India is a land of diversity. And usually when we talk about diversity we are either speaking of culture or religion or landscape. India is one such country which offers an abundance of experience to travellers of all genre be it adventurers, or wildlife enthusiasts, art experts, architectural admirers, nature lovers or even pilgrims. And among these there are hundreds of sites which may require years of exclusive travel to cover all. Here is our own list of top 10 places to visit in India which we have travelled to so far and we feel should be part of every traveller’s bucket list when travelling through the vast expanse of our country, whether or not they are UNESCO recognized.
We won’t be covering Treks and National parks except for 1 which actually needs a special mention due to its sheer uniqueness and beauty.
10. Jantar Manta in Jaipur, Rajasthan
Of course it’s not an architectural marvel. But not all places are about nature and architecture. Some of the places offer knowledge and wisdom too. And jantar mantar is one of them. The sheer knowledge with which it was built is very interesting. If you are an astro geek or are interested in learning the ancient sciences, then it will be a treat to your travel. It is a collection of immovable astronomical instruments including Sundial and many more. Though there are 4 or 5 Sundials in India, but the one in Jaipur is the largest one. Actually there are 4 Jantar Mantar in India and all are built by Sawai Jaisingh II, founder of Jaipur.
Jantar Mantar boasts of 19 other instruments or Yantras which were used to observe, measure and calculate data like location of pole star with respect to other celestial bodies, altitude and the azimuth of the sun etc… It is just interestingly informational. The calculations for which we use Telescope along with other modern and digital sciences, were so accurately measured by these intelligently designed instruments which actually use only shadows of objects to calculate such complex details. If you really want to understand the workings behind these instruments at Jantar Mantar, you will need at least 3-4 hours along with a guide.
Jantar Mantar is one of the UNESCO recognized world heritage sites and is located near City palace. Some other sites that can be covered while you are on your trip to Jaipur are – Nahargarh , Amer Fort , Patrika gate, etc…
9. Taj Mahal in Agra, UP
One of the seven wonders of the world and a very famous UNESCO site – Taj Mahal, a monument that surely makes India proud. Tajmahal is a unique combination of geometry and art. This amazingly beautiful work of art is purely made of White Marble – Sang-e-maramar. The inlay work on the marble is appreciative. Though it’s shown in movies as a symbol of love. But when you come to know that Shah Jahan had 3 wives, you understand that you have been living on a hype created by the media.
But stories apart, this amazing architecture and beauty of a 20 years long project, makes it a must in your bucket list. But beware, if you are trying to visit Taj in summers, the scorching heat will steal away your thunder and excitement. So make sure to visit it either in monsoons or in winters and you will be enchanted with its charm.
You can complete the tour to Taj Mahal by including Agra Fort, Fatehpur Sikri, Itmad-ud-Daulah’s Tomb, Akbar’s Tomb, Sikandra Fort and Bazaar within the city. You can also extend your trip to include Mathura, Vrindavan and Bharatpur Wildlife Sanctuary.
8. Dhanushkodi, Tamil Nadu
Who doesn’t love lush green waters, and that too in India. Hard to imagine, isn’t it. Well our No. 8 must-go-to place offers you what you’ve been looking outside of India for ages. Dhanushkodi. Also called the ghost town of India after thousands of its inhabitants were killed due a Cyclone back in the 1960’s. But the town is still popular because this is where you get to see blue waters of Indian Ocean meeting the green waters of Bay of Bengal – a breathtaking sight. The distinction in the colour is very clearly visible.
Who hasn’t heard of “Ram Setu” from the great Hindu Epic Ramayan – this is the very place where that bridge exists, connecting India and Sri Lanka. Interestingly, NASA has confirmed thes existence of this ancient bridge underneath these waters.
Though Dhanushkodi is not one of the UNESCO world Heritage sites, but for us it surely qualifies to be one. This beautiful place can be clubbed along with Rameshwaram and Kanyakumari.
7. Hampi, Karnataka
Our No. 7 on the list is all about architecture and history and Legends – Hampi; the beautiful heritage site of Karnataka on the banks of river Tungabhadara was once the capital of flourishing Vijaynagar empire in the past. It was later on savaged by Mughals just like many other great sites of India, and was left in ruins. It was one of the richest empires and still holds many beautifully carved temples and heritage sites. Most of the carvings are from Hindu epics and legends. The most famous site of the Hampi is the mighty Virupaksha Temple. But if you are thinking that Hampi is just for architectural geeks, you might need to check your facts. While one side of the river shares the architectural and heritage wisdom, the other side is a totally different place.
While you can enjoy your site seeing in the afternoon, you can party hardcore in the evening on the other side.
The famous Kishkindha Nagari from Ramayan – where Ram met Sugreev is none other than the town of Hampi. While visiting Hampi, you can also cover other architectural and heritage sites like Badami, Aihole, and Pattadkal – another UNESCO site.
6. Hill Forts of Rajasthan
Just like Vijaynagar India had been a land of many kings and Kingdoms. Our No. 6 must visit takes us to the land of Kings and Warriors – The Hill Forts of Rajasthan. These forts are a group of UNESCO sites that includes – Chittorgarh, Khumbhalgarh, Mehrangarh, Ranthambore Fort, Jhalawar Fort, Nahargarh, Amer Fort and Jaisalmer Fort. One requires around 10-12 days to visit all these sites along with many others that would commemorate the Rajasthan tour. But you can also cover these in brackets of 3-4 short trips. All these forts were built by royalty and Rajput kings and share history of war and struggle.
The famous Chittorgarh is supposedly the largest fort of India. It is the same fort where Rani Padmavati (a.k.a Rani Padmini) performed Jauhar – to protect valour and sanctity of herself and the other Rajput women against the Mughals. When the army of ruthless Alauddin Khalji who was infamous for mercilessly killing the citizens and forcing the captured women into slavery, attacked Chittorgarh; Rani Padmawati along with her other companions immolated themselves in sacrificial fires, thus protecting their valour and defeating Khilji’s aim.
The sheer thought of these sacrifices are spine chilling.
Jauhar has been performed in Chittorgarh – not once but 3 times. The first one was when Khilji attacked the Fortress. The second was committed when the forces of Bahadur Shah, the then Sultan of Gujarat attacked the fortress, and the third was committed when the forces of Akbar attacked the fortress. Those would have been such testing times. Just imagine that in order to abstain and avoid enslavement, capture, and rape by the invaders while facing the defeat during the war, women and children had to immolate themselves.
These are some real thought pondering tales. Our ancestors literally sacrificed themselves so that we can live happily and peacefully today. And maybe that is the very reason that Rajputs of Chittorgarh still commemorate these very incidents in the form of Jauhar mela till date. Just showing their gratitude for the great warriors. Chittorgarh indeed hosts a very rich history. No doubt that its stories are sung till date.
Kumbhalgarh is a mighty fort that is surrounded by a wall of 36 kms in length – The great wall of India. Situated within a wildlife sanctuary, Kumbhalgarh as the name suggests was built by Maharana Kumbha and is also known to be the birthplace of the Great Maha Rana Pratap..
It is one of largest forts in India. This 12 storey high fort is situated on a hilltop in Jodhpur. The fortification was built by Rathod kings.
It lies within the Ranthambore National Park, near the town of Sawai Madhopur. This park was one of the former hunting grounds of the Maharajas of Jaipur.
Also known as Jhalawar fort situated in Jhalawar district of Rajasthan is a hill and water fort, one of 12 kinds of Vedic fort architecture also known as JalDurg.
Nahargarh stands on the edge of the Aravalli Hills, overlooking the city of Jaipur and once formed a strong defence circle for the city. The fort is surrounded by a forest which is part of Nahargarh Biological Park.
It’s the lavish palace featured in the movie Jodha Akbar. Situated in Amer near Jaipur, this palace was the residence of Maharajas and their families.
Located within the main city of Jaisalmer. About a quarter of the city’s population still resides inside the fort. Made of sandstone which is yellowish in colour and hence its also called the Golden Fort.
These are the forts of Rajasthan, which are part of UNESCO world heritage sites. But some of the other forts and fortresses from the state that are worth visiting but not covered in the list are Bundi Fortress in Bundi, Bhangarh in the Alwar district and Khimsar Fort in Khimsar near Jodhpur.
5. Sand Dunes of Thar Desert in Jaisalmer, Rajasthan
Rajasthan is not just about the forts and history. It also hosts one of the very diverse natural landscape – the Thar Desert. Situated at a distance of about 45 kms from the main city of Jaisalmer – Sand dunes of Jaisalmer attract lakhs of tourists. This beautiful Sea of sand mesmerizes the naturalist within you especially during the sunset when the touch of sun makes the whole landscape a part of a fantasy tale as if it has been covered with a golden blanket. There are many dunes but the most famous dunes are the Sam Dunes.
These dunes are surrounded by hundreds of camps that offer all accommodation and dunes safari. You can just ride along a camel to explore and enjoy. You also have the option of night safari, wherein you can cover the Desert National Park, visit nearby villages and witness the raw desert wildlife. If you are interested in stargazing, then sand dunes offer you the best settings on clear sky nights. The best time to explore Jaisalmer is obviously winters.
While visiting the sand dunes, you can also include places like Tannot temple famous from 1971 war, Longewala which is a border town sharing international boundary with Pakistan and the abandoned ghost town of Kuldhara. Within the city you can visit the Jaisalmer Fort, War Memorial, Patwaon ki Haveli and Gadisar lake..
4. Rann of Kutch, Gujarat
While Jaisalmer showcases the desert in its true form, there are 2 more deserts in India which people are less aware of. One is the cold desert of Ladakh, and the other is the world’s largest salt desert, our number 4 in the list – Rann of Kutch in Gujarat, which surprisingly is also part of the Thar Desert. At first sight it looks as if it’s a snow field – it’s that white. It’s something very unique and you have got to see it to believe it.
While visiting Rann of Kutch make sure to visit Little Rann of Kutch which is a similar landscape but a smaller one. It’s an ecological system with desert on one side while the sea on the other and this unique combination helps many rare species to thrive, most of which are endangered. At the other end of Rann is Pakistan and hence it’s a military zone as well. You can walk on this white salt desert, or even take your vehicle on it.
Visiting months are November to March. Generally people just cover Kutch during their trip but if you have some more time then you can complete the circuit with Dwarka and Somnath included in it. Kutch also hosts a 4 month festival from Nov to Feb, called Rann Utsav – a must attend festival of India. Try to plan your trip to Rann on a full moon night; you will thank us later for sure.
3. Temples of Khajuraho, Madhya Pradesh
Our country is and has always been all about celebrations. Maybe the last few decades had not been so great in terms of education, leading to a conservative society where every other thing turned out to be a taboo. But the ancient India sure knew how to celebrate everything that enriches life – be it even sexual union of a man and a woman. Seems like they were much more open-minded than us.
One such place which shows the celebration of KamaSutra – the physicality of love in a consecrated format is the temple wall carvings of Khajuraho. Khajuraho group of temples in Madhya Pradesh are most distinctly famous for erotic sculptures carved on its temples’ walls. It has 2 sets of temple – Western group and Eastern group. While the western group of temples are adorned with beautiful and intricate carvings that are majorly of Hindu origins and are more famous; the eastern group of temples are isolated from one another with Jainism as the locus.
You can enrich your trip to Khajuraho by including Orchha, Jhansi and Panna Tiger reserve.
2. Chadar Trek in Zanskar Valley, Ladakh
Zanskar is a river that flows by merging with Indus on its course. In summers, you will find the emerald green waters of Zanskar flowing in the valley, but the excitement gets wild in the winters. The extreme temperatures of -20 to -30 degrees celsius, freezes the whole river in a thick sheet of ice. And adventurers from around the globe, visit this valley and camp on these icy sheets. This whole journey has become popular with the name of Chadar Trek. A must do in every trekker’s list.
The beauty of the valley is surreal, captivating and what not. The beautiful turns, the layered rocks, the extreme temperatures, the rustic patches of the flowing emerald green coloured waters and ice everywhere – you simply cannot describe the feeling. The real aw comes only when you see it from your own naked eyes. Zanskaar is not a UNESCO site – but given its landscape and what it offers, its much more than any UNESCO world heritage site.
While going for the Chadar Trek, you can cover the city of Leh after your return along with Hemis Monastary.
1. Ajanta Ellora near Aurangabad, Maharshtra
Topping our list at No. 1 is Ajanta Ellora situated near Aurangabad in Maharashtra. One of the best UNESCO site that we’ve ever visited. It’s a blend of art and architecture within the lap of nature. The storytelling in the form of murals and sculptures is just dazzling. The rich heritage site tells us stories from Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism.
Ajanta caves are 30 rock cut cave shelters that exhibits expressionism in form of Jataka stories. Many of these paintings have been lost in time, but the ones that stand still takes you into a different world of mythology and fables. If you are not a literature and art enthusiast, you might need to consider hiring a guide to understand all the fables and details of murals on the walls.
Ellora is one of the largest rock-cut monastery-temple cave complexes in the world.
The Kailash temple of Ellora is – THE MARVEL of India.
Everyone has a different opinion about places, but having visited so many sites and being the fan of art and architecture along with literature, for us The Kailash of Ellora holds a place even above Taj Mahal. This architectural marvel in the middle of dozens of heritage rich caves, was carved out of a single rock in a very interesting style. It was carved NOT front to back, NOT bottom to top but unlike anything I’ve ever seen – it was carved from top to bottom. It might not have intricate carvings like the Dilwara Temples, or marble inlay work like the Taj Mahal, or even magnanimity like Ranakpur Temple, but its grandeur, formation and the way it speaks to you while sharing stories from the ancient past, makes it rule above all. For us it was a temple that spoke the stories knitted in the tapestry of time.
Ajanta and Ellora can be visited along with the local sight seeing of Aurangabad which includes Bibi ka Maqbara, Deogiri or Daultabad fort and Chandminar. Best time to visit is from September to March.
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This was our list of top 10 places to visit in India that we’ve visited and believe should be in every traveller’s list. There is yet more to cover and explore in India. Our journey is still on, and we hope to visit many more interesting places during our upcoming voyages. We will keep bringing those stories back to you. In case if you are wondering about not reading about any of the places from the beautiful North-east, well that is because that part of India is still unexplored by Banjaaraa Couple and is at the top of our wishlist.