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Where are India's best kept secret holiday destinations?

Chinmay Vasavada By Chinmay Vasavada
01 Nov 2019
India - Central - Maheshwar.jpg

Think culture and it is hard not to think of India. With a vast population of more than a billion, spread across 29 different states, speaking 22 different languages with over 720 dialects, India is truly beguiling and multicultural.

India is my homeland and I have been fortunate enough to have travelled the length and breadth of the country, from the mystic Himalaya up north to the serene backwaters down south; the immense fortresses of Rajasthan in the west to the lush tiger country in the centre and remote tribes of Odisha in the east. The land is so vast and varied that for most travellers it is often daunting to decide where to begin.

 


I am often asked about my favourite places in the country and as I was raised in a large city, I feel most at home in urban spaces that showcase the society at large with a rich melange of culture, history, food, art and architecture. It gives me great pleasure to share with you a small selection of some of my treasured places in India, which I would happily go back to in a heartbeat.  

Ahmedabad, Gujarat

Relatively unknown amongst Western travellers, Ahmedabad and the State of Gujarat have remained blissfully off-the-beaten-track despite their incredible history and unique culture. The old and originally fortified city was established in 1411 by Sultan Ahmad Shah and subsequently the new city was developed on the other side of the river creating an amazing contrast. 

 


Home to India’s finest business communities, Ahmedabad has played a pivotal role in the country’s history. During the freedom struggle, Mahatma Gandhi made Ahmedabad his base and it is from here that he embarked on the historic Salt March, which lead to the nationwide Civil Disobedience Movement. Mahatma Gandhi’s former residence is beautifully preserved in a memorial complex designed by the renowned Indian architect Charles Correa. I make it a point to visit it every time I am in Ahmedabad, as I find it most peaceful and humbling.

Another important aspect of the city’s heritage is its prolific textile industry. During its heyday, Ahmedabad was the largest textile producing centre in the country, which earned it the coveted tag of the ‘Manchester of the East’.  The vast amount of wealth generated by the industry greatly contributed to the new city’s development in the most positive way, as various centres of excellence were set up by prominent families in the fields of space research, architecture, design, management and engineering.

 


World-renowned architects including Le Corbusier and Louis Kanh were invited to design many private and public buildings, which turned the city into an open museum of some of India’s finest contemporary architecture. Sadly these gems are now hidden amidst a vast pile of modern skyscrapers, but they are still there to be appreciated by those of us who know their value.

For me though, the real charm of the city lies within its old walls. From inception, Ahmedabad was multicultural and the old quarter was designed for various communities, each following its own unique culture and religious practices, to coexist in complete harmony, for all the communities were entirely interdependent for livelihood.

The old quarter is made up of an intricate network of cul de sacs, locally known as “pol”, allowing people of the same community to live together in a gated development. Each development consists of private homes, schools and religious and communal spaces making them complete sanctuaries within the city.

 


Outside, in the main town squares, large markets and prominent religious as well as stately buildings were built allowing multicultural interactions as well as trade and commerce. It is this remarkable feat of urban planning, based entirely on the town’s unique socio-cultural fabric, and which continues to thrive centuries later, that earned the old city of Ahmedabad a place on the UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 2018, making it India’s first World Heritage City.

Since childhood I have been visiting the old quarter and it has still not ceased to amaze me with its stunning old mansions with intricately carved wooden facades, hidden temples, beautiful Islamic, Jain and Hindu architecture and the most interesting and bustling markets.

 


And finally the food, I know I might be a bit biased as I come from Ahmedabad, but I haven’t come across a more delicious and varied vegetarian cuisine anywhere else in India! The food scene in Ahmedabad is just incredible, as Ahmedabadis are some of the biggest foodies in the country!

Maheshwar, Madhya Pradesh

Maheshwar is indeed one of the hidden treasures of India. Situated on the banks of the sacred river Narmada, it is one of the most serene settings of a temple-palace complex anywhere in India. Personally, I find Udaipur, with its majestic palace on the lake, the most romantic setting in India, but Maheshwar is spiritual, pure and very peaceful.

 


Picture yourself taking a boat ride on the river at dusk, with refreshing breeze caressing your face, looking out at the impressive palace bathed in the soft golden hue, and the local devotees and sadhus taking a dip in the holy river and kids performing various acrobatic tricks and splashing about; all capped by the distant sounds of devotional music and temple bells in the background… it is an experience that I will cherish forever, and for many, this is an ideal place to experience the India of their imagination!

Mentioned in the ancient scriptures and mythology, Maheshwar is steeped in history. A prominent centre of handloom weaving since the 5th century, the town was the capital of Maharani Ahilyabai Holkar’s empire during the 18th century. The town’s weaving tradition had almost died in the post-independence period, but it was revived by the Holkar family via a not-for-profit organisation called the Rehwa Society founded in 1978.

 


The foundation’s aim was to revive the textile tradition and make it economically viable for the workers in order to secure its long-term prospect, and this was achieved by providing employment to the women weavers along with free primary education for their children and access to a low-cost healthcare scheme.

Today, more than 80 weavers produce over 100,000 metres of fine fabrics a year and it is such a privilege to watch these women at work and to understand how this initiative has transformed their lives and preserved the town’s important heritage.

 


Part of the fort, known as Ahilya Wada, which comprises of Maharani Ahilyabai’s personal residences and offices, has been converted into a guest residence by Prince Richard Holkar, Maharani Ahilyabai’s descendant and son of the last Maharaja of Indore.

Known as the Ahilya Fort Hotel, it is in my opinion one of the finest and most authentic heritage hotels in India. Prince Richard is still completely involved in the day-to-day running of the residence and loves to be the main host when he is around. He is a reputed chef and gourmet, and personally oversees the kitchen even when he is travelling!

 


Maheshwar is also a convenient base to explore the nearby UNESCO World Heritage Site of Mandu – a 15th century fortified city. Its superb architecture and isolated location provided a suitably romantic setting for one of the greatest romances of Indian history – the story of the Sultan Baz Bahadur and his Hindu Queen Rupmati.

Perched atop a spur of the Vindhya ranges at an altitude of 2,000 feet, Mandu, with its natural defences, was originally the fort capital of the Hindu Parmar rulers of Malwa. Towards the end of the 13th century, it came under the sway of the Sultans of Malwa, the first of whom named it Shadiabad - 'city of joy'.

Mandu’s Islamic buildings pre-date the arrival of the Mughals and are scattered over a large area of 60 square kilometres. Each of the structures is an architectural gem; some are outstanding like the massive Jami Masjid and Hoshang Shah's tomb, which is believed to have provided inspiration to the master builders of the Taj Mahal centuries later.

 


For me, Maheshwar is one of the finest places in India to experience the art of slow travel and Ahilya Fort is a fairy-tale hotel in a fairy-tale setting. To sit on the ramparts sipping a drink and watching sunset over the kilometre wide Narmada is enchantment.

Kolkata, West Bengal

The former capital of the British Empire and the headquarters of the East India Company, Kolkata exudes incredibly rich colonial as well as traditional Bengali heritage. The city pioneered the renaissance movement in India and is known as the country’s cultural and intellectual capital.

Many literary and creative giants come from Kolkata including Rabindranath Tagore, Satyajit Ray, Raja Ram Mohan Roy and Amitav Ghosh just to name a few. Unlike other Indian metropolises, Kolkata feels sealed in time and is much more traditional and local, with old trams and hand-pulled rickshaws jostling against modern buses, cars and the metro. It is an absolute treasure trove of art, music, literature, theatre, cinema and architecture.

 


Life in Kolkata has remained slow-paced and the best way to experience this is by exploring the city on foot, taking in her historic architecture, bustling markets, local cuisine and interesting residents.

You could follow in the footsteps of the Raj in and around Dalhousie Square, admiring the famous Writers’ Building – the former headquarters of the infamous East India Company, the stunning Governor’s House and the much lesser-known Charnock Mausoleum – the former administrative, judicial and political centre of the British Empire. The Park Street Cemetery and Victoria Memorial are undoubtedly two of the greatest colonial institutions of Kolkata.

 


For some Bengali flavour, you should head to North Kolkata, also known as “The Black Town”. This is where a parallel culture, heavily influenced by the Europeans, flourished among the city’s pioneering families. Here, you can explore the Jain Temple Complex, which comprises of four ornate temples adorned with shimmering mirrors, ceramic tiles and exquisite chandeliers that were brought over by rich merchants from across the world.

The Marble Palace, built in 1835 by a wealthy Bengali merchant, is one of the most bizarre and unique Bengali mansions, housing a kitsch collection of artefacts from the owner’s private collection. In the Bengali Quarter, you will find the former residence of the famous Nobel Laureate and one of India’s greatest modern poets Rabindranath Tagore, which has been turned into an interesting museum showcasing the society’s involvement in the Bengali Renaissance, Brahmo Samaj movement and eventually the Freedom Struggle.

 


For the foodies, I would highly recommend visiting Flury’s Tea Room on Park Street – an old Calcutta institution. For something a bit more traditional, the historic Star Theatre in the old city is also fabulous. The food is simple but it’s very local and the place is steeped in history, as it is the heart and soul of Bengali theatre.

I love sweets and for those who don’t mind milk-based sweets, traditional Bengali sweets are some of the healthiest sweets anywhere in India. My favourites are Roshogolla – soft dumplings made of “chhena”, dipped in light sugar syrup, and Sandesh, which is the dry version of roshogolla without the sugar syrup.

 


Although these are available throughout the city, for the most authentic taste, head to one of the K. C. Das shops that were founded by the legendary Bengali confectioner. If you are a tea drinker, you might also want to visit one of the local tea auction houses to learn more about how it is traded and its history in the country.

Like most Indian cities, bazaars are a fascinating aspect of Kolkata and they are amazing for photography enthusiasts. The flower market, located on the banks of the Hooghly, is delightful at the crack of dawn. Besides the astounding array of flowers being sold by hundreds of vendors, it is a great place to experience the local way of life along the river.

 


Later in the day, a visit to Kumartuli is a must where you would get to see massive, life-size clay idols of Hindu Goddess Kali being made for the city’s biggest religious festival of Durga Puja. The market becomes very active in August and September just before the main festival in October, but late winter and summer are also a good time to see some activity.

As very aptly put by the famous Indian journalist and author Vir Sanghvi, “Calcutta is not for everyone. You want your city clean and green, stick to Delhi. You want your city rich and impersonal, go to Bombay. You want them hi-tech and full of draught beer, Bangalore’s your place. But if you want a city with a soul, come to Calcutta”.  

I would be delighted to discuss my experiences of the cultural centres of India further, so please do feel free to contact me for more information.

 

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