India Travel Guide – Top 10 Vacation Highlights

Boasting a rich and fascinating history, amazing holy sites, cosmopolitan cities, delectable cuisine, exquisite arts and spectacular monuments, India is a unique travel destination that never ceases to grow in popularity.
India Travel Guide
Table of Contents

Begin your tour of India by marveling at the breathtaking splendor of the Taj Mahal, an epic set in stone. Reflecting pools and fountains lead up to the world famous mausoleum crafted in pure, soft marble and bejeweled with semi precious stones, where, in the serenity of paradise, a Queen and her King lie in eternal rest.

India is rich in sacred rituals and traditions performed at various sites including the popular Varanasi city, the ‘spiritual capital of India’. Take a boat ride at dawn on the holy river Ganges across the Ghats of Varanasi on a mesmerizing spiritual tour and watch the purification rituals of the hundreds of pilgrims flocking these riverfront steps every day.

Every year, thousands of devotees from across the world visit India, a land that offers a bounty for those seeking a spiritual connection. Nurture your spirituality by attending the spectacular religious festivals held at various landmarks all through the year. In December, join the crowds of pilgrims who throng the Virupaksha temple to celebrate the betrothal and marriage ceremonies of their god and goddess.

India is also home to a vast assortment of masterpieces in religious art. The uniquely elaborate cave paintings and sculptures at Ajanta and Ellora are hallmarks of artistic creativity. Don’t miss out on this artistic legacy of India that continues to inspire and enrich the lives of all those who set eyes upon it.

The intriguing ancient history of India is continuously told by its numerous iconic landmarks and symbols. Jaisalmer Fort, one of the largest forts in the world, rises from the golden sand dunes of the Thar Desert in a truly wondrous sight. For millennia, the famous fort has survived the onslaught of men, nature and time, and remains standing today.

Whether you seek religious inspiration or just want to indulge in glorious arts and marvelous architecture, India has something for everyone. Rich in masterpieces of human creativity that bear unique testimony to its grand cultural and religious traditions from antiquity, India is bound to impress you. For centuries, many travelers have fallen in love with India. Brace yourself, you just might be next.

1. Taj Mahal

India boasts a great many fascinating attractions. Of the many draws to India, the Taj Mahal is arguably the most popular with tourists the world over. One of the most well known buildings in the world, which draws , over 3 million visitors each year, the Taj Mahal is an immense mausoleum that serves as an iconic example of ancient Indian architecture.

The Taj Mahal is today widely regarded as one of the most beautiful buildings ever created. Situated in Agra, this exquisite white marble structure is an enduring monument to the love of a husband for his favorite wife. It is also a testament to the scientific and artistic accomplishments of the wealthy Mughal Empire.

When Shah Jahan “the King of the World” ascended the throne of the Mughal Empire in 1628, he was very much in love with his queen whom he called Mumtaz Mahal or “the Chosen One of the Palace”. Poets of the Mughal court said that her beauty was such that the moon hid its face in shame before her. Legend has it that in 1631, as Mumtaz Mahal lay dying during childbirth she made the Shah promise to build her the most beautiful tomb ever.

During the reign of Shah Jahan, the Mughals attained the peak of their wealth and power courtesy of India’s wealth of precious gems. Shah Jahan invested his wealth and poured his passion into creating the Taj Mahal monument in his dead queen’s honor.

It is said that 20,000 stone carvers, masons and artists from all across India, and even as far as Iraq and Turkey were employed under a team of architects to build the Taj Mahal. The monument was built in lush gardens on the banks of Jamuna River from 1631 to 1648.

Visitors to the Taj Mahal should spend some time exploring the striking interior of the mausoleum, where more of the beauty of this iconic monument lies in the painstaking details. Here you can gaze in awe at the inlaid semiprecious stones and carvings, as well as the Koran verse calligraphy, which create an enchanting mood in the space.

The exterior of the monument is equally impressive. Visitors can watch as the clean white marble of the walls changes tone and color to match the mood of the outside world, such as the golden light of the full moon or the rosy glow of dawn. This enchanting transformation is what draws many tourists back for a lingering second look at the Taj Mahal at different times of the day.

Because this year-round attraction is often busy, the best time to enjoy it with some solitude is early or late in the day.

2. Ghats of Varanasi

Thousands of visitors throng India every year in search of a spiritual connection, and the first destination for most pilgrims is the holy city of Varanasi. Situated on the banks of the River Ganges, Varanasi is regarded as the religious capital of India. Widely popular with tourists, Varanasi is the holiest of the 7 sacred cities in Hinduism and Jainism, which also played a key role in the development of Buddhism.

Varanasi has been the cultural center of Northern India for several thousand years, with many prominent Indian musicians, philosophers, writers and poets having made a home there. The culture of this holy city is closely associated with the River Ganges, India’s holy river.

The holiest spots and main attractions at Varanasi are the Ghats, which are stone slab steps that lead to the banks of the Ganges. The Ghats are ever filled with pilgrims who flock the place to perform ritual ablutions. They take a dip in the Ganges in the belief that this will cleanse and purify them physically, mentally and spiritually, thereby absolving them from all their sins.

Indeed, for thousands of years, people have thronged the Ganges to offer dawn prayers to the rising Sun. However, the present Ghats, temples and religious sites of Varanasi date back to the 18th century, having been built after 1700 AD, when the city was part of the Mauryan Empire.

Varanasi has about 84 Ghats, the majority of which are for bathing and performing worship, while a few are exclusively used as sites for cremation. Today, many of the Ghats are privately owned and associated with legend and myth.

Devotees believe that dying at Varanasi, the favorite city of Hindu deity Lord Shiva, brings one salvation. The Varanasi Ghats are an integral part of the Hindu concept of divinity as represented by elements of the physical, metaphysical and supernatural. All Ghats are in fact locations on “the divine cosmic road”.

Be sure to visit the Dashashwamedh Ghat, possibly the oldest in Varanasi, which is believed to have been created by Lord Brahma to welcome Lord Shiva. Another tourist favorite is the Manikarnika Ghat, the “great cremation ground” which is the city’s primary location for Hindu cremation. The raised platforms adjoining this Ghat also serve as sites for death anniversary rituals.

Varanasi’s Ghats stretch extensively across the river front, enhancing the view of the many temples, shrines and palaces that line the water’s edge. The temples situated above the Ghats are also of significant importance to pilgrims. Priests perform rituals there every evening, as well as during religious festivals.

A trip to India is not complete without touring its spiritual capital – Varanasi, also famous for being one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. The popular way for tourists to see the Ghats is by taking a morning boat ride on the Ganges.

3. Ajanta and Ellora Caves

India is home to many religious sites boasting great artistic excellence. The Ajanta and Ellora caves are ornately carved rock spaces situated near Aurangabad. Began in the 2nd century BC and continued into the 6th century AD, the caves showcase glorious paintings and sculptures in honor of Lord Buddha.

The rock-cut caves of Ajanta are nestled in a panoramic gorge, in the form of a gigantic horseshoe. Ajanta comprises 29 caves offering some of the finest examples of early Buddhist architecture, sculpture and cave paintings. The caves comprise shrines or halls dedicated to Lord Buddha and monasteries used by Buddhist monks for meditation and the study of Buddhist teachings.

The depiction of incidences in the life of Lord Buddha and other Buddhist divinities in the paintings adorning the cave walls and ceilings is primarily what attracts visitors from around the world. Popular among tourists is the interesting Jataka tales which illustrate diverse stories relating to the previous incarnations of Buddha.

The detailed murals offer sophisticated portraits of deities, princes, musicians, lovers and other personages featured in Buddhist narratives. Amid the beautiful murals, stone pillars, vaulted ceilings and decorative rafters are sculptures of Buddha in calm and serene contemplation. Bring a torch with you to the Ajanta caves as many of them are quite dark.

The cave monasteries and temples at Ellora were excavated out of the vertical face of an escarpment by sculptors inspired by Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism. These elaborate rock carving creations extend in a linear arrangement and comprise 34 caves containing Buddhist halls of worship and monasteries, as well as Hindu and Jain temples.

The most notable monument at Ellora is arguably the magnificent Kailasa Temple, which is also the largest monolithic structure in existence. From ancient times, this cave carved from a single mammoth rock has continued to attract pilgrims through the centuries to the present day.

Kailasa is a culmination of rock-cut architecture with massive sculptural reliefs that enhance the overall symbolism of the temple as a cosmic mountain, as well as the home of Lord Shiva. Visitors can climb up the hill around the Kailasa Temple for the best view of its interior.

While the Ajanta caves are rich in paintings and sculptures, the Ellora caves are famous for their extraordinary architectural values. The most incredible fact about the both caves is that they were all crafted by hand, using only a hammer and chisel. The caves which have long had a great influence in the development of art in India, are meditative and quiet, yet give off a divine power and energy.

4. Jaisalmer Fort

The numerous landmarks that dot the Indian landscape are testament to the fascinating history of this ancient land. Rising out of the vast sandy terrain of the Thar Desert is the Jaisalmer Fort, the epitome of Indian artwork and design. The crowning glory of the city of Jaisalmer, the fort is a magnificent structure constructed out of yellow sandstone.

The city of Jaisalmer was once home to the Rajputs, a tribe of warriors and traders who for centuries prospered from levying taxes on merchants trading the route between ancient Egypt, India and Persia. Prone to warring both against outsiders and themselves, the Rajputs built a network of intricate fortresses to defend themselves and protect their wealth.

Construction of Jaisalmer fort was begun in 1156 under King Rawal Jaisal who wished to shift his capital from Lodurva which was subject to invasions. In the Indian epic poem, the Mahabharata, the mystic tells Jaisal that Lord Krishna, the Hindu deity had praised the spot. Therefore if the king built his fort there, it would be almost invisible to his enemies.

Indeed, from 30 miles away, visitors who arrive at this ancient wonder today are only able to see a sheer golden cliff rising almost 25 stories from the floor of the desert. The fortress of Jaisalmer is nestled atop the Trikuta Hill.

The fort is also known as Sonar Quila or “the Golden Fort”, a name derived from the fact that its massive rich yellow sandstone walls are a tawny lion color during the day, which has it shimmering like a mirage. The walls then fade to honey-gold with the setting of the sun to camouflage the fort inside its yellow desert home.

Jaisalmer fortress is part of the group of 6 Hill Forts of Rajasthan. The scene of many ancient battles, the fort has 99 bastions carved of stone, which were previously used as a platform for guns. The main gate of the fort rises 60 feet and is carved from Indian rosewood. It has a crack, which according to legend, first appeared after a Hindu saint crossed its threshold.

Inside the fortress, sandstone walls lead to stables, homes and elaborately designed palaces, once the homes of the Rajput kings. The soft marble of the palaces is carved with chariot wheels, flowers and fruits, while the walkways are adorned with scalloped archways. The royal apartments are shaded with ornamented screens and filigreed with unbelievable detail.

Walking through the narrow lanes within the fort is an experience truly worth savoring. Here you can admire the many beautiful havelis and group of Jain temples that date back to the 12th to 15th centuries.

The origins of the entire modern-day city of Jaisalmer can be traced back to its iconic fort, from which the town grew and spilled out to cover the flat landmass surrounding the fort.

While other famous forts in India have been abandoned with the exception of tour guides, some 2,000 residents still occupy the Jaisalmer, India’s last living fort. This is another reason why about half a million visitors are drawn to Jaisalmer each year.

5. Virupaksha Temple

India’s numerous temples nourish not only the soul, but are also a sight for sore eyes. One of the most stunning spiritual landmarks in India, the Virupaksha temple is a magnificent structure that comprises a layered tower with elaborately hand-carved friezes featuring the various deities and symbols of Hinduism.

The most popular of the Hampi group of monuments, the temple is situated in the ancient city of Hampi on the south bank of the river Tungabhadra. Virupaksha is Hampi’s oldest temple and one of the oldest functioning temples in India. It is believed to have functioned uninterrupted since its inception in the 7th century AD.

Virupaksha is a form of Lord Shiva to whom the temple is dedicated. A major tourist attraction, this temple and its environs have for centuries served as an important pilgrimage center for worshipers of Shiva. Today, the temple continues to prosper and attract large crowds of both pilgrims and tourists for the betrothal and marriage festivities of Virupaksha and Pampa which are celebrated every December.

The temple’s original place of worship comprised only a few separate humble shrines housing the image of Shiva and the goddess. Over the centuries, the temple expanded gradually into a sprawling complex with an open pillared hall, with 3 chambers and a sanctum, numerous smaller shrines, pillared halls, lamp posts, flag posts, towered gateways, a courtyard and a large temple kitchen.

This expansion from a small shrine into a massive temple complex is primarily attributed to the Vijayanagara rulers under whom there began a flowering of art and culture in the mid 1300s.

Visitors may access the main entrance tower of the temple via Chariot Street in front of the Bazaar. Once inside, the giant tower facing east will lead you to the first courtyard of the temple complex. The most prominent landmark in Hampi, this intriguing 9-storied tower is pastel painted and has a pair of cow horn-like projections at the top.

The temple’s superstructure is made of brick and mortar with the exterior of the first tier spotting many interesting stucco figures. To be able to see all of them, you will need to move some distance away from the base of the tower.

On the south side of the tower are some interesting erotic figures of amorous couples, which were connected to ancient fertility rites. You may view these figures well from the alley heading southwards from this tower entrance.

Tourists are advised to take their time while visiting Virupaksha temple in order to enjoy all its splendor. In the mornings and evenings, visitors can witness interesting temple rituals and ceremonies.

6. Agra Fort

India offers endless opportunities to explore its rich architectural heritage from ancient times. With its mighty towers and overwhelming facades designed to instill fear and awe in anyone who dared venture inside, Agra fort remains a symbol of strength, power and resilience that still stands in full glory today.

Situated on the right bank of the Yamuna River, Agra fort is one of the most important and well built strongholds of the Mughal Empire. The fort is embellished with several richly decorated buildings that showcase the imposing architecture and art of the Mughals. It was constructed by Mughal emperor Akbar on the remains of an ancient 11th century brick fort known as Badalgarh.

Sikandar Lodi was the first Sultan of Delhi to move his capital to Agra. During the reign of the sultan and his successor son, a number of palaces, wells and a mosque were built within the Badalgarh fort. Realizing the importance of its central location, Akbar later also made Agra his capital and moved here in 1558. During his reign, the fort was renovated with the red sandstone that characterizes Agra fort today.

A sister to the more famous Taj Mahal situated a few kilometers away the fort is in fact more of a walled city. It has a semi-circular plan and is surrounded by a fortification wall that rises 21.4m. Spread out over 94 acres, the fort houses more than two dozen monuments.

There are 4 gates on each of the 4 sides of the fort with the Khizri gate opening out to the riverfront where Ghats have been built. The grandest of the 4 gates is the monumental Delhi Gate, which is embellished with inlay work in white marble and regarded as a masterpiece of Akbar’s time.

The most beautiful parts of the fort were added during the 17th century by Akbar’s grandson, Shah Jahan of Taj Mahal fame. The Shah destroyed some of the previous buildings inside the fort to make way for his own and went on to build a number of white marble palaces and mosques inside the fort.

Shah Jahan would later be imprisoned by his own son, Aurangzeb, inside the fort for 8 years until his death in 1666. Legend has it that the Shah died in Muasamman Burj, a tower within the fort with a marble balcony, as well as a view of the Taj Mahal. He was buried next to his queen inside the Taj Mahal.

Built during an era marked by invasions and fortifications, when grand palaces and grander forts symbolized power, Agra Fort is the true highlight of Agra city. Visitors touring Agra fort can admire the striking architecture, especially the arches that adorn the courtyards. You should also be impressed by the interesting mix of Hindu and Islamic architecture found here.

7. Meenakshi Amman Temple

A visit to India is not complete without a tour of one of the many spectacular temples dotting the country’s landscape. Situated on the banks of the river Vaigai in Madurai, the Meenakshi Amman Temple is one of the most revered ancient monuments in southern India. Exquisite in beauty, the temple is an iconic example of life giving architecture in the ancient city of Madurai.

A prominent landmark and the most visited attraction in the city the temple was built exclusively for Lord Parvathi and Lord Shiva, popularly known as Sudareshwarar in this region. The temple is an important symbol for the Tamil people, having been mentioned in Tamil literature since antiquity. However, the present-day structure was built between the years 1623 and 1655 CE.

Legend has it that the temple was founded by Lord Indra while on a pilgrimage to atone for his sins. He is said to have felt his burden being lifted as he neared a representation of Lord Shiva in Madurai. Grateful for this miracle, he erected the temple as a shrine in honor of Lord Shiva. As Indra worshipped Shiva, the deity made golden lotuses appear in the pool surrounding the temple.

Truly a marvel of ancient architecture, the temple which houses an estimated 33,000 sculptures, is a must-see for anyone visiting India. There are 14 entrance towers in total. Be sure to visit the south tower which is the biggest of them all, and also a real delight to look at with its two golden sculptures and shrines built over sanctums dedicated to the chief deities.

A notable feature of the iconography in this temple is that of the Nataraja, or dancing form of Shiva, which is shown dancing with his right leg raised, rather than the left as is the norm. Legend has it that this was on request from a sincere devotee who felt that keeping the same foot raised would place enormous strain on the deity. Lord Shiva was graceful enough to agree to this request.

Another fascinating part of the temple is the Hall of a Thousand Pillars which is, as the name suggests, constructed out of about 1,000 pillars carved with mythological images. Visitors can also admire the various icons, drawings, photographs and exhibits of the temple’s 1200 year history, which are housed in the temple’s Art Museum hall.

Popular religious festivals are celebrated inside the Meenakshi Amman temple the whole year round. Try to make it to India and the temple in time for the Meenakshi Thirukalyanam festivities celebrating the divine marriage of Meenakshi. Celebrated in April with a lot of grandeur, pomp and color, the ceremony brings together deities and mortals, tourists and devotees alike.

8. Khajuraho Temples

India’s incredible religious sites offer an exciting adventure for the senses of both pilgrims and tourists alike. Khajuraho is home to the largest group of medieval Hindu and Jain temples, famous around the world for their erotic sculptures. Passion and eroticism, music and dance, and other creative arts are depicted in the temples sculptures and images which are carved in erotic poses.

Located in Madhya Pradesh, the Khajuraho temples are a group of 20 sculptured temples with great architectural symbolism, built in dedication to Lords Shiva, Vishnu and other Jain patriarchs. The most notable feature of these temples is the fact that both their interiors and exteriors are richly carved with superb sculptures that are often sensual, and at times sexually explicit.

That said, the majority of the art works found in the temples depict mythical stories, various aspects of everyday medieval life, along with symbols of Hindu spiritual and secular values. These include women putting on makeup, musicians performing music, farmers, potters and other ordinary people going about their day to day life during medieval times.

The temple area is enclosed by a wall with 8 gates, each flanked by 2 golden palm trees. The temples are divided into 3 complexes. The largest and best known is the western complex which contains the magnificent Kandariya Mahadeva, Shaivite temple. This is a 32m high structure comprising of turrets and porches that culminate in a spire.

Most of the temples were built between 950 and 1050 CE by the Chandela kings. A popular tourist destination, the site originally had 85 temples, but only 20 remain well preserved to this day. Although widely popular primarily due to their explicit depiction of traditional sexual life during medieval times, the temples are also a fine testament to the unique architectural styles of ancient times.

The superior quality of hard river sandstone found in the region allowed for the impressive precision carving reflected in the fine details of strands of hair, manicured nails and intricate jewelry you will see in the surviving sculptures.

The temple town of Khajuraho is a culmination of the art and science of ancient Indian architecture. Once the cultural capital of the Chandela Rajputs, a dynasty that ruled from the 9th to the 11th century CE, the town derives its name from the abundance of khajur or ‘date palms’ in the region.

During a period of chaos and decline in the late 11th century, the Chandela abandoned Khajuraho and moved to other hill forts. But Khajuraho continued to hold religious importance until the 14th century when famous traveler Ibn Battuta visited the temples and wrote about how impressed he was by them.

9. Basilica of Bom Jesus

A melting pot of religions, India offers spiritual nourishment for every soul, no matter the faith. Among the most revered churches by Christians the world over, the Basilica of Bom Jesus is Goa’s most famous church. Although partially in ruins, the church remains a model of elegance and simplicity.

Situated in Old Goa, the former capital of Goa during Portuguese rule, the foundation stone of this remarkably huge church was laid in 1594. Today, its magnificent edifice stands as a great testament to Baroque Jesuit architecture in India.

Designed by Giovanni Battista Foggini, a 17th century Florentine sculptor, the church took 10 years to be completed. The name “Bom Jesus” derives from ‘good Jesus’ or ‘holy Jesus’ to whom the church is dedicated.

The imposing façade of the church was built out of black granite in an exquisite combination of the Corinthian, Ionic, Doric and composite styles. Remarkable for its charming simplicity, the church measures 183ft in length, 55 ft in breadth and 61 ft in height.

Widely regarded as an important landmark in the history of Christianity, the layout of the basilica is simple yet grand. The Basilica floor is constructed out of marble inlaid with precious stones, while the main altar is elaborately gilded. The church’s pillars and other details were carved out of basalt while the rest of the church’s interior reflects an elegant Mosaico-Corinthian style.

As visitors enter the church, their attention is drawn to the large and ornate gilded pillars stretching from the floor to the ceiling, just behind the altar. The walls also feature interesting portraits of various saints positioned above a delicately carved chest of drawers.

The basilica houses the remains of St. Francis Xavier, a Roman Catholic missionary who preached the gospel of Jesus Christ to the people of Asia. Xavier’s body today lies in a ornately decorated silver casket kept within a chapel at the southern end of the basilica. The chapel interior is richly adorned with gilded twisted columns, floral wood carvings and paintings of important scenes from the life of the Saint.

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Xavier’s remains attract large numbers of devotees who travel from across the globe each year to see the saint said to possess miraculous healing powers. The holy remains of the saint are displayed once every 10 years on 3rd December, the anniversary of his death, the last display occurring in 2014.

In the middle of the northern wall is a dedication to Dom Jeronimo Mascarnhas, the benefactor of the church who, upon his death in 1593, bequeathed the resources out of which the church was built. Be sure to visit the Bom Jesus Basilica Art Gallery located on the upper level overlooking the tomb. Here you can admire interesting works by Dom Martin, the Goan surrealist painter.

10. Elephanta Caves

There is an abundance of uniquely fascinating art to be seen in India, which offers insights to the religious and cultural traditions of this ancient land. The Elephanta Caves are a mysterious complex of ancient cave temples hewn from solid basalt rock and situated on Elephanta Island.

Also known as the ‘Gharapurichya Lenee’, this network of cave architecture comprises 2 groups: one large group of 5 Hindu caves, and a second smaller group of 2 Buddhist caves. While all the caves were originally painted, only traces remain today.

Entrance to the caves is via the main northern entrance which leads to Cave 1, also known as ‘the Great Cave’ or ‘the Shiva Cave’, a huge hall supported by large pillars. This rock cut stone temple complex is the abode of Shiva and has the deity depicted in carvings that show his various forms and acts.

This cave also houses the gigantic Trimurti statue. Standing at 20 ft high, this remarkable sculpture is a depiction of Lord Shiva in his 3-headed form: as Creator (facing right), Protector (crowned face at the center) and Destroyer (facing left with serpents for hair).

The beauty of the carved stonework you will see here rests in the graceful balance and peacefulness that is conveyed despite the multiple actions of the subject. Other sculptures located close to the doorways and on the side panels serve as a celebration of the accomplishments of Shiva.

Visitors can admire a statue of Shiva bringing the River Ganges down to Earth, by letting it trickle through his matted hair. Shiva is also depicted as lord of the Yogis, seated on a lotus, as the cosmic dancer with many arms, and also as both male and female.

While the identity of the original builders remains unknown, the caves are dated between the 5th and the 8th centuries. However, local lore has it that these caves were not made by man. The mystery as to their origins has led to legends with Pandava, hero of Hindu epic Mahabharata, along with Banasura, demon devotee of Lord Shiva, both being credited with having cut the caves to reside in.

Originally known as Gharapuri which means ‘the city of caves’, the island was renamed ‘Elephanta’ by the Portuguese who came upon a large stone elephant close to the place where they landed.

Elephanta Island is a worthy destination in itself as it offers a great view of the Mumbai skyline, as well as an escape from city life. Picturesque and quiet, the island has light-green foliage and monkeys scampering about. Avoid bringing food with you to the island as the monkeys may harass you. Also try to plan your trip such that you are able to watch the sunset over Mumbai during your journey back.

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