Ten months, 24 heritage sites and Rs30,000 in their pocket, Hyderabad-based architect couple Parul Sharma and Ajay Saxena redefined budget travelling when they won the coveted 2013 GoUNESCO India challenge. The brainchild of travel enthusiast and marathon runner Ajay Reddy, the GoUNESCO India Challenge invites people to travel to 30 heritage sites across the country within a year. Sharma and Saxena travelled to 24 sites and earned 2400 points.
Parul Sharma and Ajay Saxena
The 28-year-old couple, who originally hail from northern India, (Sharma is from Rajasthan while Saxena is from Uttar Pradesh), moved to Hyderabad two years ago. Though both of them are architects, they managed to take time off their busy schedules and travelled on weekends and holidays. They started with Ajanta and Ellora, then went to Keoladeo National Park and Jantar Mantar in Rajasthan, the Sunderbans, the rock shelters of Bhimbetka in Madhya Pradesh and Hampi in Karnataka. Sharma talks to Rinky Kumar and reveals her favourite places and why every Indian must visit them.
Keoladeo National Park
We went to the Keoladeo National Park or Keoladeo Ghana National Park formerly known as the Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary in Bharatpur, Rajasthan last October. It is a famous avifauna sanctuary that plays host to thousands of birds especially during the summer.
Great egrets take off from a wetland at Keoladeo National Park in Rajasthan. PIC/AFP
Over 230 species of birds are known to have made the National Park their home. It is also a major tourist centre with scores of ornithologists arriving here in the hibernal season. It was declared a protected sanctuary in 1971. This former duck-hunting reserve of the Maharajas is one of the major wintering areas for large numbers of aquatic birds from Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, China and Siberia. Some 364 species of birds, including the rare Siberian crane, have been recorded in the park. We were lucky to see the bird during our visit.
How to get there: The nearest airports are in Delhi and Jaipur. Daily flights are available between Delhi, Jaipur, Mumbai, Varanasi, and Lucknow. The nearest railway station is Bharatpur Junction (five kms). Bharatpur is easily reached by train or bus, although private taxis from New Delhi or Agra can be employed. The Park gate is close to the bus stand and railway station.
Where to stay: There are many high-end and mid-range options available at Bharatpur such as Swarag Resorts, Hotel Sunbird, Hotel Bhartapur Ashok, Tourists Rest House and the Birder’s Inn Resort.
Hampi, a village in Northern Karnataka, is one of my favourite places. I would love to go back to it. The ruins in this heritage area are beautiful. My favourite site is the Vittala Temple. It is the most ornate and lavish of all Hampi temples.
A statue of Narasimha in a temple complex at Hampi. Pic/ Parul Sharma
The Krishna Temple comes a close second because of the beautiful market which once bustled opposite to the temple. It truly is a beautiful site when you see buildings carved in stone nestled among lush greenery. Outside the main city is the palace and the Queen’s Complex. Here, you can see the elephant stables and palace pedestals which once had beautiful palaces over them.
Temples in Hampi boast of rich architectural heritage with intricate carvings. PIC/AFP
The Queen's bath looks plain but it used to be quite detailed from inside before people took their pens to the walls. Still, it is worth a visit. The last spot that one must visit is the Underground temple. Its construction is slightly different than the other temples. Constructed on a slope, it does not rise above ground. With steps leading down to the temple plinth it is as different as an underground temple experience could be.
How to get there: The primary connectivity to Hampi is by road. Rail connection comes second and the air link is a third option. Hospet, a small town located about 12 kilometres (eight miles) from Hampi is the nearest railway station. This is the main gateway to Hampi. Hospet is connected by rail to other important towns such as Bangalore, Bijapur, Hubli , Guntakal ( a major rail junction), Hyderabad and Vasco Da Gama (Goa).
Where to stay: If you are looking at a slightly upmarket place to stay, then you can opt for Hampi’s boulders. Otherwise, the modest options are Shanthi Guesthouse, Mowgli Guesthouse, Padma Guesthouse and Gopi Guesthouse.
Ajanta and Ellora
Last March we did a two-day trip to Ajanta and Ellora in Aurangabad. As it was our first trip, we did adequate research by reading travel blogs and perusing the Internet. At the first cave in Ajanta, we saw a larged carved statue of the reclining Buddha representing his moment of death.
The sleeping Buddha statue at Ajanta. Pic/ Parul Sharma
Below him, his followers mourn his passing; above, celestial beings rejoice. The cave also contains a stupa with an image of the Buddha in a pavilion. Dimly lit and crowded, the cave is still a sight to behold. The Kailashnath Temple is one of the most beautiful monuments that I have ever seen.
Paintings with vibrant colours on the walls of Ellora Caves. Pic/ Parul Sharma
It is a beautiful example of Dravidian architecture due to its striking proportion, elaborate workmanship and sculptural ornamentation of rock-cut architecture. The structure is known for its vertical excavation — carvers started at the top of the original rock, and excavated downward.
How to go: Aurangabad is the nearest railway station, and there are regular trains from Mumbai, Hyderabad, Delhi and Amritsar. There is an overnight train from Mumbai. If you want to travel by a bus, then Aurangabad is the nearest location for inter-state buses. You can travel to Ellora by state transport buses from the Central bus stop in Aurangabad.
Where to stay: There are several luxury and budget hotels in and around the city. The MTDC has a tourist lodge, near the Aurangabad railway station. There is also a youth hostel in the city. At Ellora, the only place to stay is the Hotel Kailas, offering a variety of accommodation. At Fardapur, just five kms from the Ajanta Caves is an MTDC-run holiday resort and a Traveller’s Lodge at Ajanta, right beside the entrance to the Caves.
I hail from Jaipur but I had never been to Jantar Mantar in Rajasthan. It is the largest stone astronomical observatory in the world. This beautiful sight of mathematical precision and exemplary engineering is an architect’s delight. The instruments, most of which we could not even understand, have been here for around 150-200 years.
A giant sundial at the Jantar Mantar observatory. Pic/AFP
We saw the marvellous sight of the shadow moving on the Vrihat Samrat Yantra (Equinoctial Sundial). Planned around 1732, it was completed in 1735. The movement of shadow was quite perceivable in a few minutes. The experience made us realise that time reading can be fun.
How to get there: The city of Jaipur of Rajasthan is easily accessible from the major cities of India, so reaching Jaipur of Rajasthan is not difficult at all. Jaipur of Rajasthan is well-connected by rail, road and air. Jaipur of Rajasthan has a brilliant road network making it easier for people to travel.
Where to stay: Apart from several high-end hotels like the Taj and the Udaivilas Palace, there are many mid-range hotels that one can choose from such as Baba Haveli, Sunder Palace Guest House and Hotel Anurag Villa. One can also opt for the state-run Rajasthan Tourism Hotel.
The Bhimbetka rock shelters in Madhya Pradesh are the least known among all the heritage sites in India. They are an archaeological site of the Paleolithic, exhibiting the earliest traces of human life on the Indian subcontinent, and thus the beginning of the South Asian Stone Age. I was speechless after seeing some of the Stone Age rock paintings that were approximately 30,000 years old. These caves are a site of prehistoric settlement and will definitely take you back in time.
The rock shelters in Bhimbetka have paintings which are over 30,000 years old, drawn with vegetable colours
The oldest paintings are considered to be 30,000 years old, but some of the geometric figures date to as recently as the medieval period. Executed mainly in red and white with the occasional use of green and yellow, with themes taken from the every day events of aeons ago, the scenes usually depict hunting, dancing, music, horse and elephant riders, animals fighting, honey collection, decoration of bodies, disguises, masking and household scenes.
Painted with vegetable colours, animals such as bisons, tigers, lions, wild boars, elephants, antelopes, dogs, lizards and crocodiles have been abundantly depicted in some caves. Popular religious and ritual symbols also occur frequently. The colours endured through time because the drawings were generally made deep inside a niche or on inner walls.
How to get there: Located 40 kms away from Bhopal, one has to take a bus to Obaidullahgunj. After an hour’s journey, one has to take an auto to reach the spot.
Where to stay: One can stay at the state-run Highway Treat.
Tips for budget travelling
Parul Sharma shares some tips on how to travel on a budget:
1) Plan your trip at least six months in advance
2) Prepare an itinerary and share it on Google+. Other people will give you feedback, depending on which you can alter your plan
3) Use only public transport. Also try to walk as much as possible
4) Travel at night, so that you reach the place next morning and save money on one night’s accommodation
5) Stay only in hotels, hostels or guest houses with modest budgets
6) Scout for local joints and eat only local food