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.
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.
In the West
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.
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.
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.
In the East
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.
In the Northeast
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.
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.
In the South
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 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.