India is not only the world’s second most populous country, but also easily ranks as one of its greatest places to travel. The country’s architectural richness stems from a tantalizing blend of varied cultures that extend far into ancient history.
Because of its daunting size, India is also known for its impressive geographical and cultural diversity and beauty. The country drops from the world’s highest mountains–the Himalaya–tens of thousands of feet to sweltering lowland plains and coastal swamps, and within its bounds 1.2 billion people claim wildly diverse ethnic backgrounds and religious beliefs. With so much to see, planning a trip to India can challenge even the most seasoned of travelers.
Many foreigners describe a visit to India as overwhelming–and not necessarily in a bad way. The sheer colorful crush of humanity in dense cities can be head-spinning; so can the grand beauty of desert dunes, ice-mantled peaks, and elephant-trodden hill forests. The visual panoply is more than matched by other sensations: the aromas and flavors of some of the world’s most sophisticated cuisines, the melodies and rhythms of equally sophisticated musical forms that can delightfully confound an ear accustomed to Western conventions.
It’s not easy to boil down India’s incomparably diverse stew to a few defining ingredients, but any traveler knows it’s more rewarding to deeply experience a few destinations than rush desperately about trying to “see everything.” Here are ten of this big, bold, and ancient country’s countless attractions you don’t want to miss when visiting. They include masterworks of human engineering, monuments to the incredibly rich spiritual traditions native to India, and a few natural landmarks of exceptional scenic beauty and ecological value. From ancient caves festooned with astounding art to rhino-grazed flats, from Islamic minarets to symbols of the British Raj, these locales reflect a broad swath of India’s character and heritage.
1. Taj Mahal
Located in the city of Agra alongside the Yamuna River, the Taj Mahal–undoubtedly India’s most famous structure and one of the world’s most celebrated architectural masterpieces–is an elaborate mausoleum built from white marble and beautifully decorated with carvings, calligraphy, and paintings.
Constructed over a 22-year period, beginning in 1631, the Taj Mahal was built at the behest of the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in memory of Mumtaz, his beloved wife. Its lavish grandeur serves as an undeniable display of the emperor’s unending affection. The primary builder was a man named Ustad-Ahmad Lahori–the emperor’s architect–but Shah Jahan drew from across an astonishing geographic spread, including Central Asia, to source his stoneworkers, masons, painters, and other craftsmen. Similarly, the materials used to render the exquisite architecture hailed from all corners of Asia–from Russia and China to Ceylon and Egypt.
Wedged between two sprawling, 1000-square-foot gardens laden with fountains and with walkways intertwined, the Taj Mahal represents India’s most significant cultural monument. Its perhaps most recognizable feature is the actual tomb, entirely made of white marble, with a lotus-shaped, bronze-gilded dome reaching 115 feet in height. Surrounded by four minarets standing tall over the main structure, it creates a striking image instantly recognizable all around the world.
The Taj Mahal is recognized by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as a World Heritage Site. Lauding the harmonious contrasts of the mausoleum’s design, the organization, in its official entry on the Taj Mahal, observes that the landmark represents “a masterpiece of architectural style in conception, treatment and execution and has unique aesthetic qualities in balance, symmetry and harmonious blending of various elements.”
The impeccable design of the Taj Mahal represents an architectural ideal: the fusion of spiritual and material beauty, the perfect representation of inner impulse in “brick-and-mortar” reality. Forget the innumerable pictures you’ve seen–this is a place that must be visited in person to be believed.