Dating over 5000 years, India is one of the oldest civilisations in the world. Home to the second largest population in the world – around of the 6th of the world’s total overall – and the 7th largest by size, India is a hugely diverse country, with thousands of languages being spoken and different ways of life being practiced all over the country.
As a result of its long and varied history, India contains a number of fascinating historic sites, including over 300,000 mosques and 2 million Hindu temples. Here’s a selection of 10 sites which make for essential visiting.
The Taj Mahal is an iconic structure UNESCO World Heritage site in the city of Agra. Built between 1631 and 1654, the construction of the Taj Mahal was ordered by the ruling emperor Sha Jahan as a mausoleum for his favourite wife, Empress Mumtaz Mahal. The white marble structure, with its central dome flanked by arches and smaller domes as well as minarets, is famed for its incredible symmetry and opulent design. Inside, the Taj Mahal is lavishly decorated with plant life imagery and Koranic calligraphy, each aspect of which is entirely individual. In fact, it is believed that approximately 20,000 workers were needed to create the Taj Mahal.
Visitors to the Taj Mahal can enter the main mausoleum (although generally not the underground floors) and also enjoy its incredible gardens and reflective lakes. Nearby are several other beautiful buildings including the Taj Mahal’s mosque and the Jilaukhana gated complex.
Inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage list, the Brihadisvara Temple of Tanjore is one of several spectacular Hindu temples built by the leaders of the Chola Empire.
Built from 1003 to 1010 during the reign of Rajaraja I, the Brihadisvara Temple was constructed in honour of the Hindu deity Shiva (Siva). It is an incredibly ornate and grand primarily granite structure, with seemingly endless sculptures and carvings chronicling the deity’s life as well as that of other holy figures.
The Agra Fort is one of India’s most impressive and important forts and palaces, close to the Taj Mahal. Primarily intended as a military structure, the Agra Fort is made up of 20 metre high walls with a circumference of 2.5 kilometres. However, the fort was later transformed into a city unto itself expanding into a labyrinth of red sandstone buildings, including a palace, a mosque, homes, halls, and monuments.
Incredibly well-preserved, the fort is a UNESCO World Heritage site. In addition to the fort itself, some of the most impressive structures within the Agra Fort complex include the Diwan-i-Am or ‘Hall of Public Audiences’, from which Shah Jahan conducted state business, the 17th century Nagina Masjid or ‘Gem Mosque’, and the mirror encrusted Shish Mahal palace. The Anguri Bagh gardens are also very beautiful, having been extensively restored.
The National Gandhi Museum in New Delhi is a museum dedicated to the life and philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi. Mahatma Gandhi (1869 – 1948) was a barrister who dedicated much of his life to campaigning for human rights, first in South Africa, then in his native India. Gandhi is famous for his belief in the principles of using non-violent engagement, such as protesting and non-cooperation, in order to achieve political and social change. After working in South Africa, Gandhi returned to India, where he led the nationalist movement which eventually led to India’s independence from British rule.
The National Gandhi Museum was established not long after Gandhi was assassinated by a Hindu extremist in 1948. The National Gandhi Museum is a good introduction to the man considered by many to be the “father of the nation”, displaying photographs, items belonging to Gandhi, and documents and explanations relating to his beliefs.
The Red Fort (Lal Quila) in Delhi was originally built in 1639 by the fifth Emperor of India’s Mughal Dynasty, Shahjahan, when he moved India’s capital from Agra to Delhi. The Red Fort, which derives its name from the red sandstone bricks which make up its protective walls, was built as Shahjahan’s new palace and as a defensive structure. The walls of the Red Fort are an imposing sight, rising up to 33 metres in places, and featuring ornate carvings, domes, and minarets. In addition to the Red Fort itself, the historic Red Fort Complex is made up of palaces, gardens, halls, monuments, mosques, and even another fort, Salimgarh.
The Red Fort Complex took almost a decade to complete and covers a staggering 120 acres, at one time holding a population of 3,000 people. Its architecture is considered to be a testament to the creativity of the Mughals, enriched by Persian, European and Indian imagery. The Red Fort Complex consists of numerous impressive structures, including the Diwan-i-Am or Hall of Public Audience, once the home of the royal throne and the private apartments along the Stream of Paradise or ‘Nahr-i-Behisht’, as well as several other palaces and even the Chhatta Chowk, or palace market. All of these are placed within strict geometrical lines within the Red Fort Complex’s distinctive octagonal shape.
Hawa Mahal in Jaipur, translated as the Palace of the Winds, was built in 1799 for the Maharaja Sawai Pratap Singh. Constructed of fiery sandstone with an intricate façade that rises into a curve, Hawa Mahal is a striking structure. Indeed, one of the most prominent features of Hawa Mahal is its large lattice of 935 tiny windows. These were built in this way in order to allow the women of Hawa Mahal to look outside whilst being able to maintain their modesty. This was necessary at the time as the women were required to observe a purdah – meaning to remain covered.
The interior of Hawa Mahal is far less ostentatious than the outside may imply and in fact some of the levels are very small indeed. Nevertheless, it is worth climbing to the top of the palace for the fantastic views.
Once the capital city of the Chandela Dynasty, today Khajuraho is best known for its exceptional temples which are considered to be among the best examples of medieval Indian architecture. The Khajuraho temples were largely constructed between 950AD and 1050AD and actually represent two separate religions, with some being Hindu temples while the others are Jain temples. The temples are probably best known for their erotic art; however, this decoration is often shown out of context and in fact the decorative friezes depict all aspects of life both secular and spiritual.
The Chandela Dynasty ended with the coming of the Mughals; however, the relative isolation of Khajuraho meant that many of the temples escaped destruction. Rediscovered in 1838 by British army captain TS Burt, he noted of the amorous decorations that: “The sculptor had at times allowed his subject to grow a little warmer than there was any absolute necessity for his doing.” Of the 85 original Khajuraho temples, 22 survive today – these are split into three main groups. The western group of temples is best known and includes the famous Kandariya Mahadev temple as well as the granite Chaunsat Yogini temple. Other Khajuraho temples in the western group include Chitragupta, Vishwanath, Varaha, Matangeswara and Nandi.
Humayun’s Tomb or The Tomb of Humayun is the mausoleum of the second emperor of the Mughal Dynasty, Humayun. It is is a solitary irregular-octagonal structure made up of red sandstone crowned by a marble dome and set on a wide platform amidst a large garden area. Humayum was the ruler of over one million square kilometres, encompassing modern Pakistan, Afghanistan, and parts of northern India, with his reign spanning from 1530 to 1540 and from 1555 to 1556.
Humayun’s Tomb represents the first garden tomb in India and inspired future designs, including the iconic Taj Mahal. Despite the fact that Humayun’s Tomb was the first of its kind, it is considered to be a magnificent example of Mughal architecture, a status which has earned it a place on the UNESCO World Heritage List. It was Humayun’s wife, Biga Begum, who commissioned the building of his tomb in 1562. Over time, Humayun’s Tomb came to house several other members of the Dynasty and now contains around 150 graves.
The Qutub Complex (Qutb Complex) in southern Delhi is made up of a series of religious and cultural buildings and structures, many of which date back to the Slave Dynasty (thirteenth century). The Qutub Complex is located in the Mehrauli, once known as Lal Kot, a city which dates back to 1060 when it was founded by the Tomar Rajput ruler, Anang Pal. One of the first buildings constructed as part of the Qutub Complex was the Might of Islam Mosque. In the centre of the mosque is an ancient iron pillar believed to date back to the fourth century AD.
The most famous building in the Qutub Complex, the Qutub Minar, is a looming sandstone minaret known for its incredible height and ornate carvings. Its construction began in around 1202. When it was completed in 1368, Qutub Minar reached a height of 72.5 metres, making it the tallest “skyscraper” of its time, and it remains the tallest sandstone tower in India. The Qutub Minar has since been damaged by lightning on several occasions and its upper floors were subsequently rebuilt, most notably in 1328, 1368 and in 1503, when it was enlarged.
The Jaisalmer Fort, sometimes called Sonar Quila, was a twelfth century fortified city which sits atop Trikuta Hill in Jaisalmer in India. Built in 1156, the Jaisalmer Fort was the creation of Rawal Jaisal, king of the fearsome Bhatti Rajput warriors.
Within its impressive 30-foot high sandstone walls, which are defended by almost a hundred bastions, lies a labyrinth of buildings such as palaces, homes and temples. Many of the structures in the Jaisalmer Fort are adorned with intricate mosaics and carved stone, adding to the beauty of this ghostly site. People still live in Jaisalmer, but it has recently been reported that the fort is in great danger of erosion, partly due to the popularity of the site and also inadequate drainage.