Most people who travel to India often head to familiar destinations - ‘must visit’ places such as Delhi, Agra and Goa, but sometimes it’s the lesser-known destinations that offer a far greater cultural and less touristy experience.
So here are five places with names that are unfamiliar, but worthy of consideration on your next trip to the Indian Sub-Continent.
1 - Ziro, Arunachal Pradesh:
The cradle of a unique tribal group and with a balmy climate, Ziro is the peace seeker's paradise. Lying 115km from Itanagar, the capital city of Arunachal Pradesh, is a beautiful plateau and the headquarters of Lower Subansiri District. It is one of the oldest towns in Arunachal Pradesh, home to the Apa Tani tribe and famous for a valley full of verdant rice fields and the surrounding hills covered in bamboo and pine forests.
Named a World Heritage Site for its stunning natural beauty, Ziro Valley is headquartered in the Lower Subansiri District. This beautiful hill station is located on the Apatani Plateau, as Ziro is popularly known, at an altitude of 1,500m above sea level. The Apatanis, one of the major ethnic groups of the eastern Himalayas, have a distinct civilisation with systematic land use practices and rich traditional ecological knowledge of natural resources management, and conservation, acquired over the centuries through informal experimentation.
An imposing landscape of beautifully lush green forests, rivulets and elevated patches, famous for terraced paddy-fields-cum-pisciculture cultivation. This is how local people practice the unique system of poly-culture and water management in a valley used for wet-rice cultivation where fish are also reared. This is further supplemented with millet reared on elevated partition bunds between the rice plots. The systematic land-use pattern ensures a high level of biodiversity in the area and efficient conservation of crucial watersheds ensuring perennial streams flowing into the valley to meet the needs of the people. The agro-ecosystems are nourished by nutrient washout from the surrounding hill slopes.
The tribe is known for their colourful culture with various festivals, intricate handloom designs, skills in cane and bamboo crafts and vibrant traditional village councils called bulyañ. This has made Ziro Valley a great example of a living, cultural landscape where man and environment have harmoniously existed together in a state of interdependence even through changing times, such co-existence being nurtured by the traditional customs and spiritual belief systems.
The temperate climate during the summer makes it a favoured destination for a vacation. Ziro is relatively pleasant
throughout the year. However, September is the month to travel if you wish to attend the Ziro Music Festival, known as one of the best outdoor music festivals in India – the all day and all night festival runs for four consecutive days.
The local attractions around Ziro are the Talley Valley Wildlife Sanctuary, Hapoli, which is the centre of all the town's activities, Ziro Puto and Dolo Mando hillocks, and the Meghna Cave Temple. The Siddheshwarnath Temple, houses a natural shivalinga that was discovered only a decade ago.
Where to stay: the town has stretches of lush green grasslands everywhere, especially in the the Ziro Puto hillock. You may camp on these grasslands and just revel in its idyllic nature. You can either opt to camp through the official Ziro campsite or bring your own tent. There are local camping services available, which offer tents of different sizes and various other facilities.
What to eat: Bamboo chicken is a local dish that must be tried, along with their speciality rice beer.
2 - Theni, Tamil Nadu:
The natural beauty and cultural richness of Theni have prompted the moniker, ‘Earth’s Hidden Paradise’. The Theni district broke away from Madurai in 1996 and established the district headquarters in the town of Theni. It is one of the most verdant and beautiful parts of the state where rivers and creeks crisscross the district to facilitate rice, cotton and tea production.
The word ‘Theni’ is derived from the Tamil ‘Then’ meaning honey or nectar. It is a bustling centre for cotton trade and is a region full of significant religious shrines and small but beautiful temple.. Dedicated to the Goddess Ambica, Sri Gowmariamman Temple hosts a number of important festivals. The goddess is said to cure her devotees of measles and chickenpox. Sri Saneeswara Baghwan Temple, dedicated to Saturn, is also an important pilgrimage destination. Sri Arulmigu Balasubramanya Temple – Kartikeya is one of the important deities worshipped in South India. This temple, dedicated to the God in his child form, hosts a number of important festivals as well.
April is the month for festivals. The Chithirai Thiruvizha festival of Sri Gowmariamman Temple is a grand 8-day celebration held in May. Womenfolk wear yellow and red and cook sweet pongal (a rice/lentil dish) in earthen pots on open flames. Devotees go around the temple holding a fire pot as part of their obeisance. The Karagam dance and ritual ‘Kavadi’ lifting add to the fervency. The bullock cart races held during the Pongal days are a spectacular event. Like the rest of Tamil Nadu, Aadi Perkuku is a month-long celebration that showcases the best of family bonding and religious devotion in Theni. Tamil New Year (mid-April) is also a day for many cultural programmes and temple festivities.
Theni is great to visit any time of the year. The summers are not as hot as the rest of the state, thanks to the presence of abundant greenery and many rivers. Winters, however, are the best time to visit this part of Tamil Nadu. Winter monsoons ensure that the temperatures are mild and the waterfalls overflowing. Summer monsoons make the town humid and do not have quite the same effect. The Tamil months of Thai, Chithirai and Aadi are best for tourists wanting to visit the region to participate in the grand temple festivals held here.
3 - Patan, Gujarat:
Rani Ka Vav, the latest Indian entrant to the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites is situated in Patan, making this destination one of the newest tourist hubs in India. Vanraj Chavda, the first of the Chavda dynasty, founded the ancient city of Anahilvada Patan.
This fortified, walled city was the capital of Gujarat for 650 years, from 746-1411, after the centre of power moved from Saurashtra around the same time that the separate kingdoms of the area were integrated into roughly what we today call Gujarat. It was ruled by a series of dynasties, and shone as a centre of trade, learning, and architectural achievements. It was also a thriving centre for Jainism, and the Solanki rulers commissioned a large number of Hindu and Jain temples, as well as other civic and religious constructions.
During the Vaghela rule towards the end of the 13th century, Ulugh Khan plundered the town and destroyed it completely. In 1411 the capital shifted to the newly founded Ahmedabad, leaving Patan just a shadow of its former glory. One of the positive effects of Muslim rule in Patan is the presence of some of the earliest Muslim buildings in Gujarat, built before the earliest constructions in Ahmedabad.
The ruins of the ancient city, with the famous Rani Ki Vav and Sahasralinga Talav, stand about 2km northwest of present-day Patan. In the bustling bazaar of this charismatic town, tucked away among the havelis (mansions) in the narrow pols (lanes) you will probably stumble upon rope or bidi (traditional cigarette) makers, working on their doorsteps. It is worth searching out the unique patola and mashru weavers, the snow-white Jain temples, as well as the Hemachandracharya Jain Gnan library of ancient Hindu and Jain texts.
Headi northwest outside the city walls to Anahilvada Patan, the ancient city that served as Gujarat’s capital for 650 years. Here you’ll find the 1,000-year-old Kali temple from where Kali Mata, the kuldevi (family goddess) of the Solanki dynasty, guards the town. Further north, you find the Sahasralinga Talav, literally ‘lake of a thousand lingas’ (symbols), which is finely constructed to channel water in from nearby Saraswati. On the edge of Rani Ki Vav, known as the ‘Queen’s stepwell’, you can descend into the cool air. Towards the water, the carved stone gods and consorts invite you into their world, the world of spirit and the sacred.
Getting there: Intercity buses from Ahmedabad to Patan take 3.5 hours, and 1 hour from Mehsana. Shared jeeps are slightly quicker but less comfortable. The train can take you as far as Mehsana, from where you'll need to catch a bus to Patan. The nearest airport is Ahmedabad.
4 - Hemis National Park, Jammu and Kashmir:
Hemis National Park is truly a beautiful place, located in the eastern Ladakh region of the state of Jammu and Kashmir. It is considered the best place to see the snow leopard in the wild. The park has the distinction of being the largest national park in Southern Asia and derives its name from the Hemis Gompa, the largest and wealthiest Buddhist monastery in Ladakh, just outside the northern boundary of Shang.
The park also has the distinction of being amongst the largest contiguously protected regions, second only to Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve. Six villages exist within the confines of the park. Rumbak, Kaya, Sku, Shingo, Urutse and Chilling are home to about 1,600 people, mostly pastoralists raising poultry, goats and sheep within the park.The villages are located on or adjacent to valley floors rising up to about 4,000k. The locals are mostly Buddhists although there is a monastery at Markha Village.
Established as a national park in 1987, the total area of the park is about 4,400sqkm and is known for its unique biodiversity. It is the protected home of endangered mammals such as leopards, Asiatic ibex, Tibetan wolves, Eurasian brown bears and red foxes. It is also home to small mammals like Himalayan marmots, mountain weasels and Himalayan mouse hares.
Lofty mountains and alpine forests of juniper and subalpine dry birch make it a treat for the eyes. The Stok Kangri peak is situated within the park. The confluence of Indus and Zanskar rivers acts as the park’s boundary and includes the catchments of Markha, Sumdah, Rumbak and parts of the Zanskar Range. Camping and trekking are popular activities that can be enjoyed in the park.
The area is strictly reserved for the betterment of wildlife and biodiversity, and where activities like developmental, forestry, poaching, hunting and grazing on cultivation are not permitted.
The best time of the year to visit is between May and Mid-October. The nearest airport is Leh airport and is about 10km from the Hemis National Park. The nearest train line is at Jammu Tavi railway station, about 21km away. There is a daily bus service from Leh to Hemis as well as taxis. No hotels are available in or near Hemis National Park. Trekkers mainly visit the park, but the Hemis Monastery also provides accommodation to visitors. Nearby Leh also offers many resorts and hotels to suit your budget.
5 - Auli, Uttarakhand:
Auli is one of the less-explored hill stations in India and a fairly new entrant on the tourist map. The resort is located in the Chamoli district in the Himalayan Mountains of Uttarakhand, a place that dates back to the 8th Century AD but is nowadays known as ‘The Skiing Destination of India’.
Located at 2,800m above sea level, Auli has numerous resorts where the slopes offer a panoramic view of many famous Himalayan peaks like Nanda Devi, Kamet, Mana Parvat, Kamat Kam and Dunagiri.
There is a natural beauty about the Auli region, dotted with apple orchards, old oaks, pine trees and deodars (Himalayan cedar trees). There are numerous treks in the hills of Garhwal Himalayas and spellbinding views of the snow-draped mountains. Many religious destinations are also scattered around Auli.
Skiers are naturally provided with pristine stretches of between 10 to 20km of snow-covered mountain slopes. There is also a descent of 500m from a ridge over a stretch of 3km. The forests on the slopes also seem to help the skiers by reducing the wind velocity.
In the months of February and March, Auli often hosts the National Winter Games.
In the evenings, activity shifts from the slopes to the bukhari-warmed huts and resorts (bukhari: a quaint, wood burning stove), listening to folklore and revelling in the local music of Garhwal in the oil-lamp-lit rooms or besides bonfires.
When to visit: Auli offers a perfect mix of adventure, entertainment and it becomes a skier’s paradise during the winter season. The period from late November to late March is generally considered ideal for skiers.
Getting there: the nearest airport is Dehradun, about 298km away and the nearest railhead is Rishikesh, about 235km away. Regular road services are available from Delhi, Dehradun, Rishikesh and Hardwar to Joshimath, 16km away. From Joshimath you can also hire jeeps to Auli.