Of over a thousand UNESCO World Heritage sites around the world, 38 are found in India. Destinations like the Taj Mahal and the pink city of Jaipur are frequented, but many others remain overlooked by travelers. A spontaneous trip to one of India’s smaller UNESCO sites reminded me of how much more there is to gain by exploring lesser-known destinations.

The journey began in Hampi, a well-trodden heritage site dotted with some 1,600 archeological remnants of the Vijayanagara Empire. The ruins range from forts and royal complexes to temples and shrines, all testament to the last great Hindu kingdom of South India. We thought we hit the jackpot in Hampi, its ruins crumbled across the horizon in all directions amidst countless boulders. But a pair of fellow rock climbers invited us to Badami, a less-visited neighbor with its own UNESCO site and a “softer” sandstone climbing crag. With the main temples visited and our fingers sore from sharp granite, we accepted.

badami temples ankur p
Photo by Ankur P.

We boarded a local bus with new friends and zero expectations. Hampi’s seemingly endless boulder fields disappeared. We talked as the landscape rolled on, forgetting about our destination until sandstone escarpments loomed ahead. Badami lay at the foot of these cliffs, its dusty main road flanked by faded pastel buildings. The bus left us at a depot in the bustling heart of town, so we checked into the first hotel we found and stumbled into the hole-in-the-wall restaurant next door. 

The owner of Krishnabhavan nodded as we squeezed through the entrance. We sat on plastic stools and waited patiently for menus. His back was turned to us as he lit the candle of a puja offering. Just as we dared to interrupt, he disappeared into the kitchen. He sailed out moments later with four large and circular thali dishes. Each one was dolloped with a vegetable curry, daal lentils, and pickled beetroot. Then, he zipped into the kitchen once more for a basket of steaming chapathi bread. It was a satisfying meal, but he soon reappeared with a copper Balti bucket of seconds. Hands saucy and mouths full, we simply nodded. 

The dinner went on in this fashion — our host disappearing into the kitchen and reemerging with refills. We were shocked when the bill finally came. Everything cost $1.50 USD each. We left thanking the owner profusely but he pointed modestly towards the kitchen where several women sat on low stools, chopping vegetables and kneading chapati. We thanked them with clasped hands and humble namastes.

badami temples bharathram pattabhiraman
Photo by Bharathram Pattabhiraman.

We were in desperate need of a walk the morning after our feast. We ventured to the cave temples of Badami, a popular Hindu pilgrimage site amongst Indian travelers, but one that is less-frequented by foreign tourists. This UNESCO World Heritage complex of Hindi and Jain cave temples was built by the Chalukya dynasty that ruled over the southwestern state of Karnataka from the sixth to eighth centuries AD. 

Though the temple complex is much smaller than the likes of Hampi, it was striking in its own way. The caves were carved into a prominent cliff face during the earliest part of the Chalukya reign. We paid the 100 rupee ($1.50 USD) admission and clambered up some stairs past a sentinel of monkeys. The first temple appeared — a rectangular cave mouth propped up by intricately carved pillars. Standing resiliently beneath a mountain of sandstone, the pillars were as much a feat of engineering as a work of art. We entered the temple to find every surface decadently carved. The floors were polished smooth by centuries of worshipping feet. We explored four caves, each adorned with Hindu gods and goddesses — Dancing Shiva, Parvati, Harihara, and Vishnu — their figures frozen in sandstone and time.

We had come to Badami to explore other rock features too. Badami’s climbing crag is tucked away in the same sandstone escarpment, just like the UNESCO cave temples. Neither widely visited nor popular with the locals, it has attracted intrepid climbers from all over the world thanks to India’s growing climbing community. We hiked our ropes and gear through the hanging laundry and roaming goats of a local neighborhood, past curious gazes and playing children and up into the cliffs. We met some Indian climbers who pointed out the best routes and invited us to dinner, setting the rhythm for the week. We climbed together and then ate together, sharing every single meal in one family restaurant.

india sites ankur p
Photo by Ankur P.

We found Sri Veerbhadreshwar Lingayat Khanavali in an orange and baby blue building on Badami’s main road. The cosy room had four plastic tables and red plastic chairs that matched Hindu posters tacked on the cement walls. A TV hovered above the doorway playing Indian soap operas. Though the setting was modest, our first bites revealed food full of soul. Our Indian friends explained the concept behind such restaurants: to serve an unlimited home cooked meal at an affordable price. The food was served on a traditional thali plate with a combination of dishes dolloped on. There was a curry of the day, a vegetable side dish, and a salad of raw onion, cucumber, and carrot. Fixings included pickled vegetables, chilli sauces, and yogurt known as raita. Each meal was served with bread–either jowar rottis or chapathis—and the portions were endless.

Dinner at Sri Veerbhadreshwar became part of our Badami routine. We would arrive exhausted from climbing, fueled only by energy bars, nuts, and coffee. After a warm greeting from Mr. Mallu Sudi and his family, we would line up to wash our chalky hands in the outdoor sink and sit down to a trove of family treasures—recipes safeguarded and passed down for generations.

badami temples ankur p
Photo by Ankur P.

Before our last meal, I crouched on the kitchen floor, chopping and laughing with the women of the household. Using few words, they showed me how they cook with the senses instead of precise measurements.

A few dishes stood out: yenne gayi (eggplant stuffed with ground nuts and spices), paddu (onions and chills in fermented rice batter dipped in coconut chutney), and bendi masala (okra and green chillies fried in spice mix). Each meal was accompanied with a different rice dish ranging from masala to jeera rice. The dessert changed daily and included obbatu (South Indian sweet bread filled with lentils, coconut, and jaggery–served hot with ghee) and kheer (rice pudding with raisins and cardamom).

The benefits of visiting lesser-known UNESCO sites go far beyond perks like shorter lines and lower entrance fees. Visiting Badami allowed us to support the preservation of an important heritage site. Staying for a week gave us the chance to put our finger on the pulse of an authentic Indian town and connect with members of the Indian climbing community. It also gave us a taste of the region’s home cooking and local hospitality. I walked away from this chance experience in Badami with inspiration to stray off the beaten path—and a handful of treasured recipes.

Which little-known UNESCO sites have you visited?

Header photo by Girish Gopi.