Travel Bucket List: India – Uttar Pradesh Part 7

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Chitrakoot

About 114 km southwest of Prayagraj lies the small town of Chitrakoot. Called the Place of many Wonders, Chitrakoot is situated in the north Vindhyan range and holds great importance according to Hindu mythology and the Ramayana. Legend has it that Chitrakoot was the place where Lord Rama, his wife Goddess Sita and his brother Lord Lakshmana stayed for eleven and half of their fourteen years of exile making it a revered pilgrimage site. According to the Ramayana, Chitrakoot was where Bharata, brother of Lord Rama came to visit him and ask him to come back to Ayodhya and rule. It is also believed that the Trinity of Gods, Lords Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva took incarnations here. The Chitrakoot mountain range has numerous places of great religious importance like the Bharat Milap Temple, the Hanuman Dhara, Janki Kund and more. Chitrakoot is also where Goswami Tulsidas, author of the Ramcharitmanas, spent many years. And Chitrakoot is also home to the only university in the world specially made for the differently-abled, the Jagadguru Rambhadracharya Handicapped University.

Kamadgiri is a forested hill with the base surrounded by temples on all sides and is considered to be the heart of Chitrakoot. Pilgrims perform a Parikrama or a circumbulation around the hill with the belief that their sorrows will end and wishes come true. Kamadgiri is derived from Kamadnathji, another name for Lord Rama and it means a fulfiller of wishes. There are several temples on the 5 km path of the parikrama, with the most famous being the Bharat Milaap temple, where Bharat met Lord Ram and convinced him to come back to his kingdom. Some parts of Kamadgiri Mountain falls in Uttar Pradesh, while the others in Madhya Pradesh. The mountain sees a throng of devotees during the Chaitra month, the first month of the Hindu calendar, about mid-march to mid-April due to the Ram Navami festival and during Diwali. There is a grand fair held every month on the full moon day or Amavasya. The best time to visit is during the winter months as during summer, the red stones become too hot to walk around for the parikrama.

Hanuman Dhara is the name of the spring which sprouted from a rock when Lord Rama shot an arrow into it to calm down and enraged Lord Hanuman when he came to this place to extinguish the fire that was caught in his tail after he returned from burning Lanka. There is statue of Lord Hanuman here and the stream of water falls on the statue releasing in a kund or pond. There also also langurs in the area, mammals associated with Lord Hanuman, the monkey God.

The Sati Anusuya temple is dedicated to Anusuya where legend says that she sprinkled some special water over the holy trinity Lords Brahma, Vishnu and Maheshwar and this led to their incarnations. It is also said that Anusuya was dedicated in praising the Gods to end a famine in the area and thus the town was blessed with the river Mandakini.

Sphatik Shila has two massive rocks believed to have the footprints of Lord Rama and Goddess Sita. Sphatik Shila which means a crystal rock is located amidst dense forests, close to Janki Kund on the banks of the river Mandakini. It is said that Goddess Sita and Lord Rama were relaxing here and a crow pecked the feet of goddess Sita which agitated Lord Rama and he took off the eyes of the crow, But the crow was actually a form of Jayant, the son of Lord Indra.

Believed to the place of the meeting of the four brothers during Lord Rama’s period of exile, the Bharat Milaap Temple is very important temple in Chitrakoot. Located along the parikrama of Kamadgiri, a visit to this temple is a must where one can see the footprints of Lord Rama and his family. A small temple along with a well, Bharat Kup is located few km from Chitrakoot and it is believed that it was here that Bharat stored water from all pilgrimage places in India.

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The Gupt Godavari is a pair of caves in which there is a tiny entrance, through which one can barely pass. Water trickles down in streams through the other cave, which can rise up to the length of the knees. It is said that Lord Rama and Lord Lakshman once held their secret meetings here, which is validated apparently by the throne like structures present in the cave. Marpha located 4 km from the Gupt Godavari caves is famous for its natural beauty, temples and the ruins of a Chandel fort.

Rajapur is a small town about 40 km from Chitrakoot and is famous because it is the birthplace of Goswami Tulsidas, the author of the Sri Ramcharit Manas and the Hanuman Chalisa. A small temple dedicated to Tulsidas on the banks of the Yamuna river is present here and is the main attraction of this place. At the temple, one can still see many scriptures in the handwriting of the author and excerpts of the Ramcharit Manas are present here.

Located just 11 km on the Karvi-Devangana Road, the Ganesh Bagh is an architecturally beautiful temple where a baoli or well with seven storeys and ruins of a palace exist. The whole complex was built by Peshwa Vinayak Rao in the 1880s as a summer retreat and is also known locally as mini-Khajuraho.

Ram Ghat is a serene ghat on the banks of the Mandakini River where Lord Rama, Goddess Sita and Lord Lakshman appeared in front of the famous poet Tulsidas and where he sat on the riverside and write the Ramcharitra Manas. Ram Ghat is the centre of all religious activities in the town and the most popular bathing ghat where it is believed that taking a dip here would absolve a person of all sins. One can go for a boat ride in the river and watch the aarti which takes place at 6:30 pm every day. The ideal cost of a boat ride is around INR 150-200 and so visitors commanded by touts demanding more should be more aware.

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Janki Kund is situated along the banks of the Mandakini river and it is believed to be where Goddess Sita used to bathe during the period of exile. One can also see some footprints by the riverside which many believe are hers.

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Vindhyachal

Vindhyachal is a Hindu pilgrimage site on the banks of the river Ganga. The town is famous for the temple of Vindhyavasini, the daughter of Yashoda and Nanda, who according to the Markandeya Purana had incarnated to kill the demon Mahishasura. The Indian Standard Time (IST) line passes through the Vindhyachal railway station. Located about 172 km east of Chitrakoot and 64 km west of Varanasi, the temple is a shakti peeth and town are visited in large numbers of devotees daily.

There are several temples of other deities in the vicinity, the most famous ones being the Ashtabhuja Devi Temple and the Kalikhoh Temple. There is a parikrama or circumambulation which forms a Trikona Parikrama or a triangular circumambulation which is a common ritual here. The temples are the Maa Vindhyavasini Devi Temple, dedicated to Goddess Durga, the Kali Khoh temple, dedicated to Goddess Maha Kali and the Ashtabhuja temple, dedicated to Goddess Maha Saraswati.

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The Vindhyavasini Devi Temple is what makes Vindhyachal famous is situated on the banks of the river Ganga. Goddess Vindhyavasini is believed to be an instant bestower of benediction and is one of the most revered Siddha Peeths of the presiding deity, Vindhyavasini Devi. The temple is visited by large number of people daily with large congregations held during Navratras in the month of Chaitra in April and Ashwin in October. Kajali competitions are held in the month of Jyestha or June.

Kali Khoh temple is dedicated to Goddess Kali and is in the form of a cave. Goddess Kali is believed to be incarnated to kill the demon Raktabeej who had a boon that every droplet of his blood will give birth to another Raktabeej right away. This made killing the demon extremely difficult. It is believed that Ma Kali stretched her tongue all over the ground and licked all the blood and swallowed all his duplicates. This temple is just 2 km from the Vindhyavasini Devi temple.

The Ashtabhuja Temple is dedicated to Goddess Saraswati who is associated with literature and knowledge or vidya. Ashtabhuja who is Lord Krishna’s sister, had been escaping king Kansa’s trap who tried to kill her and finally found shelter here.

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The Kankali Devi temple gets its name from Kankal which means a skeleton and Maa Kali. It is said that when Asuri sena or demon army attacked Maa Durga known for her calm and smiling face, she turned into Ma Kali due to fury and agitation and held their heads. Her anger was so extreme that the whole body dried up and only the skeleton remained.

Sita Kund is where, according to legend, is where Lord Lakshmana pierced an arrow in the ground to draw water in the form of a fountain for Goddess Sits when she was thirsty.

Ram Gaya Ghat which is at a distance of about 2 km from Vindhyachal is believed to be where Lord Ram offered prayers for the attainment of peace for his dead fathers soul.

Varanasi

Varanasi on the banks of the river Ganges is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. Also known as Benares, it lies about 64 km east of Vidhyachal and about 322 km south of Lucknow. A major religious hub in India, it is the holiest of the seven sacred cities in Hinduism and Jainism, and played an important role in the development of Buddhism and Ravidassia. Varanasi grew as an important industrial centre famous for its muslin and silk fabrics, perfumes, ivory works, and sculpture. Buddha is believed to have founded Buddhism here around 528 BC when he gave his first sermon, The Setting in Motion of the Wheel of Dharma, at nearby Sarnath. The city’s religious importance continued to grow in the 8th century, when Adi Shankara established the worship of Shiva as an official sect of Varanasi. During the Muslim rule through the Middle Ages, the city continued as an important centre of Hindu devotion, pilgrimage, mysticism and poetry which further contributed to its reputation as a centre of cultural importance and religious education. Tulsidas wrote his epic poem on Rama’s life called Ram Charit Manas in Varanasi. Several other major figures of the Bhakti movement were born in Varanasi, including Kabir and Ravidas. The Sikh guru, Guru Nanak visited Varanasi for Maha Shivaratri in 1507, a trip that played a large role in the founding of Sikhism.

Chandradeva, founder of the Gahadavala dynasty made Banaras a second capital in 1090 and after fall of the Pala Empire, the Chero dynasty ruled Varanasi till the Mughal rule. In the 16th century, Varanasi had a cultural revival under the Mughal emperor Akbar who patronised the city, and built two large temples dedicated to Lord Shiva and Lord Vishnu. In 1656, the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb ordered the destruction of many temples and the building of mosques, causing the city to experience a temporary setback. However, after Aurangzeb’s death, most of India was ruled by a confederacy of pro-Hindu kings and much of modern Varanasi was built during this time, especially during the 18th century by the Maratha and Bhumihar Brahmin rulers. The kings governing Varanasi continued to wield power and importance through much of the British Raj period right up to India’s independence in 1947 when the kingdom of Benaras was ceded to the Union of India.

Traditional etymology links Varanasi to the names of the two Ganges tributaries forming the city’s borders: Varuna, still flowing in northern Varanasi, and Assi, today a small stream in the southern part of the city, near the Assi Ghat. The old city is located on the north shores of the Ganges, bounded by Varuna and Assi. In the Rigveda, the city is referred to as Kasi or Kashi from the Sanskrit verbal root kas which means to shine, making it known as the City of Light. The name was also used by pilgrims dating from the Buddha’s days. According to Hindu mythology, Varanasi was founded by Lord Shiva. During a fight between Brahma and Shiva, one of Brahma’s five heads was torn off by Shiva and as was the custom, the victor carried the slain adversary’s head in his hand and let it hang down from his hand as an act of ignominy, and a sign of his own bravery and also put a bridle into the mouth, dishonouring Lord Brahma’s head, and kept it with him at all times. When he came to the city of Varanasi in this state, the hanging head of Lord Brahma dropped from Lord Shiva’s hand and disappeared in the ground. Varanasi is therefore considered an extremely holy site.

Closely associated with the Ganges, Hindus believe that dying here and getting cremated along the banks of the holy Ganges allows one to break the cycle of rebirth and attain salvation. Kashi Naresh or the King of Kashi is the chief cultural patron of Varanasi, and an essential part of all religious celebrations. Varanasi was also where the Benares gharana form of Hindustani classical music was developed and it is also home to one of Asia’s largest residential universities, Banaras Hindu University or BHU. Excavations in 2014 led to the discovery of artefacts dating back to 800 BC with further excavations at Aktha and Ramnagar unearthing artefacts dating back to 1800 BC, supporting the view that the area was inhabited by that time.

Situated on the western bank of the Ganga, the Kashi Vishwanath Temple is one of the 12 Jyotirlingas or temples dedicated to Lord Shiva. The main deity of Kashi Vishwanath Temple is Lord Shiva, also known as Vishwanatha or Vishweshwarar meaning the ruler of the universe. The temple has 800 kg of gold plating on its tower. The very first mention of the temple can be found in the Puranas including the Kashi Khanda section of the Skanda Purana. The temple has seen complete annihilation and rebuilding many times with the first time in 1194 by Qutb-ud-din Aibak’s army when he defeated the King of Kannauj. The temple was rebuilt during the rule of Delhi’s Iltutmish and was demolished again during Sikander Lodhi’s time. Raja Man Singh rebuilt the temple during Mughal Emperor Akbar’s rule and in 1669, Emperor Aurangzeb destroyed the temple and built the Gyanvapi Mosque in its place.  The temple was finally rebuilt in 1780 by Maharani Ahilyabai Holkar of Indore and comprises of two domes covered in gold donated by the Sikh King Ranjit Singh, while the Bhosales of Nagpur donated silver to the temple.

The Kashi Vishwanath Temple is a collection of smaller shrines that are located in the temple complex with the main temple constructed in the form of a quadrangle and surrounded by the shrines dedicated to other deities. Made out of black stone, the main Shivalinga is 60 cm tall and 90 cm in circumference and is enshrined in a silver altar. A holy well, Gyaan Vapi here is believed to be where the Shivalinga was hidden to protect it from foreign invaders. This well is only accessible to Hindus. The structure of the temple is composed of three parts with the first part a spire, the second, a golden dome and the third a gold spire atop the temple carrying a flag and a trident. On the outside, the temple is adorned with intricate carvings. It is widely believed that a visit to the temple followed by a dip in the Ganges is the way to attain liberation or moksha and another belief states that Lord Shiva himself whispers the mantras of salvation into the ears of the people who die naturally at the temple.

In ancient times, on special occasions, the King of Kashi or Kashi Naresh used to pray first when the temple was closed to devotees who could only enter the temple after the king had finished his prayers. Today, devotees must follow a strict dress code of sarees for women and a dhoti and kurta for men, especially if they want to pray within the sanctum sanctorum. Devotees dressed otherwise will be allowed to worship the deity outside the sanctum sanctorum. Cameras, mobile phones and other electronic devices are not allowed inside and must be deposited in lockers outside. Foreigners can enter from Gate number 2 from where they can walk past. The temple’s Mangala Aarti takes place between 3 – 4 am and there are other aartis throughout the day with the last one, the Shayana Aarti taking place between 10:30 to 11 pm.

The Sankat Mochan Hanuman Temple is situated by the Assi river and was built in the 1900s by Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya and is dedicated to Lord Rama and Lord Hanuman. Everyone visiting the city does not fail to visit this temple. The laddoo offered at this temple as an offering is amous among the locals and one needs to be aware of the monkeys who throng the temple premises and try to steal away the offerings, but are said to be harmless.

The New Vishwanath Temple is dedicated to Lord Shiva on the premises of the Banaras Hindu University. The temple also consists of nine other temples within it incorporating elements from the Hindu cosmos. The foundation of the temple was laid down in 1931 and the temple was completed in 1966. The path leading to the temple is lined with dense trees and offers marvellous views of the architecture with each part of the temple designed intricately including the balconies, pavilions and spires. Several sculptures of various animals like the bull, crocodile, lion and are dotted in the area of the temple. The richly decorated hall has pillars and is mostly made of lambent marble and stands at 77 meters high. Its tower, the shikhara, are said to the tallest in the world with the Bhagavad Gita and other scriptures, are engraved in the marble walls and the idol of Lord Shiva rests on the upper floor in a marble room with the balcony on the upper floor offering a beautiful view. The temple opens early at 2:30 am for the Mangala Aarti and devotees with tickets can pray between 3 and 4 am and then open to the general public from 4 to 11 am and then again between 12 noon and 7 pm and again at 9 pm when the lord can only be viewed from the outside. The last aarti is the Shayana Aarti which starts at 10:30 pm and then the temple is closed at 11 pm. 

Constructed in 1964, the Tulsi Manasa Temple is dedicated to Lord Rama and is named after the saint poet Tulsidas. It displays the Shikhara style of architecture and exhibits various inscriptions from the Ram Charit Manas on the walls of the temple. Various episodes of Ramayana have also been depicted on the upper storey of the temple in the form of carvings. The temple is a must visit during the months of Saawan which happens in July – August when it opens up a special display of puppets, related to the Ramayana, and is a wonderful experience.

Located near the Durga Ghat on the banks of the Ganga, the Durga Temple was built in the 18th century and houses an imposing idol of Goddess Durga and is one of the main temples in Varanasi.

One of the oldest temples in the city, the Nepali Temple is a 19th century shrine dedicated to Lord Shiva. It was established by the King of Nepal and is a spitting image of the Pashupatinath Temple in Kathmandu. The architecture of the temple is traditional and is made of stone, terracotta and wood carvings.

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Famous for being a place of worship for the aghoris and tantriks, the Batuk Bhairav Mandir is dedicated to Batuk Bhairav, an incarnation of Lord Shiva. An interesting feature of the temple is the sacred Akhand Deep which is believed to be burning for ages with the oil from this lamp said to have healing powers.

The Bharat Mata Mandir is a unique shrine dedicated to the country in the incarnation of Mother India. The temple does not have any deity, but a relief map of the country carved in marble. The brainchild of Babu Shiv Prasad Gupta, a freedom fighter, the temple was built in 1936 and inaugurated by Mahatma Gandhi and is the only one dedicated to a country in the world.

The Ganga Aarti is an important ritual held every morning and evening on the banks of the Ganga. priests perform the Aarti at the Dashashwamedh Ghat and the entire ghat is illuminated. The ritual involves huge brass lamps lit with oil with the priests chanting holy mantras.

The Gyan Vapi Well is a sacred well located inside the Kashi Vishwanath Temple. The water of the well was considered to be holier than the water of the River Ganga before it was polluted by offerings made by pilgrims. It is said that when Emperor Aurangzeb attacked the old temple, the temple priest threw the Shivalinga into the well and jumped inside to protect it.

Alamgir Mosque is a 17th century structure built by the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb, on land which once had a Shiva Temple and was demolished by him. The mosque is an architecturally stunning building built according to the Indo-Islamic style of architecture with beautiful minarets and high domes.

St. Mary’s Church is 200 years old, the oldest church in the town and the oldest standing garrison church in South Asia. Established in 1810 by Reverend George Weatly, the church was an important part of the European and British community in Varanasi.

It is believed that the Dashashwamedh Ghat was where Lord Brahma performed the Dasa Ashwamedha sacrifice. A visit during Kartik Purnima, about November/December, is when the Ghat is lit up for the Dev Diwali festivities. The Ghat is famous for the Ganga Aarti conducted every evening, with thousands visiting it daily.

The Assi Ghat is located at the confluence of the Rivers Assi and Ganga and is famous for the large Shiva Lingam installed under a peepal or sacred fig tree. It has immense religious importance and has been mentioned in the Puranas and various legends. The ghat is the heart of Varanasi and has amazing views of the sunset and sunrise over the Ganges. The Ghat has started a morning aarti which is a must watch. According to an ancient legend, Assi Ghat came about when Goddess Durga threw her sword in the river after killing a demon and the spot where she stood became the ghat. Subah-e-Benaras is a unique programme started on 24 November 2014 where people gather at Assi Ghat early in the morning to witness the sunrise and a boat ride tour. In the summer months, this programme takes place from 5 to 7 am and during winters, from 5:40 to 7:30 am. At the ghat, Mahashivatri is celebrated in a grand scale when thousands gather to perform a pooja and take a dip in the Ganga. The Ganga Mahotsav is organised in the Ghat from Prabodhni Ekadashi till Dev Deepawali, a mega three-day celebration with pujas and rituals and classical music performances. On the day of Ganga Dussehra, celebrated on the tenth day of Jayeshtha, which is peak summer, so about May, when devotees observe a fast, perform rituals and pujas at the ghat and the take a dip in the Ganges. The ghat is lit up with fairs, people singing devotional songs and floating lamps in the river. On Dev Deepawali, on all the ghats, lit clay lamps are flated in the river.

Kedar Ghat is one of the oldest ghats in Varanasi and is considered cleaner for bathing and offering prayers to Lord Shiva at the Kedareshwar Temple.  The Shivala Ghat has a number of historic monuments around. The mansion of the King of Nepal, is located next to the Ghat, also is the Chet Singh Fortress with stunning views of the river from the ghat. Built by Maharaja Mann Singh of Jaipur in the early 17th century, the Manmandir Ghat is famous for the palace built by him and an observatory built in 1710 by Savai Jaisingh II. On the northern side of the Ghat is a stone balcony from where visitors can get a beautiful view of River Ganga. Manikarnika Ghat is considered as a gateway to the next  and it is believed that spending the last few days of life at the ghat and completing the rituals of cremation here will ensure a painless passing and also a way to attain freedom from the endless cycle of birth and death.

Vindham Waterfalls is a gorgeous waterfall in Mirzapur about 90 kms from Varanasi close to the Tanda fountains, caves and temples and is local favourite picnic spot. The Lakhaniya Dari Waterfall is situated around 48 kms from Varanasi in Latifpur and are a hidden gem from the din and chaos of the city. It is especially popular among trekkers and adventure enthusiasts with the falls reached through a small trek in the hills. The Rajdari Waterfalls are located in Chandauli, 60 kms from Varanasi. The beautiful waterfalls are a popular picnic spot and the huge waterfall gushing down the cliffs are a visual delight with the top of the falls offering beautiful views of the valley below. The Devdari Waterfall located about 65 kms from Varanasi is a beautiful spot with cascading silvery water amidst lush green surroundings. Falling down a height of 58 metres, the waterfalls are a popular tourist spot. The Mukkha Falls are situated 60 kms from Varanasi and are in close proximity to the Lakhaniya Cave Paintings and look their best during the monsoon. Tanda Falls, 80 km from Varanasi comes alive during the monsoons when the gushing waterfalls is sparkling and in full glory.

Located on the eastern banks of the river Ganga, opposite Tulsi Ghat, Ramnagar Fort is a stunning 18th century historical monument built by Raja Balwant Singh in 1750 according to the Mughal style of architecture. The current King of Benaras, currently resides in the Fort. The fort features carved balconies, open courtyards, and scenic pavilions.

Chunar Fort is an 11th century fort with a part extending on the rocky and uneven banks of the River Ganga. The fort is a stunning structure to explore with an aesthetic appeal that draws in tourists.

Located about 44 km from Varanasi, Sita Samahit Sthal is a temple and popular pilgrimage spot. Dedicated to Goddess Sita, the temple is said to hold mythical as well as historical importance. It is believed that the temple is where Goddess Sita descended into the earth. The temple premises also houses a 110 feet high statue of Lord Hanuman as well as a quaint pond surrounding the temple. It is believed that the present-day temple is built at the spot where Sita spent her exile with Sage Valmiki in the forest and where she gave birth to her twin sons, Luv and Kush.

Established by Madan Mohan Malviya in 1916, Banaras Hindu University is a 5.3 sq. km campus with about 30,000 students residing in campus and is the largest residential university on the continent. With many notable alumni, the Indo-Gothic architecture and sprawling lawns add to the beauty of the place.

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An archaeological and art museum, the Bharat Kala Bhavan Museum exhibits a beautiful collection of over 100,000 sculptures, artefacts, paintings, jewellery, pottery, miniature paintings, manuscripts and textiles ranging from the 1st to the 15th centuries.

The Chandra Prabha Wildlife Sanctuary, also known as Chandraprabha, is located about 70 km south of Varanasi and is filled with beautiful picnic spots, dense forests, and scenic waterfalls. Spread over an area of 78 sq km and lying on the Naugarh and Vijaigarh hillocks on the north slope of the Kaimur Range, with the Karamnasha River, a tributary of the Ganges, and the Chandraprabha River, a tributary of the Karamnasha flowing through the sanctuary, the area was made a hunting preserve for the rulers of Benares in the second half of the 18th century and the wildlife sanctuary was established in May 1957. Asiatic lions were introduced at Chandra Prabha in 1958 with the numbers increasing from three to eleven by 1969. However, the following year the lions were found missing. A variety of wild animals are found here including blackbucks, chital, sambar, nilgai, wild boar, porcupine and chinkara. The park is a bird watcher’s paradise, as one can see around 150 species of birds.

Sarnath

Located 10 km north-east of Varanasi, near the confluence of the Ganga and the Varuna rivers, Sarnath was variously known as as Mrigadava, Migadāya, Rishipattana and Isipatana throughout its history. The Deer Park in Sarnath is where Gautama Buddha first taught the Dharma, and where the Buddhist Sangha came into existence through the enlightenment of Kondanna. Singhpur, a village approximately one km from Sarnath, was the birthplace of Shreyansanath, the eleventh Tirthankara of Jainism with a temple dedicated to him an important pilgrimage site. As Isipatana, Sarnath is mentioned by the Buddha as one of the four places of pilgrimage his devout followers should visit. It was also the site of the Buddha’s Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, which was his first sermon after attaining enlightenment, in which he explained the four noble truths and the teachings associated with them.

According to legend, when the Buddha-to-be was born, some devas came down to announce it to 500 rishis. Another explanation for the name is that Isipatana was named because, sages, on their way from the Himalayas through the air, alight here or start from here on their aerial flight. Pacceka Buddhas, having spent seven days in contemplation in the Gandhamādana, bathe in the Anotatta Lake and come to the habitations of men through the air, in search of alms. Sarnath derives from the Sanskrit Saranganatha, which means the Lord of the Deer, and relates to another old Buddhist story in which the Bodhisattva is a deer and offers his life to a king instead of the doe the latter is planning to kill. The king is so moved that he creates the park as a sanctuary for deer. That park is still in use today.

Revered for being spot or Rishipattana where Lord Buddha revealed his first eightfold path sermon, the Dhamek Stupa is the main stupa in Sarnath. King Ashoka renovated the existing pre-Buddhism structure in the 3rd century BC and the cylindrical stupa is made entirely out of bricks with a diameter of 28 metres. Elaborate murals, wall carvings and a small museum after the entrance provide insights into the monument’s details and the Buddha’s teachings. Halfway across Dhamek Stupa, there are arched niches and dilapidated statues of the. There is a daily light and sound show at 6 pm. Entry tickets to the stupa are INR 20 for Indians and INR 100 for foreigners and the stupa is open from 6 am to 5 pm daily.

The Sarnath Archaeological Site is where the Buddha began to preach his sermons and is built around the main Dhamek Stupa and its gardens. It is also home to the legendary lion memorial pillar built by King Ashoka, the current Indian national emblem, both of which are maintained by the ASI as well as the Sarnath Museum across the road. Over the centuries, various Buddhist kings have added small and large temples built with exceptionally well-preserved Chunar sandstone. Buddhist monks would worship the exquisite statue of the seated Buddha, the first idol ever built. When villagers started stealing bricks and stones from this seemingly endless source, British officials protected the area in 1904. The Archaeological Site is open from 8 am to 6 pm daily and has an entry fee of INR 20 for Indians and INR 100 for foreigners.

The Chaukhandi Stupa is regarded as one of the most important monuments of Buddhism. Built where the Buddha first met his five ascetics, to whom he later went on to preach his first teachings, the stupa is an evolution over burial mounds and serves as a shrine. It is widely believed that during the Gupta Period between the 4th and 6th centuries, the Chaukhandi Stupa was actually built as a terraced temple and most historians believe that Emperor Ashoka built this square edifice. Later, Prince Govardhan, the son of the then reigning king, erected an octagonal Mughal tower surrounding the square edifice of the stupa to its present form in honour of a visit of Emperor Humayun. But historians argue it was, in fact, Emperor Akbar who built the octagonal tower in 1585 to commemorate Emperor Humayun’s visit to the shrine. The Chaukhandi Stupa is mainly built of brick and is quite fragile and is now in the hands of the Archaeological Survey of India. Named after its shape, the stupa is a square edifice which stands on a basement that consists of three terraces, each 12 feet broad and 12 feet high. The overall height of the structure is about 200 feet with the core of the structure made of solid brickwork in clay mortar, and the terraces supported on rows of hollow cells, standing on a rectangular plinth and surrounded by a mighty octagonal tower. The Chaukhandi Stupa is open from 6 am to 5 pm with Indians paying INR 5 and foreigners INR 100. Children below the age of 15 can enter free.

The Mahabodhi Society Temple is an ancient temple, built in the Gupta period entirely out of bricks. It is said that this is where the Buddha attained enlightenment. When the monk, Dharmapala from Sri Lanka encountered the dilapidated condition of the temple, he campaigned to collect funds and revive the temple which was built next to the archaeological site, a replica of the original shrine. Japanese artists were hired to paint the walls and frescoes and Dharmapala collected some ashes of the Buddha, preserved in Myanmar, and stored it at the temple. Propagated from Gaya to Sri Lanka and back to Sarnath, the Mahabodhi tree at this temple is revered as a relic of the Buddha himself.

The national emblem of India and a mark of Emperor Ashoka’s visit to Sarnath, the Ashoka Pillar is an impressive structure with four lions at the top. This 50 m long pillar along with the Dhamek Stupa, are Emperor Ashoka’s gifts with the complex filled with lush greenery. India’s oldest archaeological museum has been built at the periphery of the complex. A bull, a lion, an elephant and a horse are depicted on the base of the Ashoka Pillar which symbolises the four different phases of Gautam Buddha’s life. There are also prayer wheels in the compound with beautiful carvings of Om Mani Padme Hum in Sanskrit. The graphic representation of the Ashoka Pillar and the words ‘Satyamev Jayate’ written below in Devanagari have been adopted as the official Emblem of India. The Ashoka Pillar is only a part of the Ashokan Pillar which comprises of three parts with four lions sitting on the top of Ashoka Chakra. The Ashoka Chakra, the wheel of which is also a part of the national flag of India contains four wheels on different directions with four different animals between them. The Ashoka Chakra rests on an inverted lotus which is the second part of the pillar. These two are collectively known as the Ashoka’s Lion Capital or more commonly as The Capital. The Capital of the Ashokan Pillar at Sarnath is broken but is one the displays at the Archaeological Museum. The drum on which four animals are carved represent the four cardinal directions with the horse representing the west, the ox, the east, the elephant, the south, and the lion, north. The animals following one another signify the wheel of existence with the lotus, also the base, is a symbol of Buddhism. The Pillar is open from 10 am to 5 pm on all days except Fridays when it is closed. Entry fee is INR 5 for adults.

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The Thai Temple displays the That style of architecture and is is set amongst beautiful gardens and managed by Thai Buddhist monks. The Tibetan Temple has been decorated with Thangkas, Tibetan Buddhist paintings and features a statue of Shakyamuni, the Buddha. The Prayer Wheels seen outside, which on being rotated clockwise, release paper scrolls with prayers written on them. The temple was where Lord Buddha taught his disciples the four truths of life. The Chinese Temple is a colourful shrine dedicated to Lord Buddha and built according to the Chinese and Buddhist architectural style. The temple has a spacious meditation hall where visitors can meditate in silence.

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Established in 1910, the Archaeological Museum displays a small collection of artefacts ranging from the 3rd century BC to the 12th century AD. The museum at Sarnath is the oldest museum under Archeological Survey of India. With more than six thousand sculptures and artworks, the museum was completed in 1910. Similar to a monastery in structure, the massive complex has five different galleries showcasing artefacts from the 3rd century BC to the 12th century AD. The Lion Capital of Ashoka is displayed right at the centre of the entrance hall and is also called the Shakyasimha gallery. A huge Bodhisattva built of red sandstone and several portraits of Lord Buddha are on display. The entrance south to the Shakyasimha gallery is the Triratna exhibiting several associated objects with Lord Buddha ranging from images of Stupas to intricate inscriptions. The Tathagata Gallery has Lord Buddha in his different moods and attitudes and the caricature of Lord Shiva with a cup of poison beside him. The Trimurti gallery is named after the three supreme gods, Lords Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesh and houses images of them along with figures of birds and heads of males and females. There are two verandahs in the south and north side of the museum with architectural pieces on display. The northern verandah has carvings of fauna and flora with sculptures of Gods and Goddesses while the south verandah has stones, lintels, pedestals, and faces on display.

Kushinagar

An important Buddhist pilgrimage site and an international Buddhist pilgrimage centre, Kushinagar is where Buddhists believe Gautama Buddha attained Mahaparinirvana after his death. Located about 230 km northeast of Sarnath and 55 km west of Gorakhpur, Kushinagar was the capital of the Kosala Kingdom according to one theory and according to the Ramayana was built by King Kush, the son of Lord Rama. According to Buddhist tradition Kushavati was named prior to the King Kush and is supposed to be due to an abundance of the Kush grass found in this region. The present day Kushinagar is identified with Kusavati in the pre-Buddha period and Kushinara in the post-Buddha period. Kushinara was the capital of Mallas, one of the sixteen mahajanpads of the 6th century BC. Since then, it remained an integral part of the erstwhile empires of Maurya, Shunga, Kushana, Gupta, Harsha, and Pala dynasties. In the medieval period, Kushinagar passed under the suzerainty of the Kultury kings and continued to be a living city till the 12th century, after which it was lost into oblivion. Modern Kushinagar came into prominence in the 19th century with archaeological excavations carried out which exposed the main stupa and also discovered a 6.10 meters long statue of the reclining Buddha in 1876. Excavations continued in the early 20th century, uncovering a wealth of Buddhist materials. Chandra Swami, a Burmese monk, came to India in 1903 and made the Mahaparinirvana Temple into a living shrine. It is believed that Lord Buddha died in Kushinagar after which Emperor Ashoka built a stupa here to mark the parinirvana site. The stupa houses the reclining nirvana statue of Buddha which depicts the “dying Buddha” reclining of the right side. Other places of prominence here include Nirvana Chaitya, Rambhar Stupa, and Matha Kuar Shrine apart from some tiny temples.

The reclining Nirvana statue of the Buddha is inside the Parinirvana Stupa. The statue is 6.10 metres long and is made of monolith red sandstone. It represents the Dying Buddha reclining on his right side with his face towards the west. It is placed on a large brick pedestal with stone-posts at the corners. The Nirvana Chaitya or Main Stupa is located just behind the Main Parinirvana Temple. It was excavated by Carlleyle in 1876 and during excavations, a copper plate was found, which contained the text of the Nidana-Sutra which concluded the statement that plate had been deposited in the Nirvana-Chaitya by one Haribala, who also installed the great Nirvana Statue of Buddha in the temple front. The Ramabhar Stupa, also called a Mukutbandhan-Chaitya, is the cremation place of Buddha, 1.5 km east of the main Nirvana Temple. The Matha Kuar Shrine has a colossal statue of Buddha installed, carved out of single block which represents Buddha seated under the Bodhi Tree in a pose known as Bhumi Sparsh Mudra or the earth touching attitude. The inscription at the base of statue is dated to the 10th or 11th century. The Wat Thai Temple is also known as the Wat Thai Kushinara Chalermaraj Temple and is a place of worship established by the Thai Buddhist community with a distinct architecture. This unique temple features a beautiful garden, a fully functioning school, an extensive library and a monastery. Other major places include the Indo-Japan-Sri Lanka Temple which is a marvel of Buddhist architecture, the Meditation Park, located close to the Nirvana Temple with lush greenery and flowers to create a peaceful environment, several museums, meditation parks and temples based on the architecture of various countries as well as ruins and brick structures located around the main Nirvana Temple and Main Stupa which are the remains of various monasteries of different sizes constructed when the town was thriving.

This ends the series on Uttar Pradesh, one of the longest I’ve done. But the state is filled with so much to offer visitors that it is definitely one of the places I want to visit.

2 thoughts on “Travel Bucket List: India – Uttar Pradesh Part 7

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