We’re all proud of India’s culture and history. So why is it that when it comes to holidays, we always rush to find the best international vacation spots – looking for good packages online, hoping to get bumped up to first-class on the flight? It’s natural enough to look to exotic Europe’s idealised version of ancient history, and beautiful East Asia, which we often romanticise.
But there are 32 UNESCO World Heritage Sites in India, and they’re wide and varied. The next time you wangle a couple of weeks off, consider exploring our own country’s extremely rich offerings before getting to work untangling the paperwork involved in international vacations. You already know the most popular ones – the Taj Mahal, Red Fort, and so on – so we’ll give you seven of the slightly less famous options.
The ruins in Hampi, or ‘Group of Monuments at Hampi’ as UNESCO puts it, is on that list, and for excellent reasons. Set along the banks of the Tungabhadra and close to 350 kilometres from Bengaluru, Hampi is remarkably well-preserved. Most of the ruins are from the Vijayanagara period, the empire of which Hampi served as the capital of from 1343-1565 before it fell to a siege; some ruins date as far back as 1 BC. The area has been a treasure trove for archaeology, and its depths have still not been plumbed; excavations still go on periodically. While there are many forts and temples with beautiful carvings in India, quite a few of which are on the UNESCO World Heritage list, Hampi is particularly remarkable because of the aqueducts and canals, which are still in fairly good condition. They give us a glimpse of how ancient civilisation was actually quite advanced.
They are, technically, two entities, but since we learn of them together in most of our history books (and we wanted to avoid having to pick one), we put them together. The Ajanta Caves are considered some of the finest existing examples of ancient Indian art, particularly paintings that give considerable insight into Buddhism and the Jataka Tales. The Ellora Caves aren’t technically caves, but they’re rock-cut temples – man-made structures. They’re still some of the best examples of early Hindu, Jain and Buddhist places of worship. They also give us hope, since we find that three important religions flourished in close harmony. If we could do it then, surely we can do it now!
Shore Temple, Mahabalipuram
The Shore Temple is different since it’s not a rock-cut temple. It’s one of the oldest structural stone temples in South India. It was famous among sailors because when they were at sea, it looked like a pagoda. They called it ‘seven pagodas’, and it’s thought that it served as a landmark for them. There are also rock-cut temples in the area, which belong to the group of monuments declared to be part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site. Interestingly, the tsunami of 2004 confirmed earlier speculation that this temple and the rathas around it are in fact part of a series of similar temples. The outline of smaller sister temples was seen during the tsunami. Mahabalipuram also has some excellent beaches, so once you’re all historied out, you can catch some downtime.
Valley of Flowers
This is another site you wouldn’t expect to see on a list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, but the Valley of Flowers in Uttarakhand is in an area known for its biodiversity. This, of course, includes animals – especially the elusive snow leopard and the Asiatic black bear – but the flowers are the real stars of the show. Documentation tells us that nearly 500 flowering plants are found here, including rare medicinal plants and lovely flowers unique to this region. ‘Valley of Flowers’ is not a misnomer – at the right time of year, the valley is carpeted by flowers in multiple hues, from orchids and anemones to poppies and marigolds, as well as far more obscure varieties. The best time to visit is right after the monsoon when everything is in full bloom. The area is picturesque, with little streams and trails to follow... and the flowers, of course.
Kaziranga National Park
Not all the sites on the list are known for architectural splendour. Nature always beats the man at the ‘spectacular’ competition, so it’s no wonder that we’re naming Kaziranga, with its tigers and one-horned rhinoceroses. Situated in Assam, Kaziranga is said to have two-thirds of the entire one-horned rhino population in the world and is also one of the most densely-populated tiger reserves on the planet. It’s also home to an extremely wide variety of birdlife. This should be an incentive for us to make sure that the Brahmaputra keeps flowing freely.
Rani Ki Vav
This site in Patan, Gujarat rarely makes it to any of the lists of pride, so we’re doing our bit to fix that oversight. It’s a stepwell that was built as a memorial for Bhimdev I, one of the rulers of the Solanki dynasty, by his queen, Udayamati; or so we gather from references to it in literature. But when you say ‘stepwell’, you don’t expect the kind of artistry or architectural excellence that Rani Ki Vav shows. The Saraswati, which flows close to this structure, flooded the area and left sediments of silt, covering much of it. When it was excavated in 1980, it was discovered to be in wonderful condition. It has pillars, stepped corridors, beautiful carvings, and the well itself is a structural wonder. There’s also a little gateway and a 30-kilometre tunnel that leads from it believed to have been a getaway for royalty. – Sarah