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12 lesser known tribal festivals of India

12 lesser known tribal festivals of India

India is home to a wide many number of tribes, all of whom have their own culture and identity. Naturally then, the distinctive way of life of these tribes translate also in their myriad observances and festivals. While the tribal identity of India rests in some hugely popular celebrations, there also exist parallely some lesser known festivals that celebrate equally unique manifestations. Here are some such lesser known tribal festivals of India you need to discover for reveling in the true spirit of India-

Sume-Gelirak Festival, Odisha

Celebrated by the Bondas of Koraput in Odisha is one of the many tribal festivals of India, the Sume- Gelirak festival. A ten day annual rendezvous in January, this is a festival with a really interesting premise. Starting on a Sunday, the festival begins with rituals, prayers and sacrifices before proceeding to some really unusual customs. The Bonda men and women make dancing expeditions to neighbouring villages, during the course of which they even get to choose their life partners! Appeasing the deities with liquor and the castigation custom are some other rituals unique to this tribal festival.

Sekrenyi Festival, Nagaland

Sekrenyi Festival

A festival of the Angami tribe in the northeastern state of Nagaland in India is a celebration known as Sekrenyi. Again a ten day affair commencing every year in February, this is a purification festival held to wash off all past sins. Elaborate traditional rituals mark the festival that which is also significant in being an identity marker of the Angami Nagas. Singing and feasting also play part of the festival which also holds in its folds the occasion of the Angami New Year.

Madai Festival, Chhattisgarh

tribal festivals of india Madai Festival

One of the most encompassing of tribal festivals of India is the Madai Festival of Chhattisgarh. Celebrated with fanfare by the Gond tribe, the festival sees widespread participation by tribals across different areas of the state. From worshiping the presiding deity to engaging in cultural revelry, this is a festival that holds both religious and social significance for one of the largest tribal presences in India, known also for its exquisite tribal art. Celebrations begin from the month of December and continue unto March, characterising a festival so rooted in traditions and customs that has become popular all over India.

Bhagoria Festival, Madhya Pradesh

Bhagoria Festival

Native to Madhya Pradesh but also celebrated in some adjoining areas in Maharashtra is the Bhagoria Festival, another of the tribal festivals of India. A harvest festival, Bhagori remains essentially rooted in traditions and is celebrated some days prior to Holi. A weeklong festival that also marks the advent of spring, Bhangoria Hatt festival is celebrated by tribes like Bhil, Bhilala, Barela et al. In fact the festival sees its culmination with Holika Dahan, asserting its identity as a festival that has deep roots and origins in numerous legends. Like the Sume- Gerilak festival, this also is a festival that sees young men and women choose their life partners and even elope as an accepted form of ritual.

Puttari, Karnataka

tribal festivals of india Puttari

Another of the harvest festivals to dominate the myriad of tribal celebrations in India is Puttari of the Kodavas. Literally meaning new rice, this year end celebration is the rice harvest festival that is celebrated in customary tradition. Special celebratory foods mark the occasion that which sees the people proceed to the field in a procession to reap the new harvest. The first rice is offered to the Gods even as youngsters engage in revelry and feasts to mark this highly significant observance in Karnataka.

Sarhul festival, Jharkhand

Sarhul festival

One of the states in India that is known for its tribal population, Jharkhand plays host to quite some unique festivals. One such occasion is the spring festival of Sarhul, also called Baa Porob or Flower Festival in the Kolhan region. As trees start bearing flowers, villagers take to singing and dancing to celebrate the exuberance of a nature in full bloom. The presiding deity Sarna is worshiped by worshiping the saal tree, which is considered to be the abode of the Goddess. Prayers are chanted and drums are beaten even as flowers are distributed by the priest to every villager in a mark of brotherhood and friendship. The rice beer Handia is the customary prasad of the Saal puja, that which is also looked upon as the festival of great happiness.

Kailpoldu, Karnataka

Kailpoldu

The festival of the warrior tribe Kodava, Kail Poldu is a rather prominent celebratory affair in Coorg in Karnataka. In its essence, this is a festival that sees the Kodavas congregate annually in honour of their weapons, that which serve as the lifeline of their tribe. Held in the first week of September, Kali Poldu is significant in being a festival that marks the season during which the Kodavas prepare their weapons for guarding their crop from wild animals. Sumptuous feasts and shooting competitions traditionally follow the weapon worshiping and cleaning ritual in this among the many tribal festivals India celebrates every year.

Thisam Phanit, Manipur

Thisam Phanit

One among the really diversive tribal festivals that India witnesses takes place in the state of Manipur. Observed by the Tangkhuls and the Naga Tribes, this is the Thisam Phanit Festival or the festival of the dead. Over a period of twelve days in the month of January, Thisam festival entertains the belief that the souls of the dead gets entry into the afterlife only after a ritualistic farewell ceremony. From prepping the plate for the dead ‘Thikong’ to seeing them off as ‘kazei rata’, the Thisam Phanit festival sees a number of sober rituals and customs sending off the dead souls religiously and traditionally.

Sohrai, Jharkhand

tribal festivals of india Sohrai

Among the tribal festivals of India that celebrate the bounty of a good harvest is Sohrai. An annual occasion that coincides with Diwali, Sohrai is celebrated by a number of tribes like the Santhals, Mundas, Kurmis in various states of the country. Particularly in Jharkhand and West Bengal, Sohrai celebrations are most popular. A feast is held in the honour of the cattle after they are bathed, as a mark of gratitude and affection for the livestock. The festival is also notable for being the heralder of the sohrai khovar form of tribal arts, that finds artistic expression during the festival.

Nyokum, Arunachal Pradesh

Nyishi-Nyokum

Arunachal Pardesh takes centerstage this time as yet another of the north east Indian states playing host to one of the tribal festivals in India. Nyokum is a festival of the Nyishis, celebrated for better productivity, prosperity and happiness of all human beings on earth. In its close connect to cultivation, Nyokum is as much a culturally and socially significant festival as it is a religious observance. Invoking the Nyokum Goddess for her blessings, even as the festival itself may very well be interpreted as inviting all the Gods and Goddesses of the universe, Nyokum sees animal sacrifice, singing and dancing as the customary observances. Traditional clothes and jewelry dominate the festivities that which make for one grand celebration in Arunachal Pradesh.

Barash, Daman and Diu

Barash

In the union territory of Dadra and Nagar Haveli in India, the Kokna and Varli tribes celebrate a festival called Barash. An annual celebration in September that is almost akin to the Diwali festivities elsewhere in the country, Barash however is somewhat different. Observed with great pomp and gaiety, the festival is somewhat peculiar in that it sees the tribal people abstaining from the consumption of home cooked beans till after the festival is celebrated.

Hornbill Festival, Nagaland

tribal festivals of india Hornbill Festival

Nagaland’s famed year ending celebrations might not be exactly one of the tribal festivals of India but in its broad encompassment, the Hornbill Festival is a rather amalgamated wonder. Organized by the Government of Nagaland every year in the first week of December, the festival is a means to promote inter- tribal interaction as well as the cultural heritage of the state that is inhabited by a wide many tribes. From exploration of cultures to showcasing of the traditional arts, the festival has gained immense popularity to emerge as one of the most popular festivals of north east India. As a festival that harbours the collective compendium of many tribes however, this iconic festival remains a lesser explored celebration in essence.

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Readers’ Responses: Hometown Discoveries in Indian Neighbourhoods

Readers’ Responses: Hometown Discoveries in Indian Neighbourhoods

Bhopal’s hammam that houses secret scrub recipes, Rajasthan’s lake that served as a seaplane base in World War II, Andaman Islands’ waters that offer chance sightings of dugongs—we’ve compiled a collage of hidden gems from the hometowns of our readers.

The picturesque Radhanagar beach in Havelock Island offers surfs, calm and sea-breeze. Photo By: click_o_flick/Shutterstock

Ticking off trendy neighbourhood cafés or checking out the iconic hotspots of a destination might seem like the obvious thing to do while travelling, but ask an insider, and your itinerary will change. Indian cities and towns brim with relatively obscure treasures when it comes to travel, and as it turns out, our readers are also keepers of the best-kept secrets of their hometowns. We’ve assembled anecdotes of off-beat hiking trails and secret beaches, remote ruins and birding delights, all from your backyard.

Aftab Ahmed, Jaipur, Rajasthan

In Rajasthan’s Aravalli hills, there is a less-trodden hiking trail that starts from the pond in the premises of the Galta Ji temple (monkey temple), winding straight for a few 100 metres, after which one must chart their own way. This trail is locally popular as a route where dacoits lay in ambush in olden times, and the ruins of a palace on the top of the adjacent hill, named Chor Mahal (Thieve’s Palace), account for the stories. Climb up, and you will be rewarded with a stunning panorama of the the Aravalli range on one side, and Jaipur city on another. The region’s wild aura is amplified by the presence of deciduous forests, and the waves of wild, chirruping birds that sometimes emerge out of them.

Mohil Kapoor, Bhavani Island, Andhra Pradesh

Bhavani Island, on the Krishna river—which flows through Vijayawada—is considered one of the largest river islands in India. Named after one of goddess Durga’s 108 names, it is your veritable ‘Isle of Adventure’. Reach after a pleasant boat-ride, park yourself at one of its resorts, and head out indulge in some water sports. Lush green views and the calm of lapping of water makes it the ideal getaway from those looking to escape urban chaos.

Niyati Shah, Vadodara, Gujarat

Back in the 1950s when cafe culture wasn’t common in Vadodara, Canara Coffee House was the only coffee hub in the city. To the day, the cafe, despite its name and origin, remains famous for a flavourful Marathi delicacy called Puna Misal. And although the place has undergone renovation recently, its menu and prices are delightfully stuck in time.

Another historic element to the city are a series of old bungalows near the Vadodara railway station, known as the Contractor’s Bungalows. The buildings are said to have been built by contractors close to the royals of Baroda at least a century ago—and are fully-functional till date. Currently privately owned, one of them has been recently converted to a heritage cafe, showcasing its proud Parsi heritage.

Once you’ve had your fill of the city’s obscure icons, turn to Rasalpur. The small, scenic village lies a short drive from of the city, and offers a backdrop of laid-back rusticity by the Mahisagar river.

K. Rohan, Havelock Island, Andaman Islands

If you’re at Radhanagar beach in Havelock Island, part of the Andaman Islands, a brisk 2 kilometre/15 minutes walk along the coast will bring you to the beautiful Neil Cove. Rustling sea-mohwa forests fringe one side of the rock-ringed, concave beach, and freshwater streams gurgle out of the wilderness. If you are lucky you may spot dugongs and sea turtles swimming in the crystal-clear waters of the bay.

A hike through the famous Galtaji or Monkey Temple in Jaipur not only presents scenic views, but also offers the curious traveller with ancient lore. Photo By: AlexAnton/Shutterstock

Richa Chaubey, Champawat, Uttarakhand

Uttarakhand’s touristy areas belie the beauty of its more pristine pockets—like my hometown Champawat. Believed to be graced by the ‘Kurmavatar’ (Vishnu turtle incarnation), this picturesque town in the Kumaon Himalayas is a sight for sore eyes. Come winter, rows of pine, deodar and oak trees stand like silver sentinels at the base of snow-laden mountains, and its dewy mornings are a sublime dewy affair. Abbott Mount (named after 20th century English businessman John Harold Abbott), an hour’s drive from the town, is a serene location populated by beautiful wooden cottages, forests, wild mountain birds and even an ancient church. If you are one for spooky thrills, Morris Hospital, established in the early 1900s, adds an element of alleged mystery to the hill station’s already-haunting beauty.

Lakshmisha Kerekoppa, Gerusoppa, Karnataka

Chaturmukha Jaina Basadi is situated deep inside the evergreen forests of Sharavathi valley on the banks of Sharavathi River in Karkala. Although the place is largely inaccessible to common tourists due to inadequate information and lack of public transport, Jain devotees do visit using private vehicles.

The Jain temple is located near the town of Gerusoppa, which functioned as the capital of Saluva family of Vijayanagara empire. The shrine is built during the reign of Queen Channabhairadevi in 1562 AD who was known as ‘Raina de Pimenta’ (the Pepper Queen) by the Portuguese. Chaturmukha Basadi is made up of grey granite stone and is open on all four sides (chaturmukha) which leads to four statues of Jain Thirtankaras. All in all, a rare, gorgeous find for history and architecture buffs.

Khushbu Singhal, Basistha, Assam

Basistha is a rolling, green suburban landscape, located in southeast part of Guwahati, Assam. The hilly area is contiguous with Meghalaya, the neighbouring state of Assam. Expect groves of deepest greens, tall trees swinging with native flora, wild animals like jackals, monkeys or even elephants, and a stunning variety of birds that go well eyond the usual mynah, cuckoo and cattle egret. Not surprisingly, the area is a part of Garbhanga Forest Reserve.

Through the wilderness, a road leads up to the Basistha temple. The ancient edifice is situated in one of the hills near the Basistha or Bahini river, a trickling arm of the Bharalu, which in turn is a tributary of the Brahmaputra river. The ancient temple and the gurgling rivulet make a formidable combination for travellers drawn to nature, and regional history.

Despite it being a small town in Madhya Pradesh, Mhow is packed with a plethora of unique experiences and landscapes. Photo By: Rjsngh55/Shutterstock

Burhanuddinn Nagpurwala, Mumbai, Maharashtra

Not so far from the daily hustle of the Maximum City lies a meandering trail of wilderness. Starting from the last village of Aarey (Bangud), it winds towards a lake, situated in the thick of the forest.

On some lucky occasions, usually around dawn, I have seen spotted deer, scampering, a crocodile, and even a leopard near the lake. Camping, star-gazing and connecting with nature are some great options.

 

Karma Tenzing, Mysore, Karnataka

In the city of Mysore, stands Hotel Original Vinayaka Mylari, a part of the city’s gastronomic history since 1938. Their highlight—soft, crisp, melt-in-mouth dosas that you will not find anywhere else. Served with a dollop of white, unsalted butter and creamy coconut chutney, the dosas alone are worth a trip to the eatery. That is not to say that their fluffy, cloud-like idlis are any less of a treat. Prepared on woodfire, the taste is unforgettable, making the 10-12 seater establishment a humble but proud legacy of the city.

 

Deepjyoti Paul, Naihati, West Bengal

Located about 40 kilometres north of Kolkata, Naihati is the hometown of Bengali poet and novelist Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay. The creative force credited with shaping modern Bengali prose as well as penning the Indian national song, Vande Mataram—Chattopadhyay lived and created in what can be described as an architecturally precious mansion, now turned into a museum and research center for his works. His abode is located in a peaceful, green area of Kanthalpara, a 10-minutes walk from Naihati Railway Station. Travellers can buy a ticket and enter the complex, which has retained its gorgeous medieval-style facade over the years. See the study room used by the writer who gave birth to Vande Mataram in his novel Anandamath (the song eventually used as a rallying cry by Indian freedom fighters), to bask in the palpable history of the place. Every year, a Rath Yatra fair adds colour to the landscape in front of the Jagannath temple of the house, filling the area with the scent of delicious mela-food.

 

Harsha Kumawat, Udaipur, Rajasthan

Reasons to visit the Ahar Museum in Rajasthan are many. The Ahar civilisation, dating back to around 2500-500 BC, was an ancient settlement along the banks of the rivers Ahad and Banas, in the Western region of India. Think present-day Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan.

In this lesser-known museum, discover characteristic white-painted black and red pottery pieces, some of the excavated water pots similar to those found in Iran. On your visit, learn about their well-equipped houses, made of stones with bamboo roofs and with chulhas (earthen ovens), or admire recovered statues of lost deities, ornaments, and ancient coins from the advanced civilisation.

The Ahar Museum is a must for all history enthusiasts, especially for those looking to gain knowledge around the Ahar civilisation. Photo By: Christina R Miller/Shutterstock

Rahul Jain, Dandeli, Karnataka

In Dandeli, where I grew up, a unique experience is the white water rafting which provides the adventurous with a healthy dose of adrenaline rush. River Kali is ferocious and rocky and hence there are lots of ups and downs through the journey, which offers tourists a thrilling challenge. 

Shraddha Gandi, Raigad, Maharashtra

Raigad lies at the heart of the Sahyadri Mountains which is a dream for photographers, birders and travellers of all kinds. The Raigad Fort, which is 23 kilometres away from Mahad, served as the capital of all forts under Chhatrapati Shivaji’s rule. The architecture here is remarkable, with a vast expanse of greenery. En route to the fort, are some spots like the Koturde Dam and local strawberry farms that make for leisurely pitstops. Nearby lies the Gondale area, which is a small forest-like reserve area where biodiversity is abundant. To understand local culture, I visited the village of Taloshi, also on the way to the fort. Interacting with the locals opened up a treasure trove of history and information. 

Anushree N, Visakhapatnam, Aaraku Valley, Andhra Pradesh

Aaruku Valley is one of the most verdant valleys in the Eastern Ghats. One must dig deep through its deep forests for startling discoveries. Hailing from Visakhapatnam, I had travelled to the valley on an organised trekking event, guided by none other than the tribes of the valley. Here, we set out on the Gosthani Cave Trek within the Borra Caves, towards the end of which lies the Gosthani River. 

An intriguing story is linked to the river’s nomenclature. According to locals, residents of the region were initially unaware about a river flowing beneath the cave, and it only came to light when a cow fell from a hole in the Borra Cave but managed to stay alive by landing up in the water body. Thus the river was given the name Gosthani (Abode of the cow). 

Another secret spot in the valley is the Aradakota Waterfalls. Only known to the locals, this beautiful waterfall is the perfect halt for those planning a short trek in the region. 

Anushree Joshi, Saharanpur, Uttar Pradesh

Lakdi Bazaar (wooden market) in Uttar Pradesh’s Saharanpur is a place full of colour and character. Usually brimming with crowds, the narrow alleys and wide roads of the market are open every day save Friday. From small shops selling select items to big showrooms with an entire floor or two dedicated to export goods, the market has something for all age groups. 

As a kid, I learnt about this place from my family, a rite of passage as a local. Whenever anything made of wood had to be bought or repaired, Lakdi Bazar was the place to go to. During one of my summer breaks, I had convinced my mother to accompany me to this famous market. There, I was fascinated to see the woodwork hanging on both sides of the road. 

I was spoiled for choice with wooden toys, photo frames, carved furniture, shoe racks, magazine holders, combs, cutlery and a whole lot more!

Dandeli in Karnataka is the perfect place for the adventure-junkie, offering challenging rafting experiences. Photo By: Bubz/Shutterstock

Sharayu Jakhotiya, Jawhar, Maharashtra

Jawhar, 130 kilometres from Mumbai, was once the capital of the princely state of Jawhar, ruled by the Mukne family. It is the nodal point for 80 tribal villages. Jawhar is known for its natural beauty and mixed cultural heritage. A huge population of Jawhar has migrated from Maharashtra and some parts of Gujarat, enhancing the rich tribal culture it already had. 

The Jai Vilas palace of the last king of Jawhar is well known and a sought after destination. But before the royal family moved to this palace, they lived in a stone and wood palace right in the centre of the town. After they relocated, the old palace was abandoned and left to the forces of nature. The palace walls have been taken over by huge Ficus trees, it’s roots running deep through the walls and merging with the palace’s foundation. 

The entrance to the main hall is now framed by the living roots of trees and is a sight to behold. On closer inspection, one will be able to see the minute and artistic wood carvings on the pillars inside the wall. Thick roots now run alongside the ancient flooring. The main palace wall has also been claimed by nature and one will be able to see trees at different angles jutting out from rocks. The well, situated just outside the palace grounds, is now surrounded by thick foliage and one would think twice before venturing too close as the area is now an abode of snakes. The old palace which is hardly ever visited by tourists, is a marvellous place to witness the magic of history and nature. 

Sayan Sil, Satgachia, West Bengal

I live in a small village in West Bengal called Satgachia. During monsoon, my village looks like a green carpet, as local farmers cultivate paddy. In the lap of nature, you can enjoy simple but delicious regional cuisine like the traditional Bengali fish curry with rice. From here, you can also visit the Burdwan Rajbari and 108 Shiva Linga Nawab Bari, which is approximately 30 kilometres away. Nabadwip, the birthplace of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, lies close by. 

Soni Bhumika, Kankroli, Rajasthan

I’m from Kankroli, which falls in the Rajsamand district of Rajasthan. Kankroli has one of Asia’s largest man-made sweet water lakes—Rajsamundra Lake. During World War II, the lake was used as a base for sea-planes and mammoth iron shackles from that time still lie deep within its waters. The holy temple of Dwarkadhish Ji and Nau Chauki, which lie on the banks of the lake, have beautiful carvings and irrigation gardens–a must-see for all visitors. What’s more, the gorgeous royal city of Udaipur is just an hour’s drive away. 

Chayan Das, Digboi, Assam

Amid the lush landscape of Assam hides a small town. It’s name originated when an engineer named Mr. W. L. Lake in the late 1800s had shouted “dig, boy, dig”, after having discovered stains of crude oil under the feet of elephants. ‘Digboi’ is an unassuming town where time seems to stand still. A walk down its clean roads will lead you to uncover a host of colonial architecture, starting with the Chang Bungalows standing over low hills, its sprawling lawns and golf-course maintained to this day, and its gardens swarming with bees and butterflies. 

The Raigad Fort served as one of the central forts under Chhatrapati Shivaji’s rule. Photo By: Satish Parashar/Shutterstock

Abhishek Jotwani, Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh

Bhopal hosts a 300-year-old Qadimi hammam (a kind of Turkish bath) which is in the Kamala Park area of the city. The women of the city use the hammam during the day, while the men use it at night. Oil massages and steam bath options are available, however the recipes of the scrubs remain a secret. The hammam opens every year on Diwali and functions till Holi. 

Dhrubangshu, Siliguri, West Bengal

Not many have heard about Latpanchar in West Bengal, a beautiful mountain hamlet offering stunning views of the Kanchenjunga. It is also home to a diverse range of wildlife such as the barking deer, wild boar, leopard and elephant. To make matters greener, Latpanchar contains cinchina plantations used for curing diseases like Malaria. 

Also in West Bengal, Lamahatta is another calm and peaceful village surrounded by alluring pine trees. It has beautiful gardens, blossoms of orchids and Buddhist prayer flags fluttering in the wind, with an encompassing view of the Kanchenjunga. Manebhanjyang serves as the gateway to the Singalila National Park, which is the highest altitude park in West Bengal and offers several trekking routes towards Sandakphu. Sprawling within the lush green valleys of an alpine forest, Tinchuley is another delightful and hidden gem near Siliguri. The alpine forest is a dream for birders between the months of September and December. 

Reshmi KR, Kozhikode, Kerala

Kozhikode is known for its food culture, where age-old restaurants serve everything from spicy regional delicacies to pasta and falafel. However, the hidden gem I would like to talk about dishes up delicious views of nature. Mango Park, situated in Govindapuram, near the Kendriya Vidyalaya school, was a barren land on top of a hill which was in time converted into a mango grove by a group of dedicated morning joggers. With benches dedicated to passersby, it is an ideal spot to spend an evening, with a view of the rumbling Arabian Sea in the distance. It is said that during the British Raj, soldiers used to camp here as it served as  vantage point to observe the whole city and the sea. For those who visit Kozhikode for a gastronomic holiday, this sweet little spot should be on the list, for equally sumptuous sunsets. 

Mandvi Mankotia Rawat, Mhow, Madhya Pradesh

For a town that is all but five kilometres from one end to another, Mhow in Madhya Pradesh packs a punch. A melting pot of culture and faiths, it has churches of all denominations dotting the undulating vistas. Temples in the main market street stand cheek by jowl, with mosques and even a Parsi fire temple tucked in a back lane. I discovered the interiors of a church I’ve crossed a million times only this last Christmas, always having observed its needle-sharp spire kissing the sky from afar. The pews of the church, which was built in the 1820s, contain brackets to hold rifles, an additional structure added after the 1857 mutiny, when the mutineers on their way to Indore burnt the outhouse that was the residence of the priest. 

Bhaskar Ramani, Shimla, Himachal Pradesh

The famous ridge just above Mall Road in Shimla is actually a continental divide. If you spill water on the left side of the ridge, it will eventually go into the Arabian Sea and if you spill water on the right side, it will flow into the Bay of Bengal.  

To read and subscribe to our magazine, head to Magzter or our new National Geographic Traveller India app here. 

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Social Distancing Travel | 11 Healing Hideaways in India for Your Tired Soul

Social Distancing Travel | 11 Healing Hideaways in India for Your Tired Soul

Beachside solitude in Ganpatipule, lost-in-time architectures in Melkote, birdwatching along the marshes of Mangalajodi—seek out these secluded places of beauty for a post-lockdown getaway.

A short trip from Murguma village in West Bengal would lead you to the enchanting world of chhau, a masked tribal dance form. Photo by: My Image / Moment / Getty Images

The wait to break free—bob along rivers and wade through wildflowers—is going to be long. But when the time comes, well be ready to rejuvenate. A pandemic demands staggering human resolve. If getting by from one day to another has frayed your nerves, bunched up your heart into dirty, matted knots, here are secluded places of beauty within India you can head to, when all of this is over.

In the North

Chitkul, Himachal Pradesh

The highest and the last settlement of Himachal’s Baspa valley is also one of its most serene. Perched on the right bank of the Baspa river in the Kinnaur district, life in Chitkul simmers slow and sweet, away from prying tourists who generally stop 20 kilometres short in popular Sangla. The village, as green as a sky full of parrots, opens up the view to majestic Himalayan peaks. Flowering fields of buckwheat, a staple of the region, grin pink in the harvest season. An assortment of olden temples and a monastery shine light on the village’s amalgamation of faith; residents practise Hinduism, Buddhism and sometimes, a mix of both. The village offers an ideal base for several scenic treks and the meditative company of pine forests and starry skies. 250 kilometres/8 hours from Shimla by bus, Chitkul also offers Zostel accommodation.

Nathukhan, Uttarakhand

A relatively new pin on the map, Nathukhan is a comely village in Uttarakhand, not far from the holiday classics of Nainital and Mukteshwar. Dressed in velveteen pleats of oak, birch, deodar and kafal trees, it boasts almost-180 degree views of the Himalayas, including the Trishul, Nanda Devi, Nilkantha, and Panchachuli peaks. Relish nippy temperature and hissing hot shikar-bhaat (rice with chicken/goat curry) here, with heady side-helpings of DIY nature walks and bhang chutney. Infrastructure is scant and vistas abundant in this village, a 65 kilometre/2.5 hour-drive from Kathgodam railway station. Woodnotes Foreststays, with its mud-walled rooms and pahadi kitchen, offers a taste of local life.

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In the West

The Bhimbetka rock shelters in Madhya Pradesh are a reminder of human perseverance. Photo by: ImagesofIndia / Shutterstock

Social Distancing Travel | 11 Soulful Spots in India to Forget Your Trouble 4

Marvel at sand dunes untainted by overtourism in Rajsthan’s Khuri. Photo by: Robmeador.com / Shutterstock

Khuri, Rajasthan

That star-gazing in the Thar Desert is a cure for taut nerves shouldn’t come as a surprise, but the sweet seclusion of Khuri village, a 50 kilometre/l-hour-drive from Jaisalmer’s tourist scramble, catches one unawares. Spend your afternoons scaling sand dunes, or chasing splatters of pomegranate-pink sun. Come nightfall you can revel in the grandeur of skies punched with silver holes, and even the Milky Way, if you’re carrying a telescope. A stay at the clay-walled Badal House, run by local man Badal Singh Ji, offers both rustic hospitality and intimate desert excursions.

Ganpatipule, Maharashtra

A 30 kilometre/1 hour-drive from Ratnagiri railway station will take you to the sleepy Konkan town of Ganpatipule. The town’s name is derived from the Hindu deity who is said to have taken abode here, and is worshiped at the 400-year-old Ganpatipule Temple centred on his Vermillion, monolithic idol. White sand lines its beach, along with cobalt waters and groves of coconut trees. While a rocky terrain makes swimming at the Ganpatipule beach difficult, water sports such as paragliding, jet-skiing, snorkelling, and banana boat rides temper its tranquillity. The Jaigad fort and lighthouse offer rambling views of the Arabian Sea, and the Thibaw Palace, an insight into the region’s links to India’s colonial history. Drive along the coast to the Aare-Ware beach, ideal for quiet swims or walks of the solitary kind. Marinate in the afterglow of salty sunsets with a side of fish curry, kokam rice and ambapoli (mango pancakes). The MTDC Beach Resort at Ganpatipule offers reasonable accommodation.

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In Central India

Bhimbetka, Madhya Pradesh

A UNESCO World Heritage Site covering 10 kilometres of the Ratapani Wildlife Sanctuary, the Bhimbetka rock shelters offer a portal to our collective past. Bhimbetka boasts 760 rock shelters and caves cut into seven hills, with prehistoric rock paintings adorning the walls of 500 caves. The rock art is said to offer insights into life in the Upper Paleolithic, Mesolithic, Chalcolithic, Early historic and Medieval eras and has been compared to in those in Kakadu National Park in Australia. Although only 12 of the painted shelters are accessible to the public, inside them persists the seed of human imagination— the Boar Rock showcases the outline of a boar, “Nataraj” is the painting of a man dancing with a trident-like staff, and the Zoo Rock depicts bison, deer, and elephants. Bhimbetka does not have any accommodation; MP Tourism recommends Banyan Tree Farms in Bhopal, 50 kilometres/1.5 hours by bus.

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In the East

Mangalajodi, Odisha

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Mangalajodi’s bird-dotted marshes are one of Odisha’s hidden delights. Photo by: Wirestock Images / Shutterstock

If marshlands flanked by typha grasslands and migratory birds suggest a calming visual for you, the Mangalajodi wetlands, located north of Odisha’s Chilika lagoon, will manifest that dream. A birder’s delight for the wealth of wildlife that inhabits its languid waters, it is also a fulfilling experience of nature for those without binoculars. Not that you will have much use of binoculars here; gliding through slender stretches of water on wooden boats made cosy with thatched canopies, you will be at arm’s length of purple moorhens, ruddy shelducks, bar-tailed godwits, and other wetland beauties. Expect deep silence, ruffled only by bird calls or the sound of oars splicing open still waters. Mangalajodi village lies 70 kilometre/1.5 hour southwest of Bhubaneswar, off NH-5. Mangalajodi Ecotourism, a community-managed wildlife conservation venture, offers elementary lodging and boating packages.

Murguma, West Bengal

Swaddled between the ancient Ajodhya Hills and a tributary of the river Kangsabati, Murguma village in West Bengal knows nature’s soliloquy by heart. To listen in, drive 46 kilometres/1.5 hours west of Purulia station until you’re ringed by red hillocks, lotus-streaked ponds, and groves of sal, bamboo, and flaming bastard teaks. Soak in the panorama at the Murguma dam, or visit the nearby tribal settlement of Charida, where generations of mask artists create flamboyant Chhau masks, used in the eponymous dance form. The wild expanses of Peacock Hill, Bamni Falls, Khairabera, Turga Falls and the Ajodhya Hill and Reserve Forest Area are some adjacent attractions. A stay at Murguma’s Palash Bitan Jungle Huts offers basic facilities and a deluxe brush with nature.

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In the Northeast

Yuksom, Sikkim

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Visit a forest cradling a sacred coronation throne in Yuksom, Sikkim. Photo by: Nigel Killeen / Moment / Getty Images

Divorced from the din at 5,840 feet, Yuksom in West Sikkim is revered as ‘the meeting point of three lamas’. The name should perhaps be an indicator of the town’s proximity to monasteries such as the Dubdi, Tashi Tenka, and Tashiding. Having served as the first capital of Sikkim, where the foremost chogyal (ruler) of the kingdom was consecrated, Yuksom’s culture is best experienced in symmetry with its natural beauty; you will eavesdrop on the rustle of indigenous trees while visiting the Coronation Throne of Norbugang. And it is the peaceful waters of the Kathok Lake that form the backdrop of the seat of the three lamas. Vistas cannot possibly disappoint at the ‘Gateway to Mt. Kangchendzongha’, as pleasing hikes leading to the Goecha La trail or the Kangchendzongha basecamp testify. Expect farm-to-table dining at Yuksom’s ample homestays, run by the local Limboo tribe. Bagdogra airport is a 160 kilometre/5 hour-drive away from Yuksom, but cabs are best availed from Siliguri Junction, half an hour from the airport.

Mawphlang, Meghalaya

Drive 26 kilometres/40 minutes southwest of Shillong to reach a junction of Scotland-ish greens, and a village whose name translates to “grassy stone.” The name is a nod to the many monoliths in the culturally distinct East Khasi region. Mawphlang is also the gateway to the Mawphlang Sacred Grove, one of the biggest sacred forests in Meghalaya. The forest, stitched together by an intertwined network of flora and medicinal herbs, has but one rule. Nothing can be taken out of the enclosure, believed to be home to the local deity— not even a dead log. Tune into the harmony of nature and ancient faith, and learn about indigenous culture at the Khasi Heritage Village, a model village located opposite the grove. The historic David Scott Trail stretches from Mawphlang to Ladmawphlang village, a system of woods, rocks, waterfalls, bridges, and the beautiful Umiam river. A stay at the family- run Maple Pine Farm allows ample access to the attractions.

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In the South

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Melkote in Karnataka is a treasure trove of architecture (right), lost in time; Easily accessible from the Maharashtrian town of Ganpatipule, the Aare-Ware beach (left) promises deep blue solitude. Photos by: Pritesh Bhosle / Shutterstock (woods), Nila Newsom / Shutterstock (carvings)

Melkote, Karnataka

Sunsets have a mystical quality in monument-riddled Melkote, but they do nothing to accelerate time. If you’ve ever wanted a ticket back to lost kingdoms, glimpses of Hoysala-era architecture in this hilltop town offer a fix. Trust the slowness in the air as you fritter away days that begin with plates of special puliyogare (tamarind rice) and end amid the stunning stucco sculptures of Cheluvanarayana Swamy temple. The dramatic ruins of Raya Gopura and a smattering of stone pavilions and maths accentuate the sense of time-warp. Small- scale dharamshalas and lodges are common in the town easily reached by bus or cab from both Bengaluru and Mysore.

Valiyaparamba, Kerala

Valiyaparamba is a fishing island in Kasaragod district. Separated from mainland by the Tejaswini river, the secluded isle—about 62 kilometres/1.5 hour by road from Kunnur International Airport—houses the Valiyaparamba Backwaters, third-largest in Kerala. Made accessible by a bridge, an alternative way to reach the island is to take a ferry from Kottappuram or Edayilakkad. Once there, hop aboard a traditional kettuvallam (houseboat) to glide through placid waters, swirling in native flora and fauna. To the west of the island, the Valiyaparamba beach is serene. Fish using rustic tools, sample seafood, and soak in the cool breeze of coconut lagoons. 30 kilometres/one hour-drive away, the Bekal Fort affords heart-stopping views of the Arabian Sea. The Tyndis Mangrove Trails, 10 kilometres from the island, offer a plethora of hiking, boating and birdwatching activities. Kerala Tourism recommendations for stays include Kavvayi Beach House and Avisa Island Homestay, among others.

The article features inputs from Sambit Dattachaudhuri. 

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Mandu’s Sleepy Citadel Rises Again

Mandu’s Sleepy Citadel Rises Again

For a town bookmarked with imperial grandeur, Mandu has enjoyed a low profile. But Mandu Festival, a festival that kicked off last year, was billed as a potentially transformative event for local tourism. And to match that promise, a camp was set up right next to Sagar Talao, where travellers were treated to five days of delightful diversions, from twilight hot-air balloon rides to guided cycle tours and music concerts, all of it unfolding amidst Mandu’s heritage landmarks.

During my visit, I sauntered about one afternoon, gravitating towards a ruinous domed structure I had spotted on my way to the campsite. Tracing a trail of trampled grass through wheat fields, I stood before the ruins of Hathi Mahal, an Indo-Islamic architectural relic that was once a holiday home and later converted to a mausoleum. The domed roof stood on the shoulders of massive pillars, resembling an elephant’s legs, clarifying why the structure was named so. Even in the warm sun, a copse of banyan trees cast an eerie darkness over the ruin. It was difficult to imagine this was ever a holiday home. I tried to conjure a mise-en-scene from a few hundred years ago, when the chaotic sounds of a thriving fort-town rang across its courtyard. For the time being however, the silence was punctuated only by leaves crunching under my foot and the stray twang of a guitar from Indian Ocean’s sound check nearby; the band was one of the biggest draw of all the musical acts slated to perform during the fest. 

The Hindola Mahal, another Mandu landmark, was built by ruler Hoshang Shah. Photo By: Hari Mahidhar/Shutterstock

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Kapur Talao is one of the two artificial lakes that surround Jahaz Mahal. Photo By: Vikram SK/Shutterstock

 

I returned to campsite, where as dusk fell, the pair of baobabs leading up to the lake lit up. Shortly after which, Indian Ocean, inaugurated the festival’s first performance in front of Dai Ke Chhoti Behen ka Mahal, another tomb, this one dedicated to the sister of a royal midwife. The makeshift concert arena was packed–Mandu veterans sitting next to me told me that this was probably the largest crowd the town has seen in recent years. As the band launched into a long, improvised version of “Ma Rewa,” a paean to the mighty Narmada that nourishes the Malwa plateau, the crowd erupted. 

The thumping percussion still reverberating in my ears, I made for the festival food court set up next to the lake, supping on a plate of humble daal bafla (doughy wheat balls, soaked in mildly-spiced daal) that was served with potato sabzi, mint chutney, rice and papad. After which, I had just enough appetite to accommodate another Malwa delicacy—garadu, or deep fried yam—guaranteed to get your blood flowing in biting winters. 

The next morning, I accompanied our local guide, Yogendra, on a walking tour of Mandu’s many monuments, including Jami Masjid and Jahaz Mahal. He peppered his tour with spicy anecdotes (Ashrafi Mahal was a gym for the Sultan of Malwa’s begums; Jami Masjid bore witness to his several hundred marriages), most of which were best taken with a pinch of salt.  

 

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Mandu Festival was led by a banner live show by Indian Ocean. Photo Courtesy: Mandu Festival

 

Adjacent to the mosque lay the marble tomb of Hoshang Shah, its whiteness stark among the reddish brown of the sandstone monuments around it. Famously, the tomb was the early blueprint that later inspired Shah Jahan to build Taj Mahal. If ancient lore portrays Mandu’s rulers as quirky characters, the Jahaz Mahal is a testament to their formidable ambition. The long, narrow palace straddles two artificial lakes, Kapur Talao and Munj Talao on either side. When the lakes filled to the brim during the monsoon, the palace, which housed the royal harem, appeared to float on the water, and hence the name. 

Lost in fanciful fables, it took a visit to Chor-Kot for my mind to be brought back to the earth. The one-time prison is rubble now, and only parts of the thick stone walls and pillars have survived. From my seat atop a pile of debris just outside it, I watched children playing cricket, unfettered by the macabre history of their chosen stadium. A similarly mysterious gloom surrounded the Lohani Caves, angular chambers cut into a rock face along the side of a mountain. 

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Besides live shows, the festival also packed in outdoor activities such as hot-air balloon rides and glamping. Photo By: Tanay Gokhale

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The campsite was flanked by decorative baobab trees, a nod to Mandu’s unique landscape. Photo By: Tanay Gokhale

 

Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to visit all the recommended historical spots, so I returned to base in anticipation of my hot-air balloon ride the next morning. We lifted off at dawn, the stolid balloon affording a view of the sun rising from the mountains to the east, and the green patchwork of fields below. Mandu now appeared like any other hill station. On closer inspection though, stories of love, warfare and ambitious kings tumbled out of its flagship monuments. I let my imagination borrow freely from the tales I had heard so far: did the banyans outside the supposedly haunted Hathi Mahal come alive at night? What must a prison break from Chor-Kot have been like 500 years ago? And as I readied for a rough landing in the middle of nowhere, I made a mental note to return to Mandu and pick up where my reveries had left off.

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Meet the Female Safari Driver Steering the Wheel at Kanha National Park

Meet the Female Safari Driver Steering the Wheel at Kanha National Park

Madhuri Thakur helps trailblaze the path for local, female safari drivers in the heart of Madhya Pradesh’s wildlife.

Madhuri Thakur (right) is one of the two female safari drivers at Kanha National Park; With lush meadows and sal trees that cradle the tiger and spotted owl (top and bottom left), Kanha is a nature lover’s delight. Photo by: Thrutheframe / iStock / Getty Images Plus / Getty Images (tiger), BGS_IMAGE/Shutterstock (owl), Sejal Mehta (guide)

Before sunrise, tourist vehicles gather outside the Mukki zone of Madhya Pradesh’s Kanha National Park, a lush mix of meadows and dense sal forest.

At the ticketing stand guides and drivers stand in loose groups, warming themselves with glasses of hot tea, while finishing the safari formalities. Two women break away from the male-dominated crowd—a Gond forest guard, Laxmi Maravi, a ‘Green Teacher’ awardee at the 2019 Sanctuary Awards, and 23-year-old Madhuri Thakur, one of the two women from the nearby Mandla district to have been employed as a safari driver in the park. As the clock strikes six a.m. activity stirs at the gate. Laxmi hurries back in line to accompany one of the safari vehicles as a forest guard, and Madhuri swings into the driver’s seat of the Gypsy she operates for Asteya Lodge—just like that, Kanha is open for business.

Driving in a national park requires an advanced set of skills: the ability to tackle the testing terrain, a strong familiarity of wildlife behaviour, and a deep understanding of the park’s geography. In Mukki, it was never considered something a woman should, could, or would want to do. However, through an initiative by the Mukki Forest Department, an automobile company began offering driving lessons to select candidates. When S.K. Khare, Assistant Director of the Mukki Zone, asked Madhuri if she’d like to attempt it, she embraced the chance to learn something new.

By that time, Khare had already helped faciliate a powerful women’s workforce at Mukki. There were six female guides, one forest guard, and 10 tribal women operating the forest canteen, all from villages within the forest buffer. After the female candidates finished their lessons, Khare reached out to everyone from Gypsy owners to field directors and forest officers, to see if there were any available employment opportunities. “Madhuri is a local woman, and we should give her a chance,” Khare reasoned. That chance came in the form of a safari driver position.

23-year-old Madhuri has three years of experience in navigating and tackling touch terrains. Photo courtesy: Madhuri Thakur

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Spotted deer are commonly sighted at the national park. Photo by: Mary Ann McDonald / The Image Bank / Getty Images

Despite resistance from Madhuri’s extended family, her parents, emboldened by Khare’s guidance, stood in support of her decision. Her mother, Neelam Singh Thakur, who’d never even seen a woman ride a scooter, believed in her daughter’s abilities instinctively, and was the deciding vote to send Madhuri to driving school. Her father, Gulzar Singh Thakur, was once a forest guard himself, and while he had his reservations, his familiarity with the work she was training for contributed to his support.

After four weeks of training, Madhuri was given the opportunity to be a safari test driver for four months. She was understandably nervous, fearful of oncoming traffic on the roads, and of coming in close proximity to a tiger in the forest. “The first time we sighted a tiger when I was in the driver’s seat, I could not gauge the distance I should keep from it, nor could I anticipate his movements.” If you’ve been on a safari anywhere in India, you’ll know exactly what she means. Once a tiger is sighted, something akin to hysteria ripples through the crowd. Everyone wants a front-row view, people stand up, holler, cars reverse and move into impossibly narrow space—it’s almost a circus. It’s an unfortunate circumstance in a business where seeing the ‘elusive stripes’ is the only parameter of a successful safari for many people.

Now imagine the immense pressure such a sighting has on the person driving the vehicle.

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No two safari rides in Kanha are the same—some take visitors to a leopard (bottom), while others to the common Indian roller (top left) and the peacock (top right). Photo by: Karl Weller / Shutterstock (Indian Roller), Henk Boggard/ Shutterstock (peacock), The Eternity Photography -/Moment/ Getty Images (leopard)

Fast forward to three years’ experience on the job, and Madhuri is confident at navigating the forest, her colleagues, and the visitors. At the start, support from coworkers could be a scarce commodity, some drivers “advised” her against the job for her “own good,” telling her she wouldn’t be able to manage it. Often guides would get impatient with her in front of guests. “I was just learning, and it was not easy to hear those things. Now I am more confident. Everyone is encouraging now, they make space for me at a sighting and even show me how to handle turning the vehicle in a hurry.” She finds it heartening that guests are largely supportive, but adds, “Because of my small frame, I still get a lot of, ‘Tum chala logi gaadi? Aapko kisne license de diya?’ Initially, I would get upset, even angry, but now I smile and ask them to see for themselves.”

With succour from women who helped pave the way for her (including her employer, Ratna Singh, who started out just like her) and her community and parents, Madhuri stands tall at her place of work. Her father, who would accompany her to the Mukki sector’s gate on her initial drives and wait outside until she was done, had the opportunity to watch her work for himself. He was assigned as guide on one of her drives and remembers being filled with pride as she expertly drove through the forest, speaking to her guests with aplomb, nodding to her colleagues as they drove past. “We saw two tigers that day,” he smiles, “we make a good team.” He adds, “It’s not just the fact that she’s a pioneer; she manages her expenses herself, and shares my burden of home expenditure. I could not be more proud of this.”

Madhuri is determined to further her passion for wildlife; she is training to be a naturalist. “I know this forest, but I want to understand it now, and that means studying the movement of animals, birds, plants, and seasons. This is what I love— introducing my forest to outsiders and passing on the wonder of seeing the wilderness.”

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