A travel bucket list for aficianados in design, culture and history.
Verses are not, as people imagine, simply feelings… they are experiences. For the sake of a single verse, one must see many cities, men and things.
Poet Rainer Maria Rilke neatly sums up the process behind any creative act – dismissing the notion that ideas or work can stand alone – being as they are transformations and combinations of experiences and insights that existed before them. Before putting pen to paper it’s important to inform oneself, and what better way to start off than by unearthing the layers of rich insights stored in India.
So pack your bags and map out your journeys. Admittedly, this list just kept burgeoning once I got down to doing an informal survey; but five years of studying is a long time, and a lot of these trips can be clubbed together! Remember the creative benefits of keeping a sketchbook at hand, mingle with the locals, avoid large groups (like the plague, if you can!) – and bear witness! Here’s why these places are necessary visits for anyone enthusiastic about design, culture and history (in no particular order):
Visit for the terrain and the Tibetan monasteries – epitomes of cold climate vernacular architecture. These are invaluable references to understand site relationships and building systems.
On the way to and from Leh, stop at Shimla, Manali and Dalhousie – to see the exemplary Himachal house types.
As one student astutely observes,
Indian cities no doubt have a zest of their own. But villages in India challenge their inherent nature – a visit to them makes you question nearly everything.
What happens to the crafts and craftspeople of these villages when they progress towards urbanism? How are the occupations of residents of a village different from urban landscapes? Does it impact the architecture? Can materials impart aesthetics of their own? One begins to question the very nature of what city life has to offer. Interestingly, the power to live with the change or reconfigure it remains with the spectator.
The cue being that while you visit these cities, always keep an eye out for the by-lanes and diversions that lead to less explored areas!
This is a must visit – “for being the only complete example of Nehruvian vision translated into city design. See how, ironically, the current population adjusts to miscalculations made in a bygone era.” Or as another student put it, visit it “to learn the importance of not designing like Corbusier!” Love it or doubt it – decide for yourself!
And while all this Modernism overload is great, miss not late artist Nek Chand’s phenomenal labour-of-love, the Rock Garden – a sensual labyrinth of textures that serves as a striking commentary on the geometric grid that is Chandigarh.
This is an obvious choice on the list, for being one of the oldest capitals in the world. Visit to see the layering – the ferment of time – and what it does to place and culture. Witness the contrasts between historic, British, modern and post independence India – how traditional materials and characteristics have been consciously adapted into designs.
A trip to Delhi would be incomplete without making a stop at Fatehpur Sikri – a fascinating ancient city in red sandstone that continually offers up lessons, the more one studies it. Like Alhambra, this is one of those plans that eternally inspires! Needless to say, the nearby Taj Mahal and Agra Fort, as epitomes of Mughal architecture, add a neat conclusion to this trip.
Mark Twain had said,
Varanasi is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together.
Visit Varanasi for the ghats and temples – to witness the chaos of Indian street life, and the fervour of religious devotion that life on the ghats revolves around. Make Diana Eck’s wonderful book ‘Banaras: City of Light’ your companion, and search the place for mythic symbolisms if you dare.
Combine this trip with a stop at Lucknow, a 6-hour bus ride away – to further understand how religion, politics, war and other decisive epochs transform the built form of a city.
The city earns itself a place here for being one of the best examples of British colonial developments, as also for its complex urbanity blended with its reigning nostalgia. At the urban level, it’s a unique example of co-existence – of history woven with time – of myriad cultures placed beside one another.
A trip to Kolkata can be coupled with a Bhubaneshwar-Puri-Konark sojourn.
Manthan Mevada, a student describes,
One of the best things I like about the mountains is that it makes you realise your scale… Visit Gangtok for its streets – as you get lost in them, they may wind up in someone’s house or open up to fantastic views of mountains! Sometimes you may have to pass through someone’s house, where the lady cooking or the uncle watching TV will all welcome you. The peculiarity about Gangtok is the manner in which ornamentation lends a traditional appearance, even though the buildings may be of concrete. But if you want to see traditional architecture then villages in Sikkim are the best places to be.
A trip to Gangtok may necessitate a leap to the north-east, where the riches of Meghalaya and Assam will leave you equally in awe. Be surprised by some surreal European imagery in Darjeeling, and face the ultimate man-nature conundrum in the Living Root Bridges!
The fact that it is one of the earlier ‘planned cities’ of India, designed on the basis of Vastu Shastra, makes Jaipur a must-visit. Experience it for its co-existence with the ‘old city’.
Jodhpur wins its place for exemplifying the organic growth process of an old city. As one architect explains,
It’s a robust city with a kind of roughness. One must visit it to understand the settlement’s relationship to topography and water, the variety of house types that evolved due to land and social structure.
To observe the principles that generate the spaces of these kinds of cities (organic-accretive), I’d say there isn’t a better laboratory than Jodhpur.
Jaisalmer is very intricate and picturesque, of course, but the ‘pretty’ can sometimes distract from the ‘structure’ – so I would suggest architecture students go where the structure is clearer first!
Compliment this with Mehrangadh Fort’s imposing presence! While there, make a detour toJaisalmer, an exemplary medieval fort-palace-city; or Udaipur, to probe relationships with water.
For being “the mecca of modern architecture in India” – probably the only city in the world to have good examples of both Corbusier and Louis Kahn in it (interestingly, Wright had also proposed a building here). Besides these, a plethora of contemporary buildings, particularly by BV Doshi, and heritage structures like stepwells and mosques, necessitate a 4-5 day trip to this city.
A trip to Ahmedabad would be well complimented with a ride to the Kutch villages, Sidhpur, Patan or Champaner.
A city that provokes, Mumbai must be visited for the inherent contradictions it contains within its complex urbanity – “traits and quirks that make it one of the most bizarre places in the world!” Also visit it for the fantastic colonial and contemporary architectural works it contains; and Marine Drive – ‘Bombay’s single most powerful urban image’, as Charles Correa described it – that defines ‘the edge between land and water in one magnificent sweep’.
While in Bombay, don’t miss a trip to the caves – Ajanta and Ellora – to grasp the sheer incredulity of rock-cut architecture. The art and ornamentation will take you back to a time when art was one with architecture. Also witness how Buddhist, Jain and Hindu art coexist and borrow from each other. As one person put it,
Everything you need to know about Indian architecture, you can know by studying the plan of Kailash Temple!
“For the parallels this city offers to the ‘mainstream culture’ represented by major cities above”, it is well worth a visit, as also for the blend of Portuguese colonial culture with that of the communities along the coastline of Goa. Churches, temples and ruins evoke monumentality, while the old houses and urban spaces are worth studying in themselves.
While there, a trip to the ruins of Hampi and Badami is equally imperative!
This fits into the list for being the finest lake city of central India (“excluding those others besmirched by tourism,” as an architect put it), with impressive Islamic architecture and culture. It’s also close-by from various other destinations. From here, one can easily make trips toMandu, for its stone marvels; and Khajuraho for its grand temple architecture.
I’d say this is a definite destination for all youngsters, for its being a bold Utopic experiment in spiritual and sustainable living. Auroville is an international community of around 2500 people near Pondicherry, offering several volunteering opportunities (the place is best understood from within).Go there to observe the ongoing experiments in building materials and to experience an alternate lifestyle based on life-work balance and community living.
A drive to Pondicherry, that charming French colonial city, is but 8 km away. Notice the grid iron city plan divided into two – the French Quarter and the Tamil Quarter. Observe the Franco-Tamil style architecture that resulted in some parts, with streets as community spaces. Visit the Golconde Ashram, the first example of Modernism in India.
While in Tamil Nadu, don’t miss a trip to the stunning Temple Towns of South India – primarily Trichy, which has the exemplary Srirangam town – a bustling place with religion at its very diagrammatic centre. This is another plan that is an eternal reference point – for its religious centre, concentric boundaries, scales of gateways, etc. Besides these temples, the city itself is a joy to observe. As one architect put it,
How many cities still have a garden in which they grow flowers to be placed in the temple. Jasmine no less, that you can smell as you walk down the street to it!
On your way here, stop at Chidambaram and Tanjore – equally striking works of architecture, scale and ornamentation.
Visit to see the traditional architecture prevalent in this equatorial climatic region; and the works of Laurie Baker, which create a true benchmark in terms of cost-effective design. Head over also to Padmanabhapuram Palace – to see the expression of this region at its glorious peak!
Disclaimer: Bucket lists are, by their nature, sensational and eye-grabbing and that is their purpose. You are advised to practise judgement and go where personal research and interests take you!