Regions and Geography
The subcontinent of India lies in south Asia, between Pakistan, China and Nepal. To the north it is bordered by the world's highest mountain chain, where foothill valleys cover the northernmost of the country's 26 states. Further south, plateaus, tropical rain forests and sandy deserts are bordered by palm fringed beaches .
Side by side with the country's staggering topographical variations is its cultural diversity, the result of the coexistence of a number of religions as well as local tradition. Thus, the towering temples of south India, easily identifiable by their ornately sculptured surface, are associated with a great many crafts and performing arts of the region.
In the desert of Kutch, Gujarat, on the other hand, a scattering of villages pit themselves against the awesome forces of nature, resulting in Spartan lifestyles made vibrant by a profusion of jewelry and ornamental embroidery used to adorn apparel and household linen. In the extreme north is the high altitude desert of Ladakh. Local culture is visibly shaped by the faith - Buddhism -as well as by the harsh terrain.
Yet another facet of Indian culture is observed in the colorful tribal lifestyles of the north eastern states of Nagaland, Mizoram, Tripura and Manipur with their folk culture.
In the central Indian states of Orissa and Madhya Pradesh tribal village life has resulted in a variety of artistically executed handicrafts.
India's mountains provide heli skiing, river running, mountaineering and trekking. Its beaches provide lazy sun-bathing as well as wind surfing and snorkeling, and its jungles provide shooting wildlife -with a camera.
India's history goes back to 3,200 BC when Hinduism was first founded. Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism. Judaism. Zoroashtrianism, Christianity and Islam all exist within the country today. As a consequence of India's size, the history of the country has seldom been the same for two adjoining territories, and its great natural wealth has lured a succession of traders and foreign influences to it, each having left their imprint in the country, however faint or localized. Thus, Chinese fishing nets in Kerala are a throwback to that country's ancient maritime trade, while in the north, terra-cotta figurines of the centuries BC bear distinctly Greek traces.
Modern India is home alike to the tribal with his anachronistic lifestyle and to the sophisticated urban jetsetter. It is a land where temple elephants exist amicably with the microchip. Its ancient monuments are the backdrop for the world's largest democracy where atomic energy is generated and industrial development has brought the country within the world's top ten nations. Today, fishermen along the country's coastline fashion simple fishing boats in a centuries old tradition while, a few miles away. motor vehicles glide off conveyor belts in state-of-the-art factories
Geographically north India has great diversity. The towering majesty of the Himalayas, the breathtaking mountainous beauty of Himachal Pradesh and Kashmir, the agriculturally rich plains of Punjab, Haryana and the Ganga basin of Uttar Pradesh that has nurtured many ancient civilisations form an incredibly rich visual extravaganza.
The history of this land of the Vedas goes back at least 5000 years, the passage of the millennia peppered by the arrival of explorers, issionaries, envoys and traders. They all contributed to the cultural kaleidoscope that north India is today, a very colourful destination for the modern tourist.
Uttar Pradesh is the confluence of the three mighty religions of the world - Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam. Varanasi is one of the oldest cities in the world and to this day one of the holiest of the Hindu pilgrimage centres, followed by Gaya. Part of this State was called the Middle Land in Buddhist literature, hallowed by the presence of the Buddha and Mahavira 2500 years ago. It was also in Uttar Pradesh that Muslim culture really blossomed in immortal literature, dance, music, art and architecture.
Rajasthan is a State with an entirely different visage. Its medieval forts and palaces, the very distinctive nomadic desert lifestyle and stark scenery are unique in India.
The mountainous States of Jammu & Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh are dream destinations for tourists since they combine the awesome beauty of the Himalayas with a delightfully distinctive ethnic culture.
This rich cultural tapestry is woven with brilliant strands of many hues-dance, music, food, costumes, languages, customs, festivals
-a variety staggering in its appeal.
South India, surrounded by three oceans, is a region of overwhelming grandeur and pristine beauty. Separated from north India by the Vindhya mountain range, the south Indian peninsula is doubly insulated by the Arabian Sea and Eastern Ghats on the east and the Bay of Bengal and Western Ghats on the west.
As a result, this triangular volcanic land that was once part of the geologically primeval Gondwanaland, remained culturally undisturbed for millennia, evolving an aura of poised tranquillity.
The dominant features of south India are the tropical climate less harsh than the northern States, lush green tropical vegetation in the coastal areas and the architecture, culture, languages and lifestyle which had remained essentially Dravidian at the core in spite of repeated exposures to alien influences.
Since the southern culture evolved millennia before the modern State borders did, there is a racial, cultural and linguistic homogeneity here that makes visitors perceive the four major southern States together simply as 'south India', albeit mistakenly.
In spite of the seeming similarity, each State has different scenery, festivals, architecture and subtle cultural variations to offer, each State in its own right a fascinating tourist destination. Pondicherry and Lakshadweep are again utterly different from the four traditional States of Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Kerala. The leitmotif of southern culture is its tapestry of magnificent temple architecture going back to the 6th century, the unaltered traditions of food, religion and lifestyle, handicrafts, heritage of sandalwood, silk, rosewood and brass, and of course the grandeur of classical dance and music.
This is a land of temples, a land of the devout, the profusion of jasmine and 'kanakambaram' flowers and the soft beat of distant drums as yet another festival starts...
Steeped in thousands of years of history, much of east India still remains untouched by time.
It is in the unimaginably fertile Ganga delta that the ancient kingdoms with lilting names like Anga, Banga, Kalinga flourished at least 3000 years ago. It is in Bihar and neighboring Uttar Pradesh region that the Buddha and Mahavira preached the gentle way of life which changed human history. It is in Orissa that the cataclysmic Kalinga war was fought, an experience that chastened Emperor Ashoka into becoming one of the greatest rulers of ancient times. It is in Bengal where the British metamorphosed from traders to supreme rulers of India - an historical event that altered India's national psyche for centuries. As powers and persona rose and fell, history shaped the people of the plains.
It is in the east that early industrialization of India took place, due to the incredibly rich hinterland, access to river and ocean commercial transport and British investment in technology. Many of India's largest corporate houses are still based in Calcutta. Most of India's steel industry is located in Bihar and West Bengal region due to its proximity to coal/ iron ore belt here.
In strange contrast are the States in the north east, only lightly touched by time and history. Here the Ahoms came to conquer from across the borders in ancient times, but settled down to integrate peacefully. It is here in the dense forests the rhinos thunder, orchids beckon and birds and butterflies paint the air in brilliant shades.
The tribal life goes on as always, serenely unconcerned about modern upheavals.
The Andaman and Nicobar Islands present yet another vista -emerald dollops in the sapphire ocean still primeval in their pristine beauty.
The four States of Maharashtra, Gujarat, Goa and Madhya Pradesh in the west are so different in their landscape, culture and milieu that it may be difficult to believe they are adjacent.
Maharashtra is the land of famed warriors. Ridged by the Western ghats and covered by dense forests, it has witnessed a valiant history - rise and fall of Maratha empire. Shivaji is still an immortal legend here, his memories alive in the innumerable forts scattered across the countryside. The rock cut caves at Ajanta and Ellora eloquently record the earliest mingling of all faiths - the Buddhist, Jain and Hindu sculptures and frescoes co-exist in complete harmony.
Since ancient times Arab traders touched the Indian ports on the west coast of Gujarat and a multi-product export import trade flourished. The mythical port city of Dwarka supposed to befounded by Lord Krishna5000 years ago, had been recently excavated from below the sea. The ruins of Harappan civilization discovered in Lothal date back 3500 years. Gujarat is still steeped in history. The Muslim culture in Ahmedabad founded by Ahmed Shah and the memories of life and work of Mahatma Gandhi who spent a part of his life here, are a living presence still.
Goa conjures another world. Ancient temples and majestic churches, a rich tradition of classical music, truly exuberant folk entertainment, delectable cuisine and a beautiful 100 km coastline with nearly year round sunshine combine in magical alchemy to make it an ideal getaway holiday resort.
Madhya Pradesh, surrounded by seven States, known as the heart of India, geographically shares the mountain ranges and plateaus of the western States. Its verdant forests are rich in flora and fauna and shelter ancient tribes, in many ways a uniquely harmonious world where life continues to be unhurried and natural.
Ajanta and Ellora Caves
The state of Maharashtra is home to the enchanting Ajanta and Ellora group of caves. The cave shrines were all cut out of rock, by hand, and rank amongst some of the most outstanding specimens of ancient Indian architectural heritage. The 34 caves at Ellora and the 29 caves at Ajanta, were hidden from the public eye, till they were accidentally rediscovered in the 19th century.
The city of Aurangabad was founded by Malik Ambar, the Prime Minister of Murtaza Nizam Shah II, in 1610, on the site of a village, Khirki. When Fateh Khan, Malik Ambar's son succeeded the throne in 1626, he named the city 'Fatehpur'. In 1653, when Aurangzeb became the Viceroy of the Deccan, he made it his capital, and renamed it Aurangabad. A region that has been inhabited since the Stone Ages, Aurangabad has seen several dynasties come and go, absorbing the culture of each into itself.
Maurya rule heralded the advent of Buddhism in the state of Maharashtra. The earliest caves at Ajanta and Pithalkora were excavated in the 2nd century BC, during the Satvahana era. Paithan, then known as Pratishthana, was an important trade centre at the time. Buddhism flowered during the Chalukya period, which consequently saw the mushrooming of many viharas (monasteries), and chaityas (chapels), that were later excavated at Aurangabad, Ajanta and Ellora. Later, the Rashtrakutas built many temples, significantly, the Kailasa temple at Ellora, an unparalleled piece of ancient Indian architecture.
The Cave Temples of Badami
The capital of the early Chalukyas, Badami is, rather picturesquely located at the mouth of a ravine, between two rocky hills. Badami is famous for its four cave temples - all hewn out of sandstone on the precipice of a hill. In its ancient temples and forts, Badami preserves an important chapter in the history of architecture, in Karnataka.
Situated in North Karnataka, Badami was the capital of the Chalukya empire, founded by Pulakesin I in the 6th century A.D. The Chalukyas are to be credited with pioneering a new architectural style, examples of which can be seen in Badami, Aihole, Pattadakal and other neighbouring areas. They built a number of temples, and other monuments that marked the beginning of the Hindu style of architecture. This new style combined the best of two distinct styles - the North Indian, Indo-Aryan Nagara style and the South Indian Dravidian style. Known as the Chalukyan style, this style is manifested in many cave temples, dedicated to Brahmanical deities, as well as the many Buddhist and Jain monasteries in the region.
The cave temples of Badami which date back to 600 and 700 A.D. are carved out of sandstone hills. Each has a sanctum, a hall, an open verandah and pillars. What makes these cave temples remarkable, are the large number of exquisite carvings and sculptures. In the skilful hands of the Chalukyan artisans, the sandstone seems to have become as pliant as putty. There are many beautiful murals as well. The free standing stone temples in Badami, provide enlightening information about the development of the Chalukyan style of architecture, as many seem to have been experimental constructions. The early temples appear to be like large court halls to which shrines were attached. The Ladkhan temple at Aihole belongs to this early phase. The next phase of development is visible in the Gowdaragudi temple which is a more complex structure.
The sacred tank outside the Banashankari Temple
One of the many masterpieces to be found in these caves is the famous, 18-armed Nataraja (Shiva) who if observed closely, strikes 81 poses. Cave 4, the last cave, is the only Jain Temple in Badami. The 24th Tirthankara- Mahavira, is seated in a uniquely comfortable pose here, against a cushion in the inner sanctum. On the other bank of the ancient Bhutnatha lake, astride whose shores the caves stand, is the shrine of Nagamma, the local serpent goddess, within a massive tamarind tree. Nearby, are two Shiva temples, which deify Him as Bhutanatha, God of Souls. Within the inner sanctum, on the edge of the water, He sits in a rare pose, leaning back, in all his awesome majesty.
En route to Pattadakal, one comes across Banashankari, the goddess the village is named after.The goddess is black, riding a ferocious gold lion, eight-armed, sheer magnetism emanating from Her. Outside the shrine is the tank the goddess is said to have been transformed into. Further ahead, in Mahakuta, at the famous Mahakuteswara Temple, is Kashi Tirtha, a natural spring, the cold and clear waters of which are said to cleanse one's sins.
It is said that the better known caves of Elephanta and Ellora were modelled on the ones in Badami. The Kailashnatha temple at Ellora, has been hewn out of an entire hillock, cut out from the parent hill and combines the best of cave and free-standing temples.
Lady with the mirror, Chennakeshava Temple
The quaint hamlet of Belur, 38 km from Hassan, is located on the banks of the river Yagachi. Once the capital of the Hoysala empire, it still draws hordes of visitors, who cannot get enough of its fascinating temples. In 1117, Vishnuvardhana built the Chennakeshava Temple. The main entrance to the shrine is guarded by twin statues of a youth slaying a tiger. What is remarkable about this shrine is its compact structure, and perfect proportions. The wealth of sculptured friezes is simply unbelievable, since from the base to the projected eaves, every inch of available wall surface is covered with the most exquisitely sculptured images. But the Hoysala sculpture reaches its apogee in sculptures of celestial maidens, carved with a marvellous plasticity of modelling, and imbued with the most accomplished grace and elegance.
Pillars in the Navranga Hall are lathe-turned, ingeniously carved and remarkably smooth. No two pillars look alike. The hall is diamond-shaped. The ceiling has concentric rings, ornamented with figures. At the centre of the hall, is a polished stone platform, on which the queen is believed to have danced, in praise of Lord Chennakeshava.
Outside, on the vimana, the Hoysala sculptors have surpassed themselves - unending rows of nearly 650 elephants, horses, lions, birds and warriors. The larger panels of the wall, sport scenes depicting the great epics - Ramayana and Mahabharata.
The huge walled court at Belur, contains three other smaller temples - the Channigaraya temple, Soumyanayaki temple and the Andal temple. These temples also contain splendid pieces of sculpture. The most striking feature of all Hoysala shrines, is the high plinthed, star-shaped jagati (platform), on which the temples have been built.
The high red sandstone ramparts of this great monument stretch for almost 2.5 kilometres, dominating a bend in the river Yamuna, northwest of the Taj Mahal. The foundation of this majestic citadel was laid by the Emperor Akbar, and it developed as a stronghold of the Mughal Empire under successive generations.
The curved bastions of the huge walls are interrupted by impressive gates, of which only the Amar Singh gate is now open to the public. The original and grandest entrance was through the Delhi Gate, which leads to the inner portal called the Hathi Pol or Elephant Gate.
The graceful Diwan-i-Am or the Hall of Public Audiences, made of red sandstone, was constructed by Shahjahan in 1628. Three rows of white polished stucco pillars topped by peacock arches support the flat roof. Today, this Hall is bereft of brocade decorations, silk carpets and satin canopies which would have enhanced the elegance of the settings, when the Emperor sat down with his subjects to hear their complaints.
Within the Fort complex is the perfectly proportioned Moti Masjid, or Pearl Mosque, built by Shahjahan between 1646 and 1653. A Persian inscription within the mosque likens it to a perfect pearl. A marble tank stands at the centre of its spacious courtyard.
The Agra Fort houses the Royal Pavilions, which were designed to catch the cool breeze wafting across the river. Other attractions comprise of the Macchi Bhawan, or the Fish Palace, the Hammam-i-Shahi, or the Royal Bath, the Nagina Masjid, or the Gem Mosque, made entirely of marble and the Zenana Meena Bazaar, where the ladies of the court would browse through goods like silk, jewellery and brocade.
Past the Chittor gate, installed in 1568, is the Diwan-i-Khas, or the Hall of Private Audience, built by Shahjahan in 1636 - 37. Here, the emperor would receive kings, important dignitaries and ambassadors. The famous Peacock Throne is said to have been kept here, before being shifted to Delhi by Aurangzeb. Tucked away by the west wall of the hall is the Mina Masjid or the Heavenly mosque, where Shahjahan prayed when he was imprisoned in the Fort by his son Aurangzeb.
A doorway from the rear of the Diwan-i-Khas leads to the Mussaman Burj, or Octagonal Tower, a two-storeyed pavilion, where Shahjahan caught his last glimpse of the Taj Mahal before he died. Built for his beloved Mumtaz Mahal, this is another example of Shahjahan's immense creativity. Surrounded by a verandah, the elegant chamber has a lattice-screen balustrade with ornamental niches; exquisite inlay covers almost every surface and a marble chhatri (umbrella) on top adds the finishing touch.
The Khas Mahal, or the Private Palace, was used by the emperor as a sleeping chamber, and is designed for comfort, with cavities in the room to insulate against the heat. The Mahal is flanked by two golden pavilions. Other ornate palaces within the Fort are the Sheesh Mahal (Palace of Mirrors), the Shah Jahani Mahal (Shahjahan's Palace), Jehangiri Mahal (Jehangir's Palace) and the Akbari Mahal (Akbar's Mahal). These palaces are hybrid in design, some are distinctly Mughal in style, while others like the Jahangiri Mahal are almost entirely Hindu in their interior design.
A monument steeped in history, the Agra Fort is a fitting tribute to the genius of the three generations of emperors, who used it as their stronghold.