If you are searching for best Places to visit in India and have zeroed in on North India and the area of Interest is Culture then you will surely not be disappointed. Basically the starting point of any Itinerary for North would be Delhi and usually cover Delhi, Agra and Jaipur (referred to as the Golden Triangle), to add to the mix I usually recommend Ranthambore. Have an Introduction article on it here.
There are places that can be added to the Golden triangle to enhance it further, Read the article which details things to do in the Golden Triangle here but reverse the Itinerary. Start with Delhi, then visit Jaipur, I recommend add Ranthambore but you are free to choose, if you add Ranthambore the article already covers it, else you can miss this and next stop is Agra.
Agra now would become a 2 night destination for you as you are now coming from Jaipur or Ranthambore via Fatehpur Sikri and your arrival would be late in the afternoon. Since you now have the full day of tomorrow it is advisable to plan your Sightseeing for a full day.
Agra was the capital of the Mugal empire from 1559 till 1639 when the decision to shift the capital to Delhi was taken, during this period which also corresponds to the peak of the Mughal Empire a lot of development took place in Agra.
Apart from visiting Taj Mahal at Sunrise and later the Agra Fort, I would recommend adding the tomb of Itmadudaulah also referred to as mini Taj to your day. The tomb of Itmadudaulah is located on the other bank of river Yamuna and needs around 90-120 minutes for a visit.
While there is also recommended to visit Mehtab Bagh which is just behind Taj Mahal and was said to be the Site where Shah jehan wanted to build a second Taj Mahal in Black marble as his final resting place.
Since he was put under house arrest by his own Son this project was never started. However you will be able to enjoy the Taj Mahal from Mehtab bagh side as well and this again makes for some great pictures.
The next day begins with an adventure and your travels take you into the heart of India, you will take the Train and travel to a city called Jhansi.
Indian Railway Stations have a life of their own and offer a unique insight into the lifestyle of people. I always recommend arriving early with atleast 15-20 minutes to spare and just watch the life play out.
Jhansi plays an important role in the history of India as it was the focal point of the first war of independence, We would not be stopping at Jhansi just deboarding from the train and driving a short distance to Orchha.
Having visited it many times I consider this a hidden Gem, Orchha is the erstwhile capital city of the Bundela rulers. That the town is steeped in history, becomes quite evident from the palaces and temples built in the 16th and 17th centuries. As one drives through the town the history comes alive and can be felt literally at every corner.
Orchha can be a night halt if you have the time, there are plenty of Hotels located around the Betwa river which flows through Orchha, else this would be a short Lunch stop which is followed by a quick sightseeing of the Orchha where you would visit the Fort, which was built following the founding of the Orchha State in 1501 AD by Rudra Pratap Singh, a Bundela Rajput.
The palaces and temples within the fort complex were built over a period of time by successive Maharajas of the Orchha State. Of these, the Raja Mandir or Raja Mahal was built by Madhukar Shah who ruled from 1554 to 1591. Jahangir Mahal and Sawan Bhadon Mahal were built during the reign of Vir Singh
The features of “pepper pots and domes”seen in the fort complex, inspired Lutyens in the architecture of the structures which he built in New Delhi.
After the sightseeing you would embark on the Journey to Khajuraho, which would take around 3 hours. Khajuraho gets its name from the Khajur Trees (date trees) that can be found in the region. Khajuraho shot to fame in the 9th and 10th century as the temple city and is house to exquisite Hindu and Jain Temples.
Khajuraho can be a 1 night or a 2 night halt. Since the Sightseeing is primarily the 2 temple groups, you can easily visit them in the morning and still catch the afternoon flight to Varanasi. (At present this flight has been withdrawn but it is likely to be reinstated once Tourism starts again)
When visiting Khajuraho you should start your morning a little early and visit the Western group of temples first, these are Hindu temples and shot to fame on account of their architecture and intricate carvings depicting scenes from Kamasutra.
A guide would make your visit to these temples come alive. There is a lot of history and every stone has a story to tell. Some of these may just be stories but hey we always love Stories and a good story make an already great monument Shine.
Once you have spent quality time at the Western Group you would drive over to the Eastern Group which are the Jain temples, these are the simpler ones of the two and need less time to visit.
If you are staying for one night, after the sightseeing you would head back to the Hotel and from there drive for about 5 minutes to the airport. Doesn’t matter where your Hotel is, All hotels in Khajuraho are around 5-7 minutes away.
If you are staying for 2 nights then you have 2 choices, one being visiting the Ken Gharial ((Gavialis gangeticus) or fish eating Crocodile) Sanctuary in the afternoon which is 15 kms away from Khajuraho or you could visit the Khajuraho village on cycle rickshaw and get some more insights into the life of the people in central India.
You will take the flight next afternoon which would leave you with a chance to hop back to the western group for some more pictures or to relook at the intricate carvings)
The flying time from Khajuraho to Varanasi is less than 1 hour. Varanasi or Benares was often referred to as the Cradle of Indian Civilization as it was believed that the city has been continuously inhabited since 2000 BCE.
However a study conducted in 2016 found out that the earlier claims are not correct and the city probably predates to around 4500 BCE, thus making it not only as old as the Indus Valley civilization but the oldest city in the world which has been continuously inhabited for the past 6500 years, hence it is now referred to as Cradle of THE Civilization.
The city is of significance to both Hindus and Buddhists, Hindus believe that if they die in Varanasi they are liberated from the cycle of life and death and Buddhists because it is in Sarnath that after his enlightenment Buddha preached his first sermon.
Varanasi should ideally be a 2 night halt, the day you arrive is best spent enjoying the Evening prayer Ceremony called (aarti) on the banks of river Ganges, for best views one should arrive a bit early and take a boat to view the aarti from the boat.
The next day you would be heading back to the river before Sunrise for a boat ride, River Ganges is the sacred most river in India, it is believed that a dip in the river cleanses one of their sins.
To understand this concept one has to first understand how the people lived in the olden days and the path they followed.
Life was divided into 4 phases called Ashrams, It started with Brahmacharya (celibacy) you enteredt this phase at a young age and became a Student. At an early age the mind is like a Sponge and it was at this stage that kids were sent to the house of Gurus you stayed till you reached your mid teens.
The next phase was grahast (Household), It was important to enjoy all the worldly pleasures in this phase, which meant having a family, employment and fulfilling your duties as a Son/daughter or a parent.
Once you were done with your duties it was time to move to the next phase which was Vaanprasth (leaving for the Jungle/Mountains/Isolation) During this time, since the life expectancy was less speople were married in their teens, had kids earlier and the kids in turn also were married in their teens. So by the time a person was 40 years of age it was time to give up on worldly pleasures and move on and go for self discovery.
Living alone, in Isolation in some remote place was the best thing to do introspection, understand ones true self. Monks have been doing it for centuries, this was on similar lines. It was believed that when one is alone with no distractions one journeys inwards and when one understands that purpose of being born is to liberate oneself from the cycle of life and death and attain Moksha (Nirvana) then one departed for Varanasi to await their death.
The departure to varanasi marks the start of the final phase of life called Sanyaas. One lived on alms with the bare minimum possessions and awaited ones death. Hence the belief that if you die in Varanasi you are liberated from cycle of life and death.
The significance of taking a dip in the river ganges is similar to confession for Catholics.
This is what makes Varanasi so important, it is the last step for the Moksha or Nirvana.
When you take a boat ride in the morning you would see people coming to the river to take a dip, then head on over to the temple and start their day.
Taking a Dip = washing away the sins incurred unknowingly and visit to the temple = Gratitude for having been given a chance to be alive and clean up the balance Karmas.
This morning boat ride helps you understand a lot about the way of life of Hindus, once done you would be heading back to the Hotel for the breakfast.
Post breakfast you would continue with the visit of other important places on your Plan which could be a visit to Bharat Hindu university Shiva Temple, Durga Temple and in the afternoon a visit to Sarnath, the place where Budha preached his first sermon.
The Site of the sermon is marked by the Dharmek Stupa and the ruins nearby are that of the Monastery / University that was set up for people to study and understand Buddhism. Both Hinduism and buddhism believe in the same thing, it is just the paths which are different. The very word Buddha means the enlightened one. It comes from Sanskrit word buddhimaan (Intelligence)
These university / Monastery was destroyed later by various rulers most likely at the behest of the Hindu Priests, as people were going the Buddhist way and this would have meant less power in the Hands of the priests.
Once you have visited Sarnath, It may be a good idea to indulge in some Varanasi Silk shoping, Varanasi is known for the best Brocade Silk in India and while here it is always worthwhile visiting the Karkhanas (Old Factories) where this art is still being practised.
The evening one can choose to go back to the river for another session of aarti or call it a day and process all the impressions one has gathered during the day.
Having been to Varanasi hundreds of times, I can tell you that it takes time to process what you would have seen on this day and it may be worthwhile to just hang out in your Hotel and have a quiet evening.
From here on you have the option to either head to Delhi and finish your tour or build up on it and fly to Kathmandu, Nepal.
Although in all fairness and in my professional opinion by this time you would be so saturated with the experience that adding anything further is best avoided.
If you do choose to head on over then I would link to the Nepal program when ready for you to read about it.
Leverage my 3 decades plus of expeience as a Traveller and let me help you craft the perfect Itinerary for your Trip. This would be made in Consultation with you and would help you maximise your time in India.
If after that you wish to have it booked, I would get it booked for you locally which would
A) give you a Huge price advantage 15-20% cheaper than what you would pay in your Country.
B) You will benefit from last minute upgrade deals that are made available locally.
If you are searching for best Places to visit in India and have zeroed in on North India and the area of Interest is Culture