A visit to India is like a lesson in history, culture and heritage. This vast country’s heritage is so diverse that one can only take in a part of it at a time to get a whole experience. Whether it is the magnificent Himalayas in the north, the serene south-east, the colourful Rajasthan, vibrant Maharashtra, the cultural south, the vast coastline or the beautiful backwaters, every part of the country has a rich history and its own unique culture that will take ages to explore but can be enjoyed even for just a few days.
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1. Delhi-Agra-Rajasthan (Delhi and Rajasthan)
No Indian trip for a foreigner is complete without a trip to the Taj Mahal, the epitome of eternal love and one of the Seven Wonders of the World. This historic monument dates back to the 17th century and is considered an architectural wonder of the Mughal period. Built entirely of white marble and semi-precious stones the Taj Mahal never fails to enthral visitors from all over the world!
A typical Delhi-Agra-Jaipur trip will be of 6-10 days, depending on your tour guide. Starting in Delhi, one can explore the Purana Quila, the Jantar Mantar Observatory and the Red Ford in Delhi on the first day. There is usually a stopover at Sikandara, an old Mughal city on the way to Agra. The next day will include a half-day visit to the Taj Mahal, another stopover at Fatehpur Sikri on the way to Jaipur and finally Jaipur. Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan state, is another rich source of Indian heritage and culture. This vast state has many cities, each with their own unique brand of culture, such as Udaipur, the city of lakes or Pushkar, the holy city or Jaiselmer, the city of Forts. If you are truly looking at Indian heritage, then don’t give this colourful and vibrant state a miss. A visit to each of these main places might take anything between 10 to 20 days, depending on how you travel.
2. Varanasi-Gaya-Rishikesh-Haridwar (Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand)
Varanasi (also known as Kasi or Banaras) in the state of Uttar Pradesh is the hub of religious activity in the country. There is no Hindu that doesn’t dream of or hasn’t visited this holy city. Known to be one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world, this small city is an epitome of Indian culture and traditions. There are many places to visit in Varanasi, one of them being the famous Kasi Vishweswara Temple. Since the city is located on the bank of the holy river Ganga (Ganges), it is dotted with several ghats or stepped banks where people come from all over to take a dip in the river. The city has several forts, museums and other smaller but significant temples. The Ganga-Aarthi in the evening is a must-see as it brings alive the mighty Ganges which is worshipped with oil lamps and colourful flowers to pulsating music. Interestingly, Sarnath, the place from where Buddhism originated, is just 10 kilometres from Varanasi.
Bodh Gaya is the place where Gautam Buddha is believed to have attained enlightenment. The place has several Buddhist temples and at a little distance are the ruins of Nalanda University, one of the world’s oldest and greatest Universities.
Located at the foot of the mighty Himalayas, Rishikesh in Uttarakhand is the centre for Yoga, meditation and spiritual enlightenment. It is considered to be just as holy as the city of Varanasi because of its proximity to the Ganga and also the sacred temples within the city. It is also the hub of adventure sports such as hiking, whitewater rafting, zip lining, camping and safari in the Rajaji National Park.
Haridwar (literally meaning Gateway to God), also in Uttarakhand state, is yet another sacred city for the Hindus. It has a mystical and religious vibe that resonates a thousand times more during the Kumbh Mela, a mega religious festival that is celebrated once every 12 years. Haridwar is the base from which pilgrims start the Chardham yatra to the four holy temples: Gangotri, Yamunotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath. It is said that the holy trinity: Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, have blessed this city with their presence.
Madhurai, Rameswaram and Kanyakumari are all in the state of Tamilnadu. The entire state is known for its vast temples that are considered architectural wonders and date back hundreds of years. Of these, the temples in Tanjore (Brihadeeswara Temple), Kanyakumari (Kumari Amman temple), Madhurai (Meenkashi temple), Rameswaram (Ramanadhaswami Temple), Mahabalipuram (Monolithic rock temples), Chidambaram (Thillai Nataraja temple), Srirangam (Sri Ranganathaswami Temple), Kancheepuram (Kailasanthar, Ekambareshwar Temples), and Thiruvanaikaval (Jambukeswara Temple) are considered exceptionally sacred, historically significant as well as architecturally brilliant. One cannot help being captivated by the sheer size and astounding beauty of these temples. A tour across the length and breadth of the state to cover all these major temples will not take less than 20 days but it is totally worth the time and effort!
4. Allepey-Cochin (Kerala)
Kerala, known fondly as God’s Own Country, is a haven for those looking to get away from the hustle and bustle of city life. Starting off in Cochin, one can explore the Hill Palace Museum, the Bolgatty Palace, the Museum of Kerala Art and History, the Dutch Palace, the Jewish Synagogue, the Willingdon Island, the Fort Cochin and finally finish off at the backwaters on the Marine Drive. Explore the unique Chinese fishing nets or chase the dolphins in the Dolphin Area. Take a unique tour of the spice gardens or visit the Ezattumugham Prakriti Village that is famous for its waterfalls. There are many more waterfalls around Cochin such as the Athirapally falls or the Vazhachal falls. Get breath-taking shots of the sunset at the Cherai beach and learn something about natural fibres at the coir factory or the bamboo factory. One can cover this small state in 4-5 days, if planned properly.
5. Amritsar (Punjab)
Amritsar in Punjab is another vibrant city that has withstood the test of time. Its main attraction is the Golden Temple which is the pride and soul of the Sikhs but doesn’t fail to enthral people of every religion in the world. It is a representation of what Sikhs stand for humbleness, honesty, and hard work.
Apart from the Golden Temple, there are several other attractions in Amritsar:
a. The Jalianwala Bagh: this is place of the heinous mass massacre of Indians by the British on April 13th, 1919 which left 379 people dead and over a thousand wounded.
b. The Wagah Border: the official road border between India and Pakistan where every afternoon the soldiers on both sides have a Beat a Retreat and Change of Guard ceremony.
c. The Durgiana Temple: Dedicated to Goddess Durga, this 100 year old temple looks similar to the Golden Temple but encloses Hindu Idols.
d. The Akal Takht: The highest seat of earthly authority of Khalsa, symbolizing the political sovereignty of the Sikhs.
e. The Tarn Taran: another significant Sikh pilgrimage site which is visited by hundreds of devotees every month on the day of the New Moon.
f. Maharaja Ranjit Singh Museum: this museum is dedicated to Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the valiant king who fought against the Mughals and helped free a major part of Punjab. The museum now has a light and sound show every evening depicting the life of this warrior king.
g. The Bathinda Fort: located in the Malwa region of Punjab, this fort is associated with the history of Sultana Razia’s imprisonment.
6. Puri-Bhubaneswar (Odisha)
Puri in the state of Odisha has a world famous temple dedicated to the Lord Jagannadha, one of Lord Vishnu’s avatars, and his siblings Balabhadra and Subhadra. Close to the famous Puri beach, the temple monument is built on a 10-acre raised platform and is 214 feet tall, the tallest among all temples in the country. Dating back to the 12th century A.D., the temple walls are decorated with beautiful carvings and sculptures in the Kalinga style of architecture. The raised platform on which the main temple is built is believed to be actually a small hill called “Nilgiri” or the blue hill and is surrounded by about 30 or so temples housing other deities. The biggest attraction here is the rice and other dishes that are served to all those who visit the temple any time of the day, which can sometimes go into tens or hundreds of thousands of devotees!
The Konark Temple needs a special mention. This 13th century temple about 35 kilometers northeast of Puri is dedicated to the Sun God and is the only one of its kind. The entire temple is built in the form of a huge chariot with larger-than-life wheels and horses all carved from stone with intricate designing. Hardly anything is left of the temple now due to either natural disasters or human invasions but whatever is worth is certainly worth a visit because one can get an idea of Indian architectural genius from this beautiful structure.
Bhubaneswar is rightly called the city of temples. A modern-day well-planned city with ancient beginnings, Bubhaneswar is home to some very ancient temples such as the Lingaraj Temple, the Mukteshwara Temple, the Ram Mandir, the Chitrakarini Temple, and the ISKCON temple. To get a real feel of the ancient civilization that existed there, visit the Udayagiri and the Dhauligiri Hills, the Ratnagiri Buddhist Excavations, the Khandgiri caves and the Ashokan Rock Edicts, that showcase the Buddhist culture which was earlier followed in this region. Most of these can be covered in two to three days, even at a leisurely pace. To understand more of the heritage of this place, visit the Museum of Tribal Arts & Artifacts and the Odisha State Museum.
7. Kolkata-Chandannagar-Mayapur (West Bengal)
Kolkata (or Calcutta) is truly the culture capital of India. One of the oldest cities in the world, Kolkata has an amazing history which is reflected in its temples, museums, memorials, churches and monuments. Some of the truly historical places which will transport you back a hundred years are the Writer’s Building, the Metcalfe Hall, the Raj Bhavan, the Victoria Memorial, Fort William, the Marble Palace, St. Paul’s Cathedral Church, the Saheed Minar, the Princep Ghat, the Kalighat temple, Belur Math, ISKCON temple and the Birla Mandir. To get a feel of the traditional art and culture, visit the New Market, the Bara Bazaar, the College Street and the Ghariahat Markets which sell everything that is unique to Bengal.
Other than these, the some of the rare places of historical value are:
a) The Lascar Memorial- dedicated to the memory of the 896 Lascars who lost their lives during the World War I fighting for the British Navy. It was inaugurated on 6th February, 1924 by Lord Lytton, the then Governor of Bengal.
b) Toong Church and Nanking Restaurant- a magnificent two-storied structure depicting Colonial architecture on the Tiretta Bazar Street; it later housed the famous Nanking Restaurant, the first Chinese restaurant in India which was also considered a cultural hub.
c) The Calcutta Police Museum- Housed in the family home of Sri Raja Rammohan Roy, this was earlier a police station during the British era and was later converted into a Museum
d) The Belgachia Rajbari- Located inside the Belgachia Milk Colony in North Kolkata, this palace was famous for the rich and famous of Kolkata to get together. It also has a theatre hall where several Bengali plays were staged, including first staging of the famous Ratnabali.
e) The Swing Bridge- this 118-year-old bridge was an engineering marvel, built to connect the main Kidderpore Dock No. 1 with the tidal basin. It moves on a central vertical pivot, swinging open on either side to let ships pass.
f) St. John’s Church- this is the first Parish Church of Bengal and was made the primary cathedral of Kolkata in 1815, which it remained until 1874. Built in 1787, it is one of the oldest public buildings built by the East India Company after Kolkata became the capital of British India.
g) The Town Hall- this majestic building witnessed several historical gatherings over the last 200 years. built in the Pallandian style, it now houses the Kolkata Panorama and a library containing the research works and personal collections of noted historian P.T. Nair.
If you can venture out of the city, the terracotta temples are Bishnupur are a must-see. Visit the Shantiniketan Ashram which is still the home to some of the most eminent artisans of the country. Relax at the Digha and the Mandarmani beaches in the evening.
Chandannagar, located about 35 kilometers north of Kolkata, this unique historical place was a French colony during the 17th century and was made a part of India only in 1954. Some of the important heritage places to see in Chandannagar are the Chandan Nagar Museum, the Patal Bari, the Chandan Nagar Strand, the Sacred Heart Church and the Nandadula Temple.
Mayapur is a small town based on the junction of the rivers Ganga and Jalangi. It is believed that Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, considered Lord Krishna’s incarnate, was born here. The Chandrodaya Temple, which was the first temple to be built by ISKCON in this region, is the most famous temple here. Mayapur is about 130 kilometers from Kolkata.
8. Ajanta-Ellora-Khajuraho (Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh)
A heritage tour cannot be complete without a visit to the historical places in Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra.
Ellora, located in Aurangabad district of Maharashtra, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site dating back to the 600-1000 A.D. This awe-inspiring man-made wonder is one of the largest rock-cut monasteries in the world featuring Hindu, Buddhist and Jain influences. The main temple, the Kailash, is the largest single monolithic excavation in the world showcasing amazingly intricate carvings of gods, goddesses and mythological figurines. The entire region has about 100 caves of which 34 are open to the public. Do take out a day to see this truly magnificent cultural heritage site.
Ajanta, yet another man-made marvel, is also a part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site. A series of 30 caves dating back to the 2nd to 5th centuries depict paintings in vivid colours and rock-cut sculptures, mostly of Buddhist influence. History shows that these caves were a resting place for monks and travels in ancient times.
Khajuraho in Madhya Pradesh is a small town famous for groups of temples of Hindu and Jain cultures. Having been neglected for hundreds of years, there are only about 20 of the original 85 temples left now. Built between 950-1050 AD by the kings of the Chandela Dynasty, these temples house sculptures that depict spirituality, meditation, kinship, royalty, sports such as wrestling and most exceptionally, erotic art.
Other places of interest in Khajuraho are: the Devi Jagadamba Temple, the Lakshmana Temple, the Kandariya Mahadeva temple, the Parsvanath Temple, the Chitragupta Temple, the Brahma temple, the Adivart Tribal and Folk Art Museum, the Chaunsat Yogini, the Chaturbhuj Temple, and the Matangeshwar Temple. If you want to delve deeper into the history and heritage of this region, travel another 140 kilometres to reach the historic town of Orchha. This 16th century on the banks of river Betwa is home to several monuments, temples and palaces that seem to have frozen in time. Some of them are the Jehangir Mahal, the Laxmi Narayan Temple, the Chhatris, the Ram Rajya temple, and the Chaturbhuj temple. Relax at the Orchha bird sanctuary of getting adventurous with river rafting on the serene Betwa river.
Gujarat is truly a traveller’s paradise. From the world’s largest white deserts to the largest habitats of Asiatic lions and marine national parks, to historical monuments, breath-taking coasts and ornamental temples of yore, this amazing state has a lot to offer for those looking for a heritage and cultural tour of India. Some of the most famous historical and culturally significant destinations in Gujarat are:
a) The Rani ki Vav, Patan: as the name indicates, this is a great step-well constructed by the Queen of Bhimdeva, Udayamanti in the 11th century AD. The walls of this stupendous well are carved intricately with images of gods and goddess of Hindu mythology. Light shows, cultural events and exhibitions are held here during the Rani ki Vav festival.
b) The Dwarka Temple, Dwarka- This is one the four Dhams (divine abodes of Hindu Gods) in the country. Literally meaning (Road of Significance), Dwarka was the kingdom of Lord Krishna, an incarnate of Lord Vishnu. This massive temple stands on 72 pillars and a plinth that is decorated with intricately carved sculptures.
c) The Somnath Temple, Dwarka- This is one of the 12 Jyothirlingas of Lord Shiva, the temples where the lord is said to have taken a form by himself. There is also a museum that depicts the history of this land and the temple that has withstood several centuries of destruction.
d) The Temples of Polo, Vijayanagara- built between 10th and 15th centuries, these medieval temples depicts several kinds of architecture, including Islamic influences. The main temples in this area are the Sarneshwar Temple, the Lakha Dera Jain temple, and the Shiv Shakti Mandir.
e) Champaner-Pavagadh Archelogical Park- a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the deserted city of Champaner-Pavagadh region has the ruins of several temples, mosques, forts, wells, places, gateways, walls, pavilions, custom houses and palaces of historic origin. The main sites here are the Kavda Masjid and Cenotaph, the Lila Gumbaj ki Masjid, the Lakulisa Temple, the Helica Stepwell, the Jami Masjid and the Pavagadh Fort.
The other places of significance in Gujarat are the Sabarmati Ashram in Gandhinagar, the Gir National Park and the Great Rann of Kutch (White Desert). A place to visit if you are looking for a dose of heritage and culture. The entire state can be covered in a 7-10 days.
10. Hyderabad (Telangana)
The city of Hyderabad, fondly known as the Pearl City, is a mix of modernity and history. This fascinating city has something for everyone of every age and interest. This bustling city still has the age-old charm in its quaint little stores in the old part of the town that sell ancient artifacts, the world-famous “Hyderabadi pearls” and the colourful lac bangles. Some of the ancient monuments to be visited are: the Charminar, the Golconda Fort, the Birla Mandir, the Chowmahalla Palace, the Taj Falakhnuman Palace, the Salarjung Museum, the Qutub Shahi Tombs, the Purani Haveli, the Paigah Tombs, the Sanghi Temple, the Mecca Masjid, the Taramati Baradari, and the Chilkur Balaji Temple. Don’t forget to taste the world-famous Hyderabadi Biryani! The entire city can be covered in 3-4 days and is recommended to tour at a leisurely pace.