Fascinating beyond your wildest dreams, India is a country that is hard to describe without the use of superlatives. Ancient, mysterious, awe-inspiring, and somewhat overwhelming, this is a destination that everyone should visit at least once in their lifetime.
The country offers something for everyone, from the majesty of the legendary Taj Mahal to a succession of palaces and fortresses and even man-made temple caves carved out of solid mountains; you will never cease to be amazed and impressed by the wonders of India. When you need a break from the sensory over-load of history and architecture you can escape to one of the national parks to see one of the planets most beautiful and endangered animals, the Bengal Tiger, striding through his natural habitat.
1. Ajanta Caves
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The Ajanta Caves are a unique and absolutely mind-blowing UNESCO World Heritage Site. They consist of a series of 29 hand-carved chambers that have been cut out of a solid rock face almost 76 meters above the narrow Waghora stream in Ajanta, about 300 miles east of Mumbai.
Buddhist monks painstakingly chiseled the caves out of the rock over a period spanning from 2AD to around 6BC. More reminiscent of palaces than caves, each of the caves opens into a large hall covered from floor to ceiling with exceptionally detailed paintings depicting the Jataka stories, which tell of Buddha’s previous lives. The ceilings are also beautifully decorated with geometrical and floral patterns. Ajanta Caves are an absolute must-see for any visitor to Mumbai.
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2. Amber Fort
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The famous Amber Fort (aka Amer Fort) dates back to the 16th century and is located about seven miles outside Jaipur. The beautiful fort was built using red and white sandstone and demonstrates the use of both Rajput and Hindu style architecture, adorned with a mixture of Hindu and Muslim style ornamentation. You can tour the fort at your own pace with the help of an audio guide (English or Hindi) – there are several different beautifully decorated halls to admire, including the beautiful Sheesh Mahal (Mirror Hall). The evening Light Show lasts about 50 minutes and tells the story of the history of the fort and Jaipur city.
You can also visit the museum and formal gardens or take an elephant-back ride around the Amber Fort.
3. The Ancient Step Wells
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The Ancient Step Wells of India were built in response to a grave shortage of water outside of the annual monsoon seasons. In order to preserve the abundant rainfall during the monsoons, deep, stepped wells were built all over the dry northern regions of Rajasthan and Gujarat as far back as 550 AD. The vast majority of these impressive structures have fallen into disrepair, but you can see a really excellent example at Adalaj Vav, about 12 miles north of Ahmedabad.
This step well is a full five stories deep and has been beautifully preserved. As you make your way down the series of ornately carved stairs you can see intricate carvings in a combination of Islamic and Hindu styles.
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4. City Palace, Jaipur
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Nestled in the heart of the Old Town, the opulent home of several generations of Indian royalty is a must-see attraction for every visitor to Jaipur.
Originally built in the 1700s, the interior of the palace has seen several additions and changes over the years, and architecture enthusiasts will enjoy the chance to see an excellent combination of Rajastani and Mogul architectural styles.
You can tour at your own pace with the aid of an audio guide or hire a local guide who has all the necessary knowledge to enhance your visit. Inside the beautifully decorated palace there is a textile museum that showcases superb examples of royal finery and a very interesting armory museum. City Palace Map
5. Dudhsagar Falls
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Located in the Bhagwan Mahaveer Sanctuary and Mollem National Park on the border between Goa and Karnataka, the Dudhsagar Falls are an impressive sight to behold. The four-tier waterfall is the tallest in India (1017 feet), and when fed by the monsoon rains it can reach 100 feet wide. However, getting there is not for the faint hearted, and you have to be fairly fit and determined.
You can either make the 10km trek to the falls on foot along a railway line or hire a bike-taxi if you visit during the wet season when the falls are at their most spectacular. Jeep taxis are also available from October onwards when the roads are dryer. The view from the watch tower will be worth all the effort.
6. Ellora Caves
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The remarkable Ellora Caves complex covers an area of over two square kilometers in the Maharashtra province and is essential viewing for all visitors to the area. The cave complex consists of a collection of 34 Buddhist, Jainist, and Brahmanist monolithic temples that have been hand-chiseled out of a mountainside and then filled with delicate art works. The temples were created between the 5th and 10th centuries, and unlike the similar caves at Ajanta, which are all Buddhist, these caves demonstrate remarkable religious tolerance, which was mostly unheard of at the time. Possibly due to a little competition between the artisans, these temples are remarkably elaborate and truly humbling when you consider what resources were available when they were created. You can visit both the Ellora and Ajanta cave sites on a day trip from Mumbai.
7. Great Wall India
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Second only to the Great Wall of China, the amazing Great Wall of India stretches for over 22 miles around the perimeter of the Kumbhalgarh Fort in the Rajsamand province in India. This remarkable miracle of engineering prowess was constructed over 500 years ago at the same time that the fort was built, and together the fort and wall safeguard over 300 ancient temples. The site is an absolute must see, but you will need to be fairly fit to climb to the top, which takes about 40 minutes. To get the most from your visit you should hire a guide to tell you all about the history and legend attached to this amazing UNESCO World Heritage Site.
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From 1336 to 1565 the city of Hampi was the capital of the Vijayanagara Empire in Southern India and is thought to have been home to over 250,000 people, which would have made it the largest city in the world at that time. If you love architecture, you are in for a treat at Hampi, where Indo-Sarasanic architecture prevails, and you will see buildings with stunning geometric designs, popular in Islamic architecture, that are decorated with Hindu carvings and sculptures.
Highlights of your visit will include the superb Virupaksha Temple, the Lotus Mahal, and the wonderful geometric designs of the Stepped Tank. You can reach this unique UNESCO World Heritage site by road from Hubli or via the overnight train from Bangalore.
9. Hawa Mahal
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Another of Jaipur city’s architectural gems, the Hawa Mahal or Palace of the Winds is located in the heart of the city, where it forms part of the famous City Palace. You can visit this beautiful palace, which was built using red and white sandstone in 1799, on several of the Jaipur city tours or simply take a walk to the area to see the wonderful façade, which is best viewed from the street. The beautiful beehive-shaped façade with its thousands of small lattice windows was cleverly designed to allow the women of the palace, including the Maharaja’s harem, to be able to watch life on the streets without being observed by those outside the palace.
10. Humayun's Tomb
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The final resting place of the Emperor Humanyun is an impressive monument built in 1570 in New Delhi. Humayun's Tomb is of considerable significance since it is the first garden tomb to ever be built in India and is thought to have inspired remarkable building innovations that eventually culminated in the spectacular Taj Mahal.
The ornate double-domed mausoleum is surrounded by a serene garden bisected by water channels, which divide the garden into four quadrants and represent the four rivers of Quranic paradise. It is possible to tour the beautiful garden tomb on your own, but you will come away with a far more profound experience if you hire a guide to explain all aspects of this UNESCO World Heritage Site.
11. Jantar Mantar
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If you’ve ever wanted to see what the largest sundial in the world looks like you need to visit Jantar Mantar in Jaipur where Maharajah Jai Singh II built an enormous stone observatory complex in the 1700s. Inside the observatory you can see the world’s most accurate sundial constructed according to the astronomical tables of the famous French mathematician Phillipe de la Hire. The impressive Sumat Yatra stands over 73 feet tall and is constructed entirely out of stone – amazingly, it remains the largest sundial every built and is still in use. You will find Jantar Mantar close to the gates of the famous City Palace in the heart of Jaipur.
12. Kanha Tiger Reserve
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Covering an area of over 360 square miles, the Kanha Tiger Reserve (aka Kanha National Park) is one of the few places in the world where it is still possible to see the magnificent Bengal Tiger in its natural habitat. Besides the tigers, which are doubtlessly the main draw, visitors can also see a good variety of other animals indigenous to India, including the gaur (similar to a buffalo), the Indian Leopard, and several species of deer and smaller animals. You can explore the park on a self-drive safari or choose to experience the park through the eyes of a professional tour guide. There are several options for overnight accommodation, and some of the lodges offer guided safari drives, elephant-back safaris, and guided nature walks.
13. Lodi Gardens
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Lodi Gardens are the perfect place to escape the hustle and bustle of Delhi City for an hour or two, with the added bonus of seeing some beautiful historic tombs that are around 500 years old. The park is well maintained and is a popular outdoor meeting place for locals of all ages, incorporating a pleasant walking track and plenty of room for children to play. You will need a little time to fully admire the two main tombs included within the gardens – both the Mohammad Shah’s tomb (1450) and the final resting place of Sikander Lodi (1571) feature ornate domed mausoleums, a style that is believed to have been brought to India by Turkish sultans from Persia. Several other less elaborate tombs are also dotted throughout the gardens.
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14. Lotus Temple
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The beautiful lotus flower can be seen as a decorative element in many Buddhist temples all over India and beyond, but the stunning Lotus Temple in New Delhi takes the religious symbolism of the lotus to a whole new level. The Lotus-shaped temple or Baha’i House of Worship is a unique modern structure set in manicured gardens, and an average of 8,000 to 10,000 people of all faiths visit it every day. You are encouraged to admire the interior of the Prayer Room (silently...since this is a place for meditation) on a self-guided tour, after which you can visit the Information Center to learn all about the Baha’i religion and the history of the Temple – short introductory films in both Hindi and English are available.
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15. Nek Chand Saini (The Rock Garden of Chandigarh)
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Nek Chand Saini (The Rock Garden of Chandigarh) is a truly unique attraction located in Chandigarh, about three hours by train from New Delhi. Basically, Nek Chand Saini is a sculpture garden and was the (illegal) life’s work of one man for over 30 years. Nek Chand was a government worker with an eye for art; he began by collecting stones and later many other kinds of discarded materials to construct his magical garden of statues, pathways, corridors, and pavilions, each of which will delight visitors with its ingenuity and sense of fun. When Nek Chand finally showed his hidden garden to his superiors he was granted a team of helpers to extend the garden to cover an area of over 30 acres.
16. Periyar National Park
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The Periyar National Park (aka Periyar Tiger Reserve) is located in Kerala, where it covers nearly 600 square miles of preserved habitats, which are home to a wide selection of Indian wildlife and diverse flora. The park is one of 27 tiger reserves in India where you can have the unique opportunity to see a superb Bengal tiger striding though its native environment. The park offers visitors a selection of adventures including Tiger Trekking, (which includes one nights camping in the wild), Bamboo Rafting and boating safaris on the lake and several guided nature walks. There are several options for overnight accommodation, and each and every visitor contributes to eco-tourism and the conservation of the majestic tiger.
17. Qutab Minar
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Qutab Minar is one of the most interesting structures you will encounter as you make your way around the historic city of Delhi. The 239-foot tower (or minaret) was built as far back as 1193 and has withstood the passage of time as well as the elements, surviving to become the tallest minaret in the world. The greater Qutab complex contains other important historic structures including the adjacent Quwwat-ul-Islam Mosque which was built at the same time as the minaret. Both structures are believed to have been built after the defeat of the last Hindu Kingdom by the first Muslim ruler of Delhi. Qutab Minar is essential viewing for anyone interested in ancient history, architecture, and religion.
18. The Root Bridges Cherrapungee
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The Root Bridges Cherrapungee are fascinating viewing for all enquiring minds and especially for anyone with an interest in innovation and engineering. Born out of necessity, these remarkable bridges have been created over decades, utilizing the incredibly tough horizontal roots of the Ficus Elastica rubber tree to help the local War-Khasis tribe to cross the numerous rivers in their area. Essentially, young roots are cleverly manipulated to grow in the required direction until they become long enough and strong enough to form a bridge. To see the bridges you will need to do a 90-minute hike through the jungle from the Cherrapungee Resort where maps and details can be obtained.
19. Shatrunjaya Hill
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On par with the significance of Mecca to Muslims and Jerusalem to Jews, the Shatrunjaya Hill temple complex in Gujarat is a fascinating pilgrimage site for the followers of India’s Jain religion. The complex is an amazing sight to behold and encompasses over 1000 individual temples constructed out of marble, bronze, or stone. The oldest among them were built in the 11th century. However, making a pilgrimage to this sacred site is no easy task – pilgrims (and visitors) have to negotiate nearly 4000 steps to reach the temples, but once you reach the hilltop your strenuous climb will be richly rewarded as you tour the peaceful temples. Visitors are very welcome to visit the site – start out as early as possible to avoid the heat and bring plenty of drinking water.
20. Taj Mahal
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One of the most visited attractions in the world, the magnificent Taj Mahal (aka “the Taj”) is surely the most beautiful and romantic mausoleum in India, if not the world. The elaborate tomb was built between 1631 and 1648 by the Emperor Shah Jahan for his beloved wife Mumtaz Mahal and is universally acknowledged to be the finest example of Mughal architecture, which combines elements of Indian, Persian, and Islamic styles. The striking white marble mausoleum is a symphony of geometry, balance and constraint. A symmetrical Persian-style garden with lawns and waterways surrounds the structure, which is flanked by a mosque and a small museum. You can tour at your own pace with the assistance of a rented audio guide, or you can download an audio guide on your cell phone.
21. Temple of Galtaji
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The Temple of Galtaji is located about seven miles outside Jaipur city, consisting of a large complex of temples and seven bathing pools fed by a spring considered to be sacred to the many Hindu pilgrims who come to bathe in the waters. The main temple is constructed of pink stone, and there are several lesser temples within the complex, including Hanuman’s Temple, which is famous for its resident troop of mischievous monkeys. It is an interesting place to visit, particularly if you love animals – the monkeys are very tame and put on a good show for tourists. In fact, their antics have been featured in a National Geographic film entitled “Rebel Monkeys.”
22. The Blue City
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Like an oasis of shimmering blue, the ancient city of Jodhpur contrasts sharply with the red and gold landscape of the adjoining Thar Desert in Rajasthan.
The Blue City boasts a multitude of beautifully pigmented indigo and azure buildings that run for over six miles alongside the historic walls of the Old Town and can best be appreciated from the top of the 15th century Mehrangarh Fort, which now houses a museum. Once a color associated only with nobility, blue has become the signature color in Jodhpur and is present everywhere you go. The Blue City is a photographers dream – imagine jewel-colored saris, brilliant textiles, bustling markets, and vibrant street scenes. Other highlights of a visit to the Blue City include Jaswant Thada (royal tombs) and the Umaid Bhawan Palace.
23. The Red Fort
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Essential viewing for any visitor to the bustling city of Delhi, the famous Red Fort (aka Mumtaz Mahal) is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a prominent landmark. The red sandstone fortress was built between 1638 and 1648 by the Emperor Shah Jahan and was the primary residence of the emperors of the Mughal Dynasty for over 2000 years. The lavishly appointed palace has largely been plundered of its beautiful marble decorations, but it is still possible to be awed by the architecture, scale, and extent of the complex. You are welcome to tour the fort at your own pace using an audio guide (which can be downloaded from the internet or hired onsite), and guided tours are also available.
24. Bandipur National Park
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Widely regarded as one of India’s best managed and most attractive national parks, Bandipur National Park covers an area of approximately 500 square miles at the foot of the Western Ghat Mountains. The park is home to a good variety of native wild animals, and you may even be lucky enough to come across a tiger or elephant as you tour the park. You are not allowed to bring private vehicles into the park and guided tours are conducted in park vehicles or offered by the resorts located inside the park. There are several choices for overnight accommodation, ranging from the Bandipur Safari Lodge to several private cottages. You are advised to avoid weekends when the park is extremely busy and shyer animal sightings are rare.
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