Hewn out of neighbouring Bihar in 2000 to meet the autonomy demands of the Adivasi (tribal) population, Jharkhand is a land of immense natural and anthropological wealth. However, despite boasting an incredible 40% of the country’s mineral wealth (mostly coal, copper and iron ore), rich forests and cash-rich industrial hubs, it is plagued by poverty, social injustice, corruption, and sporadic outbursts of Maoist and Naxalite violence. For travellers, Jharkhand’s prime attractions are the Jain pilgrimage centre at Parasnath Hill, its national parks, and the chance to explore a relatively tourist-free and unspoilt part of India.
Parasnath Hill – Jain Pilgrimage Centre
For a fabulous off-beat, spiritual experience hike up the holy Parasnath Hill with thousands of Jain pilgrims who do it every morning. Being the highest mountain ridge in Jharkhand at 1336 m, it makes it a scenic Jain pilgrimage centre. This is where 20 of the 24 Jain tirthankars, including Parasnath, at the age of 100 are believed to have reached salvation. Parasnath is most easily reached from Gaya, from where there are frequent trains.
To reach the hill, one has to pass through this small, auspicious temple town of Madhuban, 13 km from Parasnath train station, right at the foot of the mountain. The best part of the experience is the daily pilgrimage that begins from the town at around 4am. The entire hike is a 27 km circuit – up, round and back down – taking about nine hours in total. Hiking while you’re half asleep with hundreds of pilgrims at the break of dawn across the mountain is a big part of the experience with water, chai and snacks available along the way.
You’re most likely to spend a night in Madhuban after the hike, and there’s everything here that you may need for a comfortable stay. There are three or four hotels in town plus numerous dharamsalas and this 1st floor restaurant called Hotel Sapna & Veg Restaurant, towards the top end of the main road at a bend, serves simple South Indian and Punjabi dishes. If you have time at hand in Madhuban, pop into the small Jain Museum, full of kitschy dioramas and other antiques.
Betla National Park
Wild elephants freely roam the forests of this lovely forest, untainted by tourism and spread over the picturesque, hilly landscape of Palamau district, 140 km from Ranchi. Its rare to spot a tiger here, though, 1026 sq km of the forest comprises of the Palamau Tiger Reserve. A trip to this primeval region of Jharkhand however offers a glimpse into the rich tribal heritage of the state. You can spot many other animals here hiding in the forest: such as leopard, antelope, monkey, spotted deer and possibly also some Indian bison.