Despite India’s vastness, foreign travellers tend to clump together in a relatively small number of well-known regions or cities, leaving plenty of destinations to the more intrepid few who are willing to take the challenge of escaping the tourist trail. Here’s a selection of our favourites:
1. Climb to spiritual highs in Palitana, Gujarat
Gujarat is one of most rewarding states to visit in India, yet sees far fewer foreign visitors than neighbouring Rajasthan or Maharashtra. A significant portion of the country’s Jain population, which accounts for a tiny fraction of the whole nation, live in Gujarat, and this small community has produced some of the most spectacular temples in the world.
Walk up the 3500 steps to Palitana, considered the holiest of all Jain sites, and you won’t be disappointed: a fairy-tale marble wonderland of hundreds of gleaming spiralling peach-and-white turrets, with spectacular views over the surrounding countryside.
Once you’ve walked all the way back down, you’ll easily have earned yourself a mouth-watering unlimited thali, another of Gujarat’s highlights.
2. Feel the beat of the ritual drum in Kannur, Kerala
Between November and May each year, evenings in the Kannur region, in northern Kerala, come alive with theyyem rituals. Increasing numbers of travellers are heading here to seek out these intense displays of spirit-possession, but it’s still well off the main Keralan tourist trail.
The several-thousand year old ritual involves locals wearing startling face paint and dressing in elaborate costumes with colossal red headdresses. Their bodies inhabited by deities, the participants dance with increasing passion for hours on end and perform phenomenal, godlike feats, such as rolling in hot ashes.
3. Take a slice of the deep south in Rameshwaram, Tamil Nadu
Just 50km from Sri Lanka, the island of Rameshwaram is accessed from the Indian mainland by a 2km bridge affording epic views over the Gulf of Mannar.
The tiny island is one of the most important Hindu pilgrimage sites in southern India, yet barely visited by tourists. Turquoise waters lap at pristine beaches surrounding the island, and glorious temples dot the scenery inland.
The Ramanathaswamy Temple, dedicated Shiva, the god of destruction, is the main event, with mesmerizing pillared walkways and brightly coloured patterned ceilings. Pretty much year-round strong winds make this an excellent kitesurfing destination too.
4. Chill out on Little Andaman, Andaman Islands
Seek out the most beautiful beaches on the Indian mainland, and you’re also probably going to find an awful lot of people. The Andaman Islands, over a thousand kilometres off the east coast, in the Bay of Bengal and not far from Myanmar, don’t escape the crowds either.
That is, except Little Andaman (actually one of the biggest), the least-visited island of the archipelago and the furthest south tourists can travel.
A tropical climate, crystal-clear waters, stunning reefs, thick jungle bursting with wildlife and the best surfing conditions on the Subcontinent make this remote haven worth the admittedly long and difficult journey.
5. Hike the Himalayas in Spiti, Himachal Pradesh
Way up in the Himalayas, tricky to get to and almost touching the border with Tibet, the Spiti valley is one of the world’s highest and most isolated populated areas.
Surrounded by peaks with an average on 4500m, the scenery is unfailingly dazzling: hanging glaciers, barley fields covered in layers of crisp snow, vast rocky plains and monasteries balanced precariously on rugged mounds.
Buddhist culture, similar to that of Tibet, permeates the peaceful, welcoming communities of the mud-brick hamlets clinging to the mountainsides, and trekking here allows a glimpse into a way of life that's barely changed in centuries.
6. Walk the wilderness in Namdapha National Park, Arunachal Pradesh
In the very northeastern tip of India – the least explored area of this immense country – lies Namdapha National Park, bordering Myanmar’s most northerly point.
Exceptionally rich in biodiversity, with an impressive collection of flora and fauna, the protected area spans a huge range of altitudes, from verdant river valleys at 200m to snow-capped peaks at 4500m.
Don’t forget your binoculars – remote and wild, the virgin forests here are ideal territory for elusive big wildlife such as tigers, snow leopards, red pandas and the endangered Hoolock Gibbons.
7. Gaze at the ghats in Maheshwar, Madhya Pradesh
Varanasi is famous for the sacred rituals on the banks of the River Ganges and the religious intensity that saturates the city. If you want to find a similar atmosphere but without the hordes of tourists, head to Maheshwar, a thousand kilometres west, in Madhya Pradesh.
On the banks of the holy Narmada River, Maheshwar is an important pilgrimage point for Hindus, and was mentioned in the epic ancient stories of the Mahabharata and Ramayana.
The enthralling town is lined with temples and colourful houses overlooked by a grand eighteenth-century fort. A wander down to the ghats makes for a very absorbing stroll – you’ll find a hub of spiritual activity, with pilgrims bathing in the holy waters while orange-clad sadhus sit on the shore praying.