Where to Go in 2019: For a Culture Shot
Daman & Diu, Naida Caves
Why Go Now: Cave-crawls and cowrie shells
Chomping into the island earth at the periphery of the Diu Fort sit the Naida Caves, a root-wrapped underground labyrinth with flitting bursts of trees and sunlight. Speculated to owe their origin to either geological irregularities or extensive quarrying by the Portuguese, these caves make for an interesting stop in Diu, especially for those less intrigued by the old church-fort-museum routine. Best enjoyed on a bright day (and avoided during the monsoon), the caves have a wide opening, which means the sunlight bouncing off the gold-red rocks lends it all the ammunition needed to be a photographer’s delight. Be the early bird to capture it during sunrise—there is no entry fee.
At the Sea Shell Museum, around six kilometres from the town on the Nagoa road, the entry fee is nominal and the rewards colourful. A personal collection thrown open to the public by a former merchant navy captain, the museum’s wide-ranging selection of shells and exoskeletons of sea-life from across the world is well-maintained and labelled in English. Interesting enough for casual browsers, this one museum best serves travellers who are happy to get their geek on.
Should you choose to carry your love for all things obscure and beautiful across the Gulf of Khambhat to the sister territory of Daman, visit the ruinous remains of the Dominican Monastery, where reminders of what was once a powerful seat of theological learning stand gingerly in a slightly spectral setting.
—Sohini Das Gupta
Bihar, Patna & Bhagalpur
Why Go Now: For rare reads
Escaping the popular narrative of Patna as the ground zero of urban Indian chaos is easy when you keep your eyes open for its scattered, secretive pockets of historical treasure. A fine example is the Khuda Baksh Oriental Public Library—small in size, but extraordinary in the richness of old ensemble scripts in Arabic and Persian. The library-cum-museum that stands not far from the banks of the Ganga, was thrown open to the public in 1891 by Khan Bahadur Khuda Baksh, whose ancestors held the responsibility of bookkeeping and writing records for king Alamgir.
The incredibility of the place comes as much from its rare repositary—manuscripts written on paper, palm leaf, deer skin, cloth; printed books in Arabic, Persian, Urdu, English, Hindi, Punjabi, German and French—as from its personal history. Khuda Baksh, it is said, started the library with 4,000 manuscripts. Later, he donated his entire personal collection to the people of Patna.
The importance of such a quaint existence in the age of tap-and-read devices echoes through the mind as you sit reading or browsing in the Curzon Reading Room, one of its two rooms that welcomes casual readers (the other one is reserved for scholars and researchers). You can inhale centuries through the dusty aroma of Timur Nama and Diwan-e-Hafiz, and lounge amid manuscripts with autographs of Mughal emperors.
—Sohini Das Gupta
Why Go Now: Forest sunsets in a princely state
Seventy kilometres east of Vadodara lies a chance to experience a slice of Gujarat’s royalty, in the city of Jambughoda, a former princely state. Home to Maharana Vikramsinh and his family, the 200-year-old Jambughoda Palace is set amidst a beautiful estate of jamun, mahua, arjuna and mango trees, with a few chickens, some dogs and an organic vegetable garden. The family still lives in the mansion, but the former outhouses, stables and royal kitchen have been repurposed into elegant rooms and suites.
The family’s farms around the estate are perfect for a misty morning stroll. Visit nearby villages to see 11th-century Pithora art made by lakharas (religious painters) on the walls of homes. Walk in the beautiful Jambughoda forest, a 20-minute drive from the estate. Notified a wildlife sanctuary in 1990, the forest is home to leopards, chausingha, and over a hundred species of birds, and an ideal spot to catch the sunset over the Kada dam reservoir.
While here, also make sure to indulge in local delicacies served at Jambughoda Palace, from royal Malwa style dishes such as the mutton kalia rezala to Gujarati favourites like urad dal dhebras (split gram flatbread), recipes of which have been passed down in the family for generations. Though winters are the best time to visit, mango lovers may want to brave the summer heat to sample some of the 12 varieties of mangoes growing at the estate.
Haryana, Narnaul & Nuh
Why Go Now: Pleasure palaces and shaking minars
Haryana might not be the first place that comes to mind when one thinks of eclectic architecture and history trails, but Narnaul, said to be one of the prime centres of power during the Dwaparyugaof Mahabharata, is a treasure hidden in plain sight. With the architectural splendour of the Mughals, Persians, Rajputs and the British fusing into its many historical sites, the town in Mahendergarh district is also the birthplace of Birbal, one of the navratnas in Akbar’s court of advisors. While not all of the structures are adequately maintained, the very existence of them, standing there through the war of the years, can cast a spell on the keener of history buffs. There’s the tomb of Ibrahim Khan Sur, constructed under the instructions of grandson Sher Shah Suri (A.D. 1540-45), with its eastern entrance mirroring temple-style carvings, and its terrace guarded by four octagonal cupolas. Then there’s Jal Mahal, a pleasure palace perched on Khan Sarovar, in the town’s Purani Mandi.
Move three hours east of Narnaul, and history follows you right into the ruin-rich town of Nuh. Once a salt trading centre, it cradles the evidence of its glory days in the shape of sites like the Chui Mal pond and water tank, with its red stone cenotaphs and floral carvings. Or say, the tomb of Sheikh Musa, special for its original Tughlaq style architecture, the Mughal-Rajput architectural style of its arches, and the ancient engineering feat of its shaking minarets. Such was the dexterity of the builders, that even today, if a person shakes the pillar of one minar, the person standing inside the adjacent minar will feel the vibrations synchronously. Bear in mind that not all of Nuh’s once-grand edifices are in great shape—the idea is to seize these sights while they are still around to remind us of some colourful times in the history of India.
—Sohini Das Gupta
Why Go Now: Time travel in a history-seeped town
Melkote is also a town of learning: There’s an 1850s Sanskrit College, a 1930s library of thousands of Sanskrit texts, a 1970s Academy of Sanskrit Research that follows the gurukul system, and the Indian Institute of Trans Disciplinary Research in the Philosophy of Ramanuja. The theologian Ramanuja (1017-1137) spent a good many years here, anywhere between 12 or 20, depending on whom you ask, during the time he was exiled by the Shiva-worshipping Cholas from Tamil Nadu. The then Hoysala king was converted by him to Vaishnavism and appointed Ramanuja his guru. The town’s founding in 1099 seems to be connected to his stay here, though it appears that a place of worship had already been established at Melkote, which, it is said, finds mention in the Puranic literature.
Read more here.