Winters are a wonderful time in India. The Himalayas transform into white wonderlands. The dusty summer heat retreats from the northern plains, giving way to a thick blanket of fog that smugly settles down. The southern peninsula and coastal areas are more pleasant, experiencing sub 20-degree Celsius temperatures.

What makes the shift in the season more pronounced is the onset of Indian festivals. India truly celebrates its diversity, soaking in the cheer of festivities across the country – Durga Puja & Dussehra, Diwali, Guru Nanak Jayanti, Christmas et al.

Winter in India, map

Hampi: For its history and ancient architecture

My guide, Nagaraj, had promised a stunning view of the ancient city from atop Matanga Hill – the highest point. Climbing the wide centuries-old stone steps early morning seemed a struggle, but I trudged along. “Turn around,” Nagaraj declared all of a sudden. Looking out, I stood facing the amber tinted horizon, the blush pink sun peeping out from behind the dim outlines of the rocky outcrop. The Tungabhadra river cut like a sliver across the bouldered landscape, dazzling as its waters caught the morning sun. I could recognise the ruins, and ancient temples (from the era of the once powerful Vijayanagara Empire) scattered across. After my descent, I visited the Virupaksha temple. I vividly recall two sights – the temple elephant, Lakshmi, being bathed by the priests as she lay on the river bed – and – a pinhole camera effect created with stonework inside a small chamber.

Up next on my itinerary was the Hazara Rama temple with its intricate carvings of scenes from the epic Ramayana (the only parallel I can think of is the Angkor Wat in Cambodia).

Before the dusk set in, I spent an hour admiring the architecture of the Vijaya Vitthala temple. The silence was only interrupted by the gleeful shrieks of local children, running around the stone chariot.

To reach Hampi, you can fly to either Bengaluru or Goa and drive down. For stay, Heritage resort is a good option for its service and location.

Hampi

View from Matanga Hill

Vijaya Vitthala temple

Vijaya Vitthala temple

Nathula Pass in Sikkim : For its natural beauty

It was almost the end of January when I visited the state of Sikkim. We were on our way to the Indo – China border at Nathula Pass. As the car navigated through the winding Gangtok – Nathula highway, the rapid change in altitude was evident. Snow generously sprinkled over the tall mountains, the waters of Changu Lake half frozen, winter was holding on. On reaching the army check post, I beamed looking up at the Indian tricolour fluttering high. A step or two down, my legs felt as if they had turned into logs. At 14400 feet above sea level, I was not going to cover the remaining 90 steps to the border without acclimatisation. An hour (and cups of hot lemon tea) later, I felt better. Reaching the border, I gingerly touched the barbed wire fence and admired the views of barren mountainous Tibetan landscape that lay ahead.

On the way back to Gangtok, we made a pit stop at Changu Lake. On being offered a yak ride, I was tempted and mounted a yak for a few minutes. It was therapeutic running my fingers through the white furry crop on the yak’s head.

Nathula can be visited as a day trip from Gangtok. Special permits are required for Indian nationals while foreign nationals are only allowed until Changu Lake. Gangtok is also an ideal base to explore Rumtek, the largest monastery in Sikkim.

Fly to Bagdogra and while in Gangtok, stay at Mayfair Spa Resort.

Changu Lake

Changu Lake

The Indo - China border at Nathula

The Indo – China border at Nathula

Konark & Bhubaneshwar: For its culture and food

Bhubaneshwar – Odisha state’s capital city – has a laid-back charm. A lot of history and culture is on the platter especially with the 11th-century Lingaraj temple (only Hindus are allowed inside) and the 10th-century Rajarani temple, which hosts an Indian classical music festival in January.

The Odia cuisine is fabulous, to say the least. I spent two years as a student in Bhubaneshwar and discovered mouth watering delicacies – Pakhala (fermented rice), Santula (mixed vegetable curry), Dalma (lentil with vegetables), Badi Chura (dried lentil dumpling crumble), Mansa Tarkari (mutton curry) and Chhenapoda (cheese desert). Dalma restaurant at Bhubaneshwar is a good spot to sample the delicacies.

A top choice among the Indian tourist places is the 13th century Sun Temple at Konark. Built by King Narasimhadeva I, the main structure in the compound is a large chariot carved out of stone. The outer walls of this structure are embellished with exquisite carvings (many of them are erotic; erotica was considered spiritual in India before Victorian values set in) and stone wheels that function as sundials.

You can fly to Bhubaneshwar and drive down to Konark. For stay, Mayfair Lagoon in Bhubaneshwar and Lotus Resort in Konark are are my go-to places.

Konark & Bhubaneshwar

Sun Temple, Konark

Pushkar : For Insta-worthy travel photography

Any travel photographer is bound to visit Pushkar for images of Indian colours and small town exotica. I travelled in November when the city celebrated a five-day long camel and livestock fair (in 2017, the festival will be organised from October 28 to November 4).

While the serious business of livestock trade survives, there are enough diversions to keep one entertained – camel cart rides, longest moustache competitions, kids performing acrobatics on a tightrope. It is a heady and well-orchestrated spectacle.

On the last day of the fair which falls on Kartik Purnima – an Indian festival, I decided to visit the Pushkar Lake, a sacred spot. I walked past old houses, temples, kitschy cafes and reached the steps leading to the Lake. It was a sight to behold, the whites of the buildings along the lake offset by the vibrant blobs of locals taking a dip in the holy waters.

You can fly to Jaipur and drive down to Pushkar. For stay, Pushkar Resorts is a good option.

Pushkar Lake

Pushkar Lake

Pushkar Camel Fair

Pushkar Camel Fair

Coonoor: For some leisure downtime

The drive up the 36 steep hairpin bends on Nilgiris hills was making me dizzy. “Oh!” I screamed, startled by the appearance of an Indian bison, as it nimbly jumped out from the bushes on the side of the road. Ignoring us and perhaps as afraid of us, the animal quickly crossed the road and disappeared. A biodiversity hotspot, Nilgiris were established as India’s first biosphere reserve in 1986.

After a seven-hour long drive from Bengaluru, we reached Coonoor at dusk. Next morning, I decided to explore the town on foot. Sim’s Park, a botanical garden developed in the late 19th century, contains many unusual species of plants. Walking down the town’s narrow roads, I came across an old church, roadside shrines, undulating tea gardens and quaint houses with stone chimneys – it had all the makings of a peaceful Christmas holiday!

The drive to the Highland tea factory & estate is scenic and offers great views of the Wellington golf course. I found the guided tour on the tea making process pretty interesting!

The Pony craft store at Bicketty (about 10 km away from Coonoor) will appeal to any handicrafts enthusiast. The Culinarium, located next to the store, is a cozy bakery and dining spot with great views of the Ketti valley.

You can fly to either Bengaluru or Coimbatore, and drive down to Coonoor. Wallwood Garden, a charming heritage villa, is a recommended stay option.

Tea gardens at Upper Coonoor

Tea gardens at Upper Coonoor

 
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