India is one of the oldest civilization in the world and that’s why it has several historical sites. India was ruled by different dynasties in the last 2000 years, most of them built several buildings which are now UNESCO world heritage sites in India. These rulers were Hindu, Muslims and Britishers from Europe, all of them have a different style of architecture. They had a strong influence on local architecture and their collaboration produced some unique monuments. These beautiful monuments in India make it a perfect country for an art lover, who likes to explore history through these UNESCO heritage sites.
There are so many monuments in India and every region has something unique. Most of the people visit popular monuments like Taj Mahal in Agra, monuments in Delhi, Khajuraho temples, and forts of Jaipur, Jodhpur, Udaipur & Jaisalmer. There are so many other lesser known UNESCO heritage sites like Ajanta & Ellora caves, Mountain railways of India, and the Western Ghats. These places are unique in their own way.
Offbeat UNESCO heritage sites in India
Mountain Railways of India
The narrow gauge trains, which operate to hill stations of India are known as Mountain railways of India. These are popularly known as Toy trains because of the small sizes. Mountain railways or toy trains were built by Britisher when they ruled in India. To escape the heat of Indian plains, they use to shift to hill stations during summer months. The hill stations were much cooler than the rest of India. It was very difficult to carry big items to the mountain towns in the late 19th and early 20th Century. Bullock carts and horse carts use to take a month to reach to the top.
To overcome the issue of transportation, they developed several small train routes. The most popular are Kalka Shimla train which was for people staying in Delhi, Darjeeling Himalayan railways which were for people staying in Kolkata, Nilgiri mountain railway which served South India and Matheran Hill railways which were close to Mumbai. Except for Matheran railways (Which is on tentative list), all these routes are in UNESCO heritage sites of India.
Most of these trains still operate with the old steam engines and carriages are made of wood with carving on its panels. These trains run slowly on narrow gauge tracks with a speed limit of 20 to 30 Km per hour maximum. Other than the trains, the landscape and scenery on the way is the main attraction of traveling by these trains. Most of these trains pass through narrow bridges, long tunnels and have sharp curves on the way. You have to travel by these trains to experience the beauty of these trains.
Also, read about train travel in India and safety tips
These caves are an architectural marvel and will leave anyone spellbound when you see these in real. There are 30 rock-cut caves in the mountains surrounded by jungle. These caves are dedicated to the Buddhist religion and date back to 2nd century BC to 4th century BC. Ajanta caves have beautiful paintings and rock-cut sculptures, which survived the test of time and still in good condition.
It is astonishing to see that monks carved these caves with chisel and hammer. The workmanship on the caves is very detailed. According to the records these caves served as a monsoon retreat for monks, as well as a resting point for the pilgrims in ancient India. These caves remain hidden for several centuries and were accidentally discovered in 1819 by British officer John Smith, who was on a hunting trip.
Every cave is unique, some caves are prayer halls, some were viharas, and some were monasteries. Some caves have intricate paintings in multicolors and some caves have carvings & sculptures. These caves are still surrounded by lots of greenery and forest.
Ajanta caves are 100 Km from the Aurangabad and 420 Km from Mumbai.
Old Goa or Velha Goa
When anyone mentions Goa the first thought comes to our mind is beaches and party. Goa’s beaches are definitely a holiday destination for relaxing but there is so much more to explore. It has a rich cultural heritage and beautiful architecture. The churches and convents were declared UNESCO’s world heritage in 1986 as cultural property.
These monuments of old Goa are known as the “Rome of the Orient”. These monuments which are mostly churches and convents established an ensemble of the Manueline and Baroque art forms in the Asian region. Construction of these monuments established a different Catholic religious order in India from 1510 onward.
Originally 60 churches were built in this area but only some of them survived in the city of Velha Goa. The most significant monuments in old Goa’s UNESCO’s heritage site are the Basilica of Bom Jesus which enshrines the tomb containing the relics of St. Francis Xavier, the Church and Convent of Saint Francis of Assisi, the Saint Catherine’s Chapel, Church of Our Lady of the Rosary, Church of Saint Augustine where only the belfry stands today with some old graves.
These monuments and churches are mostly walking distance from each other but are very different in architecture. While Basilica of Bom Jesus was constructed with laterite stone and looks rustic. The Se Cathedral is totally white. The interior of these monuments is richly decorated with statues, carvings, gilded reredos, and murals.
A visit to Goa is incomplete without visiting these beautiful churches and monuments.
Elephanta Caves near Mumbai
By Kimaya at Homosapien Intransit
Elephanta caves are proof of human genius and creativity. The caves are ancient and apparently date back to the 5th and 7th century. They can be a part of your Mumbai trip as Elephanta caves are located on Elephanta Island in New Mumbai and are accessible through a boat ride. So this means a day trip for tourists visiting Mumbai city and also for fellow Mumbaikars.
I took a ferry from South Mumbai especially right after visiting Gateway of India as the ferries (costing approximately Rs.150 for a round trip) are available in the vicinity. When you reach the island, you can see that the caves are atop a hill so they have drawn out steps for the visitors to reach the top.
There are vendors selling snacks, jewelry, and souvenirs along the way. The entry fee to the Elephanta cave is Rs. 30.
The island is around 2.4 km long and the Portuguese settlers named it Elephanta as they found ancient elephant statues on the island. When I entered the caves, I could see the arena transformed into some ancient period depicting the early civilization. Right from statues and sculptures of Lord Shiva pertaining to Hindu Mythology, the skilled artisans of that time had beautifully carved them in stones.
There are multiple caves having multiple entrances with Northside entrance being the main one, some of them established with idols and pillars inside them. The west side of the cave has a ‘Shivaling’ (representing Lord Shiva) which many Hindus worship.
Two of the caves also have Buddhist architecture depicting their ideology with beautiful Stupas or mounds dating back to 2nd century BCE.
The caves are a beautiful amalgamation of two distinguished cultures and their representation, at one location.
Vijaya Vittala temple in Hampi
By Soujanya from The Spicy Journey
Hampi is a historical town in the state of Karnataka in India, renowned for the numerous complexes filled with temples, enclosures, and monuments left behind from the majestic ancient Vijayanagara empire. The structures, including the many temples, step-wells, and ruins left of the residential areas of the Vijayanagar kingdom are spread over a massive area of 16 sq miles.
This entire area of Hampi is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Among the countless temples, the one that stands out in terms of grandeur, architecture and sheer beauty is the Vijaya Vittala temple. It is also known as Sri Vijaya Vittala temple. The great Vijayanagara ruler Krishnadevaraya began its construction in 1513 CE which was completed during the reign of his successor Achyutaraya.
The temple is dedicated to Lord Vittala, who is an incarnation of the Hindu God Vishnu. However, the stone chariot, which is an iconic structure identifying the temple, is dedicated to the Eagle God, Garuda.
According to Hindu mythology, Garuda is the vehicle of Lord Vishnu. The main hall of the Vijaya Vittala temple is called the Maha-Mantapa or the great hall. It sits on an ornate platform, surrounded by intricately carved pillars depicting elephants, lions, horses, humans and Gods alike.
Apart from the main hall, the temple complex contains other structures such as the Goddess’s shrine in the northwest, the 100-pillared hall at the southwest, the ceremonial marriage hall (called the Kalayna Mantapa) in the southeast and the pillared cloisters all around the enclosure wall. This temple most certainly is the main highlight of any history as well as architecture buff visiting India.
Pattadakal Group of Monuments in Karnataka
By Soumya from Stories by Soumya
Pattadakal, a lesser-known UNESCO heritage site in India, is home to a fascinating group of temples from the era of Badami Chalukyas. The monuments of Pattadakal are unique because they are a harmonious blend of both North and South Indian architectural styles.
Coronation ceremonies for Chalukyan emperors were held in this temple complex. The practice was called “Pattavishekham” and that is how Pattadakal got its name.
The city functioned as the cultural capital of the Chalukyan Empire in the 7th and the 8th centuries. It was during this time that Pattadakal became the epitome of art and architecture in the region.
Architectural styles were tried and tested in Aihole and implemented with finesse in Pattadakal. The city also functioned as a magnet for architects from other parts of the country. All this led to the creation of this intriguing group of temples that was accorded the UNESCO heritage status in 1987.
While some of the shrines (eg. Virupaksha and Mallikarjuna) have been built in the usual Dravidian style prevalent in South India during those times, others (eg. Galaganatha and Jambulinga) clearly depict the Nagara style of architecture from North India.
Beautiful carvings adorn the temple walls, ceilings, and columns. Some of them have interesting stories behind them. Surprisingly, the temples are not crowded at all given their proximity to Hampi. Pattadakal can be easily done as a day trip from Hampi or a weekend getaway from Bangalore.
If you are a history and art lover, this ancient city will keep you engaged for hours.
Take a moment here, stand amidst the temples, and imagine a royal Pattavishekham ceremony in progress with sounds of bells and chants in the background. Trust me, it is a mesmerizing experience.
Mahabalipuram in Tamilnadu
By Fiona Berry from Passport and Piano
Mahabalipuram is a Unesco World Heritage site about 60km south of Chennai in India. This small town contains approximately 400 ancient monuments and temples that date back to the 7th and 8th Century.
They were built during the Pallava dynasty, and the town was known as the seven pagodas. Ancient coins have also been found in the area suggesting that Mahabalipuram was once a trading place for the Romans.
There are several monuments worth visiting. Arjuna’s Penance is one of the most beautiful and the carved rock face is stunning. The intricate engravings of this monument tell the story of how Arjuna performed austerities to obtain Shiva’s weapon.
Mahishamardini Mandapam is one of the best cave temples to see. The cave shrine has three chambers, all of which are beautifully engraved. There are some beautiful sculptures, including one of the incarnations of Vishu and Bhu Devi. This particular panel is known to be one of the best examples of ancient art in India. The life-sized, carved elephant is also a magnificent sculpture, although I was surprised to see that people were climbing on top to get photos.
Shore temple, named so because of its location on the Coromandel shore has some of the most exquisite architecture. The temple is in the shape of a pyramid and has three shrines inside which are devoted to Lord Shiva and Lord Vishnu. Both inside and out the temple’s intricate design is stunning, it’s hard to believe that this piece of granite was carved so many centuries ago by hand.
Today the shore temple is the backdrop to the Mahabalipuram Dance Festival, which is a fantastic event held every year in January. Tours of Mahabalipuram can easily be arranged from Chennai if you’re interested in visiting.
Also, read about another shore temple in Rameshwaram, Tamilnadu
Tabo Monastery in Himachal Pradesh
By Sarah Puckett from Organized Adventurer
While not easy to get to, do not miss the Tabo Monastery in Spiti Valley, Himachal Pradesh. This is the main draw to this small Himalayan village, yet it remains fairly untouristed, in large part to its remote location. The Tabo Monastery was founded in 996 AD and is likely the oldest continually running monastery in India.
Several mud-walled shrines are open to visitors. Shoes and cameras are forbidden inside, partly out of respect and partly to preserve the millennium-old wall murals inside. The paintings inside are bright and colorful, and blend Tibetan, Indian, and Kashmiri styles. It’s dark, cool, and dry inside each shrine, which helps to preserve these priceless religious works. Inside the main assembly hall, 28 life-size sculptures of deities line the walls, amplifying the “wow” factor.
Though photos are forbidden inside the shrines, visitors are free to take photos while roaming the grounds and gardens.
To get to Tabo, visitors must drive through high mountain passes from the city of Manali towards Kaza (about 9 hours), and from Kaza, it is another hour to Tabo. To visit Tabo, foreigners must obtain a permit separate from an India visa in Kaza. Most people travel with a guide to this region who can help with these logistics. Independent travelers can simply ask their hotel for help compiling the application for the permit.
The town of Tabo is very small, and wherever you are staying, you can easily walk to the monastery. Entrance is donation-based, and opening hours can vary so ask around locally if you aren’t sure.
Also, read about high altitude Ladakh in India
Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj / Victoria Terminus in Mumbai
By Denny from Lazy Road Trips
Mumbai is a magnificent place which has a lot to offer to its million visitors each year. India’s most populated city is also home of several UNESCO World Heritage sites, one of which is the spectacular train station Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus. The terminus changed its name many times during the years and today city’s visitors, as well as locals, refer to it as Victoria Terminus.
The building dates back from the 1887 year and it was designed in High Victorian Gothic style of architecture by the British architectural engineer Frederick William Stevens. It was built in honor of the fiftieth anniversary of Queen Victoria’s accession and yes, it was named after her.
After dark, the building of Victoria Terminus is illuminated in bright red color. This underlines the extreme beauty of the combination of Indian limestone and Italian marble used for the elegant details. At the entrance of Victoria Terminus, you can see the figures of a lion and a tiger, representing the power of Great Britain and India.
Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus is the busiest and the biggest train station in Mumbai. It offers to its visitors 18 platforms – 11 of which serve for the intercity trains and 7 operate the suburban trains. The traffic in front of the station is as crazy as it can get in Mumbai (yes, all rumors are true! It’s a jungle here!)
In 2008 the station was used for filming the soundtrack song “Jai Ho” of the famous Indian movie “Slumdog Millionaire”. If you also want to take some good pictures of the building, just across the station, in the middle of the traffic jam, you can find a safe place to do so.
Qutb Shahi Tombs in Hyderabad
By Priyanka Gupta from On My Canvas
When I went to Hyderabad last year, I planned to see all the major attractions such as the Golconda Fort, Charminar, Qutb Tombs, Hussain lake, and many more sites that came up in Google when I searched for historical places in the royal city.
I visited all the monuments and the lake that I mentioned above one by one. Then I arrived at Qutb tombs during the late afternoon when the sun was still intense and right above our heads. I had been roaming around in the lively chaos of the city. I was looking for relief from the heat and the bustle, and Qutb tombs were the right place for my exhausted mind.
These ancient graves of the Qutb Shahi dynasty were all constructed in the 1500 AD’s and stand glorious in the Ibrahim Bagh near Golconda Fort. The tombs have no entry fees, and you can go inside the garden and walk around freely for as long as you want. The domes and the stone walls of the tomb structures are patted with intricate carvings, and you might want to look at them closely.
You won’t find many people in the tombs and the garden. So take your time, pack some snacks and water, sunscreen, and spread a mat and sit while pigeons flutter from one dome to another above you taking you to a historical era. The tombs have lost all the blue-green tiles they say initially covered the structures, but they still look gorgeous. Especially when you walk aimlessly in the garden, and the worn-out dome suddenly appears out of the green foliage she had been hiding behind.
Also, read places to visit in and around if you have 3 days in Hyderabad
Jami Masjid in Ahmedabad
By Mayuri from Fernwehrahee
Ahmedabad in Gujarat is inscribed as UNESCO World Heritage City in 2017 and if you are planning to visit this city, don’t miss taking Mandir (temple) to Masjid (Mosque) walk organized by AMC. The walk ends at Jami Masjid. Lying in the old walled city, the mosque is situated near Manek Chowk.
It was probably the largest mosque in the Indian subcontinent built in the period of Sultan Ahmed Shah from whose name city is called ‘Ahmedabad’.
The mosque has the arcade in three different directions while the fourth remaining side of the mosque has a hall where the prayers are offered. It is built in Indo-Saracenic style and motifs include Islam, Hindu and Jain temples style.
The mosque and arcades are built from yellow sandstones and it is carved with intricacy. Pierced stone screens (the`Jalis`) are placed between the two pillars. This mosque is famous for its symmetry and perfect for photography lovers.
The delicate and intricate work done in this mosque makes it a must visit place when in Ahmedabad.
Also, read Places to visit near Ahmedabad
These are some of the beautiful UNESCO heritage monuments of India, which are comparatively lesser known and visited.