Agra has become synonymous with the Taj Mahal. Described as the most extravagant monument ever built for love it has become the de facto emblem of India. This poignant Mughal mausoleum was constructed by Emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his wife Mumtaz Mahal.
The city's other major attraction is the massive red sandstone Agra Fort, also on the bank of the Yamuna River. The fort's colossal walls rise over 20m in height and are encircled by a fetid moat. Within are a maze of superb halls, mosques, chambers and gardens, which form a small city within a city. Not all buildings are open to visitors, including the white marble Pearl Mosque, regarded by some as the most beautiful mosque in India.
Other worthwhile Mughal gems include the Itimad-ud-Daulah, many of whose design elements were used in the construction of the Taj, and Akbar's Mausoleum at Sikandra which blends Islamic, Hindu, Buddhist, Jain and Christian motifs, much like the syncretic religious philosophy developed by Akbar attempted to do.
Bangalore, the 'Garden City', capital of Karnataka State was founded in 1537 AD by a Vijaynagar chieftan. In the 18th century it was the stronghold of Haider Ali and Tipu Sultan. Today it is India's main industrial city with industries like aircraft, telephones and electronics.
India's 4th largest city and capital of Tamilnadu State. This coastal center of trade has drawn traffic from all over the world for centuries and the legacy of the British East India Company mixes with traditional Tamil culture to create an interesting, cosmopolitan atmosphere.
The port city of Kochi is located on a cluster of islands and narrow peninsulas. The older parts of the city are an unlikely blend of medieval Portugal, Holland and an English country village grafted onto the tropical Malabar Coast. Down near the waterfront you can see St Francis Church, India's oldest; a 450-year-old Portuguese palace, Chinese fishing nets strung out past Fort Cochin and a synagogue dating back to the mid-16th century. Ferries scuttle back and forth between the various parts of Kochi, and dolphins can often be seen in the harbor. Most of the historical sights are in Fort Cochin or Mattancherry.
Straddling a ridge at an altitude of over 2100m in the far north of West Bengal, Darjeeling has been a favorite hill station of the British since the mid-1800s. The town remains as popular as ever and offers visits to Buddhist monasteries, tours to tea plantations, shopping in bustling bazaars and trekking in high-altitude spots to the north. Like many places in the Himalaya, half the fun is in getting there. Darjeeling has the unique attraction of the famous miniature train, which loops and switchbacks its way from the plains up to Darjeeling in a 10-hour grind of soot and smoke.
Among the town's highlights is the Passenger Ropeway, the first chairlift to be constructed in India, which connects Darjeeling with Singla Bazaar on the Little Ranjit River far below. It's a superb excursion, though not an obvious choice for vertigo sufferers. Nearby is the Zoological Park, which houses Siberian tigers and rare red pandas in less than ideal conditions. The precious snow leopards are kept in a separate enclosure and get a much better deal. If you're interested in learning about the complex tea-producing process, call in at the Happy Valley Tea Estate.
Despite the seeming chaos Delhi is a city rich with culture, architecture and human diversity, deep with history and totally addictive to epicureans. Mix four major religions, thousands of years of history and cultural development, significant movements of different populations, invasions and colonization and you get one of the most vibrant and profound cultures in the world. The power of these influences is evident in the plentiful historical sites around Delhi.
Goa is a land known for its atmosphere, its wonderfully fresh seafood cuisine, its sense of joie de vivre, its people, its churches and temples, and last but not the least for its beaches. The allure of Goa is that it remains quite distinct from the rest of India and is small enough to be grasped and explored
The capital of Rajasthan is popularly known as the 'pink city' because of the ochre-pink hue of its old buildings and crenellated city walls. The Rajputs considered pink to be a color associated with hospitality, and are reputed to have daubed the city in preparation for the visit of Britain's Prince Alfred in 1853. Jaipur owes its name, its foundation and its careful planning to the great warrior-astronomer Maharaja Jai Singh II (1699-1744), who took advantage of declining Mughul power to move from his somewhat cramped hillside fortress at nearby Amber to a new site on the plains in 1727. He laid out the city's surrounding walls and its six rectangular blocks with the help of Shilpa-Shastra, an ancient Hindu treatise on architecture.
Today Jaipur is a city of broad avenues and remarkable architectural harmony, built on a dry lakebed surrounded by barren hills. It's an extremely colorful city and, in the evening light, it radiates a magical warm glow. The city has now sprawled beyond its original fortified confines, but most of its attractions are compactly located in the walled 'pink city' in the northeast. All seven gates into the old city remain, one of which leads into Johari Bazaar - the famous jewelers' market.
The most obvious landmark in the old city is the Iswari Minar Swarga Sul (the Minaret Piercing Heaven), but the most striking sight is the stunning artistry of the five-storey facade of the Hawa Mahal, or Palace of the Winds. The palace was built in 1799 to enable ladies of the royal household to watch street life and processions, and is part of the City Palace complex that forms the heart of the old city.
Jodhpur stands at the edge of the Thar Desert and is the largest city in Rajasthan. Among Rajasthan's many princely settlements, Jodhpur is one of the most distinctive. This five hundred year old settlement was the headquarters of the Rathore Rajput's celebrations for their tales of daring.
The complex network of lagoons, lakes, rivers and canals fringing the coast of Kerala forms the basis of a distinct regional lifestyle, and traveling by boat along these backwaters is one of the highlights of a visit to the state. The boats cross shallow, palm-fringed lakes studded with Chinese fishing nets, and along narrow, shady canals where coir (coconut fiber), copra and cashews are loaded onto boats. Stops are made at small settlements where people live on carefully cultivated narrow spits of land only a few meters wide, and there's the chance to see traditional boats with huge sails, and prows carved into the shape of dragons.
This quiet, genial, dusty village in northern Madhya Pradesh is awash with temples. Temples for everything - sun gods, sacred bulls and, more memorably and most prominently, sex. The erotic possibilities suggested by the stone figures in the numerous temples have contributed to Khajuraho's international fame. Another prime feature of the temple craftsmanship is that they are liberally embellished with some of the finest handiwork of the Chandela period, a dynasty that survived for five centuries before falling to the onslaught of Islam.
The largest and most important temples are in the attractively landscaped Western Group. Externally, the temples consist of curvilinear towers with clusters of lesser turrets clinging to them, suggestive of rising mountain peaks (ahem) converging round a great central peak. Round the exterior walls are two, sometimes three, superimposed rows of gods, goddesses, kings and heroes, courtesans, couples in carnal embrace and, in some cases, friezes depicting various forms of bestiality. The interiors are just as ornate, with an open portico leading into a main hall, then a vestibule beyond which is an inner sanctum containing the freestanding cult image. In fact, the sculpture and architecture blend so perfectly that each building appears to have been conceived by a single - and highly sexed - mastermind.
Mumbai is the glamour of Bollywood cinema, cricket on the maidans on weekends, bhelpuri on the beach at Chowpatty and red double-decker buses. It is also the infamous cages of the red-light district, Asia's largest slums, communalist politics and powerful mafia dons. Take the time to explore the majestic remnants of colonial history, the galleries showing the latest in Indian contemporary art, the busy markets and the evening parade of locals at Chowpatty Beach.
This charming, easy-going city has long been a favorite with travelers since it is a manageable size, enjoys a good climate and has chosen to retain and promote its heritage rather than replace it. The city is famous for its silk and is also a thriving sandalwood and incense center; though don't expect the air to be any more fragrant than the next town.
Until Independence, Mysore was the seat of the Maharajas of Mysore, a princely state covering about a third of present-day Karnataka. The Maharaja's Indo-Saracenic Palace is the town's major attraction, with its kaleidoscope of stained glass, ornate mirrors, carved mahogany ceilings, solid silver doors and outrageously gaudy colors.
The Devaraja Fruit & Vegetable Market, in the heart of the town, is one of the most colorful markets in India. The other major attraction is the 1000-step climb up nearby Chamundi Hill, which is topped by a huge temple. The stairway is guarded by the famous 5-meter high Nandi (Shiva's bull vehicle) carved out of solid rock.
The most romantic city in Rajasthan, built around the lovely Lake Pichola, has inevitably been dubbed the 'Venice of the East'. Founded in 1568 by Maharana Udai Singh, the city is a harmonious Indian blend of whitewashed buildings, marble palaces, lakeside gardens, temples and havelis (traditional mansions). It boasts an enviable artistic heritage, a proud reputation for performing arts and a relatively plentiful water supply, all of which have helped make it an oasis of civilization and color in the midst of drab aridity.
Lake Pichola is the city's centerpiece and it contains two delightful island palaces - Jagniwas and Jagmandir - the very definition of Rajput whimsy. The former is now an exquisite luxury hotel. The huge City Palace towers over the lake and is bedecked with balconies, towers and cupolas. It contains a museum, some fine gardens and several more luxury hotels. Other attractions in Udaipur include the gates to the old walled city and its lovely alleyways; the fine Indo-Aryan Jagdish Temple, dating from the mid-17th century; and the lakeside Bagore ki Haveli, once a royal guesthouse, but now a cultural center.
Despite the long list of sights and attractions, the real joy of Udaipur is finding a pleasant lakeside guesthouse, scrambling up to the roof and watching the activity at the ghats, listening to the rhythmic 'thwomp!' as washerwomen thrash the life out of their laundry, and sensing the gentle changes of light on the water as the slow days progress.
For over 2000 years, Varanasi, the 'eternal city', has been one of the holiest places in India. Built on the banks of the sacred Ganges, it is said to combine the virtues of all other places of pilgrimage and anyone who ends their days here, regardless of creed and however great their misdeeds, is transported straight to heaven. Varanasi is also an important seat of learning, and is the home of novelists, philosophers and grammarians. This has been reflected in its role in the development of Hindi - the closest thing to a national language in India.
Varanasi has over 100 bathing and burning ghats but the Manikarnika Ghat is the main burning ghat and one of the most auspicious places that a Hindu can be cremated. Corpses are handled by outcasts known as chandal, who carry them through the alleyways of the old city to the holy Ganges on a bamboo stretcher swathed in cloth. You'll see huge piles of firewood stacked along the top of the ghat, each log carefully weighed on giant scales so that the price of cremation can be calculated. There are no problems watching cremations, since at Manikarnika death is simply business as usual, but leave your camera at your hotel.
The best ghat to hang out at and absorb the riverside activity is Dasaswamedh Ghat. Here you'll find a dense concentration of people who come to the edge of the Ganges not only for a ritual bath, but to do yoga, offer blessings, buy paan, sell flowers, get a massage, play cricket, have a swim, get a shave, and do their karma good by giving money to beggars.
Apart from the many ghats lining the river, the city's other highlights include the Golden Temple, built in a roofed quadrangle with stunning gilded towers; shopping at markets famous for their ornamental brass work, lacquered toys, shawls, silks and sitars; losing yourself in the impossibly narrow labyrinthine alleyways which snake back from the ghats; visiting the nearby Buddhist center of Sarnath; and taking the compulsory dawn river trip slowly down the Ganges.