Moving on from Garhmukteshwar, we travel 114 km south to Aligarh, famous for its educational institutions. Formerly known as Allygurh and Kol, Aligarh is the 53rd most populous city in India. The recorded history of Aligarh begins with the establishment of the Aligarh Fort in the 16th century. Before the 18th century, Aligarh was known as Kol and the history of the town up until the 12th century is obscure. It is said to have been founded by the Dor Rajputs in 372 AD. Sometime before the Muslim conquest, Kol was held by the Dor Rajputs. Statues of Buddha and other Buddhist remains have been found in excavations where the citadel of Kol stood, indicating a Buddhist influence. Hindu remains indicate that the citadel probably had a Hindu temple after the Buddhist temple. Aligarh Fort, also called Aligarh Qila, as it stands today, was built by French engineers under the control of French officers Benoît de Boigne and Perron. The Battle of Aligarh was fought on 1 September 1803 during the Second Anglo-Maratha War which took place between 1803 to 1805 at Aligarh Fort. Aligarh is famous as an educational hub, especially for the Aligarh Muslim University, which was founded here as Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental College in 1875 by Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, initiating the Aligarh Movement. The Maulana Azad Library, one of the largest libraries in India, is also housed in Aligarh. Other notable spots are the Kheereshwar Temple, Teerthdham Mangalaayatan, Sir Syed Academy Museum, Chacha Nehru Gyan Pushp, Hakim Karam Hussain Museum, Baba Barchi Bahadur Dargah and the Shekha Lake that one must visit if in Aligarh.
The Jama Masjid is the oldest historical monument at the highest point of the town. Described as Asia’s highest gold mosque, its dome and minarets are made of pure gold and is the first mosque in India housing tombs of the martyrs, also known as Ganj-e-Shaheedan or Martyrs’ colony. The founder of Aligarh Muslim University, Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, started building the Jama Masjid within the foreground of the university in 1879 and the masjid commemorated in January 1915. The mosque has a capacity fo 5000 people and is known for its Islamic architecture with three domes flanked with minarets on either of their sides with its architectural style borrowed from Shah Jahan’s Jama Masjid in Delhi. The Iwan or a gateway covered on three sides with one side open for entrance is ornamented with white marbles having psalms from the Quran engraved upon it. The many doors have colourful glasses decorating them, reflecting the light of the sun during the day. The Mezzo Quinto arch provides an entry into the doorway with intricate wooden work. The ceilings are a contrast of dark and light colour combination with latticed windows. Many locals attend the first namaz or prayer at 5 am. At night, the exterior of the mosque is beautiful with lights. There are inscribed psalms from the Quran on marble in calligraphy and gold floral patterns decorating the walls. The mosque is open from 5 am to 8 pm daily.
The Khereshwar Temple is dedicated to Lord Shiva and is known its tiny Shivalinga, which is so small that it is popularly known as the Invisible Shivalinga. Other highlights of the temple include metallic mural engraved ceiling and brass idols of other Hindu deities. Believed to be over thousands of years old, the Khereshwar Temple witnesses numerous devotees visiting, especially on the occasion of Maha Shivratri. There is no clear evidence about the origins of the temple, with some believing the temple was erected during the Mughal era by Swami Haridas, the guru of Tansen. Another popular belief holds that the temple was built by Raja Sati Prasad in memory of his wife and some temple priests claim the Khereshwar temple to have existed since the Dvapara Yuga and that there is a mention of the temple in the Vedas as well. The temple is open from 5 am to 11:45 pm daily.
Also known as Aligarh Qila, Aligarh Fort is one of India’s strongest forts. Popularly called as Bonay Chor ka Kila or the Dwarf Thief’s Fort, it represents historic Islamic influences through its exquisite architecture and intricate symbolic carvings, though most of it is in ruins now. The fort features distinguishing minarets, bastions, terraces, and a grand arched entrance. There is a garden, supervised by the Botanical Department of the Aligarh Muslim University, and houses a diverse variety of vibrant flowers, trees and animal species such as delicate koel birds, beautiful peacocks and ferrets among others. Aligarh Fort was established by Muhammad, son of the Governor of Kol during the Lodi Dynasty in 1524. The fort was consequently redeveloped and renovated on multiple occasions such as by French officers under the guidance of Boigne and Perron, as well as by Sabit Khan during his reign as governor. The fort gained great significance when Madhavrao I Scindia claimed it as a spot for organising his army in 1759. Lord Gerard, the commander of the British army then took control of the fort during the Battle of Ally Ghur. Situated on a steep hillock, the polygon shaped structure of the fort is supported by angled bastain and surrounded by deep trenches. Aligarh Fort also features distinct minarets, beautiful gardens, extensive terraces, and a concealed basement, all of which are characteristic of fascinating Islamic architectural influence. The fort is open from 8 am to 6 pm daily.
Naqvi Park is a popular park also known as Rajkeey Udhhan Jawahar Park and is well-known for its lush green surroundings and fountains. It also houses walking paths and playgrounds as well as a plant nursery open for sale. The park is open from 5:15 to 10 am and then between 2 to 6:15 pm and has an entry fee of INR 5 for a single visit and INR 60 for a monthly pass.
The Sir Syed House Museum, located in the Aligarh Muslim University, is a well-known art gallery. Previously the home of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, the art gallery was formed to increase awareness about Sir Syed’s contribution to educational and social betterment. The Sir Syed House Museum exhibits the his personal life through his belongings along with showcasing the history of AMU through pictures and written records. The museum is divided into three galleries. The first part displays the life of Sir Syed and his comrades, the second gallery showcases detailed stages of development of Aligarh Muslim University and the third gallery presents the pictures of AMU’s campus, and it’s Vice Chancellors. The gallery also exhibits the photos of the university’s events and achievements which took place over the years. The museum is open from 8 am to 5 pm and does not have any entrance fees.
Our next destination is Firozabad, a city about 112 km southeast of Aligarh and about 47 km east of Agra. It is the centre of India’s glassmaking industry and is known for the quality of the bangles and also glasswares produced there. Situated in the northern end of the Deccaan plateau, the Yamuna river covers its southern border.
The city is named after Firoz Shah Mansab Dar, a general in Emperor Akbar’s army who was sent to make the city a cantonment to collect taxes and whose tomb is still present today. More than half of the workforce is engaged in manufacturing activities. The city lies in the cultural region of Braj and was a part of the Surasena Mahajanapada during the Vedic Age and subsequently ruled by the bigger kingdoms including the Mauryas, Guptas, Scythians, Kushans, Indo-greeks, Harsha before falling into the hands of local Rajput and Jat rulers. The modern city of Firozabad was founded in 1566, when Raja Todar Mal was returning from a pilgrimage to Gaya and stopped at the village of Asafabad, southeast of modern Firozabad. The villagers insulted him, and when the emperor Akbar heard of this, he sent the eunuch Firoz Khwaja to demolish the town and build a new one. The city was built on lands belonging to several neighbouring villages and was named Firozabad. Firoz Khwaja’s tomb, built of white marble, lies on the road to Agra. Firozabad was bestowed to Nawab Sadulla Khan as fiefdom in the regime of Emperor Shahjahan, followed by the Jats who ruled for 30 years and in the end of the 18th century, it was ruled by Himmat Bahadur with co-operation from the Marathas, before being taken over by the British.
Also known as the Shri Digambar Jain Atishaya Kshetra Marsalganj, the Marsalganj Jain Temple is a beautifully decorated place of worship for followers of the Jain religion. This temple, established by the revered Baba Rishabhdas, is dedicated to Bhagwan Rishabhdeo, a Jain deity. A major Jain temple built by Seth Chhadamilal, the Lord Bahubali Jain Temple is well-renowned for its life-like sculpture of Lord Bahubali, which is 45 feet tall and fashioned entirely out of granite. The Kalan Mosque was constructed by Khan-i-Jahan Junan Shah, the prime minister of Firuz Tughlaq between 1368 and 1387 and is also referred to as Kali Masjid. The mosque served as a haven for the people of the city during times of attack on the city. The Kotla Fort features grand palaces, mosques, enchanting gardens, and madrasas. This fort was constructed to solve water issues in the region, by Sultan Feroz Shah Tughlaq. With its grand Mughal-influenced architecture, the structure showcases the rule of the powerful Tughlaqabad dynasty.
280 km south of Firozabad lies the historic town of Jhansi which lies in in the Bundelkhand region on the banks of the Pahuj and Pahunch rivers, in the extreme south of Uttar Pradesh, close to its border with Madhya Pradesh and is called the Gateway to Bundelkhand. The town is famous for the Indian freedom fighter queen, Rani Laxi Bai who is also known as Jhansi ki Rani. During ancient times, Jhansi was a stronghold of the Chandela Rajput kings and was known as Balwant Nagar. However, it lost importance in the 11th century after the decline of the Chandela dynasty, but rose in prominence in the 17th century when Raja Bir Singh Deo of Orchha State constructed the Jhansi Fort in 1613. Jhansi came under the Maratha Empire in 1729 when Maharaja Chattrasal offered Jhansi and some other parts of his state to the Maratha Peshwa Baji Rao I as a mark of gratitude for having helped him in defeating the Nawab of Farrukhabad, Muhammad Khan Bangash who had attacked Maharaja Chattrasal’s kingdom. In the 18th century, the town of Jhansi served as the capital of a Maratha province and later the Princely State of Jhansi from 1804 till 1858, when the territory became a part of British India. A famous story related to the origin of Jhansi says that the Raja of Orchha and Jaitpur were two friends sitting on a hilltop. The Raja of Orchha asked his friend whether he could recognise the new fort on Bangara Hill. While answering the question, the Jaitpur Raja said that he could see it Jhainsi, meaning indistinctly which then became corrupted to Jhansi.
The Rani Mahal or the Queen’s Palace, is the former residence of Rani Lakshmi Bai. Built in the 18th century, a large part was destroyed during the Indian Rebellion, but was later renovated into a museum. The ancient palace is built with a quadrangular courtyard with a little well on one side and on a decorative fountain the other. It is a two-storey building with a flat roof, and six beautiful halls, each of it accompanied by a parallel corridor. The arches on the aisle have a peacock and floral patterns and is filled with artefacts from the 9th century and Rani Laxi Bai’s life, including the famous Darbar Hall. On the ground floor, there are several stone sculptures from the early medieval period and the most popular halls are the Darbar Hall on the second floor with beautiful wall paintings and artistic carvings. The palace was built by Raghunath II of the Nawalkar family in the 18th century. Photography is strictly prohibited inside the palace which is open from 7 am to 5:30 pm and has an entry fee of INR 25.
Jhansi Fort is located at the top of Bagira, and is a 17th century architectural monument that has undergone royal construction followed by massive destruction in the first War of Independence against the British East India Company. Within the four-walls lie monuments like Baradari, the Kal Kothari or dungeon, Ganesha and Shiva temples and a museum that showcases remnants of the Chandela dynasty including weaponry, clothes and paintings. There is also a war memorial paying tribute to martyrs, and the Rani Lakshmibai Park built in the memory of her role in the freedom struggle. The fort stands on 15 acres of land and is 312 m long and 225 meters wide with granite walls that are 16 to 20 feet thick and has ten entrances.
Baradari pays homage to Raja Gangadhar Rao’s brother Raghunath Rao with the roof built with stucco in such a way that it forms a pond with water sprinkles over it. The Execution Tower was used to execute prisoners, and the Jumping Spot is where Rani Laxmibai jumped over the wall to climb on her horse Badal to escape. The Kadak Bijli cannon that was used by the queen in the revolt of 1857 and decorates the entrance. The state government organises the Jhansi Mahotsav in February or March, a week-long festival with dance recitals, singing and drama. There are many attractions around the fort including the Panchkuian temple which is dedicated to Goddess Lakshmi, the Goddess of Wealth, the City Church, Rani Mahal and the Government Museum. The fort is open between 8 am and 6 pm and entrance fees are INR 5 for Indians while foreigners need to pay INR 200.
Located about 16 km southeast of Jhansi across the border in Madhya Pradesh is the town of Orchha with a historical complex known as the Orchha Fort Complex. Built in 1501 by Raja Rudra Pratap Singh of the Bundela dynasty, it is built in a fusion of Rajput and Mughal architecture, decorated with latticed windows, projected platforms and balconies and mirrors on ceilings. The Orchha Fort complex houses several monuments such as the Raja Mahal, Sheesh Mahal, Rai Praveen Mahal and also gardens such as the Phool Bagh. The Sheesh Mahal has been converted into a hotel and the Phool Bagh is elegantly decorated with flowers and a line of fountains with an archaic cooling system to retreat to in summers. Guides are available, but there are no audio guides. The King’s Palace, Raja Mahal or Raja Mandir was where the royal families resided till 1783. While the exterior adheres to simplicity, the interior is filled with paintings and murals with religious themes, mythological creatures, high ceilings and ceilings and walls with interspersed mirrors. A section of the fort was converted into a Rama Raja temple and is the only temple where Raja Rama, even though deified to being a God, is worshipped as a king. The The four-storied Jahangir Mahal was completed in 1605 and built as a gesture of gratitude towards the Mughal Emperor Jahangir upon his visit to Orchha in a Mogul and Rajput fusion style. The symmetrically square shape is ornamented with eight domes, latticed windows, projected balconies and a steep stairway that provides a magnificent view of the Betwa River flowing by. The entrance is mounted with turquoise tiles and has an artistic gateway decorated in a traditional style. The palace has a small archaeological museum housing artefacts from the 16th century. The Rai Praveen Mahal was built in 1618 by Raja Indrajeet for his escort, Rai Praveen, a poet, musician and a beautiful woman. Sheesh Mahal lies between Jahangir Mahal and Raja Mahal and is a hotel today. Entrane fee is INR 10 for Indians and INR 250 for foreigners and camera charges is INR 25 for a camera and INR 200 for video camera. The entrance fee for Jahangir Mahal is INR 10 for Indians and INR 30 for foreign citizens. There is a light and sound show which in the summer is between 7:45 to 8:30 pm in English and 8:45 to 9:45 pm in Hindi. In winters, the show is between 6:30 to 7:30 pm in English and from 7:45 to 8:45 pm in Hindi. The entry fee is INR 100 for adults and INR 50 for children. The fort is open from 9 am to to 6 pm every day.
The Cenotaph of Raja Gangadhar Rao, the Raja of Jhansi, was built after his death by his queen, Rani Lakshmibai in 1853. The Raja Gangadhar Rao ki Chhatri is located near Mahalakshmi temple beside the Lakshmi Lake and is surrounded by a lush green garden, an adjacent pond and rich architectural designs. Legend has it that Maharani Lakshmibai used to visit the Lakshmi temple every day. The structure stands in the middle with high walls carved hollow on all four sides with 18th-century architectural designs. The Chhatri is open between 9 am and 6 pm and has an entrance fee of INR 200.
Panchatantra Park is an animal-themed park for children based on the Panchatantra book by Vishnu Sharma. Apart from several animal-themed slides for the children, this park also has a jogging track for adults. The park was developed by the Jhansi Development Authority on a vast stretch of a green patch for children with exciting Panchatantra themed animal statues. Over the years, this has not only been an exciting spot for children but also for adults for morning and evening walks. One of the major attractions of the park is the animal-themed toy train and the park also provides a boating service that take tourists around via the lake situated in the middle of the park. The park is open from 6 am to 8 pm and has an entry fee of INR 20.
The Rani Lakshmi Bai Park is set in the foothills of the Jhansi Fort and is connected to the Maithili Sharan Gupta Park. At the centre of the park there is a magnificent bronze statue of Rani Lakshmi Bai riding her horse, her sword raised and her adopted son Anand Rao, sitting behind her. The park is adorned with lush green trees, jogging tracks, slides, and swings for children and is blessed with a scenic view in all directions. The park is open between 5 am and 9 pm and there is no entry fee.
The Mahalakshmi Temple is situated on the banks of Lakshmi Tal lake and built in honour of Goddess Lakshmi, the goddess of good fortune, wealth and prosperity. The temple is ancient and known as one of the oldest temples in Jhansi, dating to the 18th century. It was built by Raghunath Rao II Newalkar, and served as a place of worship for both the Hindu rulers and the public. The best time to visit the temple is during the festival of Diwali. The temple is open between 6 am and 6 pm.
The Karguvanji Jain temple is a 700-year-old temple and an important pilgrimage for Digambar Jains, a sect that believes in renouncing all material things to attain salvation, including clothes. The full name of the temple is Shri Digamber Jain Atishaya Kshetra Sanvaliya Parasnath Karguvanji, with Atishay Kshetra meaning a place of miracles. The biggest idol installed is of Parshvanatha, the 23rd Tirthankara whose symbol is a snake. Situated on Jhansi-Kanpur highway, the temple has an interesting history during the Peshwas when a man named Singhai Nanheju dream led to the discovery of the idols hidden underground. The temple is open between 7 am and 6 pm.
The St. Jude’s Shrine is a Roman Catholic Latin Rite shrine and is devoted to St. Jude Thaddeus built by Francis Xavier Fenech in the Cantonment area. Daily mass is conducted daily and on the 28th of October, devotees gather to celebrate the Feast of St. Jude. St. Jude Thaddaeus, also called as Jude the Apostle lived during the times of 1st century AD. One of Jesus’s twelve apostles, he travelled to many countries to preach and the St. Jude’s Shrine is the first church in Asia dedicated to him. In summer, the Sunday mass is at 6:30 and 8 am and at 6 pm while in winter, it happens at 7 and 8:30 am and then again at 5 pm. Daily mass during summers take place at 6 am and at 6:30 am during winters.
Parichha Dam, a human-made reservoir is built on the Jhansi-Kanpur Highway in Parichha. The dam is built on the Betwa River and its reservoir, which is a placid stretch of water and runs to Notghat Bridge. It is popular amongst the locals for water sports facilities and boating. Constructed by the British between 1881 to 1886, and is the primary source of water for drinking and agricultural purposes for the town as well as has a thermal plant. Boating in the Betwa River is a soothing experience. The dam stretches over a length of 1176 meters and a height of 77 meters and is open between 9 am and 6 pm. There is no entry fee, but a boating fee of INR 50 is charged.
The Orchha Wildlife Sanctuary is located 19.2 km from Jhansi was established in 1994 and is home to endangered species like tigers and leopards as well as is home to over 200 species of Indian as well as migratory birds. The sanctuary has many activities throughout the year like river rafting, trekking, canoeing, fishing, camping and trekking. The fauna in the sanctuary consists of animals like spotted deer, blue bull, peacock, wild pig, monkey, Jackal, Nilgai, Sloth Bear, tigers and leopards. The birds that can be observed in the sanctuary are peafowls, peacocks, swans, black swan, Jungle Bush Quail, minivet, stork, kingfisher, owls, woodpeckers, geese and collared scop owls. The forest has thick plantations of Dhava, kardhai, teak, palaash and khair trees. The sanctuary was previously an open jungle where many endangered species lived as well a hotspot for thousands of birds. The best time to visit the sanctuary is between November and June. The rainy season should be avoided as the animals seek shelter during heavy rains and cannot be spotted easily and the forest is closed during the rainy season due to the flooding of the river Betwa. The sanctuary is open between 9 am and 5:30 pm and has an entrance fee of INR 40 for Indians and INR 350 for foreigners.
The Jhansi Government Museum was constructed around the late 19th century and is known to have artefacts from the 4th century BC along with exquisite artworks of pre-modern India. Dedicated to Rani Lakshmi Bai, this museum also throws light on the Bundelkhand region. Located within the Jhansi fort, the museum also throws light on the reign of the Chandelas and the Guptas and has a number of galleries with separate galleries for the Bundelas and Chandelas. Artefacts at the museum include the weapons of Rani Lakshmi Bai, an art gallery dedicated to the Guptas, an art gallery dedicated to the Chandelas, weapons used in the Sepoy Mutiny, terracotta and bronze structures, ancient manuscripts, pota and silver and bronze coins. The museum is open between 10 am and 5 pm and is closed on Mondays and every second Saturday of the month. Entrance fees for Indians is INR 5, for foreigners, it is INR 25 and there is a camera charge of INR 20. Photography is prohibited in certain galleries
Barua Sagar is a modest town belonging to the Bundelkhand region. Apart from the lake, Barua Sagar is home to several ruins of forts and temples. Named after Barua Sagar Tal, the town is of great historical significance with breathtaking views from the vantage point of its hilly platforms. The Barua Sagar Lake is a human-made lake that enhances the beautiful scenery of Barua Sagar. The Barua Sagar Fort was built by Raja Udit Singh and is located on the banks of the Barua Sagar Lake and offers magnificent views of the town. The fort allows visitors throughout the week from 9 am to pm. Built by the Pratiharas in 860 AD, and renovated in the 17th century, the Jarai Ka Math is an ancient temple with intricate patterns and carvings of various manifestations of Goddess Durga. Ruins of two major Chandela temples, namely Ghughua Math and Gandai Temple are structures made entirely out of granite that are dedicated to Lord Ganesh and Goddess Durga respectively. Barua Sagar is also the site of the battle between the Bundelas and the Marathas in 1744.
Moving eastwards, our next destination is Pilibhit, about 451 km northeast of Jhansi, not too far from the Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand and the India-Nepal border. Situated in the Rohilkhand region of the sub-Himalayan Plateau belt next to foothills of Sivalik Range on the boundary of Nepal, known for the origin of river Gomati and one of the most forest-rich areas in North India. Pilibhit was also known as Bansuri Nagari or the land of flutes, for the making and exporting roughly 95% of India’s flutes. Though separated only by a short distance from the outer ranges of the Himalayas, Pilibhit consists entirely of a level plain, containing depressions but no hills and is intersected by several streams and is a forest-rich area. The area has diverse features, and topographically may be divided into several distinct tracts with more than ten small to medium-sized rivers and nine small to medium-sized water bodies. The origin of river Gomti, a tributary of the Ganges River, is from a small lake, Gomat Taal, in Madhotanda.
The Chattvi Padshahi Gurudwara, situated in the Pakrdiya is four centuries old, dedicated to the sixth sikh guru, Guru Sri Har Govindji. This white marbled Gurudwara was constructed under the supervision of Guru Govind Singhji who while travelling to Nanakmatta fell in the beauty and tranquility the place offered. The Jaisantri Devi Temple is located about 5 km from Pilibit. The 150 years old temple was destroyed in the 2008 floods, but is is wonderfully constructed. Even though the flood which took place in 2008 has destroyed some of its façade, it remains an architectural marvel. The temple comes alive during the Navratri festivities. Situated on the banks of river Devha and Khakra, the 250-year-old Gauri Shankar Temple is dedicated to Lord Shiva and his wife Goddess Parvati. The legend goes that the idols placed in the temple were found by some sages who built the temple to pray to the idols. The Rajaji Temple is dedicated to two members of the Pilibhit royal family, Raja Lalta Prasad and Sahau Har Prasad. The Dargah-e-Shahji Miyan was built to commemorate two great saints, Alaa Hazrat and Shahji Miyan. The shrine is visited by hundreds of people every year and it is believed that offering a chaddar or blanket in the shrine will make wishes come true. The splendid while marbled Jama Masjid was built in 1769 by Hafiz Rahmat Khan in an attempt to replicate the Jama Masjid of Delhi. The Mughal style architecture is juxtaposed with a Bengali styled roof. The Friday prayers is very popular and every Tuesday a small market springs up in the mosque. At a distance of 7 km from Pilibhit lies a small reservoir named Gomaat Taal which is the source of the river Gomti which after flowing 800 km across Uttar Pradesh merges into the Ganges. Devha-Ghagra Sangam is where the Devha and the Ghagra rivers merge. Devotees consider this point holy and take a bath here to purify themselves. Raja Venu ka Tila is located a km from the town and is in ruins today. The dilapidated palace is historical because because Raja Venu was considered to be a friend of Lord Krishna and is even mentioned in the Mahabharata.
Located in the Pilibhit region and part of the Terai-Duar Savanna and grasslands ecosystem, the Pilibhit Tiger Reserve is home to over 127 animals, 556 birds and 2100 flowering plants. The reserve lies along the India-Nepal border with the northeastern boundary of the reserve the Sharda River which defines the Indo-Nepal border, while the southwest boundary is marked by the River Sharda and the River Ghaghara. The reserve has a core zone area of 602.79 sq km and a buffer zone area of 127.45 sq km with elevation ranges from 168 to 175 meters above mean sea level. Contrary to what the name suggests, this reserve is replete with not only a variety of tigers, but also a plethora of rare and threatened species like the Indian leopard, swamp deer, hispid hare and Bengal floricans. The Bengal Tiger and Dudhwa tiger are most prominent species that breed here and the reserve is one of India’s 50 Project Tiger tiger reserves. The forestes of Pilbhit are home to the striped cats, tigers, bears and many species of birds.
Located close to the Indo-Nepal border, the Dudhwa National Park is the perfect weekend getaway. Spread across 811 sq km across the Indo-Gangetic plains, the park was first established in 1985 as a sanctuary for swamp deer and renamed a national park in 1977 and became a part of Project Tiger in 1987 and was declared as a tiger reserve, and along with the Kishanpur Wildlife Sanctuary and the Katarniaghat Wildlife Sanctuary, it is called as the Dudhwa Tiger Reserve. The place has a plethora of rare and endangered species and one of the few where one can witness herds of the Barasingha on the grassy wetlands. Dudhwa National Park is the only national park in North India with a unique terai-bhabar terrain and plays a pivotal role in maintaining an ecological balance in the region. The Tharu Tribal Village is a small village located in the park which allows visitors to meet the Tharu tribe who are mostly farmers and shepherds. The national park does not have their own arrangements for a safari, but visitors can hire jeeps or mini buses from outside to explore it and an elephant ride is another option where elephant mahouts also act as a tour guide. The park is open from 15 November to 15 June each year, however, it is best to visit between November and April, as May and June can get extremely hot. The park has daily jeep safaris in open 4WD safari vehicles, and it is usually arranged in 4×4 customized jeeps with a maximum of 6 people in one jeep with a guide and an equipped forest official accompanying each vehicle. There are also elephant safaris available, where mahouts accompany as guides. The safari timings are between 7 to 10 am and 1 to 5 pm daily and entry fee to the park is INR 50 per person while the vehicle entry fee is INR 100. For safaris, personal vehicles are not allowed and only registered vehicles are permitted.
We travel back 260 km south to Bithoor, our next destination. 24 km north of Kanpur, Bithoor is situated on the right bank of the River Ganges, and is a centre of Hindu pilgrimage. According to Hindu scriptures, Bithoor is the birthplace of Rama’s sons Lava and Kusha. It is also rumoured to be the place where Lord Bramha stayed while performing a yajna and the name of the town is said to be derived from Brahmavarta or the location where Lord Bramha stayed. It was also the centre for the war of Independence of 1857 due to it being the home of many of the rebellion’s most prominent participants including the Rani of Jhansi, Lakshmi Bai and Nana Saheb. The last of the Peshwas, Baji Rao II, was banished to Bithoor and his adopted son, Nana Sahib, made the town his headquarters.
Some of the most significant moments of Hindu religion and mythology are said to be created at the Valmiki Ashram, being the place of the forest-rendezvous of Sita after Lord Rama left her, the birthplace of Lav and Kush and the site where the Ramayana was written. The complex is a memorial of sorts established by the Peshwa ruler Nana Rao Peshwa II. The Lav Kush Janmasthal is supposed to be the exact spot where the princes Lav and Kush were born. Lav and Kush also received their education at Valmiki Ashram from Sage Valmiki and there is a a small chamber within the premises called Sita Rasoi which was the kitchen that Sita used when she settled down there after her separation from Lord Ram. Sita never returned back to Lord Ram and asked mother earth to take her in as whole, this also occurred at the Valmiki Ashram and the spot is named Sita Patal Pravesh. There is also a chamber where Lord Hanuman was rumoured to to stay when he was sent to find out the whereabouts of Sita, Lav and Kush by Lord Ram.
The Brahmavart Ghat is the holiest of the holy ghats in Bithoor where the devotees of Lord Brahma pray at the altar of the Wooden Slippers after a ritual bath. A nail of the horse shoe embedded in the steps of the ghat is an object of special reverence for devotees, as it is considered to be from the shoe of Lord Brahma’s horse, while going for Ashwamedha Yajna. This is also known as the place from where Lord Brahma started mankind, Manu and Shatarupa, according to Hindu mythology and after the completion of the yajna, the forests of Utpalaranya became known as Brahmavarta, from which the popular name, Bithoor is derived. The ghat has a small temple, one of the few shrines in the country devoted to Lord Bramha. The temple houses a Shivaling referred to as the Brahmeshwar Mahadeva, established by Lord Bramha after the completion of Yajna. The temple has wooden slippers to commemorate the sacred footsteps of Lord Bramha. There is also a knot in the ground of the temple which is believed to be the centre of the entire earth. There are also small boats available for boat rides in the Ganges.
The striking red stone Patthar Ghat’s foundation stone on the banks of the Ganges was laid by Tikait Rai, a minister of the Avadh kingdom. The red standstone is from where the ghat got its name, with Patthar meaning stone in Hindi. The ghat also has a small temple devoted to Lord Shiva with a shivaling installed in the temple made of Philosopher’s Stone or Kasauti, as it is known locally.
About two km from Bithoor is where a child named Dhruv, the prince of the kingdom of Utpalaranya and the son of king Uttanpad, meditated on one foot to appease Lord Bramha. Pleased with his devotion, Lord Bramha appeared before him and granted him a boon to be immortalised as a star named Dhruv which is the equivalent to the Pole Star. The place where Prince Dhruva did his penance is known as Dhruva Teela.
The Siddhidham Ashram, also known as the Sudhanshuji Maharaj Ashram, falls under the Vishva Shanti Mission, an organisation run by Sudhanshuji Maharaj on Bithoor road, about 4 km from the town. The ashram has a big campus as well as a Radha Krishna temple and an artificial Kailash Mountain. It also houses a miniature aquarium with tiger sharks and catfish, in addition to this there is a small encounter which contains a few varieties of exotic birds like Macaws and Cockatoos.
The Bithoor Fort is spread over 20 acres and played an integral part in the revolt of 1857. Nana Saheb, the adopted son of the Peshwa ruler Baji Rao II, made the fort his headquarters during his tenure in Bithoor, which was then part of the Cawnpore district, which is today’s Kanpur. The fort was where the leaders of the 1857 revolt planned the attack on the British regiment, in response to which the British bombed the fort due to which the fort lies in ruins today.
The Nana Saheb Rao Park was established by the state government within the museum complex previously known as Company Bagh. Before independence, it was called Memorial Well as a memorial to mourn the lives of British women and children who died in the 1857 massacre. Post independence, the memorial was shifted elsewhere and statues of freedom fighters were constructed in the Nana Saheb Rao park, named after the key player in the revolt of 1857. The park has a decades old enormous Banyan tree which is said to be where the British ordered the mass hangings of several Indian soldiers. There is also a museum with an independent gallery which has historical relics from the colonial period including royal orders, coins, stamps and other antiques. The park has a well paved walkway and a public pool, which is famous among the locals. There is also a small nursery within the park premises, host to a wide array of plant varieties. The park also sees a fair variety of local bird species.
The Deepa Malika Stambh is a high tower near the Sita Rasoi with 48 stairs in seven rounds laid out in a spiral fashion that take one to the top of the tower. The tower is decked up in glimmering diyas or earthen oil lamps during Diwali and looks stunning.
Also known as Neemsar, Nimsar or Nimkhar, Naimisaranyam is a Hindu temple dedicated to Lord Vishnu located about 91 km north of the state capital of Lucknow, on the left bank of the river Gomati. There are shrines dedicated to Chakranarayana, Ganesh, Rama, Lakshman.One of the Divya Desam, the 108 temples of Lord Vishnu revered in the Nalayira Divya Prabandham by the 12 poet saints, or Alwars. The temple is believed to be of significant antiquity with contributions at different times from the ruling kings and is counted as one of the eight temples of Vishnu that self-manifested and is classified as Swayamvyaktha Kshetra. The holy tank Chankra Kunda is associated with the temple and it is a pilgrimage centre where people take a holy dip during festive occasions. The tank is believed to have sprung the Sudarshan Chakra, the weapon associated with Lord Vishnu and this it is said this place is so holy that just by visiting this place, a person can rid himself of his sins and attain moksha or liberation.
Legend says that the Sage Narada is believed to have searched for the best theertha or water body in the three worlds. He went to Kailasa, the abode of Lord Shiva, then to Parkadal or Kshir Sagar, the abode of Lord Vishnu and finally landed in the water body in the Naimisha Forest which was declared the best water body or theertal in all the three worlds. Another story says it was the King of the Gods, Lord Indra who brought together the waters from all the holy rivers to Naimisaranya so the sage Dadhichi could bathe in it before giving up his life so his bones could be made into a weapon to destroy the demon Vritra and regain his place in heaven. According to a third legend, when sages were planning to perform a penance, Lord Brahma’s ring, made from the grass of the dharba, a tropical grass considered a sacred material in Vedic scriptures and is said to purify the offerings during such rituals fell down at Naimisaranya. Lord Brahma then asked the sages to do the penance here and accepted their offerings at the end of the penance. It is believed that the forest still has Lord Vishnu and all sages as trees. The central deity is said to have presided over the forest and hence the puja or rituals are done to the forest, which was worshipped by even the celestial beings. Every new moon day, a large number of people purify themselves with a dip in the holy tank and it is believed that if the new moon falls on a Monday, a holy bath in the tank and offerings to the presiding deity Goddess Lalitha will wash away all the sins committed in the lifetime. The temple is open till 6 pm daily.
Moving further east, our next destinations are Kanpur and the state capital of Lucknow.