Everyone’s heard of India’s star attractions, but there are some delightful spots beyond the shadow of the Taj Mahal that deserve just as much attention. Here’s a list of 5 must-see sites to see when you’re visiting the sub-continent and looking for something beyond the Golden Triangle.
Located in India’s northwest, the Punjab city of Amritsar is famed for being the centre of the Sikh religion. And that means temples – particularly the Harimandir Sahib, known in the west simply as The Golden Temple. Built in 1803 out of white marble, bronze and gold leaf, the temple walls are inlaid with semi-precious stones, and further adorned with intricate glasswork and frescoes. To enter, one must wear a traditional headscarf and be purified by walking through a shallow pool, merging with the devotees circling the embankment around the temple.
2. Leh and Ladakh
A vast highland desert between the Karakoram Mountains and the Himalayas, Ladakh is the name given to the eastern two-thirds of the state of Jammu and Kashmir. Leh is the region’s capital.
Sometimes referred to or described as ‘Little Tibet’ or even ‘The Last Shangri-La’, there are parts of Ladakh that feel as if they have remained untouched for centuries. Thanks in part to the fact that the region is inaccessible by road in winter, Ladakh’s Tibetans have carried their traditions and customs forward, unimpeded by the efforts of the Chinese to dilute Tibetan culture in other regions.
Leh Palace offers spectacular views, and above the palace is Namgyal Tsemo gompa. Experience the atmosphere of the bazaar and old town, and Leh gompa too. (Gompa means monastery by the way.) If you’re really into your gompas, head just outside Leh to see the Shey, Hemis and Tikse gompas.
Stok Palace, also just outside Leh is the seat of the erstwhile Ladakhi royal family, which now houses a small museum and the Stok gompa. Gompas all the way!
Perching on a flat-topped hill is Jaisalmer, a medieval walled town set deep in the Thar Desert. Bringing beauty to an otherwise desolate landscape, Jaisalmer is in fact one of Rajasthan’s best-loved attractions. Enter through the foreboding gates, and explore the tangled network of alleyways and streets lined with little shops, see the Jain temples and the palace, a portion of which is open to the public. The Jaisalmer Desert Festival every January / February is when things really kick off, as the region celebrates all things Rajasthani. Watch camel races, listen to traditional folk music, watch dancing and singing and lose yourself in the colour and warmth of this desert town.
Officially known as Udhagamandalam, anglicised to Ottacamund and shortened further to Ooty, this scenic ex-British hill station in Tamil Nadu is set in the cool Nilgiri Hills. This is tea country.
Having bought up the tribal land from the local Toda tribe, British burrasahib John Sullivan realised the agricultural potential of this region, and within a short time had made a fortune off the land – including lucrative tea crops. Joined by other fortune-seekers, a town soon sprang to life, and today remnants of the colonial influence can still be seen in the leafy winding lanes, quaint stone cottages and English street names such as Charing Cross and Westbury Road. Visit the beautifully maintained botanical gardens, head off on the walking and horse-riding trails or go boating on the town lake. One of the most novel ways to get to Ooty is aboard the famous narrow-gauge Nilgiri Blue Mountain Railway from Mettupalayam on the plains. It’s all frightfully British darling.
5. Pinnewala Elephant Orphanage
Just a hop, skip and jump away from the mainland is Sri Lanka, a land of stunning hill stations, gorgeous beaches, lush green countryside and a culture all its own. Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage is probably one of Sri Lanka’s most popular attractions. Home to around 80 orphaned or abandoned wild elephants – including babies – the orphanage plays a huge part in conserving the local elephant population.
Founded in 1975, the orphanage was started as a sanctuary for orphaned baby elephants found in the wild, and now boasts the largest captive elephant herd in the world. Located in the hills around Kegalle, the orphanage is easy to access and is always a hit with visitors. Don’t miss the elephants having their daily soak in the nearby river!