Little-known places that the canny traveler should visit
South Asia has many destinations with immense tourism potential that are not that popular among run-of-the-mill tourists. But it may work for those tired of the old tourist trails, and seeking new options, natural or cultural.
The River Island
Majuli is one such offbeat destination. Located in the state of Assam in India, on the vast Brahmaputra river, Majuli is the largest freshwater mid-river deltaic island in the world. The island, whose area was 780 square miles at the beginning of the 20th century, had shrunk to 220 square miles by 2014 due to erosion.
Home to 144 villages, Majuli can be accessed through ferry service from Jorhat city in Assam. It affords wonderful views of the mighty Brahmaputra, and is the hub of Assamese neo-Vaishnavite culture. Here the 15th century saint Sankardeva established a satra, or neo-Vaishnavite monastery. This was followed by the development of 64 more satras in Majuli.
Today only 22 of the 65 satras are operational. Many of these monasteries are home to antiques such as weapons, utensils, jewelry and other items of cultural significance that will draw cultural tourists. Some satras are known for their specialized art and craft traditions. Built in 1584, Dakhinpat Satra is probably the most famous one.
The pottery of Majuli, made from beaten clay and burnt in driftwood ﬁred kilns, resembles the pottery-making tradition of the ancient Harappan civilization. Majuli’s weaving tradition boasts an array of colors and textures for cotton and silk.
The ideal time to visit Majuli is during Rasleela, usually occurring in October-November. The three-day festival depicts the life of Lord Krishna. Almost everyone on the island, whose population is predominantly tribal, takes part in the festival.
The environmentally conscious can enjoy Majuli’s amazing bio-diversity, comprising endangered species such as the greater adjutant stork, pelican, and whistling teal, among others.
Devoted to Nature
Ganapatipule, a quaint town on the Konkan coast, has the green Sahyadri mountains on one side and the blue Arabian Sea on the other, with a 400-year-old Ganapati temple on the island. Here nature and religion have come together to provide a wonderful tourism experience. The town is in the Ratnagiri district of Maharashtra, a 233-mile drive from Mumbai.
Besides exploring nature, you can also enjoy water sports, complete with water scooters and banana boat rides, and find spiritual satiation at the temple. During Ganeshotsav (an important religious festival in Maharashtra) people of Ganapatipule and its surrounding villages gather at the temple and worship Lord Ganesha.
There are many tourist options near Ganapatipule. They include the lighthouse at the 16th century Jaigad Fort, and the tranquil Malgund village, the birthplace of Marathi poet Keshavasuta. The poet’s house, now a student’s hostel, is open for visits. Besides the memorial to the poet in the village, tourists can also visit the beach nearby, before heading off to the museum, which can enrich your knowledge about poets in Marathi literature. The twin Aare-ware beaches, about six miles from Ganaputipule, are also worth visiting.
The Seaside Village
Another of the many fascinating offbeat destinations of India is Mandarmani in West Bengal state. Located 112 miles from Kolkata airport, this seaside village is at the northern end of the Bay of Bengal.
Because there are no railways or airports nearby, the only way to get there is by road. The nearest airport is in Kolkata, while the closest railway station is Contai. But the advantage for those willing to drive is that Mandarmani has the longest motorable beach in India. You can drive the eight-mile stretch, dodging red crabs and the gray-blue waves rushing ashore.
While you can enjoy solitude in Mandarmani, you can also have fun, enjoying a variety of water sports, including jet-skiing, speed-boating, parasailing, paragliding, and banana boat rides.
The Ethereal Valley
Spiti Valley, in the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh, can enamor anyone with its pristine beauty. Surrounded by the tall, somber mountains, whose peaks often gleam with snow, Spiti’s lovely setting and beautiful monasteries seldom fail to enchant.
Stretching up from 9680 feet to 13,450 feet, Spiti reaches over to touch India’s international boundary with Tibet. In fact, Spiti means the middle land, the one between Tibet and India. The local population mainly follows Vajrayana Buddhism. Tourism highlights here include Key Monastery and Tabo Monastery, among the oldest monasteries in the world.
Some other tourist-worthy places in and around Spiti Valley include Chandra Tal lake, and Hikkim Village, which, at 14,400 feet above sea level, the village is cut off from other parts of Himachal Pradesh for about half the year because of heavy snowfall in the mountain passes. At other times, it can be accessed through an arduous track from Kaza town, the nearest town to the village with asphalted road. The Pin Valley National Park is home to 22 rare and endangered medicinal plant species.
Spiti Valley is particularly attractive to the sporty type, with options like trekking, camping, and mountain biking.
Where History Resonates
Halebid in the Indian state of Karnataka, is a lesser-known town of historical and cultural significance. It became the capital of the Hoysala Empire in the 11th century AD and remained so for 150 years.
The ancient temple town has some magnificent Hindu and Jain temples, which represents the high point of Hoysala architecture. The most notable of these are the Hoysalesvara temple, Kedareshwara temple, and Jaina Basadi temple. The most elaborate one is Hoysalesvara, a twin-temple dedicated to Hoysaleswara and Santaleswara Shiva lingas. The twin-temple also includes themes from the Vaishnava and Shakti traditions of Hinduism, as well as images pertaining to Jainism, reflecting the pluralistic ethos of ancient India.
Even the ruins of many temples of Halebid, ravaged by the armies of Malik Kafur in the early 14th century, recall a great heritage. Just 10 miles from Halebid is Belur, another temple town renowned for its Chennakeshava Temple, a splendid example of Hoysala architecture.
A Town in the Hills
Nepal’s tourism potential goes beyond Kathmandu and Pokhara. One uncommon but charming destination there is the hilltop town of Bandipur. Its distinctive old-world charm is due to Newari architecture, for which Nepal is so famous.
A walk through the town can give you fascinating glimpses of Newari people and their culture. The town is surrounded by hills and a clear day can give you views of mountain ranges gleaming with snow.
Poḷonnaruwa in Sri Lanka is another offbeat destination tourists should not miss. One part of the town is modern, while in the other you can find the ruins of the ancient city of the erstwhile kingdom of Poḷonnaruwa. It has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Poḷonnaruwa began as a military post of the Singhalese kingdom, and became the capital of Sri Lanka under the Cholas invaded in the 10th century. Today it is one of the best archaeological destinations in South Asia where you would find ruins of stupas and temples, giant Buddha statues and many other monuments built by the Chola empire.
Of course, these are only a few of many relatively lesser-known but fascinating destinations in South Asia that tourists can explore. But they are a start.