with the easy walk to Chandratal lake. The names of the lakes in the mountains (or indeed beaches in the peninsula) are named after the Gods or just the shape of the lakes. It never ceases to amaze me that even in the remotest places there are tiny temples to local deities with a flag and offerings.

4. Giu Village and the Mummy

You’d think you are in Egypt as you see the monk sitting in eternal meditation encased in glass. The hands, nails and teeth are still intact after more than 550 years. Giu village (Spiti Valley) is home to this Buddhist monk mummy. You can actually drive up to Giu village and visit this makeshift monastery. The villagers insisted that the monk (perhaps his name is Sangha Tenzin) is simply in deep meditation and the mummification is natural. I was so afraid the man was going to open his eyes and ask for food, the mummy feels that real.

5. Miyar Valley Glaciers

Between the Pir Panjal and Zanskar Mountains is Miyar valley. It is so cold that the temperature in the little village called Sucto at any given time is five degrees Celsius. It’s a miracle that potatoes are grown near there, although the soil conditions have gotten worse over the years. From there the trek to the Miyar Glaciers is a test of your resolve. But when there’s no one there to hug your unbathed avatar, and the remoteness of the place and the views you will keep in your heart (the phones are long dead and I am so sure you need cameras that won’t freeze) are unbeatable. The glaciers are extensive, but if you’ve walked even half a kilometre, you will feel an unbelievable sense of accomplishment. The place is so remote, one of the peaks has just been named the Forgotten Peak as recently as 2012.

6. Indus And Zanskar Sangam

You can leave the shopping hungry crowds at Leh Market (they will insist on eating Dosa up there in the mountains) and get to the Sangam of the Indus and Zanskar rivers. The mountains look forbiddingly brown and the landscape is mostly lunar. But when you see clearly where the two different waters meet (Brown and Blue-green), you forget the selfie crowds and remember geography lessons from middle school.

7. Chadar Trek

The river is frozen and slowly, so are your fingers and brain. But you are not alone. There are a few more adrenaline junkies (thankfully not chirpy) who will quietly walk with you across the frozen Zanskar River. This is the Chadar Trek. There is time for introspection in the middle of the group that has trekked even more difficult places. I am not just in love with the musical sounding name of the river but will never forget the experience of walking on water.

8 and 9. Pangong and Tso Moriri

Pangong is a salt water lake and Tso Moriri is a sweetwater lake. If the former has done tourism a favour by marking it as a place where the film 3 Idiots was shot, it doesn’t take away from the stunning views the lake has to offer (we share the border with China). I have been told that the lake changes colour as the day progresses, but it felt like someone upended lots of lots of industrial strength blue dye in Pangong.

It’s the Tso Moriri that is above Pangong and is a sweetwater lake that makes your eyes water. No camera can capture the exact colour of the lake that your eyes can see. It’s jade, and sea green and deep algae green and then suddenly as blue as the sky. The magic of the lake is that you don’t remember the passage of time.

10. Prayer Flags Tourism and Chang La Pass

Everyone is excited about driving on the highest motorable roads in the world, but my evil twin is on a countdown: who are the excitable tourists who will pass out from over-excitement and a lack of oxygen? Why do people have to vlog so much? Why can’t they just take in all this beauty? Good sense prevails and we move away in time (20 minutes is what is recommended). I have stuffed myself with the best chocolate brownies ever from a cafe at the snow covered roads and am done counting prayer flags that are blowing in the winds.

Shanti Stupa, Namgyal Tsemo, Spituk Monastery are so spectacular, you want to renounce the world and live there. But the gigantic statue of Maitreya Buddha at the Thiksey Monastery reminds me of the Tibetan Potala Palace, and I know I have too many places to see before I start my inward journey. As I climb the seemingly never ending steps at the Shey Palace and monastery to take in the spectacular views of the mountains, I know that I will have to climb down these same steps… But I find myself at the Hemis monastery soon, and I unfurl my little roll of prayer flags. As I attach mine to the seemingly endless flags fluttering in the wind, I wonder if Jesus really stayed here in the missing years. The legend really says so.

Zigzag road to Chang La pass en route Pangong Tso Ladakh. (Photo: Narender9 via Wikimedia Commons 4.0) Zigzag road to Chang La pass en route Pangong Tso Ladakh. (Photo: Narender9 via Wikimedia Commons 4.0)

11. Sand Dunes in the middle of the mountains!

Not kidding at all! The Hunder Dunes have started becoming super popular with adventurers, but thankfully the dunes are part of India’s cold desert and it will keep the mad holiday cross away. By the Shyok river these dunes offer superb views of the forbidding mountains. Even though I’m loath to ride animals, and have been terrified of camel teeth (I’ve seen a camel smile at cameras in Jaisalmer!), I did not mind riding the very creepy double humped camel (rides are only between 1-4pm). The hair feels coarse and alive and even though the camel owner tells you that the camels don’t dash across the desert, I’ve read TinTin (Crab with the Golden Claws!) and I am not convinced…

Hunder Dunes can be reached when you drive through North Ladakh’s Nubra valley.

12. Plucking Apples at 9700 ft.

Imagine looking at Kinnaur and Kailash mountains and being made to pluck apples because the homestay lady smiled at you so nicely. Kalpa village is full of people with wrinkles earned by living in the mountains, working hard, breathing really, really fresh air, living without the movie (and shows) streaming sites. The lady had met me when I went crazy over apple blossoms and clicked thousands of pictures. Now that the apples were burdening the branches, I was given a basket and asked to pick them. And only then did she let me do the tourist thing and visit the Kamru Fort.

13. Khajjiar Meadows and Nag Temple

About 98 kms from Pathankot railway station and from Dalhousie by road is the picturesque Khajjiar village, your stop to the Kalatop Animal Reserve. You want to see deer, you got deer. And there’s Himalayan bears and elephants too. Please go and see the wildlife, while I while away my time drinking tea and sitting cross-legged on grass that looks like it’s been divinely mowed, squinting at the sun. If you manage to coax yourself out of the quiet stupor that the vast meadows afford you, then you can walk to the cedar forest and be overwhelmed by the scent of the forest. You cannot bottle this!

This place is so amazing I was amenable enough to visit the Khajjiar Nag temple (still looks like a church if you ask me!). The sacred shrine is dedicated to the king of snakes and you will see snakes sort of taking in the sun as well. What fascinated me were the wooden sculptures on the ceiling depicting Kauravas and Pandavas…

14. Mulbekh Monastery at Kargil

My brother fought there, and the place is now overrun with army personnel. Salute to them! But there’s more to Kargil than the barbed wire. The Mulbekh Monastery will remind you of the awesomeness that we lost when the gigantic Buddha statues at Bamiyan (in Afghanistan) were destroyed by the Taliban. The work on stone is exquisite and you will get a crick in your neck when looking up at the statue of Maitreya Buddha carved out into the rock. It’s beautiful.

15. Four valleys of Lahaul

Pattan, Kinnan, Gahr and Taud bring their own stories to you as you laze in the valley eating the sweetest peas I’ve tasted. These valleys produce some of the most incredible herbs that companies like Dabur and others use in their preparations. If you are lucky you will see the wooden masked deities perform rituals for the villagers. Or you walk on the riverine white beach and taste the butter tea and sattu. Not odder than the mountain sides that look like a giant hand had created grooves in them. The local stories about Shiva taking his marriage procession will lull you but when you visit the local Laxmi-Narayan temple and hear the story - sheep strayed into nephew’s far, so the nephew killed the sheep; the enraged uncles showed up and killed the nephews; one survived by running away and trained in the art of combat; he comes back and kills all the uncles; his mother sees the sword dripping with blood and tells him off: the nephew realises his mistake, builds the temple and goes away into the mountains - you will want to curl up in your bed after messaging your family…

16. The Valley Of Flowers

It’s a test of your stamina for sure. A rickety bus from Joshimath to Govindghat by bus (over 200 kms), taking hairpin bends like it did not care (don’t look down!), then from Govindghat to Ghangaria village by trekking ten kilometres. If you go during pilgrimage season (and it’s always pilgrimage season) then you will walk up the narrow path to Ghangaria village shoulder to shoulder with pilgrims to Hemkunt Sahib. Literally, you take the left to the valley of flowers, and to the right is your climb to the holiest of places for Sikhs.

The valley of flowers will lure you with over 36 species of rhododendrons and wildflowers and wild balsam, daisies and if you can spot it, the rare blue Himalayan poppy. If you have it within you, then you can trek further than 5 kms and cross the Pushpawati river, you will be rewarded with incomparable views of mountain peaks looking down on you in a stunning valley covered with pink and yellow flowers. Orchids your florist will kill for and yes, if you hire a guide they will point out Papyrus trees called Bhojpatra trees. Be good, don’t pick flowers, but feast on the best chole bhature you will ever eat back at the village…

17. Hemkund Sahib

A Sikh pilgrim looked at me as I demolished a plate of Chole bhature and asked me, ‘When will you feed your soul?’ My unplanned trip to Hemkund Sahib started with that shiver down my back at Ghangaria village. It’s a climb for 17 km, uphill all the way. The seven mountains surrounding this holy gurudwara watch your pathetic attempts at climbing those rock cut steps. But when you see elderly pilgrims walking up with faith on their face, you too are inspired by it all.

I wasn’t sure I’d survive this but I was wrong. Hem-Kund (pool of snow) does not disappoint, the gurdwara offers solace to every seeker.

18. Aabhi Bird at Seryoskar Lake

Going back to Himachal again? Yeah because you heard the story of a bird that cleans up the lake even if a leaf falls on its crystal clear waters. Who’d have thunk Nature has its own clean-up crew?

Jibhi is located in Himachal and you can rest your travel weary bones surrounded by quiet beauty. Then walk down the forest to the Seryoskar lake. It does not have an imposing presence like the Chandertal or Pangong or Tso Moriri, but it does have a legendary guard that keeps the lake pristine. The bird looks like a sparrow but is bigger than one but smaller than a pigeon keeps a watch for anything that might pollute the lake. Brilliant, eh?

19. Sangla and Chitkul

Kinnaur doesn’t just grow apples, but it has people who are just so nice. And I mean it in the best way possible. Sangla is halfway between Kinnaur and Chitkul and you will experience tranquillity at Sangla. Learn about Kinnauri traditions and festivals and know that you are being protected by the Kinner Kailash mountains.

Another bus ride takes you to the last village on the Indo-Tibetan border called Chitkul. You gotta post yourself a card from there, no? It has stunning views of the Himalayas, and you will never forget this trip to this remote village.

20. Tombs of Ustad and Shagird

‘If music be the food of love, play on’, the Bard has said and of all places in India, homage to music should take you to Nakodar city in Punjab. It is also a tribute to the very Indian Guru-Shishya parampara. Nakodar city is home to many saints and fakirs but these twin tombs are very unusual. Muhammad Momin was a great tanpura maestro during the reign of emperor Jahangir. A tanpura is an accompanying instrument but the beauty of the instrument lies in the delicate fingerwork of the accompanist. It is tuned to the vocal range of the singers. Muhammad Momin’s student Haji Jamal, who later occupied his master’s seat at the court of Shah Jahan was also buried near his master. The two tombs are a superb example of Mughal architecture.

21. Kedartal blows your mind

When talking about the student and the master, Shiva is considered to be the first guru, and I have never encountered anything so mystical and beautiful as the Kedartal. The trek is more difficult than anything I’ve ever been and I don’t think I shall ever repeat in this lifetime.

Have you been on a photo hack site? They will teach you how to place two phones next to one another at an angle that will help you get the perfect picture of reflection. But at Kedartal, nature does it best. And you are so exhausted, and so overwhelmed, you forget to take pictures by gimmick. Take your time to trek 17 kms from Gangotri to Kedartal (this is in the Garhwal mountains). The rocky trail along the Kedar river seems easy but when you reach BhojKharak, you will realise that it’s not. From BhojKharak you climb up steadily to KedarKharak and I literally fell at the feet of the porter in total gratitude for carrying my tent and food for me but also making life saving tea. They laughed because I was happy to survive on tea and parathas. The climb up to Kedartal can be tricky but if you’re careful and motivated, and listen to the guides like Mahesh Rawat who know how quickly the weather can turn. But when you reach the blue lake, your hands will join automatically in a prayer. Something so beautiful must be divine. The Thalay Sagar peak looks down on you kindly and you forget all the exhaustion that you have experienced in getting there. It feels like sacrilege putting your feet in the super cold water of the lake disturbing the pristine, crystal clear waters that reflect the snowy peaks around it.

The return is completely on the highs you have experiences after seeing such a wondrous place

22. Kakbhushundi Lake on my Bucket List

I must admit that I have not been here but have heard such amazing trek tales that this lake should be in this list of most amazing places in India. It’s a super hard trek that experienced trekkers take 6 to 8 days to cover. Since the elevation of Kakbhushundi is over 5,230 metres, you need to prepare well for this trek and arrive well in time to get acclimated to the mountains.

I have devoured all mythological tales about this lake and with fingers crossed I have prayed to the mountain deities to let me come back to Chamoli some day to see Kakbhushundi with my own eyes.

23. Vasuki Tal above Kedarnath

Pilgrims are happiest once they’ve been to Kedarnath, but what views do the mountains above Kedarnath hold for the mountain mad person? Local guides will tell you that it’s the Vasuki Tal that is calling you from beyond three mountains. If you are going to attempt this trek, please take a guide along because it is very easy to get lost in these mountains. They laugh kindly because they know city folk can spend hours on a computer but get exhausted easily in the fresh air of the mountains. I was told it was okay to try getting halfway there. With Yoda’s words, ‘There is no trying’ in my head I set off for Vasuki tal. Alas, I had to be content with looking at stunning pictures of the lake on other people’s phones because I twisted an ankle and had a week of pity party with Kedarnath instead.

Vasuki Tal trek. (Photo: schwiki via Wikimedia Commons 4.0) Vasuki Tal trek. (Photo: schwiki via Wikimedia Commons 4.0)

23. Churah Valley

Chamba is a beautiful part of Himachal and even though I wanted to go to the Chamunda lake (super difficult trek) I was happiest walking among the amazing deodar forest at Devikot. Devikot is a very big pilgrimage place for Chamunda worshippers, but when it’s not festival time, then it is a very beautiful, serene place to stay. The Chamunda temple is ancient and offers many folk tales among which are mostly about wish fulfilment…

24. The Love Story of Mandu

A fearless warrior king of Malwa fell in love with a girl whose song could attract birds and mesmerise deer and married her. They did not live happily ever after because Emperor Akbar’s army overtook the Malwa army and Roopmati killed herself and died a queen. The love story of Baz Bahadur and Rani Roopmati will take you to Mandu (a day trip from Indore) and you will be amazed at the palaces and pavilions he built for his beloved. The Jahaz Mahal (yes, the palace is built like a ship; rumoured to be surrounded by water), Baz Bahadur Mahal, Rani Roopmati Mahal and the Roopmati Pavilion (she could offer ablutions to the Narmada river which can be seen from the top) and the Hindola Mahal (the walls are sloping, which gives us the illusion of a swing) and the many doors to enter the palace complex are an inspiration to architects even today. They are a beautiful combination of Afghan and Rajput architecture. You will fall in love with this beautiful world of love that was created by a smitten king for his beautiful queen.

25. Pachmarhi For The Quiet

In the heart of India is the queen of the Satpuras: Pachmarhi (land of the five caves; it is said that the Pandavas lived there during their agyatvas) is so serene, you would want to melt away in the blush of the sunsets or float away on the clouds that descend on the little town.

Yes, go see the caves if you have the energy, and trek to the waterfalls (Bee Falls, Apsara Falls, and yes the brilliant Silver Falls or the Rajat Prapat), but I have seen the magnificent Iguazu Falls and have no interest in anything but to stare at the forests from the tiny balcony of the hotel and listen to birdsong.

26. Betwa River Trip to See Architectural Marvels

Did the Bundela kings build the palaces in a line so that their reflection on the Betwa River would make perfect pictures? This row of palaces are stunning architectural wonders, and you can do the day long running up and down the stairs of the palaces, marvelling at the arches or you can hire a quiet boat that will take you on the river and you can see the palaces from a different vantage point. And since you are in Madhya Pradesh, a must have street food is ‘Bhutte ka Kees’

If you are a mosquito magnet (like yours truly) you should wear a patch or keep bug spray handy on the river.

27. Bandhavgarh and Kanha Tiger Reserves

The elusive yellow and black cats have found a safe haven in these beautiful reserved forests. Even if you don’t see the magnificent Bengal Tiger, you will come away knowing that he has seen you.

These Tigers sometimes waylay your jeep and cross the path nonchalantly, but you can be sure everyone in that jeep is terrified. Nothing compares to that first sighting of the king of the jungle. The lithe, lazy walk of confidence needs no extra swag. The big cats are born with it. I remember clearly that crackle over the driver’s radio phone. They had spotted him at the water hole. And when we reached that water body, I saw the tiger look directly at us as he crouched low to get that drink of water. And then without blinking his eyes, he stuck his tongue out into the water and slurped the water just like that. That stare stayed with me for days. We all tried to drink from the water glasses and bottles without blinking. No, not possible!

28. Salt desert and Full Moon

The endless stretch of salt (or is it sand?) is your stage. Neil Young begins to sing, 'There’s a full moon rising, let’s go dancing in the light’ into your headphones making your feet dance in complete abandon, your body not listening to your head. You leave the campfires and local Kutchhi musicians behind. The Rann has bewitched you and you don’t care if the sleepy camels are judging you. Easy access makes the Rann of Kutch a destination for the average tourist, but the crowds disappear after the stunning sunsets, and then it becomes magical.

A woman working in the salt pans of the Rann of Kutch, Gujarat. (Photo: Vinod Panicker via Wikimedia Commons 2.5) A woman working in the salt pans of the Rann of Kutch, Gujarat. (Photo: Vinod Panicker via Wikimedia Commons 2.5)

29. Alien Art

It’s a bird, a man, geometric shapes and yes, I saw the picture of an elephant too. Carved in stone by a sharp instrument. Or perhaps by a pointy end of a giant claw. Wait, what? Looks like alien babies were left here (in the Ratnagiri district of Maharashtra) to amuse themselves while the adults explored our planet. And no I don’t believe that these were done by early humans.

Katal Shilp or Petroglyphs have been discovered all around the world and the explanation that ten thousand years ago people carved life sized images of elephants on rocks (and created crop circles) is an attempt to keep people away from thinking that we’ve been visited by aliens…

29. Birds, Birds And A Crick In The Neck

You had better be prepared for it - that crick in the neck - because you will come back with one. But you will feel like there’s the voice of David Attenborough telling you names of birds you have just spotted in the Bodhalkasa forest. Why are birder friends so particular? I was just awed by the fabulous forests and the birds I saw. Brilliant blue plumage on little ones and storks that take off awkwardly from the lake to the trees… Oh wait, butterflies!

30 to 39. Mini Listicle of Secluded Beaches

You’ll forget that we’re a country filled with people when you visit these beaches all along the coast of Maharashtra. The seafood is excellent and you will love the fact that there are no people selling you beads or a beach chair or even a massage. If you go during the summer holidays you might find families on the beach but it’s not a mad rush. So take a pen and write down this vetted list (not in a geographic order): Navapur and Hedvi have black sand on the beaches which makes them popular. But I fell in love with Aare and Waare beaches ( five boys playing football apologised for yelling!). Kihim where a friend has a beachfront adventure sports thing but we were poets on a retreat! And fabulous food. Bhate beach is so beautiful you will fall in love. Overwhelmed by the beauty of this practically solitary beach at Guhagar, you will sigh so much, you will attract the dolphins!

People travel to popular beaches like Ganapatipule, Mandwa and Kashid because there are temples and other ‘attractions’ but if you’re like me and want to leave just your footprints on the sand, then perhaps you will choose these beaches. And you’d be surprised at how connected they are by road and how close to the big cities like Mumbai and Pune!

40 and 41. More to Udupi than food

Karnataka has successfully managed to keep its rivers, roads and the sea away from loud Instagramming and tittering teenagers adulting in jeeps. But Udupi is a treasure that has been on the radar for serious nature lovers for years. I fell in love with lotuses growing in the Seetha river near Barkur temple complex (I happily forgot to visit the temples!) and loved, loved, loved the mind-blowing views from the Kapu beach lighthouse. The beach itself is fabulous and it is perhaps the only time I have eaten idlis on a beach.

42. Unique Yana Caves

They’re as dark as caves can be. And mysterious. The local guide tries hard to sound like a geologist when he tells you that this is limestone, but it’s different. First, it’s black in colour, and the formations remind you of sentinels standing guard.against demons in the forest. The story associated with the caves is fun too… Shiva the ever kind God gave a boon to the demon Bhasmasura: should the demon place a hand on a person’s head he would turn to ash. Bhasmasura was dying to check if the boon would work on Shiva himself. Shiva hid in these caves and asked Vishnu for help. Vishnu showed up as the eternal seducer Mohini and challenged Bhasmasura to a dance off. In that ‘imitate my moves’ dance, Bhasmasura forgot about the boon and placed his hands over his own head. Poof! Ashes!

43. Z Point near Chikmagalur

If you say you’ve trekked in the Himalayas, then this trek through grassy mountains should be a breeze. And breezes are plentiful on this strange shaped peak. And I had to close my eyes several times because it is so beautiful and green. You are glad these forest lands cannot be encroached by people who want to build ‘holiday homes’ there… Remember the name of the area: Kemmangundi district.

44 to 47. No Footprints On These Beaches

In the Gokarna area, there are such incredible beaches that you begin to wonder why people only mention the familiar places. Half Moon Beach is aptly named and the wave upon wave that ends on the beach also seems to be mooning over its beauty. Om Beach as you can infer is connected to a holy town, so you might just catch pilgrims on the beach and miss out on collecting seashells on the seashore. Same with Gokarna Beach. I’m all for pilgrimages (the top of my bucket list is a trip to Kailash and Mansarovar), but beach towns with temples carry that reverential baggage which pilgrims carry on the beach (The Mahabaleshwara Swami Temple). It’s great fun to drive through a road through the forests and suddenly come upon a quiet beach called Paradise. Marvel at the ancient lava rocks that solidified after meeting the sea.

48. Hulimavu caves

Considering than an entire ancient city was built by shaping rocks into temples and palaces and dance halls (Hampi is the site of the great city kingdom of Vijayanagar), is it any wonder than Karnataka has a treasures in the mountains: rock cut caves, natural and man made that are stunning to behold and worth every trek. On Bannerghatta Road, South of Bengaluru is a stunning cave complex called Hulimavu caves (this is a Shiva temple). This is a giant monolith, and you have to wonder who carved out the pillars and who first dared to meditate there. I was fortunate enough to have visited after the monsoons. The waterfall from the top of the monolith to the lake below (there is a temple there) is a stunning scene to behold.

49. Bhadra Wildlife Sanctuary

This is a tiger reserve, and they don’t let too many people in, but when you do get in there, you forget the effort it took to get there: a flight to Mangalore and the endless haggling with the local taxi guys to take us to this Project Tiger reserve. It was my first encounter with the crimson rose butterfly and some funny tittering birds (yellow beaked, white snowy breasts and brown wings), but no tiger. The second day was just amazing: I was on a boat safari and coming across a family of elephants was like magic. There was a baby and the many mothers and two male elephants. What a magnificent family. And though the guide said it was a tiger behind the bushes, I wasn’t convinced. I still cannot forget the stare of the tiger lapping water at Bandhavgarh…

50. Watch Out For Leeches

I have often complained about walking down stone steps before you stand slack jawed. In front of milky waterfalls that defy all criticism. The hotel concierge (the owner of the homestay, really) handed out a dual language warning to us (Kannada and English): take a change of clothes because the forest drips, wear proper trekking gear, and make sure you don’t cover up your legs because, leeches. I was like, what?!

Mallalli Falls are stunning, But the fear of being attacked by an army of hungry leeches is beyond description. Even when I was on a trek to Chandratal, I did not feel fear like I felt in this forest. I carried a piece of brick in self defence. Thankfully the critters don’t care for trekking pants stuffed into socks. Did I see them? Ugh, yes.

Mallalli falls, Coorg. (Photo: Shanmugamp7 via Wikimedia Commons 4.0) Mallalli falls, Coorg. (Photo: Shanmugamp7 via Wikimedia Commons 4.0)

51. Kerala By Houseboat

The Alleppey backwaters are famous, but that one trip where I ate only pineapple and gobbled pieces of coconut while others feasted on seafood wasn’t enough. I had to go back. The plan was to make sure they loaded some vegetables too. The boatmen laughed, but they knew I was not a newbie. The Houseboats are the best things anyone has invented. They take you out to the open see to help you experience sunsets like never before and you ogle at the pretty houses on the backwaters and ask the boatman if they could take me from the uppity Kumarkom to the fishing village called Kumbalangi where the movie was shot…They just rolled their eyes and asked me to learn to eat fish first…

52. Silent Valley National Park

I am terrified of monkeys, and the Lion-tailed Macaque looks rather fierce. But this National Park in Kerala is proof that environmentalists and activists who work tirelessly to preserve wildlife habitats can bring about a miracle. Also, sometimes, politicians can work to preserve nature instead of letting commerce rule (Indira Gandhi heard the pleas and helped scrap a project that would drown this forest for electricity). This valley is now a stunning reserve for birds and butterflies and the rare monkeys and of course incredible flora. I will never forget my one and only encounter with a black panther. You cannot stay inside the park but can spend an unforgettable day here.

53. Neel Kurinji flowers

One every 12 years, the mountains of Kerala witness the flowering of the incredible blue/purple flowers called Kurinji. If the Valley Of Flowers offers a mind boggling variety of wildflowers and rhododendrons, this single minded flowering of Kurinji flowers will stun you. In almost reverence I have walked up the hills, suppressing the urge to fall on to the carpet of flowers and pretend to be the flower fairy… Unmissable experience!

54. Munnar Waterfalls Trail

Waterfalls can drive the clamour of your mind right out and fill the void with the gushing sounds of the most picturesque waterfalls you have seen. Munnar (shares its gorgeousness with Kerala as well as Tamil Nadu) is a popular destination for honeymooners and tourists and Google says there are at least 15 fabulous waterfalls. I must confess that information about leeches on the trail is enough to put me off waterfalls (and also the fact that after descending down to the waterfalls, you have to climb back up!). Out of the fifteen I have seen only one: Thoovanam.

55. World’s Highest Tea Gardens: Kolukkumalai

Imagine going walkabout in the hills and then heading back to your village hotel at 7900 ft. A chap named Balu at the hotel brought me tea that he said was local. Local tea? At that height?

The tea gardens at Kolukkumalai produce some of the most unusual flavoured tea. It’s something to do with the soil and the altitude, but I was happy to try out the different teas and walk among the tea shrubs, watching the sun add to the flavour… The tea is so good, I am happy to recommend you bring back some of that magic processed in an old-fashioned way.

Kolukkumalai, India's highest altitude tea estate. (Photo: Kishrk91 via Wikimedia Commons 4.0) Kolukkumalai, India's highest altitude tea estate. (Photo: Kishrk91 via Wikimedia Commons 4.0)

56. Do Trees Hold Hands… I mean, Roots?

When you’re in Kodaikanal, you can drive up to the Devil’s Kitchen. Two rocks to hold and one to use as a stepping stone before you lower yourself into the cave below. No thank you, I said, because caves are dark and dingy and they have bats. But the guide insisted, and I was glad I went along with his plan. I did not go into the caves, but above the caves is the weirdest sight: Ancient, gnarled Shola trees with roots on the surface enmeshed with one another, giving an impression that the trees were holding on to one another by the roots… The more I looked at them, the scarier they looked.

The guide reminded me that this is where Kamalahasan had shot for his film Guna, and that’s why everyone now calls this the Guna caves. Just like the name of a beautiful valley in Kashmir has been changed forever when they shot the film Betab, and the secluded Pangong lake became famous because of the film 3 Idiots!

57. Gandikota, Our Grand Canyon

You could do this trip by land, and see the Gandikota fort, Madhav Temple and Raghunath Swami Temple, the reservoir, the caves and more. But the river Penna is so gorgeous, you can get the best pictures of this canyon from a boat. Your first thought is that the fantastic view in front of you is like a cross between the Grand Canyon and the Giant’s Causeway in Ireland but in the typical red colour you see all over the Deccan. Brilliant!

58. Papikondalu and Lambasingi

The names are fascinating, no? ‘Papikondalu’ is a mountain range that was initially supposed to be named after the parting of a woman’s hair, but when you get there, it’s like watching the mountains you drew as a child (straight upside down ‘V’s with a river running between the mountains!) come alive. I loved the name that sounds like a sinner in Hindi, but the experience from the little boat ride was like heaven.

Lambasingi (sounds like the name of a long horned deer or antelope or something) could have been just another hill station but for the scene unfolding in front of you: the mist descending over the valley below you like a fluffy comforter… Sigh! The temperatures are said to go down to zero degrees in winter and snowfall has been reported there. (But I cannot confirm that personally.)

59. Eravikulam National Park

Can birdsong ever give you a headache? I visited the Eravikulam National Park with mad birder friends and realised that the usual chatter among friends simply faded away when we entered the forest. To spot the 102 species of birds you need patience. And we spotted some really interesting birds. But I was more interested in butterflies (who knew there were 101 species!) that were flitting about as if we were invisible…

This National Park is also home to the Everest of the South, the Anamudi Peak (Elephant’s Head). It stands tall at 8,842 ft but it is so easy to walk up to the peak because it’s pretty and flanked on all sides with grass. The North and South faces of the peak are gentle for a climb, but the East and the West faces of this mountain are rocky and tougher to climb.

60. Ulta Pani

Yes, we’re in Chhattisgarh near the capital Raipur near a magnetic hill. But there are many places in India where magnetic hills make cars and buses climb up a hill even though the engines have been shut down. But I had never seen water run upstream as it does at the place unimaginatively but aptly called Ulta Pani.

I don’t want to understand how that happens, I am just happy to watch this bizarre phenomenon gobsmacked. While others put bits of paper into the little stream that was climbing up the incline, I made an old-fashioned paper boat and watched it climb. Weird but wonderful!

61. Marble Cliffs at Bhedaghat

Jabalpur is not just famous for Khoye ki Jalebi (tastes like Gulab Jamun but it is in the shape of a Jalebi), but is home to the most spectacular marble rocks. The river Narmada flows between magnificent marble cliffs and the water looks green or blue depending on the quality of the rocks your boat is sailing past. It’s a five km trip and there are Dhuandhar falls towards the end of the trip.

You come home with carved soap-stone curios and if you learn from the shopkeepers, then you show the magic to neighbourhood kids by rubbing oil on the curio and watching the colour change…

62. You Too Can Walk On Water

Imagine being able to walk 5 kms out into the sea with water that just tickles your toes? No hidden places where your foot suddenly sinks into the sand. Just a walk of swag on an empty beach. During the high tide, though, this half moon-shaped beach looks like any other lost places you think you’ve just discovered. This geological wonder is located in Chandipur in Odisha - yes the place where they launch rockets and missiles - and is one of the coolest beaches in the world, I think.

Chandipur falls in the Balasore district, and has accommodations to suit all kinds of pockets. The first time I visited this beach I was but a child, happy to splash about. But as a grown up, I was amazed again by the sea playing hide ‘n’ seek and brought back lots of seashells…

63. Gopalpur On Sea

That’s a strange name for a lovely little historical beach town. This is the site for sea-faring people of Kalinga. The British too used Gopalpur as a port and now you can get here to watch in awe Olive-Ridley Sea Turtles make their first run to the sea after being hatched. This is such a life-affirming sight, you will feel maternal towards the little baby turtles stepping out of their shells and making that awkward run to the Bay of Bengal.

Odisha is superbly located on the Indian peninsula because most beaches (there are many!) are East-West beaches. If you want to know what I’m talking about, show up early on the beach and watch the sunrise. Then hang out all day and watch the sun set without moving an inch on the beach!

Olive Ridley Sea Turtle hatchlings. (Photo: Bethany McCarter via Wikimedia Commons 4.0) Olive Ridley Sea Turtle hatchlings. (Photo: Bethany McCarter via Wikimedia Commons 4.0)

64. Flamingoes and Dolphins at Chilika

‘It’s not a lake, it’s an estuary!’ You will hear your Geography teacher yell. But you are not thinking. Your eyes are glazed over from watching the flamingoes take off in a noisy wing flapping flamboyance without ever crashing into one another. How do they do that? After having seen flamingos at Nakuru, I did not think this was going to affect me one bit. But Chilka happens to be a place where they breed, so it’s home. There are other species of birds too. And golden jackals in the woods, but I found myself rooting for the rare Irrawaddy dolphins that shelter here. You will also see the bottlenose dolphins too.

Am so glad that the locals have learnt to not kill the migratory birds. I don’t claim to understand too much of the flora that the reserve protects, but I am glad this green patch might go a long way to save the planet.

65. The Sundarbans

We’ve all seen the pictures of the mangroves in our science textbooks, but to see them in person was a revelation. Florida Everglades have nothing on the Sundarbans. I was fortunate enough to see not one but three Royal Bengal Tigers as well as an albino crocodile. An albino croc just doing its thing in the Sun. I almost fell off the boat.

The boats are rather well-equipped with places to crash, bunk bed style, if you want to rest after the awesome food they serve on the boat. Night halt is at super decent hotels and guest houses. I was fascinated by the river passage we share with Bangladesh and my mind brewed many movies about International smugglers…

66. Mukosh Para in Charida Village

Why does the visit to this small village in Purulia (West Bengal) make you happy that you live in this country? This is the village of 500 families where at least two people of the family are in the mask making business. Masks (or Mukosh) that are used in the Chhau dances or religious rituals. Shop after shop lined with demon masks occupying pride of place along with masks of gods and goddesses. And yes, the ever present cha shop where somebody will offer you nuggets of history (the Baghmundi king relocated the mask makers to one village, how the village mask maker has been given the national award and so on) and lament about economy and politics…

67. A Scenic Train Ride

Between the Mahananda and the Teesta rivers is the Mahananda Abhayaranya (wildlife reserve) and the train ride is just a feast for your eyes. Imagine a train chugging away and you get to see peacocks dance on the side, deer startled by the train (steam engines hissing away happily) and if you are lucky tigers and elephants too. Like I said, I am scared of monkeys and I hope they don’t notice me sticking my tongue out at them because for once the trains are bigger and faster than these creatures… The train ride takes you from Sevak train station to Santhalbari, a village in the middle of the tiger reserve. Why should you get off at that village? Because they make the best momos in the world.

You can even pack some momos for a lovely, sun-dappled path up to Zero Point which gives you an awesome bird’s eye view of the whole tiger reserve. Fantastic! Plus point? You can even explore the ruins of the Buxa Fort safely and happily because the tigers are just as asocial as you and I.

68. Village of Flowers

If the North-East part of our country is largely unexplored, I am glad. It keeps the loud tourists away. A quaint little village called 28 Mile Basti (the British named it so because it is 28 miles from Cooch Behar) is the prettiest village you will ever see. It is called the village of flowers. There are many homestays which teach you how to live with nature and happily. The internet connectivity there was sporadic, but who cares about connecting with the world (or with people who have problems) when you are drinking chai and eating momos among flowers?!

69. How Do You Whistle Your Name?

You may have heard how the shepherds on the Canary islands call out to one another by whistling. But here in Meghalaya, we have a village called KongThong that speaks whistle. Say what?! Every man, woman and child has a unique sound given to them by their mums and that’s how they communicate! The language is called ‘Jingrwai Lawbei’ which means ‘a mother’s love song’.

As I bite into yet another veg momo (the children gathered around to laugh at me because it’s a ‘veg’ momo), I wondered, ‘When your language means ‘song of love’ how do you yell at one another?’

Living root bridge in Dawki, Meghalaya. (Photo: Anwesha22 via Wikimedia Commons 4.0) A living root bridge in Dawki, Meghalaya. (Photo: Anwesha22 via Wikimedia Commons 4.0)

70. Living Root Bridges of Meghalaya

Architects of today could learn a thing or two from the Khasi and Jaintia tribes that lived with nature for hundreds of years. The living root bridges near Cherrapunji (double decker) and Shillong (single decker) are proof of that. If the roots in Guna caves scared me, here, I just felt awe. What skill they must have utilised to nurture the roots of the rubber trees to grow in a particular direction (to the opposite bank of the little river/ravine), and then help the roots intertwine. These bridges are part of trees that are living, so I felt odd stepping on them to get across, but the local guide said, ‘The trees understand and will not mind it if your heart is true.’

71. Hornbill Festival and a Scorched Tongue

If you truly wish to appreciate and celebrate the North East, then you must not miss the Hornbill Festival that celebrates not just with song and dance but with food and dare I say, wine?!

The festival attracts people who show up for adventure sports but also those who appreciate art and culture. I was happy to try the fruit wines grown in meghalaya: Cherry, Orange, Ginger and even Mulberry wine. Of course I had to try the Sohiong wine made from black fruit. As my guide pushed me towards Bhut Jolokia, I was happy to try the preserve. Bhut Jolokia is among the world’s hottest chilli peppers. As a Maharashtrian, I pride myself in being able to handle Thecha (green or red chilli chutney). But boy, this pepper (you had better handle it with gloves because the oil from the chilli stays on your fingers!) is something else! It’s a good thing it had started to drizzle, because something had to put out the smoke coming out of my ears and mouth!

72. Sacred Forests of Mawphlang

‘Take back not a leaf or twig, but just memories,’ they said. And this jaded traveller thought it was just one of those things travel guides will tell you as you enter a forest. The Khasis hold this pretty forest sacred. The guide will point out wild mushrooms growing at our feet and names of trees and will tell you how the khasis believe the forest deity will protect them by turning into a tiger or a leopard. You will also learn how the tribal chiefs are anointed inside the first where the monoliths are, and how the villagers sacrifice animals if their family members are unwell…

And yes, they do shake you down in case a leaf or a pebble has lodged in your hair or clothes inadvertently. The curse of the gods might follow you wherever you are…

73. Chabimura Caves in Tripura

90 km from Agartala is one of the best forest and river experiences you will ever have. I have been so fortunate to visit this state because that boat ride was unforgettable. You have a choice: do you want a quiet boat or the one with a noisy motor helping you go faster, churning the Gomti river waters behind you. You can tell the boatman to take you along slowly as you enjoy the Chabimura which means Mountain of Pictures. You ask why, but the guide says, ‘Wait and see!’

There are gigantic ancient carvings on the cliffs of gods and goddesses, and you wonder how they managed to create such beautiful art that is covered beautifully in green moss. Truly, mountains of pictures!

74. Unakoti: 99,99,999 rock sculptures

One less than a crore is what Unakoti means. But nothing prepares you for the number of awesome rock carvings (should be called boulder carvings!) you will see on this picturesque mountain meadow trail. But why are all these faces grinning so much? Is that Shiva or Buddha? Plus there are legends about the rock carvings you cannot miss.

I’d be lying if I told you I saw all of them, but loved the stories. My favourite one is about Shiva and his entourage of a crore gods en route to Kashi - stop here for the night. They are told by Shiva, ‘We move at first light’, but the gods were tired so they overslept. Shiva, quick to anger, turns them into stone. One god who has anticipated that anger has escaped to the heavens to share the story. That’s why we know this happened!

75. The Incredible Dawki River Ride

I saved the best experience for the last. Technically it’s the Umngot River. Step into the boats at Dauki or Dawki. The river flows between two rocky mountains that are covered with green forest. But you don’t look at the mountains. You look at the river. The water is so clean, so clear you can actually see the bottom of the river. If there are other boats on the river, they look like they’re floating. Truly an experience where words fail you. Even those who squeal in delight will be too gobsmacked to talk. Nature stuns you into submission.

I am enslaved by Nature already. I am not saying you should not undertake pilgrimages to faraway temples or take those trips to forts, palaces and beaches, I am hoping you will find a place inside your hearts to try something new and different. Our country has a treasure trove of lesser known magical places waiting to be discovered. Happy travels!
Manisha Lakhe is a poet, film critic, traveller, founder of Caferati — an online writer’s forum, hosts Mumbai’s oldest open mic, and teaches advertising, films and communication.
first published: Aug 13, 2022 09:53 pm
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