Last Diwali, the air quality in the national capital deteriorated to alarming, hazardous levels. In the days that followed the festival, Delhi woke to blankets of smog and gloomy news reports of toxic pollution and of being among the cities with the worst air in the world. Rising pollution had far-reaching effects on city life: visibility on the streets was hampered, schools were closed down, construction work was halted, and residents’ health was affected. Unable to bear the torment, many residents escaped the city for greener, cleaner climes.
It is unclear if this Diwali, Delhi will witness a repeat of the depressing past. The Supreme Court has suspended the sale of firecrackers during the festival, calling them as a major contributor of pollution in the capital. “Let’s try out at least one Diwali without firecrackers,” one judge said.
But if you’re still considering leaving the city, and avoid obvious health complications from the noxious pollution, here are six places you can escape to.
Explore the mansions of Churu and Ramgarh, Rajasthan
A four-hour train ride away from Delhi, Churu is a sleepy, 400-year-old Rajasthani town on the fringes of the desert. Spend a few days at Malji ka Kamra – a flamboyant mint green, century-old haveli, now restored as a hotel – exploring Shekhawati’s intricately frescoed havelis. Churu is dotted with the remains of once-grand structures. Some, such as the twin havelies of the Surana brothers, date back to 1871 and still boast paintings and intricately carved doorways. Drive to neighbouring Ramgarh, with over 300 havelis and a cluster of cenotaphs with patterned roofs. Sample hot kachoris on the street, and at night, lie back on the open-air terrace of your hotel, looking up at a clear sky of stars, unobstructed by city smog.
Experience farm life at Punjabiyat, Punjab
Set in the lush farmlands of Punjab, Punjabiyat is a farm stay that offers a much-needed reprieve for city slickers. An hour away from Amritsar, four rustic, comfortable cottages with mud-plastered walls look out onto the wheat fields of a working farm in the Saidowal-Gunopur village. Take long walks through the fields, cycle through the village, ride the tractor and let the children try their hand at various farm activities. Days can be as active or laid back as you choose. Take excursions to the gurdwara or Amristsar, or just lounge with cups of ginger tea on the porch. Like everywhere in Punjab, meals of creamy lassi, stuffed parathas, veggies and kebabs are hearty, with the added bonus of being farm-fresh.
Hike trails beyond McLeodganj, Himachal Pradesh
Dharamshala and McLeodganj remain popular getaways from Delhi for their monasteries, cafés and curio shop-lined streets. Beyond the main market stretches, trails cut through the forested mountains to quieter enclaves. Trek through pine forests to the nearby village of Dharmkot, where the many cafes offer a good hot beverage before further walks to bucolic meadows and small waterfalls. The Tushita Centre offers courses on Buddhism as well as drop-in guided meditation sessions. Half an hour from McLeodganj, explore traditional Tibetan arts and the doll museum at the Norbulingka Institute. Sometimes skilled artists are at work here creating thangka paintings.
Take in the colonial charms of Landour, Uttarakhand
A quiet cantonment town just five kilometres away from the tourist traps of Mussoorie, but with cafes serving pancakes and plenty of outdoor trails to keep children engaged, Landour is the perfect antidote to Delhi’s smog-choked streets. In a throwback to the Raj era, colonial bungalows and churches define the town’s narrow streets. Take long walks through trails of deodar and pine, trek to the popular view point Lal Tibba, and visit St. Paul’s Church. When hunger strikes, head to Char Dukan, where a clutch of cafes serve pancakes and ginger lemon honey tea. With its cheery façade adorned with Tibetan motifs, Doma’s Inn is hard to miss, and offers a comfortable stay in cozy wood-lined rooms. Make the steep climb to Sisters Bazaar – a little market selling a handful of yak hair products and local produce such as apricot and gooseberry jams and preserves.
Try a Himalayan homestay at Jilling Terraces, Uttarakhand
Getting to this 80-year-old cottage in Kumaon involves a steep two-kilometre trek from Matial village that winds along mountain paths, through forests of oak and rhododendron. What lies at the end is well worth the labour: a rustic home shielded within acres of forest, expansive views of layered Himalayan peaks, including the Nanda Devi – India’s second highest peak. Rooms, like Kafal and Buransh, are named for berries and flowers found in the region. Spend days hiking through the wilderness with views of the South Gola range, dine on locally-sourced produce, and keep an eye out for the local variety of bird and animal life. In the evenings, retire by the fireplace with a book and, in a welcome respite from city noises, enjoy the sounds of the wilderness.
Relish the mountain vistas and art at Naggar, Himachal Pradesh
While Manali is likely to be overrun during the holidays, nearby Naggar, where the Beas flows in the shadow of Himalayan peaks, offers plenty of quietude. Russian artist Nicholas Roerich immortalised the mountainscape in his paintings, and made these peaks his home from 1928 until his death in 1947. Set high above the village, reached through forests of pine, the Roerich Estate is the family’s preserved double-storey home. Browse through Nicholas and his son Svetoslav’s paintings displayed in a little gallery, and visit the memorial within the estate. Wander the grounds, taking in the Himalayan views and bracing mountain air. Naggar lends itself to lazy days spent by the riverside and on meandering walks. Explore the 15th century Naggar castle, built in typical pahari style with stone and wood, when the town was the capital of the Kullu Valley.