Information on India’s UNESCO sites, where to stay near each site and travel tips to navigate your way through India.
By Rachel Reid Holbrook
Agra, Uttar Pradesh, Northern India
India’s “Jewel of Muslim Art,” the Taj Mahal is a giant mausoleum and the most popular destination for visitors to India. An architectural marvel, it is also one of the most exquisitely decorated monuments in the world.
Aurangabad, Maharastra, Western India
Dating from the first and second centuries B.C., this community of 30 rock-cut caves is home to Buddhist art and sculpture. Significant in religious and art history, these caves were home to Buddhist monks under the rule and patronage of Hindu kings.
Aurangabad, Maharastra, Western India
Recognized as a phenomenon in cave-temple architecture, the intricate interiors and detailed facades depict carvings reflecting three faiths: Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism, thus exemplifying the peace most religions enjoyed in ancient India.
Mountain Railways of India
Darjeeling Himalayan Railway: Siliguri-Darjeeling, West Bengal; Northeast India and Nilgiri Mountain Railway:
Mettupalayam-Udagamandalam, Tamil Nadu, South India
The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway was the first Indian mountain railway to be preserved as a World Heritage Site in 1999, with the Nilgiri Mountain Railway following six years later. These railways are two of a very few steam locomotives left in the world. Nicknamed “toy trains,” they chug and hiss their way through scenic routes to the delight of their passengers.
Ancient Buddhist Site, Sarnath
Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, Eastern India
Though it is still on the “tentative” list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, this monument and the city surrounding it are important destinations for history-seeking travelers. As the home of Hindu and Buddhist faiths, the
entire city is spiritually enlightening. Worshippers from both religions make their pilgrimage here to participate in the daily religious rituals.
WHERE TO STAY
Taj Mahal: The Oberoi Amarvilas: The hotel chain is known for luxurious accommodations and offers the best view of the Taj Mahal, a short walk away. www.oberoiamarvilas.com
Taj View Hotel: The Taj chain of hotels has an excellent reputation for quality and service. The Taj View is located three miles from the Taj Mahal. www.tajhotels.com
Trident Hilton, Agra: This hotel boasts the best value and is located one mile from the Taj Mahal. www.trident-hilton.com
Ajanta and Ellora Caves: Travelers are recommended to stay in Aurangabad and arrange day trips to the Ajanta and Ellora Caves.
The Meadows Resort: This sprawling property of cottages is set among gardens and offers tours to Ajanta and Ellora. www.themeadowsresort.com
The Ambassador: The largest hotel in Aurangabad has business amenities and extensive health facilities. www.ambassadorindia.com
Mountain Railways of India: Travelers will begin their journey in Siliguri, but are advised to use this city as a terminal to better accommodations in Darjeeling. Travelers will likely enjoy the colonial influence of this charming Himalayan town.
Shangri-la Regency: The hotel offers a central location and excellent views from the rooftop restaurant. www.shangri-la-regency.com
Mayfair Hotel: The accommodations are scenic and boast an on-site spa. www.mayfairhotels.com
Nilgiri mountain Railway: Travelers will begin their journey in Mettupalayam and board the train to Udagamandalam (nickname Ooty). In addition to the hotel options in Ooty, many travelers opt to stay in the nearby town of Coonoor, located just 10 miles away.
Holiday Inn Gem Park (Ooty) www.ichotelsgroup.com
Sinclairs Hotel (Ooty) www.sinclairshotel.com
Taj Garden Retreat (Coondoor) www.tajhotels.com
Ancient Buddhist Site, Varanasi:
Radisson Hotel: The hotel has a good location, clean rooms and a breakfast buffet. www.radisson.com/varanasiin
Taj Ganges: Secluded from the bustling streets, but still close to the Ganges, this hotel also has fine-dining options. www.tajhotels.com
The winter months are the best time to visit India. Temperatures during the summer sky-rocket to above 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
Taj Mahal: Easily reachable via Delhi on the air-conditioned luxury train, the Shatabdi Express. www.indiatravelite.com/railway/shatabadi.htm
The Taj Mahal now offers moonlight tours — a spectacular, though crowded, way to view the property. www.tajmahaltourism.com
Ajanta and Ellora Caves: Chikalthana is the domestic airport of Aurangabad. It is serviced by Indian Airways, Jet Airways and Air Deccan, and most flights arrive via Mumbai.
Ajanta is located approximately 50 miles from Aurangabad and requires a full day. Ellora Caves are approximately eight miles from Aurangabad and can be visited in half a day. Public transportation is not available to either location, but private cars and drivers are readily available in Aurangabad. www.ajantaelloracaves.in
Mountain Railways of India: Hill-station towns offer a number of options for outdoor enthusiasts. Darjeeling is known for its trekking expeditions, beginner through advanced, through the Himalayan Mountains and tea plantations. www.dhrs.org www.indiatrekkings.com www.travel-himalayas.com
Ooty is home to a number of national parks including Kalhatty Falls, Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary and National Park and Ooty Lake. www.hill-stations-india.com
Ancient Buddhist Site, Varanasi: Varanasi is serviced by the Babatpur Airport, 15 miles away from the city. Airport pick-ups can be arranged through hotels or a local tour operator. The morning ritual that takes place on the Ghats is best observed in the early morning. Visitors should hire a rowboat at the main port just before sunrise and remember their cameras.
The Sarnath Museum in the city center contains an impressive collection of artifacts from Buddhist temples.
Department of Tourism, Government of India
The Pillars of Civilization
Please visit our Guides & Brochures page to browse a full version of our Pillars of Civilization supplement.
India is the cradle of the human race, the birthplace of human speech, the mother of history, the grandmother of legend and the great-grandmother of tradition.” These words, spoken by Mark Twain, capture India’s world-renowned role as a pillar of civilization.
Tokens of ancient India can be seen throughout the country in architecture, monuments and museums, but also in language, rituals and religion. A visit to India presents a multi-dimensional opportunity to witness history and culture as it has been developing for over 9,000 years.
India is the seventh largest country by geographical area and the second most populated country in the world. The size, population and diversity of options can leave visitors feeling overwhelmed by their choices. One easy way to overcome this challenge is to choose destinations based on India’s ancient sites, which are not only historically significant, but also culturally edifying and sprinkled throughout the country.
Much of India’s ancient history is related to its geographic location. Between the East and the West, it was a natural trade route and also an easy target for invaders from all directions. These invasions resulted in a cultural pluralism that is still evident today.
Perhaps the finest symbol of India’s cultural syncretism can be found in the architectural marvel, the Taj Mahal. A sublime melding of Persian, Turkish and Islamic architectural styles, it has induced awe and admiration from spectators for over 350 years. Located in Agra, in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, the Taj Mahal is a UNESCO World Heritage Site as well as one of the seven wonders of the world.
A true Indian landmark, the Taj Mahal fuses history and legend with masterful artistry. Lapis lazuli, coral, jade and moonstone make up the inlaid mosaics that adorn the sparkling white marble structure, which was built to pay homage to the deceased wife of a distraught emperor. This massive mausoleum sits on a complex that includes gardens, a reflecting pool and various other structures.
The Taj Mahal is worthy of its praise and attention, which draw between 2-3 million visitors per year. The Indian government has taken precautions in preserving their “jewel of Muslim art” and that includes keeping auto traffic away from the site, providing a visitors’ center and limiting the items visitors are allowed to take inside (cameras, water bottles and cell phones in off mode are allowed).
It is impossible to separate spirituality from India’s history, which is as much a pillar of religious ideology as it is a pillar of civilization. This is especially evident in the ancient city of Varanasi — holy to both the Buddhist and Hindu faiths. Located about 370 miles east of Agra, it is an easy next stop on an ancient India itinerary. The Ganges River flows through the heart of the city and is the site for nightly Hindu ceremonies, early-morning prayers and bathing along the Ghats.
Varanasi is home to Sarnath, the location of Buddha’s first sermon. The site has been respectfully updated for the visitor, with depictions of the life of Buddha on the walls of the temple, and a monument where his first sermon was said to have taken place. It is both a destination for Buddhists who make a pilgrimage and an educational experience for the traveler who has never encountered Buddhism before.
Varanasi is an ancient site where visitors can be comfortably accommodated and culturally satisfied. There are many visually, spiritually and emotionally compelling experiences in India, but perhaps none so astounding as the ones that occur here on the banks of the Ganges River.
Continuing a westward loop, toward the borders of Nepal and Bangladesh, takes visitors to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the mountain railways of India, and a region known not for its elaborate monuments or its religious significance but for its dramatic altitudes and the steam locomotive that has traversed them for over 100 years. Beginning in the city of Siliguri at the base of the Himalayas and climbing 6,500 feet up to the town of Darjeeling, this railway was an important innovation for the tea industry and facilitated population movement to these northern towns.
Siliguri is the stepping stone to the quaint, calm destinations in India’s Himalayan hills, popular among nature and outdoor enthusiasts. To get there, visitors fly into Bagdogra airport, which is serviced by most of India’s major airlines (Kingfisher, Jet Airways, Indian Air) and located seven miles from Siliguri.
The journey to Darjeeling on the Darjeeling Railway takes eight hours to complete and is not unlike the
romanticized versions played out on Bollywood movie screens. The hissing steam of the engine, the chug-chug motion of the wheels and the occasional blast from the smokestack are in fine working order on this tiny
locomotive that has been left relatively unchanged since it was founded in 1881. Along the route, passengers can expect to see dramatic landscapes of towns clinging to the sides of Himalayan cliffs. The train winds its way through small-town markets, where Tibetan and Nepalese merchants sell their wares, and through tea plantations, where tea pickers harvest the leaves for Darjeeling tea.
If timing is an issue, the return trip from Darjeeling to Siliguri can be accomplished via taxi and takes a mere 1½ hours — fast and convenient, but not nearly as much fun.
Because of its location, Darjeeling has been a melting pot of Nepalese, Tibetan and India cultures for centuries. The people of Darjeeling have held steadfastly to their religious and cultural traditions, many of which have not changed since ancient times. Visitors can witness these traditions in local dance performances, festivals or by visiting religious temples or monasteries. Many hiking and trekking expeditions incorporate a visit to one of these monasteries, but they are also easy to reach by taxi, as many are located just a few miles outside of town.
Charming and historic though it might be, the Darjeeling Railway is young compared to some of India’s oldest monuments. The city of Aurangabad in the eastern state Maharashtra is home to two of India’s most significant ancient sites: Ajanta and Ellora.
The Ajanta Caves were discovered in 1819 and later meticulously excavated to reveal a community that existed about 100 years B.C. The 30 or so rock-cut caves are home to exquisite paintings and carvings that pay homage to the life of Buddha. Art-history lovers will appreciate not only the skill of the craftsmen and the thrill of viewing art at the site of creation, but also the significance of this early style of Indian art, which traveled, with Buddhism, to influence art in many parts of the world.
The Ellora Caves are younger than Ajanta by about 600 years and include equally impressive carvings and paintings reflecting Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism. The community is made up of 34 cave temples and monasteries carved out of the rocky landscape. Not only are the paintings and carvings at Ellora and Ajanta considered masterpieces of Buddhist, Hindu and Jain art, but the sites themselves are significant archeological excavations, bringing to life the history of an
ancient Indian civilization.
Daily tours to both Ajanta and Ellora are available from Aurangabad, which is a hub for tourists visiting Ajanta, Ellora and a number of other temples in the vicinity.
A visit to India is an education in the world’s history, religion, art, architecture and humankind. India’s capacity to maintain its cultural traditions is a testament to how deeply their culture is imbedded.