Goa to Darjeeling: Top 5 destinations in India you must visit this holiday season
- Planning to take a break from your hectic routine? Here are five destinations in India that are perfect for a serene holiday.
With more and more pandemic restrictions easing, double vaccination rates shooting up and the weather becoming blissfully pleasant, it's hard for travel lovers to stay at home. So, it's the perfect time to follow India Tourism's 'Apna Desh Dekho' campaign and get immersed in the history, culture and natural splendours of some magical destinations in your own backyard. Listed below are five such places for a well-deserved vacation during this holiday season.
Capital of Madhya Pradesh state, Bhopal is a thousand-year-old urban fabric teeming with history and culture. It’s said in 11th century, Hindu King Bhoj established this settlement around ‘palas’ or artificial lakes which still exist. Hence it's nicknamed – ‘City of Lakes’.
By the early 18th century it was captured by a powerful Muslim dynasty steered by an Afghan general - Dost Mohammed Khan. During their 200 years of rule, Khan and his ancestors, four of whom were women, turned Bhopal into one of the most beautiful cities of India at the time, making the Mughals Emperors in neighbouring Delhi envious. Between 1817 and 1926, the kingdom was ruled by women rulers famously known as Begums of Bhopal.
Their legacies and architectural creations that still exist in the old quarter of the city inspire the tourism cliché for Bhopal. Amongst several monuments most visited are royal palaces, in particular, Gohar Mahal and Shaukat Mahal. Both display touches of flair and grandness emerging from a mixture of styles.
Mosques are a beauty of Bhopal. As there are so many of them, estimated over 400 at present, it’s quite natural to title Bhopal also as the ‘City of Mosques’. Most are located in this old quarter and many were built by the Begums, their architectural grandeur testifying taste for art. The jewel in the crown is the Taj-ul -Masajid, the largest Islamic place of worship in India.
Royal heritage is not the only drawcard in Bhopal. There are plenty of other things to do and see in the city which displays a good blend of old and new. While cruising the lake during sunset hours and dining at the Bhopal Express, which is a train compartment converted to a restaurant, are almost mandatory, there are the beautiful Laxmiarayan Temple, Van Vihar - a 445 hectares wildlife park and a host of classy museums to claim visitor’s time. If that’s not enough then within a 50 km radius are World Heritage-listed Sanchi Stupa, a place of Buddhist pilgrimage and Bhimbetka Caves that have the largest collection of prehistoric art in India.
Founded by the French in 1674, Pondicherry now called Puducherry is a coastal settlement along the Bay of Bengal and 165 km away from Chennai which stands today as a manifestation of France in India.
The French divided the town into two parts - Ville Blanche exclusively for the Europeans and Ville Noire for the natives. That division still is apparent. While Ville Noire is clogged with traffic, noise and chaos, the sea-facing Ville Blanche retains much of the original French character. Flocking the domain is an ensemble of French leftovers, notable among several are the statues of French Governor Dupleix and Joan of Arc, edifices such as Hotel de Ville (Town Hall) and the former French Governor’s residence, the French Consulate and Alliance Francaise office, the French War Memorial, several churches and hotels like De L’Orient and Le Dupleix.
Besides French legacies, a major attraction of Pondicherry is the Aurobindo Ashram, established in 1926 by Cambridge educated Aurobindo Ghose, a patriot turned yogi and his disciple Mirra Alfassa, known as The Mother who arrived in Pondicherry from France in 1920 and never went back. People from far and wide visit there to learn yoga, meditation and Indian philosophy.
Not far from Pondicherry town-centre is Auroville, a unique township established by The Mother in 1968 for people from different parts of the world to live harmoniously. The town’s showpiece is Matrimandir, a lofty golden metallic sphere where residents meditate.
If playing with the sun, sea and sand during the day and partying after sundown is in mind, there is no better place in India than Goa, another former European settlement. Well connected by air, rail and road from other parts of India, this tiny coastal nest on the nation's west coast along the Arabian Sea was held by the Portuguese for almost 400 years until 1961. However the quarter still reflects a strong European character which lures tourists from other parts of India and overseas to experience a bit of Mediterranean aura in an Indian environment.
The destination’s offerings are endless - baroque whitewashed churches, temples, old houses, vibrant markets, ancient caves, spice plantations which first lured Europeans to its shores and last but not the least, the endless sandy patches along the coastline, most famous are the Calangute, and Colva beaches.
Goa people by nature are very friendly and fun loving. They enjoy their food and drink. That’s why perhaps it has one of the highest densities of cafes, restaurants, pubs and nightclubs in the country. Their high energy music, which reflects touches of Portugal’s Fado and perhaps Brazil’s Samba, is seducing enough to make everyone clap and dance with its tunes. This makes Goa a perfect party place to relax and enjoy after a day of sightseeing or time at the beach.
Khichan is a little Indian village in the Thar Desert region of Rajasthan located almost in the center of a triangle formed by three well-known Rajasthan destinations - Jodhpur, Jaisalmer and Bikaner. Between October and March the rural nest becomes home to tens of thousands of migratory cranes from Mongolia, named Demoiselle by the 18th-century French Queen Marie Antoinette for their elegant look and grace.
Every year around October when winter steps in their breeding grounds, these avian species fly almost 5000 km across the mighty Himalayas to reach warmer Khichan, their sabbatical for the next six months.
Their arrival awakes the impoverished village. While the ceaseless ‘kraw kraw’ pitches of the winged visitors break the usual quietness, the locals burst into action to organise the daily ration of 2000kg of cereal grains – for the overseas visitors. The dirt roads suddenly get busier as bird lovers from nearby areas and as a day tripper from Jodhpur, Jaisalmer and Bikaner start pouring in to see a matchless spectacle of avian life in action.
During the day the birds can be spotted around the sand dunes, waterbodies, bushlands and neighbouring salt pans, but the best sight is in the morning when they congregate at a village courtyard where food is laid out for them. Truly it’s a sight to behold watching thousands of these grey bodied, two-legged graceful creatures descending on the scattered grains to fill their bellies. From a distance the feeding panorama looks like a patch of grey and black flipping up and down on a splash of yellow.
If a long day trip doesn’t sound encouraging, an alternative is to stay at the Dera Dune - a world-class eco-friendly resort from The Clements Retreats in Jamba village, which is only a short drive from Khichan. Being close, guests have ample time to chase the cranes at various spots at different times of the day, see them closely and know their features and capture their countless movements through the lenses.
When staying at the resort, besides crane encounters guests have the opportunity to do the others interesting things like trekking through the sandy domain on a camel and experience the unspoilt desert life by visiting nearby villages where friendly locals welcome them to their mud houses called ‘Dhanis’, narrate their lifestyle tales, show the handicrafts they produce and even plead to have a cup of tea with them.
If the majestic view of snow-peaked Himalayan mountain ranges is in mind and the winter chill is not an issue, then Darjeeling – the ‘Queen of Hills’ is a perfect destination to enjoy a few days of wandering on winding hilly roads surrounded by the greenery of lush tea gardens.
Darjeeling connects with the world with tea. But for many the beauty of the surrounding Himalayan ranges - in particular that of 8586m tall Mt Kanchendzonga, the world’s third-highest peak - appeals to be a major lure for the picturesque mountain sanctuary.
The spectacular panorama can be sighted from almost everywhere in Darjeeling well connected by air, rail and road from Kolkata. However, Tiger Hill, the town’s highest accessible point, claims to be the most popular viewing platform. People get up early to be there at sunrise to watch how the first rays of the morning sun mystically change the colour of the white peaks from crimson red to golden yellow. Surely it’s a celestial sight, but for late risers and crowd avoiders, Batasia Loop is the next best option. This railway loop is a stop for the legendary ‘Toy Train’ an iconic attraction of Darjeeling which has been operating since 1881.
The ethnic population of Darjeeling comprise of people from neighbouring Sikkim, Nepal and Bhutan who call their land “Dorji Ling” meaning “the land of the thunderbolt”. Their religion is Buddhism. So the quarter is home to many Buddhist temples, monasteries and stupas, the ensemble being a major attraction for visitors. Some of them are pretty expansive and showcase extensive artwork.
Another place to visit is the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute founded in 1953 in honour of Tenzing Norgay after he and Sir Edmund Hillary conquered Mount Everest. Adjacent to the institute is a zoo which is home to rare species like Red Pandas, Snow Leopards, and Tibetan Wolves that live in the snow-clad regions of upper Himalaya.
(Sandip Hor is an Australia based international travel writer and photographer)