Old is Gold – A Look at the Ancient Cities and Old City Enclaves of India


Image – Hardeep Asrani/Flickr

Some cities are planned, whereas, some have just grown over the years. A lot of old cities of India are unplanned, throbbing with busy lanes, packed roundabouts, and cluttered establishments. Most of them have expanded, off shooting into modern and well-structured layouts as they have panned out from the central core. However, the chaos of the old city is very much the heart and stand-out element of the entire metropolitan.

Ancient Cities vs Old Cities of India

There are two ways of looking at this. There are ancient cities that have been in existence for thousands of years. They are holders of immense history and heritage. And luckily they have survived in modern times too. These cities are steeped in rich ancient history, flaunting architecture and culture of erstwhile kingdoms and tales. 

On the other hand, there are the metro and Tier 1 cities. These cities as a whole have their path of growth, but cannot be counted as ancient cities. This is because their role probably came into the limelight, not before the 14th century or so. However, these cities though modern in many ways, have pockets of the old world charm thriving in their heart. In such cities, it is almost like stepping in and out from one era to another, from one culture into another. There is a seamless integration that can often be baffling to an outsider. 

Ancient Cities of India

India has a long and deep history. Its ancient cities are repositories of traditions, culture, and glory. Today, some continue to be busy, while others have shifted into being Tier 2 or Tier 3 cities. Here is taking a look at some of the ancient and oldest cities of India.

1. Varanasi 

 Oldest Cities of India Varanasi

Up first on the list is Varanasi or Banaras which is one of the oldest inhabited cities of India. the history of Varanasi is estimated to date back to more than 3000 years. It has seen all, from being a spiritual and learning center, pilgrim destination, as well as an artistic hub famous for its brocade and muslin fabrics and weaving. There is something about Varanasi, its chants, the ghats, the Ganga, and the meeting of cultures that makes it an authentic ancient city holding its own even in the modern world. 

2. Kannauj 

Image – Shiwani Kumar/FB

Another city from Uttar Pradesh, Kannauj is also called the ‘perfume capital of India. With artifacts dating to the prehistoric ages, Kannauj was made capital by King Harsha and was part of the Gupta Empire. Renowned for its attar and rose water, today Kannauj is a historical town that is surviving on its past glory and the skill of making perfumes passed on from generations. 

3. Ujjain

Image – Jean-Pierre Dalbéra/Flickr

 The capital of the Malwa region in terms of culture and history, Ujjain is a ‘temple city. But like many other ancient cities, such as Varanasi its religious fervor is not one-dimensional. There are other historical highlights of the city including taking a stroll along the Shipra River that make it worth a visit. 

4. Patna 

Oldest cities of India Patna
Ruins of Nalanda

Pataliputra from the Mauryan and Magadha empires, Patna has a lot of ancient history attached to it. Though it is the capital of Bihar, its identity is influenced by its erstwhile days of prosperity. From the Patna Museum to Golghar or the ruins of Nalanda, Patna shows enough evidence of a culture of learning and intelligence. 

5. Madurai

Image-Arian Zwegers/Flickr

Records of Madurai date back almost 4000 years ago. Ruled by many, including the Pandyas and Cholas, Madurai has been the place of temples and scholars for a long. Meenakshi Temple its most popular landmark is said to have been built initially in 600 BC.

6. Hampi 


The ruined city of Hampi has been an attraction for tourists all over the world. Declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, Hampi was the capital under ruler Krishnadevaraya of the Vijayanagara Empire. Today the architectural ruins of the town are gorgeous and a photographer and historians delight. 

7. Thanjavur

Image-Arian Zwegers/Flickr

Also known earlier as Tanjore, another southern city of India is one of the oldest cities of the country. Tanjore flourished under the Chola dynasty and its paintings and arts are world-famous to date. 

There are many other old cities including Puri, Ayodhya, Dwaraka, Rajgir, Kollam, Pushkar, and more. All of these cities have a history dating back to thousands of years. However, the main point of attraction here is that they have been lived in for all these numbers of years too. They haven’t become relics or ghost towns. Most of them continue to be inhabited in the same spirit. The culture of these places continues to find a home and takers in its place of origin. 

Old City Enclaves 


Now, we take a look at another aspect of the old city charm. Just as there are old cities that are laden with their specific characteristics, there are also older enclaves within cities. When one thinks of Varanasi and the wisdom of its years, it is about the city surviving its originality over generations. Yes, the modern amenities set in, and over time the relics of the past become the heritage that looms over the city landscape. But the essence and flavor of the city remain pretty much itself. The people who live there are the ones who have lived on from one generation to another. There is not much influx from other states or cities and hence the character of the city is pretty much a retainer of its past. 

However, on the other hand, there are a few huge metro cities that house within them the soul and spirit of their yesteryears. These cities have expanded and become hubs of commercial and modern facilities. They have become centers of commerce or social gatherings and have changed in their outward, as well as, cultural nuances. But within all the expansion and migration, there remain areas of the old city. These are reminders of what the city once was.

Here is taking a look at some of the most popular old city enclaves. 

1. Old Delhi 

Image – Hadi Zaher/Flickr

Old Delhi is an era on its own. With the Jama Masjid dominating the aura of this area, Old Delhi is much more than what meets the eye. With the narrow lanes, the bustling shops filled with delicacies and cuisines that are hard to beat anywhere, Old Delhi is an oasis of old-world charm. Constructed as a walled city during the 17th century by Shah Jahan, Old Delhi remained the seat of power for the Mughal Empire until the British came over. Old Delhi is a complete mix of ethnic, religious, and social strata. Though New Delhi itself is more than a hundred years old, the difference between the two is palpable. 

2. Old City, Hyderabad 

Image-McKay Savage/Flickr

Hyderabad today is the IT hub of the country. It has expanded and attracted professionals from across the country and also the world. But tucked away in the swarming madness lies the Old City of Hyderabad. The authenticity and heritage of the city that is often identified with the Charminar and Mecca Masjid come alive in the lanes and bylanes of the Old City. The dialect and feel of place shift when one steps in here. The Hyderabadi Biryani and Haleem are perhaps the best as the markets all around buzz with the urgency of business that is so akin to an old city dazzle and glamour. The Old City was also a walled space built by Muhammad Quli Qutub Shah in the 16th century. Though not much of the wall remains today, its cultural finesse remains intact. 

3. Old Ahmedabad 

Image-Corey Seeman/Flickr

Old Ahmedabad is another of the walled cities. Built by Ahmed Shah I in the 15th century it remained an important administrative center for the Gujarat Sultanate. Today it retains the heart of the city in forms of architecture and culture. The Bhadra Fort and Jama Masjid are some of the iconic landmarks here. However, it is the gates and pols that are the main distinguishing characteristics of Old Ahmedabad. Traditional housing communities/clusters or pols are found within gated streets and are a discerning cultural landmark of the city. The pols are named after the community residing within it or also on different animals, deities, etc. The sense of togetherness is strong here and needless to say, the cuisine is authentic Gujarati dishes. 

Suggested Read – What Makes Ahmedabad a World Heritage City?

Many other cities would have an old city enclave cornered somewhere or scattered in different neighborhoods that bear testimony to the earlier days gone by. The city, though moved on in many spaces, still holds its roots deep in many others. 

Whether it is the ancient cities or old city enclaves, the emotions of history, valor, and richness are strongly felt. Yes, there is chaos and clutter. But there is a definite rawness that stands out. Perhaps, that is why such cities and enclaves are attractions for outsiders. They bring them closer to a reality that is defiant to not fade away. Does it necessarily reflect in its disarray a pride of what might have been? That is of course, debatable. As for now, their old worldliness is enough to forgive the rest. 

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