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The capital of India, Delhi, and its neighboring state, Uttar Pradesh, compose the geographical and historical heart of India, with ancient cities and awe-inspiring monuments that make for definite inclusion in the itineraries of most first-time visitors to the subcontinent.

With comfortable accommodations and a host of fascinating sights, Delhi is a good place to acclimatize. But the main reason most visitors touch down here is its proximity to some of North India's most impressive sights, like the Golden Temple at Amritsar, one of the most spiritual destinations in India; Jaipur, capital of Rajasthan, "land of princes"; and nearby Agra. The Mughal capital of Agra is famed for the timeless beauty of its monuments, of which the Taj Mahal is the most famous, but it is in the city of Varanasi, east of both Delhi and Agra, that time has indeed stood still. Believed to be the oldest living city in the world, Varanasi is the holiest destination in Hindu India, where true believers come to die in order to achieve moksha -- the final liberation of the soul from the continuous rebirth cycle of Hindu life. Rising like a densely populated crust from the banks of the Ganges, the city is saturated with a sense of the sacred, but while the experience is almost mind-altering, the crowds and filth you may encounter in the city's tiny medieval streets are not for the fainthearted. For those who prefer to keep the chaos of India at arm's length, you might want to consider a side trip to Lucknow, the state capital, where space and serenity prevail, and where the decadence and good taste of the ruling Nawabs -- Shiite Muslim rulers or landowners -- live on in the rich cuisine and majestic imambaras, or tombs.

South of Delhi and Uttar Pradesh sprawls Madhya Pradesh, a vast landlocked state that contains some of the loveliest untouched vistas on the subcontinent. The most famous sights here are the deserted palaces of Orchha and the erotic shrines of Khajuraho -- both easily included as side trips between Delhi or Agra and Varanasi. Deeper south, which sees a great deal less tourist traffic, lie Sanchi, one of the finest Buddhist stupa (commemorative cairn) complexes in Asia, and Mandu, an exotic Mughal stronghold. To the east lie Kanha and Bandhavgarh National Parks, the latter with the densest concentration of tigers in India, and thus a magnet for those in search of the Indian safari experience, particularly since African safari specialists &Beyond have teamed up with the Taj group to prduce luxury lodges to rival those near Ranthambore National Park in Rajasthan. These Madhya Pradesh excursions will suit those keen to escape the hassle of more obviously tourist-orientated destinations, but they take careful planning to reach.