Consider these words from Pankaj Mishra’s Butter Chicken in Ludhiana:
“Elsewhere, I found a ‘fast-food’ restaurant where a pizza was grated Amul Cheese on sliced white bread, and a vegetable burger consisted of tikki slapped between two fruit buns. The restaurant, however, was crowded; duplication, however inept, was paying off. For instance, the muzak at this restaurant, which was of India’s biggest non-film musician: a Rap singer from Lucknow who, by deftly replacing social comment with inane chatter, had turned himself millionaire. Significantly, his most successful album was entitled Main bhi Madonna, roughly translated as Me too Madonna.
Main bhi, Me too: all the pathos of small-town aspiration could seem to lie in these two words.”
Ring a bell? This is an India – a very large chunk of the country in fact – that is the grey area between the busy cities where we work and the pretty countryside where we holiday. It’s made up of small towns where we might go only on occasion, for reasons that have a short life, like a cousin’s wedding or a client meeting. These are towns where we are unlikely to search for a travel discovery or to uncover its past.
‘Heritage’ though, isn’t a word limited to such exotic places as Ladakh, Rajasthan and Pondicherry. Unless we’re talking about sand dunes or glacial peaks, every place inhabited by man has a lovely tapestry of history waiting to be explored. And it’s usually far more rewarding and culturally niche than the spoon-fed destinations of Incredible India campaigns.
Let me start with a couple of disclaimers though. It’s not going to be easy. There won’t be many options of Airbnb or boutique B&Bs, though OYO room signboards have been spotted in Karnal and Kanyakumari alike. No Uber, but also no nightlife to need it for. No funky postcards or souvenirs, but definitely acceptable broadband speeds. So, you need to plan factoring in all these aspects, and make sure you’ve pre-booked the logistics because most small towns aren’t very spontaneity-friendly either.
Finally, to make a foray into small-town India simpler, try weaving in a heritage festival into your holiday calendar. Most state tourism boards are waking up to festivals as a tourist-draw tactic, which means you can get a glimpse of a cluttered half-developed town’s finer details – really everything that is worth knowing – in a presentable form in one neat spot.
Start your journey at the following stations in the upcoming months…
Marghazhi and Village Festival
Until January 29, Tamil Nadu
Less than an hour’s drive south of Chennai, along the East Coast Road in Muttukadu, is the very rustic, very picturesque ‘living-history museum’ called DakshinaChitra Heritage Museum. Every year, starting December end, it organises a cultural heritage festival that goes on for a month with a string of beautiful folk dance performances and a village ambience that respects its local environment. Discover more here.
Murshidabad Heritage Festival
January 28 – 29, West Bengal
Organised by Murshidabad Heritage Development Society, this festival takes the ‘heritage’ aspect seriously. Besides a slew of cultural performances, you can get to travel by boat, undertake a well-structured heritage walk, dig into the local cuisine’s gourmet version, shop at a craft bazaar and attend a heritage seminar too. Click here for more.
Pune Biennale 2017
January 5 – 29, Maharashtra
For those of you who’ve heard so many good things about Pune city but never actually gotten around to seeing anything beyond a bakery and a questionable ashram, this is the perfect chance to see a larger picture. This is the third edition of Pune Biennale and it encompasses the whole city as far as location goes, because the theme this time attempts to transform public spaces into elaborate artworks.
Patiala Heritage Festival
February (Dates to be announced), Punjab
The Patiala Heritage Society started this heritage festival back in 2003 and has since been organising it annually at the iconic Qila Mubarak fort palace in town. There is the usual crafts mela, heritage walk and even an enthusiastic fashion show, but we like it more for the Patiala Gharana performances by some of the maestros of Hindustani Classical Music, held at the Darbar Hall courtyard. Actually, the golf championship is kind of cool too, not very heritage but so typically Chandigarh. Log in here.
Natural Heritage Festival
February 7-8, Uttarakhand
The first of its kind, this one is being organised by the reputed Wildlife Institute of India in Dehradun. A part of the festival will also be held at the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Great Himalayan National Park in Himachal Pradesh. Its prime focus is on the arts, mostly literary, but also fine arts and film. We’re totally looking forward to seeing artists and scientists rub shoulders. Follow them here.