While travelling around India, you’ll discover there’s no dearth of an amazing range of UNESCO-acclaimed World Heritage Sites that represent the country’s immense wealth of cultural and natural diversity. We pick a few of our favourites for their deep significance.
The Taj Mahal
The marbled ‘teardrop on the cheek of time’ built by the Mughal Emperor Shahjehan for his beloved Mumtaz Mahal is one of the world’s most iconic monuments to love. Built between 1631 and 1648 in the ancient Mughal bastion of Agra, the Taj Mahal is beloved for its fabled luminescent beauty and deep symbolism.
We consider the Taj the jewel of Islamic art in India and one of the universally admired masterpieces of the world's heritage. Only the very best would do for his beloved memorial and the emperor left no stone unturned to source the finest masons, stone-cutters, inlayers, carvers, painters, calligraphers, dome builders and other artisans from the whole of the empire and also from the Central Asia and Iran to build it. The chief architect behind this grand sepulchre was Ustad-Ahmad Lahori.
Today, the Taj Mahal represents the finest architectural and artistic achievement through perfect harmony and excellent craftsmanship in a whole range of Indo-Islamic sepulchral architecture. It became a UNESCO-acclaimed World Heritage Site in 1982.
Visiting the Qutb Minar, located near the old village of Mehrauli in Delhi, opens up a window to the early days the advent of Islam in India. This grand 13th century victory tower piercing the city skyline at 72.5 m stands strong and tall amidst the cacophony and clamour of the 21st century rushing by around it. It was commissioned in 1192 by Sultan Qutb al-Din Aibak a founder of Muslim rule in India. But the tower was completed by his son-in-law, Iltutmish, who took over as his successor on his death, and went on to establish an independent Sultanate in Delhi.
They surfaced the tower of the Qutb with geometric patterns and inscriptions. Scattered around it is a cavalcade of funerary buildings. Alai-Darwaza Gate,is a masterpiece of Indo-Muslim art dating to 1311. Amongst the two mosques here, the Quwwatu’l-Islam is the oldest in northern India and it was built from the rubble of 20 Brahman temples that had been demolished. The red sandstone tower and the surrounding structures became a UNESCO-acclaimed Cultural World Heritage Site in 1993. The importance of these structures lies in their being exemplars of the architectural achievements of early Islamic India.
Konarak Sun Temple
Time your visit here in the winter when this fabulous temple site becomes the sensational backdrop of an Indian classical dance festival. Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the fabulous 13th century Sun Temple, is fabled for its massive structure, symmetry, precision and intricate detailing. The culmination of Odishan temple architecture, the Sun Temple on Konarak Beach, was one of the most spectacular forms of religious architecture in its heyday. Now partially in ruins, it is said that it took 12 years for over 1,200 artisans to erect this melody in stone and the quintessence of imaginative craftsmanship.
Dedicated to Lord Surya, the sun god, it featured a massive chariot with 24 wheels decorated with symbolic designs being driven across the heavens by a team of seven carved horses. The temple forms an invaluable link in the history of the diffusion of the cult of Surya. In this sense, it is directly and materially linked to Brahmanism and tantric belief systems. Its scale, refinement, and conception represent the strength and stability of the Ganga Empire, as well as the value systems of the historic milieu. Its aesthetical and visually overwhelming sculptural narratives are today an invaluable window to the religious, political, social and secular life of the people of that period.
The Hill Forts of Rajasthan
Your travels around Rajasthan will introduce you to a world where chivalry and valour have been embedded deep in the DNA of the Rajput community. A cavalcade of forbidding fortress scattered across the land well represented the military might of the ancient Rajputana kingdoms.
In 2013 a series of forts were identified by UNESCO as a cultural World Heritage Sites. This included the majestic citadels of Chittorgarh; Kumbhalgarh; Sawai Madhopur; Jhalawar; Jaipur; and Jaisalmer. Located in different cities, as a serial cultural property, this recognition was the first of its kind ever by UNESCO.
The elaborate fortifications, built to protect not only garrisons for defence but also palatial buildings, temples, and urban centres, and their distinctive Rajput architecture, are an exceptional testimony to the cultural traditions of the ruling Rajput clans and to their patronage of religion, arts and literature in Rajasthan over several centuries.
Sunderban National Park
Kolkata is an excellent base to travel to the world’s largest tidal mangrove forest sites, located amongst West Bengal’s’ delta lands of the Ganga and Brahmaputra rivers. This is the Sunderban National Park, which is part of a total expanse of the Sundarbans Biosphere Reserve, comprising 26,000sq km of tidal mangrove forests, of which 9,630 sq km falls in India and the rest in neighbouring Bangladesh. UNESCO declared the Indian section of the Sundarbans a World Heritage Site in1989. Almost a decade later, the Bangladesh segment also came under UNESCO. This primordial land of myth and legend is home to the Royal Bengal Tiger and aquatic creatures that have established peculiar habits while trying to adapt to this the unique eco-system. So you have tree climbing crabs and fish that live in both land and water. Even plants and animals have learned to survive in this saline habitat.
Your explorations of this other-worldly landscape of the world’s largest single tidal mangrove forest eco-system can done by a slow boat cruise to get the full measure of the haunting beauty this fantastic wetland. Keep your eyes peeled for sightings of the saltwater crocodile, Olive Ridley turtles, mangrove horseshoe crab, the Gangetic and Irrawaddy dolphin–and the elusive tiger.
Varanasi- Riverfront Heritage Site
As one of the most ancient continuously inhabited cities of the world since at least 1200 BCE, UNESCO acclaimed Varanasi as a World Heritage Site. Its Universal Value rooted in its being one of the highest embodiments of pan-Indian religion, spirituality and culture and the iconic sacred riverfront ghats and line-up of shrines, comprising its historic core, are an epitome of the living traditions attached.
The sacred value of its heritage riverfront is best experienced by a boat ride at dawn, or sunset, on the holy Ganga, as you sweep by the Assi, Dasashwamedh , Manikarnika, Panchganga and Raj ghats, the five most merit-giving and sacred ghats, that are a magnet for pilgrims. Enjoy those unforgettable moments of some of the most spectacular scenes of devotional pageantry on earth. Soak in those amazing vignettes of the celestial connection of the riverfront with the River Ganga and discover how it is so richly qualified by the unique architectural, artistic and religious expressions of traditional Indian culture.
You will need many return visits to India to catch up on its grand spectacle of World Heritage Sites. What we have presented to you is just a tiny window into the many-splendoured wonders of India. So get back here already!