16 Legendary Lost Cities of India

These cities were once inhabited but due to wars, natural calamities and climate change, they were abandoned many, many years ago.

Like humans, cities are mortal. They are born, they thrive, and they eventually die. Over the course of human history, an astonishing number of cities and towns have been lost, destroyed, submerged, and abandoned.

The mysterious, and often beautiful, ruins of these lost cities have sparked the imaginations of millions of travellers, history buffs and treasure seekers all across the world.

Many were known and some were discovered many years after their destruction. Here is a list of some Indian cities that have gone lost:

1. Vaishali, Bihar

Ruins of Vaishali – World's First Republic

Vaishali was an ancient prosperous metropolis, which was probably the first republic of the world. In 6th Century B.C. it was the capital of powerful Republic of Lichhavis. It is also the birth place of the 24th Jain Tirthankara, Lord Mahavira. This place is closely associated with Buddhism. Lord Buddha visited Vaishali several times and spent some of the varshavas (rainy season resort) and announced here his impending death.

According to tradition, the city in early times was surrounded by 3 walls with gates and watch towers. In Buddha’s time, Vaishali had been a heavily populated, major city, rich and prosperous. 7,707 pleasure grounds, and an equal number of lotus ponds, filled the city.

2. Poompuhar, Tamil Nadu

Lost city of Poompuhar

Once a flourishing ancient port city known as Kaveripoompattinam, Poompuhar served as the capital of the early Chola kings for a few years. The Sangam-era epics of Tamil literature, Silapathikaram and Manimekalai, extol and herald the city and the life of its people in detail. Located at the mouth of the Cauvery River, it is believed that much of the town was washed away by a powerful sea storm and the successive erosion it caused during 500 AD.

In 2006, the National Institute of Ocean Technology conducted some underwater surveys that revealed the submerged remains of the ancient port city. The ancient wells near the sea shore, Buddha statues, roman coins and all other excavated articles are the main reason why archeologically and historically this place holds an important part in our country’s glory.

3. Vijaynagar, Karnataka

Hampi is truly magical.

Ancient Vijayanagar, now known as Hampi was the capital of the famed Vijaynagar Empire from 1336 to 1565. The city was built around the religious center of the Virupaksha templeAlthough in ruins today, this crumbling metropolis was once one of the most beautiful cities in its time.

In around 1500 A.D. Vijaynagar had 500,000 inhabitants, probably making it the second largest city in the world after Peking-Beijing and twice the size of Paris back then! It was later captured and destroyed by Muslim armies and abandoned ever since. Spread across 25 kms, the ruins of Hampi are now the listed under the UNESCO World Heritage sites.

4. Lothal, Gujarat

Ruins of the lower town in the site of Lothal, India
Ruins of the lower town in the site of Lothal, India

Lothal is one of the most prominent cities of the ancient Indus valley civilisation. Dating back to 3700BCE, Lothal was discovered in the year 1954 and was excavated between 1955 and 1960 by the Archaeological Society of India (ASI).

The Lothal docks were among the world’s earliest known that connected the city to an ancient course of the Sabarmati River. It was a thriving trade centre with its trade of gems, beads and valuable ornaments. Lothal is also famous for its town planning, architecture, science and engineering, metallurgy and art. Structures like wells, dwarfed walls, baths, drains, and paved floors can still be seen.

5. Pattadakal, Karnataka

Lost city of Pattadakal, Karnataka

The UNESCO World Heritage Site, located on the banks of river Malaprabha, has a stunning complex of several 8th century Shiva temples and a Jain sanctuary. One masterpiece that stands out from this group is the Temple of Virupaksha, built by Queen Lokamahadevi to commemorate her husband’s victory over the Pallava kings of Kanchi. It also has ruins of Sangameshwar temple, Mallikarjuna temple and other monuments that are the culmination of the earliest experiments in the Vesara style of temple architecture.

With its harmonious blend of Nagara and Dravidian architectural forms, Pattadakal, in Karnataka, represents the high point of the eclectic style of art that developed under the Chalukya dynasty.The variety and uniqueness of their art and architecture is the result of the constant motivation and support provided by the chalukyan rulers towards their craftsmen and artists.

6. Shravasti, Uttar Pradesh

Ruins of Lost city Shravasti, Shobnath Temple

In the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, Shravasti is a prosperous city in the kingdom of Kosala. The city is said to be named for Vedic period king, Shravasta who founded the city. In the 6th century BCE, the city rose to fame due to its association with the Buddha and Mahavira. Gautama Buddha passed the greater part of his monastic life in Shravasti, then known as Savatthi. Shravasti was one of the six largest cities in India during Gautama Buddha’s lifetime. This ancient city is hailed as the birthplace of the founder of Jainism- Tirthanakar.

Ashoka visited Shravasti and erected two pillars on the eastern gate of Jetavana and built a stupa in the vicinity. According to Nagarjuna, the city had a population of 900,000 in 5th century BCE and it even overshadowed Magadha’s capital, Rajgir. Sravasti was mentioned by travelers Fa-hien and Hiuen Tsang. Its ruins were uncovered by Sir Alexander Cunningham in 1863.

7. Sarnath, Uttar Pradesh

Dhamekh Stupa and ruins of Lost city of Isipatana

Sarnath is famous as the site of the deer park where Gautama Buddha first taught the Dharma and also where the Buddhist Sangha was formed. Also referred to as Isipatana, it is one of the 4 main Buddhist pilgrimage destinations. Within the deer park complex is the large Dhamekha Stupa, constructed by the Emperor Ashoka in 249 BCE, and several other Buddhist structures that were added between the 3rd century BCE and the 11th century CE.

When Chinese traveller Xuan Zang dropped by in AD 640, Sarnath boasted a 100m-high stupa and 1500 monks living in large monasteries. However, soon after, Buddhism went into decline and, when Muslim invaders sacked the city in the late 12th century, Sarnath disappeared altogether. It was ‘rediscovered’ by British archaeologists in 1835.

8. Muziris, Kerala

A painting of Muziris by the artist Ajit Kumar. In 2004
A painting of Muziris by the artist Ajit Kumar. In 2004

In the first century BC, Muziris in Kerala was one of India’s most important trading ports, whose exports – especially black pepper – kept even mighty Rome in debt. According to the Akananuru, a collection of Tamil poetry from the period, it was “the city where the beautiful vessels, the masterpieces of the Yavanas [foreign traders], stir white foam on the Periyar, river of Kerala, arriving with gold and departing with pepper.”

Tucked away in the tiny bylanes of Kerala’s Kodungallur town, it’s easy to miss the Muziris Heritage Project, one of India’s biggest archaeological findings. Also known as the Pattanam excavations, the project has found conclusive evidence of what was once a flourishing trade port on the spice route. Archaeologists have discovered various artefacts belonging to countries like Egypt, Yemen, Roman and West Asia.

9. Kalibangan, Rajasthan

Lost city of Kalibangan, Rajasthan

A settlement of the Indus Valley Civilization, Kalibangan was was discovered by Luigi Pio Tessitori, an Italian Indologist. The excavation of the city started in 1969. Kalibangan, which literally means black bangles, lies along the left bank of the dried-up bed of river Ghaggar in Rajasthan. Other than giving the evidence of the earliest ploughed agricultural field ever revealed through an excavation, Kalibangan also has several fire altars, which suggest that the Harappans believed in the ritualistic worship of fire.

The Archaeological Museum of Kalibangan was set up in 1983 to house the excavated finds from this Harappan site. The exhibits in the galleries include Harappan seals, bangles, terracotta objects, terracotta figurines, bricks, grinders, and stone balls.

10. Dholavira, Gujarat

Dholavira

Dholavira, located in Khadir island of the Rann of Kutch, is one of the five largest Harappan cities in the subcontinent. Today, what is seen as a fortified quadrangular city set in harsh arid land, was once a thriving metropolis for 1,200 years and had an access to the sea prior to the decrease in sea level.

The site has been under excavation almost continuously since 1990 by the Archaeological Survey of India. The excavation of the site brought in light the sophisticated planning and organized architecture of the area. The site includes reservoirs, step well, and various other antiquities such as seals, beads, animal bones, gold, silver, terracotta ornaments and vessels. A mysterious signboard in the Indus script has also been discovered at Dholavira. It is also the oldest example of Rain Water Harvesting – which is again a testament to the great knowledge our ancestors are believed to have possessed.

11. Rabdentse, Sikkim

Ruins of Lost city of Rabdentse, Sikkim, India

Rabdentse was the second capital of the former kingdom of Sikkim from 1670 to 1814. The town was first established in 1670 by Chadok Namgyal after shifting the primary capital from Yuksom after it was declared sacred in 1642.

The city was almost completely destroyed by the Nepalese Army leaving only the chortens and ruins of the palace. Recent excavations and restorations by ASI have been successful in recreating the king’s bedroom, hall, kitchen, assembly hall, public courtyard and guard’s rooms. The ruins have been declared a monument of national importance by Archaeological Survey of India (ASI).

12. Dwarka, Gujarat

Marine archaeological explorations off Dwarka
Underwater Ruins of Dwarka

Dwarka is among the most sacred and holy cities of India. According to ancient Sanskrit literature, the Lord Krishna founded the holy city of Dwarka, which subsequently got submerged under sea. Dwarka has submerged six times and modern day Dwarka is therefore the seventh such city to be built in the area.

Much of the town was submerged in sea and the fossils have been found in Bet Dwarka. Marine archaeological explorations off Dwarka have brought to light a large number of stone structures, which are semicircular, rectangular and square in shape in water depth ranging from inter tidal zone to 36 metres (120 feet). They are randomly scattered over a vast area.  These findings suggest that Dwarka was one of the most busy port centers during the past on the west coast of India

13. Rakhigarhi, Haryana

largest Harappan Site Rakhigarhi

Pre-dating most of the famous cities of the Indus Valley Civilisation, Rakhigarhi is one of the oldest and one of the largest settlements of that era. It is situated on the dry bed of the river Sarasvati, which once flowed here and is believed to have dried up by 2000 BC.

Archaeological findings and scientific data have indicated that Rakhigarhi had been the more important centre of the Indus Valley Civilisation than the townships of Harappa and Mohenjo Daro located in Pakistan.

14. Sanchi, Madhya Pradesh

Lost city: Sanchi

One of the famous historical places in India, Sanchi is known for its Ashoka pillar and Greco-Buddhist style of stupas that depict various scenes from the Jataka tales and stories of Buddha’s life. The relics of Buddha at the once lost city of India were painted with a Mauryan polish to make them glow like glass.

With a building history of more than 1000 years, Sanchi site started with stupas from the third Century BC and went on with construction of Buddhist monasteries and temples till the eleventh century. After the decline of Buddhism, Sanchi was abandoned and rediscovered in the nineteenth century.

15. Nagarjunakonda, Andhra Pradesh

Lost city: Nagarjunakonda, Andhra PradeshThe history of Nagarjunakonda city is mentioned in Hindu as well as Buddhist scholasticism and tradition. It was named after the Buddhist scholar Nagarjuna and was the capital of the Ikshvaku dynasty, between 225 and 325 AD. During the earlier part of this period, Nagarjunakonda comprised of 30 Buddhist viharas or settlements. Extensive excavations by the archaeologists from the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) have yielded inscriptions and artefacts documenting the scholarly pursuits undertaken during this period.It fell into terminal decline after the demise of the last Ikshvaku king. A teacher, S Venkataramayya, discovered the ruins of the ancient city in 1926. Much of it now lies under one of the largest manmade lakes in the world, Nagarjuna Sagar, formed in 1960 by the Nagarjuna Sagar dam across the Krishna River.

16. Vasai, Maharashtra

Lost city of Vasai, Maharashtra

The Portuguese named it Baçaim. The Marathas renamed it Bajipur. The British named it Bassein and today it is called Vasai. When the Portuguese arrived, the ancient port city of Sopara was a significant trading centre under the rule of Bahadur Shah, the Sultan of Gujarat. The Portuguese who took it from the Sultan, expanded the fort and turned it into a vibrant port city over the next two centuries, next in importance only to their headquarters in Goa.

With its historic churches, mosques, temples, tiny villages, beautiful beaches, hot water springs and even a replica of the Sanchi stupa, Vasai is a magnificent microcosm of Mumbai’s history.

Further Read: 20 Abandoned Places In India That Were Once Heavily Populated Settlements

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