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Northern Plains: overview

The northern plains are one of India’s most intense and unmissable regions, home to the iconic sights of the Taj Mahal at Agra and the ghats of Varanasi.

Between the discipline of Punjab and Haryana’s proud Sikhs and the apparent lawlessness of much of Bihar lies Uttar Pradesh, held by many to be the heartland of India – its soul enshrined in the incomparable Taj Mahal at Agra and its religious sentiments laid bare on the burning ghats of Varanasi.

The Northern Plains' great sights

Heartland of the great Mughal empire, India’s northern plains are home to several of the country’s most wondrous monuments – including the Taj Mahal and Fatehpur Sikri – as well as its holiest river, the Ganges. The principal natural feature of the northern plains – worshipped as a nur-turing Mother Goddess by Hindus – is the river revered as ‘Ma Ganga’, which gushes out of the Himalayan foothills at Rishikesh and wends southeast towards its confluence with the region’s other main artery, the Jamuna, at Allahabad. From there, the Ganga travels lazily west through the ancient city of Varanasi and to the former seat of the Mauryans, Patna, capital of modern-day Bihar. Spiritualiy also abounds in this state at Bodhgaya, where the Buddha was said to have achieved Enlightenment.

Riven in two by Partition in 1947, the Punjab was named after the five major tributaries of the Indus flowing through it. Only a couple of these drain through the modern Indian state abutting the Pakistani border, but it still ranks among the most fertile parts of the country. The holiest Sikh city, Amritsar, is found here.

A rich history

The rich alluvial soils of India’s vast northern plains have nourished large, dense and highly stratified societies for literally thousands of years. Only the most scant remains survive of the ancient empires whose capitals once rose from the banks of the region’s immense rivers. But the legacy of these lost civilisations endure in the languages and culture of Haryana-Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar – home to around 320 million people. 

Places to visit in the Northern Plains

Agra's iconic sights

Location of the Taj Mahal, Agra is the most popular tourist destination in India. Even if the place had nothing else, it would be worth the trip to soak up this monument's splendour. Read more about Agra...

Varanasi's bathing ghats

The most sacred stretch of the Ganges is at Varanasi, one of the oldest living cities in the world and arguably the most intense, atmospheric place in the whole of India. Read more about Varanasi...

The ghost city of Fatehpur Sikri

The ruins of Fatehpur Sikri, the former capital of Akbar the Great are found on an arid sandstone outcrop surveying the flat plains. The city was only occupied for a little under 15 years before being deserted. No one is quite sure why: water shortages are the explanation most often advanced. 

Entering via the Agra Gate, at the northeast corner, you emerge at the Diwan-i-Am, the courtyard used for public audiences. In its southeast corner stands the Turkish Sultana’s House, or the ‘Chamber of the Peerless Pool’ (Hujra-i-Anup Talao), noted for its elaborate decorative carvings. Just in front of it, the Pachisi Court is a huge game board for which Akbar and his courtiers are said to have used slave girls as pieces. Dominated by a great central pillar supporting bridges to a balcony, the ornately decorated Diwan-i-Khas, at the north end of the same enclosure, is thought to have been where Akbar held his famous debates with Jesuits, Brahmins, Parsis, Sufi mystics, and Jain and Buddhist monks.

Separate from the palace complex on the southwest side of the ridgetop, Fatehpur’s Friday Mosque (Jama Masjid) holds the much revered, marble-clad Tomb of Shaikh Salim Chishti – the mystic who prophesied that Akbar would have three sons. Flanking the southern side of the complex, the mighty Great Gate (Buland Darwaza) forms an appropriately grand entry and exit point for the imperial city.

Sikism's holiest shrine at Amritsar

The magnificent Golden Temple, holiest shrine of the Sikh faith, stands in the centre of Amritsar, capital of Indian Punjab. Built by Guru Arjan Dev in the 16th century, the heart of the complex is the ornately gilded Harmandir. Every Sikh aims to make at least one pilgrimage to the shrine in their lifetime, but its doors are open to all: come early in the morning or around sunset, when the gold colour, reflected in the waters of the Amrit Sarovar (Pool of Immortality Giving Nectar), is most sublime.

In the 1980s, the Golden Temple became infamous as the site of two bloody sieges when Sikh militants agitating for an independent homeland fought pitched battles with the Indian Army. Thousands died in what Sikhs still regard as a terrible desecration of their most sacred site.

The site of the Buddha's enlightenment at Bodhgaya

Gaya, 90km (56 miles) southwest of Rajgir, is an important Hindu site, where pilgrims come to perform last rites for recently departed relatives. For most foreign travellers, however, it’s primarily a staging post on the journey to Bodhgaya, 12km (7 miles) further south on the Phalgu River, where the Buddha is believed to have attained Enlightenment.

The exact site of this momentous occurrence was a ficus, or bodhi tree, a descendant of which still grows on the same spot. Buddhists travel here from all over the world to worship in the sacred garden, the centrepiece of which is the resplendent, Unesco World Heritage-listed Mahabdodhi Temple, built in the 6th century AD on top of the original shrine erected by Emperor Ashoka more than 800 years before.

See more of northern India...

Discover Mughal architecture and modern momentum in Delhi

Visit colourful Rajasthan, the "land of kings"

Venture to new heights in the Northwest Himalaya

Top hotels in Northern Plains

  • Tourist Rest House

    • £

Kachahari Road, Baluganj

Agra

tel: 0562-246 3961

The best low-cost place to stay in Agra. Clean rooms with attached bath around a courtyard. Friendly owners and good vegetarian food; a highly recommended choice.

Top restaurants in Northern Plains

  • Esphahan

    • £
    • £
    • £
    • £

Amarvilas Hotel, Taj East Gate End

Agra

tel: 0562-233 1515

Sumptuous Mughlai cuisine served in an ornate hall that’s like something out of Arabian Nights. Dinner is served in two sittings (7pm and 9.30pm); reserve ahead.

Read more about India

Read more about India in Insight Guides: India

Insight Guides: India

India is like nowhere else on earth - thrilling, frustrating and incredibly diverse. The full-colour Insight Guide India shows you how to get the most out of this amazing destination. Our inspiratio...

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Places to visit in Northern Plains

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