Hidden gems of hinterland

Hidden gems of hinterland

Hidden gems of hinterland

As people travel to known destinations across the country, there are several places that lie unnoticed in the back lanes of public memory.

Mark this year with an exploration of lesser-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 the dots on the map, which remain ignored, often unmarked by GPS, cable, phone or internet.

Rajasthan, Katrathal

Counted among the ancient villages of Rajasthan, Katrathal dates back 5,000 years to the Mahabharata era when it served as the capital of Kichak, the army commander of King Virat of Matsyadesha, who was slain by Bhima for insulting Draupadi.

The village has an unusual cenotaph of the remarkable warrior, Maharaja Budh Singh, who was beheaded in a battle 25 km away, but legend recounts how his headless body fought its way back to Katrathal. A chhatri (cenotaph) marks the spot where his body fell. The nondescript village has bragging rights as India’s largest producer of clay chillums (earthen pipes). Potters attribute it to Katrathal’s extraordinary mud.

Do experience the region’s rustic charm at Jor ki Dhani Godham, a 15 acre farmstay about 15 km from Sikar, on the Katrathal-Hardyalpura Road. Host Kan Singh Nirvan, an advocate of organic farming and healthy living, considers desi gaai (country cow) as the focal point of his farmstay.

Thanks to the germicidal and anti-bacterial properties of cow dung and urine, he 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).

For more deatils, call: +91-9875039977

 Uttar Pradesh, Bateshwar

There are innumerable spiritual spots on the banks of River Ganga, but Bateshwar is an ancient pilgrimage centre located on the banks of the Yamuna. The ancestral home of former PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the village is 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 holds the oldest and largest rural cattle fair in India. A string of riverside temples dedicated to 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, now brought down to 40 due to the river’s fickle course. 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.

Tip: Local guided tours arranged by Chambal Safari Lodge include a boat ride and visits to noteworthy temples. The tour is priced at Rs 1,500 per person.

For more details,
contact: 9997066002 or 9837415512, or visit www.bateshwar.co.uk.

West Bengal, Chandernagore

While Pondicherry’s popularity as the Indian place to savour the vestiges of French colonial rule stands, Chandernagore (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, has its little chapel bearing the historic 1720 door. The French motto Liberté Egalité Fraternité is emblazoned on the town’s entry gate.

Chandernagore assimilates Bengali flavours visible in mansions like Kanhai Seth’er Bari, Nundy Bari and Nritya Gopal Smriti Mandir, which fuse Corinthian columns with Hindu motifs. Past the Sacred Heart Church lies The Strand, a mile-long paved avenue with historical 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 clock tower to Dupleix Palace, the erstwhile governor’s residence converted into an Indo-French Cultural Centre and Museum.Underground House, originally a rest house of the French navy with its lowest level underwater, later hosted Rabindranath Tagore, who popularised ‘Patal Bari’ in his stories.

Tip: 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.

For more details, contact: 9831330846, or visit www.chandernagorheritage.com

 Tamil Nadu, Narthamalai

Just 25 km 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 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 a rocky bed. At the other end of the village, a 20-minute hike up Mela malai leads past Thalayaruvi Singam Sunai, a green pool that has a rock-cut shrine visible 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 the fields below. Constructed in the 9th century by Vijayalaya Chola, the first king of the Imperial Cholas, this temple served as the prototype for the Brihadeeshwara Temple in Thanjavur. Snug against the mountain is the cave temple of Pathinen Boomi Vinnagaram or Thirumer kovil. Set on a platform with makaras, yalis, lions and elephants in the frieze, the highlight is 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 dwarapalakas guarding the linga inside.

Tip: The newly renovated Sangam Hotel in Trichy, or Chidamabara Vilas near the Thirumayam Fort make ideal bases to cover Narthamalai.

For more details, contact: 0431-4244555, or visit www.sangamhotels.com

Maharashtra, Melghat

The rediscovery of the forest owlet in the Melghat forests has brought international attention to this tract of Central India. Thought to be extinct for nearly 113 years and often confused for the more common spotted owlet, it was spotted 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 there for a good sighting of the critically endangered bird. The small owlet can often be seen perched atop tall teak trees scouting for prey.

Tip: 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.

Arunachal Pradesh, Mechuka

The road from Aalo winds through the folds of Arunachal’s never-ending hills to reach a clearing surrounded by an amphitheatre of mountains — Shin Jong, Damien and Lola.

This is Mechuka, named after the medicinal hot springs in which locals take therapeutic baths (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 River Yargyap criss-crossed with lovely hanging bridges. Seven kilometres from Mechuka (at Darjeeling) is the large clay idol of Jawa Jamboku, a manifestation of Lord Buddha as protector against demons, split across two floors like straddling two worlds.

Tip: Stay at Nehnang Guest House, locally known as Private I.B.

Himachal Pradesh, Dhankar

As you trudge 8 km up the bare mountain road from Shichling, midway between Kaza and Tabo, the 1,000-feet-high rocky spurs of Dhankar appear. Dhang means cliff in Tibetan, and khar is fort. So, 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 it 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 which provided shelter to the villagers during wars, and a museum showcasing its historic past. Dhankar Monastery overlooks the confluence of Spiti and Pin rivers. It belongs to the Gelugpa sect of Vajrayana Buddhism.

The gompa displays exquisite thangkas, murals and a riveting statue of Vairochana with four figures seated back-to-back. A 3-km road from the village goes to Dhankar Lake (4,517 m), a 2-hour hike, or a treacherous vertical ascent that takes an hour. Trek for 3 hours from Dhankar to Lhalung (3,758 m) to see the 1000-year-old Sherkhang Temple notable for wall and ceiling paintings. From Lhalung, trek further to Demul, Komik and Langza, and opt for rustic homestays run by Spiti Ecosphere.

For more information, contact: 01906-222-652, or visit www.spitiecosphere.com

Chhattisgarh, Achanakmar

A  wildlife park that takes its name from an unfortunate incident in which a British officer was ‘suddenly killed’ by a tiger may not seem a cheery getaway, but a century later, Achanakmar Wildlife Sanctuary retains 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 Kalachuri kings, the region came under Maratha control between 15th and 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.

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 & antiseptic. The Gond and Baiga tribes depend on the forest for their homes and collect flowers to make hooch. Deep inside Achanakmar you can find sacred trees and Gudgud Ped, which rumbles like a noisy stomach!

For more details, contact: 0771 4028635/6, or visit www.chhattisgarhtourism.net

Goa, Tilari

While whitewater rafting has recently taken off in Goa on River Mhadei, it is largely a monsoon-driven activity. 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 River Chapora.

The 6-km stretch has rapids (sections of a river where the river bed has a relatively steep gradient) of up to class 4 with a small gorge section that builds up to a belting rapid called Wrecking Ball, and obstacles like Rocky Garden, Kudashi Falls and Below the Bridge.

The season lasts from October to January, but being a dam-released river, its water might be released till May this year. A person has to be 15 years or older to raft. Swimming is advisable, but not a must. Rafters are trained thoroughly. Small sporty rafts that can seat 3 to 5 (unlike 8 or 9) persons suited to this steep technical river are used.

Tip: Trips start at 10 am or 2.30 pm at Rs 2,250 per person. For more details, contact:
7387238866, 8805727230 www.goarafting.com

Uttarakhand, Mukhwa


When the Gangotri Temple is closed for winter after Diwali, the idol of Ganga is moved 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 its 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 hoof marks of Bhima’s horse en route to Manasarovar. Even today, cows and mules step into the same hoof prints while ambling up the mountain.

This trail leads to Danda Pokhari for views of Mount Sudarshan and Sumeru, while other trails lead to Sat Tal and Kedarnath via Bhrigupanth.

For more details, visit www.leisurehotels.co.in, or call: 011-46520000