All of us are well aware of places like Goa or the Kerala backwaters or Leh. India is huge and has a lot of less known places which are even better. All you need is a love for travelling! We'll list a few places in the country that would be more mesmerizing.
When travellers talk of heading up to Dharamsala, this is where they mean. Around 4km north of Dharamsala town – or 10km via the looping bus route – McLeod Ganj is the residence of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama and the site of the Tibetan exile community's main temple. The Tibetan government-in-exile is based just downhill at Gangchen Kyishong, and McLeod is home to a large Tibetan population, including many monks and nuns. It's also, along with Manali, one of the two big traveller hang-outs in Himachal Pradesh, where thousands of people come each year to volunteer with the Tibetan community, take courses in Buddhism, meditation or yoga, trek in the lofty and beautiful Dhauladhar mountains, or just hang out and enjoy the low-budget spiritual/alternative vibe. McLeod has many budget hotels and guesthouses, cafes and restaurants offering Indo-Italo-Israeli-Tibetan food (with free, erratic wi-fi), travel agencies and shops selling Tibetan souvenirs, all crammed into just a couple of blocks, like a mini-Kathmandu. And also for some, Mcleod is also the 'Goa' of the north. Enough said.
2. Lahaul Spiti
Lahaul is greener and a touch more developed than Ladakh or Spiti, but many travellers whistle straight through on the road between Manali and Leh, missing most of what Lahaul has to offer. The capital, Keylong, is an easy stop and you can detour to mountain villages and medieval monasteries that remain blissfully untouched by mass tourism.
The vast, desolate northern and eastern tracts of Himachal Pradesh are among the most spectacular and sparsely populated regions on earth. Crossing the Rohtang La from Manali, you arrive first in Lahaul's relatively green Chandra Valley, but if you then travel east into Spiti you pass into the rain shadow of the Great Himalaya Range. Spiti is 7000 sq km of snow-topped mountains and high-altitude desert, punctuated by tiny patches of greenery and villages of whitewashed houses clinging to the sides of rivers and melt-water streams. As in Zanskar and Ladakh, Buddhism is the dominant religion, though there are pockets of Hinduism in Lahaul.
From Manali, a seasonal highway runs north to Keylong, the capital of Lahaul, over the Rohtang La (3978m), which is normally open from about mid-May to early November. From Keylong the road to Ladakh continues over the mighty Baralacha La (4950m) and Taglang La (5328m) and is normally open from about early June to some time in October, though government buses stop running in mid-September (private buses, minibuses and jeeps continue longer). From Lahaul other roads branch west to the Pattan Valley and east to Spiti over the Kunzum La (4551m), which is open from about mid-June to mid-October. When the passes are closed, Lahaul is virtually cut off from the outside world, and Spiti is connected only by the rugged road from the south through Kinnaur. Check the status of the passes before visiting late in the season – once the snows arrive, you might be stuck for the winter!
3. Havelock Islands
The Havelock Islands are the lesser known cousins of the famous Andaman and Nicobar Islands South of India. highlights are Snorkeling and Scuba Diving and also a Volcano! With snow-white beaches, teal shallows, a coast crammed with beach huts and some of the best diving opportunities in South Asia, Havelock has a well-deserved reputation as a backpacker paradise. For many, Havelock is the Andamans, and it’s what lures most tourists across the Bay of Bengal, many of whom are content to stay here for the entirety of their trip.
4. Lonar Crater Lake
If you like off-beat adventures, travel to Lonar to explore a prehistoric natural wonder. About 50,000 years ago, a meteorite slammed into the earth here, leaving behind a massive crater, 2km across and 170m deep. In scientific jargon, it’s the only hypervelocity natural-impact crater in basaltic rock in the world. In a layman's terms, it’s as tranquil and relaxing a spot as you could hope to find, with a shallow green lake at its base and wilderness all around. The lake water is supposedly alkaline and excellent for the skin. Scientists think that the meteorite is still embedded about 600m below the southeastern rim of the crater.
Puducherry (formerly called Pondicherry and generally referred to as ‘Pondy’) was under French rule until 1954 and some people here still speak French (and English with French accents). Hotels, restaurants and ‘lifestyle’ shops sell a seductive vision of the French-subcontinental aesthetic, enhanced by Gallic creative types whose presence has in turn attracted Indian artists and designers. Thus the Pondy vibe: less faded colonial-era ville, more a bohemian-chic, New Age–cum–Old World hangout on the international travel trail.
If you've come from Chennai or some of Tamil Nadu's inland cities, Pondy may well seem a sea of tranquility. The older part of this former French colony (where you'll probably spend most of your time) is full of quiet, clean, shady cobbled streets, lined with bougainvillea-draped colonial-era townhouses numbered in an almost logical manner. The newer side of town is typically, hectically South Indian.
6. Khajuraho and Orchha
The erotic carvings that swathe Khajuraho’s three groups of Unesco World Heritage Site–listed temples are among the finest temple art in the world. The Western Group of temples, in particular, contains some stunning sculptures.
Many travellers complain about the tiring persistence of touts here, and the village is fully on the tour bus map. Their complaints are well founded, but its not so bad that you should contemplate missing out on these beautiful temples.
The historic village of Orchha on the banks of the boulder-strewn Betwa River showcases a supreme display of Mughal architecture, some of which is similar to that of nearby Khajuraho with much grander palaces and cenotaphs dotting the pastoral landscape as well. The atmosphere in Orchha, though, is far more laid-back and hassle-free, which makes for a relaxing stay. There are great homestay options as well as opportunities to enjoy the surrounding countryside, with walking, cycling and rafting all on the agenda.
7. Kutch, Gujrat
Kachchh, India’s wild west, is a geographic phenomenon. The flat, tortoise-shaped land (kachbo means tortoise in Gujarati), edged by the Gulf of Kachchh and Great and Little Ranns, is a seasonal island. During the dry season, the Ranns are vast expanses of hard, dried mud. Come the monsoon, they’re flooded first by seawater, then by fresh river water.
The salt in the soil makes the low-lying marsh area almost completely barren. Only on scattered ‘islands’ above the salt level is coarse grass which provides fodder for the region’s wildlife.
The villages dotted across Kachchh’s arid landscape are home to a jigsaw of tribal groups and sub-castes who produce some of India’s finest handicrafts, above all their textiles which glitter with exquisite embroidery and mirrorwork.
8. Pangong Tso
Stretching around 150km (with the eastern third in China), this mesmerising lake plays artist with a surreal palette of vivid blues. These contrast magically with the colourful mineral swirls of the starkly arid, snow-brushed surrounding mountains. The scene is striking for the almost total lack of habitation along shores that can look almost Caribbean. Visitor activities don't stretch much beyond oggling the ever changing lake-scapes, but one 'sight' is a sand spit nicknamed ‘Shooting Point’ as it was used as a film set for the 2009 Bollywood hit The Three Idiots.
The jeep safari from Leh is a joy in itself – scenically magnificent and constantly varied with serrated peaks, trickling streams, horse meadows, reflective ponds, drifting sands and a 5369m pass. However, it’s a tiring drive and doing the return in one day is masochism. Ideally stay at least one night in Spangmik or Man, then drive on unpaved lakeside trails to end-of-the-world Merak (10km beyond Man). It's a beautiful ride but get back early as the route can become impassable by mid-afternoon when water levels rise dramatically in the river-fords.
Remote Malana, high on a hillside 20km up a side valley north of Jari, is one of the strangest villages in India. Its people – descended, according to legend, from deserters from Alexander the Great's army – speak their own unique language, operate what's called the world's oldest democracy, and consider outsiders unclean. Malana's famous charas, known as 'cream', is the backbone of its economy, and is what many visitors mainly come for. A rough road now reaches within striking distance of Malana, but for centuries it was one of the most isolated spots in the region. Be ready for random police checkpoints on the road, and bring your passport because security at the hydroelectric station en route may want to see it.
Secreted in a forest of teak and sal in craggy cliffs 46km south of Bhopal are more than 700 rock shelters. Around 500 of them contain some of the world’s oldest prehistoric paintings.
Thanks to their natural red and white pigments, the colours are remarkably well preserved and, in certain caves, paintings of different eras adorn the same rock surface. A gamut of figures and scenes dance across the rocks: gaurs (Indian bison), rhinoceroses, bears and tigers share space with scenes of hunting, initiation ceremonies, childbirth, communal dancing, drinking, religious rites and burials.