Winter trips in India need not only be about escaping to sunny beaches or playing in the snow at the nearest hill station. The season brings with it the promise of snowy vistas, exciting cultural experiences, festivals and wildlife sightings. From winter sports and hair-raising treks to musical extravangazas and local festivals, here are some of the season's most mesmerising experiences.
Every winter, thousands of demoiselle cranes fly to the village of Khichan in Rajasthan's Jodhpur district to conclude their annual winter migration from Mongolia and China. The smallest species of cranes in the world, the birds start arriving in the area in September, but their numbers peak in December and January. Called Kurja locally, the cranes are revered by the locals who have built a special feeding enclosure for them. The sight of thousands of the long-necked birds feeding together is a treat for bird lovers.
Chadar Trek, Ladakh
The nine-day trek on the frozen Zanskar river in Ladakh is challenging and surreal in equal measure. The arduous trek traverses the villages in the Zanskar valley with stunning views of frozen waterfalls, the towering gorge and the Himalayan night sky en route, and temperatures dropping as low as -20 degree Celsius.
Winter line in Mussoorie
The winter line is such a rare natural phenomenon that it can be seen only in Mussoorie and some parts of Switzerland. Visible only during the winter months, it occurs due to the refraction of sunlight at a certain angle which creates a horizon in shades of grey, orange, red and mauve.
A picturesque meadow in summer, Gulmarg transforms into a winter wonderland in the cooler months. Counted as one of Asia's best ski resorts, Gulmarg boasts of high-altitude powder, the highest gondola in the world and world-class hotels such as the Khyber Himalayan Spa and Resort. The best time for skiing is between December and mid-April.
One of India's best skiing destinations, Auli has gentler slopes as compared to Gulmarg, making it more suitable for skiing newbies. Plus, you get stunning views of Himalayan peaks such as Nanda Devi, Dunagari and Kamet while skiing.
Hemis National Park, Ladakh and Pin Valley National Park, Himachal Pradesh
The endangered snow leopard is a rare sight, as it generally inhabits only the upper slopes of the Himalayas. In winter however, the elusive cat travels to the lower reaches to look for food, which makes it the best season to spot one. Head to the Hemis National Park in Ladakh or the Pin Valley National Park and the Great Himalayan National Park in Himachal Pradesh to try your luck.
Kochi-Muziris Biennale, Cochin
Held every two years, the Kochi-Muziris Biennale transforms the port town of Cochin into a bustling hub of public art, performances and readings for three months. Curated by the acclaimed artist Sudarshan Shetty, the third edition of the contemporary art biennale is currently on and will continue until March. This edition features 97 artists from 31 countries.
International Kite Festival, Ahmedabad
In the second week of January, Ahmedabad's skies are covered with colourful kites of all shapes and sizes, fluttering and fighting each other in a playful bid for supremacy. The International Kite Festival coincides with the harvest festival of Makar Sakranti, and sees kite flyers from other states and countries taking part in the fun. This time, the festival will be held between 8 and 14 January.
Madras music season, Chennai
Come December, and Chennai comes alive with the rhythms of Carnatic music and classical dance. The month-long music festival is held in December and January, with hundreds of concerts or kutcheris and dance performances held at auditoriums, temples and bungalows across the city. Known as the December Season and the Madras Music Festival, it attracts a good mix of seasoned and upcoming artistes. The entire schedule can be viewed here.
Jaipur Literature Festival, Jaipur
A cultural jamboree of writers, poets, journalists, and even film stars and politicians, this five-day festival pulls in large crowds with its illustrious and famous speakers. The tenth edition of the festival will be held from 19 to 23 January , 2017, with speakers such as Richard Flanagan, Vikram Chandra, Mark Tully, Rishi Kapoor and Ritesh Batra. The weather is pleasantly warm, making it the ideal time to explore the Pink City in the mellow winter sun.
Rann Utsav, Great Rann of Kutch
The annual Rann Utsav transforms the Great Rann of Kutch, the world's largest salt marsh, into a colourful stage for the region's dance, music, textiles, handicrafts and cuisine. Visitors can camp in tents, and visit nearby heritage sites and wildlife sanctuaries. This year's festival is on till 20 February, 2017. While you're there, also plan an excursion to the Wild Ass Sanctuary in the Little Rann of Kutch, the only place where you can see the Indian wild ass. In winter, the sanctuary also hosts numerous migratory species of birds.
Keoladeo National Park, Rajasthan
Formerly known as the Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary, this national park and UNESCO World Heritage Site in eastern Rajasthan hosts migratory birds from Siberia, China, Afghanistan and Turkmenistan every winter. The best time for birdwatching is between October and April, when you can spot sarus cranes, Siberian cranes, ospreys, ducks and steppe eagles, and wildlife such as spotted deer, jackals, painted storks and nilgai.
Now in its tenth edition, Sulafest is a heady celebration of wine, indie music and great food, against the picturesque background of the Sula Vineyards in Nashik. Expect an electric atmosphere, with open-air concerts, vineyard tours, grape stomping and pop-up stalls. This year's festival will be held between 3 and 5 February, and features 120 artists, including Indian Ocean, the Ska Vengers and Nucleya.