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.
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.