Bettany Hughes – Exploring India’s Treasures – The North

Bettany Hughes - Exploring India's Treasures - The North

Bettany Hughes – Exploring India’s Treasures – The North – In the enchanting city of Varanasi, a place brimming with spiritual energy and ancient traditions, Bettany finds solace and healing amidst her own recent bereavement. Embracing the profound customs of the Hindu faith, she engages in a poignant and transformative ritual that serves as a guiding light on her path of mourning and self-discovery.



As the sun casts its golden hues upon the sacred Ganges River, Bettany embarks on a soul-stirring journey towards healing. Accompanied by wise and compassionate locals, she immerses herself in the age-old rituals that have provided solace to countless souls before her. Through the rhythmic chants, fragrant incense, and the gentle touch of sacred waters, she discovers a profound connection to her own emotions and the essence of her beloved departed.



But the healing journey does not end there. Guided by her yearning for serenity and inner peace, Bettany sets sail on a tranquil boat ride, gliding gracefully across the shimmering waters of Lake Pichola. Amidst the serene beauty of this ethereal oasis, she finds herself drawn to the enchanting Lake Palace perched upon an island, a secluded haven that holds the promise of tranquility and reflection.

As she steps onto the hallowed grounds of the Lake Palace, Bettany is enveloped in a sense of serenity and tranquility. The whispers of history and the echoes of timeless wisdom dance in the air, inviting her to embrace the present moment and find solace in the beauty of her surroundings. With each step she takes, the weight of her grief is lightened, replaced by a profound sense of gratitude for the love she shared and the memories she cherishes.

In this sacred space, Bettany allows herself to immerse in introspection, finding solace in the gentle ripples of the lake and the ethereal melodies carried by the breeze. As the sun gently sets, painting the sky with vibrant hues, she finds comfort in the knowledge that her journey of healing and self-discovery has begun in earnest.

Varanasi, with its ancient rituals and mystical charm, has become a sanctuary for Bettany, a place where she can honor her grief, find solace in the embrace of Hindu traditions, and embark on a journey of healing and transformation. In the heart of this enchanting city, amidst the sacred waters and serene beauty, Bettany’s soul finds respite, allowing her to embrace the light that resides within her, even amidst the darkness of loss.


Bettany Hughes – Exploring India’s Treasures – The North – Exploring India’s Cultural Treasures



India is located in South Asia and is the second most populous country in the world with over 1.4 billion people. It has a documented history spanning over 5,000 years, with more than 3,000 archaeological sites identified. The subcontinent has been a birthplace of influential philosophies and pioneering ideas that shaped not only India, but the broader world.

In this article, we examine examples of India’s cultural heritage through the journey of historian Bettany Hughes across the country. She seeks to understand how India’s diverse natural environments and position in global trade routes contributed to its treasured sites and traditions. The immense variety of India’s landscapes, religious influences, and cultural exchanges shine through in its living heritage.

India’s Sacred City of Varanasi

The city of Varanasi, located in North India on the banks of the Ganges River, is one of the oldest continually inhabited settlements in the world. For Hindus, Varanasi is considered one of the holiest pilgrimage places in India. Millions of pilgrims journey there each year to bathe in the sacred Ganga River, attend prayers at its over 23,000 temples, and participate in long-standing rituals. Varanasi is connected to multiple faiths, including Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Islam.

Bettany Hughes - Exploring India's Treasures - Sacred City of Varanasi
Bettany Hughes – Exploring India’s Treasures – Sacred City of Varanasi

Archaeological evidence indicates the area was an important spiritual centre as early as the 14th century BCE. Varanasi stretches along the Ganges and has over 80 ghats, or banks with steps leading to the river, that facilitate rituals. The city has been referred to as Benares and Kashi in ancient times. It flourished as a centre of spirituality, philosophy, art, and learning. Scholars believe the Buddha gave a sermon here in the 6th century BCE and it was likely visited by Mahavira, the founder of Jainism.

Experiencing a Pindadham Ceremony

While visiting Varanasi, historian Bettany Hughes took part in a Pindadham ceremony, performed by Hindus to honour ancestors. It involves making offerings of rice balls and other gifts to the departed to aid in their transition to the afterlife. The Pindam offerings are meant to provide the deceased with a temporary body while in limbo between reincarnations.

Hughes came to participate in honour of her own mother who had recently passed away. She described it as an opportunity to come to terms with her loss and remember her mother’s life lessons. The ceremony was carried out by a Hindu priest on the banks of the Ganges. Hughes was given materials to help clothe and feed her ancestors. She found it a moving experience though she herself is not Hindu. The ceremony reflects the significant role Varanasi plays as a site of mourning and spirituality for Hindus across India and beyond.

The Magnificent Ruins of Hampi

The ruined city of Hampi contains over 1,600 ancient monuments spread over 16 square miles in the state of Karnataka. Hampi was once one of the largest cities in the world during the 15th-16th centuries when it served as the prosperous capital of the Vijayanagara Empire until eventual ruin. The Vijayanagara Empire was founded in the 14th century by Harihara and Bukka Raya who established Hampi as the capital.

Hampi was chosen for its natural defenses provided by the hilly terrain and the Tungabhadra river surrounding it. Under the Vijayanagara rulers, Hampi grew significantly with temples, markets, aqueducts, palaces and other infrastructure. It was reputed to be a very wealthy city by visiting foreign traders. After over two hundred years of prominence, the city was sacked and destroyed in 1565 by invading Muslim sultanates. Hampi was pillaged for months before being abandoned. Today the stunning ruins stand as reminders of the Vijayanagara Empire’s past glory.

Cosmopolitan Hub of Culture and Trade

As a prominent trading hub, Hampi attracted diverse populations of Hindus, Muslims, and foreigners to its bazaars. Architectural remnants display evidence of Islamic influences merged with distinctive Hindu temple styles. The Vijayanagara rulers promoted religious tolerance and encouraged the development of art, literature, and infrastructure. The empire’s eclectic identity is reflected in structures like a temple with Islamic-style arches and a mosque incorporating Hindu elements.

The rulers brought in craftspeople from various backgrounds. Hampi became a cosmopolitan centre where Telugu, Kannada, Tamil, and Sanskrit languages were all used. The city had populations of Arabs, Persians, Pashtuns, Portuguese, and Chinese residents. Luxury items and exotic imports were available in Hampi’s markets catering to over 500,000 residents at its peak. Even after its destruction, Hampi continues to be an important archaeological site demonstrating the cosmopolitan culture supported by the Vijayanagara Empire at its apex. The magnificent ruins stand as a testament to a powerful medieval civilisation.

Chola Temples and Iconic Bronzes

The Chola Empire ruled over parts of Southern India between the 9th and 13th centuries CE. They left behind spectacular stone temples as well as exquisite bronze sculptures that combine spirituality and artistry. The Chola dynasty established a prosperous and influential empire through maritime trade and military conquests. At its height, the Chola Empire extended across much of southern India, the Maldives, and parts of Sri Lanka.

Chola rulers built impressive temples to project their power and devotion. Chola bronzes were ritual objects made using the advanced lost wax technique. These Chola cultural treasures display remarkable craftsmanship and continue to be studied. Replicas of Chola icons are still worshipped in Hindu temples today as sacred manifestations of gods and goddesses.

Architectural Marvels in Stone

Chola temples, such as the Brihadishvara Temple at Thanjavur, represent the opulence of the Chola dynasty at its peak. The soaring granite temple towers called vimanas were architectural wonders of their time reaching over 60 meters tall. Inscriptions on the temple walls provide details about Chola rulers, culture, traditions, and rituals. The temples served both as places of worship and displays of royal power and prestige.

The Brihadishvara Temple was built in the early 11th century by emperor Raja Raja Chola I. It remains an important Hindu pilgrimage site as well as an architectural and engineering masterpiece. The structure was built entirely of granite and completed in just seven years with the labor of thousands. Other examples include the Airavatesvara Temple at Darasuram featuring elaborate carved stonework. Chola temples continue to stand as testaments to this dynasty’s Dravidian architecture and monumental temple culture.

Lost Wax Casting of Bronze Masterpieces

The famous Chola bronzes were produced using the advanced lost wax technique perfected during their reign. These intricate bronze idols were ritual objects depicting major Hindu deities like Shiva, Vishnu, and Durga. To create a Chola bronze, artisans would first sculpt a model out of wax. This was coated in clay and heated so the wax melted away leaving a clay mold.

Then, molten bronze made from a precise alloy of copper, zinc, and gold was poured into the mold. After cooling, the clay was broken away to reveal the figure cast in bronze. Skilled craftspeople would polish and add details to the bronze. Inlays of gold, silver, or precious gems were sometimes used for ornamentation. The figures were consecrated in temple rituals, regarded as living images of the gods. Chola bronzes remain unmatched for their artistic sophistication and continue to inspire modern interpretations.

India’s Natural and Cultural Riches

In addition to built heritage, India’s natural landscapes profoundly shaped cultural practices and artistic traditions.

The Nilgiri Mountain Railway

The Nilgiri Mountain Railway connects the hill stations of Mettupalayam and Ooty in Tamil Nadu. Completed under the British in 1908, it remains a scenic engineering marvel as Asia’s steepest train route. The railway traverses 46 kilometers passing over 250 bridges and 16 tunnels. It took over a decade to build due to the challenging terrain.

The ‘toy train’ rides on narrow gauges through dense forests, tea and coffee plantations, and wildlife sanctuaries. It reaches an elevation of over 2200 meters on the Nilgiri Hills. For tourists, the steam-powered train provides a scenic trip with views of waterfalls, valleys, and wildlife. The train gives access to historic hill stations first established by the British during the Raj era as leisure retreats.

The Nilgiri Mountain Railway stands as an impressive feat of engineering completed in the early 20th century. It remains a popular tourist attraction providing passenger service through the biodiverse Nilgiri Hills. The railway obtained UNESCO World Heritage status in 2005 as an innovative mountain rail system. Its slow pace allows passengers to take in the verdant scenery and rural villages along the route. The steam locomotive has been running for over a century, connecting natural splendor with India’s colonial past.

Kerala’s Spice Coast

Kerala’s Malabar Coast traded coveted spices like pepper and cardamom to civilisations from Rome to China for millennia. Kerala’s tropical climate and access to key shipping routes made it an ideal location for spices. Historical records indicate complex maritime spice trade existing over 4,000 years ago during India’s Indus Valley Civilisation period.

Later, spices were exported from Kerala along incense routes and the silk road providing seasonings and medicines globally. Cardamom from Kerala was found in the tomb of the ancient Egyptian Pharaoh Tutankhamun showing early trade. Kerala’s spices reached the Middle East and Europe through Arab merchants. This lucrative trade enriched kingdoms in Kerala attracting traders for centuries, influencing the region’s unique culture.

The prosperity and diversity brought by the spice trade impacted Kerala’s music, architecture, cuisine and language. The taxonomic Latin names for many spices trace back to Malayalam, the language of Kerala. Black pepper cultivated there became ‘black gold’ in great demand by the ancient Romans. Kerala’s long history as a major spice exporter led to cross-cultural exchanges that continue to shape its traditions today.


India’s cultural treasures are living legacies that connect past to present. Temples, ruins, artworks, customs, and natural wonders all demonstrate how the environment, exchange, religion, and history intertwined uniquely across India’s regions. These iconic sites and traditions remain of global significance, recognised as World Heritage monuments and intangible heritage that continue to shape India’s national identity.

The cultural heritage survives as a testament to India’s rich contributions to human civilisation reflecting both indigenous ingenuity and assimilated influences. Varanasi’s rituals, Hampi’s eclectic ruins, Chola bronzes, the Nilgiri mountain railway, Kerala’s spice heritage, and more reveal the layered complexity of Indian culture forged over millennia. Safeguarding these treasures allows India’s extraordinary past to enrich the lives of millions into the future.

FAQs Bettany Hughes – Exploring India’s Treasures – The North:


Why is Varanasi considered India’s holiest city?

Varanasi is considered the holiest city in India for Hindus due to its location on the sacred Ganges River and its role as a major pilgrimage site with over 23,000 temples. Many Hindus believe dying in Varanasi will achieve salvation. Varanasi has been a centre of Hinduism and spirituality for thousands of years.

What led to the decline of the Vijayanagara Empire?

The Vijayanagara Empire fell into ruin in the late 1500s after losing territory and influence from invasions by neighboring Muslim sultanates and Hindu kingdoms. This ultimately led to its capital city Hampi being conquered, looted, and abandoned in 1565 CE after a catastrophic battle.

How were the famous Chola bronzes created?

The Chola bronzes were created using the advanced lost wax technique that allowed for detailed sculptures. Artisans would make models out of wax, coat them in clay, and heat them so the wax melted away leaving a clay mold. Then, molten bronze was poured into the mold to create the figures. Skilled craftspeople finished and decorated the bronzes.

Why was Kerala a historically important spice trading region?

Kerala’s tropical climate and access to key shipping routes made it an ideal location for spices like pepper, cardamom, cinnamon, etc. Kerala supplied valuable spices globally for millennia, which economically and culturally shaped the region through trade.


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