India’s ultimate travelist for 2019

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We have all got a list of places that we want to see for ourselves: places friends have enthused about after a holiday, places we’ve read about and places we’ve dreamed about. This is our list. These are the places in India that you should experience. There are sights that will humble you, amaze you and surprise you. They’ll provoke thoughts, emotions or just an urgent need to tell someone about them.

Jaisalmer

When the magnificent desert fortress of Jaisalmer finally fell to invading armies, its female inhabitants committed mass suicide while its warriors rode out to certain death; anything was better than the dishonour of being captured as a slave. So sure, the Rajputs of Jaisalmer were certainly a proud people, but when you look at their glorious sandstone city, you’ll realise they had a lot to be proud of. Even after four centuries, their honey-coloured fortress still rises from the sandy plains like a mirage, encircled by 99 mighty bastions. Inside, the beautiful structure is a crazed tangle of tiny lines, complete with graceful havelis and ancient temples that almost collapse under the weight of all the carvings and statuary. No place, more successfully evokes the romance of Rajasthan. To visit Jaisalmer is to step into an Arabian Nights fantasy made real, in a giant sandcastle seemingly carved out of the desert itself. Powerful stuff!

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Taj Mahal, Agra

 

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How do you achieve architectural perfection? Start with acres of shimmering white marble. Add a few thousand semiprecious stones, carved and inlaid in intricate Islamic patterns. Take a sublime setting by a sacred river, in jewel-like formal gardens. Apply a little perfect symmetry, and tie up the whole package in an outlandish story of timeless love. And there you have the Taj Mahal. Built by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan as a mausoleum for his favourite wife, Mumtaz Mahal, the Taj has been attracting travellers to India for centuries. Despite the incredible multitudes of visitors it draws, the Taj Mahal still presents a misty window through time. There’s no other building in India that so perfectly encapsulates the attitudes and atmosphere of its era.

Dashashwamedh Ghat, Varanasi

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The hiss and spit of a thousand orange embers aglow on the banks of the river, framed by a brooding night sky or bathed in the mellow light of dawn, is an ethereal experience. Varanasi’s 80 or so smouldering ghats, with their Hindu cremation pyres, offer a window into another world, one absorbed by the rituals of death. It is here, on this long stretch of steps leading down to the waters of the Ganges River, that the holiest city of India is at its brilliant best and most spiritually enlightening. In the early hours of the morning, pilgrims come to perform puja to the rising sun; at sunset, the main ganga aarti takes place at Dashashwamedh Ghat – Varanasi’s liveliest and most colourful ghat. Despite the touts, it’s a moving place to linger.

Meenakshi Amman Temple, Madurai

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The home of the goddess Meenakshi is considered to be the crowning glory of South Indian architecture, as vital to the aesthetic heritage of this region as the Taj Mahal is to North India. The 12 gopurams (temple towers) are encrusted with gods, goddesses and demons. Peer closely and you’ll find most of the heroes and villains of Hinduism rendered in Technicolour. This is a living place of worship, with mingling priests and throngs of pilgrims.

Old Delhi

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The motorcycle chaos, the barrage of noise, the searing aromas and the in-your- face colours: Old Delhi is quite an assault on the senses. Sprawling around the Red Fort, this medieval-era neighbourhood is a tangled web of narrow lanes and clusters of temples anchored by action-packed bazaars, all seeped in Hindu, Sikh and Islamic history, yet brushed over with modern Delhi life. It will certainly make your head whirl but, it’s memorable.

Golden Temple, Amritsar

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Amritsar’s Golden Temple is a defining image of India: a vision of golden perfection rising from a shimmering pool the waters of which are believed by Sikhs to be the nectar of immortality. Built in the 16th century under the guidance of the fifth of Sikhism’s 11 gurus, the Harmandir Sahib (as it is formally known) is laid out on the principles of equality and a casteless society – as symbolised by the gates that open on to the temple from every direction. In practice, it means the Golden Temple is arguably more welcoming than any major place of worship in the world. Everyone, regardless of faith, is invited to a simple meal in the langar (dining room).

Fatehpur Sikri, Agra

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Passing through one of Fatehpur Sikri’s soaring castle-keep gates is a grand affair in itself, but what lies beyond is an Indo-Islamic masterpiece. This fortified ancient city was the short-lived capital of the Mughal empire in the 16th century, during the reign of Emperor Akbar. According to Muslim history, Akbar built the magnificent city as a tribute to local Sufi saint Shaikh Salim Chishti, who accurately predicted the birth of an heir to the Mughal throne. An ethereal gleaming white tomb honouring the saint languishes within the walls of the immense Jama Masjid mosque, a highlight of the city and the only part that’s still in use today. Enter via the expansive flight of stone steps and towering 54m-high Buland Darwaza and it is clear you’re following the footsteps of emperors and saints. The rest of the city is now a ghost town, albeit a very beautiful one indeed.

Thiksey Monastery, Ladakh

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So big is the glorious Thiksey Gompa that it looks more like a village than a monastery. Covering a large rocky outcrop with layered white Tibetan-style buildings spectacularly ringed by arid mountains, it incorporates shops, a school, a restaurant and a hotel. As a place to stay, it can come as quite a surprise that many rooms here are unexpectedly plush, with geyser-heated water. More than 40 monks gather to chant morning prayers; a fascinating ceremony that’s so popular visitors can often outnumber worshippers. A 14m-high Buddha lords over the main gompa’s peaceful prayer chamber. A museum hidden away beneath the monastery restaurant displays Tantric artefacts, including a wine-vessel made from a human skull.

This excerpt has been taken from Lonely Planet’s Ultimate Travelist.