History of The Temples of Mathura and Vrindavan

by Jayaram V

Mathura is one of the seven holiest cities of Hindus, the other being Ujjain, Haridwar, Kasi, Kanchi, Puri and Dwaraka. Located on the banks of the river Yamuna, in the present day Uttar Pradesh, Mathura has a long history, a tradition associated with the life of Lord Krishna and the sanctity of a holy place rivaling that of Kasi. In its long and checkered history of 5000 years, it received the positive and negative attention of many kings and emperors who either built monuments of their own or destroyed those built by others.

History

During the epic period (3000 BC), Mathura was a busy urban settlement ruled by Yadava rulers of great antiquity. Surasena of Yadu dynasty was one such ruler. His kingdom was usurped by Kamsa of Bhoja dynasty. Kamsa was a tyrant and maternal uncle of Lord Krishna. He established powerful alliances with neighboring kings like Jarasandha of Magadha and subjected the yadus to great discrimination. Lord Krishna who grew up in nearby Vrindavan along with his step brother Balarama eventually killed him in an epic encounter to fulfill a divine prophecy and relieved the people from his tyrannical rule.

Lord Krishna was not an original vedic deity. He was a popular divinity in the land of Braj and absorbed into vedic pantheon with the rise of Vaishnavism. From the Bhagavadgita it becomes clear that he made a significant contribution to Hinduism by integrating diverse schools of native thought into the vedic tradition of his time. He established bhakti or devotion of the rural folk or the uneducated humble people as the most important means of salvation in contrast to the karma marg (path of action) of the ambitious urban elite and jnana marg (path of knowledge) of the ascetic forest dwellers.

Not much is known about the city of Mathura during the post Mahabharata period. However as is evident from the Jain and Buddhist texts, the city was a popular learning center in 6th century BC and frequented often by both Vardhamana Mahavira, the last Jain Thirthankara, and Gautama Buddha, the founder of Buddhism. They saw a great potential in the city's educated population to propagate their ideas. During the Mauryan rule, Mathura was a popular trading center and mentioned by both Megasthanese and Arrian.

Between 1st Century BC and 1st Century AD, Mathura became the provincial capital of the northern province of the Saka Satraps such as Hagamasha, Hagana, Sodasa and Rajula. During the reign of the Kushanas, Mathura rose to prominence and gained distinction for a peculiar form of art currently recognized by the historians as the Mathura school of art. Kanishka, the most famous of the Kushana rulers and his successors, ordered the building of several Buddhist monuments, statues and sculpture in the city. If you visit the Mathura museum, you will see several statues and sculpture of the period in display there.

While Buddhism and Jainism continued to flourish in and around Mathura for several centuries, Mathura became a strong hold of Brahmanism under the patronage of Hindu rulers such as the Nagas and the Guptas. Fa-Hsien, who visited India during the reign of Chandragupta II (about 400 AD), saw Buddhism flourishing in the city with 20 monasteries and more than 3000 Buddhist monks. He also saw six stupas erected in the honor of some famous Buddhist monks. Two hundred years later, when Hieun Tsiang visited India (630 - 644 A.D.) during the reign of Harshavardhana, Hinduism was flourishing in Mathura while Buddhism continued to maintain its stronghold. Hieun Tsiang noted five large Hindu temples, twenty Buddhist monasteries, about 2000 Buddhist monks and nuns and a good number of Buddhist stupas at Mathura.

Muslim Invasions

The troubles of Mathura began with the Muslim invasions. The Muslim invaders found a great opportunity in the gold laden temples of India to amass wealth and discredit the native religions. The first to invade the city was Mahmud Ghazni in 1015 AD. He left behind him a trail of destruction.1 His army plundered the city and burnt the temples. They broke up several statues including a large golden image (probably of the Buddha or Krishna) weighing 98300 miskals or approximately 456 kilgorams and carried away a sapphire weighing 450 miskals or approximately 2.09 kilograms. 2

Ghajni's plunder and destruction did not dampen the spirit of the people of the city. While the new rulers of the Delhi Sultanate were busy spreading their empire, religious activity continued at Mathura though perhaps in a subdued manner. A brilliantly white temple of magnificent height was built in 12the century AD in the honor of Vishnu at the site of Krishna's birth place3. It was destroyed by the infamous Sikinder Lodi of the Delhi Sultanate 300 years later.

During the reign of Akbar, Mathura witnessed some restoration activity. The temple of Radhakrishna (Krishna-Janma-bhoomi) was visited by at least two European travelers during the Mughal period. While Francois Bernier made a passing comment on the magnificent pagan temple at Mathura, Jean Baptiste Tavernier (1605 – 1689), described4 it at length interspersing his comments with his distaste for the native religion.

At Mathura Tavernier saw a temple of immense height, which could be seen from a distance of six miles. It was built entirely with red sandstone, on an octagonal sandstone plinth. Its base was adorned with two rows of animal motifs in relief. The temple occupied half of it while the other half was empty. Two narrow staircases led to the main entrance of the temple and a choir. The temple had one large central dome and two smaller side domes. Its outer walls were covered with various animal figures, while its niches were occupied by figurines of, in the words of Tavernier, several monsters. The chief deity resided in the temple. It was made of black marble. Near by he saw two smaller idols, probably his consorts, in white marble. All the idols were dressed in richly embroidered clothes and adorned with pears and precious stones. A processional chariot was kept in the temple and used to carry the deities on ceremonial occasions through the streets of the city.

Aurangazeb (1658-80), the most infamous rulers of the Mughal dynasty, was notorious for his religious intolerance and fanatic zeal. He reversed the religious policies of his grand father Akbar and ordered for the destruction of several Hindu temples at Mathura and Varanasi. In the thirteenth year of his reign (1669), under his direct orders, in the month of Ramazaan, the famous temple of Dehra Kesu Rai (Kesava Deo) was razed to the ground 5 and in its place his provincial governor laid foundation for the building of a big mosque using its material which still stands today. His generals carried the temple deity to Agra, where it was broken into pieces and placed under the steps leading to the Nawab Begum Sahib's mosque so that, in the words of the Mughal historians, the faithful could walk upon it and prove their faith. The name of Mathura was changed to Islamabad and remained so in the imperial documents of the Mughal era.

After the death of Aurangazeb, Rajput rulers asserted their independence in several parts of northern India including the land of Braj. They restored normalcy in the region. A fort by the name Kamsa quila or the fort of Kamsa was built on the banks of Yamuna by Raja Man Singh of Jaipur. Sawai Jai Singh (1686-1743), a Rajput ruler who was known otherwise for his passion in astronomy, initiated several reforms within Hinduism. He appointed Badan Singh as his local deputy and gave him the title of Braj-raj (ruler of the Mathura country). In 1720, he secured an order from Emperor Muhammad Shah to abolish the much hated religious tax (Jijya) imposed by Aurangazeb on the Hindus. He also built an observatory, at Mathura.

Mathura witnessed another wave of mindless destruction during the invasion of Ahmad Shah Abdali, the Afghan ruler, who succeeded Nadir Shah in 1747 AD and led several expeditions into India with an ambition to establish his rule in the country. In 1757 he invaded India for the fourth time and plundered many holy cities including Mathura and Vrindavan. According to the chroniclers of his time, to terrorize the vanquished people, he offered a reward of five rupees to his soldiers for every Hindu massacred and raised mountains of slaughtered bodies unleashing a great terror. After accomplishing his bloody mission, this religious fanatic returned to his country with a rich booty and many thousands of captives.

The Marathas who rose to prominence after the decline of the Mughal power, established normalcy in the land of Braj. They built new temples and provided a sense of security for the people in the region. The British, who seized the power from the Mughals and the Marathas, established a cantonment at Mathura in 1830 under the supervision of a local Magistrate. Frederick Salmon Growse was one such Magistrate who had an unmatched curiosity in the history and culture of Mathura. He took an active interest in the restoration of many ancient temples in the city and left his impressions in a memoir 6 . It is considered to be an authoritative source on the modern history of Mathura and its temples.

Under the British rule, Mathura regained its glory and became a popular pilgrim center. Educated middle class Hindus began taking active interest in the social and religious reforms of the country. Swami Dayananda Saraswathi founded Arya Samaj and attempted to revive the ancient vedic traditions in matters of social and religious customs. Mathura and Vrindavan witnessed the emergence of many new temples, including a new temple at the birth place of Krishna adjoining the mosque that was raised during the reign of Aurganzeb.

The Temples and Sacred Places of Mathura

Following are some of the important temples located at Mathura

Katra Kesha Dev temple. It is built over the place believed to be the prison cell where Lord Krishna was born. Standing adjacent to it is the Jama Masjid built by Abe-In-Nabir Khan, the local governor, in 1661 AD, on the ruins of the Keshav Deo temple destroyed under the instructions of Aurangazeb.

Gita Mandir. A beautiful temple located on the Mathura-Vrindavan road it is frequented by many pilgrims. Its walls are inscribed with the verses of the entire Bhagavadgita.

Dwarkadheesh Temple. Built by Seth Gokuldass of Gwalior in 1914, it is located within the city, near the Yamuna river, and considered to be the main temple of Mathura. People from various parts of the country celebrate important festivals associated with the life of Lord Krishna such as Holi, Janmashtami and Diwali.

Sati Burj. Situated on the banks of the river Yamuna, Sati Burj is a slender, four-storied, structure of red sandstone, built in 1570 AD by the son of Behari Mal of Jaipur in memory of his mother who performed the ‘sati’ sacrifice.

Vishram Ghat. Considered to be the most important of the 25 ghats at Mathura, people usually take a ritual dip here before visiting nearby temples. The daily ritual of aarthi is performed here. According to local legends, Lord Krishna resided here after killing his uncle Kamsa.

Other Ghats. While Vishram Ghat is most important ghat, the following ghats are also frequented by devotees who throng the city.

  • Ganesh Ghat,
  • Dashashwamedh Ghat,
  • Saraswati Sangam Ghat,
  • Chakrateertha Ghat,
  • Krishnaganga Ghat,
  • Somatirth or Swami Ghat,
  • Ghantagharan Ghat,
  • Dharapattan Ghat,
  • Vaikuntha Ghat,
  • Navteertha or Varahkshetra Ghat,
  • Asikunda Ghat and Manikarnika Ghat.
  • The Guptatirth Ghat,
  • Prayag Ghat marked by the Veni Madhav Temple,
  • Shyam Ghat,
  • Ram Ghat,
  • Kankhal Ghat, the site of the Janmashtami and Jhula festivals,
  • Dhruva Ghat,
  • Saptarshi Ghat,
  • Mokshateerth Ghat,
  • Surya Ghat,
  • Ravan Koti Ghat and
  • Buddha Ghat.

Lesser known temples. These are not that popular as the above mentioned, but add to the religious fervor of the city, having their own history and religious significance housing various aspects of either Lord Vishnu or Lord Krishna.

  • Neelakantheshwar Temple
  • Veni Madhav Temple
  • Mukut Temple
  • Radha-Damodar Temple
  • Murli Manohar Temple
  • Neelkantheshwar Temple
  • Yamuna-Krishna Temple
  • Langali Hanuman Temple
  • Narasimha temples Temple

Shiva Temples. Some ancient Shiva temples such as the following are also located at Mathura.

  • The Bhuteshwar Mahadev temple,
  • the Gokarneshwar temple,
  • the Rangeshwar Mahadev temple and the
  • Pipaleshwar Mahadev temple.

Vrindavan

While Mathura, with its narrow and dust laden streets and urban buzz, overwhelms the visitors to the city, Vrindavan, which is situated a few miles from Mathura, offers a more secluded and peaceful experience. Believed to be built on the ancient forest land where Krishna spent his youthful days in the company of cattle, maidens and cowherds, Vrindavan exudes the quietude of the country side and the sanctity of a holy place. In recent times Vaishnava sects such as the Gaudiya Vaishnavism of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu and Radhavallabha sect of Hith Harivams established their ashrams at Vrindavan and made it more popular. Swami Bon Maharaj founded the Vaishnava University while, the followers of ISKCON established their headquarters where visitors can see its Krishna Balarama temple and the samadhi of its founder Swami Bhaktivedanta.

Temples and Sacred Places of Vrindavan

The Madan Mohan Temple. Built by Kapur Ram Das of Multan, this is the oldest temple in Vrindavan and associated with the saint Chaitanya Mahaprabhu.

The Radha Vallabh Temple. Built by the Radha - Vallabh tradition, it houses the crown or Radharani next to the image of Lord Krishna.

The Banke-Bihari Temple. Considered to be the most popular shrine at Vrindavan, it is historically associated with Swami Haridas and Nimbarka tradition.

Sri Radha Raman Mandir. Constructed around 1542, it houses the saligram deity of Krishna and Radharani, revered by the Goswamis.

The Rangaji Temple. Built in south Indian style with an elongated tower, it houses Ranganatha in his resting pose on the coils of Seshanaga, the primeval serpent.

The Jaipur Temple. Built by Sawai Madho Singh II of Jaipur in 1917, the temple is dedicated to Shri Radha Madhava.

The Govind Deo Temple. Built in 1590 by Akbar's general Raja Man Singh, the temple was destroyed by Aurangzeb.

The Sri Krishna-Balrama Temple. Built by the ISKCON, it houses the images of Krishna & Balaram, in the company of Radha-Shyamasundar and Gaura-Nitai. The samadhi of A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, the founder of ISKCON, is located nearby.

The Radha Damodar Mandir. Established in 1542 by Srila Jiva Goswami, it houses the deities Radha and Damodar. The bhajan kutir of A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada is also located here.

The Shahji Temple. Built in 1876 it houses the images of Chhote Radha Raman. The temple is known for its architectural beauty with twelve spiral columns, Belgian glass chandeliers and fine paintings.

Lesser known places. These include

  • Meera-Bai Temple,
  • Kesi Ghat,
  • Seva Kunj,
  • Sriji Temple,
  • Jugal Kishore Temple,
  • Kusuma Sarovar,
  • Lal Babu Temple,
  • Raj Ghat,
  • Chira Ghat,
  • Kaliya Ghat,
  • Raman Reti,
  • Varaha Ghat and
  • Imli Tal.

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