With the Indus Valley civilization and several subsequent empires and kingdoms, India is one of the World’s archaeological gems. Be it ancient forts or some of the world’s oldest universities, India has more than a thousand archaeological sites – many of which are accessible to travelers and tourists. Since ancient times the region has seen several cultures flourish due to the endless conquest of the area between various empires and kingdoms.
1. KUMBHALGARH FORT, RAJASTHAN
Kumbhalgarh Fort is one of the largest hilltop forts in the World, and one of six spectacular Hill Forts of Rajasthan included on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage sites. The region of Kumbhalgarh was ruled by a Rajput clan called the Sisodia Rajputs. King Rana Kumbha, after whom the fort is named, laid the foundation of this majestic fort in the 15th century AD when it became the capital of the Kingdom of Mewar. Kumbhalgarh was home to the Sisodia Rajputs until the capital of Mewar moved to the more strategic city of Udaipur.
The fort is built in a distinctive Hindu Rajput architectural style while also borrowing influences from Persian architecture. The impressive walls are thick enough to allow eight horses to walk abreast of each other on the top and extend for some 36 kilometers around a hilltop, which is itself about 1,100 meters above sea level, making this the second longest ancient wall in the World – after the Great Wall of China. Within these walls, there are over 360 Jain and Hindu temples. Not surprisingly given the dimensions of these walls then, the fort remained impregnable, falling only once due to a shortage of water when surrounded by the collective forces of Akbar, Raja Mansingh of the Dundhar kingdom in Rajasthan and the Sultan of Gujarat.
From its elevated, hilltop location, fantastic, panoramic views of the surrounding Aravalli Mountains – the oldest mountain range in India.
2. JAISALMER FORT, RAJASTHAN
If you are still in doubt about the grandeur of the forts of Rajasthan and want to see another jewel in that region’s ancient crown, then you should certainly consider visiting Jaisalmer Fort. The fort was built in the 12th century AD by a Bhati Rajput ruler Rawal Jaisal, who named the fort after himself. Jaisalmer was ruled by the Rajputs until it was captured in the 13th century by Ala-ud-din Khilji and his forces, who ruled here for 9 years. Later, in the 16th century, the fort was again captured, but this time by the Mughals under their emperor Humayun.
As a typical Rajastan hill fort, Jaisalmer is situated on Trikuta Hill, which makes it strikingly visible on the vast stretches of sand of the Thar Desert. This striking appearance is further enhanced by yellow sandstone used in its construction. As a result, the fort quite spectacularly reflects the sun rays against the backdrop of the sandy desert and appears as if it is made of gold – hence why it is also called Sonar Quila or the Golden Fort.
The fort has 3 layers of walls, inside which there are the various residential quarters of the royal family, temples and the elaborately carved merchant houses known as havelis. The other attractions in the fort include Jain Temples from the 12th century and a large library known as the ‘Granth Bhandar’ that contains scripts and texts from the 12th and 13th centuries. The city of Jaisalmer has now spread beyond the walls, but there was a time when the entire population, which consisted mainly of merchants and the workers of the Bhati Rajputs, used to reside within the walls of the Fort.
3. MEENAKSHI TEMPLE, TAMIL NADU
Also known as Meenakshi Amman Temple, this temple is one of the highlights of the city of Madurai in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Madurai has been inhabited for over two thousand years, and is not only one of the oldest cities of India, it is also one of the oldest, continuously inhabited cities of the world. The temple is dedicated to the Hindu goddess Parvati who is the consort of the deity Lord Shiva. The temple complex is well known for its striking gopurams, there are 14 of them in all. These are multi-storeyed gayeway towers that are covered with many thousand carvings of animals, gods and demons all painted in bright colours. The exact date when the temple was built is uncertain, but it is said to have been founded by Lord Indra about 2,500 years ago. The architecture is typical Dravidian style and the Gopurams are elaborately ornate with carvings, motifs and stucco figurines that depict the various beings from Hindu mythology. The total number of sculptures found on the temple is estimated at approximately 33,000, making Meenakshi Amman Temple an archaeological marvel for anyone who loves ancient and religious arts.
The temple is located in heart of the city of Madurai, one of the more interesting places to visit in Tamil Nadu. During the annual 10-days festival that takes place in the months of April and May, the temple attracts more than a million visitors. One of the major attractions at the temple is the tallest gopuram. Built in the 16th century and nearly 60 metre high, it is the two golden vimanas carved with numerous sculptures many come to see. Another must see feature here is the hall of thousand pillars, especially for those who have a specific interest in Dravidian architecture and stone carving skills.
4. KHAJURAHO TEMPLES, MADHYA PRADESH
The Khajuraho group of monuments can be found in the Chhatarpur district of the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh; more specifically in the town of Khajuraho. The various temples were built in the 10th and 11th centuries by the Chandela Rajput dynasty. Most of the temples are dedicated to Hindu deities or the Jain sect. According to historians there were once around 85 temples spread throughout an area of about 20 kilometres. Sadly, only 20 of them have survived to this day and are protected under the Archaeological Survey of India as well as being listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The temples are located near the Vindhya Mountain range and were built in amongst a number of natural lakes.
The main reason the temples of Khajuraho are so well known is because of their distinctive architectural style and they are decorated with elaborately carved figurines and sculptures. Of these the most famous are those that display erotic art associated with the Hindu tradition of Kama. The erotic arts comprise around 10% of the total sculptures found in Khajuraho. The remaining 90% of the sculptures display the daily lives of people and the various principles of Hindu culture. Each February the Chitragupta or Vishwanath Temples host the Khajuraho Dance Festival, the prefect opportunity to see performances of classical Indian dance.
5. KONARK SUN TEMPLE, ODISHA
The Konark Sun Temple, also known as the Black Pagoda, is in the Indian state of Odisha. The temple was built by the Eastern Ganga Dynasty during the mid 13th century. The temple is listed in the UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites and is essentially one of the 7 Wonders of India. As the name suggests the temple is dedicated to the Sun and is built in the shape of an Indian chariot with wheels carved besides the temple. The temple was originally built at the banks of the Chandrabhaga River, but the waters have receded.
Built in the shape of the Sun god’s chariot the temple has 12 pairs of wheels which were carved out from stone. The wheels of the temple also serve as sundials which were used to denote time according to the position of the Sun. The Kalinga style of architecture is pretty evident with the elaborate carvings. The temple stands on the site of a previous temple which was built around the 7th century AD. The current temple was built by the Eastern Ganga King Narsimhadeva I to celebrate his victory over the invading army of Tughral Tughan Khan during the era of the Delhi Sultanate. The temple structure that stands today is only a shadow of the massive structure that stood till it was mysteriously destroyed around the 19th century. Several theories exist regarding the collapse of the temple structure.
6. NALANDA UNIVERSITY, BIHAR
Nalanda is one of the oldest centres of higher learning and education, and an ancient Buddhist Monastery in India. It is located in the Indian state of Bihar which was known to be the ancient kingdom of Magadha. The university was built by the Gupta and the Pala Empires and flourished as an important centre of learning between the 5th century and the 13th century before it was destroyed by the Mamluk Dynasty. The village of Nalanda was an important trade site in the ancient capital of Magadha and is said to have been visited by Gautama Buddha, Lord Mahavira and the Jain Tirthankaras.
The University was established by the rulers of the Gupta dynasty and was later improved by the Pala Dynasty. It was also visited by the Chinese traveler Hiuen Tsang around the 7th century AD, when it is thought he spent around 2 years in the monastery. Nalanda was what one can call a residential school with separate dormitories that accommodated around 10,000 students and 2,000 teachers. Being an ancient architectural masterpiece, the university also had a massive library which was divided into 3 buildings one of which was 9 stories high. Students and scholars from countries such as Korea, China, Japan, Indonesia, Turkey and Persia all came to Nalanda to study at Nalanda. The importance of the University was synonymous with the decline of Buddhism in India and the rise of Hinduism in the subcontinent. The University’s legacy finally came to an end during the 13th century when Bakhtiyar Khilji, an invading Turkic chieftain ransacked the building and set fire to the great library.
7. HAMPI VILLAGE, KARNATAKA
The most searched historical places on Google in the year 2014, Hampi is a village located in the Indian state of Karnataka. The village is famous for containing one of the largest archaeological sites in India, another of India’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Hampi is home to the ancient ruins of the city of Vijaynagar which was the capital of the ancient Indian Vijaynagar Empire. It is known for the rich archaeology of the once prosperous city of the now extinct kingdom and the immensely marvellous Virupaksha Temple. Hampi served as a major strong hold of the Vijaynagar Kings during the 14th and the 16th centuries and is known for its several Hindu Temples. Apart from the temples, the site contains various civil buildings and structures such as the Zanana Enclosures, Elephant Stables, The king’s balance, canals and Aqueducts, Lotus Mahal and several archeological findings from the site are now displayed at the archaeological museum at Kamalapura. The origins of the settlements at the site remains to be unknown but excavations have suggested that they started around the 1st century AD. The Virupaksha Temple is one of the most popular structures at Hampi and was built in a typical Dravidian style by the Chalukyas who ruled the region around the 7th century AD. It was later restored and expanded by the Vijaynagar King Krishnadevaraya and is responsible for the construction of the pillar hall. The chariot festival is celebrated here annually during the month of February and is a must visit.