|Population: 139 million|
Languages: Hindi, Urdu
Geographically speaking, Uttar Pradesh (or UP as it is commonly known) is a state of contrasts. Most of it is taken up by the flat Gangetic plain, an overcrowded and agriculturally backward area which endures severe flooding during the monsoon. In the northwest part of the state rise the spectacular Himalayas, with some of India's highest peaks. In the southern part of Uttar Pradesh, marking the northern edge of the Deccan, are the Vindhya Mountains, an area of valleys and hills which is difficult to govern and where dacoity (banditry) is still common.
India's most holy city, Varanasi, lies on the banks of the Ganges in the eastern part of the state. Beside the Yamuna River is Agra, with its magnificent fort as well as one of the most beautiful and famous architectural achievements in the world, the Taj Mahal. Near Agra is the splendid and well preserved but only briefly occupied 16th century city of Fatehpur Sikri. (Built by Akbar as the capital of the Moghul Empire it was suddenly abandoned fifteen years later, it is believed because of poor water supply.) Mathura, legendary birthplace of Lord Krishna, lies between Agra and Delhi on the Yamuna River in the once forested area known as Braj where, according to Hindu mythology, Krishna spent his childhood and adolescence. This area, its mythical or actual forests now reduced to sacred groves of trees, is one of this state's many Hindu pilgrimage destinations. Buddhist pilgrims visit Sarnath, near Varanasi, where the Buddha is said to have preached his first sermon about the Middle Way. At the meeting place of the Ganges and the Yamuna (and, Hindu belief says, of the invisible and sacred Saraswati River) is Allahabad. Here millions of pilgrims congregate for the Kumbh Mela, one of the world's largest religious gatherings. An enormous fort constructed by Akbar overlooks the city.
The Ganges emerges from the Himalayas in the northwest part of the state. The exact spot, at Haridwar - meaning the 'Gates of God' - is revered by Hindus. East of Haridwar is the beautiful 830 square kilometre Rajaji National Park. Twenty four kilometres north of Haridwar and 63 metres higher (but still only at 358 metres), is the quieter Rishikesh. Mainly a way station for those traveling further into the mountains, Rishikesh was immortalized as the place where the Beatles met the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, introducing to Westerners the idea of India as a fashionable destination.
Scattered through this area are several hill stations. Almora, at an elevation of over one and a half kilometres, is a picturesque town, and it and Mussoorie, Dehra Hun, Naini Tal, Raniket and the village of Kausani have excellent views of the snow-capped Himalayas. Some have an old world charm, though efforts to control development, regulate tourism and preserve the natural environment have not met with great success.
In the Kumaun Hills in the northeast is Corbett National Park, home to a wide range of wildlife, most famously tigers but also elephants, panthers and crocodiles.
The source of the Ganges is the Gangotri Glacier, once coming as far south as the town of Gangotri in the north central Garhwal hills area, now reaching only as far south as Gaumukh, twenty kilometres to the north. However Gangotri is still revered as the source of the sacred river. It, with Badrinath, Kedarnath and Yumnotri, are the four mountain temples (Char Dham), built in the 9th century by Shankara, that draw many pilgrims every year to this area.
Between Gangotri and Milam stands Nanda Devi, the state's highest mountain, almost eight kilometres high and surrounded by dozens of other snow-capped peaks. Until Sikkim became part of India (and with it Mt.Kanchenjunga), Nanda Devi was the highest mountain in the country. Throughout this northern area of the state are many scenic and often spectacular trekking routes passing through dense forests and flowered meadows, used by thousands of tourists and pilgrims every year.
Mathura, near Delhi, was in ancient times situated at the meeting point of several major trade routes. It was already a wealthy city at the time Buddha visited and established monasteries there. Later Hindu mythology specified this area as the birthplace and childhood home of Lord Krishna and thus it took on importance for Hindus as well.
Buddhism was prominent throughout what is now Uttar Pradesh, though making very few inroads into the mountainous area to the north. The 4th century Guptas were equally unsuccessful in spreading their influence there. The area was occupied by tribals known as Kunindas who practised an early form of Shaivism and carried on trade in salt with Tibet. The area remained essentially Shaivite from the 7th to the 14th centuries, and in the latter part of this period the Chandras controlled the Kumaun area. Being avid patrons of the arts there was a great flourishing of poetry and painting during this period. The Garhwal school of painting dates from this era.
The Afghan Ibraham Ghaznavi invaded in the late 11th century. At the time of his invasion Agra was already a well established city, like Mathura benefiting from its location on major trade routes between the northern and central parts of the subcontinent. In 1504 Agra became the capital of Sikander Lodi, the Sultan of Delhi. Just over twenty years later Agra was captured by Humayun, son of Akbar, and it was under Humayun's son, Akbar the Great, that the Agra Fort was built. Agra remained the capital of the Moghul empire for more than a hundred years. Shah Jehan's successor Aurangzeb's intolerance towards non Muslims provoked much hostility and Agra was later taken over by Jats and, after them, Marathas. Eventually the British took control.
As the Muslim Empire declined during the 1700s, their capitol shifted from Delhi to Avadh - the fertile flood plain area in what is now central UP, with Lucknow at its centre. There they focused their attention on the arts, which flourished in an environment congenial to both Muslims and Hindus. Neglect of their governmental duties, however, weakened them to the point where the British contrived to depose the then reigning Nawab, Wajid Ali Shah, this act being considered one of the main provocations leading, in 1857, to what the British called the Mutiny and Indians refer to as the First War of Independence. Jhansi, in the southern Bundelkhand area, is the scene of another flashpoint of the violent events of that year. When the Raja of Jhansi died in 1853 without an heir the British saw the opportunity to take away control of the town from the raja's widow. Four years later she rode at the head of her own troops to retake the town and a fierce battle with the British ensued. Finally the Rani (Queen) of Jhansi, as she was known, was killed in battle earning for herself a revered place in the history of India's Independence struggle.
In the 9th century the Bundelkhand area was part of the huge kingdom of the Chandella Rajputs. The terrain is rough, able to conceal and protect those who know it intimately and therefore attractive to dacoits (bandits). The most famous dacoit of recent times, Phoolan Devi, lived amongst these hills from the time that she became an outlaw in 1981 (after massacring the men of a village in retribution for being raped) until her conditional surrender to the police. After her release from prison in 1994, still greatly admired as a kind of female Robin Hood figure, she ran and was elected to the national parliament from her Uttar Pradesh constituency. (A film about her life, called Bandit Queen, is sometimes available in video shops in the West, and is worth watching)
In the early 1990s the terrible events around the Babri Masjid mosque in Ayodhya (in central UP) unfolded, triggering communal tension and violence in many places in India and even in some Indian communities abroad. The mosque was built by Akbar in the 15th century allegedly on top of a destroyed Hindu temple which marked the believed birthplace of Rama. In any event, the mosque and a Hindu temple next to it coexisted peacefully until fundamentalist Hindus managed to fan the flames of resentment to such a pitch that the mosque was attacked and destroyed in 1992. News footage of the event touched off further violent rioting and the incident seared the secular soul of India. The scars have not yet healed, at least partly because of the reluctance by the right wing Hindu national government to fulfill its promise to rebuild the mosque and because of the continued strength of fundamentalist forces at the state level.