Grand tales of love and loss, and myth and legend, come to life in this section of the Hindi heartland, anchored by Agra, home of the stunning Taj Mahal; Varanasi, one of the world’s oldest and holiest (and most chaotic) cities; and Khajuraho—a sleepy, unforgettable temple town dating back around a thousand years. In this spiritually rich, highly diverse, and deeply historical part of North India, surrounded by Mughal magnificence and houses of worship, it’s quite possible to believe you’re in the home of the Gods.
Agra was a seat of the Mughals' power, and their legacy remains (partially intact) for us to marvel at. Dominated by Muslim influences in culture, art, architecture, and cuisine, the city is a testament to the beauty and grandeur of Mughal aesthetics, most notably in the form of the Taj Mahal and Fatehpur Sikri.
Some 440 km (273 miles) southeast of Agra, in the northern part of Madhya Pradesh, the sleepy village of Khajuraho predates the Mughals. Khajuraho was founded at the end of the classical age of Hindu civilization, and is home to stunning Hindu and Jain temples that are famous for their erotic, often explicit sculpture. Excavations here have also uncovered a long-forgotten complex of Buddhist temples.
According to legend, Varanasi was founded by the Hindu god Shiva, and it's said to be one of the oldest populated cities in the world—about 3,000 years old. In many ways, the city (still sometimes called by its Raj-era name, Benares), in southwestern Uttar Pradesh, is the antithesis of Khajuraho. Varanasi teems with pilgrims, hospice patients, mourners, ascetics, priests, Hindu pundits, and international citizens of many religions. Its famous ghats (wide stone stairways leading down to the Ganges) are both key religious sites and secular promenades. Writer Mark Twain explained its charm perfectly. He said it is "older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together." Hindus believe that a person who dies here will gain moksha (salvation and freedom from the cycle of birth and rebirth). Sarnath, on the outskirts of Varanasi, is where the Buddha is said to have preached his first sermon after his enlightenment. The ruins and temples here draw Buddhist pilgrims from all over the world.