- Culture & Society
Uttar Pradesh - The cultural heart of northern India
03 Jan 2022
Uttar Pradesh is truly a state of superlatives. According to current estimates, the number of people living here amounts to almost three times the population of Germany - on just two thirds of the German land area. If UP, as it is called colloquially, were an independent state, it would rank fifth among the most populous countries in the world after Indonesia and even ahead of India’s neighbour Pakistan.
Due to its location in the fertile Ganges Plain, agriculture is one of the most important economic sectors in the region. In addition, many of the state’s largest cities have been established next to the mighty rivers that run through UP from west to east. The city of Agra, located on the banks of the Yamuna, enjoys worldwide fame. A multitude of archaeological sites and buildings – such as the magnificent Taj Mahal, an Islamic mausoleum from the 17th century – bear witness to Agra’s fascinating past as the capital of the mighty Mughal empire.
The unique cultural heritage of this region can also be admired further downstream. Every 12 years, many millions of people congregate at the confluence of the sacred rivers Ganges and Yamuna for participating in the Kumbh Mela. This Hindu festival is considered the largest religious gathering in the world and is celebrated in four different locations in North and West India. The Kumbh goes back to a millennia-old legend that centred on a bitter quarrel between gods and demons. They fought for a jar (Sanskrit: Kumbh) that was filled with Amrit, the nectar of immortality. During this fight four drops of the sacred liquid fell to the ground – for hundreds of years, the Kumbh Mela is celebrated at these four places (Prayagraj in Uttar Pradesh, Haridwar in Uttarakhand, Ujjain in Madya Pradesh and Nashik in Maharashtra).
The Prayag Kumbh Mela in Uttar Pradesh attracts the largest number of pilgrims – in 2013 it was almost 120 million. As in the other three locations, the focus of this multi-week celebration lies on the ceremonies and purification rituals that take place on the banks of a sacred river. This includes not only the mighty Ganges, but also the Godavari with the pilgrimage town of Nashik, which is situated fairly close to the metropolis of Mumbai, as well as the sacred Shipra river in the centre of the country. The geographical peculiarity of the Prayag Kumbh relates to the fact that not one but three holy rivers flow together here – Ganges and Yamuna as well as the invisible Saraswati River. For many pilgrims, it is a life goal to take at least one cleansing bath at this holy place in order to get closer to Moksha, the release from the cycle of reincarnation.
If you continue to follow the course of the Ganges towards the Bay of Bengal, you will come across two important religious sites of Buddhism and Hinduism, respectively. Prince Siddhartha Gautama, born in today’s Nepal, lived in this region over 2,500 years ago. He became the founder of Buddhism after attaining enlightenment under a Bodhi tree near Bodhgaya in what is now Bihar. In Sarnath, 10 kilometres north of Varanasi in eastern Uttar Pradesh, the Buddha gave his first sermon shortly after his enlightenment and he founded the Sangha – the Buddhist community.
Varanasi itself belongs to the oldest continuously inhabited cities on earth. This city, also known as Benares or Kashi, has mesmerised people already thousands of years ago due to its location on the holy river and its outstanding religious and cultural importance as one of the most important centres of Hinduism. Each year, millions of pilgrims and tourists visit the city of Shiva – one of the primary gods of Hinduism, who symbolizes both destruction and a new beginning. Many devotees gather at the Ghats (steps leading down to the river) to cleanse their souls and to honour the river goddess Ganga with fire ceremonies. However, Varanasi’s role as one of the seven holy places of Hinduism arises primarily from its importance as a place for the cremation of the dead. According to Hindu belief, those whose mortal remains are burned in Varanasi and are scattered here into the Ganges can hope for salvation. Death is omnipresent in this city which is pervaded by life energy. Like Shiva himself, his city stands for destruction and creation, for death and life.
If you have any questions regarding Uttar Pradesh or any other Indian state write it in the comments below or leave us a message at [email protected]!
Written by: Ferdinand Schlechta
Photo Credits: Ferdinand Schlechta
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