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History waits with bated breath at every corner of India. Whether you take a turn in one of ancient bazaars of the country or visit a perfectly-preserved palace, lost legends echo that much has changed and yet the past is just around the corner. On this World Heritage Day, explore your legacy, celebrate your tradition and soak in your culture as you rediscover the delights of these heritage cities of India.
"Older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend,” was how author Mark Twain applauded the glorious city of Varanasi, sprawled along the banks of the holy Ganges river. One of the oldest living inhabitations of the world, this sacred city has been attracting pilgrims for centuries, many of whom have recorded its ancient grandeur in their manuscripts.
Believed to be the abode of Lord Shiva, Varanasi is among the seven sacred cities in the country. Centuries of history, art and tradition have conflated to add colourful layers to Varanasi's aura, which is most spectacularly evident at its ghats (stepped banks of a river). An abode of travellers in search of holiness and divine providence, the ghats of the Ganges are the highlight of the spiritual scene of Varanasi. From the famous Ganga arti (a fire ritual) to cremation ceremonies, the ghats are the site of time-honoured rituals that are performed to this day.
Legend has it that Lord Shiva channelled the celestial Ganga on earth, and that is why the river is considered holy. Thousands of devotees from all over the country come to bathe in its waters as it is believed that taking a dip in the holy Ganges absolves one of their sins. It is also believed that those cremated here achieve moksha (salvation). For many, the sacred Kashi Yatra (pilgrimage to Kashi, as Varanasi was earlier called) is one of the most important rituals to undertake during their lifetime.
In recent years, the city has turned into a purveyor of philosophy, yoga, the ancient medicinal science of Ayurveda, and astrology.
Varanasi is also one of the holiest sites of Buddhism, as it was in Sarnath, which is located merely 12 km away, that Lord Buddha preached his first sermon. Jain literature, too, refers to Kashi as a holy city, as it is the birthplace of four Jain tirthankaras (saints). It is said that Kabir, a 15th-century mystic poet and saint, was also born in this city.
The city, believed to date back to 1400 BC, finds mention in the Upanishads (holy Hindu scriptures) as Benaras and is said to have been an important centre of trade and education. It eventually acquired the name Varanasi and came to occupy a special place in the Indian consciousness, especially as a bridge to the old world. Scribes have, for long, tried to capture the essence of Varanasi in books. From the couplets of Kabir to the works of prose writers like DN Khatri, Hazari Dwivedi and Jaishankar Prasad, the city has inspired a vast body of literary, scriptural, poetic and historical works produced by some of the most famous Indian writers over centuries. Famous for silk weaving, the city offers brocade sarees that are a must in most Indian brides' trousseau. The city is also famous for copperware, brassware, wooden and clay toys, and jewellery.
Famous melody-makers, from Mughal court musicians to present-day personages like iconic sitar player Ravi Shankar, shehnai maestro Bismillah Khan and late vocalist Girija Devi have called Varanasi home. Their influence on classical and contemporary music is so strong that Varanasi also features among the ‘Cities of Music’, which has been established by UNESCO’s Creative Cities Network.
India's first UNESCO World Heritage City, Ahmedabad or Amdavad is steeped in history and tradition. Offering a seamless blend of spectacular architecture of centuries-old mosques and contemporary avant-garde design, Gujarat's biggest city is a bustling cosmopolitan hub. Ahmedabad is divided into two parts, cut into distinct sections by the Sabarmati river.
On the eastern bank of the river stands the quaint old quarter, which is marked by winding lanes throbbing with tradition and culture, and on the eastern side, is the sprawling new town that has created a niche for itself with world-class urban planning. Add to this a vibrant array of street-food and colourful bazaars, and Ahmedabad becomes a tourist hub where one would be spoilt for choices.
The old city, also known as the walled area, is characterised by pols (neighbourhoods), which are an ancient system of community-based housing. A 10-km-long wall with 12 gates, 189 bastions and over 6,000 battlements had once guarded the old city. Today, all that remains of this are the gates, each standing proudly with intricate carvings, calligraphy and some with extended balconies. While the eastern section boasts an old-world charm with ancient gates and colonial-era buildings dotting its landscape, the western region is marked by educational institutions, multiplexes and business districts.
Ahmedabad was earlier known as Karnavati and the name was changed by Sultan Ahmed Shah, of the Muzaffarid dynasty, after 1411, when he conquered it from king Karandev I. Under Ahmed Shah, architects amalgamated Hindu craftsmanship with Persian architecture, giving rise to a unique Indo-Saracenic style. Many of the mosques here reflect this style.
While Ahmedabad served as Gujarat's capital from 1960 to 1970 (today the state capital is its twin city, Gandhinagar), it still houses the Gujarat High Court and is the state's financial centre.
The city was also at the heart of India's struggle for independence from the British rule, with Mahatma Gandhi residing at Sabarmati Ashram here. It is also called the 'Manchester of East' for its thriving textile industry that has led Ahmedabad into the 21st century. The city is known for its grandeur and larger-than-life celebrations during Navratri, which is an open-air cultural and spiritual extravaganza.
“The town fallen from heaven to bring heaven to earth”, was how the famous Sanskrit poet Kalidasa had described the ancient city of Ujjain. Located at the heart of Madhya Pradesh, this ancient city is a labyrinth of bustling lanes that weave through temple clusters, earning Ujjain the moniker, “the city of temples”. One of the seven sacred sites of Hinduism, Ujjain is located on the banks of the holy Kshipra (Shipra) river.
The history of Ujjain can be dated back to 600 BC when it was home to hundreds of temples. It was once under the powerful Mauryan empire and even emperor Ashoka had once ruled over this region. It is said that once, when Ashoka was sent to Ujjain by his father Bindusara to subdue an uprising, he was injured and was treated by Buddhist monks, the king's first encounter with Buddhism, a religion he later turned to.
Since the city has been under the patronage of various rulers, its rich heritage and vibrant arts and crafts are diverse and unique. It is very popular for traditionally printed textiles like batik, bagh, Bhairavgarh print and screen. Shop for sarees and yardages printed in any of these techniques.
A legendary lost city that was once the powerhouse of an ancient kingdom and an auspicious temple town standing on the banks of the mighty Tungabhadra river, history and mythology come to life in Hampi, Karnataka. In this city, remnants of historical monuments are not just preserved but speckled like enticing crumbs telling of long lost tales. A queen's bath, a spectacular Lotus Palace, a royal stable or a temple, which is said to have been the place where the wedding of Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati took place, this UNESCO World Heritage site reveals a facet of history at every turn.
The magnificent structures here stand in testimony to Hampi's rich past under the powerful Vijayanagara empire (1336 – 1646 AD). Hampi finds mention in the Hindu epic Ramayana as well. It is said to be the location of the monkey kingdom, Kishkindha.
The grandiose site of Hampi was the last capital of the Vijayanagara kingdom, one of the most significant in southern India. Its rich kings built exquisite temples and palaces, which won the admiration of travellers between the 14th and 16th centuries. Though plundered later, Hampi still retains more than 1,600 monuments, including palaces, forts, memorial structures, temples, shrines, pillared halls, baths and gateways.
The architectural ruins are set against a surreal landscape dotted with heaps of giant boulders perched precariously over kilometres of undulating terrain, attracting rock-climbers, trekkers and other adventure sports enthusiasts. The rusty hues of these rocks are offset by jade-green palm groves, banana plantations and paddy fields. Today, this laid-back city is a tourists' hub, flocked by devotees, adventure-lovers and thrill-seekers.
One of the oldest living cities in the world, Patna, the capital of Bihar, stands on the banks of River Ganges, proudly cradling in its heart the city's heritage, patriotism and culture. A bustling city with old neighbourhoods, Patna's heritage spans across two millennia. An epicentre for various religions, the city was the stronghold of several dynasties, and thus boasts a treasure trove of culture and traditions. Patna retains its historic charm, and antiquity whispers at every corner accentuated by a vibrant blend of a multitude of cultures - Buddhist, Sufi, Jain, Sikh and Hindu.
With a plethora of heritage structures strewn across its landscape, Patna has a diversity that extends to education and art as well. Once the capital of the mighty Mauryan emperor Ashoka, Kusumpura (as Patna was then called), transformed into Pushpapura, followed by Pataliputra and Azeemabad to finally become Patna.
Suspended in time, Gaya, in Bihar, is poised along the banks of the sacred Falgu river. It is a prominent Hindu pilgrim city, where tourists can trace the footsteps of Lord Rama. Gaya holds the famous Vishnupad Temple as its crowning glory, with a number of other spiritual sites scattered around the region. Most of these spiritual sites are rooted deep in legends and in stories of the epic Ramayana. It is popularly believed that Lord Rama offered 'pinda-daan' (offerings made to ancestors for ensuring they have peace) at the famous Ramshila Hill and thus many pilgrims come from far to do the same. Another must-see site is the Akshay Vat, which is believed to be the oldest standing tree on earth!
Located 100 km from the state capital Patna, Gaya is surrounded by hills named Mangala-Gauri, Shringa-sthan, Ram-shila and Brahmayoni. Once a part of the Magadh empire (684-320 BC), the city’s nomenclature is after a myth of demon Gayasur, who was killed by Lord Vishnu. Gaya is also important for the followers of Jainism due to the presence of a large number of Jain temples here.
The city of palaces and forts, interspersed with historical monuments and gardens that testify the grandeur of the Rajput kings, the newly minted UNESCO World Heritage Site of Jaipur is the gateway to the royal heritage of India. Also called Pink City, the capital of Rajasthan, remains suspended in time, with its heritage preserved in the overwhelming Hawa Mahal that gazes down at the bustling streets of Johari Bazaar.
A little away from the city centre, which is resplendent with state-of-the-art cinemas/ movie theatres, eateries, multiplexes, museums and parks, lies the arid hilly country dotted with forts that earlier stood as armoured sentinels of Jaipur. The biggest and the most awe-inspiring is the Amber Fort, which leaves one humbled with its expansive fortifications and grandeur.
Founded by Maharaja Jai Singh II in 1727 AD, Jaipur was the stronghold of the Rajputs, who gave it its everlasting legacy in the form of various heritage sites, arts and crafts, culinary curations etc. Typical Rajasthani cuisine, comprising lal maas, dal-bati-churma, ker sangri and other uncountable recipes, all hold limelight in the culinary culture of India. These can be enjoyed in the quintessential Rajasthani style of sitting cross-legged on mats on the floor and digging in in the sumptuous thali, which features up to 20 dishes.
While one can enjoy the various offerings of the city as an outsider, what really sets Jaipur apart is its welcoming spirit that wins you over with its warmth. To symbolise this hospitable culture, the older part of the city was painted pink under the reign of Maharaja Ram Singh in 1876. Although this was done during the British rule when the Prince of Wales came to visit India, many houses are still adorned with the hue to reiterate their signature slogan of 'Padharo Mhare Desh' (Welcome to my Land).
Jaipur was designed by architect Vidyadhar Bhattacharya in the early 18th century. Through the years it has transformed into a bustling metropolis while continuing to retain its old-world charm. Following India's independence from British rule, Jaipur and the principalities of Bikaner, Jaisalmer and Jodhpur came together to form the present state of Rajasthan.
Today, thousands of travellers from the world over come to explore its vibrant streets every year, sampling its delicious food and experiencing its rich cultural flavours. They find at every turn a charming confluence of tradition and modernity, old shops rubbing shoulders with new malls without ever detracting from the city's essence.
A kaleidoscope of many moods and hues, Jaipur is also a fantastic shopping destination. From colourful puppets and bandhni sarees to silver jewellery and lac bangles, it offers a host of knick-knacks and souvenirs to take home along with many fond memories!