India, one of the most populous nations in the world, is also one of the richest in terms of travel treasures. Indian civilization has been around for thousands of years and the wealth accumulated by its rulers is legendary. As a result, they built magnificent palaces and cities. Yet the country is also rich in natural beauty, from mountains, to jungles, to sea coast. Join me on a virtual tour of the best that India has to offer. Later, check out my photo album of these "great" sights.
1. Taj Mahal, Agra
The Taj Mahal, in Agra, India, is the most beautiful building in the world, and the greatest tribute to the power of love in the entire history of man. Its size, its symmetry, and its attention to detail have amazed visitors since its construction, in the seventeenth century. It was commissioned by Shah Jahan, on the death of his beloved and favorite wife, Mahal and serves as her tomb and memorial. The tomb itself is flanked by two mosques, one real and one erected just to preserve the symmetry and balance of the site.
The sight of the Taj Mahal from a distance is awe-inspiring and unforgettable, yet a closer analysis reveals even more splendor. The intricacy of the stonework, the glory of the inlaid precious and semi-precious stones, and the extraordinary calligraphy, are truly magnificent.
Visitors are advised to hire a knowledgeable guide who can explain the symbolism inherent in the building.
Avoid a visit on Fridays when admission is free for Indians, because the crowds are even larger. The Taj is closed on Monday.
While in Agra, there are several other sites which are essential stops for the tourist. They include the Agra Fort, a complex of palaces, halls, and gardens surrounded by fortifications, Sikandra, the Tomb of Akbar, perhaps the greatest of the Mughal emperors, Itimud-ud-Daulah’s Tomb, another tribute to the opulence and architecture of the period, and, finally, just (37 km or 23 miles) west of the city, Fatehpur Sikri, a ghost town, built in the 1500’s by Akbar, and subsequently abandoned.
Delhi, India’s capital city, and one of the oldest cities in the world, is a paradox of old and new, of British (for many years, India was part of the British Empire) and Indian, of rich and poor. The sights of the city can be conveniently divided into three areas, Old Delhi (Shahjahanabad), a walled enclave with narrow streets now populated principally by Muslims, New Delhi, the more modern part of the city which features the elegant and very pompous architecture erected during the period of British rule, and, finally, South Delhi, the suburbs of the city, which house only one notable attraction, the Qutb Complex, with its 70 meter (235 foot) Victory Tower, begun in the 12th century.
In Old Delhi, the major attractions are the Red Fort (Lal Qila), a huge complex built by Shah Jahan, Jama Masjid, the largest mosque in all of Asia, the colorful Chandni Chowk Bazaar, and Raj Ghat, a memorial to Mahatma Ghandi.
Humayun’s Tomb, in New Delhi, was built by Shah Jahan’s great grandfather and is another great testament to love and its power. Also in the new city is the Qutb Minar Tower.
Varanasi, India, is, in the Hindu religion, the home of Shiva, and thus, one of the holiest sites in India. It lies along the sacred Ganges River, about 800 kilometers (500 miles) southeast of Delhi (see above). This is the “true” India, with nearly 100 bathing sites (ghats) along the riverbanks where pilgrims and devotees wade into the water to cleanse themselves (even though the river is one of the most polluted in the world). For these reasons, a boat trip down the Ganges at sunrise is a must. Note also the beautiful palaces and temples which line the river.
Another worthwhile activity involves a visit to the Dashawamedh Ghat to witness the Ganga Fire Arti, a ritual of prayers and fire, accompanied by drums.
Also worthy of a visit is Varanasi’s most significant temple, Kashi Vishwanath, which is devoted to Shiva. Buddha also visited this city, and, at the site of his preaching, Sarnath, the Dhamekh Stupa, built around 500 A.D., rises over 30 meters (100 feet) into the air.
4. Ajanta & Ellora Caves
The Ajanta & Ellora Caves, in the vicinity of Aurangabad, India, east of Bombay (Mumbai), are two of India’s premier attractions. Each can be accessed as a day trip from Aurangabad, or, if time does not permit, one long and arduous day is possible, since the sites are not that far apart. Both locations are UNESCO World Heritage Sites and deservedly so.
The Ajanta Caves are Buddhist in origin and date to as early as the 2nd century B.C., although they were not completed until much later (some were never completed). There are a total of 29 caves, but plan to see only a few unless time is extremely flexible. The caves were hollowed out and decorated with murals and sculptures by Buddhist monks over 700 or so years, using very simple tools. The caves are numbered from east to west. The following are recommended stops because these particular caves offer some of the best examples of the beautiful artwork: Cave 1, with its exquisite murals and its huge Buddha; Cave 2, with beautifully painted ceilings in its inner sanctum; Cave 9, with its rounded windows; Cave 17, with its richly ornate doorway and extensive paintings; and Cave 26, with its reclining Buddha. Note that some of the caves require that footwear be removed, and that no photos are allowed inside the caves.
Before (or after) visiting Ajanta, drive to the observation platform on the opposite side of the river to get the “big picture” of the entire site.
The Ellora Caves are somewhat younger than those at Ajanta. Here there are 34 caves and they were created not only by Buddhist monks (Caves 1-12), but also Hindus (Caves 13-29) and Jains (Caves 30-34). Because of their different origins, visitors have an opportunity to compare the focus and approach of these different religions. Again, it is probably unwise to attempt to see all the caves, so the following are recommended as highlights: Cave 10, the “Carpenter’s Cave” with its Teaching Buddha; Cave 12, with beds and pillows carved from rock; Cave 15, the “Dasha Avatara Cave”, showing Shiva, the divine destroyer, riding in his chariot; Cave 16, the crowning achievement of Ellora, known as the Kailashanatha Temple, a huge complex with its intricate and extremely detailed sculptures; and Cave 32, one of the best representatives of the Jain style which is more ascetic and less elaborate.
5. Udiapur, Rajastan
Udiapur, Rajastan, India, is referred to as the “City of Dawn”. As a result of its location, sprawling along four lakes, and its gleaming white palaces, it exudes a feeling of romance and spirituality. Its City Palace, a huge (the largest of its kind in India) complex of palaces with cream-colored walls, also contains delightful courtyards and gardens. Of note, in the complex, are some beautiful mosaics, and Fateh Prakash, perhaps the prettiest of the palaces, and also a place to dine or have a snack at tea time.
Lake Pichola, the largest of Udiapur’s lakes, has two islands, Jag Niwas, which is dominated by the lovely Lake Palace, now a hotel (and certainly the most romantic spot in the city), Jag Mandir, with its domed palace, Gul Mahal, which was featured in the James Bond movie, Octopussy, and Sahelion Ki Bari (Garden of the Maids of Honor).
The old city, north of the City Palace, makes a pleasant stroll and visitors may want to stop at Jagdish Temple, which dates to the 1650’s.
Udiapur makes a great base of operations for an exploration of the southern part of the province of Rajastan. Some recommended excursion destinations include the following: Ranakpur Temples, which are exquisitely crafted (about 70 km or 45 miles away); Kumbhalgarh Fort, with its 36 km (22 mile) walls and its Palace of Clouds (about 90 km or 55 miles away); Eklingji, a huge complex of some 100 temples (about 20 km or 14 miles away); Dungarpur Palaces, with its gorgeous frescoes (about 120 km or 75 miles south). More distant excursions, for instance, to Mount Abu and its Dilwara Temples, will probably require an overnight stay.
6. Jaipur, Rajastan
Jaipur, Rajastan, is in north central India and often included, with Agra (see #1 above) and Delhi (see #2 above), in what is called the Golden Triangle of tourist sights in India. Jaipur is known as the “Pink City” because of the color of the city walls (actually a terra-cotta color rather than pink). Actually the city is not particularly attractive and contains only one significant attraction, the City Palace, whose “Moon Palace” is still a residence, although the remainder of the complex is now a museum. Notable buildings include the Welcome Palace (Mubarek Mahal), the Armoury,with its excellent collection of weapons, the Hall of Public Audience (Diwan-i-Am), and the Hall of Private Audience (Diwan-i-Khas). Another intriguing sight, for those with an interest in science, is Jantar Mantar, an observatory built in the early 1700’s by Jai Singh, then emperor of the region.
Just outside the city is the famous Amber Fort, about 11 kilometers (7 miles) north. Explore the complex of palaces, gardens, halls, and temples, especially the Mirror Palace (Sheesh Mahal) and the Sukh Mahal (Pleasure Palace).
7. Jodhpur, Rajastan
Jodhpur, the second largest city in Rajastan, India, has an extremely interesting, Medieval, old city, known as the “blue city” because all the buildings are painted the same shade of blue. It is very pleasant to walk, but the majority of sightseeing time in this city should be spent at the Mehrangarh Fort and Museum, built in 1459 and perhaps the most impressive in all of Rajastan, with its soaring walls (120 meters or 400 feet tall), which have never been breached and its great view of the city, and, secondly, at the Umaid Bhawan Palace, with its massive dome, now a hotel, built in the early twentieth century.
Amritsar, India, is the location of India’s most beautiful, most spiritual, and most memorable temple, the Golden Temple. It is the focal core of the Sikh religion and has been for hundreds of years. It is located in the state of Punjab, in the northwestern part of the country, about 400 km (250 miles) from Delhi (see # 15 above).
Inside the temple complex (to enter, visitors are required to leave their shoes, cover their heads, and wash their feet), witnessing a scripture-reading from the Sikh holy book, the Granth Sahib, is extremely impressive and moving (to see the devotion of the worshippers is awe-inspiring). Be sure to visit the Hari Mandir (Divine Temple), the gold-plated building which gives the temple its name, its silver gateway, the Darshani Deorhi, and the dining hall, Guru-ka-Langar, which feeds thousands daily.
West of Varanasi, and a possible excursion from the city, is Khajuraho, a city 620 kilometers (385 miles) southeast of Delhi and 400 kilometers (240 miles) from Varanasi, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, noteworthy for its medieval Hindu temples which date from 950 – 1050 A.D. These temples are particularly famous because of their erotic sculptures. Of the original 80 or so temples, only 24 remain, spread out over an area of about 8 square miles. They were constructed by the Chandela (a group which ruled this area around 1000 A.D.) who were members of the Tantric cult of Buddhism, which preached that gratification of earthly desires is a step toward achieving liberation. Actually, only about 10% of the carvings could be considered erotic (many of them recalling the Kama Sutra), with most of the others portraying the daily lives of these Medieval people. However, there is no question that love is in the air here, and has been for over 1,000 years.
10. The Northern States of Kashmir & Ladakh
Unfortunately, this region, blessed with great natural beauty and, also, many interesting man-made structures, is involved in a border dispute with Pakistan, so is extremely volatile and dangerous to visit, Ladakh much less so than Kashmir. This is the southern edge of the Himalayas with its incredible mountain scenery.