The Best Temples & Shrines in India
Cave Temples at Ajanta & Ellora (near Aurangabad, Maharashtra): Fashioned out of rock by little more than simple hand-held tools, the cave temples at Ajanta (created by Buddhist monks btw. the 2nd and 7th c.) and Ellora (a marriage of Buddhist, Hindu, and Jain temples, created btw. the 4th and 9th c.) are the finest examples of rock-cut architecture in India, and deserving of their World Heritage status. The zenith is Kailashnath Temple, effectively a mountain whittled down to a free-standing temple.
Lord Gomateswara Monolith (Sravanabelagola, Karnataka): One of the oldest (ca. A.D. 918) and most important Jain pilgrimage sites, this 18m (59-ft.) statue of the naked Lord Gomateswara -- a representation of Bahubali, son of the first Jain tirthankara, said to have sought enlightenment by standing naked and motionless for an entire year -- is the tallest monolithic statue on earth.
Hampi (Karnataka): Scattered among the Henri Moore-like boulders in the heart of Karnataka's rural interior, Hampi was once the royal seat of the powerful Vijayanagar kingdom, its size and wealth drawing comparisons with imperial Rome. Today, the city has crumbled away to a few starkly beautiful leftovers, but the remote setting couldn't be more romantic.
Shri Meenakshi-Sundareshwarar Temple (Madurai, Tamil Nadu): Alive with prayers, processions, garland-makers, and joyous devotees who celebrate the mythological romance between the beautiful three-breasted goddess and her mighty Lord Shiva, this colorful and lively complex of shrines, halls, and market stalls is almost Disneyesque, marked as it is by numerous entrance towers tangled with colorful stucco gods, demons, beasts, and mythological heroes. It truly embodies the spirit of Tamil Nadu's deeply embedded temple culture.
Taj Mahal (Agra, Uttar Pradesh): Nothing can prepare you for the beauty of the Taj. The perfect symmetry, the ethereal luminescence, the wonderful proportions, the sheer scale -- virtually impossible to imagine from staring at its oft-reproduced image -- and the exquisite detailing make this bejeweled monument to love a justifiable wonder of the world.
Fatehpur Sikri (near Agra, Uttar Pradesh): From the intricacy of the glittering white marble screens that surround the dargah (tomb) of Salim Chisti, to Parcheesi Court, where the emperor played a ludolike game using the ladies of his harem as live pieces, this magnificent ghost city -- built almost entirely from red sandstone in 1571 and deserted only 14 years later -- is a testament to the secular vision of Akbar, one of the great players in India's most dynamic dynasty.
The Temples of Khajuraho (Khajuraho, Madhya Pradesh): Built between the 10th and 12th centuries by the Chandela Rajputs, these World Heritage Site monuments are most famous for the erotic sculptures that writhe across the interiors and exteriors. But even the temple designs -- their soaring shikharas (spires) serving as metaphoric "stairways to heaven" -- are striking, and are considered the apotheosis of medieval Hindu architecture.
Mehrangarh Fort (Jodhpur, Rajasthan): The impenetrable walls of this 15th-century edifice to Rajput valor rise seamlessly from the rocky outcrop on which they were built, literally dwarfing the labyrinthine city at its base; from its crenelated ramparts you enjoy postcard views of the "Blue City" below. In the distance is the grand silhouette of Umaid Bhawan Palace, heritage hotel and residence of the current maharaja. Within the fort is one of the best palace museums in India.
Jain Temples of Rajasthan (Ranakpur and Mount Abu, near Udaipur, Rajasthan): The Jains put all their devotional passion (and not inconsiderable wealth) into the creation of the most ornate marble temples; with exquisitely detailed relief carvings covering every inch, they are all jaw-droppingly beautiful. Make sure you visit at least one while you're in India, preferably either Ranakpur Temple or Dilwara Temple in Rajasthan.
Kumbhalgarh Fort (near Udaipur, Aravalli Hills, Rajasthan): Protected by impenetrable bastions and a towering perimeter wall which is the second most visible object from space, this 15th-century rambling hilltop fort was only besieged once by Akbar when he poisoned the water supply. Steeped in history and well preserved, march to the top and survey the beautiful Aravalli countryside and the Kumbhalgarh Wildlife Sanctuary that surrounds you.
Golden Temple (Amritsar, Punjab): Arguably the greatest spiritual monument in India. The name derives from the central gold-plated Hari Mandir -- the inner sanctuary featuring gold-plated copper cupolas and white marble walls inlaid with precious stones -- which sits at the center of the "Pool of Nectar." Every day thousands of disciplined devotees pay their respects, touching their heads to the glistening marble floor while singing devotional songs continuously -- a wonderful, welcoming, and humbling experience.
Tabo (Spiti Valley, Himachal Pradesh): This 1,005-year-old Buddhist complex houses magnificent frescoes and brilliant stucco and relief figures that recount ancient myths and celebrate the deities and demons that make up the Buddhist pantheon. You'll need a flashlight to adequately explore the dark, smoldering halls and shrines lit only by thin shafts of natural light, and brought to life by the resonant chants and ringing of bells by the monks and nuns who populate this sacred center of Tibetan Buddhism.
The Sun Temple at Konark (near Bhubaneswar, Orissa): An enormous war chariot carved from a massive chunk of rock during the 13th century, this masterpiece of Indian temple art is covered with detailed sculpted scenes, from the erotic to the mythological. Guarded by stone elephants and lions, the immense structure is seen as the gigantic chariot of the sun god emerging from the ocean, not far from Orissa's 500km (310-mile) beach.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.