1. Agra Fort:
Built by Mughal emperor Akbar in 1565 AD, Agra Fort is a majestic sandstone built as an ode to the magnificence of the Mughal empire.
Encompassing within its 2.5-km-long enclosure walls a stunning imperial city, the fortress is shaped like a crescent, its eastern wall flanked by River Yamuna.
It is said that the construction of the fort was originally begun by emperor Akbar, but completed by his grandson Shah Jahan, who added most of the marble monuments here.
There were originally four gates for entrance, two of which were walled up and only one is open today – the Amar Singh gate.
The first thing that captures one's attention as they enter is Jehangir (Jahangir) Mahal, a palace said to have been built by Akbar as the women’s quarters and named after his son, Jehangir (Jahangir).
Simple and elegant, it is home to a large stone bowl upon which are carved Persian verses. Local lore holds that this bowl once contained rose water. Adjacent to Jehangir (Jahangir) Mahal lies the palace built for Jodha Bai, said to be Akbar’s favourite queen.
Agra Fort is widely considered to be a masterpiece of planning, design and construction. Some of its other internal structures include the stunning Moti Masjid, Diwan-i-Khas (hall of private audience) and Diwan-i-Aam (hall of public audience), once home to the legendary Peacock Throne that was eventually taken to Red Fort in Delhi when Shah Jahan shifted his capital there.
There are two prominent mosques inside the fort - Nagina Masjid was built by Shah Jahan as a private mosque for the ladies of the court and Mina Masjid is believed to have been built by him solely for his own use.
The Musamman Burj is another interesting structure - it is an octagonal tower with an open pavilion, and is believed to be where emperor Shah Jahan breathed his last, imprisoned and gazing at his beloved Taj Mahal.
Structures relating to other Mughal emperors here include the Khas Mahal, said to have been built in honour of Jahanara Begum (eldest daughter of Shah Jahan), and Sheesh Mahal or the glass palace. The story goes that it was once the dressing room for the queens, and its walls are inlaid with several tiny mirrors.
The Department of Tourism, Government of Uttar Pradesh has initiated a sound and light show at Agra Fort that not only provides a peek of the fortress' glorious history but is also a visual treat. Agra Fort is also known as the 'Lal Qila', 'Fort Rouge' or 'Qila-i-Akbari' and is an unmissable site in the city.
2. Ahmedabad: A living legacy:
Declared as 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 western 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.
3. Ajanta Caves:
Located about 107 km from Aurangabad, the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Ajanta Caves are a famous cluster of 32 Buddhist caves. The rock-hewn caves at Ajanta are either chaityas (shrine), chapels or prayer halls, or viharas (monasteries) or residential cells.
Caves 9 and 10 are chaityas, which contain the earliest known remnants of paintings in India. Caves 19, 26 and 29 are chaityas of the Mahayana period and all the other caves are viharas. Ajanta displays the Gandhara and Mathura schools of art from the Kushana period; the Sarnath school of art from the Gupta period; and the Amaravati school of art from the late Satavahana and Ikshvaku periods.
The Ajanta paintings recount the life of Lord Buddha, including his previous earthly experiences and the Jataka tales. The caves are divided into two chronological phases, the early Buddhist caves (2nd century BCE to 1st century CE) and the Mahayana caves (5th century CE).
Since Ajanta is located on the ancient trade route of Dakshinapatha, the early phase of Ajanta was funded mostly by traders. The second phase received patronage from the Vakatakas. Stories of these donors are inscribed and painted.
The narrative murals about Lord Buddha, Avadana stories of Bodhisattva, Jataka stories and panels based on Mahayana themes from Vipulya Sutras are extremely interesting. The monasteries were in operation till 8th century CE but were lost and forgotten till 1819.
4. Bhimbetka Rock Shelters:
An archaeological wonder, the Bhimbetka Rock Shelters take tourists back in time.
They are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Housing 500 or so paintings that have a stark resemblance to the ones found in Australia’s Kakadu National Park, cave paintings of Kalahari Desert’s Bushmen tribe and France’s Upper Palaeolithic Lascaux, Bhimbetka attracts tourists from far and wide.
The paintings, created with natural colours that have withstood the test of time, were discovered by VS Wakankar in 1957 during an excavation expedition, and showcase the lives of a lost community that lived here thousands of years ago.
Scenes of horse and elephant riding, honey collection, food hunting, dancing etc., can be seen in intricate detail.
Located to the south of Bhopal at a distance of approximately 46 km, the rocky terrain of the Vindhya ranges has over 600 shelters from the Neolithic age.
Legend has it that Bhimbetka is derived from 'Bhimbaithka', meaning the seating place of Bhima, the strongest of the five Pandava brothers from the epic Mahabharata.
5. Bodh Gaya: The cradle of Buddhism:
The quaint town of Bodh Gaya, in Bihar, echoes with a tranquil ambience, underlined by intense devotion.
Dotted with temples and monasteries, this 2,500-year-old birthplace of Buddhism invites travellers from all across the world to soak in its spiritual vibes, retrace the footsteps of Lord Buddha and understand his philosophies at the place where he attained nirvana (enlightenment).
The city ebbs and flows with devotees throughout the year, yet it remains suspended in time, as monks in saffron and maroon robes walk around the monuments and temples, their chants and prayers enveloping the surroundings in a cocoon of peace.
Even the air of this small town seems to be permeated with peace and serenity, synonymous with Buddhism. Prince Siddhartha, who later became Lord Buddha, is said to have found a quiet retreat under the most hallowed spot here, the Bo or Bodhi tree, where he meditated till the attainment of enlightenment.
There are many legends associated with this historic event and it is said that as young Siddhartha settled down to meditate, a young cow-herder named Sujata noticed him and moved by his gaunt appearance, brought him a bowl of kheer (sweet rice pudding).
Not only did the meal give him strength but it is said to have inspired his thoughts on following the Middle Path. The ancient city of Bodhgaya holds a special significance in Hinduism; Gaya is mentioned in the great epics like the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.
It is also said to be the place where Lord Rama, with his wife Sita and brother Lakshmana, came to offer pind dan (an offering to ancestors during Hindu funeral rites) for their father Dashratha.