Hidden Gems of India
June 1, 2011 7:28 PM   Subscribe

What are the hidden gems in India that I might not know about, but should do everything I can to see?

While researching a possible trip through India, I came across the Tomb of Sher Shah Suri and the Abhaneri Stepwell. These are the type of places I would love to see, but that are a little more obscure and off the beaten track. I doubt that I will have heard of many such places.

I am planning a dream route through India. Clearly I will visit the major sites in Mumbai and Delhi, but I might miss sites like the above.

Can anyone help me identify some of the hidden gems that I might want to build my route around?

posted by jefficator to Travel & Transportation around India (14 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
If you're in Delhi, go up to Dharamsala/Mcleod Ganj, seat of the Tibetan Government in exile. In itself this is not very off the beaten path but there are some nice things to see in the area. Try taking the bus to nearby smaller towns in Himachal Pradesh like Tashijong or Bir. They each have somewhat interesting temples and are a slice of small town life, adjacent to Bir is a giant new Buddhist philosophy institute. Or try Sherabling Monastery which is near Tashijong (you can arrange to stay in simple quarters on the premises, often). Both the Khampagar monastery at Tashijong and Sherabling are famous for their 'chams or sacred dancing done by monks. Check to see if you'll be around at the right time of year for a festival (I feel like the big one may have passed in March or April).

Or go further up the mountain above Mcleod Gang, like hiking up to Triund. There is also a Catholic church, St. John's of the Wilderness (i think?) which is right outside Mcleod Ganj, certainly an interesting site.
posted by dahliachewswell at 7:49 PM on June 1, 2011

Best answer: The Karla caves at Lonavla are pretty cool, as are those at Udaigiri. The Buddhist stupas at Sanchi are worth visiting. Orchha has beautiful Mughal and Hindu architecture. Mount Abu has amazing Jain temples.
posted by girlgenius at 7:56 PM on June 1, 2011

Best answer: Yes, Dharamsala is gorgeous but it is not the place to go if you want to feel like you're getting away from the tourist scene. That said, I agree with dahliachewswell, it's a stunningly beautiful place with some of the best Tibetan food I've ever had, so I can't argue against including it in your itinerary!

For myself, I really love the less-touristed corners of Rajasthan. Bundi is starting to become an attraction, as in, you may see a handful of other foreigners wandering the narrow lanes of the old city - but both times I went up to the old palace last year (with gorgeous, gorgeous murals), I had it all to myself. (Granted, I was there in mid-December and March, not prime tourist season).

Mount Abu, the only hill station in Rajasthan (and it wasn't a British hill station, but an Indian one!) is extremely popular with Indian honeymooners but foreign tourists don't tend to visit much. It's home to the Dilwara Temples, which are gorgeous, gorgeous, gorgeous, white marble miracles; I've heard people argue that they're more impressive than the Taj Mahal, and I can see why they'd say it.

People traveling from Jodhpur to Jaisalmer all too often blow past Pokharan, but the fort is lovely (if shabby) and the dining room, hoo boy, it's like stepping back in time. There's really something magical about it. It now functions as a hotel and last time I was there, our guide showed me some of the rooms. They absolutely live up to the time-travel feel. I would love, love, love to stay there; I'm going to try to prioritize it the next time I'm passing through.

If your trip takes you to in India in the summer, I strongly suggest you go to Ladakh. Doesn't matter who you are or where you're from -- unless you're Ladakhi, I think anyone would feel "off the beaten path" in this high-altitude, remote corner of India. Go search on youtube for "Satrangi Re" from the film "Dil Se" and you'll see what sights Ladakh offers. There's a one hour flight from Delhi to Leh (Ladakh's capital) that makes a pretty extraordinary landing. Everyone warned me when I flew into Cusco, Peru, that the landing would be hair-raising. Well, not after that flight into Leh!

That said, if you choose not to fly, the bus/car trip to Leh can be hair-raising as well...so I've heard. And also remarkable, unrivaled for scenery and experiences. But it requires you to do a night's stop in Kargil and last time I was there, I was on a fellowship that declared Kargil a no-go zone due to recent violence. So, I've never done it, alas.

Moving south, Pune's a lovely big city that never fails to enchant me; in the summers, I've always found it green and misty and a much-needed respite from the heat (though the temps can climb; I've just gotten lucky). The downtown feels so intellectual to me; it's got that university vibe going on, lots of girls in kurtis and jeans traveling around on their mopeds. Fantastic cafe scene.

Hampi will always draw tourists of every stripe, but it doesn't seem to make it to quite as many people's lists until they've been to India a few times.

I could go on...but I probably should stop myself here. :)
posted by artemisia at 8:39 PM on June 1, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: OK, one more thing: if abandoned/untouristed monuments is your thing, then south Delhi will reward you. There are a ton of abandoned mosques and historic sites littered throughout that area, hidden inside upper middle class neighborhoods, mostly left alone, their courtyards used primarily by boys playing games of soccer. If you walk through Uday Park, for instance, heading to South Extension 2, you'll come across a gorgeous 16th (15th? I forget now) mosque, sitting serenely behind some trees. There's an awesome old-school archaeological guide to Delhi that lists all of these "forgotten" monuments -- you can probably find it in any good bookstore in Delhi; Full Circle or Bahri & Sons in Khan Market would be a good place to start looking.

OK, and now I really am done!
posted by artemisia at 8:42 PM on June 1, 2011

If you get up to Srinagar, then stay at Mr. Butts houseboats. They are incredible art -- basically entirely made out of intricately carved wood. Dal lake is amazing, and this is on the less busy side. I was lucky enough to stay there once and my Grandma used to camp out next to the boats (the cheaper option) when she was a kid, before trekking in the Himalayas.
posted by Margalo Epps at 9:05 PM on June 1, 2011

Kerala. Spectacular beaches, wonderful South Indian cuisine, magnificent jungle, some of the best paan in India IMO. The train trip from Kerala across the Western Ghatts mountain range will expose you to wild, breathtaking scenery. If you have additional time, you might explore this mountainous region as well.

If it's a dream trip, try to allocate ample time--even a month or two--and move with an emphasis on slow. The country's big; the transportation (if it's train-based) is leisurely. India has much to give to the unrushed traveller.
posted by Gordion Knott at 3:28 AM on June 2, 2011

I don't know what qualifies as off the beaten track, but Fatehpur Sikri is well worth getting driven between Agra and Jaipur to see. It was the site of the Mughal capital briefly but was abandoned quickly because there was not enough water. It's like walking around an Escher piece.

When in Agra, the Barber's Tomb is almost as impressive as the Taj itself.

Chandigarh is architecturally fascinating - an Indian city designed by Le Corbusier to be the capital of two provinces whose existence was necessitated by Partition. The museum there is fantastic. The whole of the ground floor is given over to the plans of the original US designers who died in an accident. The upper floor is given over to the modernist masterpiece that eventually came to be. It is never said, but a very clear impression of regret is there.

Chandigarh also features the astonishing Nek Chand rock garden. It's off the beaten track insomuch as the city authorities didn't find it for decades.
posted by hawthorne at 5:55 AM on June 2, 2011

Hampi. Hampi Hampi Hampi Hampi. Go to Hampi. It's amazing.

Lucknow is interesting and very rarely visited by Western tourists. The mosques, the imambara, and the site of the siege were completely devoid of tourists. As a white woman traveling alone, I stood out so much that the manager of the hotel would call my room if I didn't wake up early enough for his tastes, just to make sure I was OK.

Amritsar is chock full of Sikh tourists (many of whom are NRI's or part of the Punjabi diaspora), but is not generally on the itinerary for non-Sikhs. Stay in the Golden Temple itself if you can.

Kerala is by no means a "hidden gem" - I think it's one of the most touristed parts of India at this point. But if you want to go, sure, why not?

Dharamsala is extremely touristed - almost everyone I met in the north of India was either headed there or had just come from there. In fact, if you're going in the summer, almost all the hill stations will be packed with tourists, both white and Indian. If you're planning a trip for Indian winter (which is "high season" for westerners), however, finding a chilly and deserted hill station to visit might be one of the highlights of your trip. I fell in love with Darjeeling in February.
posted by Sara C. at 5:56 AM on June 2, 2011

I'll also say that it was odd to me, as a veteran tourist through America and child of a Civil War obsessed history buff, that most sites that are historical in nature are ignored by tourists. Aside from the absolute biggest ones in the most widely touristed parts of the country - though even then, the crowds at Agra Fort and the Red Fort were nothing compared to other sites on the "golden triangle" circuit I visited.

I think this is maybe because many Western tourists go for the spiritual stuff, and a lot of local tourism within India is oriented toward religious pilgrimages. Because the instant I got away from a temple and more towards a historical building or museum, the crowds disappeared.
posted by Sara C. at 6:04 AM on June 2, 2011

I'm back because this morning I woke up with this thought in my head: "I forgot to mention Chittor!"

Chittorgarh is, I believe, the largest medieval fort in India -- the walls are 7km long -- and it occupies a central role in romantic imaginaries of Rajasthan's martial past. But very few foreign tourists stop there -- and of those who do, I think less than 1% stay for the night in the town. I've been through Rajasthan five times and only on this last trip did I visit. I couldn't believe I'd not been before, because the fort is AMAZING. It's also huge: you'll want to hire a taxi for the day to drop you off at various sites in the fort, wait while you wander around, and then drive you onward. (Or, if the weather is good, to wait for you while you walk around the whole thing.)

If you decide to see Chittor, I'd recommend you take the train to Kota (for Bundi) from Delhi, the train from Bundi to Chittor, and then head by car from Chittor to Mount Abu. It's a pretty straight shot.

I'm so envious of your upcoming trip. Last time I was in India, I was doing research that didn't allow for much time for tourism. But there's nothing more glorious than having weeks in India at your disposal with nothing to do but hang out, meet people, and see cool things. Good luck!
posted by artemisia at 11:28 AM on June 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: So I put together a spreadsheet of the places I want to see...complete with a Google map. I would love to hear anyone's thoughts?

posted by jefficator at 9:01 PM on June 3, 2011

Response by poster: Hmmm...sorry...that didn't work like I hoped it would. Please send me a message if you would be willing to look over my list!
posted by jefficator at 9:04 PM on June 3, 2011

Er, how long do you have and/or what area/s are you thinking of visiting? India is very big. I've spent around 1.5 years there on 4 separate trips, and feel like I've only barely scratched the surface.

Anyway, seconding Bundi, Chittor & Orchha; and giving ten thousand thumbs down to Dharamsala, unless you really crave being surrounded by muesli-munching new age westerners.

Mandu's what Hampi would be like if it wasn't full of a million dope-smoking Israelis. Hampi's still pretty good, but there's a definite stoner scene. Badami was, in a way, a kind of mini-Hampi with zero other foreigners. Bijapur has some impressive monuments. Skipping a way up north again, Gwalior is overlooked, as is Lucknow. Back to Mandu, it's near Sanchi, which I found massively underwhelming, but if you're in the area, why not?

Gujarat is just south of Rajasthan & somehow everybody skips right past it. Junagadh & Palitana are favourites there, as was Bhuj before the earthquake.

Kodaikanal & Dalhousie might be my favourite hill stations, but Gangtok & surrounds are something different altogether. In the himalayan foothills, Jageshwar & Chamba. Darjeeling in winter was indeed atmospheric.

Way down in Tamil Nadu, just about any old temple town is great. I particularly liked Chidambaram & Kumbakonam, but they're all pretty good, at least the ones I saw. Amritsar way back up north has an absolute gem in the Golden Temple, but otherwise is a total dump.
posted by UbuRoivas at 5:36 AM on June 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

Afterthought: Deeg & Bharatpur, roughly within the Delhi-Agra-Jaipur "golden triangle" are usually bypassed. Deeg for a lovely old water palace & gardens, Bharatpur for the nearby birdlife reserve. I've heard good things about the mural houses of Shekawati nearby, but haven't made it there yet. In the same area, Alwar was alright & totally devoid of tourists. Has a palace-fort & a few other sites, which is true of everywhere in Rajasthan, only here you're not constantly being hassled to buy carpets & things.

Hoysala temples
, in Karnataka, and the huge Jain hilltop statue at Sravanbelagola.

Inland from Cochin, Munnar / Periyar for rolling tea, coffee & spice plantations, and a great road up from the coast.

Ranakhpur, roughly between Mt Abu & Udaipur, has a fantastic Jain temple & huge nearby fort (Kumbalgarh?), both slap-bang in the middle of nowhere.

Don't go to Patna. In fact, skip Bihar state altogether if you can, unless you really really want to see Bodhgaya (Buddha's enlightenment place).
posted by UbuRoivas at 2:01 PM on June 8, 2011

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