5 Little-Known UNESCO World Heritage Sites in India

Jama Masjid, Champaner

CamBuff / Getty Images

India has 38 listed UNESCO World Heritage Sites, which are managed by the Archeological Survey of India. They're comprised of 30 cultural sites (marked by their outstanding stone craftsmanship), seven natural sites and one mixed site. Many of them are well known, particularly monuments such as the Taj Mahal in Agra, Red Fort in Delhi, the ruins of Hampi in Karnataka, erotic temples at Khajuraho, Ajanta and Ellora caves in Maharashtra, and Sundarbans National Park in West Bengal.

Yet, there are also a number of lesser-known sites that are of importance. Some of them, you may never have heard of!

01 of 05

Champaner-Pavagadh Archaeological Park, Gujarat

Jama Masjid - Champaner (Gujarat) India
Picture By Tilak Haria/Getty Images.

Champaner and Pavagadh are laden with historical, architectural and archeological treasures from both Muslim and Hindu traditions, dating back to between the 8th and 14th centuries. These include a hill fortress, palaces, places of worship (Jama Masjid is one of the most spectacular mosques in Gujarat), residential areas, reservoirs and step wells.

The number of monuments in Champaner is estimated to be more than 100! This medieval city is located about 145 kilometers (90 miles) southeast of Ahmedabad and 50 kilometers (31 miles) northeast of Vadodara in Gujarat. It briefly became the state's capital in the 15th and 16th centuries, after Sultan Mahmud Begada of Ahmedabad (the grandson of Ahmed Shah, who founded Ahmedabad) captured it following a long battle. He built many grand monuments and water bodies there. However, the city's glory days came to an end in 1535, when it was overtaken by Mughal Emperor Humayun and the capital shifted back to Ahmedabad.

Nearby, to the north of Champaner, rocky Pavagadh Hill abruptly rises 800 meters (2,600 feet) from the surrounding plains. Atop it sits Kalika Mata Temple, dedicated to the dark mother goddess Kali. It's a major temple for shakti (female energy) worship and is one of the most popular Hindu pilgrimage destinations in Gujarat. Unusually, the temple has a Muslim shrine built over it.

Why is it a World Heritage Site?

The Champaner-Pavagadh Archaeological Park is the only unaltered and complete Islamic pre-Mughal city in India. It's a great example of a short-lived capital, and it remains vulnerable due to encroachments from modern life, forests, and abandonment. Its structures perfectly blend Muslim and Hindu architecture. Notably, the special design of its great mosque (Jama Masjid) was used for later mosque architecture in India. 

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02 of 05

Group of Monuments at Pattadakal, Karnataka

Virupaksha Temple, Pattadakal
CALLE MONTES/Getty Images.

The magnificent Pattadakal monuments are commonly visited in conjunction with the heritage sites of Badami (formerly Vatapi) and Aihole on a day trip from Hampi. This region was the heart of the Chalukya empire, which ruled there between the 4th to 8th centuries. It's believed that Pattadakal was once their capital and the place where their kings were crowned.

The monuments consist of nine Hindu temples and a Jain sanctuary, surrounded by many smaller shrines. The masterpiece Virupaksha Temple was built by a queen -- not a king! Queen Lokamahadevi had it constructed in 740 to celebrate her husband's victory over the Pallavas of Kanchipuram in Tamil Nadu.

What makes the temples really special are the intricate carvings and inscriptions that cover them. The complete interior of the Virupaksha Temple is embellished with beautiful carvings and sculptures, including episodes from the Ramayana and Bhagavad Gita.

Why is it a World Heritage Site?

The Group of Monuments at Pattadakal monuments are the culmination of the earliest innovative experiments in the Vesara style of Hindu temple architecture. This style combines both Dravidian (southern) and Nagara (northern) styles of temple architecture. Other noteworthy examples of the Vesara style in Karnataka are the Hoysala temples at Belur, Halebidu and Somnathpura.

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03 of 05

Painted Rock Shelters of Bhimbetka, Madhya Pradesh

Close-up of a cave painting showing man with elephants, Bhimbetka Rock Shelters, Raisen District, Madhya Pradesh, India
Exotica.im/Getty Images.

The Bhimbetka rock shelters are located at the foothills of the Vindhya mountains in the Raisen district of Madhya Pradesh, inside the Ratapani Wildlife Sanctuary. They're best accessed from Bhopal, approximately an hour away.

There are more than 700 rock shelters, predominantly grouped in five clusters amid dense forest. These rare rock shelters were only discovered in 1957 (and, that too by accident). An extraordinary archeological find, the shelters date all the way back to the Paleolithic age and some are said to have been inhabited by Homo erectus (an earlier species of human) over 100,000 years ago. Excavations revealed the earliest traces of human life on the Indian subcontinent and the beginning of the South Asian Stone Age (from 50,000-3000 BC). Numerous stone tools were found there, including axes and cleavers.

More than 400 of the rock shelters have rock paintings, created over various time periods. Their scenes are reflected in the cultural traditions of the tribal Adivasi villages surrounding the shelters.

Why is it a World Heritage Site?

The Rock Shelters of Bhimbetka and their exceptional rock art show a long interaction between people and landscape, and are also closely associated with a hunting and gathering economy.

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04 of 05

Manas Wildlife Sanctuary, Assam

The endangered Golden Langur of India
Shivang Mehta/Getty Images

Think of national parks in Assam, and Kaziranga most likely comes to mind. However, Assam also has another biodiversity hot spot that's a World Heritage Site.

Manas Wildlife Sanctuary spans the Manas River in Assam, the most accessible state in  India's northeast region, and shares a border with Bhutan. Its picturesque forested hills and alluvial grasslands provide a crucial habitat for many rare and endangered species of wildlife. These include tigers, rhinoceros, langurs, pygmy hogs, hispid hares, Assam roofed turtles, and Bengal florican. The park also has a substantial population of wild water buffaloes.

Heavy poaching and terrorist activities resulted in the sanctuary being placed on The World Heritage in Danger list in 1992.  However, it was removed from the list in 2011 after successful conservation efforts.

The sanctuary can be explored by jeep and elephant safaris in the early morning and mid afternoon. It's located approximately five hours from Guwahati.

Why is it a World Heritage Site?

Manas Wildlife Sanctuary has a unique natural environment that's recognized for its rich biodiversity, spectacular scenery and landscape. 22 of India’s most threatened species of mammals can be found there. In total, the sanctuary is home to almost 60 species of mammals, 42 species of reptiles, seven amphibians, and 500 species of birds.

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05 of 05

Great Himalayan National Park, Himachal Pradesh

Tirthan Valley
Education Images/UIG/Getty Images

One of India's newest UNESCO World Heritage Sites, the Great Himalayan National Park was added to the list in 2014. The park is located in the Kullu district of Himachal Pradesh and spans about 900 square kilometers (90,500 hectares). It has four valleys, and a diverse landscape that ranges from high alpine peaks reaching over 6,000 meters (19,700 feet) above sea level to riverine forests 2,000 meters (6,600 feet) above sea level.

Those who love wilderness will find it a magical place to explore. Its remote, rugged and untamed terrain makes it sought after by trekkers. Only the fittest and most adventurous reach deep inside the core area though! There are a number of regulated trekking routes, ranging from three to eight days, with treks between the spectacular Tirthan and Sainj valleys being popular. Less-strenuous day walks are possible in the park's Ecozone buffer area on the southwest side, frequented by day trippers.

Treks and tours are offered by ecotourism company Sunshine Himalayan Adventures in partnership with Biodiversity Tourism and Community Advancement (a community-based organization, comprised of local villagers). It's possible to interact with the villagers and learn about their activities.

Why is it a World Heritage Site?

The Great Himalayan National Park is highly regarded for its biodiversity conservation. As threats from human settlements pose the greatest concern to its protected flora and fauna, substantial efforts are directed towards involving local villagers in conservation efforts and building a strong sense of support.

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