I have just completed a year of travelling across India. My journeys across India began in December of 2008. For a few months I travelled on weekends and on some longer holidays to interesting places within Karnataka. One weekend I made a visit to neighbouring Tamil Nadu. I realized that it was not going to be possible to cover the country by these weekend trips. It was time to take a year long sabbatical from work and hit the road full time.
So began my trip in October 2009 and lasted till September 2010. My journeys can be divided into eight separate tours with short breaks in between. The really longest one stretched for 72 days. That’s ten weeks on the road without a break. I was not tired. I was not wanting to come home. I loved every day of my life on the road.
The highlights of each tour are briefly listed below.
Tour 1: Karnataka, Tamil Nadu (Weekend Trips)
36 days, 06-Dec-08 to 13-Apr-09
- The Hoysala temple art of Belur, Halebid and Somnathpur are seriously among the best in the entire country.
- North Karnataka has some of the best and oldest temples in the country in rural settings – Badami, Aihole and Pattadakal.
- The region around Gadag and Haveri has superb temple art of the Western Chalukyas.
- Jain temple sides of Shravanabelagola, Dharmasthala, Kateel, Karkala and Moodbidri together make a world apart.
Tour 2: Himachal Pradesh, Chandigarh
15 days, 14-May-09 to 28-May-09
- My first holiday to North India. My first view of the Himalayas at Narkanda.
- The real gem of this tour was Spiti Valley – the warm hospitability and simple lifestyle of Buddhist monks of Tabo, Dhankar, Lalung, Kibber and Ki.
- Architecture of Chandigarh alone is enough to merit a visit to this modern city which has nothing else of great interest.
Tour 3: Andhra Pradesh, Orissa
22 days, 21-Oct-09 to 12-Nov-09
- The mural paintings of Lepakshi from the Vijayanagar Period are superb. Lepakshi also has India’s largest Nandi in stone.
- The ruins of Amaravati are not impressive but the museum gives an idea of that lost grandeur, which even today is known within the Buddhist art world as the Amaravati School.
- The famous triangle of Orissan style of temple art – Bhubaneshwar, Puri and Konark – is an experience. The North Indian curvilinear style of temple shikara is perfected in these Orissan temples. Amidst the shouts of corrupt priests and busy crowds, Puri may not be spiritually uplifting but it is a great cultural experience.
- Buddhist ruins of Ratnagiri, Lalitagiri and Udayagiri are vast and somewhat difficult to access by public transport. Truly a rural experience.
Tour 4: Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, Dadra & Nagar Haveli, Daman & Diu, Maharashtra
58 days, 18-Nov-09 to 14-Jan-10
- A poignant day at Alampur, walking in ankle-deep mud and through piles of rotten garbage, the leftovers from a recent devastating flood. Alampur is at the confluence of two great rivers – Tungabhadra and Krishna.
- A glimpse of medieval India in a passing moment at Mecca Masjid, Hyderabad. The Char Minar is not exactly beautiful but ornate and eccentric.
- If the vast proportions of embankments, moats and ramparts of the fort does not impress you, you will be amazed at the artistic masterpieces of the Kakatiyas of Warangal. The trabeate gateways are iconic of Warangal and its ruling dynasty from the 12th and 13th centuries.
- Gandhji’s ashram at Sewagram is an example of how people can live in harmony with nature, even in the modern world.
- Of all the temples, the Kandariya Mahadeo Temple at Khajuraho is such a special spectacle that you will even forget what makes Khajuraho so famous.
- Madhya Pradesh has some unbelievably romantic ruined forts – Orchha, Datia, Gwalior and Mandu.
- Deogarh – a place I had read about long before I started on this tour. Supposedly the place of India’s oldest temple, the temple is still standing. It has only three sculpural panels of ancient Gupta Art but each one is a masterpiece. Neighbouring hill is littered with many Jain temples.
- Evidence of pre-historic man and his rock art at Bhimbetka. The view from the caves to surrounding landscape below shows vast stretches of forests. It is not hard to imagine pre-historic hunting in these forests.
- The mosques of Champaner is truly a window into the unique Islamic architecture of Gujarat. Champaner was love at first sight.
- First trip on the National Expressway from Vadodra to Ahmedabad, a fast and smooth journey. It is proof that India can emulate efficiency and organized systems of the West.
- Dholavira – a special place from the Harappan Period which has preserved wells, reservoirs, channels, drainage systems, streets and amphitheatres.
- I am in love with Gujarati food. I try out all sorts of delicacies and sample full thali meals at Junagadh, Bhuj and Vadodra.
- The stepwells of Gujarat are unmatched and they come in all sorts of designs and details.
- I begin the new year with a pilgrimage to the Jain temples at Palitana.
- At Silvassa, I try Rajasthani dal bhati for the first time.
- My glasses get stolen at Shirdi. At Bedsa Caves, I lose my backpack on a hike on the hills but in return I sample the hospitality of simple village folks.
- Teamed up with a Japanese tourist and visited two great World Heritage sites – Ajanta for paintings and Ellora for sculptures.
Tour 5: Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Haryana, Punjab, Delhi
72 days, 03-Feb-10 to 15-Apr-10
- Joined the locals in an evening of cock-fighting in the woods near Jagdalpur. It was in Jagdalpur that I sampled superb Rajasthani food at the popular Annapurna Restaurant.
- Sampled a typical Indian mela at Rajim with its assortment of huts, tents, sadhus and miracle performers.
- A memorable ride in a slow passenger train from Tatanagar to Ranchi. A Bengali itinerant folk singer with his two-stringed instrument entertained the crowds with his songs.
- Wonderful hospitality and assistance from a Forest Officer at Hazaribag. Nearby Isko has some wonderful pre-historic paintings, an insight into the mud wall decorations still practiced in these parts.
- Visits to Buddhist sites of Bodh Gaya, Barabar & Nagarjuni Hills and Nalanda.
- Bought a couple of Madhubani paintings directly from artists in a little village in rural Bihar.
- The wonderful tomb of Sher Shah Suri completes my tour of Bihar.
- A cultural experience at Varanasi walking down the ghats by the Ganges.
- Got coloured at Jaunpur on the day of Holi.
- Agra was the real highlight of this tour. The weather was perfect and the Taj stood as a true wonder.
- The ruins of Fatehpur Sikri occupied me for nearly nine hours.
- The palaces of Jaipur, Amber, Udaipur and Jodhpur are simply lovely. The Pink City is in itself a wonderful sight.
- Nowhere I felt so close to medieval India as in Bundi. The town seems to stand isolated in a time capsule. The paintings are superb.
- The Jain temples of Mt Abu and Ranakpur are amongst the best for their artistic glories.
- The havelis of Jaisalmer are definitely worth a trip to the desert lands of Rajasthan.
- In Shekawati region, there are lots of little villages with house walls painted beautifully with tales from the puranas.
- A taste of patriotism at Hissar with a view from Jindal Tower of the Indian flag flying high.
- The border routine at Hussainiwala is both serious and silly.
- Completely in tune with the everpresent peace of the Golden Temple at Amritsar. Slept in the temple that night. Sampled temple’s prasad.
- A unique Moorish mosque at Kapurtala not to be found anywhere else in India.
- Medieval caravansarais at Nurmahal, Doraha and Sambhu. Wonderful hospitality from the caretakers of these old places.
- The gardens of Pinjore are a sampler to the great Mughal gardens of Srinagar that I may never see.
- Chatted with durrie weavers at Panipat while visiting their workshops. Bought a bottle of the famous pickles of Panipat.
- A week in Delhi and struggled to survive the heat of summer. Stimulating conversations with my host, a retired officer from Defence Research.
Tour 6: West Bengal, Sikkim, Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Nagaland
41 days, 03-May-10 to 12-Jun-10
- At Kolkala, gorged on lychees, now in season.
- A day out with mango pickers, banana harvesters and farmers tilling the field in rural West Bengal. A spread of ruins complemented the day perfectly.
- Walks in the tea estates of Mirik.
- An exhilarating walk to Hilley and then to the Barsey Rhododendron Sanctuary.
- Was presented a gamosa by friends at Guwahati. Sampled true Assamese foods and loved it.
- A night with the Army at Sela Top and enjoyed their wonderful hospitality.
- Meghalaya is a picturesque state with gentle slopes, deep valleys, high waterfalls and thick forests. Did not rain at Cheerapunji and was disappointed with accommodation options in this place.
- The Road Show at Longleng was worth the long journey to this remote place. It was a privilege to see the dances and listen to folk music of these tribes who were once head-hunters. Stayed for free with two different families, thanks to their hospitality and trust in a complete stranger.
- Tough journeys across the North East where transportation is generally bad. Tested my limits and I returned without completing my original plan to cover all states.
Tour 7: Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Jammu & Kashmir
40 days, 26-Jun-10 to 04-Aug-10
- A tough train ride from Bangalore to Delhi in General Section.
- Joined some villagers for local beer at Harsil, sampled excellent daal-chawal and took a room with a view of the mountains, the pines and the clear river flowing down.
- Loved the walks at Jageshwar on the Kumaon Hills.
- Pampered my taste buds with authentic Tibetan food at Dharamshala.
- The temples of Chamba captivated me. This is a nice town with a lot of charm.
- Stayed near the old castle at Gondhla, bunking in with the PWD caretaker. Watched moonrise over the peaks. Sampled home-cooked rotis and sabji. Two nights later, tasted the best vegetarian pulao ever had, cooked by Buddhist monks.
- Awed by the mountains on the way Leh. The mountains of Ladakh are breathtaking. The people are friendly and often wear a smile. The old lady at Lamayuru, my hostess for two nights, represented all the goodness of old Ladakh.
- Got into an argument with the bus conductor. Got off in the middle of nowhere. Climbed up to Fotula Top for breathtaking views. Climbed down the other side and hitchhiked my way to Kargil.
Tour 8: Goa, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Puducherry
30 days, 24-Aug-10 to 22-Sep-10
- Loved the churches of Old Goa and the period buildings of Fontainhas. Sampled some Goan food and bought a packet of xacuti.
- Experienced a performance of theyyam in the traditional temple environment.
- The mosques of Kuttichira are quite unique and inspired from Keralan temple architecture. The famous halwa of Calicut added interest to my stay here.
- At Guruvayur, wore dhoti for the first time.
- At Thrissur, joined a street parade on the occasion of Krishna Janmastamani. Earlier in the day, I was awed by the kootambalam at the Vaddukanatha Temple.
- At the Mattancherry Palace, admired Keralan style wall murals and fell in love with them.
- A whole day on the backwaters was perhaps tiresome towards the end but enjoyable on the whole.
- The temples of Tamil Nadu are unmatched for their gopurams and splendid sculptures all over.
- Chettinad region is famous for its mansions, good food and superb hospitality.
I may not think of this year often but I will surely remember it for many years to come. When I do think of it, I am sure that I will relive every experience with a certain nostalgia. For now, it’s life as normal.