Cities that have stood the test of time reveal more than just the scars they bear from history – they show the evolution of human civilization. Here’s a look at 10 of the oldest cities in India that have not only weathered the storms of history but also thrived over the years.
The Kashi of yore, Varanasi is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. It was once and still is the seat of Aryan religion and philosophy, a great centre of learning and also a commercial centre famed for its muslin, brocade and silk fabrics. With its mystical river front of shrines and age-old buildings rising tier by tier from the water’s edge, this deeply sacred city reverberates with history. The venerated Vishwanath and Sankat Mochana Temples, the Durga Temple famed for its swarms of monkeys, the Great Mosque of Aurangzeb, and the legendary Benaras University are among Varanasi’s innumerable treasures. These few lines by Mark Twain say it all – “Benaras is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together.”
An ancient city situated on the banks of Kshipra River, Ujjain’s early history is shrouded in Puranic tradition. The capital of ancient Avanti, Ujjain was the political, cultural and literary centre of the Malwa plateau for much of its history. A deep affection for Ujjain is discernible in the works of the great poet, Kalidas. Ujjain is also famous for its Mahakaleshwar Jyotirlinga temple, Sufi saint Rumi’s tomb, the once-in-twelve-years Simhasta Kumbh Mela and the beautiful tie and dye-painted fabrics of Bhairogarh.
With a glorious history dating all the way back to the Sangam period, the ancient city of Madurai is world acclaimed for its beautiful temples and fragrant jasmine blossoms. Madurai was once the seat of the Tamil Sangam or the Academy of Learning and in its golden period many masterpieces were created here. The city’s immense prosperity has been mentioned by Megasthenes, Ibn Batuta and Marco Polo in their travelogues too. Legend has it that Madurai was named for the divine nectar (madhu) that dripped from the tangled locks of Siva when he came to bless the city!
With a history that spans three millennia, Patna, or Pataliputra as it was earlier known, was a nexus for civilisations. The centrepiece of the mighty empire of the Mauryas, Patna, with its close proximity to the ancient universities of Nalanda and Vikramshila, was the fountainhead of knowledge and wisdom in ancient times. It was home to some of the greatest minds from that era – India’s mathematical genius Aryabhata and the ‘Indian Machiavelli’ Chanakya. Padre ki Haveli,Golghar and Patna Museum showcase Patna’s magnificent history.
Once the focal point for three powerful dynasties, Kannauj has much antiquity attached to it.The city’s name is derived from the term ‘Kanyakubja,’ which means the maiden’s womb. Known as the ‘perfume capital of India,’ Kannauj is famous for its traditionally distilled attar and rose water. The age old Ajaipal Temple and Raja Jaichandra Fort are the other major attractions of this historic city. Shri Munshi, a poet and former governor of Uttar Pradesh, once wrote – “If you ever want to visit a perfumery town, visit Kannauj. It is art, it is culture and it is heritage.”
The charming lakeside town of Pushkar boasts a history of habitation that goes a long way back. Folklore says that when Lord Brahma came down to earth, he named the place where the flower (pushpa) fell from Brahma’s hand (kar) Pushkar. For this reason, pilgrims from across India revere the lake and temples in Pushkar. The most famous place here is the Brahma Temple, said to be the only temple in the world dedicated to this deity, followed by the annual cattle fair that draws tourists from around the world and the gorgeous Man Mahal beside the Sarovar lake.
The royal city of the Cholas and the Nayaks, Tanjore, or Thanjavur, has an interesting history to relay. This city of temples was named after the demon Tanjanasura who, according to local legend, was killed by Sri Anandavalli Amman and Vishnu. The artistic grandeur and architectural refinements.of the Chola era can be seen in the Sivaganga Fort and the magnificent Brihadeshwara temple. Other than its temple wonders, the ‘Art Capital of India’ is also known for its exquisite bronze statue castings, pith temple models and musical instruments like veena and mridangam.
On the banks of the Sarayu River lies Ayodhya, an ancient city known as the birthplace of Rama from the epic Ramayana. The kingdom of ancient Kosala had Ayodhya as its capital, with the city being an important trade centre and a melting pot of religious faiths of Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam and Jainism. Historians have also identified Ayodhya to be Saket, a key Buddhist centre from 5th century BC. Treta ke Thakur, Guptar Ghat, Gulab Bari and Mausoleum of Bahu Begum are some of the historically significant sites in this city.
Archaeological evidences suggest that the city of Lal Kot founded by the Tomar rulers in 786 AD was the first city of Delhi. A city that has long been powerful, Delhi has seen the rise and fall of many empires, which have left behind a plethora of gloriously grand monuments. Dive into Delhi’s history by exploring the city’s incredible wealth of ancient sites, such as, the Quila Rai Pithora and Agrasen Ki Baoli.
Once an important trading port, Kollam, or Quilon as it was called, is the oldest port city on the Malabar Coast and was the capital of the Venad and Travancore Kingdom. A legacy of the ancient Chinese traders who settled in Kollam are the Chinese fishing nets and the bowl like frying pans, called Cheena Vala and Cheena Chatty in Malayalam respectively. This seaside town has several striking historic sites such as the Thangasseri Lighthouse, the 18th century Portuguese Fort, and the two storey Red Chowk.
Vadodara has a history that is both old and significant. The city was once called Chandravati, after its ruler Raja Chandan, then Viravati, the abode of the brave, and then Vadpatra because of the abundance of banyan trees on the banks of river Vishwamitri.The golden period of Vadodara was during the enigmatic rule of Maharaja Sayajirao III, an era of great progress and achievements in all fields in the city. Vadodara’s splendidly ornate Laksmi Vilas and Nazarbaug Palaces are sure to send you back in time.
A pre-medieval centre of Jainism, Gwalior has been a strategically important city throughout Indian history with many empires having a unique common link to this city. Music maestro Tansen, one of the nine Navratnas of Mughal Emperor Akbar, was from Gwalior, and so was the famously brave Rani of Jhansi. Pay your respects at Tansen’s tomb and chew the leaves of the tamarind tree here to enrich your voice, before exploring the majestic Gwalior fort and Shivpuri, the old Scindia summer capital.
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