ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY trundle off the beaten track across India to find uncommon faraway places filled with history, beauty and intrigue
As people wander to predictable destinations around the country, there are several places that lie unnoticed in the back lanes of public memory. Mark this year with an exploration of less known holiday spots and offbeat experiences ranging from forgotten French enclaves, wild getaways and ancient animal fairs to organic farmstays, rock cut caves, Himalayan villages and more. Here’s a pick of places chanced upon while joining dots on the map, which remain relatively unmarked by GPS, untouched by cable and some beyond the connectivity of phone and internet networks.
A wildlife park that takes its name from an unfortunate incident where a British officer was ‘suddenly killed’ by a tiger may not seem like a cheery getaway, but a century later, Achanakmar still retains much of its wild charm. Located 60 km from Bilaspur at Chhattisgarh’s northern border with Madhya Pradesh, the 914 sq km sanctuary is part of the much larger Achanakmar-Amarkantak Biosphere Reserve. A wildlife corridor across the Satpura-Maikal hills connects it to Kanha. After a 700-year reign of the Kalchuri kings, the region came under Maratha control between 15th-17th centuries and in 1818 Major Blunt became the first British officer to come here, followed by General Smith. British-built forest rest houses dot the park – from the entry gate at Lamni to Achanakmar 35km away, besides Chaparwa, Surhi and Sonbhadra Tourist Resort at Amadob. It’s a great place to spot leopards, wild dogs, jackals and hyenas. The forest is rich with sal, sag (ironwood) and tendu, whose leaves are used to roll beedis. A heady fragrance of mahua flowers hangs in the air and the canopy is broken with the riotous splash of palash or Flame of the Forest, prized as a dye, cosmetic and antiseptic. Home to Gond and Baiga tribes who depend on the forest and collect flowers to make hooch, deep inside Achanakmar you can find sacred trees and Gudgud Ped, which rumbles like a noisy stomach! Ph 0771 4028635/6 http://www.chhattisgarhtourism.net
Bateshwar (Uttar Pradesh)
While innumerable spiritual spots on the Ganga, Bateshwar is an ancient pilgrim centre located on the banks of the Yamuna. The ancestral home of former PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Bateshwar is also famous for its 500-year-old cattle fair held over a month after Diwali on the riverbank at Bah near Agra. After Bihar’s Sonepur Mela, Bateshwar is the oldest and largest cattle fair in India, where animals are traded in a rural fair. A string of riverside temples dedicated to various manifestations of Lord Shiva like Panchmukheshwar, Pataleshwar and Gowrishankar lie on a scenic curve of the river. The main shrine of Bateshwarnath, which gives the town its name, is dedicated to Shiva’s ascetic form Batuk nath, who is believed to have rested under a vat (banyan) tree here, which still shades the shrine. Perched on a raised platform with ghats (steps) leading down to the river, the complex once had 108 Shiva temples! Sadly, only 40 remain due to the fickle course of the river. Explore the maze of mud caves and hillocks inhabited by sadhus. A Maha Aarti is held on the ghats every full moon but the biggest celebration takes place during Karthik Purnima, when pilgrims come for a holy dip in the Yamuna. As part of an eco-tourism project by the Chambal Conservation Foundation, the Jarar family’s riverside retreat The Kunj offers a pleasant rooftop view of the crescent of temples. Local guided tours arranged by Chambal Safari Lodge include a boat ride and visits to noteworthy temples. Rs.1500/person. Ph 9997066002, 9837415512 http://www.bateshwar.co.uk
Chandernagor (West Bengal)
While there’s no better place than Pondicherry to savour the vestiges of French colonial rule in India, Chandernagor (or Chandannagar) lies quietly in the shadows. In the constant Anglo French tussle for trading supremacy, the British razed Chandernagore’s Fort d’Orleans and much of the French outpost in 1757, to bolster British Calcutta. Today, St Joseph’s Convent built in 1861 with its little chapel bearing the historic 1720 door through which British generals Clive and Watson marched in stands as a mute reminder. The French motto Liberté Egalité Fraternité is emblazoned on the town’s entry gate. If Pondy is a cradle of Franco-Tamil culture, Chandernagor assimilates Bengali flavours, visible in mansions like Kanhai Seth’er Bari, Nundy Bari and Nritya Gopal Smriti Mandir, which fuses Corinthian columns with Hindu motifs. Past the Sacred Heart Church lies The Strand, a mile long paved avenue lined with historic buildings, reminiscent of Pondy’s Promenade. To the north, stands Hotel de Paris, built in 1878, presently housing the Sub-divisional court and the 1887 Thai Shola hotel is now the Chandannagar College. Stroll past Rabindra Bhavan, the Gendarmerie and an 1845 Clocktower to Dupleix Palace, the erstwhile Governor’s residence converted into an Indo-French Cultural Centre and museum. Joraghat or Chandni, a decorated pavilion at the ferry point bears a plaque dedicated to Dourgachorone Roquitte (Durgacharan Rakshit), courtier of the French Government and the first Indian to be given the Chevalier de legion d’Honour in 1896. Underground House, originally a rest house of the French navy with its lowest level underwater, later hosted Rabindra Nath Tagore, who popularized ‘Patal Bari’ in his stories. In its heyday, Chandernagore was the most decorated ghat on the 2500km stretch of the Ganga. Local resident Kalyan Chakravarty, leads walking trails and heritage tours. Stay in the colonial comforts of Red Brick Residency in Kolkata for a day visit to the town, 37 km away via GT Road. Ph 9831330846 http://www.chandernagorheritage.com
Dhankar (Himachal Pradesh)
As you trudge 8km up the bare mountain road from Shichling, midway between Kaza and Tabo, the 1000 ft high rocky spurs of Dhankar appear. Literally translated as ‘fort on a cliff’ (Dhang means cliff in Tibetan, and khar is fort), the sight of a precariously balanced fort on a 1000-foot high wind-eroded sandy spur makes one think its collapse is imminent. The World Monuments Fund lists Dhankar as one of the World’s Hundred Most Endangered Sites, yet locals believe that when the world ends, Dhankar will be the last monastery to fall. The village has remnants of an old palace, a prison and a cave that provided shelter to all the village folk during war and a museum showcasing its historic past. Poised on steep southern slope of the village, the Dhankar Monastery overlooks the confluence of the Spiti and Pin Rivers. One of the five major monastic centres in Spiti, it belongs to the Gelugpa sect of Vajrayana Buddhism and was founded between 7th and 9th centuries. The gompa displays exquisite thangkas, murals and a riveting statue of Vairochana with four figures seated back-to-back. A 3km road from the village goes to Dhankar Lake (4517 m), a 2-hr hike, or a treacherous vertical ascent that takes an hour. Trek for 3 hrs from Dhankar to Lhalung (3758 m) to see the 1000-year-old Sherkhang Temple notable for its stucco building with wall and ceiling paintings. From Lhalung trek further to Demul, Komik and Langza, staying in rustic homestays run by Spiti Ecosphere. Ph 01906-222-652 http://www.spitiecosphere.com
Counted among the ancient villages of Rajasthan, Katrathal dates back 5000 years to the Mahabharata era when it served as the capital of Kichak, army commander of King Virat of Matsya desa. Kichak was slain by Pandava Bhima for insulting Draupadi. The village also has an unusual cenotaph of Maharaja Budh Singh, a remarkable warrior who was beheaded in battle 25km away but legend recounts how his headless body fought its way back to Katrathal. A chhatri (cenotaph) marks the spot where his body fell. Yet the nondescript village’s has bragging rights as India’s largest producer of clay chillums (earthen pipes). Potters attribute it to Katrathal’s extraordinary mud. Experience the region’s rustic charm at Jor ki Dhani Godham, a 15-acre farmstay about 15km from Sikar on the Katrathal-Hardyalpura Road. Host Kan Singh Nirvan, an advocate of organic farming and healthy living, considers the desi gaai (country cow) as the focal point of his farmstay. Thanks to the germicidal and anti-bacterial properties of cow dung and urine, Kan Singh uses them in a self-concocted solution called jivamrit (organic nectar) for farming. In a small garden patch, rose bushes, papaya and musambi, prosper without being watered, deriving moisture and nutrients from a pit of organic waste. Stay in thatched huts with walls of aran, a medicinal plant eaten by goats and camels, which has therapeutic air-cooling properties. Enjoy farm-fresh milk, curd, buttermilk, white butter and ghee besides bajra (pearl millet) roti, pulses, vegetables and jaggery served on a traditional bajot (low stool). Ph +91-9875039977
Mechuka (Arunachal Pradesh)
The road from Aalo winds through the folds of Arunachal’s never-ending hills to finally reach a clearing surrounded by an amphitheatre of mountains – Shinjong, Damjen and Lola. This is Mechuka, named after the medicinal hot water springs in which locals take a therapeutic bath (men-medicine, chu-water, kha-open area). Site of India’s most remote airfield on the China border, one wakes up to the sound of bugles and bagpipes of the morning drill. The old gompa of Samden Yongjhar sits on a hillock overlooking the Yargyap River criss-crossed with lovely hanging bridges. 7km from Mechuka at Dorjeling, is the large clay idol of Jawa Jamboku, a manifestation of Lord Buddha as protector against demons, split across two floors as if straddling two worlds. Stay at Nehnang Guest House, locally known as Private I.B.
The rediscovery of the Forest Owlet in the forests of Melghat has brought international attention to this forested tract of Central India. Thought to be extinct for nearly 113 years and often confused for the more common spotted owlet, it was rediscovered in the foothills of the Satpura Range in November 1997 by American ornithologist Pamela C. Rasmussen. Though the park is a noted tiger reserve, birders flock to Melghat for a good sighting of the critically endangered bird. The small owlet can often be seen perched atop tall teak trees scouting for its prey. Stay at the MTDC hotel or Harshawardhan at Chikaldhara and visit the Gawilgarh fort, named after the Gawli (cowherds) who have inhabited the pastoral tracts of Berar (modern day Amravati) for centuries.
When the Gangotri temple closes for winter after Diwali, the idol of Ganga is shifted to a lower altitude. Mukhwa is the lesser-known winter seat of Gangotri. Stay at riverside tents in an apple grove at Leisure Hotel’s Char Dham Camp at Dharali and stroll across the bridge for a temple visit at Mukhwa and a view of Chandraparvat, Srikanth, Himvan and Bandarpoonch peaks. The village marks the Himalayan ascent of the Pandavas and locals eagerly guide you to the jharna (waterfall). It is believed that Bhima created the Bhim Ganga waterfall to quench the thirst of the Pandavas. Imprints on a rock are regarded as the hoofmarks Bhima’s horse en route to Mansarovar. Even today, cows and mules step into the same hoof prints while ambling up the mountain. The trail beyond leads to Danda Pokhri for views of Mount Sudarshan and Sumeru with other trails to Sat Tal and Kedarnath via Bhrigupanth. http://www.leisurehotels.co.in Ph 011-46520000
Narthamalai (Tamil Nadu)
Just 25km from Trichy off the Pudukottai highway is a cluster of nine hills with some of the longest edicts and oldest rock cut cave temples in South India. What makes Narthamalai even more charming are its tarns – rainwater runoff from the rocky hills collect in natural cavities creating small ponds. On the southwest foot of Kadambar malai, facing a water-filled trench is the Kadamba Nayanar temple hewn into the hillock. To its right are two sets of inscriptions of Rajaraja I and Rajendra II inscribed on a specially prepared surface, comparable to Ashokan Rock Edicts. Nearby, shrines of Mangalambigai and Nagarisvaram stand apart on the rocky bed. At the other end of the village, a good 20 min hike up Mela malai leads past Thalayaruvi Singam Sunai, a green pool that has a rock-cut shrine, seen only when the water is drained. Peeping from behind the rocky incline is the turret of the Sivan kovil. The Vijayalayacholeswaran Temple towers above the facing Nandi, subsidiary shrines and fields below. Constructed in 9th century by Vijayalaya Chola, the first king of the Imperial Cholas, this temple is very important as it served as the prototype for the Brihadisvara temple at Thanjavur. Snug against the mountain is the cave temple of Pathinen Boomi Vinnagaram or Thirumerkoil. Set on a platform with makaras, yalis, lions and elephants in the frieze, the highlight being a dozen near-identical bas-relief sculptures of Vishnu standing on lotus pedestals on the mukha mandapa wall. The adjacent cave shrine of Pazhiyileeswaram has a nandi and dwarapalas guarding the linga inside. The newly renovated Sangam Hotel in Trichy or Chidamabara Vilas near Tirumayam Fort, make ideal bases to cover Narthamalai. Ph 0431-4244555 http://www.sangamhotels.com
While white water rafting has recently taken off in Goa on the Mhadei River, it is largely a monsoon driven activity with a season lasting till October. But a new, relatively unknown haunt on the Goa Maharashtra border is being hailed by rafting pioneer John Pollard as ‘a cracking little rafting stretch with one of the most technical and steep sections run in South India.’ Located not far from the Tilari dam and backwaters near the border town of Dodamarg, the river technically falls in Maharashtra but enters Goa as the Chapora River. The 6km stretch has rapids of upto class 4 with a small gorge section that builds up to a real belting rapid called Wrecking Ball and obstacles like Rocky Garden, Kudashi Falls and Below the Bridge. The season lasts from October to Jan but being a dam released river, this year water might be released right up to May. The minimum age limit to raft is 15 yrs. Swimming is advisable but not a must. Rafters are trained thoroughly first and do various rescue drills. Small sporty rafts better suited to this steep technical river are used that seat 3 to 5 (unlike 8 or 9). Trips start at 10.00 am or 2.30 pm at Rs.2250/head. Ph 7387238866, 8805727230 http://www.goarafting.com
Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 4 January 2015 in Sunday Herald, the weekend supplement of Deccan Herald newspaper.