There’s so much more to the subcontinent that national monuments and overcrowded museums. Venture out into your backyard and you’ll stumble across places and situations so strange they’ll make you gasp with astonishment, swear inadvertently, and leave you changed forever. Here’s a small list that any traveller worth his/her salt should experience:
1) Walk across living root bridges — Meghalaya
Deep in the forests of Meghalaya, reportedly the rainiest spot on Earth, bridges aren’t built – they’re grown. 180 years ago, inventive Khasi elders came up with a clever, long-lasting sustainable solution to cross swollen rivers in the valleys, from village to village. Over the years, they tended the roots of rubber trees to intertwine and form sturdy, beautiful pathways, and which now, are strong enough to hold the weight of an elephant. Standing on a bridge of root and tree, planted decades ago, strengthened over the years by rain and patience, you’ll marvel at the interconnected-ness of all things.
2) Spend a night in the safest village in India— Maharashtra
The village of Shani Shignapur, known for its famous Shani temple, seemingly defies all common sense and conventional wisdom: none of the buildings – including the bank – has doors AND boasts a near-zero crime rate. The villagers believe that it is thanks to the blessing of their deity, Shani Dev, which has safeguarded them. So much so, that there is no police station in the village and the UCO Bank has also opened a ‘lock-less’ branch here, the first of its kind in India. Spend a night here, and you’ll leave with your faith in humanity reaffirmed . . . which will last just until you get back to the city 😉
3) Take a ride on the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway — New Jalpaiguri & Darjeeling
If you are longing to explore the true pulse of a place, then this train journey should be your ‘cup of tea’. Known fondly as the Toy Train, this tiny steam train trundles through one of the oldest and the most picturesque train routes in India. The hill railway is now considered a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The train snakes its way through green forests, loops steadily upwards around the rolling hills and clouds, and curves so closely to tea plantations in Darjeeling that you can see the pickers with baskets at their backs at work. And, if you’re lucky, on a clear day you’ll spot the snow-capped tip of Kanchenjunga in the distance. It’s a true joy ride.
4) Go on a Yak Safari — Ladakh
Ditch the car, bike, horse and camel, and instead, climb onto a yak when you’re in Leh. Yaks are domesticated animals, and used as both a pack and riding animals as well. Climb onto this immense, shaggy animal and enjoy an ambling, meandering safari over green valleys, through gurgling streams. You’ll get a unique perspective into local Ladakhi life, not to mention a ride like no other.
5) Experience the untamed nature of the Sundarbans —West Bengal
A UNESCO World Heritage site, the Sundarbans is known as the largest mangrove forest in the world, and forms one of the unique ecosystems in the sub-continent. Here, from the vantage of a cruise boat, you can spot a variety of very rich and fascinating diversity of flora and fauna; the Sundarbans is home to over 40 mammal species, 270 bird species and over 45 reptile species. As you glide steadily along the river, you’ll be spoiled for choice; not only could you see Royal Bengal Tigers, but also spotted deer, wild boar, fishing cats, monitor lizards and rhesus monkeys on the forest banks but also estuarine crocodiles lazing in the sun. Even a day spent in the Sundarban wilderness will fill your heart, and the camera memory card.
6) Visit the Temple Of Rats — Rajasthan
Yes, this is the same temple you saw on Ripley’s Believe It Or Not. The 600-year-old Karni Mata Temple is famous for its 20,000 rat inhabitants, who are considered to be reincarnations of Karni Mata and her sons. As such, they are treated as sacred and are offered sweets, milk and other edibles as they scurry between the feet of visitors. Spotting white rats, which are regarded especially holy, is considered good luck. This experience – while definitely not for the squeamish – is nevertheless a truly unique spectacle.
Clearly, India never ceases to amaze. So, go on, get going!