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14 Amazing Must Visits

Destination Management

1.The ancient mysteries of the Ajanta caves

Carved over a period of several centuries, the mystery of Ajanta Caves might never have been uncovered had it not been for a chance pursuit of a tiger by the British Officer John Smith in the year 1819! As old as 200 BCE, the caves are located in Aurangabad district of Maharashtra. Over the multitude of years they fell into disuse and a forest grew over and around them. Carved over many many years by different artisans, they are believed to have been made a refuge for the Buddhist monks during the rains. Some go as far as to say that they were pathways to heaven.

With numerous carvings that describe the life and times of the eras, they are like a window that one can peek through into the glorious past of India. The caves run for a mind numbing length of 29 rock cut caves, all of which have both female and male representation, which is a rare sight! Examples of immense scientific calculations are evident too, as the sun lights up cave 19 on the winter solstice and cave 26 on the Summer solstice in a precision that has persisted over the years!

2.The monument to love that inspired the Taj Mahal-The Humayun Tomb

Pick up any form of literature and you will notice that ‘Taj Mahal’ has forever been cited as the all enduring monument of the love of a king for a queen. But, there was one tomb before that, that a grieving widow built for the love and devotion that she felt towards her husband; The Humayun Tomb. The pioneering example of Mughal architecture, its glorious combination of Persian and Indian architecture forms was to set a prelude to an era that was to be embellished by the grandeur of Mughal architecture. Bega Begum, spent her entire life overseeing the construction and design of this tomb that was commissioned to the great Persian architect Mirak Mirza Ghiyas.

One of its kind architecture, this garden tomb houses the graves of over 150 members of the Mughal family. The UNESCO cites it’s reasons for considering it as one of the greatest examples of architecture by saying, “This building tradition culminated in the Taj Mahal, constructed a century later. Despite being the first standardized example of this style, Humayun’s Tomb is an architectural achievement of the highest order.”

3.The lasting testament to the grandeur of the Vijayanagara Empire- Hampi

The landscape of Hampi in Karnataka is replete with the flows of the great Tungabhadra River and rocky outcrops that form the major part of landscape. Amongst these picturesque settings lie a group of monuments that bear a living testament to the grandeur of the last empire of India- the Vijayanagara Empire. Displaying an innate sense of Indian craftsmanship, the group of temples is flanked by chariot structures, markets and even a courtesans’ walkway. Imagine the prosperity of the empire that has stables for elephants! The Vitthala Temple amongst these is the finest example of ornate architecture with gopurams, halls, sanctum sanctorium and sabha mandapas. The temple also has a market street right in the middle and a richly carved step well (Pushkarni).

What’s most noteworthy, is the fact that the monuments complex sports a distinctly visible Indo- Islamic style, we weren’t always at loggerheads, isn’t that great to know?

4.The temple where Lord Buddha gained enlightenment- Mahabodhi Temples

India has had a rich and varied tradition of knowledge and learning and the standing doyenne of it is Lord Buddha. A prince who left all the worldly pleasures behind to impart peace and end the suffering of this world, Siddhartha came to do penance under a Peepul tree, a tree that would later assume the name of the Bodhi tree and the region Bodhgaya. In the sanctified town of Gaya, 96 km from Patna in Bihar, lies a holy structure that marks the path that the great ascetic took to gain divine enlightenment and where Prince Siddhartha became Buddha. The temple was first constructed by the great emperor Ashoka, in 250 BC and subsequent work was carried out by the rulers of Gupta dynasty, it is one of the earliest and pioneering examples of strong brick architecture that was to dominate the Indian building styles for years to come.

Comprised of six major structures the edifice comprises of The Vajrasana Temple which towers at 50 m, a direct descendant of the original sacred Bodhi Tree and other six consecrated sites of Buddha’s illumination. The seventh structure is the beautiful Lotus Pond, where Lord Buddha spent a whole week in atonement. More than the architecture, it is the devotion of the people that has contributed to making this stunning piece of architecture a part of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

5.An ode to Sun God, where even stones speak up in prayer – Konark Temple

No text of architecture in India is complete without the mention of Sun Temple at Konark, the namesake of the city itself is an elegy to the Sun God, Kona (Corner) and Arka (Sun). On the sparkling coasts of Bay of Bengal rests this edifice that commemorates the work of the masters of ancient times. The temple has an elaborate and intricate mammoth structure that depicts the chariot of the Sun God replete with 24 carved wheels, each of them 3 m in diameter, pulled by seven horses and guarded by two lions at the entrance that bravely crush elephants.

An example of beautiful melee of science, architecture and devotions the sun dials on the temple can calculate time to the exact minute even to this day! There are also three statues of the sun god that catch the rays of the sun precisely at dawn, noon and sunset! Rabindranath Tagore has famously said about the temple “Here the language of stone surpasses the language of man.” The temple beckons to question the monotonous styles of architecture that India has regressed itself to!

6.An eulogy to undying love set in white marble – The Taj Mahal

Ask anyone, any man or woman about the icon they associate with India, and their answers would most likely allude to the Taj Mahal. Built by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, it is one of the most grandiose gestures of love to ever be materialized on the face of earth. As famously said by the greatest poet, Rabindranath Tagore, “The Taj Mahal rises above the banks of the river like a solitary tear suspended on the cheek of time.” Inspite of the multitude of tourists that visit it, the declarations of love that it has witnessed and countless examples that it has set, there is a sense of melancholy as one approaches the monument, a sense of pain of a lover separated from his wife by death.

The Taj Mahal was built in 1653 AD by over twenty thousand artisans who toiled over 22 years! The white marble was bought in from Makrana in Rajasthan and was transported by elephants. In its days of glory the Taj Mahal was adorned with no less than 28 types of precious stones, brought in from as far as Tibet and Persia. Like the moods of his lady love, the exterior of the Taj also changes colors from a pinkish hue in the dawn to a dull gold at noon and finally, all enduring sparkling white under the moonlight. Legends say that as the emperor lay imprisoned by his own son in the Agra Fort, he derived solace from gazing at the tomb of his beloved wife, at whose side he was finally laid to rest.

7.A land surrounded by misfortune, beautified by architecture – Champaner-Pavagadh Archaelogical Park

Contrary to the other monuments on the list, not many know about the Champaner- Pavagadh Archaelogical Park, inhabited since the Copper Age, it remained cut off from the rest of the world until 400 A.D. Although an ancient prehistoric settlement sanctified by the presence of Goddess Kali herself, the town that started off with a thriving export of silk and other important artifacts, slowly fell into desertion and neglect after the Mughal emperor Humayun invaded its re

However, the architecture here bears a silent testimony to the era bygone and displays a fine blend of Indo-Muslim architecture, resulting in complete and unchanged Islamic pre-Mughal city. The park actually comprises of no less than 16 heritage structures than include a major mosque, a hallowed hill temple of Goddess Kali, a helical step-well, many other mosques, a city gate, a kabutarkhana and many other such standing edifices of stunning and enduring architecture.

A land frozen in time, the Champaner Pavagadh Archaelogical Park is rightfully a symbol of well – planned architecture and design prowess.

8.A portal to the historic and prehistoric era – Bhimbetka Shelters

The Bhimbetka shelters, present a stunning allusion to what we now know to be the Mesolithic era, the middle stone age. At the foothills of the Vindhyan mountains, in the central state of Madhya Pradesh in India. Discovered at late as 1957, the cave paintings represent a close interaction between man and nature. So advanced are the specifics of the paintings that the life of the men around the plains, that belonged to the copper age can still be clearly seen!

A stunning 243 shelters have been identified in the Bhimbetka group and a further 178 in the Lakha Juar Group, stretching the length of the shelters to more than 10 km! The landscape and the fauna surrounding the rock shelters is called Ratapani wildlife sanctuary in which the evidence of the trees and animals depicted in the paintings inside the shelter can still be found. Earliest references to the tradition of dance can also be found here, such is the aesthetic value of these paintings that their existence is ‘timeless’!

9.The integral land of three beliefs, The Ellora Caves

The Ellora caves is a sculpture’s beautiful blended expression of three major Indian regions: Buddhism, Brahmanism and Jainism. There is something beautiful about this place that takes you to a journey in the past where all these religions born and grew together. The 34 monasteries and temples are carved and dug all together on the wall of a huge basalt cliff in Maharashtra. These splendors of art is a beautiful combination of, when art meets religion.

The twelve caves of the Buddhist group speaks about the benevolence of this calm religion, Buddhism. The ‘Cavern of the Ten Avatars’ is a majestic art piece constructed under the reign of Krishna I. The ethnicity of Jain group is well reflected by the sanctuaries carved by the Digambra sect of this pure religion. These gems of art are the immortal legends of the vast rock-cut architecture in India. The elegance of Dravidian Sikhara, which is a flat roofed madapa positioned over sixteen pillar, the gigantic Ravana figure reflecting the strength of this villainous legend as the sculpture here shows him lifting Mt Kailasha is an epitome of the ancient Indian art.

10.Where the walls sing and sculptures dance, the Chola temples

The beautiful Chola temples are living tales of the vast empire that Cholas established in Thanjavur. These magnificent temples built during the reign of Rajaraja were the epitome of the vast religious inclination of these rulers as the inscriptions and the chronicles on the wall sing about their opulent rule. This temple in the ancient time was note a mere religious center but a full functional business establishment which was served and maintained by a permanent staff of several hundred priests, 400 devadasi and 57 musicians.

The temple was also used for lending money to ship-owners, craft guilds and villagers on a fixed interest rates. The entire temple carved in granite is believed to be inspired by the Pallava architecture. The beautifully adorned 108 poses of the Bharata- Natyam on the walls reflects the hours of torturous patience the sculptures went through. The beautiful series of carvings depicting the legend ruler Rajaraja conversing with his guru, Karuvir Devar is stunningly sculpted in rich colors which rewinds you to the beautiful ancient time of king and queens.

11.The misrepresented temples of Khajuraho

Famous all over the world as monuments that are an ode to sensuality, the Khajuraho temples have only about 10% of sensual sculptures that are in balance with the non-sensual images. The Chandela dynasty, under whose rule the temples were constructed, firmly believed in the Tantric school of thought. The mainstay of which, is the perfect balance between the male and female. Both Tantric and Hindu School of believe that none can exist without the other, while the male principle holds the form and potential, female counterpart holds energy! Such progressive views on union and interaction between the two existed even then and begs us to question our own misconstrued views of today!

The temple complex itself represents union of another form too, that of Jainism and Hinduism. While the exact date of its inception is hard to assess, it appears in records dating as far back as 1335 AD, which describe it as a group of 85 temples. Falling into ruins, wars and natural hazards, only 22 out of these remain today and are spread over a stunning area of The temple complex has three distinct types of carvings, the cult icons, the Apsaras (beautiful maidens) and demi gods that are supposed to guard the temple. An example of the finest craftsmanship and precision all of the figurines appear in perfect human symmetry, is it a wonder then that it is said that to see all the stages of human life and its activities, one has but to visit these temples and observe the carvings!

12.A rock cut sonnet to the great war of Mahabharata, Mahabalipuram

It is a widely accepted belief that the great war fought between the Kauravas and the Pandavas, at Kurukshetra, is instrumental in shaping the history and geography of the Indian subcontinent as we know today. The temples of Mahabalipuram demonstrate exactly that, in the rock cut carvings of the great temple architectures, one can clearly see the scenes from the great epic. The architecture demonstrates a clear allusion to the sectarianism that had started during the period as different areas were assigned to different Gods. The travels of Marco Polo also describe the Seven Pagodas of Mahabalipuram that belonged to the original structure built in the time when the city was a thriving merchant port. Out of these seven only one has survived in the form of a beautiful shore temple!

The temple is most famous for its depictions of the chariots of the warriors of the Mahbharata, called Rathas all of which are in a specifically designated form, some rising to as high as two or three storeys. There is another remarkable sculpture that adorns the temple walls which is called the Descent of the Ganges. Depicting the time when Lord Shiva made the River Ganga descend from the heavens to the earth, it uses the natural relief of the rock to emphasize the river and has carvings of various Gods and Goddesses beholding the wonder with their open eyes. The intricacy and ingenuity of the carvings are an example of the skill of the craftsman who constructed these temples way back in the 7th Century!

13.A timeless story carved in rock, the Elephanta Caves

Elephanta caves is a beautiful blend of aesthetic beauty and sculptural art. The stunning archaeological remains, echoes the story of the rich dynasties that once ruled the place. These stunning rock-cut caves of Elephanta were constructed in the mid-5th to 6th centuries. The colossal Cave 1 measures to an elegant height of 39 meters sprawling from the front entrance to the back. One can drench in the vast world of rock cut architecture.

The Trimurti and various other sculptural gems shreds of the cult of Shiva. “Sadashive”, a 7 m high masterpiece crowned at the entrance of Cave 1 well defines the three face of the lord Shiva, Aghora or Bhairave (left half) represents the Creator Shiva, Taptapurusha or Mahadeva ( central face) epitomizes the Preserver Shiva and Vamadeva or Uma( right half) symbolizes Shiva as the Destroyer. Away from the worldly worries, this immortal land of Shiva calmly resides on the Elephant Island of Western India. The rocks, the sculptures and the ageless stories stream a mysterious aura that gives these caves an unending mysticism.

14.A temple turned upside down to worship water, Rani Ki Vav

Situated in Patan, Gujarat, Rani Ki Vav is an ancient step-well, that was built by Rani Udaymati in 11th Century AD, to worship hallowed waters of Saraswati River. An exquisite example of subterranean architecture, Rani ki Vav is 64 meters long, 20 meters wide and 27 meters deep and runs downwards upto a length of seven storeys.All of these storeys are carved with more 500 sculptures all of which represent humans, nymphs, gods and the kings in varying forms of skill, grandeur and intricacy, with the central theme being the ten incarnations of Lord Vishnu.

If you go to see each of them up close, even their expressions and ‘mudras’ (gestures) are evident. When the Saraswati River changed course due to tectonic disturbances, it flooded the step-well that both beautified and preserved it further. At the centre of the well lies a carving of Sheshnayi Vishnu, that displays the mysterious and puzzling illusion of the well having been built of brick. In the ancient times, these step-wells were not only a place for interaction and socializing but, as the temple suggests, even places where the royal families would seek refuge at during the months of dreary summers with the water acting as a natural coolant! Legend says that there is even a 30 km long tunnel that runs through the step-well which leads to the neighboring town of Siddhpur, used by the king to seek refuge in the time of war. What level of scientific and architectural prowess would it have taken to conjure up a monument, an inverted temple of this impeccable style? The question begs us to humbled, proud and bewildered at the same time.

Atheist or a theist, believer or a non-believer, one thing’s for sure, in order to understand and absorb the grandeur of these structures, one has to see them with an unbiased eye and a curious mind!