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March 27, 2018

In For A Retreat: Hidden Travel Gems To Explore In India

Text by Ranjabati Das. Illustrations by Rutuja Patil

We hunt out some new-old havens that you ought to experience before they transform into tourist traps or, worse, disappear into oblivion….

Dooars Wide Open
The Dooars, West Bengal

The Dooars, comprising North Bengal and a part of Assam, is one of the most pristinely beautiful tourism destinations in the region. The Bengal portion of the Dooars or the Western Dooars, as it is known, is further divided into western, central and eastern parts. The name ‘Dooars’, meaning ‘door’ in Bengali, Assamese, Nepali and Bhutanese, is derived from its geographical location that allows it to operate as a gateway to Bhutan and the North-East. Here, dense tropical forests stretch endlessly, covering much of the foothills of the Eastern Himalayas that are home to a rich biodiversity of flora and fauna. Think, sprawling colonial tea estates, picturesque hills, towering forests, quiet hamlets and vast swathes of national parks and wildlife reserves. Altogether, the Dooars has great pull; once in this lap of nature, you will find it hard to leave behind the locale that seems designed for that digital detox you’ve been craving. Introspect, get inspired, switch off or take a leisurely long walk…far from the madding crowd.

Into The Wild
For a dose of wildlife, visit the Jaldapara Wildlife Sanctuary, which is a natural habitat for the endangered one-horned rhino in central Doars. Or you could even hop over to the Gorumara National Park in western Dooars. The Buxa Tiger Reserve falls towards the east, near the border of Bhutan. Apart from offering at least 150 different species of orchids, Buxa is also home to the Royal Bengal tiger, the Asian elephant, leopards, and much more.

Travel Log
Ideal for nature lovers (go angling, birdwatching, trekking, biking or camping), wildlife enthusiasts and photographers. For travellers pursuing a peaceful break, the serene tea gardens are perfect sanctuaries, replete with soothing sceneries. Visit all through the year. Fly into Bagdogra Airport, near Siliguri. Stay in Jalpaiguri. At The Riverwood Forest Retreats Dooars, The Reserve Gorumara, or Sun City; all in Lataguri. Or the Sinclairs Retreat in Chalsa.

Secluded Haven
Loktak Lake and Keibul Lamjao National Park, Manipur

Located around 50 kilometres from Imphal, the Keibul Lamjao National Park in Manipur is the world’s only floating national park. Covering close to 40 square kilometres in the southeastern part of the Loktak lake, the park is known for its unique circular floating swamps or phumdis, the only natural habitat of the sangai, Manipur’s state animal. The teeter in the deer’s gait lies behind the moniker, which translates to ‘dancing deer’ in the local language. Say hello to the wobbly dears and the elusive clouded leopard once here. Or catch a glimpse of the striking (and rare) marbled cat, one of the most secretive and little-known wildcats in the world.

On Shaky Ground
Here’s some good news: the number of deer is believed to have increased from less than a 100 in the early years of the millennium to nearly 200 today. The bad news is that the animal is in danger of losing its home, since only 23 square kilometres of the phumdis can actually sustain the weight of the deer at present. Since the area is rather tough to navigate, conservation is problematic. What all this has resulted in, in plain speak, is the extinction of over 16 species of fish and 20 varieties of aquatic plants indigenous to the region.

Travel Log
Ideal for those looking to tick off items on the bucket list. This one is more or less a remote and hence hidden gem, but not for long; the grapevine is buzzing with the news of it becoming a UNESCO World Heritage site soon. Visit between October and April. November and March are ideal for bird lovers. Avoid the monsoon months (June to October). February to May is the rutting season — one of nature’s greatest spectacles — when stags strut around trying to impress the does. Fly into Tulihal Airport in Imphal. Stay at Sendra Park and Resort, just 15 minutes and 5.3 kilometres away from Loktak lake.

Ancient Enigma
Rakhigarhi, Haryana

At first glance, it may seem uninteresting, but that’s only on the surface of things. Deep down, Rakhigarhi holds the key to one of the oldest puzzles of our planet. Constituting the villages of Rakhi-khas and Rakhi-shahpur in the Hisar district of Haryana, it is the largest Indus Valley site (spread over a whopping 350 hectares) after Mohenjo-daro in modern-day Pakistan. First discovered around half-a-century ago and dubbed ‘Rakhigarhi’ by the Archaeological Survey of India, it is speculated to be the most important Harappan site — situated as it is on what was once the bank of the now-extinct river Saraswati — and the starting point of the 5,500-year-old civilisation. The theory has been firmed up by the recent excavation of a near-intact granary dating back to 2,500 BC. Some other relics include seals, fossils, terracotta statues, ornaments and bronze artefacts. The uncovering of pachydermal bones and the remnants of a futuristic drainage and sewage system further prove that the arid area of present times had access to a waterbody once — a point validated by the presence of copper fishing hooks that have been found in situ.

Mystery Buffs Alert!
Till date, many questions lie unanswered. Who were the Harappans? Is India really at the centre of the Indus Valley Civilisation? How did it all end? While historians and archaeologists continue to press for a UNESCO World Heritage site tag, you can stop by to take in a part of the Indian heritage that is perhaps older than anything else you have ever seen. One of the main draws of Rakhigarhi is its inhabitants. Chat with the locals, who have been known to find priceless artefacts on quite a few occasions, and decide for yourself.

Travel Log
Ideal for history fiends. Visit between November and January, when it is relatively cool. Nearest airport Hisar Airport (60 kilometres/1 hour away). Stay in Delhi, about 150 kilometres/3 hours away by road.

Natural Grandeur
Gandikota, Andhra Pradesh

The gorge may have gained some popularity in the last couple of years but this southern secret in the village of Gandikota (translating to ‘canyon fortress’ in Telugu) in Andhra Pradesh has remained largely in the shadows. Formed over centuries by the great river Pennar as it pounded away forcefully at the Erramala hills, ‘the Grand Canyon of India’ houses the ruins of a 12th-century fort that overlooks the gorge on one side. Within the walls of the fort, you will find two temples, an age-old granary, stone sculptures and a jail adding cultural and historical capital to this bounty of nature. The jaw-dropping beauty of the topography is accentuated by the stark contrast between the earthy palette of the jagged rocks and the peaceful near-green of the water. Lose track of time as you contemplate the greatness of nature in all its raw, unfiltered glory. The drama created by the huge rocky ridges overlooking the raging river will make you all but forget about Instagramming, even in this age of instant gratification. Make sure to catch either the sunset or the sunrise, from the edge of the canyon or the Ranganatha Temple, which is at an elevated level. If up early, trek down 300 feet below to the riverbed, to where the Pennar winds its way down.

Getaway Goals
Adventure junkies will find ample opportunity to engage in adrenaline-fuelling activities, be it rock climbing, kayaking, rappelling or trekking. Stay overnight for the ultimate star-gazing experience. Pitch a tent right outside the compound, train your camera on the sky and you will leave with stars in your eyes. Base yourself in Anantapur, and check out the many temples and forts in the region. Penukonda (where you can find nearly 400 temples and the famous eponymous fort), Lepakshi and Tadipatri (the Bugga Ramalingeshwara Temple is a must-visit here) are all worth looking up. Move on to Belum Caves, the second-largest underground cave system in the Subcontinent that is geologically unique. And if you’re a fan of the Harry Potter series, you’ll find that the maze of tunnels and corridors seems oddly familiar, reminiscent as they are of your favourite fantasy setting….

Travel Log
Ideal for adventure seekers with a penchant for history. Visit between November and January. Nearest airport Kadapa Airport (80 kilometres/2 hours away). Stay at Hotel Masineni Grand in Anantapur (140 kilometres/3 hours away).

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