Where To Go in 2020: For Heritage Gems and Hungry Cities in India
Maheshwar, Madhya Pradesh
Instead of Varanasi
In both look and feel, Maheshwar, a tiny town to Indore’s south, evokes Varanasi vibes. Some even call it the “Varanasi of Central India”—a grand comparison it shoulders rather well. Ghats here too reverberate with bhajans, brought alive by meditating yogis, half-naked sadhus and women engrossed in everyday stuff… bathing in the Narmada, washing clothes, chit-chatting.
Imposing from behind the ghats is the fort of Ahilyabai Holkar, parts of it now a hotel. The 18th-century, Malwa-Maratha queen moved the dynasty’s capital from Maharashtra to Maheshwar—and her imprint here is indelible, especially in the Rajwada, a two-storey wooden structure typical of a Marathi wada (traditional home). A devout Shiva worshipper, Ahilyabai also gave Maheshwar many temples, but most of all the beautiful textile Maheshwari, spun by expert weavers brought in from Surat, Varanasi and Chennai to weave saris for the royal household and as gifts for the Peshwas and visiting dignitaries. Even today the clacking of wooden looms echoes in the weavers’ colonies, as artistes, both men and women, sit creating poetry in colour. To explore the craft further, a visit to Rehwa Society, an NGO founded by the Holkars, is ideal. Evening dose? Row away to Baneshwar temple; it’s the perfect prescription. But be right back by the ghat before sunset, for that’s when Narmada dazzles in a sea of flickering diyas, the air incensed with freshly lit sticks of jasmine and rose, bundles and bundles of them.
How to go:
Indore, well-connected by air, road and rail, is the best touchpoint for the journey. From Indore’s airport and railway station, Maheshwar is about 90 km/2 hr, a distance you can cover either in a taxi or by bus.
Chanderi, Madhya Pradesh
Instead of weaving wonders, architectural marvels
While Chanderi is a famed pit stop for lovers of the weave, the Madhya Padesh town sits like a hidden jewel, also offering the magic of an architecturally rich place less travelled to.
Once coveted by the rulers of the north for its strategic location as a military outpost on the Malwa-Bundelkhand border, the nondescript town cherishes over 350 historical structures, including Islamic, Hindu and Jain ones, dated between early 10th to the late 17th century—spread over its labyrinthine lanes and further afield.
The 11th-century fort of Chanderi sits atop a hill like the town surveyor; make sure to climb it for panoramic views. Other city haunts and monuments worth visiting include: the imposing Badal Mahal Gate; the exquisite, three-domed Jama Masjid; tombs of Khwaja Nizamuddin Auliya’s family with beautiful jaali screens; Shehzadi ka Rauza and Shahi Madarsa; Sadar Bazaar, the commercial heart of Chanderi; the charming baolis (stepwells) of Chakla, and Battisi; Shri Chaubisi Jain Temple and Khandagiri; Lakshman Temple, on the banks of Parmeshwar Tal; Chanderi Museum; the stately Koshak Mahal; and the original settlement of the town, Budhi Chanderi, about 20 kilometres from the present day city.
The town lends its name to the gossamer Chanderi fabrics woven here. Walking past houses in the weavers’ colony, one can hear the constant click-clack of the loom, and even catch them at work.
How to go:
Gwalior (210 km/4.5 hr) and Bhopal (230 km/4.5 hr) are the closest airports, from where trains and cabs ply to Chanderi. Stay options include hotel Tana Bana, or Amraee Rural Resort. Hire a car and guide to enjoy the treasures scattered far and wide. Cars can be hired from Lalitpur (36 km/1 hr) or the Jhansi station (110 km/2.5 hr), or from the modest car rental service in Chanderi. Also, check with your hotel or MPSTDC.
Reh Festival, Arunachal Pradesh
Instead of Nagaland’s Hornbill Festival
Even within well-travelled circles, northeast India continues to inspire intrigue. A great showcase of the region’s culture is Nagaland’s popular Hornbill Festival; but a lesser known, more local, counterpart is the Reh festival in the neighbouring state of Arunachal Pradesh. The event is celebrated by the Idu Mishmi community to encourage communal living and inculcate the joy of togetherness. According to the tribe’s lore, they are the children of the divine mother Nanyi Inyitaya, an all-encompassing figurehead of their belief system. The Reh festival is a time when the Idu Mishmis can invoke her blessings for their happiness and prosperity. This celebration takes place in the largest settlement of the area, Roing, and in surrounding villages. The six-day affair is packed with local tradition, the festivities full of scheduled sacrifices, feasts, prayers, and dances. Igus, or priests, sit in sacred huts known as rekos, which encircle fires, chanting prayers as apong, a popular homemade rice beer, flows freely amidst singing and dancing. The festival offers a glimpse into the customs of this rarified slice of Arunachal Pradesh.
How to go:
The Dibrugarh airport in Assam is the closest airfield to the region, from which Roing is a 150 km/5 hr drive.
Make sure to keep your ILP (Inner Line Permit) handy for inspection at the interstate border.
Omkareshwar, Madhya Pradesh
Instead of Varanasi
Omkareshwar, some say, could pass off as “Little Varanasi”, at least in vibe, if not scale: Think temple town, spiritual bliss, sacred river, lively ghats. An Om-shaped settlement by the Narmada, Omkareshwar is also a site for one of the 12 jyotirlinga shrines in India, its streets crammed with colourful shops selling religious curios, kitschy idols and devotional CDs. To cross the river island, pilgrims usually tread the 270-foot-high suspension bridge (Omkareshwar Setu) on foot or hire a boat for a leisurely ride. Evening aartis, basic but popular, complete the Varanasi charm, although Mahashivratri is when festivities peak.
Historically the region has been ruled by the Malwas, Chauhans and later on by the Marathas, who built many temples. A parikrama of the island will expose you to the ruins of some of these 11th-century temples, medieval fortifications, hidden villages and ashrams. Start early to beat the mid-afternoon heat and by early evening, set out for the hilltop Mandhata Palace, or Omkareshwar Palace. Built by the Holkars, its Durbar hall is Instagram-worthy, so is the aerial view of the main town from the palace’s balcony. Best way to cool off? Definitely by the ghat; a quiet moment or two on the rocks, taking in the shimmering waters. Pro tip: Madhya Pradesh Tourism Board’s Narmada Retreat offers intimate views of the river and the main temple. As for the hypnotic tintinnabulation of temple bells, that’s your sweet upgrade.
How to go
The nearest airport in Indore is 84 km/2 hr. Omkareshwar has its own railway station about 12 km from the city centre. The train route is well-connected with Khandwa, which links to major metros and some big cities.
Instead of Udaipur
It is not the romantic getaway Udaipur promises to be, but in Delwara, only 26 kilometres from the touristy din, time seems to stop just enough to deliver a true Mewar experience. In the heart of the village, snuggled between the Aravallis, is the Devigarh Palace, a gift from Maharana Pratap of Mewar to Rajrana Sajja Singh and his brother following the battle of Haldighati in 1576 (the battlefield is about an hour away). Now a luxury hotel, special tours can be organised on request for visitors, or better still, you can visit the lavish Darbar Courtyard bar and restaurant where dining is a royal affair.
The palace, the 19th-century Indra Kund (stepwell), Hunting Tower, and Nagda Temple—a complex of abandoned temples built by a lake forest—that dot the vicinity, all tell tales of an old world. In contrast stands Eklingji. The 1,000-year-old Shiva temple, home to the relic of the four-faced Shiva, also known as the Raja of the Mewar dynasty, is still visited every Monday by the ruling Maharana. It offers a peek into the life that has evolved and continues to thrive in this village of a big dynasty.
How to go:
The village of Delwara is 26 km/30 min from Udaipur, which has its own airport and railway station. Once in Udaipur, you can hire a private taxi or opt for the bus/shared taxi services that ply to Delwara at regular intervals from different points in the city
Instead of familiar tastes, a rising food hub
Walking past the many colonial-era buildings, dargahs, temples and fort ruins in Cuttack, a 1,000-year-old city, one can see its history, the diversity of which is reflected in its platters.
Cuttack on a plate is dahibara aloodum (Rs40). A soulful dish made by combining vadas soaked in buttermilk, aloo dum and ghuguni (yellow pea curry), topped with a generous sprinkle of sev, chopped onions and a special jeera-and-dried-red-chili powder, this is a dish Cuttakis swear by. Purists stand by the one made by Raghu Behera, an 85-year-old vendor in Bidanasi.
To get a pulse of the city, head to its many tea stalls, or khattis. Whether at Munu Bhai Cha near Barabati Stadium, famed for his slow-boiled, reduced tea, or a steaming cup from Padma Shri awardee Mr. Rao’s stall near Samaj Office, tea is essential. Savour your cuppa with a plate of peeajis (Rs5 for 10 pieces), available near all tea stalls. What a vada is to South India, peeaji is to Cuttack. These deep-fried dumplings are made from a paste of soaked Bengal gram, and tempered with spices and chopped onions.
For more traditional street food, head to pure-vegetarian Dama’s in Buxi Bazaar to eat the best raj kachori and sweets. Social media star Annapurna Devi, an octogenarian fondly known as “Chakuli Mausi,” serves steamed chakuli (Odiya pancakes, Rs10 for two), served with a fiery red homemade chutney from her house in Choudhury Bazaar. A must-eat at Jyoti Mixture at Bajrakabati is Baro Moja (Rs80/kg) literally meaning 12 fun things, made by mixing 12 or more items like bhujia, ganthia, peanuts, fried masala cornflakes and more. At Royal Fast Food in Buxi Bazaar, try the local favourite Cuttack roll (Rs50); an egg roll made with a thin refined wheat flour roti and stuffed with spicy minced chicken and onions.
Cuttack also has its own distinctive style of biryani, made in the dum style using alu bukhara (prunes) and khoya (reduced milk solids). DFC Biryani next to YMCA serves the best mutton biryani (Rs150) the city has to offer. The British left their mark on Cuttack’s culinary landscape in the form of mutton chop (Rs10), the best version of which is found in the 170-year-old Cuttack Club, a member’s only club, or at Kalia Chop in Professorpada. The Chinese settlers also flourished here; Honk Kong in Buxi Bazaar is one of the last original Chinese family-run joints serving delicious hakka noodles, prawn golden coin and garlic chicken cooked over a traditional coal stove. Need a digestive? A hole-in-the-wall shop at Naya Sarak serves a classic masala cold drink (Rs35), made with a blend of secret (naturally!) masala. –Rachit Kirteeman
How to go:
There are direct flights from all major Indian cities to Bhubaneswar. Cuttack is a 30 km/1 hr drive from there. The easiest way to navigate Cuttack is on a two-wheeler. Rickshaws are aplenty, and bike services like Rapido are good to keep handy.
Instead of temple hopping, taste all of north east in one city
An ideal sightseeing tour of Guwahati is about eating—punctuated by occasional visits to temples and museums. So after checking out the rhinoceros in the city zoo, head to the nearby Upper Assam speciality restaurant Khorikaa (GS Road). There are no rhino steaks on the menu, but plenty of other unusual non-veg such as duck and pigeon. Unlike Lower Assam cuisine which is related to Bengali cookery, this feels more far eastern, with subtler flavours. Try the chunky pork slow-cooked in a hollow bamboo tube known as bahor sunga (Rs230) or pan-fried lean duck (Rs210).
There are interesting vegetarian options too, often cooked with medicinal herbs, like banana flower fry and brinjal pitika (eggplant mash). Tribal cuisine is generally known to be wholesome and the menu contains advice such as: ‘The food you eat can be either the safest and most powerful form of medicine or the slowest form of poison.’ Besides, the unfamiliar names make eating as exciting as a safari in an exotic kitchen. Not up for the gamble? Share a communal table and let yourself be guided by friendly locals.
Another feast to die for is served up at Mising Kitchen (Hengrabari Road) which specialises in the cuisine of the Mising tribe who are a river-dwelling people, so the thing to order is a fish thali (Rs380) which, apart from several kinds of veggies, leafy-fry and dals, comes with three types of Brahmaputra fish: ari curry with sour elephant apple slices, tribal style mashed fish, and fried small fishes. Here too flavours are delicate but with a hint of mustard and chilli sting.
Since Guwahati is the hub of the northeast, plenty of other restaurants like Gam’s Delicacy and Naga Food Konspiracy—not to mention the pioneering Paradise that kicked off the regional food trend years ago—focus on various rare cuisines, so this is the perfect place to taste the entire northeast without having to travel much! For the less adventurous, Guwahati promises mean street grubs like momos and chowmeins, and a host of very chill cafes.
Bonus tip: For night-time fun, head to the rock club Café Hendrix (GS Road) to watch Assamese bands perform. They also serve wonderful snacks like pork roast, and yes, this is one of those bars where single women might enjoy an evening out.
How to go:
There are direct flights from Delhi and Mumbai to Guwahati. The old city is walkable, and rickshaws ply regularly between spots.
Morena, Madhya Pradesh
Instead of the Khajuraho group of monuments
The temples of Morena are worth visiting to see structures that are believed to have inspired the design of the Indian Parliament; some predating the temples in Khajuraho.
The 500-foot-tall Kakanmath temple stands amidst the village farmlands of Sihoniya. Its pyramid-like shikhara of the main temple—with stones stacked without a cementing agent, balanced on the pillared base—is an engineering marvel. Around 25 kilometres south sits the 10th-century Shiva temple of Padavali. Ornate three-dimensional friezes of sculptures of Brahma, Shiva, Vishnu and his incarnations adorn the temple’s gateway and interiors.
Northeast of Padavali village lie the ruins of the 25-acre Bateshwar temple complex. It comprises remains of nearly 200 intricately carved sandstone temples, gateways and baolis built between the sixth and ninth centuries A.D.
The 11th-century building of the neighbouring Chausath Yogini temple at Mitavli closely resembles the Indian Parliament building. Its position atop a hillock made it significant for imparting astrological and mathematical knowledge.
How to go:
A day trip by road from Gwalior easily covers all the temples. Kakanmath temple (52 km/1.5 hr north) is the farthest from the airport, and the other temples are short drives from it.
Instead of casual heritage strolls, high-energy temple runs
Been there, done that? We mean Hampi. Well, Hampi all over again. This time a bit differently with Go Heritage Run’s seventh annual “Runcation”. The company organises “active vacations” in destinations of heritage value in and outside India, encouraging travellers to walk, run, hike and cycle. The idea is to take in your surroundings, kilometre by kilometre, site by site.
On a cool February morning, the run will kick off at the statue of Nandi, the monolithic bull many consider to be Shiva’s vehicle, opposite the seventh century Virupaksha Temple—another well-known landmark among the group of monuments that are UNESCO World Heritage Sites, monuments that make Hampi, rolling in the ruins of the Vijayanagar Empire, so alluring, no matter how many times you visit. You can register for a 5-kilometre sprint, which goes past the Krishna Temple and the Underground Shiva Temple, or for the 12-kilometre- or 21-kilometre run that winds through the Anegudi gate, Pushkarini and the Vittala Temple, with support and hydration stations set up intermittently. A handmade medal and t-shirt is your guaranteed prize, but if you choose to turn back midway, it’s still a win-win: Midway in Hampi is never really far enough from some historic gem somewhere.
How to go:
To reach Hampi, take a bus or a train to Hospet railway station. Hospet is well-connected from Bengaluru and Hyderabad. From Hospet, you can either take a public bus or hire an autorickshaw to reach Hampi (13 km/30 min).
Instead of traffic cursing, go graffiti-hopping in Mumbai
Marol isn’t your regular cool cat. It doesn’t have the beatnik cafés of Bandra, or Sassoon Dock’s vintage brag. But ask 28-year-old Omkar Dhareshwar, and he’d tell you otherwsie. He’ll show you why too, unless the artist manager (pictured) is busy working for Wicked Broz, the brainchild he dubs as “India’s first graffiti agency.”
Long used to Andheri’s eastern humdrum, Marol is currently home to over 180 walls of hip-hop style graffiti. Neon Ganpatis, laser-eyed women and Devanagari alphabets that have cropped up in the decade since Mumbai’s opening brush with the artform. To the uninitiated, the style, although distinct from one artist to another, appears gnarly-cool, with a side of acid dreams. And if Dhareshwar is to be believed, the canvas of public parks and bus stops, high-rises and shanty asbestos, is only just growing.
With help from the rest of Mumbai’s street artists old and new—Moron, Zake, Lobster, Mooz, Alchemy, Dexter, and Fe One, among others—the aspiring “art village” is acquiring a curious character. 60-year-olds are volunteering for hip-hop festivals, teens rallying for clean-ups and beautifications under the spell of their first spray can. Street artists, housing societies, BMC corporators and even the police are banding together to create a strange but stunning Venn diagram of artistic expression and community overhaul. Here are some haunts you can head to, for your fill of asli hip-hop.
A stone quarry remodelled as a public park, the joggers’ haunt is now witness to the country’s first women-only street art festival, Ladies First. Bharat Van kicked up dust in March, when seven artists invited from across India were joined by 100 local ladies in transforming 10,000 square feet of wall-space into an open gallery you can now visit during park hours. The labour of love can be seen in many avatars—sprawling bohemian-style pieces, dragonflies hulking over ruby hibiscus, octopuses floating past mushrooms and the other garden fantasies.
In home circles, an unbroken stretch of wall along the pipeline at the north end of Marol Maroshi Road is known as the Wall of Fame. And for good reason. What started as a friend’s tribute to late B-Boy Keith ballooned into a full-scale project. Look out for the paint-totting desi woman, the Schwarzeneggeresque monster bunny, and a hyper-realistic snake giving the world its daily dose of side-eye. Among it all, the minimal but arresting impression of Keith’s face endures in black and white.
A mint example of hip-hop-meets-community art project, here the local youth took it upon themselves to spruce up the neighbourhood’s tapering bylanes by inviting artists from Chennai, Germany, Australia and Uruguay for a well-sustained project. Don’t miss the temple tattooed in dizzy orange and purple coils, the turbaned old man, or the crouching dino skeleton.
Like Adarsh Nagar, the residents of Jabarpada too, were happy to be in on the fun. And why not? Who wouldn’t trade dusty walls for ones teeming with 3D hummingbirds, or tin sheets for a splash of plump-lipped fish? The pieces, many accompanied by tell-tale artist tags, have added a spring in the step of the residents—some have even changed their curtains to match the colour of the nearest graffiti. Hunt for the leopard at the end of the lane, and the window reimagined as an eye.
Although a private residency, Dhareshwar’s headquarters can be visited for the occasional art workshop he organises—chances are it will be worth it. A designated hip-hoppers’ pad, every corner of the complex grins with Tamil alphabets, DC characters, dragons and laughing Buddhas brought to life with the consent of society elders.
I Spy: Bonus Spots
Marol Metro Station; St. Vincent Pallotti Church; Military Road; Marwa Road.
How to go
Due to exposure to natural elements and a culture of tagging over, you may not find all mentioned pieces at exact locations. Bespoke tours can be requested at email@example.com, or call on +91 99204 99089.
–Sohini Das Gupta
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