You could be living right beside a UNESCO World Heritage site or passing by one daily without knowing its importance.
Thanks to its rich history and culture, there are countless heritage sites in India which are also popular tourist attractions. However, not all of them have made it yet to the UNESCO list.
India ranks sixth in the list of countries having the most UNESCO Heritage sites. There are 27 Cultural World Heritage sites, seven Natural World Heritage sites and one Mixed World Heritage site in this country.
Among these 27, we list top 10 heritage sites that can be easily visited or could be located just in you reside.
About World Heritage Sites in India
UNESCO follows stringent rules before listing a monument on its World Heritage Site list. Additionally, countries where UNESCO World Heritage Sites are listed also have to spend billions of Dollars every year for maintenance of these monuments.
Thousands of tourists converge on UNESCO World Heritage sites annually and can cause them damage. Hence, the Indian government also has to spend heavily on their security.
While Taj Mahal ranks as first UNESCO World Heritage site in India, here are 10 more of which you may not yet be aware.
List of World Heritage Sites in India
1. Chattrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus (Mumbai, Maharashtra)
Located amidst the bustling city Mumbai, this landmark railway station and its adjoining buildings are listed as one of the famous UNESCO World Heritage Sites in India.
The Chattrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus of Mumbai is depicted in thousands of Bollywood and other Indian movies as a landmark of the city.
CSMT was also a site attacked by Pakistan trained and sponsored terrorists that attacked the city on November 26, 2008.
CSMT Mumbai is built with now extinct styles of Gothic architecture. It was completed in May 1853. In those years, it was called Bori Bunder of a place where sacks are stored.
The station was renamed Victoria Terminus in 1878, after the erstwhile British queen. The new building and railway station cost US$22,000 to construct in that era.
Till date, old timers of Mumbai call the place VT, an abbreviation of Victoria Terminus.
In 1996, this landmark railway station and its adjacent complex that once housed offices of Great Indian Peninsular Railway were renamed Chattrapati Shivaji Terminus who established Maratha rule over Mumbai and other parts of Maharashtra.
In June 2017, this legendary location was renamed once again as Chattrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus.
The complex consists of 18 railway platforms that are served by Central Railways and Central Harbour.
These are divided into two sections- suburban railways and inter-city trains. Additionally, it houses booking offices, restrooms, restaurants and a vast range of infrastructure required to operate a railway network. CSMT is also the headquarters of Central Railways.
2. Nalanda Mahavihara (Nalanda, Bihar)
Nalanda Mahavihara is an ancient Buddhist monastery located a few miles outside Patna, the capital of Bihar state of India.
Patna was once called Pataliputra and was the seat of Emperor Ashok and other great rulers of the Maurya dynasty of India.
Nalanda Mahavihara is often confused with Nalanda University. The two are distinct places.
It is widely believed that Gautama Buddha, founder of the Buddhist way of life lectured from a mangrove near Nalanda Mahavihara.
Mahavir Jain, the founder of Jainism faith, is also believed to have spent several years studying Buddhist and Hindu scriptures at Nalanda Mahavihara.
Nalanda Mahavihara was built around 5AD and was the seat of learning that served various parts of modern day Bihar and its adjacent states.
Being a Buddhist seat of learning, it attracted students from countries as far as China, Japan, Korea and Mongolia, among other places.
Ancient texts found at Nalanda Mahavihara indicate it was a major centre for learning till being ransacked by Muslim invader, Mamluk Bahktiyar Khilji, the sultan of Delhi. These frequent sieges destroyed much of Nalanda Mahavihara.
This ancient UNESCO World Heritage Site in India was partly excavated by Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) between 1972 and 1984.
The ruins match descriptions written by ancient Chinese scholars, Xuanzang and Yijing, among others.
The only part of the entire Nalanda Mahavihara is excavated. There are plans to unearth the whole village that was once popular for its education.
Complete excavations are expected to shed light on some vital features of Buddhism and the Jain faith of India.
3. Taj Mahal, Agra
Taj Mahal is one of the wonders among the 7 wonders in the world. Taj Mahal was built by Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan in between 1631 and 1648 for his beloved wife Mumtaz.
Taj Mahal is situated on the banks of River Yamuna. It is completely made of marble and it took 20 years to complete, thousands of artists, craftsmen worked on it. It is the World Heritage site since 1983.
Every year 7 to 8 million tourists give a visit to the Taj Mahal and in that 0.8 million tourists are foreigners. According to the day change, the colour of the Taj Mahal appears.
4. Great Living Chola Temples (Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu)
Great Living Chola Temples located around Thanjavur city in Tamil Nadu find mention on UNESCO World Heritage List.
They have been included in the list since these three temples are built in the purest form of Dravidian architecture, peculiar to the Chola rule over southern India.
These temples include Sri Brihadisvara Temple, Airavatesvara Temple and the Gangaikondacholapuram Temple, all located within the periphery of greater Thanjavur.
UNESCO website states, these wonderfully built temple complexes were created and completed between 11AD and 12AD.
Their architectural style is extinct since long. Further, these temples are built with pure rock. The technology used to carry these rocks and carve them into precise, aesthetic shapes remains unknown till date.
Some scientists believe, ancient Indians used the juice of some plant or herb that could be very acidic and hence, helped carvers.
The three complexes are almost intact, save for minor damages at some locations. They attract thousands of pilgrims every year from various parts of India.
Being located in and around Thanjavur, local people also worship at these temples that house idols of several Hindu deities.
It is widely believed that more than one Chola emperor was responsible for the construction of each temple, due to the enormous size of monuments and intricate carvings.
5. Hill Forts of Rajasthan (Various Locations, Rajasthan)
All forts located on hills of Rajasthan, having a circumference of about 20km and built between 8AD and 18AD are listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites in India.
These include ancient forts in Jaipur, Chittorgarh, Kumbhalgarh, Sawai Madhopur, Jaisalmer and Jhalawar cities. They were built by erstwhile maharajas that once ruled parts of the state.
Most prominent among Hill Forts of Rajasthan is the Jaygairh or Jaigadh fort, located on outskirts of Jaipur.
This fort is very famous for two things that find mention in the Guinness Book of World Records. One is Jaywana, the world’s longest cannon and the most substantial piece of artillery from ancient times.
The other are two silver pots, each weighing some 350kg. They are the world’s most heavy silver pots and were ordered by a former Jaipur ruler to carry water from river Ganges on his trips to London and other parts of India.
UNESCO has included these forts since they are examples of Rajput heritage and ideologies. Excellent planning and architecture went into planning and construction of these forts.
Another prominent one is Kumbhalgarh Fort, the birthplace of Maharana Pratap, the valiant Jaipur ruler who refused to become a vassal of the Mughal Empire.
Maharana Pratap was martyred in a siege of Chittorgarh by Mughal troops of Emperor Akbar, led by a Rajput general.
Kumbhalgarh fort also features prominently in Indian folklore about Maharana Pratap and his gallant horse, Chetak.
Other than Jaigarh and Kumbhalgarh forts, the World Heritage List includes four more former bastions built by Rajput rulers over 10 centuries.
6. Rani Ka Vav (Patan, Gujarat)
You may have seen a picture of Rani Ka Vav without even realising its significance. The new Rs.100 currency note issued by Reserve Bank of India in June 2023 depicts Rani Ka Vav on its reverse.
This monument from UNESCO World Heritage List is depicted in shades of brown on the otherwise lavender coloured Indian currency note.
Rani Ka Vav is located in Patan, Gujarat and is a monument to King Bhima-I, who lived between 1022AD and 1064AD and ruled over parts of the state. It is believed to have been built by his widowed queen, Udayamati.
This heritage site of India is an excellent example of ancient stepwells, where water can be accessed only by descending down a flight of stairs.
The monument is located on banks of River Saraswati. It remained submerged in waters of this river still being found by historians.
UNESCO lists Rani Ka Vav on its list of world heritage sites in India for two reasons. UNESCO states, stepwells were built in the Indian subcontinent from 3BC onwards.
Earliest stepwells were pits where water could be collected and had to be accessed over roughly carved steps.
Over centuries, stepwells became more sophisticated with steps and walls being decorated with intricate art.
Rani Ka Vav is an excellent example of such elaborate, well decorated and artistically built stepwell. This monument is made using the Maru-Gurjara style of ancient architecture.
It depicts the purest form of this architecture implying, craftsmen that built it had complete knowledge of styles.
Rani Ka Vav consists of over 500 sculptures and more than 1,000 sub-sculptures or supporting idols for the main ones.
It is the most intricately designed stepwell in the world from ancient times. The architectural style is also rarely found in modern times.
7. Churches & Convents of Goa (Various Locations, Goa)
Various churches and convents of Goa figure in the UNESCO World Heritage List. They have been included in this list for their Manueline, Mannerist and Baroque forms of art that were brought to India by former Portuguese colonials that ruled over Goa till 1961.
Architects and developers of these churches and convents aptly blended local architecture and material to create monuments that reflect primarily European styles.
The main church among these is Basilica of Bom Jesus located in Old Goa, the former capital of Portuguese rulers till the 16th century when plague forced its abandonment.
Remains of St. Francis Xavier lie interred at this shrine. The other one is Se Cathedral located just across the road.
Portuguese rulers built both these shrines in typical European style with material made from red mud indigenous to Goa.
Most intriguing among churches and convents of Goa is the Tower of St. Augustine. While its construction is attributed to the Portuguese, archaeological evidence now suggests otherwise.
The tower itself has been built in early Gothic architecture, which went extinct about 400 years before Portuguese could set foot in India.
Stones found at the site are not from Goa but seem to have been brought from Karnataka, to which Portuguese rulers had no access due to enmity with the Bijapur Sultanate and Maratha Empire.
Other evidence and records tend to prove the Tower of St. Augustine complex was a military installation that also housed troops of Adel Shah Bahman Shah, then ruler of Bijapur who ceded the control of Goa to Portugal.
8. Chalukya Temples (Pattadakal, Karnataka)
Chalukya Temples complex at Pattakadal in Karnataka are included in the list of UNESCO World Heritage because they “represent a high point of an eclectic art…” that achieved a harmonious blend of architectural styles of ancient north and south India.
The complex consists of various Hindu shrines as well as one from Jain following. Primarily, the Chalukya temple complex is dedicated to Hindu deity, Lord Shiva.
One can also find temples dedicated to Lord Vishnu and Goddess Durga as well as other Hindu deities within the complex.
Sculpture and paintings of the Hindu temples depict Vedic and Puranic scenes including those from Srimad Bhagavad Geeta and other ancient scriptures such as Panchatantra.
Most of these temples blend northern and southern architecture of ancient India. Hence, their construction and appearance are unique. There are said to be no similar ones anywhere in the world.
There is one shrine dedicated to Jina who is followed by members of the Jain faith. The entire complex was built between 5AD and 7AD by rulers from the Chalukya dynasty that ruled over Karnataka and other parts of India.
The Chalukya Temple Complex is easily accessible. It is located some 165km away from Belgaum, the winter capital of Karnataka and 265km from Panaji, the state capital of Goa.
The Karnataka government has made elaborate transport arrangements for pilgrims and other tourists that wish to visit the Chalukya Temple Complex at Pattakadal.
9. Buddhist Monuments (Sanchi, Madhya Pradesh)
Sanchi is located some 40km from Bhopal, the state capital of Madhya Pradesh. On a hillock overlooking Bhopal, there is a complex that consists of Buddhist monuments, known to date back to 2BC and 1BC era.
The Buddhist Monuments complex at Sanchi consists of monolithic pillars, palaces, temples and monasteries.
UNESCO World Heritage List for India describes the complex as the “oldest Buddhist sanctuary in existence.” It is said to have flourished till 12AD.
The world-renowned Sanchi Stupa forms part of the Buddhist monuments. It ranks as one of the oldest surviving examples of ancient Indian architecture.
Construction of the Buddhist monument complex began around 3BC and could have taken about 200 years to complete, given the intricate nature of shrines, pillars, palace and other monuments inside the compound.
These Buddhist monuments are visited by Indians and tourists from across the world. The art inside the complex depict scenes from the Jataka and numerous miracles performed by Lord Buddha, including walking on water.
Intricate carvings also depict the life of Emperor Ashok, who carried Buddhism as far as Japan in ancient times.
These carvings depict Emperor Ashok requesting various tribes to hand over ashes left after Lord Buddha was cremated: the ruler wanted to enter them at a single location and build a shrine.
Another carving shows the emperor overcome by grief after finding the Bodhistava tree where Prince Gautama found enlightenment to become Lord Buddha, being neglected by a local queen.
Visiting Sanchi is easy. The road from Bhopal can easily access these Buddhist monuments. In fact, you can find organised tours for Sanchi.
This is one place where the influence of Emperor Ashok is every evident: you will find Ashok Stambha (Ashok Pillar) with the typical carving of three lions.
They are similar or resemble India’s National Emblem of three lions, taken from an Ashok Stambha in Sarnath.
10. Ajanta Caves, Aurangabad
Ajanta is one of the ancient and oldest caves in India and is one of the popular destinations in Maharashtra. It is situated 52 kms away from Jalgaon Railway Station and 104 kms from Aurangabad.
This cave was rediscovered by one British Army in the year 1819 during his tiger hunting. Ajanta Caves are good examples of India Art and Paintings.
The caves are excavated in between 2nd Century BC to 6th Century AD and there is total 30 rock cut Buddhist caves.
Ajanta caves are in a horseshoe-shaped. It was declared a world heritage site in the year 1983.
The best time to visit Ajanta Caves is in between November to March.
11. Mountain Railways of India (Various Locations)
Have you ever been on board a toy train of India or dreamt of travelling on one? They figure on the list of World Heritage Sites in India.
The list includes the toy trains as well as railway stations and other infrastructure needed to run the service.
These are the longest World Heritage Sites of UNESCO since they span for several miles.
Built between 1854 and 1908, Mountain Railways consists of three distinct passenger railways located in Tamil Nadu, West Bengal and Himachal Pradesh.
These are the only existing examples of the proverbial toy train anywhere in the world, save for modern ones commonly found at amusement parks in various countries.
First ranks Darjeeling Himalayan Railways, opened in 1881 and continued to remain operational till date.
UNESCO describes its uniqueness in these words “its design applies bold and ingenious engineering solutions to the problem of establishing an effective rail link across a mountainous terrain of great beauty.”
The second among these is 46km long Nilgiris Mountain Railway in Tamil Nadu. It was planned in 1854.
However, cutting through mountains proved very difficult. After several delays, work in earnest began only in 1891 and was completed in 1908.
“This railway, scaling an elevation of 326m to 2,303m represented the latest technology of the time,” says UNESCO.
The third is Kalka-Shimla railway-which is most widely travelled due to popularity. Shimla is state capital of Himachal Pradesh and a hill resort popular among domestic and foreign tourists.
UNESCO states: “the Kalka Shimla Railway, a 96-km long, single track working rail link built in the mid-19th century to provide a service to the highland town of Shimla is emblematic of the technical and material efforts to disenclave mountain populations through the railway.”
UNESCO also lists them since all three railways are still functional. The next time you visit these areas, remember to travel on a toy train and take pictures.
Indian Railways spends millions of Dollars every year to maintain these three UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
12. Ellora Caves, Aurangabad
Ellora Caves are situated 100 km away from Ajanta Caves, Aurangabad. Locally Ellora Caves are known as ‘Verul Leni’. Ellora Caves were built by Rashtrakuta Dynasty.
There are total 34 caves in which there 12 Buddhist Caves, 17 Hindu Caves and 5 Jain Caves. There are also rock-cut temples of Buddhist, Jain and Hindu this shows harmony in between three religions.
The caves were excavated in between 5th century and 10th Century and the caves were visited regularly as per the written records. Ellora Caves was declared as World Heritage site in the year 1983.
13. Sun Temple, Konarak
Sun Temple was built in 13th Century in Konark, Odisha State by Narasimhadeva I of Eastern Ganga Dynasty.
It was declared as world heritage site in the year 1984. NDTV and Times of India have listed Sun Temple in Seven Wonders of India.
The word Konark arises from two Sanskrit words ‘Kona’ means corner and ‘arka’ means sun. The temple is dedicated to Sun God ‘Surya’. The temple resembles the giant ornamented Chariot of Sun God who moves around the Chariot.
It has twelve carved stone wheels which are the main attraction of the temple. Europeans called the Sun temple as ‘Black Pagoda’ and the Puri Temple as ‘White Pagoda’.
The best time to visit is in between October to March.
14. Kaziranga National Park, Assam
Kaziranga National Park is the only park in the world to have the ideal habitat of one-horned Rhinoceros. It is located on the bank of Brahmaputra River in Assam. Kaziranga National Park was declared as world heritage site in the year 1985.
Other animals like elephants, bears, panthers, tigers, wild water buffaloes, swamp deer, Indian bison, hog deer, leopards, jackals, sloth bears are also found.
In winter season thousands of birds migrate on the lakes. The best time to visit the park is mid-November and mid-April.
15. Red Fort, Delhi
Red Fort is also known as Lal Quila and is situated in Old Delhi. Red Fort was built in 17th century by Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan and it took 9 years to complete as is the masterpiece of architecture.
The fort is built with red sandstone and marble. Every Independence Day, Indian Prime minister hosts the flag from the main gate of the Red Fort.
Inside the fort, there are various attractions like a hall of public, museums, gardens, plush apartments, mosque and marble palaces.
There is also a place called Hammams or Royal baths where the royals would take the bath. Ran Mahal was specially built for ladies. The Fort was declared as world heritage site in year 1983.
16. Group of Monuments at Hampi, Karnataka
Hampi is traditionally known as Pampakshetra of Kishkindha, Hampi was the capital of Vijayanagar Empire of 14th century to 16th century.
Hampi city is situated on the banks of the river Tungabhadra and derived the name Hampi from the pampa the old name of river Tungabhadra. Hampi is the important destination for many pilgrims.
Hampi has more than 500 temples some of the famous are Virupaksha Temple, Underground Shiva Temple, Badavi Ling, Yantrodharaka Anjaneya Temple, Hazara Rama Temple, Achytaraya Temple, Malyavanta Raghunathaswamy, Chandramauleshwar Temple, Hemakuta Group of Temples, Krishna Temples & Vittala Temple.
The best time to visit Hampi is in between September to February. From 2nd Nov to 5th Nov annual Hampi Festival is hosted by the city.
17. Agra Fort, Agra
Agra Fort was built by the Mughal Emperor Akbar as military establishment and is situated on the bank of river Yamuna.
Agra Fort is built with red sandstone and has four gates. It is just 2.5 kms away from the world famous Taj Mahal. The fort has a mix Hindu and Mughal style Art & Architecture.
This fort is like a city and is surrounded by the 70ft tall wall. The Fort was under Maratha Empire in mid 18th century.
The best time to visit the Agra Fort is in between November to February. The Fort was declared as world heritage site in the year 1983.
18. Bhimbetka Caves, Madhya Pradesh
Bhimbetka Caves are situated 45 km northeast of Bhopal. It is said that Bhimbetka got the name from the character Bhim from the epic Mahabharata and Bhimbetka means the sitting place of Bhim.
There are more than 700 rock shelters of which 400 have paintings. Some of the paintings in Bhimbetka Caves are more than 30,000 years old and vegetable colours are used for paintings.
In Bhimbetka the Stone Age traces of human life have been found. The main attraction in Bhimbetka Caves is Zoo Rock, Boar Rock and Auditorium Rock Shelter.
In the year 2003 Bhimbetka Caves were declared as the world heritage site.
19. Mahabodhi Temple, Bodh Gaya
Mahabodhi Temple is a holy destination for Buddhists from all over the world and is considered as Buddha attained enlightenment in this place. Mahabodhi Temple is situated in Gaya District of State Bihar.
Mahabodhi Temple is one of the four holy destinations for Buddhist. Around 250 BC Emperor Ashoka visited Bod Gaya and built the temple.
The Bodhi Tree at Mahabodhi Temple is considered where Siddhartha Gautam attained enlightenment and became the Buddha.
The best time to visit the temple is in between November to February. A large number of devotees visit in the month of May during Buddha Jayanti.
This temple was declared as world heritage site in the year 2002.
20. Humayun’s Tomb (Delhi)
Humayun’s Tomb in Delhi is listed on UNESCO World Heritage Sites. This is because it is the only garden-tomb on the entire Indian subcontinent.
Meaning, no similar examples are to be found elsewhere. It is located in East Nizamuddin suburb of old Delhi.
The tomb was built around 1570AD upon orders by Bega Begum, the main consort of ruler Humayun, father of Akbar who founded the Mughal Empire on the Indian subcontinent.
According to records, the widowed empress enlisted the help of two Iranian architects- a father and son team for construction of Humayun’s Tomb.
The complex is believed to have taken about a year to complete. The monument has been built using a blend of Turkic, Persian and Mughal style of architectures.
Humayun’s Tomb is a very well preserved monument of India. Since it lies in Delhi, this Indian monument attracts thousands of domestic and foreign tourists daily. The Indian government spends heavily on its maintenance and preservation.
Astounding features of Humayun’s Tomb are the building itself, which has been built in a blend of architectural styles never seen before on the Indian subcontinent.
The cenotaph of Humayun is also intricately designed. Additionally, domes, balconies and other significant features of the monument clearly indicate Rajput architectural styles.
This indicates that more than one style went into creating the monument.
Other UNESCO World Heritage Sites in India
As we mentioned earlier, There around 27 Indian heritage sites. These are located in different parts of India.
- Qutb Minar, Delhi
- Champaner-Pavagadh Archaeological Park, Gujarat
- Elephanta Caves, Mumbai
- Great Monuments of Mahabalipuram, Tamil Nadu
- Historic City of Ahmedabad, Gujarat
- Khajuraho Group of Monuments, Madhya Pradesh
- Red Fort Complex, Delhi
- Rock Shelters of Bhimbetka, Madhya Pradesh
- Architectural Work of La Corbusier, Various Locations
- Jantar Mantar, Jaipur, Rajasthan
- Victorian Gothic and Art Deco Ensemble of Mumbai
But these are not all; there are seven national parks and one nature reserve in India that are also on UNESCO World Heritage Site in India.
No. That is not all. You would be surprised to know; there are as many as 42 more historical and natural locations in India that are awaiting entry into UNESCO World Heritage List.
These include shrines of various faiths, palaces, caves, forests, engineering marvels of yesteryears, ruins of lost civilisations and lots more.
Available information indicates, UNESCO is at various stages of including these monuments and places on its World Heritage List.
Once that happens, India’s rank on the number of countries having the highest number of UNESCO World Heritage Sites is likely to rise.
Currently, Italy leads the list with 53 sites followed by China with 52. Other toppers are Spain with 46 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, France with 43 and Germany with 42. India ranks sixth.
The Final Conclusion
Since India has one of the oldest civilisations in the world, it is natural for the country to have several World Heritage Sites.
Even as UNESCO adds the 42 sites in India Archaeological Survey of India and the Indian government are preparing a list of more monuments that can find the entry on the World Heritage List.
A lot of these sites are in utter disrepair due to constant pillaging and plundering by invaders from Asia and Europe.
Some sites in India are unique and similar examples cannot be found anywhere on this planet.
If you have not yet visited a UNESCO World Heritage Site in India, check on out during your forthcoming holidays.