India is the world’s seventh-largest country stretching from the high mountains of the Himalayas to the tropical greenery of Kerala, and from the sacred Ganges to the sands of the Thar desert. Its more than one billion inhabitants are divided into two thousand ethnic groups and speak over 200 different languages.
1. Taj Mahal
The Taj Mahal in Agra is an immense mausoleum of white marble, built between 1632 and 1653 by order of the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his favorite wife. Called “a teardrop on the cheek of eternity” it is one of the masterpieces of Mughal architecture, and one of the great tourist attractions in India. Besides the white domed marble mausoleum the Taj Mahal includes several other beautiful buildings, reflecting pools, and extensive ornamental gardens with flowering trees and bushes.
Situated on the banks of the River Ganges, Varanasi is sacred to Hindus, Buddhists and Jains and also one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. In many ways Varanasi epitomizes the very best and worst aspects of India, and it can be a little overwhelming. The scene of pilgrims doing their devotions in the River Ganges at sunrise set against the backdrop of the centuries old temples is probably one of the most impressive sights in the world.
3. Ellora Caves
Cave art is taken to new heights at Ellora Caves, one of the largest monastery-temple cave complexes in the world cut from rock. Ellora has 100 caves, though only 34 are open to the public. The largest single monolithic rock excavation is found at the Kailasa Temple, which covers an area double the size of Parthenon in Athens Constructed between the seventh and ninth centuries, the caves are devoted to Hindu, Budhist and Jainism deities.
Located in Rajasthan’s remote westernmost corner close to the border with Pakistan, Jaisalmer is the quintessential desert town. The yellow sandstone walls of the “Golden City” rise from the Thar desert like a scene from the Arabian Nights while the Jaisalmer Fort crowns the city. Uncontrolled commercialism has dampened the romantic vision of Jaisalmer, but even with all the touts and tour buses, it remains one of the most popular tourist attractions in India.
5. Harmandir Sahib
The Harmandir Sahib, better known as the Golden Temple is the main tourist attraction in Amritsar, and the most important religious place to the Sikhs. Construction of the temple was begun by Guru Ramdas ji. in the 16th century. In the 19th century, Maharaja Ranjit Singh the upper floors of the temple were covered with gold. It’s a stunning temple, and always full of thousands of pilgrims from all over India, excited to be at a place that they usually only see on television.
6. Virupaksha Temple
The Virupaksha Temple in the city of Hampi started out as a small shrine and grew into a large complex under the Vijayanagara rulers. It is believed that this temple has been functioning uninterruptedly ever since the small shrine was built in the 7th century AD which makes it one of the oldest functioning Hindu temples in India.
7. Lake Palace
The Lake Palace in Lake Pichola in the city of Udaipur was built as a royal summer palace in the 18th century. Today it is a luxury 5 Star hotel, operating under the “Taj Hotels Resorts and Palaces”. The Lake Palace hotel operates a boat which transports guests to the hotel from a jetty at the City Palace on the east bank of Lake Pichola. The palace became famous in 1983 when it was featured in the James Bond film Octopussy, as the home of titular character.
The Khajuraho group of temples combines art with eroticism, with the end result being some of the finest medieval temple art, not only in India, but the world. Built around the 10th century, only about 25 of the original 85 temples remain today. The largest group of Hindu and Jain temples in the world, the carvings and sculptures represent women’s traditional lifestyles in medieval times. The sculptures were created at a time, when erotic art was auspicious; some of the carvings are sexually explicit.
9. Meenakshi Amman Temple
Meenakshi Amman Temple is an impressive Hindu temple that dates back to the sixth century, though most of the present structure was built a thousand years later. Located on the Vaigai River , it is perhaps the most important temple in Madurai, itself a 2,500-year-old city. Intricate carvings about inside and out; the temple has a total of 14 towers, each dedicated to a god or person. Some 33,000 sculptures as well as rich paintings can be found in the temple complex.
10. Amber Fort
Amber Fort, the main tourist attraction around Jaipur, is known for its outstanding architecture. Sitting atop a hill, the complex is a blend of Hindu and Rajput styles. Built in the late 16th century, pink and red sandstone and marble structure has been featured in Bollywood films. It is most famous for the Mirror Palace, a fabulous room with a pure glass ceiling so the queen could view the stars before she fell asleep. Access is by foot, 4WD vehicle or elephant.
11. Mehrangarh Fort
Mehrangarh Fort is a most imposing, a stern-looking fort, one of the largest in India, that sits atop a hill overlooking Jodhpur. Built in the mid-15th century as a defense mechanism, visitors can still see cannonball imprints on one of the seven entrance gates. Once inside the walls, visitors will find beautiful, highly decorated palaces. The fort’s museum has an excellent collection of palanquins, musical instruments, royal cradles and costumes. The ramparts, where an old cannon is located, provide splendid views of Jodhpur.
12. Mysore Palace
Visitors to Mysore Palace are in for an awesome experience at sthe second most popular tourist attraction in India. The seven palaces that make up the Mysore Palace complex are nothing short of spectacular. The Wodeyars ruled Mysore from 1399 to 1950. Their original palace was built in 1399, and the current palace was completed in 1912. The new palace is an amalgamation of Muslim, Hindu, Gothic and Raiput styles. Three stories high, it has deep pink marble domes and an ivory tower. The palace hosts an annual arts and culture festival, Dashara annually.
13. Thikse Monastery
Travelers who’ve been to Tibet may think they’re seeing things when they look at Thikse Monastery. That’s because the 12-story building resembles the Potala Palace in Lhasa, only this Buddhist monastery is located in Ladakh, India. Like its Tibetan inspiration, it’s located at a high elevation: 3,600 meters (11,800 feet). Ladakh’s largest monastery also contains the tallest statue, a 14-meter (45-foot) high depiction of Maitreya, housed in a temple commemorating the visit of the Dalai Lama in 1970. Important Buddhist art, such as stupas and wall paintings, can be found here.
14. Qutb Minar
Qutb Minar is the second highest brick minaret in the world. The minaret, towering 80 meters (270 feet) into the sky, is made of marble and red sandstone bricks that are carved with sayings from the Koran. Construction took four years, starting in 1193. A circular staircase with 379 steps leads to the top; it is closed to visitors. Quwwat-ul-Islam Mosqueaa, the first mosque built in India, lies at the minaret’s foot. Nearby is the Iron Pillar, so named because it’s made from metals that don’t rust.
15. Varkala Beach
Varkala Beach is popular with travelers who just want to take a break from sightseeing for a while. Its sandy beaches along impressive cliffs are perfect for beachcombing, sunbathing and swimming, just some of the reasons Discovery channel named it one of the top 10 seasonal beaches in the world. It’s also known for its mineral springs; swimming in them is believed to heal ailments and purify one’s sins. Travelers who want to sneak in some sightseeing may enjoy a visit to Janardhana Swami Temple, a 2,000-year-old temple dedicated to Lord Vishnu.
16. Ranakpur Temple
Ranakpur Temple is an imposing and highly decorative Jain temple that is famous for its art and architecture, considered some of the world’s best. Built in the 15th century, it took more than 50 years to construct the temple. One of the largest temples in India, Ranakpur Temple has 29 halls and 80 domes, but is really famous for its 1,444 pillars, of which each one is unique. Statues of deities top each dome. Extremely intricate carvings highlight the interior.
Dharamsala is the home away from home for the Dalai Lama who came here in 1959 after escaping from Tibet. The city also is the home to the Tibetan government in exile. Dharamsala means a spiritual dwelling or place for pilgrims to rest, which is appropriate since so many Tibetans live here. With advance planning, it may be possible to attend one of the Dalai Lamas public teaching sessions. Dharamsala is popular with hiking enthusiasts and travelers interested in yoga and Indian cooking lessons.
18. Bandhavgarh National Park
Seeing wildlife in its habitat is a goal for many travelers. A visit to Bandhavgarh National Park will not disappoint them. One of India’s most popular national parks, Bandhavgarh provides an opportunity to see leopards, barking deer, sloth bears, hyenas, and Indian bison and wolves, but Bengal tigers are definitely the star attraction, even though only 10 percent of visitors may see one. The best time to see wildlife here is early morning or late afternoon.
19. Hawa Mahal
A stunning pick and red sandstone five-story structure stands in the heart of Jaipur. One of the city’s most popular tourist attractions, the Hawa Mahal has a unique purpose. Also known as the Palace of the Wind, it was a place where royal women could view street activities outside while hidden from view. To this end, the pyramid-shaped palace has 953 windows, each with an intricate design. Constructed in 1799, Hawa Mahal is considered an excellent example of Rajputana architecture.
Darjeeling is a town in northeast India that is famous for tea, trains and scenic beauty. Darjeeling tea is thin, light colored, aromatic and soothing to drink. The leaves are grown in the hills around the town. Farther up in the skyline, travelers can see the snow-covered peaks of the Himalayan foothills. Access is by a three-hour car ride from the nearest airport or a seven-hour journey on the Darjeeling Himalayan Railroad, a narrow gauge railway known as the “toy train.”