A glimpse at the variety that is India.
Did you know that at least 1.3 billion, or nearly one out of every six people on this Earth is Indian or of Indian origin? These billion plus citizens of the world’s largest democracy aren’t a homogeneous bunch either. No part of this vast land is the same. In fact, India has over 2000 recognized ethnic groups that speak at least 200 distinct languages and who are members of every major religion in the world. With barren deserts, tropical forests, towering peaks such as the Himalayas and thousands of miles of coastline along the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea, India is also one of the most geographically diverse countries on the planet.
Don’t forget that Indian influence extends well outside the borders of the country. Both Pakistan and Bangladesh we once part of India until the mid part of this century. India also has one of the largest diaspora communities as well, with large populations of Indians living in parts of the world as distant from their homeland as the United Kingdom, Singapore, Malaysia, the United Arab Emirates (ok, this one’s not that far), Canada, the United States, Australia and even the Caribbean. Couple that with the fact that India has one of the fastest and most dynamic economies in the world and you have a global, political and cultural powerhouse that impossible to ignore.
With so much going on in this fascinating land, it behooves you to know more about India, Indians and Indian culture.
A Quick Tour of Places and Things to See and Do
Built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jehan for his beloved and deceased wife, Mumtaz Mahal, the Taj Mahal in the city of Agra is arguably one of the most beautiful buildings ever created. Nothing can really prepare you for the experience of actually viewing this architectural marvel in person. The Taj Mahal is rightly one of the seven wonders of the world. Believe the hype.
Spiritual or not, the holy city of Varanasi is a place like few others. Situated on the banks of the holy Ganges River, Varanasi is one of the oldest and continuously inhabited urban areas in the world. It is also a city of great contrasts. Here you will see mostly Hindu pilgrims bathe in the holy, though polluted, Ganges river conducting rituals that are believed to “wash away” their sins. The best time to go and witness this spectacle is during sunrise or sunset, when one can witness devotees praying in and on the banks of the river with ancient temples and the gleaming sun situated behind them.
Once you get past the crowded multitudes of people and the pollution, India’s capital city of Delhi becomes one of the most interesting places in the country. The city is steeped in history with ancient monuments and archaeological ruins dating back thousands of years. Along with Indian government buildings, Delhi has is a tribute to some of the finest architecture from the Mughal dynasty, the last great rulers of the country before most of India became a colony of Great Britain.
The fabled and former Portuguese colony of Goa is one of India’s true gems. The city’s rich Portuguese heritage and 16th-century churches are extremely interesting and worth exploring. However, what Goa is really known for its insanely beautiful beaches and thriving night life. If India had something close to Ibiza, it would be this place.
Huddled in the Thar desert of the western Indian state of Rajasthan is the city of Jaisalmer. Known as the “Golden City” due to the plethora of yellow sandstone buildings that occupy it, Jaisalmer is famous for its intricately ornate Jain temples, marvelous palaces of local kings (Maharajas), stately old mansions, the Gadisar Lake and its famous medieval fortress. The city is also home to the 1,000 year-old Gyan Bhandar library, filled with old books and priceless medieval manuscripts.
Due to its remarkably well-preserved medieval buildings, Jaisalmer was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2013.
Amritsar and the Golden Temple
The holy city of Amritsar is the spiritual center for the world’s nearly 30 million Sikhs. In case you didn’t know, Sikhism is a movement founded by Guru Nanak in the 15th century that went on to become an independent and influential religion on the Indian subcontinent. The most prominent building in Amritsar is the beautiful Harmandir Sahib, commonly known as the “Golden Temple.” TheHarmandir Sahib is the holiest site in all of Sikhism and one of the most spiritual places in all of the world. The temple is ornately decorated with various floral and animal motifs and a large golden dome in the shape of a lotus flower, an important symbol in Sikhism. Prayers are recited constantly throughout the temple, both on speakers and by the many believers who come here to seek blessings and solace. As the Harmandir Sahib is open to all, many people of various faiths are also drawn to his place due to its peaceful yet spiritually charged atmosphere.
Jaipur and the Amber Fort
The Indian state of Rajasthan is filled with historic cities, but perhaps Jaipur may be the most thrilling of them all. This is a city that takes you back in time and is home to one of the most daunting medieval buildings in Asia, the Amber Fort. Ostensibly a citadel, the Amber Fort is really more of a palace and was the home of Raja Man Singh, a Rajput king who amassed great wealth and influence under the Mughal Emperor Akbar. While the outside of the fort looks rough and ready for war, the interior of the building is soft and delicate. The rooms, walls and walkways are filled with gold and jeweled inlays, countless mirrors, intricately carved marble and plenty of well-manicured gardens.
The rest of the town is not to shabby either. Other interesting sites including the City Palace, the Hawa Mahal (Palace of Wind), the Jantar Mantar (a fully-functioning 18th-century observatory) and plenty of other fortresses and temples.
If there were only one place that you could see in Rajasthan, this would be it.
Jodhpur and the Mehrangarh Fort
Jodhpur is arguably one of the most beautiful medieval cities in India. In order to keep it from harm (meaning invading armies), it was only natural that the Maharajas who ruled it would build a fortress as equally stunning as the city itself. Hence, we have the Mehrangarh fortress, a hilltop complex consisting of seven gates, countless courtyards, mini palaces and all of the area’s scenic views that you can handle. Along with the fortress, Jodhpur is famous for its old clock tower, 8 intricately designed city gates and its central bazaar that sells everything from fruits to the latest gadgets and electronics. Like the Taj Mahal, the fortress and the city that it protects are places that live up to the hype.
If you want to see India’s version of New York or London (but with 10 times the people, traffic and funky smells), head to Mumbai. This metropolis of over 20 million people is India’s financial and entertainment hub, and really, the place you’d go to experience urban India. Mumbai is a city of stark contrasts. You’ll see countless souls living on less than $2 a day a stone’s throw from multi-millionaires (or billionaires) living in apartment complexes that are some of the most expensive pieces of real estate on Earth. If you really want to get a feel for the problems and promise that plague or bless modern India, Mumbai is a city that you must see and experience.
Another of India’s UNESCO Heritage sites, the Agra Fort is one of the more stunning works of architecture from the Mughal period. The structure is a blend of indigenous Indian and Persian design. Though a smaller one had already existed on the site since the 11th century, the building which we know today as the Agra Fort was remodeled and revamped during Emperor Shah Jehan’s time in order to protect the Taj Mahal. The sad thing is that he himself was imprisoned and lived out the last days of his life here when he was overthrown by his son, Aurangzeb. Visitors can view the Taj from the same fortress room as Shah Jehan did before he passed away and joined his wife in the Taj, their final resting place.
Located deep in India’s south, Mysore is a city that never seems to surprise both locals and visitors alike. A well planned, religiously tolerant and economically prosperous city, Mysore is everything that most other urban centers in developing countries aspire to be. It’s also a city with a rich history. Some of the not-to-miss sites include the magnificent Mysore Palace, ancient and intricately-decorated temples, traditional bazaars, beautiful gardens and the nearby Karanji Lake.
Founded in 1568 by the Maharaja Udai Singh II, Udaipur was famous long before being the beautiful backdrop of the Jame Bond movie Octopussy. The city is best known for the Lake Palace (now a hotel) on an island in the middle of Lake Pichola, but there are plenty of other, more historically significant sites to visit including the City Palace and Museum, the Sajjan Garh castle, the Jagdish temple and the Ahar royal cremation complex, just to name a few. Udaipur is remarkably beautiful city that is just as popular with historians as it is with honeymooners.
Periyar National Park
Located just not too far from the city of Madurai, the Periyar National Park is ground zero in India for nature lovers. Founded in 1934, the park consists of 925 square miles of protected land that is home to over 35 species of mammals (including elephants, tigers, flying squirrels, wild boars, Indian otters and more), over 260 species of birds, nearly fifty types of reptiles (including cobras, vipers and lizards), plenty of insects (especially butterflies) and countless varieties of flora and fauna. It’s possible to take tour of the park and observe the animals up close and personal via a cruise on the man-made Periyar Lake or on one of the many trails with a guide (and yes, you must have a guide as it’s easy to get lost). The Periyar National Park a place that all nature lovers in India should definitely visit.
Meenakshi Amman Temple of Madurai
The Meenakshi Amman Temple in Madurai is definitely something that you don’t see everyday. Built in honor of the three-breasted goddess Meenakshi (an Avatar of the Hindu mother goddess Parvati), the temple is considered to be one of the greatest feats of south Indian art and architecture in the world.
The twelve towers of the temple are covered with statues and carvings of reportedly 10,000 different deities and heroes from Hindu mythology. Regardless of the religion one follows, the Meenakshi Amman Temple is truly awesome.
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