Uttar Pradesh, “the Northern State” – formerly the United Provinces, but always UP – is the heartland of Hinduism and Hindi, dominating the nation in culture, religion, language and politics. A vast, steamy plain of the Ganges, it boasts a history that’s very much the history of India, and its temples and monuments – Buddhist, Hindu and Muslim – are among the most impressive in the country.
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Western UP, which adjoins Delhi, has always been close to India’s centre of power. Its main city, Agra, once the Mughal capital, is home to the Taj Mahal, and a short hop from the abandoned Mughal city of Fatehpur Sikri. Central UP constituted the Kingdom of Avadh, the last centre of independent Muslim rule in northern India until the British unceremoniously took it over, fuelling the resentment that led to the 1857 uprising, in which its capital Lucknow (now UP’s state capital) played such a celebrated role.
In eastern UP lies Hinduism’s holiest city, the tirtha (crossing-place) of Varanasi, where it’s believed death transports the soul to final liberation. Sacred since antiquity, it was frequented by Mahavira, the founder of Jainism, and also by Buddha, who preached his first sermon in nearby Sarnath.
Although UP was once a thriving centre of Islamic jurisprudence and culture, many Muslims departed during the years after Independence, and the Muslim population now comprises just eighteen percent. As the heart of what is known as the “cow belt” (equivalent to America’s “bible belt”), UP has been plagued by caste politics and was for some years dominated by the Hindu sectarian BJP. It acquired an unfortunate reputation as the focus of bitter communal tensions, most notoriously in the wake of the 1992 destruction of the Babri Masjid mosque in Ayodhya (east of Lucknow, near Faizabad), which sparked off sectarian riots across India. In recent years, state politics have been dominated by two largely local left-wing parties, the socialist Samajwadi party (SP) and the mainly low-caste Bahujan Samaj party (BSP), but in the 2014 Lok Sabha election, the BJP made an almost clean sweep in UP.
The ghost city of Fatehpur Sikri, former imperial capital of the great Mughal emperor Akbar, straddles the crest of a rocky ridge on the Agra–Jaipur highway, 45km southwest of Agra and 21km east of Bharatpur. The city was built here between 1569 and 1585 as a result of the emperor’s enthusiasm for the local Muslim divine Sheikh Salim Chishti, though the move away from Agra may also have had something to do with Akbar’s weariness of the crowds and his desire to create a new capital that was an appropriate symbol of imperial power. The fusion of Hindu and Muslim traditions in its architecture says a lot about the religious and cultural tolerance of Akbar’s reign.
Fatehpur Sikri’s period of pre-eminence was brief, however, and after 1585 it would never again serve as the seat of the Mughal emperor. The reasons for the city’s abandonment remain enigmatic. The theory that the city’s water supply proved incapable of sustaining its population is no longer widely accepted – even after the city had been deserted, the nearby lake to its northwest still yielded good water. A more likely explanation is that the city was simply the victim of the vagaries of the empire’s day-to-day military contingencies. Shortly after the new capital was established, the empire was threatened by troubles in the Punjab, and Akbar moved to the more strategically situated Lahore to deal with them. These military preoccupations kept Akbar at Lahore for over a decade, and at the end of this period he decided, apparently for no particular reason, to return to Agra rather than Fatehpur Sikri. You, on the other hand, might decide to do the opposite: an increasing number of tourists are using Fatehpur Sikri as a base and travelling into Agra on day-trips.
Although remembered primarily for his liberal approach to religion, Akbar was typically Mughal in his attitudes to women, whom he collected in much the same way as a philatelist amasses stamps. At its height of splendour, the royal harem at Fatehpur Sikri held around five thousand women, guarded by a legion of eunuchs. Its doors were closed to outsiders, but rumours permeated the sandstone walls and several notable travellers were smuggled inside the Great Mughals’ seraglios, leaving for posterity often lurid accounts of the emperors’ private lives.
The size of Akbar’s harem grew in direct proportion to his empire. With each new conquest, he would be gifted by the defeated rulers and nobles their most beautiful daughters, who, together with their maidservants, would be installed in the luxurious royal zenana. In all, the emperor is thought to have kept three hundred wives; their ranks were swollen by a constant flow of concubines (kaniz), dancing girls (kanchni) and female slaves (bandis), or “silver bodied damsels with musky tresses” as one chronicler described them, purchased from markets across Asia. Screened from public view by ornately pierced stone jali windows were women from the four corners of the Mughal empire, as well as Afghans, Turks, Iranians, Arabs, Tibetans, Russians and Abyssinians, and even one Portuguese, sent as presents or tribute.
The eunuchs who presided over them came from similarly diverse backgrounds. While some were hermaphrodites, others had been forcibly castrated, either as punishment following defeat on the battlefield, or after having been donated by their fathers as payment of backdated revenue – an all too common custom at the time.
Akbar is said to have consumed prodigious quantities of Persian wine, araq (a spirit distilled from sugar cane), bhang and opium. The lavish dance recitals held in the harem, as well as sexual liaisons conducted on the top pavilion of the Panch Mahal and in the zenana itself, would have been fuelled by these substances. Over time, Akbar’s hedonistic ways incurred the disapproval of his highest clerics – the Ulema. The Koran expressly limits the number of wives a man may take to four, but one verse also admits a lower form of marriage, known as muta, more like an informal pact, which could be entered into with non-Muslims. Akbar’s abuse of this long-lapsed law was heavily criticized by his Sunni head priest during their religious disquisitions.
What life must actually have been like for the women who lived in Akbar’s harem one can only imagine, but it is known that alcoholism and drug addiction were widespread, and that some also risked their lives to conduct illicit affairs with male lovers, smuggled in disguised as physicians or under heavy Muslim veils.
In fact, the notion that the harem was a gilded prison whose inmates whiled their lifetimes away in idle vanity and dalliance is something of a myth. Many women in the zenana were immensely rich in their own right, and wielded enormous influence on the court. Jahangir’s wife, Nur Jahan, virtually ran the empire from behind the screen of purdah during the last five years of her husband’s ailing reign, while her mother-in-law owned a ship that traded between Surat and the Red Sea, a tradition continued by Shah Jahan’s daughter, who grew immensely wealthy through her business enterprises.
Partly as a result of the money and power at the women’s disposal, jealousies in the harem were also rife, and the work of maintaining order and calm among the thousands of foster mothers, aunties, the emperor’s relatives and all his wives, minor wives, paramours, musicians, dancers, amazons and slaves, was a major preoccupation. As Akbar’s court chronicler wryly observed, “The government of the kingdom is but an amusement compared with such a task, for it is within the (harem) that intrigue is enthroned.”
The neck-cricking Buland Darwaza (Great Gate), a spectacular entrance scaled by an impressive flight of steps, was added around 1576 to commemorate Akbar’s military campaign in Gujarat. Flanked by domed kiosks, the archway of the simple sandstone memorial is inscribed with a message from the Koran: “Said Jesus Son of Mary (peace be on him): The world is but a bridge – pass over without building houses on it. He who hopes for an hour hopes for eternity; the world is an hour – spend it in prayer for the rest is unseen.” The numerous horseshoes nailed to the doors here date from the beginning of the twentieth century – an odd instance of British folk superstition in this very Islamic place.
Tomb of Sheikh Salim Chishti
The gate leads into a vast cloistered courtyard, far larger than in any mosque previously built in India. The prayer hall, on the west side, is the focus of the mosque, punctuated by an enormous gateway. More eye-catching is the exquisite Tomb of Sheikh Salim Chishti, directly ahead as you enter the courtyard. Much of this was originally crafted in red sandstone and only later faced in marble: the beautiful lattice screens – another design feature probably imported from Gujarat, though it would later become a staple of Mughal architecture – are unusually intricate, with striking serpentine exterior brackets supporting the eaves.
A logical place to begin a tour of the palace complex is the Diwan-i-Am, where important festivals were held, and where citizens could exercise their right to petition the emperor. Unlike the ornate pillared Diwan-i-Am buildings at the forts in Agra and Delhi, it is basically just a large courtyard, surrounded by a continuous colonnaded walkway with Hindu-style square columns and capitals, and broken only by the small pavilion, flanked by elaborately carved jali screens, in which the emperor himself would have sat – the position of the royal platform forced the emperor’s subjects to approach him from the side in an attitude of humility.
The Diwan-i-Khas courtyard
A doorway in the northwest corner of the Diwan-i-Am leads to the centre of the mardana (men’s quarters), a large, irregularly shaped enclosure dotted with a strikingly eclectic range of buildings. At the far (northern) end of the enclosure stands the tall Diwan-i-Khas (“Hall of Private Audience”), topped with four chhatris and embellished with the heavily carved Hindu-style brackets, large overhanging eaves and corbelled arches which are typical of the architecture of Fatehpur Sikri.
The interior of the building consists of a single high hall (despite the impression, from the outside that this is a two-storey building) centred on an elaborately corbelled column known as the Throne Pillar, supporting a large circular platform from which four balustraded bridges radiate outwards. Seated upon this throne, the emperor held discussions with representatives of diverse religions, aiming to synthesize India’s religions into one. The pillar symbolizes this project by incorporating motifs drawn from Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam and Christianity.
Next to the Diwan-i-Khas lies the three-roomed Treasury, its brackets embellished by mythical sea creatures, guardians of the treasures of the deep; it’s also known as Ankh Michauli, meaning hide and seek, which it’s said was played here. In fact, both names are probably just fanciful inventions, and the building most likely served as a multipurpose pavilion which could be used for a variety of functions, as could most buildings in Mughal palaces. Attached to it is the so-called Astrologer’s Seat, a small pavilion embellished with elaborate Jain carvings.
In the middle of the courtyard, separating the Diwan-i-Khas from the buildings on the opposite (south) side of the complex is the Pachisi Court, a giant board used to play pachisi (similar to ludo). Akbar is said to have been a fanatical player, using slave girls dressed in colourful costumes as live pieces. Abu’l Fazl, the court chronicler, related that at “times more than two hundred persons participated, and no one was allowed to go home until he had played sixteen rounds. This could take up to three months. If one of the players lost his patience and became restless, he was made to drink a cupful of wine. Seen superficially, this appears to be just a game. But His Majesty pursues higher objectives. He weighs up the talents of his people and teaches them to be affable.”
House of the Turkish Sultana
Diagonally opposite the pachisi board, the House of the Turkish Sultana (or Anup Talao Pavilion) gained its name from the popular belief that it was the residence of one of Akbar’s favourite wives, the Sultana Ruqayya Begum – though this seems unlikely given its location in the centre of the men’s quarters. The name was probably made up by nineteenth-century guides to titillate early tourists, and the building is more likely to have served as a simple pleasure pavilion. Its superbly carved stone walls are covered with a profusion of floral and geometrical designs, plus some partially vandalized animal carvings.
South of here is the Anup Talao (Peerless Pool), a pretty little ornamental pond divided by four walkways connected to a small “island” in the middle – a layout reminiscent of the raised walkways inside the Diwan-i-Khas.
The Daulat Khana
Facing the Turkish Sultana’s house from the other side of the Anup Talao are Akbar’s former private sleeping and living quarters, the Daulat Khana (“Abode of Fortune”). The room on the ground floor with alcoves in its walls was the emperor’s library, where he would be read to (he himself was illiterate) from a collection of fifty thousand manuscripts he allegedly took everywhere with him. Behind the library is the imperial sleeping chamber, the Khwabgah (“House of Dreams”), with an enormous raised bed in its centre.
One of Fatehpur Sikri’s most famous structures, the Panch Mahal or “Five-Storeyed Palace”, looms northwest of here, marking the beginning of the zenana (women’s quarters) which make up the entire western side of the palace complex. The palace tapers to a final single kiosk and is supported by 176 columns of varying designs; the ground floor contains 84 pillars – an auspicious number in Hindu astrology. The open spaces between the pillars were originally covered with latticed screens, so that ladies of the zenana could observe goings-on in the courtyard of the mardana below without themselves being seen.
The women’s quarters
Directly behind the Panch Mahal, a courtyard garden was reserved for the zenana (harem). The adjoining Sunahra Makan (Golden House), also known as Mariam’s House, is variously thought to have been the home of the emperor’s mother or of Akbar’s wife Mariam. It is enlivened by the faded remains of paintings on its walls (whose now vanished golden paint gave the pavilion its name), by the lines of verse penned by Abu’l Fazl, inscribed around the ceiling in blue bands, and by the quaint little carvings tucked into the brackets supporting the roof, including several elephants and a tiny carving of Rama attended by Hanuman (on the north side of the building, facing the zenana courtyard garden).
Solemnly presiding over the whole complex is the main harem, known as Jodhbai’s Palace. The residence of several of the emperor’s senior wives, this striking building is the grandest and largest in the entire city, and looks decidedly Hindu even in the eclectic context of Fatehpur Sikri, having been modelled after Rajput palaces such as those at Gwalior and Orchha.
On the north side of the palace, the Hawa Mahal (“Palace of the Winds”), a small screened tower with a delicately carved chamber, was designed to catch the evening breeze, while a raised covered walkway, lined with five large chhatris, leads from here to a (now vanished) lake.
Northwest of Jodhbai’s Palace lies a third women’s palace, known as Birbal’s Palace – though this is another misnomer, as Birbal, Akbar’s favourite courtier, was a man and would have been most unwelcome in the middle of the zenana. It’s more likely to have been the residence of two of Akbar’s senior wives.
Despite its seventeenth-century fort, the rail- and road-junction town of Jhansi, in an anomalous promontory of UP that thrusts south into Madhya Pradesh, is not much visited by tourists. Most stop only long enough to catch a connecting bus to Khajuraho, 175km southeast in Madhya Pradesh, but Jhansi is worth a visit in its own right. Like Avadh, Jhansi was an independent state until the British summarily annexed it in 1854, and was consequently a major centre of support for the 1857 uprising, under the leadership of Rani Lakshmibai, its last ruler’s widow, and the uprising’s great heroine.
Allahabad and around
The administrative and industrial city of Allahabad, 135km west of Varanasi and 227km southeast of Lucknow, is also known as Prayag (“confluence”): the point where the Yamuna and Ganges rivers meet the mythical Saraswati River. Sacred to Hindus, the sangam (which also means “confluence”), east of the city, is one of the great pilgrimage destinations of India. Allahabad comes alive during its melas (fairs) – the annual Magh Mela (Jan/Feb), and the colossal Maha Kumbh Mela, held every twelve years (2025 and 2037 are the next ones).
Allahabad is a pleasant city to visit, with vast open riverside scenery and good amenities, but is without major temples or monuments. At the junction of the fertile Doab, the “two-river” valley between the Yamuna and the Ganges, it did however possess a crucial strategic significance; its massive fort, built by the emperor Akbar in 1583, is still used by the military. Another Mughal, Jahangir’s son Khusrau, was murdered here by his brother Shah Jahan, who went on to become emperor. Allahabad was briefly the centre of power after the 1857 uprising, when the British moved the headquarters of their Northwestern Provinces here from Agra; the formal transfer of power from the East India Company to the Crown took place here the following year.
Central Allahabad is split in two by the railway line, with the chaotic and congested Old City or Chowk south of Allahabad Junction station, and the grid of the Civil Lines (the residential quarter of the Raj military town) to the north.
About 88km southwest of Chitrakut, the abandoned star-shaped fortress of KALINJAR looks down on the Gangetic valley from the final escarpments of the craggy Vindhya hills, above the town of the same name. Much of the fort has been reclaimed by dry shrubby forest, populated by monkeys; once-grand avenues are now rocky footpaths that wind through the few crumbling yet ornately carved buildings that remain. Kalinjar has no tourist facilities to speak of – most of those who do come are either on day-trips from Chitrakut or Allahabad, or stay in Banda, which is on major train and bus routes and is connected to Kalinjar by local buses.
Steep steps lead straight up for 3km from Kalinjar village to the fort’s main gate, Alam Darwaza, but the southern Panna Gate has rock carvings depicting seven deer (like the fort’s seven gates, these represent the then-known planets). Beneath Bara Darwaza, the “Large Gate”, in the artificial cave of Sita Sej, a stone couch dating from the fourth century holds some of Kalinjar’s earliest inscriptions. The fort’s colossal rambling battlements provide sweeping views of the Gangetic plain and the Vindhya hills.
The Kumbh Mela
Hindus traditionally regard river confluences (sangams) as auspicious places, and none more so than the one at Allahabad, where the Yamuna and Ganges rivers meet the River of Enlightenment, the mythical subterranean Saraswati. According to legend, Vishnu was carrying a kumbha (pot) of amrita (nectar), when a scuffle broke out between the gods, and four drops were spilled. They fell to earth at the four tirthas of Prayag, Haridwar, Nasik and Ujjain. The event is commemorated every three years by the Kumbh Mela, held at each tirtha in turn; the Allahabad sangam is known as Tirtharaja, the “King of tirthas”, and its mela, the Maha Kumbh Mela or “Great” Kumbh Mela, is the greatest and holiest of all.
The largest religious fair in India, Maha Kumbh Mela was attended by an astonishing 120 million pilgrims in 2013. The vast flood plains and riverbanks adjacent to the confluence were overrun by tents, organized in almost military fashion by the government, the local authorities and the police. The mela is especially renowned for the presence of an extraordinary array of religious ascetics – sadhus and mahants – enticed from remote hideaways in forests, mountains and caves. Once astrologers have determined the propitious bathing time or kumbhayog, the first to hit the water are legions of Naga Sadhus or Naga Babas, who cover their naked bodies with ash and wear their hair in dreadlocks. The sadhus, who see themselves as guardians of the faith, approach the confluence at the appointed time with all the pomp and bravado of a charging army.
Although the Kumbh Mela is only triennial, and not always in Allahabad, there is a smaller annual bathing festival, the Magh Mela, held here every year in the month of Magha (Jan–Feb).
The harshness of the terrain in the Bundelkhand region, south of Lucknow along the Madhya Pradesh border, and the all but unbearable heat in the summer, make it the most difficult, if intriguing, part of the state to control, and even today, its labyrinthine hills and valleys are home to infamous bands of outlaw dacoits. Many of these have become folk-heroes among local villagers, who shelter them from the almost equally brutal police force. The most celebrated in recent years was Phoolan Devi, the “Bandit Queen”, from a village near Behmai who was kidnapped by a dacoit gang, became the leader’s lover, and took over from him after he was killed. She eventually surrendered to the police, was released in 1994, and even became an MP for the socialist Samajwadi Party before being assassinated in 2001.
East of Saraswati Ghat, Akbar’s fort is best appreciated from boats on the river. Much of it is still occupied by the military, and public access is restricted to the leafy corner around the Patalpuri Temple, approached through any of the three massive gates. Much of the superstructure is neglected; the zenana with its columned hall does survive, but its interior is closed to the public. At the main gate, a poorly restored polished stone Ashoka Pillar is inscribed with the emperor’s edicts and dated to 242 BC.
Where the fort’s eastern battlements meet the river, a muddy ghat is busy with boatmen jostling for custom from pilgrims heading to the sangam. Inland along the base of the fort, with the flood plain of the sangam to the right, a road leads past rows of stalls catering to pilgrims visiting the brightly painted Hanuman Temple. Unusually, the large sunken image of the monkey god inside is reclining rather than standing erect; during the annual floods the waters rise to touch his feet before once again receding.
Around 7km from the centre Allahabad, overlooked by the eastern ramparts of the fort, wide flood plains and muddy banks protrude towards the sacred sangam. At the point at which the brown Ganges meets the greenish Yamuna, pandas (priests) perch on small platforms to perform puja and assist the devout in their ritual ablutions in the shallow waters. Beaches and ghats here are littered with the shorn hair of pilgrims who come to offer pind for their deceased parents, and women sit around selling cone-shaped pyramids of bright red and orange tilak powder.
Boats to the sangam, used by pilgrims and tourists alike, can be rented at the ghat immediately east of the fort. On the way to the sangam, high-pressure aquatic salesmen loom up on the placid waters selling offerings such as coconuts for pilgrims to discard at the confluence. Once abandoned, the offerings are fished up and sold on to other pilgrims.
Ten kilometres north of Varanasi, the ruins and temples at Sarnath are a Buddhist pilgrimage centre, and also popular with day-trippers from Varanasi. It was here, around 530 BC, just five weeks after he had found enlightenment, that Buddha gave his first ever sermon. According to Buddhist belief, this set in motion the Dharmachakra (“Wheel of Law”), a new cycle of rebirths and reincarnations leading eventually to ultimate enlightenment for everybody. During the rainy season, when Buddha and his followers sought respite from their round of itinerant teaching, they would retire to Sarnath. Also known as Rishipatana, the place of the rishis, or Mrigadaya, the deer park, Sarnath’s name derives from Saranganatha, the Lord of the Deer.
Over the centuries, the settlement flourished as a centre of Buddhist (particularly Hinayana) art and teaching. Seventh-century Chinese pilgrim Xuan Zhang recounted seeing thirty monasteries, supporting some three thousand monks, and a life-sized brass statue of the Buddha turning the Wheel of Law, but Indian Buddhism floundered under the impact of Muslim invasions and the rise of Hinduism. Sarnath’s expanding Buddhist settlement eventually dissolved in the wake of this religious and political metamorphosis. Except for the Dhamekh Stupa, much of the site lay in ruins for almost a millennium, prey to vandalism and pilfering, until 1834, when Alexander Cunningham, head of the Archaeological Survey, excavated the site. Today it is once more an important Buddhist centre, and its avenues house missions from all over the Buddhist world.
The most impressive of the site’s remains is the Dhamekh Stupa, also known as the Dharma Chakra Stupa, which stakes a competing claim to be the exact spot of Buddha’s first sermon. The stupa is composed of a cylindrical tower rising 33.5m from a stone drum, ornamented with bas-relief foliage and geometric patterns; the eight-arched niches halfway up may once have held statues of the Buddha.
Some 230km north of Varanasi, Gorakhpur rose to prominence as a waystation on a pilgrims’ route linking Kushinagar (the place of Buddha’s enlightenment) and Lumbini (his birthplace, across the border in Nepal), and is now known primarily as a gateway to Nepal. It was named after the Shaivite yogi Gorakhnath, and holds a large ashram and temple dedicated to him. Tourists and pilgrims tend to hurry through, their departure hastened by the town’s infamous flies and mosquitoes. It does however, have a bustling bazaar, adequate amenities and a few passable hotels.
Set against a pastoral landscape 53km east of Gorakhpur, the small village of Kushinagar is revered as the site of Buddha’s death and cremation, and final liberation (Mahaparinirvana) from the cycles of death and rebirth. During his lifetime, Kushinara, as it was then called, was a small kingdom of the Mallas, surrounded by forest. It remained forgotten until the late nineteenth century, when archeologists began excavations based on the writings of seventh-century Chinese pilgrims.
Today Kushinagar is rediscovering its roots as a centre of international Buddhism, and is home to several monasteries sponsored by Buddhists from Tibet, Burma, Thailand, Sri Lanka and Japan. The strikingly simple Japanese Temple consists of a single circular chamber housing a great golden image of Buddha, softly lit through small, stained-glass windows. In stark contrast, the recently constructed Thai Monastery is a large complex of lavish, traditionally styled temples and shrines.
Best time to visit Uttar Pradesh
The best time to visit Uttar Pradesh is October, just after the monsoon, when the climate is fresh and pleasantly warm. By the end of November it’s getting chilly at night, and quite cold in December and January, when fog may cause train delays. By mid-January it starts to warm up, and by April it can be uncomfortably hot, with dusty dry winds. The arrival of the monsoon in June breaks the heat but can itself impede travel and other activities, with the possibility of flooding.
Festivals in Uttar Pradesh
Magh Mela (Jan/Feb). Bathing festival held in Allahabad. In 2019 this will be the peripatetic, triennial Kumbh Mela.
Taj Mahotsav (Feb). Cultural festival put on by the tourist board in Agra’s Shipgram craft market to showcase UP handicrafts.
Ramayan Mela (Feb/March). Celebration of the events in the Ramayana epic, held in Chitrakoot.
Dhrupad Mela (Feb/March). Classical music festival in Varanasi, centred on Tulsi Ghat.
Urs (May–June). Celebration of the life of the sufi saint Sheikh Salim Chisti, held in the Muslim month of Ramadan at Fatehpur Dikri’s Jama Masjid.
Muharram (Aug/Sept). Lucknow sees particularly big processions to celebrate the Islamic new year.
Ganga Mahotsav (Oct/Nov). Celebration in Varanasi with candles lit along the ghats to pay homage to the River Ganges, held two weeks after Diwali, which is itself a major celebration in Varanasi.