A trip to India is guaranteed to be one of the most memorable experiences of your life. Our guest blogger and India fan, UB Hawthorn who spent two years living in India selects 10 of the most incredible off the beaten track and non-touristy places to visit in this beautifully intoxicating country…
I spent two years living and travelling throughout India and I only felt like I dipped my toes in the Ganga. Here’s why: It has 1.2 Billion people, millions of gods, thousands of languages, a history that spans 4,500 years, it’s known as the birthplace of four of the world’s major religions and is one of the world’s 17 megadiverse nations for its impressive biodiversity. The list goes on. And on. And on. Volumes can be filled writing about the country, its people, history, customs and everything else. It can deliver such a varied range of experiences of such intensity (or amusement) that people remember their India travel like few other destinations.
India can be a challenging country to travel, but is well worth it. Here’s a sampling of some top places, spread throughout the country, leaving out the obvious attractions like the Taj Mahal…
One of the best things about travelling to India is the opportunity to see amazing spiritual teachers. India has taken in many Tibetan exiles who had to flee their home from Chinese invasion, including His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
This town in the Himalayas is where he makes his home, and is also the seat of the Tibetan government in exile. For those into Buddhism, this is a great place to study since there are meditation centres, monasteries, nunneries and all kinds of classes happening all the time all around town and in the surrounding area. And it’s not just Buddhism, but yoga, cooking classes, volunteering, paragliding and hiking that have drawn a large population of travellers and expats.
Dharamsala is the name people use to refer to the general area, which includes the city of Dharamsala. But one of the best places to stay in this area is Dharamkot since Dharamsala and Mcleod Ganj have become quite overrun with tourists. This village is just up the mountain a short drive or walk and is backing right up against some serious Himalayan mountain trails, which makes for an immensely enjoyable experience because it combines the natural beauty of the mountains with all the activity and attractions of Dharamsala.
Since it just opened to tourism in 1974 the region of Ladakh in north India has recently experienced a surge of tourist traffic, particularly in the capital city of Leh—to the point where the infrastructure is starting to crumple under the load. But where tourists are choking on exhaust in Leh the rest of the region feels far from overrun.
One place well worth the visit is Turtuk. It’s a very under-the-radar place to visit in India as it just opened to tourism in 2009 so is not nearly as developed as other parts, which makes for a peaceful experience. This town used to be part of Pakistan until 1971 and has some of the most impressive scenery around with its mix of mountains, river valleys and terraced farms. When not looking around at the mountains, walking through the terraced farms and the town is a joy. These people have had relatively little outside influence in their lives and so maintain a peaceful agrarian life that makes for some ideal village therapy.
Some of the best places to travel are also not the easiest to get to. Turtuk is one such place. Since you’re travelling right up to the Line of Control (border area between India and China/Pakistan) it requires getting a special Inner Line permit, which is easy enough to get. Stopping at military checkpoints along the way isn’t much of a problem either. But what is a challenge is the 12+ hour drive over what some consider the highest motorable pass in the world (18,380 feet). With a winding, bumpy road that seems to go up and up forever and with 3,000-foot drops to look down at it feels like a slow-motion roller coaster, which means only those who really want to go go.
Goa has an infamous history in the rave scene. One of the many genres of electronic music, Goa trance, originated in the state of Goa, which marked it as a go-to spot for partiers from around the world. Though Goa is known for its parties, authorities have been cracking down in recent years, trying to turn it into more of a family-friendly atmosphere.
If you want some partying but a nice mix of beautiful beach and a diverse range of activities, Arambol (also known as Harmal) provides. It has nightly drum circles on the beach, a vibrant arts scene, great gourmet food, fun people and lots of activities, ranging from tantra workshops to hooping classes.
Travellers to India tend to fall into two camps: diehard Indiaphiles who go back year after year until they’ve lost count how many times they’ve gone or those who think the word India is an acronym for “I’ll never do it again.”
If there’s any one city that encapsulates the vibe of India all in one place, this is it. Varanasi (also known as Benares) can be a difficult place to travel. It’s overrun with people, traffic (human, vehicular and animal) and trash, requiring a good amount of patience and perseverance to get around. But all that said, it’s also considered India’s most sacred city, largely because of the cremations that happen on the ghats (banks) of the holy Ganga River.
Observing this ancient ritual alone is well worth the visit, but the city also has some great attractions like nightly arati services (ceremony of light), temples, classical Indian music performances, great food, a quirky local population of sadhus (ascetic monks) and a large university with cultural events going on. For anyone interested in Buddhism, one not-to-miss day trip is Sarnath, the site where the Buddha gave his first sermon—one of the four most sacred Buddhist pilgrimage sites.
First off, Srinigar is in Kashmir, which is labeled by most world governments as an unsafe place to travel (though a great exaggeration) and because of that if you visit your travel insurance becomes void. That being said, that is also one very good reason to go—considering the beauty of this city, dubbed “Paradise on Earth” and how much it has to offer there are relatively few tourists.
Staying in a houseboat on the outskirts of the city’s Dal Lake can be a highlight of a trip to India, and it comes at an incredibly low cost (a small fraction of what it would cost to rent a houseboat in Kerala). With the Himalayas as a backdrop the lake is beyond beauty, and with a canoe you can paddle around and see a great diversity of birds and observe the life of people living on the lake. Then for something completely different go into the city and check out the mosques and see the other historical sights. If you get a chance try to attend a Sufi (Islamic mysticism) music event.
For a truly unique experience check out Auroville. In 1968 this township was founded with the specific intent of being a community where people could live in peace and realize human unity. It has since grown into a full-fledged town of 2,300 people representing dozens of different countries around the world.
Smaller communities make up the larger town, each with specific intentions of their own that work within the context of the larger vision. Sadhana Forest is a community of volunteers who are focused on reforesting the area whereas Kalabhumi is a smaller community of artists.
At any given time there are workshops, courses and classes on a range of interests from yoga to earth building to permaculture design. It’s possible to stay either as a guest in a guest house or as a volunteer for certain communities. Lastly, their main temple, Matrimandir, is truly a trippy experience—seeing it alone is well worth the visit. Visit auroville.org for details.
Like Varanasi, this is one of those cities travellers wonder why they visit… and why they stay for so long. Tiru has a sizeable expat population who, like the many Indian migrants to the city, were drawn by the power of the great Mount Arunachala and the intense sacred spirit contained within the city.
Though it’s a small city by population it’s numbers are often much higher due to the influx of Indian pilgrims who visit the massive Shiva temple Arunachaleswar. Pilgrims come by the busload every full moon to do the Girivalam, a devotional ritual in which people walk around the mountain. And even more come for the big show, Deepam, a festival in which a massive flame is lit atop Arunachala that can be seen as far as 45 km away. As the centre for so much spiritual activity and with the might of Arunachala it’s no wonder so many saints have been drawn to the city and have set up their ashrams—there are many to check out in addition to all the yoga classes, philosophy courses and devotional events going on, particularly in the winter months.
One of the four most highly revered Buddhist sacred sites in the world, Bodhgaya is the site of the Buddha’s enlightenment under the sacred Bodhi tree. Aside from the main temple, Mahabodhi, there’s plenty of other temples and monasteries to visit as Buddhists from around the world have made Bodhgaya their home. Some of these monasteries take in visitors and offer teaching programs. With this mass of tourists, the town has grown quite busy, but the city still retains its allure.
Sundarbans National Park
This park in West Bengal is located on the Ganga delta on either side of the India-Bangladesh border. It’s only accessible by boat, which makes for much of the thrill. It made the World Heritage List as it has the largest mangrove forest in the world, is home to the largest population of tigers on the planet and has a rich diversity of flora and fauna.
For those seeking a most chilled out version of Goa, it’s worth heading a little farther south to Gokarna. It’s known both for its pristine beaches and as a holy town. This offers a nice blend of relaxed beach life along with some nice sightseeing with temples like Mahabaleshwar, devoted to Lord Shiva.
10 incredible under-the-radar places to visit in India was written by UB Hawthorn who has been on the road since 2007, most recently living in South Asia for three years. He edits The Mindful Word, a journal of engaged living where he publishes his transformative travel stories. He has also written Journeybook, a travel journal that guides users through the journaling process and also includes tips on trip planning.