All of us have experienced at least one “guided tour”, where the tour operator cleverly plans our (limited) holidays. Each day is a blur of carefully timed glimpses of must-see monuments, accompanied by continuous commentary by guides and photographs taken at recommended spots. It is the most unattractive way of discovering India’s history, when almost every city and town abounds in remnants of a past culture. The tourism industry has always concentrated on highlighting popular destinations, while ignoring other interesting sites even in close proximity to the popular ones. Now, it is possible to do things differently. Just follow this trail.
90. Prehistoric caves at Bhimbetka, Madhya Pradesh
Curves ahead: The Keshta Raya temple at Bishnupur. (Bengal Cities and Sights)
Discovered in 1958 at the foothills of the Vindhya range, the Bhimbetka cave shelters number more than 700. Named after Bhima, the Pandava prince, it is the largest prehistoric settlement in India. Striking paintings and drawings in natural and mineral colours can be seen in some of the caves, 12 of which are open for public viewing. The sensitively portrayed animals are a visitors’ favourite, while other themes range from daily life to hunting scenes, sacred symbols and royal images as well as festivities. Chronologically divided into five periods, the paintings date from 30,000 years ago to as recent as the medieval times. Visit the humungous Bhojpur Shiva temple on the way back to Bhopal.
Getting there: Bhimbetka caves are 45km from Bhopal, and are accessible by road.
91. Brick temples and terracotta bazaars at Bishnupur, Bankura district, West Bengal
Bengal has a long tradition of terracotta craft and brick making. During the 17th and 18th centuries, the tradition reached its zenith, and successive kings of the Malla dynasty patronized the construction of brick temples. The temples are unique in their curvilinear roofing, inspired by bamboo dwellings, and fully tiled exteriors. The tiling began as a method of protection, but was later decorated with relief patterns and narrative imagery. Though all the temples are worth a visit, the Keshta Raya and the Shyama Raya temples stand out for their artistic tile work. Bishnupur also has several large tanks from the same time period. Don’t forget to explore the terracotta bazaars for original Bankura horses.
Getting there: Bishnupur is about a 5-hour drive from Kolkata.
92. Buddhist remains of Amaravati, Andhra Pradesh
Amaravati—“the abode of the gods”—is a small town on the banks of the Krishna river. It’s a destination for Hindu and Buddhist pilgrims, who come to visit the 10th century Amareshwara temple and the Buddhist settlements, respectively. Buddhism came here in the Mauryan emperor Ashok’s time more than 2,000 years ago, and it remained a renowned centre for monastic study. Relief carvings from the area illustrate the presence of a large, highly decorated stupa (reliquary). A present-day reconstruction recreates a sense of its grandeur. Excavated artefacts and panels displayed in the local museum present both the symbolic and figurative representation of Buddha, in typical Amaravati style. Nagarjunakonda is another local Buddhist site to visit.
Getting there: Amaravati is 46km south-east of Vijayawada. It is accessible by bus or steamboat.
93. Temple architecture of Melukote, Mandya district, Karnataka
Melukote is a picturesque temple town where history, myth and popular folklore mingle to create an extraordinary experience. It is said that the 12th century saint Ramanuja came to Melukote, having escaped persecution in Srirangam. His religious teachings of Srivaishnavism were embraced by many, even the then Jain Hoysala king, who took the name of Vishnuvardhana and became a patron. The town’s community life revolves around the two main temples, the Cheluvanarayana and the hilltop Yoganarasimha. Pilgrims throng the town during the temple festivals, the main celebration being Vairamudi in March-April, when the idol is crowned with a diamond crown and taken in procession. A quiet evening spent on the steps of the temple tank is spiritual and reviving.
Getting there: Melukote is 60km from Mysore and is accessible by road.
94. Rajput fortress at Dungarpur, Rajasthan
The valley town of Dungarpur owes its existence to the Rajput Rawals of Vagad. The most fascinating piece of architecture here is the Juna Mahal, founded as a military battlement in the 13th century. It gradually grew into a nine-storey palace with extensions made by a succession of Rawals even until the 20th century. The interior is a combination of open and closed courts, corridors with pillars, private chambers, audience halls and puja rooms richly embellished with miniature paintings, wall frescoes, mirror work and even British porcelain. The town has several temples, a dargah and a scenic lake, all of which can be enjoyed as breathtaking panoramic views, or at close quarters.
Getting there: Dungarpur is 120km from Udaipur and 175km from Ahmedabad. It is accessible by road and rail.
Lina Vincent Sunish is a Bangalore-based researcher and an arts consultant.