Best List: 25 Unsung Indian Heritage Gems

At many of these historically significant spots, you might be the only tourist in sight. But that's just the way this author prefers it.  
25 Indian Heritage Spots
The Gangaikondacholeeswaram temple in Gangaikondacholapuram, Tamil Nadu, is one of the finest examples of Chola architectural art. Photo by: Waj/shutterstock

Gangaikondacholapuram, Tamil Nadu

35 km north from Kumbakonam railway station; Nearest airport: Tiruchirappalli (144 km)

Of all of India’s hallowed heritage grounds, my favourite is the slightly out-of-the-way, 1,000-year-old, 180-foot-tall Gangaikondacholeeswaram temple. Still a functioning temple, it’s perhaps the finest example of Chola architectural art and the only surviving monument of the capital built by a Tamil king who ruled from here and up to the Ganges, which is the meaning of the name Gangaikondacholapuram.

 

Dholavira, Gujarat

217 km east of Bhuj airport

A vast site from the Harappan era, set on a spectacular island far out in the salt marshes of the Rann of Kutch, Dholavira provides a rare opportunity to stroll alone through one of civilisation’s greatest ancient cities, abandoned four millennia ago. See how our ancestors lived, with well-engineered sewage tunnels, tiled bath cubicles, and kitchens with grinding stones. Prehistoric mixies, anyone?

 

Aihole, Karnataka

40 km east from Badami railway station; buses run to Aihole village; Nearest airport: Belgaum (157 km)

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Aihole is often known as the cradle of Indian rock temple architecture. Photo by: Peter Schickert/Alamy/indiapicture

This village adjoining the stunning hillside cave temples of Badami and the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Pattadakal is easily overlooked, but Aihole’s intriguing experimental rock-cut temples suggest that this was a laboratory of sacred architecture. Referred to as the cradle of Indian temple design, in its heyday the village had hundreds of arts teachers.

 

Kauśāmbī, Uttar Pradesh

51 km west of Allahabad railway station; Nearest airport: Varanasi (175 km)

The wondrous Kauśāmbī is mentioned in the Ramayana, and the Buddha lectured here post-enlightenment. It was born as a Vedic capital, rose to glory over a thousand years, then vanished. It was rediscovered, replete with ruins of palaces, monasteries and city walls. There’s no signposting—the finds are in the museums of Allahabad.

 

Marble Palace, West Bengal

14 km from Kolkata airport; Nearest metro station: M. G. Road; Get permission from the West Bengal Tourism Information Bureau at BBD Bagh in advance

Tucked inside a narrow street in crowded north Kolkata, this neoclassical mansion was built in the mid-1830s by obsessive collector Raja Rajendra Mullick and crammed with paintings, statues, Victorian furniture, Chinese urns, and other treasures from almost a hundred different countries. It provides a rare glimpse into India’s globalised past and the colonial world.

 

Naggar Castle, Himachal Pradesh

35 km north of Kulu-Manali airport

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The 15th-century Naggar Castle offers sweeping views of the Beas. Photo by: Blaine Harrington/age fotostock/Dinodia Photo Library

A dramatic 15th-century castle 6,500 feet high up on the hillside, where the Kulu kings used to live, it affords a royal view of the Beas River and its surroundings. Painter Nicholas Roerich lived in a bungalow, a 20-minute walk away, until his death in 1947. It is now a museum and displays his paintings of the region. Staying overnight at the castle, now run as a government heritage guesthouse (hptdc.nic.in), made me feel like a maharaja.

 

Tranquebar, Tamil Nadu

14 km north of Karaikal railway station; Nearest airport: Thiruchirapalli (167 km)

Called Tharangambadi in Tamil, the village remains better known under its colonial name as one of the rare Danish trading posts in India. The beachside Fort Dansborg and the Danish Churchyard give the place a distinctive 17th-century vintage vibe.

 

Ahmednagar Fort Prison, Maharashtra

Trains between Pune and Manmad stop at Ahmednagar; Nearest airport: Pune (120 km)

The more than 500-year-old Ahmednagar has mosques, palaces, and Aurangzeb’s original tomb, but more than anything else I was humbled by the pre-Mughal fort with its tall walls where Jawaharlal Nehru was interned during the second World War. This was where the man who would later become prime minster wrote The Discovery of India.

 

Rumtek Monastery, Sikkim

24 km west of state capital Gangtok; Nearest airport: Bagdogra (135 km); Non-Indians require Inner Line Permits

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Sikkim’s Rumtek monastery is a slice of Shangri-La. Photo by: Robert Harding/indiapicture

Sikkim is an otherworldly slice of Shangri-La and the “Monastic Trek” takes you to Buddhist highlights including the scenic Rumtek, built in the 1960s over the ruins of a 1740 monastery. It offers visitors an opportunity to explore high-altitude spiritual culture, the arts and crafts of Lamaism, or just listen in on the hypnotic prayer sessions.

 

Sevagram, Maharashtra

8 km from Wardha station; Nearest airport: Nagpur (75 km)

Once an underdeveloped village, Wardha became the centre of attention in 1936 when Mahatma Gandhi made it his base, partly as a protest against increasing urbanisation and to experiment with eco-friendly living. His followers inhabit the ashram and I was welcome to stay in a guestroom, share their humble meals and join the prayers.

 

Zero temple of Gwalior Fort, Madhya Pradesh

13 km from Gwalior airport

What would mathematics be without the zero? No computers. The number was invented in India more than 1,500 years ago. This possibly oldest surviving actual symbol for the numeral can be seen on a plaque in the tiny ninth-century Chaturbhuj Temple which is carved out of the rockface beneath Gwalior’s majestic fort.

 

Raja DinkarKelkar Museum, Maharashtra

12 km from Pune airport

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An assemblage of daily-use artefacts from across India crowd the Raja Dinkar Kelkar Museum. Photo by: Sharwari Mehendale/alamy/indiapicture

An assemblage of aesthetically unusual daily-use artefacts gathered from all over India fills the floors of this museum. There are musical instruments and nutcrackers, coconut graters and hookah pipes, and ancient pottery. Kelkar was an optician and a poet, which explain the scientific interest and poetic licence.

 

Begumpuri Mosque, Delhi

11 km from Delhi airport; Nearest metro station: HauzKhas

Begumpuri Masjid is both Delhi’s second largest mosque and the most forgotten sight. It’s with a sense of wonder that one walks about alone in the imposing complex probably constructed for Firoz Shah Tughlaq, sultan of Delhi and enthusiastic builder, circa 1370 after he founded the fifth city of Delhi. His tomb is nearby at Hauz Khas (where he also built a madrasa).

 

Seraikela, Jharkand

45 km west of Tatanagar railway station, Jamshedpur; Nearest airport: Ranchi (119 km)

The remoteness of this erstwhile princely state has preserved its ethos. I came across Rajput-descended rajahs still living in semi-ruined palatial homes, unusual rituals performed at temples, and, of course, the fabled masked Chhau dance. Several gurus teach the art form, though the best showcase for it is the annual all-night summer dance festival.

 

The Satras of Majuli, Assam

22 km north of Jorhat airport, followed by ferry crossing from Nimatighat

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The Vaishnavite Satras of Majuli are known for their rich arts and crafts traditions including mask making. Photo by: Ranjana Desai/Dinodia Photo library

The cultural capital of Assam, Majuli is a paddy-covered riverine island in the Brahmaputra, best known for its Vaishnavite satras that hold rare manuscripts, artwork and local antiques. Of the 22 monasteries and hermitages, the one at Auniati has a museum; at other monasteries one needs to befriend the monks to glimpse their treasures.

 

Hasta Shilpa Heritage Village, Karnataka

Frequent local buses run from Udupi to Manipal; Nearest airport: Mangalore (65 km)

The extraordinary collector of ancestral homes, VijayanathShenoy, put together this exquisite assortment of 26 buildings, that he salvaged and shifted to a seven-acre plot in the university town of Manipal. He didn’t want tourists to gawk at his houses, but since his demise, one can take guided tours to appreciate the intricacies of coastal Karnataka’s 19th-century architecture.

 

Arikamedu, Pondicherry

About 7.5 km south of Pondicherry railway station; Nearest airport: Chennai (155 km)

This site counts as one of the great archaeological discoveries—a Roman shopping centre in India. Shards of Mediterranean amphorae from Arikamedu (on display at the Pondicherry museum) provided invaluable information on India’s ancient relations with the West. Onsite visitors get an idea of the lay of the land thanks to, local lad Ramesh, who often volunteers to show people around.

 

Bhangarh, Rajasthan

Near the Sariska Tiger Reserve; Nearest airport: Jaipur (90 km)

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Entry after sundown is prohibited in Bhangarh Fort. Photo by: Dinodia Photos/Alamy/indiapicture

Said to be one of the most haunted spots in India, Bhangarh is an abandoned ancient city. Legend has it that it was the fallout of a curse uttered by a dying tantrik, after his advances were spurned by a princess who accidentally crushed him with a boulder. Another less fairy-tale explanation is that people left after a famine in 1783. Strictly no entry after sunset.

 

Sulthan Bathery, Kerala

Buses ply along the highway between Kozhikode and Mysore; Nearest airport: Kozhikode (100 km)

Sulthan Bathery or Sultan’s Battery, a town nestled in greenery at 3,000 feet above sea level, is where most visitors alight the bus to go to Wayanad’s plantation homestays. Named after one of Tipu’s military bases, it is ancient: there’s a 13th-century Jain temple (in which the sultan kept his ammo) as well as prehistoric cave art uphill at Edakkal. Getting to the caves is a bit of a trek but worth it to see rock paintings that supposedly date back to 6000 B.C.

 

Buddhist ruins, Odisha

Rent a taxi for a full-day tour; Nearest airport: Bhubaneswar (90 km)

One of my most exciting taxi drives took me through Odisha to check out ruins dating back to approximately fifth century, from the once thriving Buddhist civilisation hereabouts. Known as Ratnagiri, Udayagiri and Lalitgiri respectively, the hilly sites are hard to access by public transport, hence one is left virtually alone in the ruined monasteries full of lovely architectural details. And picturesque views.

 

Maljika Kamra, Rajasthan

1.6-km walk north of Churu railway station; The hotel is open for non-staying visitors at fixed hours

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Frescoes abound in the Shekhawati haveli Maljika Kamra. Photo by: Zac O’Yeah

Among the thousands of painted havelis of the Shekhawati region, this is a gem. Many others are locked up, but this marzipan mansion is where an art lover can spend a night, staring at the painted ceilings until sleep overcomes. I recommend suite number 205, a Rajasthani version of the Sistine Chapel.

 

Kaliadeh Palace, Madhya Pradesh

8 km from Ujjain station; Nearest airport: Indore (62 km)

This 15th-century Persian style palace stands on an island in the Shipra river north of the Gupta era city of Ujjain. It is where novelist E.M. Forster came to walk in the footsteps of Kalidasa—who, unfortunately, didn’t stay in this palace as he died a thousand years before it was built. But Emperor Akbar did stay here. For places where Kalidasa may have spent time, head to the Bharthari caves and its neighbouring Gadkalika temple.

 

McCluskieganj, Jharkhand

65 km west of Ranchi airport; rent a taxi for a full day

A jungle outpost set up on the Chhota Nagpur plateau as a cooperative retirement village for Anglo-Indians, McCluskieganj survived as an English utopia into post-colonial India. Remnants linger—crumbling guest houses, churches and graveyards. An elderly gent told me that pop star Cliff Richard’s aunt used to live in the bungalow across from his. Do not stay after nightfall, as the jungles get unsafe.

 

Ghalib’s house, Delhi

18 km from Delhi airport; Nearest metro station: Chawri Bazaar

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Ghalibki Haveli in Delhi is a pilgrimage for any poetry lover. Photo by: Saurav022/shutterstock

While it isn’t perhaps as impressive as it ought to be—since much of the building has been taken over by sundry businesses—a portion of Ghalibki Haveli is now a museum open to visitors who want to get close to the great poet of the Mughal world. Here Ghalib breathed his last in 1869, so any poetry lover should make the pilgrimage, and nearby one can feast on some delectable old town chaat.

 

Heliodorus’ pillar, Madhya Pradesh

4 km northwest of Vidisha railway station. Nearest airport: Bhopal (66 km)

Vidisha was the native place of Emperor Ashoka’s first wife Devi. It’s now overshadowed by the nearby UNESCO site of Sanchi, yet it holds treasures. Rent a bicycle and head out into the fields to find a historically significant sandstone pillar next to a ruined Hindu temple erected by a Greek in the mid-second century B.C.

  • Zac O'Yeah is the author of the Bengaluru crime novel trilogy "Mr Majestic", "Hari, a Hero for Hire" and "Tropical Detective" (Pan Macmillan India) and his latest travel book is "A Walk Through Barygaza" (Amazon/Westland Books 2017).

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