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India Unknown

Take a vow to discover a new part of your country this New Year. Here are some places you can begin with ...

Kalyani Prasher  

 

Village life at Daporijo, Arunachal Pradesh

Perhaps no place is as unexplored as India's northeast, and that's a gross injustice to this region's natural beauty and its many other attractions. Of the region, Arunachal remains the final frontier, the land where the sun first says hello to India, the land which is nothing but a clutch of cliched images in most people's minds.

Remove your preconceived notions at the scenic and pretty town of Daporijo, by the mighty river Subansiri, as you spend a few idyllic days observing a way of life different from yours, crossing over bamboo bridges into a land frozen in time.

You can spend your entire holiday witnessing tribal culture, or you can up the tempo by trying your hand at white-water rafting at the Subansiri. For first-timers this may be a bit challenging, but there is always the quieter water sport of angling.

There are a couple of forest reserves nearby for nature walks and birding. You can combine your holiday with the more popular town of Ziro, 160 km away, which is the spot for a popular annual music festival.

Stay option: This is a bit tricky as there aren't many good options. There are homestays across the state, but Arunachal Tourism gives the thumbs up to Mell Botom Tourist Lodge in Daporijo. Tel: +91 9402872481

Getting there: It's 327 km from the capital Itanagar, but you are better off stopping at Ziro before reaching Daporijo.
 
Wildlife at Bera, Rajasthan

There is more to Rajasthan than just the popular cities you hear about, blue, golden, pink or white, and, in fact, there's something far more exciting than all of them put together waiting to be explored.

Between Udaipur and Jodhpur is Bera, an almost unknown region even for the locals. However, there is one thing that is fast catching the attention of those who keep their ears open for such things: leopards. The most elusive cat of the jungle is here in abundance. There are so many leopards in the rocky hills of the Aravalli range, where the village is situated, that it is impossible to return without spotting them. And that's not the only deadly beast to catch sight of. Jawai Dam, the biggest in western Rajasthan, has a large presence of crocodiles (as well as migratory birds).

A paradise for wildlife and animal lovers, the unexplored expanse of Bera, the stark landscape made prettier by River Jawai, is well and truly a hidden gem - a rare one among the many jewels of Rajasthan.

Stay option: Leopard's Lair (leopard-lairresort.com) is a good place to stay at Bera. The hotel will organize safaris for you. Tel: +91 8239365771

Getting there: Bera is about four hours from Jodhpur and three hours from Udaipur. You can also combine a holiday here with either of the two cities.

History at Burhanpur, Madhya Pradesh

Once a capital of the Mughals, ruled by Shah Jahan, the present-day city of Burhanpur was founded in the early 1400s along the banks of the River Tapti. In fact, it is believed that a painting in the Shahi Qila here inspired the design for the Taj Mahal. Whether that is true or not is up for debate, but the grand mosques and exquisite palaces and tombs are a definite mark of the illustrious ruler. With most of them still standing, Burhanpur is an absolute treasure trove of Mughal architectural heritage.

Located at the southern tip of Madhya Pradesh, this is where borders become irrelevant as MP merges with Maharashtra with their people, culture, food, topography - Burhanpur is often referred to as the gateway to the Deccan, the final post of northern India. You can visit the Asirgarh Fort here, which was once considered the actual gateway to southern India.

Don't miss the stunning hammam, said to be built especially for Mumtaz Mahal, an exquisite structure inside the Shahi Qila. It is believed that the begum died here while giving birth to her 14th child. Apart from the Mughal heritage, there are soothing views of River Tapti all around. A real find, this one.

Stay option: The MP Tourism-run Tapti Retreat is the best located, comfortable hotel, close to all the important sightseeing options. Tel: +91 755242244; booking.mptourism.com/mphome/index.html

Getting there: Indore is the closest airport, about 190 km from Burhanpur. Burhanpur railway station is connected via Mumbai and Pune.

Walking at Suro, Himachal Pradesh

Everyone goes to Shimla but next time you think of going there on a holiday, consider adding two days to a place close by.

Suro is a village nearby, next to the better-known Shoghi, about an hour short of Shimla. What this means is that you get to the place quicker from the railway station, but also that Shimla is close enough to visit. But that's not all that it has going for it.

As the road goes off from the highway and towards Suro, the scenery changes. You leave behind the concrete and smoke, and enter an almost eerily quiet and surprisingly green road, leading four kilometres or so down to the village. This road has hardly any traffic and the views are stunning.

It keeps getting better. As you go along, the road has many dirt and gravel tracks going off it that are ideal for walking-which you can explore over two or three days. You can walk down to the village or up towards the main road, take in the fresh air and the pretty chir pines.

Stay option: The fairly new Suro Treehouse Resort is the only option unless you want to stay close by in Shoghi. Tel: + 91 9816603700; suroresort.com

Getting there: Take a train to Kalka station and drive up two hours, or take your own car up from Delhi or Punjab.

Birding at Velavadar, Gujarat

You'll be forgiven for not knowing that there is such a thing as Blackbuck National Park in Gujarat. Famous for Gir and the Asiatic lion, blackbucks are creatures more closely associated with the neighbouring state of Rajasthan. But in the less-known village of Velavadar, in Bhavnagar district, blackbucks roam free in the tall grasslands of the sanctuary.

Now, not everyone may be excited to spot just blackbucks, we admit, so here's the real secret. More like a bush in the outback rather than a forested national park, it affords amazing bird-watching opportunities, with over 140 recorded species so far. The grasslands and marshes invite pretty birds like the painted francolin, sarus crane and flamingos, along with a whole host of egrets and herons. Oh, and watch out for the rare and endangered Stolickza's bushchat.

Velavadar is located along the alluvial plains of Bhal, where nearly 40 species of grass have been identified. This is a mesmerizing landscape - stark, wide and open, often so surreal that you'll have a hard time believing you are still in India.

Stay option: The beautiful Blackbuck Lodge (theblackbucklodge.com) is the only option available near the park, and the safari and jungle experience are highly regarded. You can do bird walks with resident naturalists. Tel: + 91 9978979728

Getting there:
The nearest airport is Ahmedabad, 150 km away. If you are coming from Mumbai, you can fly directly to Bhavnagar, only 65 km away from the park.

Spirituality at Nalgonda, Telangana

Nalgonda is a pilgrimage centre with several landmarks of religious importance, such as the Lateef Saheb Dargah, the 2,000-year-old Jain temple Kolanupaka and, its central attraction, the Yadadri Temple, shrine to Sri Laksmi Narsimha Swamy, situated atop the Yadadri hill. It's a beautiful example of temple architecture, with the sanctum located inside a cave, people with a spiritual bent of mind will enjoy exploring the peaceful premises, lending a meditative pause to the hustle of daily life.

 That's not all. An erstwhile stronghold of the Rajputs, Nalgonda was taken over by the Bahmani kings in the medieval times, and that's just a snapshot of Nalgonda's fascinating history. Offering a captivating glimpse into the past and a calming balm of spirituality, Nalgonda is an ideal mix for those looking for a quiet break but still want to do something while on holiday. If you need more, there's boating at Nagarjuna Sagar Dam and you can explore an old fort nearby.

Stay option: Vijay Vihar Hotel is a basic and clean option, located by the dam. Tel: 1800 42546464; telanganatourism.gov.in/partials/stay/nalgonda/haritha-vijay-vihar-hotel-nagarjuna-sagar.html

Getting there: About two and half hours by road from Hyderabad

Peace at Garpanchkot, West Bengal

A series of bloody invasions, a fort in ruin, a silent hill-quite amazingly, the dark history of Garpanchkot comes together to offer a peaceful holiday option to the modern-day traveller. You get a panoramic view of the serene vistas and the dam on river Damodar from the top of the Panchet Hill. The ruins are a reminder of a time gone by when the Bargi attacks were almost an annual event; and the unfrequented land and green topography means a resplendent birdlife. Located in Purulia, this is definitely among the least known areas in West Bengal.

Apart from reliving the history associated with the place by exploring the ruins of the centuries-old garh, you can also spend time doing a host of calming outdoor activities. There are as nature walks and cycling, as well as birding, swimming and fishing - all possible thanks to the Panchet dam.

Stay option: West Bengal Forest Tourism-run Nature Resort in Garpanchkot is perhaps the best place to stay in this small town. Tel: 033 22258549

Getting there: The nearest airport is in Kolkata, about 252 km away. You can also take the train to Asansol, which is only about an hour away.

Heritage at Sirpur, Chhattisgarh

Dating between the fifth and the eighth centuries, this historical town is steeped in heritage. Chhattisgarh has always had a strong Buddhist influence, but recent excavations have added to Sirpur's significance and importance as a centre for Buddhism in central India. In fact, Hiuen Tsang himself visited Sirpur in the seventh century. It is believed that the ruins here are older than Nalanda, and the Buddhist viharas are a sight to behold even today. Another great attraction is the Laxman Temple (dedicated to Lord Vishnu), considered to be the finest and among the oldest brick temples in the country. This is also the site of the annual Sirpur Mahotsav, a festival of music and dance usually held in January.

To add a twist to your holiday, the Barnawapara Wildlife Sanctuary and the river Mahanadi are nearby-both make for great day trips from Sirpur. More than anything, this town and its ruins will fascinate those interested in old temple architecture and India's great religious heritage. The fact that it is so near the well-connected Raipur airport is just plain lucky!

Stay option: There aren't many options at Sirpur, though the charmingly named Hiuen Tsiang Tourist Resort provides basic and clean accommodation. Tel: 1800 102 6415; cgtourism.choice.gov.in

Getting there: About an 80-km drive from Raipur airport

Cruising at Dindi, Andhra Pradesh

It's so tiny that it was not even on the tourism map, until a couple of hotels opened here and pushed a small segment of people to discover it. Thankfully that has still not affected the tranquillity of this scenic village by the banks of the river Godavari. The setting is perfect if you want to unwind: swaying palms, gentle breeze cooled by the waters, calm backwaters, canals and lagoons.

When you are not gazing at the waters, and enjoying a cool drink and a spicy snack, you can walk among the coconut groves or by the river. Adding to the peace are slow cruises on the backwaters on simple houseboats. At night, the sky itself becomes your source of delight, as a million stars become visible, bigger and brighter than you can ever hope to see in the city.

This place is a mix of Goa and Kerala from a time gone by, without the people, the noise, the parties or the madding crowds. Unbelievable, but true!

Stay option: Though there are a few low-budget options around Dindi, including an APTDC hotel 80 km away, the only good option on the spot is Dindi-By The Godavari, a Sterling Holidays resort. Tel: +91 8862226662; dindibythegodavariresort.com

Getting there: Palakollu is the nearest railway station about 15 km from the village. The closest airports are Rajahmundry, about 80 km away, and Vijaywada, about 180 km from Dindi.

Scenic beauty at Aritar, Sikkim

Located in east Sikkim, Aritar comes with all of Sikkim's attractions - forest lakes, high mountains, views of the Khangchendzonga - minus the crowds. It's so pretty that it's unreal that people haven't discovered it yet.

The Lampokhari Lake located here is among the oldest in the state, and has recently added boating to its kitty. There's even a small annual festival in March that celebrates boating, apart from horse riding and archery. Of course, trekking in the eastern Himalayas is always an option.

As all over the state, there are places of significance attached to Buddhism in Aritar as well, with the Aritar Gumpa being among the oldest temples in the Karma Kagyu lineage.

Stay option: The quaint Lampokhari Village Resort (aritar.in/Lampokhari-Village-Resort.php) is the best option here. Tel: + 91 9903295920

Getting there: It's about four hours from both Bagdogra airport and the New Jalpaiguri railway station in West Bengal.

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