Hidden Gems: India�s Better Kept Travel Secrets

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30 SEPTEMBER 17

Hidden Gems: India’s Better Kept Travel Secrets

Posted by NAT GEO

In a country as vast, geographically diverse, and steeped in legend as India, every place has a story to tell. Around every corner lurks a ruined fort to explore, a waterfall to swim in, a tiny eatery that serves extraordinary food. Here are some of our finds.Floating ChapelShettihalli, KarnatakaShettihalli, Karnataka. Photo: Neelima VallangiRuins have always fascinated me. The more forlorn and forgotten the structure, the more mysterious it seems. So when I heard of an abandoned Gothic-style church a little outside Bengaluru, I knew I had to see it. What I didn’t anticipate was the trouble I would have getting there. It took many bumpy detours, but eventually, we found the Rosary Church, by the side of the Hemavathi River in the town of Shettihalli in southern Karnataka.Standing on a sandy bank, I could see only one-third of the chapel. The roof had collapsed but the beautiful, pointed arches, characteristic of the Gothic style of architecture, still stood. It looked haunting in the late afternoon sun, but the best time to view this derelict beauty is during the golden hour.Built by French missionaries in the late 19th century, Shettihalli’s church remained intact until 1960 when the Indian government began construction of the Gorur Dam (handy, when you’re asking for directions). The village folk were relocated but the church stayed, braving the wrath of the monsoons decade after decade. Every year, the water in the dam rises, submerging parts of the chapel, leaving visitors awestruck by its beauty.The bridge across the dam offers excellent views, but the best way to soak in the beauty of Rosary Church is in a boat. If you’re lucky and local fishermen are around, ask them to take you for a ride in their circular coracles. It is a surreal experience, floating through the chapel’s arches and crumbling halls. I could reach out and touch the walls, sadly filled with scrawls and graffiti. I have seen some stunning ruins and kayaked through dramatic lakes, but Shettihalli’s ageing shrine combines the romance of the two in a way that is unforgettable.—Neelima VallangiThe Vitals Rosary Church is in Shettihalli, about 200 km/4 hr from Bengaluru, near Hemavathi Reservoir. To get there, take a diversion near Hassan on the Bangalore-Mangalore highway and ask for Gorur Dam. The chapel is visible from the bridge connecting Shettihalli to Gorur Dam.Forest ShrinesGerusoppa, KarnatakaGerusoppa, Karnataka. Photo: Neelima VallangiMy coastal Karnataka holiday was planned around food: banana leaf-steamed idlis, chicken roast swimming in ghee, and tender mutton sukha flecked with coconut and glistening curry leaves. We explored Mangalore, Batkal, and Honnavar, and spent some time hiking through the Western Ghats to work up our appetites. But mostly, the trip was about getting acquainted with Mangalorean cuisine through copious consumption. I never imagined I would return gushing about a Jain temple complex from the 14th century.Getting to the Gerusoppa shrines was half the thrill. The journey included a bumpy, winding drive through ghats, followed by a 30-minute walk in the thick of the forest. There weren’t too many people around and the roads were terribly mucky, especially since it was raining.But Gerusoppa was every bit the Indiana Jones setting we hoped it would be. The complex is spread over many kilometres of unruly jungle, about 30 kilometres from the town of Honnavar. It once had over 100 shrines, built by a fierce queen called Chennabhairadevi, but less than a dozen of these now remain. They’re in various states of decay and disrepair. In one compound, we saw a cow placidly chewing the cud by an intricately carved stone tablet that was likely over 600 years old. In another shrine, we examined a life-size sculpture of Mahavira, eyes half-closed in meditation. We scrambled over weathered boundary walls, poking our noses into musty sanctums to see what we might find. Every temple had something to offer.Gerusoppa, Karnataka. Photo: Neelima VallangiGrandest of them all, and the one that took my breath away, was called Chaturmukha Basti. It stood in a clearing on a granite platform, surrounded by trees gently swaying in the breeze. “It looks like Angkor Wat,” my companion whispered. I couldn’t believe such a stunning structure had remained off the pilgrim-tourist track.Designed like a perfect cross, the temple has four entrances, facing north, south, east, and west. In the centre, in a sanctum with four doors, is a four-sided, life-size sculpture of Mahavira in padmasana. Its symmetry is astounding. I ran my hands over the cool, stone statue, trying to imagine what the shrine might have looked like when it was still in use.Chaturmukha Basti is a wonderfully preserved masterpiece of Hoysala architecture, but my favourite shrines were the ones nestled deep in the forest, ignored by conservationists and archaeologists. I noticed them on our walk back to the car, blanketed in green, vines sprouting from cracks and crevices. No paths lead to these moss-covered piles of rubble, and there aren’t any signboards marking their presence. They’re in terrible condition, and yet, there is something deeply mystical about them—so beautiful that the forest has claimed them for itself.—Neha SumitranThe Vitals Gerusoppa is 30 km/45 min from Honnavar, behind a Karnataka hydel project. It is best to visit during the day.Azure WatersGulf of Mannar, Tamil NaduRameswaram, Tamil Nadu. Photo: DinodiaIt is hard to believe that the Gulf of Mannar is in India. We’re not used to seeing clear blue waters, pristine crowd-free beaches, and marine life like dolphins, sea turtles, and whales on our shores. But it is. And the entire stretch from the pilgrimage town of Rameswaram to the Gulf of Mannar Marine National Park at the southern tip of India is a piece of pure wonder. Rameswaram is set on a tiny island connected to mainland India by the Pamban bridge. In the Gulf of Mannar Marine National Park thousands of migratory seagulls and terns gather in what is India’s biologically richest coastal belt, complete with coral reefs and colourful fish. In between is the intriguing town of Dhanushkodi. Ghost town, abandoned village, deserted ruin—this abandoned place goes by many names, but nearly everyone who visits feels its mysterious enigma. There are neither glitzy resorts nor beach shacks here, and very little tourist infrastructure. Maybe that’s why it’s still paradise.The Vitals The closest airport is Madurai 140 km away. Rameswaram has a railway station that is well-connected to Chennai, Madurai, Trichy and Coimbatore. Regular buses ply between Rameswaram and Chennai/Madurai.Bishnupur, West Bengal. Photo: Kaushik Ghosh Terracotta TalesBishnupur, West BengalAmidst the emerald fields of Bishnupur stand soaring terracotta temples that date back to the 17th and 18th centuries. The shrines, made from the alluvial clay soil of the Ganges delta region, were built to honour the blue god and his love Radha. They have an unusual blend of Bengali, Islamic, and Oriya architecture with curved roofs, dramatic arches, and moulded brickwork. They are striking from afar but the craftsmanship lies in the details. Intricate carvings on terracotta plates and limestone stuccos depict scenes from Hindu myths, dancers holding elegant poses, and nature motifs inspired by the surrounding habitat. Bishnupur is also known for its weavers, who draw inspiration from the temple to create delicate Baluchari silk saris.The Vitals Bishnupur is 130 km/3.5 hr from Kolkata, and is well-connected by buses and trains. It is best explored on foot. Speck in the OceanLong Island, Andaman and Nicobar IslandsLong Island, Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Photo: Neelima VallangiLong Island is a world away from Havelock and Neel, the more popular of Andaman and Nicobar’s land masses. It has one hotel, no vehicles, and forests that look like they belong in the Jurassic era. Few tourists make it here and the clutch of homes along Long Island’s winding lanes is barely discernible from the thick jungle around. But it is precisely this air of seclusion that makes it so special. Walk along Lallaji Bay, the island’s pristine white sand beach, to hear the ocean sing and the mangroves whisper. Dive into the turquoise waters to get a closer look at marine life, or simply stare into the thick, ropy jungle. The island offers an increasingly rare off-the-grid experience, perfect for seekers of solitude.The Vitals Long Island is about 125 km north of Port Blair and is connected to the capital by daily ferries. There are regular flights and ships to Port Blair from Chennai and Kolkata.Haveli HavenChuru, RajasthanChuru, Rajasthan. Photo: Bhaven JaniChuru’s colourful havelis border on the surreal, like the grand Hawa Mahal with 1,111 doors and windows. The Rajasthani town is filled with flamboyant homes, some of which date back to the 1830s. When you aren’t craning your neck to take in the frescoes on the walls of the decaying havelis, sample the region’s rich, traditional cuisine. Ker sangri, a sweet and spicy speciality made from the ker berry and the sangri bean, is a must-try, as is the papadmungodi, made with Marwari papad and moong dal.The Vitals Churu is 280 km/6 hr west of Delhi and 200 km/3.5 hr northwest of Jaipur. It is well-connected to both cities by bus and train (4-5 hr).Photo: Auditya VenkateshBard CompanyHeggodu, KarnatakaIn the village of Heggodu, it is not uncommon to encounter shopkeepers passionately discussing the works of Shakespeare and Ibsen. Or to find that the local library is stocked with world cinema and plays. Heggodu owes its keen sense of culture to Ninasam, a small theatre company started by a few friends in 1949. Over the years, it has grown into a thriving institute of performing arts. In addition, Ninasam introduces the Kannada-speaking farmers and government employees of Heggodu to translated performances of works by Kalidasa and Leo Tolstoy. Visitors can spend their days practising kalaripayattu and evenings watching performances with the locals.The Vitals Heggodu is 200 km/4.5 hr from Mangalore airport. Sagara Jambagaru (8 km/20 min) is the nearest town. Ninasam hosts a ten-day course in Oct that includes theatre performances and workshops. The institute is open to visitors through the year (08183 265646;www.ninasam.org).