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Arts & Culture

See what humankind has created in moments of inspiration, faith, and curiosity, from temples to palaces to caves that housed some of the earliest fine art.


Seaside Tranquility and Gallic Influence in Puducherry

When exploring the state of Tamil Nadu or its capital, Chennai, decamp to the breezy French colonial outpost of Puducherry for a few days of seaside tranquility, tree-lined boulevards and a distinctly Indian juxtaposition of past and present. Puducherry, or Pondicherry (thus its nickname, “Pondy”), is situated on the Bay of Bengal and retains many aspects of Gallic influence, especially in architecture, language and cuisine. Spend an afternoon strolling the coastal promenade (which closes to traffic at 6 p.m.), nibbling lychee gelato and popping into the new design-savvy boutiques and art galleries, while your children scamper along the sea wall. The tranquil Pondicherry Museum hosts an impressive collection of artifacts from the city’s past, or you can venture to the Aurodhan Gallery where you will find a fine collection of Indian contemporary art. Discover the fragrant, lush Botanical Gardens aboard a toy train[?] or wander the elegant Portuguese-style Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception Cathedral. Thirty minutes north by car from Puducherry is the “City of Dawn” or Auroville, a universal township established by a disciple of Sri Aurobindo. The sprawling, manicured grounds and the giant golden sphere or Matrimandir at the center are fascinating for young explorers and parents alike. Paradise Beach, a private beach about five miles from Puducherry, is only accessible by boat from the Chunnambar Resort. Your kids can splash in the waves, play some beach volleyball and enjoy snacks from the restaurant shack.

WHEN TO GO: Visit during the winter season of November to March, when the temperatures drop to the mid-60s to low 70s and rain is scarce. Avoid monsoon season from July to September when it’s oppressively hot and humid.

WHEN TO GO: Visit Puducherry during the months of November to March when the weather is a breezy 50 to 60 degrees.

FOR KIDS: This activity is safe and enjoyable for children of all ages.


The Pallava Dynasty Rock Carvings of Mamallapuram

Mamallapuram, a town on India’s southern Coromandel Coast, was a thriving seaport as far back as the 1st century A.D. When the kings of the eighth-century Pallava Dynasty established their capital in nearby Kanchipuram, this seaport became one of the richest in India. It also became a center of divine architecture and sculpture. Spectacular remnants of this artistic heyday are scattered around what is now a charming, laid-back seaside fishing village strewn with giant boulders and palm trees. Among them are ancient carved cave temples featuring fascinating timeless vignettes of everyday local life from 1300 years ago, and artists’ workshops where traditional methods of sculpture and carving still thrive. One of the biggest boulders is inscribed with extraordinarily well-preserved intricate relief carvings known as “The Descent of the Ganga”, an illustration of Hindu mythology featuring celestial beings, elephants, and mythical Naga snakes. Equally impressive are the Five Rathas: giant monoliths of Hindu deities carved from single boulders that were preserved under layers of sand for hundreds of years until they were excavated in the 19th century. Nearby on the seashore, towering over the crashing waves of the Bay of Bengal stand the weathered remains of a great 7th century Dravidian pagoda: the Shore Temple, one of the oldest and most romantic structures in India.

WHEN TO GO: Take your trip to the ruins and rock carvings near the Bay of Bengal in the early winter months from November to December, after monsoon season ends.


Elephanta Island Mumbai

When the Portuguese captured this forested island known as Gharapuri from the Sultan of Gujarat in the 1500s, they discovered a huge elephant sculpture on the shore and renamed the island Elephanta. Located six miles offshore in the Sea of Oman just beyond Mumbai Harbor, the island is reached by ferry from the Gateway of India monument on the Colaba seafront. Despite the elephant statue collapsing in 1814 and being relocated to Mumbai’s Jijamata Udyan gardens, the island still has examples of beautifully executed sculptures and exquisitely detailed friezes. The original name of Gharapuri translates to “city of caves,” and fittingly so, as the island features a labyrinth of caves carved during the golden age of Gupta art and sculpture between 450 and 750 AD, dedicated to Lord Shiva. Sloping steps lead up to the main cave where a magnificent Trimurti Sadashiva monolith depicting the triple aspects of Shiva as the creator, preserver and destroyer was hewn from a single rock. This, along with a giant panel showing the demon King Ravena attempting the theft of Mount Kailash while Shiva sleeps and a version of Shiva performing the cosmic dance Nataraja, are some of the finest examples of ancient Indian art.

WHEN TO GO: As visitors can only reach the island by ferry, book your visit to these magnificent caves from April to June, prior to the year’s monsoon season.


11 Sites, 1,000 Years of Extraordinary Self-Expression



The streets around the thousand-year-old Brihadishwara Temple, built in ...

The streets around the thousand-year-old Brihadishwara Temple, built in Thanjavur during the artistic heyday of the Chola Dynasty, have a timeless feel. Artist studios lining the streets feature the traditional Tanjore style of painting, rich in color and inlaid with gold and precious stones. This ornate style sprung up in the 16th century and offers a fascinating window into Southern Indian culture. Nearby workshops produce classical stringed instruments called Veenas, each carved from a single piece of Jackfruit wood.

WHEN TO GO: Enjoy the timeless feel of the thousand-year-old streets and participate in the artistry workshops year-round. For the best experience, go when the weather is pleasantly in the high 60s and low 70s, from September to November.

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In 1835, a wealthy aristocrat built this cavernous colonnaded mansion to...

In 1835, a wealthy aristocrat built this cavernous colonnaded mansion to hold his eclectic art collection. Some of his family members still live on the upper floors, but visitors can view the fountain-filled courtyard garden, lavish marble music room, baroque ballroom and statue-lined corridors hung with priceless paintings by European masters. Throughout the palace, Venetian crystal chandeliers, Ming vases, Belgian glassware and amusing kitsch of little value offer an enchanting taste of fine art and faded grandeur.

WHEN TO GO: Visit this palace full of sparkling jewels and exquisite paintings when the weather outside is dark and windy. The months of July to September are great to explore the indoor treasures India has to offer.

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Art Deco buildings and havelis in Ahmedabad, the 15th-century epicenter ...

Art Deco buildings and havelis in Ahmedabad, the 15th-century epicenter of Indian textile production, house this world-class museum. Visitors can explore a comprehensive collection of Indian textiles, which include pichhwai, painted cloths that portray the god Krishna; traditional Mughal tents; brocade sashes called patka; colorfully embroidered garments known as phulkari and more. As only one 20-person tour is offered daily, early booking is recommended.

WHEN TO GO: The bright, pattern-filled museum of textiles is a staple to visit at any time of year, but it is recommended to book early, as tours cap at 20 people per day.

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Tucked away in rural Maharashtra, these cave monasteries and temples are...

Tucked away in rural Maharashtra, these cave monasteries and temples are among the best surviving examples of ancient Indian rock-cut architecture, carved by Buddhist, Hindu and Jain devotees over the course of five centuries. Kailasa temple, dedicated to Lord Shiva, is the world’s largest monolithic sculpture and Ellora’s biggest draw. Carved into a steep rocky slope by thousands of laborers during the eighth century, Kailasa is intricately detailed yet awesome in scale, and set amidst dozens of smaller and often much older caves that feature carvings and sculptures.

WHEN TO GO: Visit when the weather isn’t too hot or rainy, so the caves don’t feel stuffy. Ideal visits take place during the September-December months.

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It is fitting that Kathakali, a dance form that originated in the south ...

It is fitting that Kathakali, a dance form that originated in the south Indian state of Kerala, translates to “story-play.” Performers are known to dress in flamboyant costumes, wear elaborate makeup that can take hours to apply and rely heavily on hand gestures to convey a narrative. Dancers are almost always men and they often dress in women’s costumes to portray female characters. Traditionally major social events, Kathakali performances can begin at dusk and last throughout the night.

WHEN TO GO: Any: The dance performances last year round, but are often performed in the evening hours, so make sure to keep your evenings open as you venture through Kerala.

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Carved from red sandstone cliffs of the Deccan plateau, these sixth- and...

Carved from red sandstone cliffs of the Deccan plateau, these sixth- and seventh-century works are incredibly well preserved and dedicated to Jain and Hindu gods. Visitors must climb a steep stone stairway to reach the series of caves, perched high above a holy lake and a village of blue adobe homes. The first cave features sculptures of Shiva, while others depict Vishnu, the Jain Tirthankara Mahavira and a rare representation of Harihara, a fusion of Vishnu and Shiva in one form.

WHEN TO GO: Visit these caves during the dry summer months of April to June. Avoid monsoon season and snowfall, as you must climb steep stairs for the payoff of beautiful city and lake views.

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Vast and imposing, Bundi Palace dominates the landscape of rolling hills...

Vast and imposing, Bundi Palace dominates the landscape of rolling hills around its namesake city in Rajasthan. The grand antique venue features multiple chambers, halls and galleries over several floors, and the exquisite paintings throughout are among the earliest, finest, and best-preserved royal wall paintings in India. The city itself is a captivating scene of lively bazaars, ancient temples, and narrow lanes lined with blue painted houses built around a large tranquil lake.

WHEN TO GO: Visit Bundi Palace and the rest of the bazaars in Rajasthan in the months of March to May, and ease the transition from indoor to outdoor sightseeing.

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This fascinating museum is tucked among the rambling halls, courtyards, ...

This fascinating museum is tucked among the rambling halls, courtyards, and chambers of a former Rajput royal palace inside the towering walls of Jodhpur’s hilltop Mehrangarh fort. It houses one of India’s finest collections of miniature paintings, some representing the 17th-century Marwar school, which blended the traditional folk style and bold colors favored by Marwar’s rulers with the naturalist style of the Mughal emperors. Vintage artifacts, murals, and ornate interiors round out the collection, and there’s an excellent museum shop as well.

WHEN TO GO: Visit this visually enticing museum from November to December when the weather is between 50 to 60 degrees.

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Shekhawati, a vast triangle of rural villages and desert landscapes in N...

Shekhawati, a vast triangle of rural villages and desert landscapes in Northern Rajasthan, is sometimes referred to as the world’s largest open-air gallery. Its extraordinary hand-painted, and ornately decorated havelis were once the homes of rich merchants and are now open to the public. Many of these abandoned, art-filled mansions are found in tiny towns well off the beaten track, letting visitors experience traditional rural life in the desert.

WHEN TO GO: Visit the open-air mansions during the airy months from September to November, when the weather is warm and the villages are lush.

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Ahhichatragarh, a vast 12th-century fort, underwent a meticulous restora...

Ahhichatragarh, a vast 12th-century fort, underwent a meticulous restoration by the Mehrangarh Museum Trust of Jodhpur over the course of two decades. A group of palaces within the fortress showcase Rajput-Mughal architecture, while interiors display murals and intricate latticework. An annual music festival featuring live performances of Sufi music, dance and poetry has become a highlight of the Indian cultural calendar.

WHEN TO GO: Visit the fort toward the end of February for the Sufi Festival, where over 5,000 oil lamps are lit throughout the area.

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Located near a sleepy town in rural Madhya Pradesh, Khajuraho represents...

Located near a sleepy town in rural Madhya Pradesh, Khajuraho represents the pinnacle of Indian temple art and architecture during the Chandala Rajput dynasty. Built between the 10th and 11th centuries, the temples are superb examples of Indo-Aryan architecture, and the engravings depict a range of human emotions and relationships. Don’t miss the Kandariya Mahadev temple and its spired pavilion, dedicated to Lord Shiva and covered with exquisite carvings and erotic friezes.

WHEN TO GO: Explore the intricate carvings and detailed architecture of the Khajuraho Temples from September-November and bypass the incredibly hot summer months.

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