This is Braj Bhumi – the land where Lord Krishna was born and spent his youth. Mathura and Vrindavan are still alive with the Krishna legend, and still sway in fascination to the tune of his flute. Mathura, otherwise a dusty hamlet on the bank of the river Yamuna, was transformed into a place of light after Krishna was born here. And Vrindavan stands apart in Indian mythology as the place where Krishna spent most of his childhood, serenading his gopis one moment, and slaying demons the next.Visit the area in August, and you’ll see Krishna fever at its peak, as countless Vaishnava pilgrims gather to relive the birth of the blue-skinned god. Romance, legend, even controversy (over Krishna’s actual birthplace)… these two cities have enough to last lesser locales for an eternity.
Mathura and Vrindavan History
The earliest known records of Mathura’s existence date back to more than 2500 years ago, even before Alexander’s time. The Buddha founded monasteries here, in what the Greeks later called Madoura ton Theon (Mathura of the Gods). The city first witnessed glory as the home of the Indo-Bactrian Kushans, and especially during the reign of Kanishka, who came to the throne in 78 AD.
Buddhism played an integral role in Mathura’s growth, and the Buddhist monasteries in the city received patronage from Emperor Ashoka, and mention from Ptolemy and those Chinese travellers Fahien (who visited between 401 and 410 AD) and Xuan Zhang (between 634-662 AD). Fahien reported that the city’s 20 monasteries were home to 3,000 Buddhist monks. By Xuan Zhang’s time, the number of inmates had dwindled to 2,000. Clearly, Buddhism in the region was on its way out.
Indeed, its death knell was sounded by Mahmud of Ghazni, who arrived from Afghanistan in 1017 to ravage the city’s Hindu and Buddhist shrines. In 1500, Sikander Lodi continued where Ghazni had left off, and not much later, the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb razed the Kesava Deo temple, built on the site of an important Buddhist monastery, and installed a mosque in its place. The Afghan Ahmad Shah Abdali completed the carnage by torching Mathura in 1757.
Mathura is 141 km southwest of Delhi, 58 km northwest of Agra, and 218 km from Jaipur. Situated in Uttar Pradesh, it forms the nucleus of Brajbhoomi, or the land of Krishna. Vrindavan is situated approximately 11 km north of Mathura on the banks of the river Yamuna. Though originally revered as a tirtha or holy crossing place on the Yamuna, the town has slowly been separated from the river, and now 33 of its 38 ghats are without water.
How to Reach
The nearest airport is Kheria (Agra), which is about 62 km away. Delhi airport is 155 km away.
Mathura is on the main lines of both the Cental and Western Railways, and is connected with most of the important cities as well as the rest of the country, such as Delhi, Agra, Mumbai, Jaipur, Gwalior, Calcutta, Hyderabad, Chennai, Lucknow etc. The city’s principal railway station is about 4 km from Holi Gate and the old city.
Mathura is connected to all major cities via the National Highways. It is also serviced by the regular bus services of Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Haryana.
Mathura has two bus stands. The Old Bus stand located near Holi Gate has hourly buses to Agra and also links Mathura to Govardhan (25 west). The New Bus Stand is used to get to and from Delhi, Jaipur, Bharatpur and Deeg, and also for some Agra services.
Vrindavan is connected to Mathura and other places in Uttar Pradesh and the rest of the country by rail and bus services, and is directly linked by road to Agra. You can take a bus from Mathura to Vrindavan, or share a taxi or tempo (About Rs 70 per head; one-way).
Sights To Visit
The Shri Krishna Janmasthan Temple
This site marks the spot of Lord Krishna’s appearance. The original temple, the Kesava Deo temple, was plundered by Aurangzeb and replaced by a mosque. Communal tensions are still high, which means that security is tight. Visitors must make an entry of all their belongings (bags, cameras etc) at the cloakroom, pass through a metal detector, and be frisked. Amongst the souvenir shops inside you will find several small shrines. The main shrine, of course, is inconspicuous; a small, dimly lit replica of the prison cell where He was born while King Kamsa held his parents captive. The temple is open between 6am and noon, and between 3 pm and 8 pm. Barbed wire and armed guards separate the temple from the mosque lying alongside. The nearby sandstone stepped tank known as Potara Kund is revered as the place where the infant Krishna’s nappies were once washed.
The Jama Masjid
This is Mathura’s main mosque. It was built by Abd-un Nabir Khan in 1661. A colourful edifice on a plinth raised above street level, its teal domes add to the picturesque setting of Mathura’s bazaar and fruit market. It may have lost its original glazed tiles, but it has retained its four minarets and assorted outer pavilions. A good view of the goings-on in the dusty temple town.
The Government Museum
The rich treasures excavated by Cunningham, Growse and others form the highlight of this museum. Founded by the then district collector of Mathura Mr F S Growse in 1874, the original museum was housed in a beautifully carved and imposing stone building. However in 1930 they were shifted from there to their present residence.
The Museum houses by far the most significant collection from the Mathura school of sculpture (3rd century BC – 12th century AD, and representative of the early Indian, Indo-Scythian and visiting Hellenistic cultures) which reached its pinnacle under the Kushana and Gupta emperors. It contains some excellent specimens of the mottled red sandstone sculpture for which the region is noted. The star attractions: two immaculately preserved Buddha statues from the 4th and 5th centuries. There is also a rather informative library with books on a large variety of topics. The museum is open every day except Monday between 10 am and 5 pm. Admission is free, but you’ll have to pay a fee of Rs 20 if you wish to use your camera inside. Some galleries have been temporarily closed for renovation, but they will soon be functional.
This temple dedicated to Lord Krishna was built in 1814 by Seth Gokuldas Parekh, the then treasurer of the princely state of Gwalior, and is the main place of worship for the city’s Hindus. Its rich interiors are shown off to advantage when the late afternoon sun shines through its wire-mesh roof. The temple is open daily between 6 am and 12 pm, and 3.30 pm and 9 pm.
Of the 25 ghats in Mathura, Vishram Ghat is the most important. It is here that the traditional parikrama (a circumbulation of all the important religious and cultural places in a city) of the Mathura ghats begins and ends. This is where Lord Krishna is said to have rested after killing the evil king Kamsa. Hire a boat for a float on the river for Rs 20; you are likely to spot a turtle or two. There is an aarti in the morning at 4:45 am during the summer (5:15 am during winters) and in the evenings at 7:00 pm (winter) and 7:30 pm (summer).
A four-storeyed tower built by the son of Behari Mal of Jaipur in 1570 in remembrance of his mother’s supreme sacrifice: sati or self-immolation at the funeral pyre of her husband. Aurangzeb razed the upper storeys, but they were promptly rebuilt.
This once-splendid-now-ruined fort was constructed by Raja Man Singh of Amber. It was rebuilt by Emperor Akbar and Jai Singh of Jaipur set up an observatory here, but it has since disappeared.
Govind Dev Temple (Vrindavan)
This bulky red sandstone edifice, built by Raja Man Singh of Amber in 1590, is easily the most imposing structure in Vrindavan. Its name means divine cowherd, or, in other words, Lord Krishna. Architecturally one of the most significant Hindu temples in North India. Originally seven storeys high, but Aurangzeb knocked off the top four floors. You can admire its ornate mandapa, with open balconies on two floors, and elaborate columns. The mouldings and sculpture avoid depicting any human form.
Rangaji (Sri Ranganatha) Temple (Vrindavan)
Dates back to 1851. A bizarre melange of architectural styles: a Rajput entrance gate, a south Indian gopuram, an Italian-style colonnade. You might just pause at the entrance to take in the two electronic puppet shows depicting scenes from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Non-Hindus are not permitted into the central enclosure, which has a 15 m gold-plated pillar. Open daily 6 to 11 am and 4 to 9 pm in summer (6 to 12 pm and 3 to 9 pm in winter).
Banke Bihari Temple (Vrindavan)
Much younger than its other holy cousins, the Banke Bihari temple is nevertheless Vrindavan’s most popular one, and renowned for the floral decorations that adorn its deity. Watch a proper darshan, where the anxious waiting of fervent worshippers is rewarded by a momentary glimpse of their God. Stalls in the lane leading up to the temple dish out delicious lassis in bhands (unfired clay vessels). Open daily 9 am to 12 pm and 7 am to 12 pm in summer (10 am to 1 pm and 6 to 9 pm in winter). On Janmashtami, a mangala aarti takes place at this temple at 4 pm. On all festive occasions, there’s an hour-long special darshan at the temple.
Gita Mandir (Vrindavan)
This relatively new temple was built by one of India’s premier industrial clans, the Birlas. It houses the Gita stambh, a pillar with the entire Bhagwad Gita displayed on its surface. However, it is completely overshadowed by the presence of the outrageously-designed Pagal Baba Mandir just down the road.
Madan Mohan Temple (Vrindavan)
Built by Kapur Ram Das of Multan, and closely associated with the saint Chaitanya, this is the oldest existing temple in Vrindavan today. The original idol of Lord Madan Mohan was moved to Karauli in Rajasthan during Aurangzeb’s rule. Today, its replica is worshipped within the temple here.
Jaipur Temple (Vrindavan)
Richly adorned, and very opulent. Its fine-carved sandstone exterior was made possible by a grant from Sawai Madhav Singh, Maharaja of Jaipur, in 1917. It is dedicated to Shri Radha Madhav.
Shahji Temple (Vrindavan)
Designed and built in 1876 by Shah Kundan Lal, a Lucknowi jeweller. Acclaimed for its fine architecture and beautiful marble sculpture, the temple has twelve 15-ft spiral columns. The darbar hall, known as Basanti Kamra, boasts of Belgian glass chandeliers and numerous paintings.
Shri Krishna-Balram Temple (Vrindavan)
This is the work of the International Society for Shri Krishna Consciousness ISKCON. Its principal deities are Shri Krishna-Balram and Shri Radha-Shyam Sundar. Next to the temple is the white marble samadhi of Shri Prabhupada, the founder of the ISKCON sect.
Mirabai Ashram (Vrindavan)
There are several ‘widow houses’ in Vrindavan maintained by affluent devotees that provide sustenance for these unfortunates who look upon Lord Krishna as their only solace. Two thousand of them gather at the Mirabhai ashram twice a day, and their collective chorus as they chant bhajans can be a moving moment.
Seva Kunj (Vrindavan)
This is where Lord Krishna once performed the ras-lila with Radha-Rani and the gopis. The samadhi of Swami Haridas also lies here.
Kesi Ghat (Vrindavan)
This is the place where Lord Krishna is said to have killed the Kesi demon who appeared in the form of a gigantic horse. He then took His bath in this very same ghat. This is also very famous bathing place in Vrindavana. An aarti to Yamuna Devi is held here every evening.