India holds an enduring fascination for historians. Scholars have been studying its past since before the birth of Jesus: the Greek academic Megasthenes wrote about the similarities between the history of Indian civilization and his own in around 300 BC. By the fifth century AD, the scholar Fa Xian was among the first Chinese pilgrims to visit India in search of Buddhist texts, while Persian polymath Al-Biruni wrote an important account of his travels to India in the 11th century.
If you’re tempted to follow in these adventurers’ footsteps, where should you start? Let’s assume you know about the Taj Mahal, Rajasthan’s palaces and Delhi’s forts. Beyond the Golden Triangle there are many millennia of history waiting to be explored. Here are five of the most spectacular historical sites in India…
Varanasi – the holiest Hindu city
Among the world’s oldest continually inhabited cities, Varanasi in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh is a popular Hindu pilgrimage spot and the spiritual capital of India. Cruise along the Ganges River at sunrise or sunset to witness the rituals taking place along the riverbank: bathing in the Ganges here is said to guarantee liberation from the cycle of birth and death. Stay on the riverfront at the boutique hotel Amritara Suryauday Haveli or relax at the grand Taj Nadesar Palace.
Khajuraho – Hindu and Jain temples
India’s largest collection of ancient Hindu and Jain temples are found in the central state of Madhya Pradesh. Built more than 1,000 years ago by the Chandela dynasty, these UNESCO-listed structures are covered in intricate carvings and sculptures and particularly famous for their erotic sculptures. In February, the atmosphere at Khajuraho’s holy sites is further heightened by classical performances during the Khajuraho Dance Festival. Stay at The LaLit Temple View Khajuraho or Syna Heritage Hotel.
Leh – mountain palaces and monasteries
Once the capital of the Kingdom of Ladakh, this mountain city in northern India is scattered with Buddhist monasteries and topped by the towering Leh Palace, a 17th-century royal home that now houses a museum of treasures. Centuries-old traditions continue in its monasteries, where pupils as young as six come to study for up to 20 years to become monks. For an insight into their way of life, several monasteries, including the huge Thiksey to the east of the city, allow guests to stay and participate in activities such as morning prayers.
Hampi – Dravidian architecture
The final capital of the powerful Vijayanagara Empire, Hampi thrived between the 14th and 17th centuries. Now, its vast ruins include delicate palaces, public buildings and soaring temples – many inhabited by monkeys. One of these, Vittala Temple, is famous for its musical pillars that produce different sounds when struck. Stay just four kilometres from Hampi at Evolve Back Kamalapura Palace.
Sanchi – Ashoka’s stupa
The Sanchi stupa is one of India’s oldest stone buildings. Built around 300 BC for the Mauryan emperor Ashoka – a warlord who converted to Buddhism following a spiritual awakening – the structure is surrounded by four gateways decorated with elaborate carvings that depict Buddha’s life. Interestingly, the stupa features Greek elements such as pillars and friezes, evidence of the Indo-Greek culture that developed following the conquests of Alexander the Great. Stay at the five-star Jehan Numa Palace, Bhopal, a convenient launchpad for other historical sites such as the Taj-ul-Masjid mosque.
Many of India’s historical sites have limited accommodation options and you may need to travel to them from nearby towns. Get in touch with Greaves and we’ll ensure your trip is as smooth and comfortable as possible.
Historical sites in India images © Hampi Nataliia Sokolovska; Varanasi Roop Dey/Shutterstock; Khajuharo Francky38/Shutterstock; Thiksey Monastery in Leh Avigator Fortuner/Shutterstock; Hampi Dmytro Gilitukha/Shutterstock; Sanchi Stupa Deepesh Paliwal/ Shutterstock