You’ve landed on just the right page if you are planning an offbeat India tour and are getting ardently wooed and confused by the many travel packages to India. Considering one giant of a country that India is, the chances of getting one answer to your queries for a perfect holiday to India is a tough bet. So, I picked the things and places that wooed me the most in India and put them together in this list of 50 ideas for an amazing offbeat India tour.
Choose wisely, choose all.
1) Drive down NH 22 -the Hindustan Tibet Road from Shimla to Kalpa, Himachal Pradesh
If you want to know why somebody said that journeys are often more beautiful than the destinations, drive down the Hindustan-Tibet road. The magic of an offbeat India tour starts as you steer towards Kinnaur from Shimla. Wildly gurgling rivers flow by one side of the road that cuts through jagged rocks for most of the part. Keep your GoPro set as you never know when a waterfall might come crashing down the vehicle’s windscreen. Watch out for the shooting stones!
2) Row across the backwaters of Kumarakom and Alleppey in Kerala
If you think India oversells Kerala as a tourist destination, add the words “rightly so” to your thoughts! This lush green state, widely famous for its spice plantations and backwaters is a must visit in India. Kerala backwaters defy all the logic of photo editing as the stretch is immensely gorgeous. More so if you glide down the calm waters on a monsoon day just like I did the day I took this photograph. So, you see, Kerala tourism is no sham.
3) Wake up in Dzongu, Sikkim, the enchanted land of Lepchas
A lot of names came up for destinations while I was planning my Sikkim tour. But a tiny speck on the map that caught my fancy was Dzongu. And thank God for it, as this home of the Lepcha tribe is a gem of a find. Precariously stretching around the wildly flowing River Teesta and perched on the Himalayas, Dzongu is a must visit if you wish to get off the loop on your offbeat India tour – no phone network, no internet. Just miles of pines, tiny monasteries, locals who are often seen practicing soccer, orange orchards, cozy homestays, wildly growing cardamoms and patches of tea, hot water geysers, riverside picnics, surprising bursts of rhododendrons are just some of the lures of Dzongu.
4) Camp by Chandratal Lake, Spiti, Himachal Pradesh
A visit to the Chandratal Lake (also referred to as the Moon Lake) was on my bucket list from forever. Guarded by the Himalayas, my one great love, Chandratal Lake is a wonder. A bumpy ride or a 13 km trek are the two options that make it accessible. Its first sight would take you by surprise, followed by an ardent and irrevocable love. A must do when you plan to travel to India.
5) Wonder at miles of salt spreads at the Rann of Kutch, Gujarat
Imagine yourself landing in a barren land, no trees or even a blade of grass in sight, Sun radiating heat from tiny white specks that are sprawled for as far as you can see, an occasional camel crossing the stretch, a full moon rising steadily and bathing everything in a silvery-blue light if you stay there till evening. If you’ve found the visual appealing enough, let me tell you that you’ve landed at the White Rann in Gujarat, which, supposedly is world’s largest salt marsh. Now you see what those tiny white specks were.
6) Breathe in the salt air at Varkala, the clifftop wonder by the Arabian Sea
A dear friend, on a visit to Varkala, wrote “Dear Varkala, you’re so beautiful that you make me weep”. Exactly a month back, when I was strolling the cliffs and beaches of Varkala, I tried but could not find words as apt as my friends’. A hippie favourite, this is one artsy place that’ll make me dash for a tour to Kerala soon again.
7) Motorbike on the Kargil-Leh or Manali-Leh circuit
This one is still off the my ‘have done’ list. 2014 brought such awe-inspiring trips that I kept a road trip to Leh for 2015. But yes, my traveller friends swear by the curves of this road. So yes, a Manali-Leh road trip is on the to do list for this year, and I’ll soon be becoming another lover of these roads. Leh, I’m coming!
8) Sigh at the oh-so-surreal beauty of Tso Moriri, Changthang
What do I write about this one? The way clouds play over the blue waters of Tso Moriri, or the cobalt colour sky that gives the other blue a run, or the sheer surreal quotient of it. If you’ve ever wanted to know why William Wordsworth wrote for nature, a day out at Tso Moriri Lake is a must. Taste the heavens.
9) Get charmed by the saffron farms of Pampore, Jammu & Kashmir
Before I get carried away by the new year party buzz that’s happening all around me and tell you how to make a Saffron Vodka shot, I must tell you where I learned it. The oh-so-surreal beauty of acres of saffron fields that stretch at Pampore, Jammu & Kashmir, will woo you like first love, or last maybe. Choose yourself.
10) Hop aboard the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway at Darjeeling, West Bengal
In spite of a lot of coal soot from the engine that flew in and settled over me while I was riding in the steam engine run Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, I loved it. Featuring in the UNESCO Heritage Site list, this toy train chugs at a leisurely, very leisurely, pace, crossing stretches of pines, street markets, parks and more. Let it chug, let the soot fly in, take a scarf, settle in with a camera, pore outside, let your Sheldon Cooper like love for trains take over.
11) Stargaze for endless nights at Kalpa, Kinnaur
I just did a somersault in my head. It happens every time I write or talk or tell a story about the stargazing I did at Kalpa. A lovely hamlet-like place, Kalpa is probably where I’ll build myself a house, with a huge terrace and some telescopes for stargazing. Well, you won’t need a telescope unless you are diving deep into astronomy, for the sky is ridiculously clear at Kalpa for most time of the year. Shooting stars in dozens are just one of the many starry promises from Kalpa. And sigh, those tiny prayer flags that keep fluttering away in the Himalayan winds and moony nights. Sigh again.
12) Wonder if the precariously set Dhankar Monastery at Spiti is actually set!
Oh my, the first sight of Dhankar Monastery at Spiti took my breath away. Built on the lines of a cliff fort, this Buddhist monastery is quite high in the list of World Monument Funds’ 100 most endangered sites in the world. While the efforts are on to conserve this breathtaking relic of history and culture, I’m so glad that I took it off my to do list. I don’t leave such things to chance you see.
13) Volunteer with the Tibetan community at Mcleodganj, Himachal Pradesh
If you ever wondered about how you can club your wanderlust with a good cause, visit Mcleodganj. Home to the Tibetan community in exile, Mcleoganj is one of the best places in India for volunteering. Photography, music, yoga, languages, dance, maths, social sciences – Mcleodganj has a place for all your skills. Teach some learn some. A must experience this.
14) Volunteer with the Buddhist nuns at Spiti, Himachal Pradesh
If you wish to up the adventure quotient and are thinking of volunteering in India at the same time, there should be Spiti on your cards. While English language teachers are highly sought after at the many nunneries at Spiti, you can also teach basic sciences and maths here. Jamyang Foundation is a great place to start with. As for the experience, you will get to live in Himalayan caves, bathe by the river side, know a new meaning of the word nomad. The only flip side is the heartbreak that comes when you complete the volunteering session and pack your bags. I’m doing this in 2015, how about you?
15) Watch the Beating Retreat Ceremony at Wagah Border, Amritsar
A very turbulent past is what everyone reckons when you talk about India and Pakistan in one breath. So, I invite you to watch the two countries in unison, exchanging flags and putting up a remarkable display of togetherness at the Wagah border at Amritsar, Punjab. Don’t miss this.
16) Go for a desert safari at Jaisalmer, Rajasthan
An emerging destination for stargazers and the lovers of Rajasthan’s rustic beats, Jaisalmer is the place where magic spills over and turns into a desert. Go on a camel safari, have a date with your camera, listen to folk songs while sitting by a bonfire in the night, sleep under the stars or do nothing but gaze at miles of golden sand – Jaisalmer will woo you more than any other place in Rajasthan. Some alluring luxury camps for those who are still not in love with sleeping under the stars.
17) Trek in the Nanda Devi Sanctuary, Uttarakhand
I would have suggested you to go and summit this beauty if only I wasn’t aware of the dangers. It was in the year 1930 when Hugh Ruttledge gave up on it after three attempts, famously proclaiming that gaining even an entry to the sanctuary is far more difficult than reaching the North Pole! So, leave the summit but don’t give up on the experience. Take a guided trek through the Nanda Devi Sanctuary and test yourself in some of the most wondrous vistas of the Indian Himalayas.
18) Visit the all-pines-surrounded Jageshwar Temple Complex, Uttarakhand
Well, if the idea of exploring one of the least famous yet impressive temple complexes in India sounds interesting to you, Jageshwar Temple should be an essential stop in your great Indian journey. A group of 124 stone structures, most under the purview of the ASI, these temples are guarded by oak and pine forests. As obscure as Uttarakhand can be. A big hello from this Indian state.
19) Wave hello to the One-horned Rhinoceros at the Kaziranga National Park, Assam
A visit to the Kaziranga National Park is one of the coolest wildlife experiences that you can have in India. So, while a lot of itineraries and tour companies will whisk you away to one of the national parks to spot a tiger, I chose the almost rare one horned rhinoceros that still roam around in Kaziranga. Photographers’ alert again.
20) Stay and work with the self-sustained community at Auroville, Pondicherry
Auroville is a very welcome change in the tourist circuit of India. A different experience, Auroville is the best answer if you wish to spend some laid back time, working as an intern or volunteer on a variety of projects that include organic farming, Tai Chi workshops. Or perhaps, get introduced to natural healing therapies and more. Check the official website of Auroville for more information.
21) Go paragliding over the Himalayas at Bir and Billing, Palampur
Oh boy! What do I tell you about my love for soaring over the Himalayas. The Dhauladhar range at Bir & Billing is one of the most fascinating backdrop for the lovers of paragliding. World’s third best spot for paragliding, Bir & Billing also hosts World Paragliding Championship. Doesn’t that sound awesome! Come, try.
22) Muse about the Milky Way at the Indian Astronomical Observatory, Hanle
At around 10 hours from Leh, the Indian Astronomical Observatory is a treasure that very few travellers care to visit. Housing the second highest telescope in the world, the observatory location is one of the best in the world for visible infrared observations. Surprisingly low level of pollution and the surreal beauty of Hanle village also make it a must do in your trip to India.
23) Become a part of the Dev Milan Ceremony in Kinnaur, Himachal Pradesh
If you harbour the wish to be a part of a closely knit community in the Himalayas, make sure you somehow attend a Dev Milan ceremony. It celebrates the coming together and homecoming of deities in some Himalayan villages. I was lucky enough to be a part of one and I still remember the chat session I had with the locals, the very interesting dance and music of the celebrations, photographing the locals who joined in their traditional attires. It’s like becoming a part of some fascinating folk tale of the Himalayas.
24) Watch the fascinating light & sound show at the Chittorgarh Fort, Rajasthan
There’s so much to learn and see at this giant of a fort that you might as well take a notebook and pen along. The largest fort in India comes all the more alive at evening time when it gets bathed in brilliant light and plays host to a light & sound show. Still on my to do list, I saw it for the first time when a friend obliged me with a recording of the show.
25) Witness monks discussing Buddhist philosophy at any Buddhist monastery
This experience cannot be put into words. Not easily. If you’ve ever been to a Buddhist monastery and seen monks engaged in an animated conversations, gesturing quite wildly, often clapping their hands with a wham and then talking more, know that you are privy to one of the most interesting rituals of the Buddhist community. This is how monks discuss the various facets of Buddhist ideologies. Monasteries at Spiti, Mcledoganj, Dharamsala, Leh, Sikkim and Karnataka are your best bets.
26) Circumnavigate the temple at the Kunzum Top, Kunzum Pass
So you know about this belief about the Kunzum Top, right? It lies in the Kunzum Pass, one of the highest mountains passes in the region and gateway to the Spiti Valley. So, going by this belief, Kunzum Top is home to Goddess Kunzum, who guards the pass and ensures safe journeys. To seek her blessings, you cannot pass the point without circumnavigating the temple complex at the top. Other than anything else, it’s a very interesting experience and a must do for any offbeat India tour. More so because it happens at an altitude of 4551 mts and has a glacier right across. Hello photographers!
27) Meditate at the Pohlani Devi Temple at Dalhousie, Himachal Pradesh
Dain Kund or Pohlani Devi Temple can be reached via a 30 minutes trek. While most of the tourists to Dalhousie do not know about it or are unaware of its charm, this is a must do if you’re visiting Dalhousie. As unreal as it might sound, you might suddenly turn religious here. With the snow-capped peaks at the horizon, this temple feels very surreal, more like setting foot in God’s territory if you can imagine it.
28) Savour the beyond-comparison pizzas at Landour, Uttarakhand
Wood-fired, hand-tossed pizzas at Devdar Woods are one good reason to visit Landour, the lesser famous cousin of Mussoorie. It’s a foodies’ secret, well kept by the obscurity of Landour. Solitary walks, talls pines, mountains all around and the most amazing pizzas you would have ever tasted. And while you’re there, keep a lookout for any guy who carries around a tin container; he might just be selling the softest, freshest cakes for a surprise. Come, try and don’t talk about it. Some secrets are best kept as secrets!
29) Watch the phenomenon of Winter Line at Landour, Uttarakhand
Wondering what winter line is? Well, it’s a fake horizon to put it in simple words. Seen at just two places in the entire world, Landour and some place in Switzerland, it’s an interesting phenomenon that brings droves of enthusiasts to Landour in winter months. It makes the Sun dive at the fake horizon before it really sets! So, if Switzerland is not on your to visit list anytime soon, watch this magic happen at Landour. And in case you’re wondering, yeah I love this place!
30) Motorbike to reach the Dudhsagar Falls at Goa, India
When it rains in Goa, it pours. And when it pours in Goa, you should get out, ride a motorbike across train tracks, right through water streams that are more like torrents in the monsoon. No other vehicle can get you to the waterfalls, so you got to rely on the biking skills of the Monsoon Pilots of Goa. Clutch them good, don’t move much or you might land in the valley on the other side. That’s the Goa you should see alright.
31) Scuba diving at the Andaman Islands
An amazing variety of marine life, brillant blue clear waters, and a lovely Sun. What better conditions for scuba diving than these. This one is still on my to do list yet so alluring that I might head off to the Andaman Islands in a fortnight! Finding Nemo, would you too?
32) Drive across one of the mad pagal nallahs on the Battal Manali stretch
This one is for the lovers of crazy road trips. Forget Nevada and try coursing through mad, gurgling streams of water that promise you nothing in terms of water level, water direction or anything. Boulder-like rocks and wild rivers on one side of these pagal nallahs (mad streams) add to the adventure. Roll up your pants, get your shoes off for biking through these is 100x more fun than taking a car up here.
33) Watch the Sun rise at the banks of River Ganga at Rishikesh, Uttarakhand
If the chaos and adventure of a tour to India is just too much for you, come to Rishikesh. Bunk up in an ashram here, try soaking in the chants at the Ganga, practice a new language, read a Paulo Coelho. Or else, just watch the Sun rise from the banks of Ganga. It’s one of those remedial therapies that I can swear by. Divinity is here.
34) Visit India during the Kumbh Mela
World’s biggest religious gathering, the Kumbh Mela is one giant occasion. Millions of tourists, mostly the seekers of spirituality and a very filmy India, make sure they reach India around the Kumbh Mela. But I’ll tell you where the fun is. It’s not the filmy India that’s as alluring as the impressive folk tales that the sadhus recount, the grand processions that have elephants, horses, sword yielding godmen and more, the open food areas, the unending chatter at the camps that doesn’t cease even at nights. That’s the Kumbh Mela that I love.
35) Visit the Kochi Muziris Biennale, Kochi, Kerala
Hello artsy folks! India’s first art biennale, the Kochi Muziris is where all the good stuff is happening. World’s best contemporary artists turn the city scape into an art gallery that’ll woo you. Art installments, exhibitions and great food (of course), Kochi Muziris is where your Kerala sojourn should start with.
36) Explore the rainforests at the Silent Valley National Park, Palakkad, Kerala
Kerala’s largest national park, the Silent Valley National Park is one of the last tracts of rainforest in the South Western Ghats. Home to the largest population of Lion-Tailed Macaques, rare bird species, endangered animals and 700+ species of insects add to the charm of its grassy lands. India’s Amazon you see.
37) Get awestruck at the Khajuraho Dance Festival, Khajuraho
The sculptures at Khajuraho are more than just fascinating. Yes, agreed. Yet you would find the complex more than just fascinating when it plays host to the Khajuraho Dance Festival. A must visit for anyone interested in Indian dance forms, this festival brings the air of surreal to India’s most famous temple complex. Not to be missed.
38) Jump into a coracle, watch the Sun set over Hampi ruins, Karnataka
Tagged as the most searched historical site in the Indian state of Karnataka, the ruins of Hampi are more like an intriguing page of some history book. Right in the middle of Vijayanagara’s ruins, Hampi figures in the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Once you’re done with exploring the different complex, go rappelling, cycling or rowing down River Tunghabhadra in a coracle. Or watch the Sun setting over the ruins – the best of all.
39) Dive into history books at Dholavira, Gujarat
If exploring the ruins of one of the three early civilisations of the Old World fascinates you, do not forget to make Dholavira a pit stop in your great Indian journey. Remnants of the great Indus Valley Civilisation are scattered for over 54 acres at Dholavira. This is as close to a ghost town as you can come in India.
40) Gain pace, go skiing at Auli!
With some very gorgeous slopes and several feet of snow, Auli should rightly give Alps a good run as a skiing destination. Other than some ardent skiing enthusiasts, Auli stays untouched from hordes of tourists that come up the Uttarakhand hills to build a snowman or two. So, if you aren’t really interested in building snowman, glide down the slopes of this heavenly beautiful place.
41) Try to figure out who invented the Living Root Bridges at Cherrapunji, Meghalaya
Loved the movie Avatar? If yes, then these living root bridges will get you a step closer to the fantasy that the movie was. Formed by the growing, entangled aerial roots of banyan fig trees for years, these are India’s latest claim to fame on the tourist circuit. These are perhaps the coolest suspension bridges you would ever see. Can’t call your India tour a success unless you have seen these!
42) Wander in the rainforests at Andaman Islands
The tropical rainforests at Andaman & Nicobar are like a story that’s been rarely told. Innumerable shades of green, surprising mangroves, giant tress (thank God tree logging is banned here), solitary forest patches where the silence is often broken by a screeching bird or insects. Sounds like Life of Pi, no?
43) Live with the Changpas of Ladakh, Jammu & Kashmir
The hippies and nomads, who are out for a trip to India, must not miss this experience. Changpas are the nomadic tribesmen who inhabit the high altitude regions, mainly Changthang. They herd yaks and goats and can be seen with their herds around Hanley Valley. If you’re really lucky, you might as well get to live with them and get a rare insight into a life that’s not luxurious but luxuriously happy.
44) Take a gap year from office, backpack across the Indian Himalayas
You knew this one was coming, didn’t you? After all, my love for the Himalayas is so well-known that not writing about it would equal blasphemy! If the idea of hopping aboard rickety buses that ply on some of the most treacherous roads, lovely people, simple life, quaint villages, charming homestays and world’s most gorgeous sunrises and sunsets makes your heart flutter, try backpacking across the Indian Himalayas.
45) Experience photo burst at the Varsey Rhododendron Sanctuary, Sikkim
Varsey Rhododendron Sanctuary lies in the Singalila Range of Western Sikkim. Just like the Andaman & Nicobar forests, it’s an essential stop for anyone who has been wooed by nature. Spread over 104 sq km, it’s a photographers’ haven. So while you start your journey of the north-eastern India from Sikkim, take this gorgeous 4 km trek from Hilley. Don’t miss!
46) Take a chapter in Indian mythology at Moorang village, Kinnaur
Moorang village in Kinnaur is another must visit if you’re in the Indian Himalayas and are chasing Hindu mythology too. It houses the fort cum temple of Ormig Devta; a place that was supposedly built by the Pandavas. Its insides houses an 18 faced ark made of gold, silver and brass. While there, head off towards Kalpa, it’s just 40 km away from Moorang and not to be missed!
47) Watch a Sunrise-Moonset at Somnath Temple, Veraval
I guess I would never forget the morning I reached Somnath Temple. After bunking up in trains for 38 hours to reach here, I was half asleep, fully hungry, doubting why in the world would I want to visit a temple this ardently. But then, my doubts took a run when I got the first sight of this breathtaking structure. Standing tall, really tall, by the side of the Arabian Sea, this temple is like faith written in golden. I reached just in time to see it bathing in the first rays of Sun while the Moon still hadn’t taken its leave. You cannot skip this in your offbeat India tour, you just cannot.
48) Book yourself a Durga Puja Tour, Kolkata
If you ask me to pick the best time of the year, it would be Durga Puja, which is closely followed by Diwali. The weather is brilliant, there’s festivity in the air and then some great minds at Kolkata have put their brains together to organise Durga Puja tours. They take you pandal hopping, feasting and to the immensely interesting Kumortuli, the lane where most of the clay idols of Goddess Durga and other deities are sculpted. A visit to Kolkata during the Durga Puja is one chaos that you would love in your offbeat India tour.
49) Meet the many Aslans at Gir Forest National Park, Gujarat
You are not leaving India without saying hello to the Asiatic Lions at Gir, right? Don’t even think of skipping it for your great Indian trip would be quite incomplete unless you have ventured inside the Gir National Park in Gujarat and captured one of these on your camera. A picture that might as well be a souvenir. You got to come here in the name of Narnia or Aslan if nothing else!
50) Go, dig some skeletons at the Roopkund Lake, Uttarakhand
The mystery of Roopkund Lake, also known as the Skeleton Lake, is an engrossing as the trek to it. You get the unforgettable chance to traverse across the very gorgeous meadow, the Bedni Bugyal, and set foot on one of the most impressive landscapes of India. A must for anyone chasing mysteries or the mountains. As for the skeletons, leave a comment below for the complete story. I won’t make it up, I swear.
51) Whatever you do, don’t forget Taj Mahal, Agra
Oh oops, I almost forgot writing about how you must visit Taj Mahal on a full moon night. I thought about giving this one a skip as almost every travel website you might have been scouring to plan an offbeat India tour would have suggested you to visit Taj Mahal. Yet, this is a marvel and you have every reason to visit it. Gaze at this wonder in white, take a selfie, put it as your cover photo on Facebook! Even Alex Chacon did that you see. An essential part of the Golden Triangle circuit of India.
Leaving you with this dream of an offbeat India tour, I’ll be off to put together an itinerary for my upcoming trip. Leave a comment, feedback, query or any suggestion that you might have about this post.
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All the photos used in this post are either mine or are under the Creative Commons License, giving due credit to the photographer. My using them doesn’t give a right to reuse or sell those photos for any purposes whatsoever; their copyright lies with the photographer.