When the Mughal ruler Shah Jahan built the Taj Mahal in mid 17th century in memory of his beloved wife, Mumtaz, he must never have imagined the impact the mausoleum would create for tourism in India a few centuries later. Over the years, this monument has been a part of the Wonders of the World. It is a prominent attraction in the itineraries of foreign visitors who intend to visit India. What makes Taj Mahal accessible is that it talks in-depth about the history and, prosperity during the Mughal period, the story of two lovers, the progress of art in the 17th century and is an architectural wonder. As I write this, records say that Taj Mahal receives more than 6 million visitors every year, making it one of the most famous monuments in the world.
However, every time I hear someone coming to India talk about Taj Mahal being high on their priority list, what lingers in my mind is the thought that hasn’t India as a tourist destination grown beyond the Taj mahal in their minds. How often do we hear people talking about the cultures of North Eastern India or the landscapes of Spiti or temple architecture in Tamil Nadu or the trails in the Western Ghats or the forests of Madhya Pradesh or the ruins of Hampi in the same breath as the Taj Mahal? Not much, I’d say.
India has always been known for its history, heritage, diverse cultures, cuisines, monuments, festivals and landscapes. With dialects, cuisines, attires and cultures changing every 100 kilometres, I reckon India undoubtedly has much more to offer beyond the spectacular Taj Mahal.
Having travelled reasonably well across India, I firmly believe, it is time for visitors to look beyond Taj Mahal and below are a few of the places that are a personal favourite, and a must-visit.
I was left flabbergasted when without a cue, a colourful mountain stood before me during my ride through Pin Valley in Spiti. I stopped my bike, but surprisingly never took out my camera, as all that I wanted to do was gaze at it in oblivion. I slowly realized that I had tears of joy running down my cheek. Never had this happened before, nor has it happened ever again. Spiti in Himachal Pradesh is surreal and offers some of the most breathtaking landscapes in the country.
Interspersed with isolated tiny villages, Spiti is known for its barren brown mountains, turquoise blue waters, monasteries perched on mountains and the elusive snow leopard. Staying with locals in homestays or with Buddhist monks in monasteries in Spiti is an excellent way to unbox what this mysterious land holds.
I lost count of the number of stars and just lay on my bed gazing at them atop a sand dune in Rajasthan. Tucked away from Jaisalmer, I had come here riding a camel to sleep under the open sky. As much as that night was one of the most memorable ones during my travels, the sunrise was an absolute treat. To lie down in your bed and watch the night sky slowly turn into orange is probably what every travelling soul would love to experience. Apart from the deserts, Rajasthan is known for its intimidating forts, incredible palaces, vibrant culture and rich heritage. A tour across Rajasthan would reveal the stories about the Rajputs who ruled here, the cuisines of the desert tribes, their colourful fairs and festivals, and the unique Rajasthani music.
Every Galo home served me Poka (a local rice beer), and they welcomed me like family with a broad smile. Galo tribe in the Eastern Himalayas is one of the friendliest people I have ever met. I spent my days listening to their stories, playing with the kids, relishing their cuisine, staying in their homes, wandering with them through their land and understanding their culture. They made sure that I was a part of their family every single time.
It’s not just the Galos, but the people of North-Eastern part of India are always friendly and welcoming. Whether it is Sikkim or Arunachal or any of the other eight states in Eastern Himalayas, the culture in this part of India is unique and intriguing. Be it their cuisine, language or heritage, a trail through this region reveals a different perspective that is hard to find in other parts of the country.
Standing in front of Achyuta Raya temple, I envisaged the days when the streets here sold precious stones in the open. Those were the glorious days during the rule of the Vijayanagara Empire. Hampi looks very different now, but still left me stunned and captivated. Referred to as the largest open-air museum in the world, I wasn’t surprised when I walked through the ruins of Hampi, as it remained true to its tagline.
Located along Tungabhadra river, Hampi is a UNESCO World Heritage site and was in its prime during the 16th century. Popularly known as Rome of the east and the wealthiest kingdoms in the world during that period. With boulder-strewn landscape, scattered ruins, spectacular sunrises and sunsets, magnificent temples and rich history, Hampi is undoubtedly a massive museum which one can walk through listening to the numerous tales that the stones narrate.
As much as I was enthralled by the act of the Theyyam performer who had metamorphosed into a deity, I was equally awestruck by the serene and secluded beaches of northern Kerala, referred to as Malabar. From Biriyanis to Sulaimanis, the region left me craving for more Malabari cuisine that has a tinge of Arabic influence as well.
Malabar is where Kalaripayattu (an ancient martial art form) originated, the land where colonial powers first entered India and the first place where cricket, circus and cakes introduced in India; all of which talks about how steeped this region is in history and stories. Though not as prominent on the tourist circuit like its popular neighbours- Kochi, Munnar or Alappuzha, Malabar that comprises of Kozhikode, Kannur, Thalassery and Kasargod, is a treasure trove for the discerning travellers and stand true to the state’s reference as God’s Own Country.
It was mid-noon when I walked through the deserted dusty alleys of Kanadukathan village in Chettinad region, and there wasn’t a soul in sight. The grandiose mansions of the Chettiar community stood tall on either side and stared at me, revealing numerous stories from the past glorious days. I was impressed by their gargantuan sizes with most of them spread over an acre, and astounded by the sculpted exteriors and interiors. The interiors had mirrors from Belgium, Italian marble, Burmese teak and Japanese ceramic tiles. Gazing at the stunning artworks, paintings and carvings inside these mansions, one can easily envisage the ostentatious lifestyle of the Chettiars as you walk through these homes.
As much as Chettinad is famous for its cuisine and floral tile making, this region with a cluster of 75 villages was once home to Chettiar communities who were traders and dealt with lands as far as Malaysia and Indonesia. As their trade and business dwindled in the 19th century, they moved to different parts of the country, leaving behind these large mansions, some of which converted into heritage hotels.
The Himalayas have charmed me multiple times, but it has always been the Western Ghats that has been close to my heart. The images burnt in my memory are the sunrise view from Kumara Parvata, riding through the tea estates of Munnar, trekking up to see the heart-shaped lake in Wayanad or the blooming flowers of Kaas plateau, and gazing at a leopard in BR Hills. The Western Ghats have always offered some of the most cherishing moments during my travels.
Stretching over 1600 Kms from Gujarat in central India to Kanyakumari, the tip of the country, this UNESCO World Heritage site is home to magnificent landscapes, endless hills, sprawling lakes, Gushing waterfalls, biodiversity spots and wildlife sanctuaries. Western ghats have been there since the days of Gondwana (the supercontinent) when the Indian subcontinent was attached to Africa. This also explains why there are similarities between flora and fauna in India and the ones in Africa. Chasing the monsoons in the Western ghats is an ideal way to experience this region.
Author – Niranjan Das