The wonderful Taj Mahal, the erotic temples of Khajuraho, the golden temple of the Sikhs or the palace of Jaipur are just some of the many attractions of a country capable of awakening both great passions, which is my case, as strong phobias, India.
Choosing the 10 essential places to visit is a difficult task in such a gigantic, monumental and diverse territory.
- Taj Mahal
One of the new seven wonders of the world and a World Heritage Site, the Taj Mahal is one of the greatest works of universal architecture and many consider it the most beautiful building in the world. It is located in Agra, just two hours by train or car from Delhi, the capital of India. It is a funeral building built in white marble almost 400 years ago. The Taj Mahal is the highlight of an imposing set of buildings and gardens.
Just 15 minutes by taxi from the Taj Mahal is another wonderful mausoleum, the Itimad-ud-Daulah better known as the “Little Taj”. It was built just a few years before the Taj Mahal and served as an inspiration to its builders, both for its white marble materials and for its design. Of course, you have to visit it before so that its beauty is not eclipsed by the Taj Mahal.
The capital of India is, together with Mumbai, the main gateway to India and has some places to visit. The newest of them, and really impressive, is Akshardham, a set of buildings and gardens from which the central temple, built in pinkish stone, stands out. It was opened in 2005 and since then is one of the main attractions of Delhi. The security measures are strict and it is not allowed to enter the entire enclosure with any type of camera or mobile, so the only interior photos must be paid to existing official photographers. From the outside there are high points to obtain photos although the polluting fog that almost always suffers the city devalued the quality.
Another incentive of Delhi is the great Jama Masjid mosque, the largest in the country. Located in the middle of the ancient zone, its immense patio dominated by four minarets can accommodate up to 25,000 faithful. It is located on an elevated platform from which an important part of the city is contemplated.
One more attraction of Delhi is the Bahai temple, better known as the Lotus temple, for its design in the form of this flower, whose petal shape resembles the candles of the Sydney Opera House. It is a temple that brings together the four religions of India. Also in Delhi, the tomb of Humayun is a must, a work built in sandstone reminiscent of the Taj Mahal in its design. In any brief review of the tourist Delhi, you must include the Red Fort, named for the color of its robust walls.
From the capital of Rajasthan its icon is the Hawa Mahal, known as the Palace of Winds, an impressive façade in the heart of the city, full of windows from which the women of the harem viewed the street without being seen. The amazing thing about this palace is that, except for its beautiful facade, it has nothing more to do when you are travelling through the Palace on Wheels train.
Jaipur is known as the pink city because with this hue it was painted when it was visited by the royal authority in times of the British Empire. Today this definition is diluted by the great deterioration and poor condition of much of its buildings, as well as dirt, a common denominator throughout India that you have to ignore to enjoy this impressive country. In Jaipur, also highlights the Maharaja’s Palace, a set of splendid buildings and, in the outskirts, the Amber Fort, a bastion of strong walls and beautiful interior buildings.
The temples of Khajuraho, famous for their erotic sculptures, is another of the great attractions of India. There are more than twenty temples distributed in three groups, those of the West, East and South. The most relevant are those of the West, located very close to the center of the city, in a large garden area and exquisitely maintained. They are dedicated, especially, to the gods Shiva and Vishnu and on their exterior walls, exquisitely carved, stuffed with images, there are some explicit scenes of sex inspired by the Kamasutra.
The temples of Khajuraho were declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1986 and the good state of conservation is surprising if one considers that some of them exceed one thousand years old. It has contributed, foreseeably, that they are in a place in India far removed from their large populations, and that most of them were sculpted in a resistant granite. At present 22 have survived although originally it is believed that they exceeded 80.
Officially called Mumbai, it is the city with the most inhabitants of India, and is among the most populated in the world. I include it among the most outstanding in the country although I respect and understand those who consider it a megalopolis of filth and misery, since there is no lack of reasons if you visit some neighborhoods where many people live in subhuman conditions. Among the most important aspects of the city is the railway station, still known as Victoria Terminus, a gigantic Indo-Saracenic building that opened its doors in 1888.
Another of the great attractions of Mumbai is the so-called “Gate of India”, located on the seafront. It is a large basalt arch that has become a symbol of the city and began to be built in 1911, in the British period, to commemorate the visit of King George V and his wife. The door is also relevant for the large influx of Indian visitors, who admire this monument and wear their traditional dresses in striking colors and pose as a family around them. It is also essential to visit the Elephant Island, which is reached by a ferry that departs precisely from the pier next to the India Gate. The journey takes just over an hour and on the island you can visit five of the seven existing caves, two of them of Buddhist origin and the rest Hindu. The caves are supported by columns and in their walls there are carved impressive images and religious sculptures. It is also a World Heritage Site.
- Golden Temple
The northern city of Amritsar, very close to the border with Pakistan, is home to one of the most important places in the whole country: the golden temple of the Sikhs. It is the most sacred place for followers of this monotheistic religion. The temple, with the dome and part of its facade covered with gold sheets, is situated on a platform in the center of a lake surrounded by white marble buildings, forming a set of extraordinary beauty.
The temple of the Sikhs is open to everyone and their visit is free. Only discreet clothing and barefoot are required. Another attraction of the temple are its guardians, with its striking clothing. Although their appearance may impress the white weapons they use, they are very friendly and do not hesitate to pose for the photographs. The most complicated thing is to travel to Amritsar, a city almost 500 kilometers from Delhi. The transfers by road last more than seven hours by mediocre roads, so the best thing is the plane, which takes you in one hour and for less than 100 euros, round trip.
It is the jewel in the desert of the State of Rajasthan. The first impression one has as soon as this city is visible is that of its impressive fort, whose robust walls extend along the entire hill that dominates Jaisalmer. Its interior is a maze full of solid walls and dotted with shops and small hotels.
Also known as “the golden city”, Jaisalmer boasts large mansions, called havelis, built by wealthy merchants, and whose facades are authentic filigree, especially the balconies and windows, exquisitely carved. Three of these havelis are included among the most prominent palaces in India.
From Jaisalmer, a visit to the dune area of the Thar desert is required, located about 50 kilometers away. They are not dunes comparable to those of other large deserts but they are attractive enough to be worth a visit, especially at sunset, when the area attracts numerous cameleers and the picturesque women of Rajasthan, with their colorful dresses and their abundant and eye-catching jewelry. With such a pleasant company, the sunsets are especially photogenic.
Also known as the small Tibet, Ladakh is located on a high plateau, more than 3,500 meters high, between Tibet and the Himalayas. This location has kept it isolated for centuries and has allowed to keep its traditions and way of life untouched. Ladakh is a journey in the tunnel of time in a place of great beauty, both landscape, for the amazing contrast between the high peaks of the Himalayas and the semi-desert passes, as well as architectural, for its imposing Buddhist monasteries built in the most spectacular places.
Ladakh is a region of India easily accessible by plane from Delhi. Your capital, Leh, already indicates, with only a first glance, that you have entered another world that has nothing to do with Western life. From the capital you can hire daily visits to monasteries located within a radius of less than 100 kilometers, some of which do not have much to envy the Potala himself, as is the case of those located in Thiksey, Lamayuru and Takna.
Another of the greatest attractions of Ladakh is the beauty of the traditional clothing of their women, although there are very few who continue to use it daily. Fortunately these dresses are used when women visit monasteries and especially in religious and festive celebrations. I was fortunate to be able to contemplate them and no villagers gave me a fix about the photos, but rather, they thanked me.
At the southern end of India is the State of Kerala, with a distinctly tropical climate, very hot on the coast and more pleasant in the highlands of the interior. Kerala is not known for its large buildings, although it has some outstanding, but for being the State with the best living standards in the country and for a set of attractions such as its beaches, its mountain resorts with wildlife reserves, its famous channels known as backwaters , its cultural and musical tradition that includes the Kathakali, and its pleasant cities among which Cochin stands out.
The backwaters are a must see in Kerala. It is a series of natural channels that run through the interior, parallel to the coast, and that have become maritime transport routes and attractive to tourists, who can even spend the night while sailing through them in the kettuvallam, a kind of traditional boat houses that have been adapted for tourist exploitation.
A visit to Kerala is incomplete without witnessing the theatrical dance of kathakali. Cochin, a pleasant city with a beautiful Portuguese colonial district, is ideal to contemplate. You even have the option of being able to attend the ceremony of makeup of the characters, an operation that in some cases lasts almost four hours and is already a show. In Cochin there are two theaters that program this theatrical dance practically every day.
This small enclave has been the last addition to the State of India since until 1975 it was an independent territory. It is cornered between Nepal and Bhutan, at the foothills of the highest peaks of the Himalayas. Of course it is a world totally alien to the traditional image of India, where Buddhism dominates, with temples and monasteries that resemble those of neighboring Bhutan.
Like Ladakh, Sikkim must be visited in summer, when temperatures are pleasant since the capital, Gangtok is almost 2,000 meters high, which is the average height of much of the territory. The landscapes, against the backdrop of the giants of the Himalayas, the green exultants of terraced rice paddies and the beauty of the monasteries make Sikkim a charming place.
Plan your trip and book the Palace on Wheels train online to make your trip more adventurous.