India is a land like no other, home to an intoxicating mix of ancient traditions and varied spiritual beliefs. It’s where you’ll find colonial hill stations, rural villages, and fast-paced cities nestled between desert landscapes, the Himalayan mountains, tea plantations, and vast seas. India’s history dates back to the origins of the Indus Valley Civilization and later became influenced by the Mughal Empire, British, Dutch and Portuguese, among others. Here’s four historical destinations to add to your travel itinerary.
Agra, Uttar Pradesh
Founded by Sikandar Lodi, the Sultan of Delhi, in 1504, Agra’s golden era began in the 1520s when it became the capital of the Mughal Empire and was known as Akbarabād. Notable Mughal rulers Akbar, Jahāngīr and Shāh Jahān left their mark on the city and Akbar even introduced a short-lived syncretic religion called Din-i Ilahi. The Marathas took control of the city and remained it Agra and it was governed by the British Raj for over a century.
Visit Agra today to admire architectural wonders bequeathed by the Mughals. The white marble mausoleum Taj Mahal is often described as the world’s greatest ode to love. Check out Agra Fort, Shāh Jahān's headquarters and eventual prison. The Tomb of Akbar the Great and Itmad-ud-Daula are other notable landmarks.
Hampi is an ancient pilgrim village and UNESCO World Heritage Site set on the banks of the Tungabhadra River. The village’s roots are traceable back to the Maurya Empire, which started dominating the Indian subcontinent in the 3rd century B.C. It rose to prominence as a pilgrim center when it became the home of the Vijayanagara Empire in the 1300s. Hindus regard Hampi as sacred and several mythological events are associated with the village.
Major highlights are the temples and shrines from the Vijayanagara Empire. Among them is the Dravidian-style Virupaksha Temple and Sasivekalu Ganesha. Elsewhere, fallen pillars, decaying pavilions, and decrepit merchant homes are reminders of a place that once attracted traders from far and wide.
Kochi (aka Cochin), Kerala
The Queen of the Arabian Sea commands a dramatic setting interspersed by the Kerala backwaters and overlooking the Arabian Sea on India’s southwest coastline. Chance brought riches to Kochi in 1341, when a flood created a natural harbor and thus lured spice traders from around the world. The result is a bustling city with influences from Asian, Arabic and European cultures. Few cities can boast Chinese fishing nets, British and Dutch architecture, the Portuguese-built St. Francis Xavier Church, and the 16th-century Paradesi Jewish Synagogue.
Kochi is also a center for Kathakali, an elaborate dance native to the state of Kerala. Students train for up to 12 years in order to perfect the choreography and mannerisms required to retell epic Hindu stories. Discover more and attend performances at the Kerala Kathakali Centre.
Situated at the edge of the Thar Desert, Pushkar surrounds a mystical namesake lake and welcomes thousands of pilgrims at hundreds of temples. The town is referenced in Ramayana and Mahābhārata, India’s two ancient Sanskrit epic poems. Hindu mythology suggests that Lord Brahma created the city. Upon defeating a demon with a lotus, three of the petals fell to the ground and rose as the town’s three lakes. Jagatpita Brahma Mandir is one of very few temples dedicated to Lord Brahma in all of India.
Today, pilgrims and tourists come in droves to experience a magnetic charm and bathe in the holy waters of Lake Pushkar. They congregate at the lake’s 52 ghats while listening to the enchanting sounds of bells, drums and prayers. In November, thousands of flamboyant camel traders and farmers arrive to celebrate the Pushkar Camel Fair.