There are many things that go into our India travel bucket list. But not many of us aware that some of the most familiar places and sights are also examples of timeless architectural expressions, proof of human endurance, or part of our delicate ecological balance, qualities which have won them a place on UNESCO’s world heritage list. Here is our list of five such features in India that you must check out.
Churches and Convents of Goa
Apart from visiting its beaches, no trip to Goa is complete without visiting the Church of Bom Jesus in Old Goa where the mortal remains of St Francis Xavier lies. But did you know that the casket (encasing the glass box with the body), built by Goan craftsmen in the mid-17th century, is considered a rare work of art, blending Indian and Italian styles? Old Goa or Velha Goa, the former capital of the Portuguese possessions in India, with its churches and convents, are also under the umbrella of UNESCO’s world heritage sites. So instead of rushing through them on a whirlwind tour, do spend time exploring them, learning about their architectural style, the artefacts within, and their history.
Together, the monuments are examples of Manueline, Mannerist and Baroque art, and served as inspirations for other Asian countries, according to the UNESCO citation. Apart from the Basilica of Bom Jesus, other monuments include The Church of Our Lady of the Rosary, the oldest church of Old Goa, Se Cathedral, Church of St Francis of Assisi, ruins of the Church of St Augustine, St. Cajetan Church, also known as the Church of Divine Providence, said to be designed after St Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City, etc.
Mountain Railways of India
Have you travelled on the mountain railways of India? Looking at the hill passenger trains running on their narrow rails, huffing and puffing up the steep gradients, taking sharp bends, going in loops, trundling across bridges or chugging through dark tunnels, you may wonder if they have come out straight from a kid’s toy box. From inside, you can see the scenery – green hills, mountain springs, quaint stations, even people and their homes – unspooling itself outside your window in slow motion. If you have not travelled on these trains, may be you can use this lull in travel (train travel in pandemic afflicted India is still under wraps) to plan how you can weave the mountain railways of India into your future itineraries.
Travelling by these slow trains is not only fun but also a chance to touch history. The first railways in India (and second in the world) to make it to the UNESCO list was the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway or the ‘Toy Train’ as it is popularly known. Later, the Kalka Shimla Railway and the Nilgiri Mountain Railway were added to the list. These railways, built in the mid-19th century to early 20th century, are not only operating since then but also a testimony to the use of then latest technologies to lay the tracks across difficult terrain and steep gradients, building bridges and tunnels, and the tremendous effort put in by engineers and labourers to complete the work.
Victorian Gothic and Art Deco Ensembles of Mumbai
Most people associate the green expanse of the Oval Maidan, near Mumbai’s Churchgate Railway Station, with sporting activities. But did you know it is also one of the best places to observe the city’s urban architectural legacy which developed through two distinct phases in the 19th and 20th centuries? To the east lies an ensemble of Victorian Gothic buildings from the 19th century (the Maidan was also built during this period) and to the west lies a collection of Art Deco buildings dating back to the 20th century (when the Marine Drive was also built).
The Gothic buildings, mostly consisting of public spaces, incorporated elements of Indian architecture, especially through verandas and balconies, to adjust with the weather. Some of the popular examples include Bombay High Court, Mumbai University, David Sassoon Library, Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (formerly Prince of Wales Museum), etc.
Most of the Art Deco buildings, which also drew inspiration from Indian elements, consisted of residential apartments, cinema halls, etc. According to the UNESCO citation, this blending of ‘Indian design with Art Deco imagery created a unique style called 'Indo Deco’. Examples include old apartment buildings along the Marine Drive, Regal Cinema, etc. So go ahead, next time you are in Mumbai, do an Art Deco trail around the southern parts of the city.
Champaner-Pavagadh Archaeological Park
Said to be India’s only complete and unchanged pre-Mughal Islamic city, the little known architectural gem of Champaner lies about 55km by road from Vadodara in Gujarat. Cited as a ‘living cultural heritage, the archaeological park is spread across the twin towns of Champaner and Pavagadh, located about five km apart from each other.
One of the key features that earned the region its World Heritage Site status is the perfect blend of Hindu-Muslim architecture seen in many of the buildings. The Great Mosque (Jami Masjid) is said to have served as a model for later mosque architecture in India. Both towns contain several Jain temples, mostly belonging to the Digmabar sect. Some of the other attractions include prehistoric (chalcolithic) sites, a hill fortress of an early Hindu capital, ruins of fortifications, palaces, religious buildings, residential precincts, agricultural structures and water installations, from the 8th to 14th centuries.
The Western Ghats
Running parallel to the western coast of India, for nearly 1600 km, the Western Ghat or the Sahyadri mountain range is older than the Himalayas. It is considered as one of the eight hot spots of biological diversity in the world, largely owing to its endemicity. There are many flora and fauna found here which are not found anywhere else in the world. According to the UNESCO citation, at least 325 globally threatened (IUCN Red Data List) species occur in the Western Ghats.
Starting from a point south of the Tapti River in Gujarat, it passes through Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka and Kerala before terminating at Marunthuvazh Malai in Tamil Nadu. Of the 39 sites which have been inscribed as part of the Western Ghats World Heritage Site, some of the popular attractions include the Kas Pathar of Maharashtra, Thattekad Bird Sanctuary of Kerala, Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve of Tamil Nadu, Nagarhole National Park of Karnataka, etc.