NEAR AGRA

NEAR AGRA

Places near Agra include a number of impressive temples devoted to Krishna. Among them are are Dwarkadish temple (in nearby Mathura) and the Govindo Deo temple (built in 1590). The Jugal Kishore, Radha Vallabh and Madan Mohan temples also date back to the 16th century. The Mathrua museum houses excellent examples of Buddhist sculptures dating back to the 6th century B.C.

Bharatpur (70 kilometers west of from Agra) was a royal hunting retreat. The Bharatpur Palace houses a large number of exhibits dating back to the early 15th century. Recently it was opened as a private hotel.

Deeg (30 kilometers north of Bharatpur, 100 kilometers northwest of Agra) is a small towns that was a capital for the legendary Jat rulers in the 16th and 17th century. Situated next to a lake the famous Monsoon Palace here was designed with a large number of channels and fountains. During the Jat period giant iron balls were rolled along the water channels to simulate the thunder of the monsoon season. No accommodation is available.

Keetham Lake Bird Sanctuary (20 kilometers from Agra on the Delhi-Agra highway) is a serene lake surrounded by lush greenery and is an ideal picnic spot. Shaped like a pentagon, the lake is home to a vast variety of water birds and fish as well as man-made islands. The lake is also known as Soor Sarovar. The name, local lore has it, was derived from the name of Hindi poet Soordas.

The bird sanctuary surrounding the lake, declared so in 1991, covers an area of roughly eight square kilometers, of which the lake comprises 2.25 square kilometers. The area provides shelter to nearly two dozen species of migratory as well as resident birds. The Uttar Pradesh Forest Department has also developed shallow areas and woodlands around the lake for waders that makes it even more comfortable for birds to nest here. Some birds that can be spotted here include egrets, purple herons, comb ducks and spoonbills.

Fatehpur Sikri

Fatehpur Sikri (40 kilometers east of Agra) takes an entire day to absorb. It is a fortified city that was built from red sandstone by Mughal emperor Akbar (ruled 1556-1605) but soon abandoned because of water shortages. Fatehpur Sikri has been described as a "glorious ghost town of vast buildings stairstepping toward the stop of a ridge." The small tomb of Shaikh Salim Chishti is across a court from the great mosque in Fatehpur Silkri. The latticed marble is filled with knotted threads from followers wishing for a son. Worth checking out are the majestic palaces, the five-tiered Panch Mahal and Salim Chisthi's tomb. Some of the structures have been damaged by explosions set off by sandstone miners. In some cases explosions have been set directly below the fort complex.

Fatehpur Sikri was built of red sandstone on a stony ridge in 1570 and abandoned in 1585. The site is richly enveloped in local folklore and legends. One story goes that long before Akbar made it his capital, Mughal emperor Babur had named the city ‘shukri’ (thanks) as a gesture of acknowledgement to the local residents who had helped him win the Battle of Khanwa, in 1527, against Rana Sanga, a Rajput ruler from Mewar. His grandson, emperor Akbar, built the Buland Darwaza many years later after capturing Gujarat, and gave the city its current name.

Fatehpur Sikri was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2001 According to UNESCO: “Fatehpur Sikri bears exceptional testimony to the Mughal civilization at the end of the 16th century. It offers a unique example of architectural ensembles of very high quality constructed between 1571 and 1585. Its form and layout strongly influenced the evolution of Indian town planning, notably at Shahjahanabad (Old Delhi)... Built during the second half of the 16th century by the Emperor Akbar, Fatehpur Sikri (the City of Victory) was the capital of the Mughal Empire for only some 10 years. The complex of monuments and temples, all in a uniform architectural style, includes one of the largest mosques in India, the Jama Masjid. [Source: UNESCO World Heritage Site website]

History of Fatehpur Sikri

Mughal emperor Akbar built his capital at Fatehpur Sikri between 1572 and 1585. It is said that the emperor, who wished for a son, went to Sikri to get blessed by sufi saint, Sheikh Salim Chishti. He was soon blessed with a son and was prompted to establish his capital here, building a beautiful mosque and three palaces, one each for his three favorite wives. He named the city Fatehpur Sikri, meaning the city of victory. He also named his son Salim, after the saint who had blessed him.

According to UNESCO: The 'City of Victory' had only an ephemeral existence as the capital of the Mughal empire. The Emperor Akbar (1556-1605) decided to construct it in 1571, on the same site where the birth of his son, the future Jahangir, was predicted by the wise Shaikh Salim Chisti (1480-1572). The work, supervised by the great Mughal himself, was completed in 1573. In 1585, however, Akbar abandoned Fatehpur Sikri to fight against the Afghan tribes and choose a new capital, Lahore. Fatehpur Sikri was to be the seat of the great Mughal court only once more for three months in 1619, when Jahangir sought refuge there from the plague that devastated Agra. The site was then finally abandoned, until its archaeological exploration in 1892.

“This capital without a future was, however, considerably more than the fancy of a sovereign during the 14 years of its existence. The city, which the English traveler Ralph Fitch considered in 1585 as 'considerably larger than London and more populous', comprised a series of palaces, public buildings and mosques, as well as living areas for the court, the army, servants of the king and for an entire population whose history has not been recorded.”

Buildings at Fatehpur Sikri

Fatehpur Sikri’s monuments resound with stories and medieval anecdotes. A structure called Aankh Michauli (blind man’s buff), for instance, is believed to be where the emperor would play the eponymous game with his queens. A vast sandstone courtyard nearby is named after another game, Pachisi, and is a life-sized version of the Indian board game. According to legend the emperor played this game with women standing in the place of pieces. The Jama Masjid, one of the largest mosques in India, showcases the assimilation of Iranian architectural elements and was built in 1648 AD by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan's daughter, Jahanara Begum. Other monuments here include the Diwan-i-Khas, Mariyam’s Tomb and Birbal’s Palace. Panch Mahal, a four-storeyed columnar structure, is said to have been where the emperor and his wives would watch Tansen, among the most well-known court musicians of all time, perform.

The tomb of Salim Chishti, which lies at the heart of Fatehpur Sikri’s story, is an oasis of white in the midst of red sandstone, and attracts thousands of tourists. It still commands immense respect and faith from devotees, who come from far and wide with their ‘mannats’ or wishes and tie a thread for each wish, hoping for the sufi saint to bless them and make it come true. Sheikh Salim Chishti’s death anniversary is known as ‘Urs’ and includes a ceremony held here that is attended by devotees from across the world.

According to UNESCO: Only one tiny part of the city (where the large buildings are concentrated) has been until now, studied, visited and relatively well preserved. Fatehpur Sikri, constructed on a rocky plateau, southeast of an artificial lake, created for the occasion and today partially dried up, is bounded on three sides by a 6 kilometers wall, fortified by towers and pierced by seven gates (the best preserved is the Gate of Agra, the second from the north). This spacious enclosure defines the limits of the new foundation rather than assuring its defence. [Source: UNESCO]

“The majority of the important monuments are found to the north of the road from Gaza to Agra; constructed of red sandstone, they form a homogeneous group, even if the eclecticism of their style is evident and is based on borrowings from Hindu, Persian and Indo-Muslim traditions. Among the numerous palaces, gazebos, pavilions, etc., may be cited in particular:

“Diwan-i-Am, the Hall of Public Audience, is encircled by a series of porticos which are broken up by the insertion of the imperial box where Akbar, surrounded by his ministers and officers meted out justice. This box communicates directly with Daulat Khana (Imperial Palace), flanked to the north by Diwan-i-Kas (Hall of Private Audience), called the 'Jewel House', a monument known for its central plan, which comprises an extraordinary capital surmounted by a circular balcony: the 'throne'. Other monuments of exceptional quality are the Ranch Mahal, whose elevation of four recessed storeys recalls certain Buddhist temples, the pavilion of Anup Talao, or the Turkish Sultana, the palace of Jodh Bai, the palace of Birbal, the caravanserai and the problematic 'stables'.

“Owing to the piety of Akbar, many religious and votive monuments were constructed at Fatehpur Sikri. The great mosque (Jama Masjid), one of the most spacious in India (165 meters by 133 meters) could accommodate some 10,000 faithful; it was completed in 1571-72 and according to the dedicatory inscription deserves no less respect than Mecca. It incorporates, in the center of the court, the tomb of Shaikh Salim, an extraordinary Christian masterpiece of sculpted decoration, further embellished under the reign of Jahangir. To the south of the court, the Buland Damaza, completed in 1575, commemorating the victories (the taking of Gujarat in 1572) to which the city, their monumental symbol, owes its existence and its name.”

Chambal Wildlife Sanctuary: Gharials and River Dolphins

Chambal Wildlife Sanctuary (120 kilometers east of Agra, in Etawah, along the banks of River Chambal) is a natural haven that is home to a vast variety of flora and fauna. River Chambal originates in the Vidhya ranges in Madhya Pradesh and finally meets River Yamuna in Etawah. Owing to this, the rich biodiversity ensured that the 635 square kilometers of area around it was declared a wildlife sanctuary in 1979 that stretching across three states: Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh.

A highlight of the sanctuary is the fact that it is home to some of the country’s threatened animal species: it is where you can spot the critically endangered gharial, alongside the endangered Ganges river dolphin. After the gharial population was nearly wiped out in India during the 1970s, Chambal was chosen as one of the main areas for the reintroduction of the species into the wild, following a captive breeding and reintroduction program.

Gharials are one the rarest and most unusual looking crocodiles and the most aquatic. They are four to seven meters (13 to 23 feet) in length and spend most of their time in water. Compared to other crocodiles, its legs are relatively weak and its feet are broadly webbed. This because these reptiles spend their time chasing after fish rather than lunging for prey at the shore. There are a few hundred and possibly a few thousand of them in India and Nepal. Before they used to also be also found in Arabia, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Burma, and Pakistan. , a significant gharial population on India's Chambal River was decimated between December 2007 and February 2008 by what some biologists believe was pollution.

One of the most popular activities at the sanctuary is a boat ride, which is a tranquil experience that lets visitors soak in the peaceful energy permeating the green expanse while spotting some of its wild floral and faunal treasures. Nature walks are also popular, letting travelers explore the vast green landscape on foot.

Chambal Wildlife Sanctuary is also ideal for birdwatching, and boasts over 290 species of resident as well as migratory aquatic and terrestrial birds. Some of the best times in a year to visit the sanctuary, in fact, are determined by the presence of flamingos – from November to May, the area hosts them, while in September you’ll find the rudy shelduck arriving here. Of the resident birds, the Indian skimmers thrive here in vast colonies.

Bateshwar

Bateshwar (70 kilometers southeast of Agra) is a temple town and situated on the banks of River Yamuna. It is believed that the name 'Bateshwar' was derived from Vateshwarnathji, one of the many names of Lord Shiva who is the presiding deity of this pilgrim town. It is also believed to have been the birthplace of Lord Krishna’s mother, Devaki. She was the daughter of Raja Surajsen, who is said to have been the founder of the town, originally called Surajpur.

Bateshwar is an important part of Hindu pilgrim circuits, and is also known as the son of the dhams – meant to be visited after the four main dhams considered sacred by Hindus have been visited. It boasts a number of temples that once totalled to 101. Presently, 42 of those temples are still intact. This town finds a reference in texts of Ramayan, Mahabharat, Matsya Puran etc. The long line of ghats flanked by several temples makes the quaint town a visual as well as spiritual treat.

In addition to having spiritual enrichment, the temples here also bear traces of ancient architecture that can be admired by visitors. Beautiful frescoes painted with traditional vegetable paints that are still intact in some of the temples are mesmerising to behold.

The Jains also hold Bateshwar in high regard as one legend holds that it was here that the 22nd Jain tirthankar, Nemichand, was born. This makes it an important pilgrim site for both sects of Jainism: Svetambara and Digambara. Various intricately carved Jain temples pay tribute to the tirthankar here, as well as at Shoripur, about 3 kilometers away.

Bateshwar is also famous for its annual cattle fair, which has been held here for over 400 years. With varying dates every year, the fair is meant to coincide with the most auspicious period for praying in the town, and is an important destination for saints, traders as well as local villagers. From camels, oxen, goats and horses to locally made furniture, spices and traditional cooking utensils, it has a lot to offer besides a truly authentic experience of rural Indian life in the region. One of the largest fairs of its kind in north India, it is spread over three weeks and draws thousands of tourists every year.

Mathura

Mathura (55 kilometers north of Agra) is situated on the banks of the holy River Yamuna and is one of the most important religious destinations in India. A labyrinth of lanes lined by temples, ancient ghats and numerous stories of Lord Krishna, who is said to be born here, echoing throughout the streets, Mathura invites devotees from far and wide.

The city is renowned for several temples dedicated to Lord Krishna, who is one of the most popular and loved incarnations of Lord Vishnu. They give a peek into the era of the divine, depicted in the phases of Lord Krishna's life. Considered as one of the seven sacred cities in the country, Mathura touches the soul with its rich cultural heritage. It is believed that the son of Mata Devaki and Vasudeva, Lord Krishna was born on this holy land around 5,000 years ago in a prison cell.

Mathura finds a mention in the Hindu epic Mahabharata and became a part of the mighty Mauryan empire sometime during the 1st century B.C. Under the rule, it flourished, transforming into a primary center for arts. Stone carving and sculpture-making fall under what is now the Mathura School of Arts, which evolved between the 1st century B.C. and 1st century. King Ashoka, the great Mauryan liege, is credited with building several Buddhist monuments in and around Mathura in the 3rd century B.C. In fact, the sculptures and carvings created around this time followed a common theme of Buddhism, with a majority of the artworks inspired by and representing Lord Buddha in some form. As the rule of the Mauryans came to a grinding halt, the influence of Buddhism started to disappear, to be replaced by Hindu temples

Getting There: By Air: Kheira Airport in Agra, located at a distance of 50 kilometers, is the nearest airport from Mathura. Indira Gandhi International Airport (IGIA) is the nearest international airport and is located at a distance of 150 kilometers. By Road: Mathura has extensive bus service which connects it to major cities like Agra, Delhi, Lucknow, and Varanasi. By Train: The nearest railway junction to Mathura is 1 kilometers away from the city. Mathura is well-connected to major cities like Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Lucknow, and Varanasi via trains.

Vrindavan

Vrindavan (near Mathura, 60 kilometers north of Agra) is a holy city where, according to Hindu legend, Lord Krishna was born and raised thousands of years ago. This Hindu god and charioteer was nothing like Jesus or Buddha. He liked to cavort with milkmaids in the forest, eat clay, steal butter and play pranks. Hindu devotees claim that Krishnas "pastimes" were manifestations of his "love of the individual soul for God not desire."

Vrindavan attracts an estimated 5 million pilgrims every year. The name of Vrindavan comes from words 'vrinda', which means basil, and 'van' meaning forest. In this particular instance, the forest being referred to is believed to be either Nidhivan or Seva Kunj. Here, devotees are seen smearing dust on their forehead as it is considered to be sacred. There is a veritable treasure trove of beautiful temples dedicated to Lord Krishna in Vrindavan, the likes of which include Banke Bihari, ISKCON, Gopeshwar Mahadev, Shahji, and Govinddeo among others. These temples line the bank of River Yamuna, and are set amidst the verdant forest of Vrindavan. The best times to visit are during Holi and Janmashtami, when the town is at its festive best, or between the months of October and March, when the weather is quite pleasant.

It is said that the holy town of Vrindavan was lost over time. During the 16th century (in the year 1515), a saint from Nabadwip, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, travelled to Vrindavan and rediscovered and revived its charm. Vrindavan is also one of the shaktipeethas (devotional shrines where the severed body parts of Goddess Sati fell), named Bhuteshwar Mahadev. It is said Devi Sati’s hair fell to this spot, as her body was carried by Lord Shiva in grief and anger.

Temples in Vrindavan

Barsana was the place where Radharani, the consort of Lord Krishna, resided, according to to tradition.. There are many temples in the area but the most prominent is the Radharani Temple. It is also called Ladliji (the beloved one) or Shriji, and is said to have been established around 5,000 years ago by Vajranabha.

Maan Mandir is said to have been the place Radha would come here when she was annoyed with Lord Krishna, who would plead and cry to appease her. There is a dark tunnel leading to a small room to which she would withdraw. You can also explore Mor Kutir, where Goddess Radha and Lord Krishna would dance as peacock and peahen; Krishna Kund, where they would bathe; and Sankari Khor, a narrow passageway between two hills. A legend says Lord Krishna and his cowherds would block Radha and her friends’ path and playfully demand ghee, butter and yoghurt from them.

Some of the other temples include Jaipur Temple, Peeli Pokhar, and Dangarh, as well as other places of interest like Bhanokhar Tank, Prem Sarovar, Roop Sarovar, etc. Barsana is known for Lathmar Holi and the birth anniversary of Radharani. During the birth anniversary celebrations, female devotees offer ladoos to peacocks early in the morning. The ritual symbolises offerings made to Lord Krishna.

Prem Mandir, also known as the Temple of Divine Love, is dedicated to Goddess Radha and Lord Krishna, and Lord Rama and Goddess Sita. It was shaped and designed by Jagadguru Shri Kripaluji Maharaj in 2001, and is sprawled over 54 acre. Considered as one of the most beautiful and elegant structures in Vrindavan, this Italian white marble temple is dedicated to the major events of Lord Krishna’s life, and the interiors depict those scenes, including the raising of Govardhan Hill.

A grand music fountain, where a pleasing sound and light show takes place in the evening, is one of the most interesting attractions of this religious site. The pathways through the garden, a restaurant, shop and fountains are all part of the temple. Prayers and assemblies are held in a large, pillar-less, dome-shaped satsang hall that can accommodate as many as 25,000 people at a time.

Today, it is run and maintained by Jagadguru Kripalu Parishat, an international non-profit, educational, spiritual, and charitable trust. It is a much-frequented religious site for couples, young and old, who come here to be inspired by the eternal bond of who are perhaps the greatest examples of love and devotion in Indian mythology.

Vrindavan: Home of the Hare Krishnas

Vrindavan is also the home of the International Society of Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), more commonly known as the Hare Krishnas. The movement was founded by Acyuta Dasa Bkaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, a holy man who arrived in the U.S. in 1965 with some scriptures and 40 rupees in his pocket after he was told by his guru to spread the spiritual love of Krishna to the West. The Hare Krishna movement started when he began chanting "Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Hare Rama..." at a Lower East Side park in New York." Later the swami and his disciples returned to Vrindavan where the constructed a grand temple.

Sri Krishna-Balaram Mandir is a Gaudiya Vaishnava temple in the holy city of Vrindavan. It is one of the main ISKCON temples in India and internationally. Vrindavan where the constructed a grand temple. According to one Hare Krishna from New York: "It has some of the most intricate carving this side of the Taj. It's all marble , all done by hand with hammer and chisel."

The ISKCON Temple — Sri Sri Krishna Balaram Mandir — is dedicated to brothers Lord Krishna and Lord Balaram. Located in the Raman Reti area of Vrindavan, it was built in 1975 by Swami Prabhupada, who long had a dream to create a temple dedicated to the brothers in the same place they played thousands of years ago. So important was this temple to him, he personally oversaw its construction and design, and prayed to Balaram, the god of spiritual strength, to bless his devotees.

A grand white marble archway greets visitors, who then enter the palace-like prayer hall through the huge wooden doors of the temple. Intricately carved walls and winding staircases make up the main building. Goddess Radha and Lord Krishna are on the right side of the temple with gopis, Lalita and Vishakha. The tomb of Swami Prabhupada (1896-1977) is also a part of the temple. Sri Sri Krishna Balaram Mandir is frequented by foreigners for various courses and seminars annually. You can also visit several book stalls that dot the complex, as well as a bakery, a restaurant, a broadcast studio, and a residential Brahmachari ashram etc.

The deities of the temple are Krishna and Balarama, at the central altar. On the right altar are Radha Krishna with Gopi, Lalita and Vishakha. On the left altar is a Murti of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu with Nityananda, and of Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada and his spiritual teacher Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura. Krishna-Balaram Mandir enforces one of the highest standards of cleanliness and of deity worship in all of Vrindavan. Near the temple, at the entrance to the complex is located samadhi shrine (mausoleum) of Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, built of pure white marble. Among the other impressive temples devoted to Krishna. are Dwarkadish temple (in nearby Mathura) and the Govindo Deo temple (built in 1590). The Jugal Kishore, Radha Vallabh and Madan Mohan temples also date back to the 16th century.

Widows of Vrindavan

Vrindavan is known as the City of Widows. Thousands of widows come to Vrindavan because they believe that by praying to Krishna, Krishna will give them a better life in their next reincarnation cycle. Mark Magnier wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Today, nearly 15,000 widows live in Vrindavan, where the Hindu god Krishna is said to have grown up. Although it is believed they were first drawn for religious reasons centuries ago, many widows now come to this city of 4,000 temples to escape abuse in their home villages -- or are banished by their husbands' families so they won't inherit property.” [Source: Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times, October 16, 2012 <^>]

In August 2012, “an outraged Supreme Court ordered government and civic agencies to improve the lives of women in Vrindavan after local media reported abandoned corpses being put in sacks and tossed into the river, a charge officials deny. The government of West Bengal state, where most widows who live here come from, has since promised to provide them with government housing and a stipend exceeding what they'd receive in Vrindavan, which is in Uttar Pradesh state. <^>

“But social workers, pointing to similar past initiatives, say follow-through is often lacking. Nor is it clear that the widows want to leave Vrindavan, said Yashoda Verma, who manages the 160-resident Mahila ashram. According to centuries-old Hindu laws, a widow hoping to obtain enlightenment should renounce luxuries and showy clothes, pray, eat a simple vegetarian diet (no onions, garlic or other "heating" foods that inflame sexual passions) and devote herself to her husband's memory. At least, that's the idea. "Very rarely do you see people go to Vrindavan because they're devoted to the cause," said Rosinka Chaudhuri, a fellow at the Center for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta. "Sometimes it's blackmail, or if you're not loved enough, you take yourself up. But the numbers are staggering." <^>

Sad Lives of Widows in Vrindavan

Reuters interviewed a 75-year-old widow in Vrindavan who was married at five, widowed just three days later, and has been a widow every since. She was taken care of by her father until age 12 and them caste out her family by her brothers and uncles. In the early 2000s she earned about 10 cents a day chanting Hindu hymns at a temple and supplemented that with occasional handouts of rice.

Mark Magnier wrote in the Los Angeles Times, Lalita Goswami was married only a few years when her husband, a Hindu priest who beat her and abused drugs, died of an apparent overdose. She was left with three young children. Still, she said, being married was better than being a widow. That ordeal has lasted for decades. After her husband died, the brother-in-law who took her in kicked her out, forcing her back to her parents' home in Kolkata. Her brother saw her as a financial burden and neighbors ostracized her. In a bid to keep peace, her mother exiled her and her two youngest children to Vrindavan. [Source: Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times, October 16, 2012 <^>]

Goswami spends her time at Mahila Ashray Sadan, one of several widow ashrams supported by charities here. "What else could I do?" said Goswami, a solicitous woman who strokes visitors' faces and touches their feet in a traditional sign of respect. She lives in a 30-bed dormitory laced with the widows' meager possessions. Goswami recently lost her appetite and suffers from chronic diarrhea and nausea. The ashram gives her one meal a day and a $6-a-month allowance. Healthcare is scarce. "I'm 70, maybe 80," she said. "All I know is, my children have children." Many supplement their income by chanting up to five hours a day at local temples -- essentially singing for their supper -- in return for 10 cents and a bowl of rice. Goswami gave that up when her health deteriorated. <^>

“Guddi, a resident in her 70s with a square face and a nose ring, said she came to Vrindavan after being abused by her daughter-in-law, a common complaint. "What's the point if they feed me two rotis [flatbread] but beat me with a shoe?" said Guddi, who uses one name. "If I'd been born a man, life would've been better. There isn't much respect for women in India." <^>

Keoladeo Ghana National Park

Keoladeo Ghana Bird Sanctuary (in eastern Rajasthan, two kilometers southeast of Bharatpur, 50 kilometers west of Agra and 160 kilometers south of Delhi) is a wetland area that changes from a swampy meadow into a 28-square-kilometer (11-square-mile) lake during the monsoon season. Some 400,000 resident birds breed during this time of the year and 200,000 migratory birds stop by for a while to feed. John Putnam wrote in National Geographic: "The birds load tree limbs until they droop, feed on the lake's fish, frogs, snakes and insects; and fill the air with an incredible din of cries, cackles, and croaks."

Keoladeo Ghana National Park has one of the largest concentrations and variety of birdlife in Asia. Large numbers of aquatic birds from Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, China and Siberia come here. It was once a private duck hunting reserve for the maharajas of Bharatpur. Prior to 1940 to the sanctuary contained a hunting lodge where a man once bagged 4,273 birds in a single day. The park gets its name from Keoladeo Temple, honoring the Hindu god Shiva. The best time to visit is between October and February, when wintering birds stay here. Animals include wild boar, sambar deer, nilgai, black buck, mongoose, jungle cat, fishing cat, leopard, palm civit, jackal, stripe hyena, fox, porcupine, hare and rock python.

Keoladeo National Park was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985. According to UNESCO: “Keoladeo National Park, located in Rajasthan, is an important wintering ground of Palaearctic migratory waterfowl and is renowned for its large congregation of non-migratory resident breeding birds. A green wildlife oasis situated within a populated human-dominated landscape, some 375 bird species and a diverse array of other life forms have been recorded in this mosaic of grasslands, woodlands, woodland swamps and wetlands of just 2,873 ha. This ‘Bird Paradise’ was developed in a natural depression wetland that was managed as a duck shooting reserve at the end of the 19th century. While hunting has ceased and the area declared a national park in 1982, its continued existence is dependent on a regulated water supply from a reservoir outside the park boundary. The park’s well-designed system of dykes and sluices provides areas of varying water depths which are used by various birdsl species.

“Due to its strategic location in the middle of Central Asian migratory flyway and presence of water, large congregations of ducks, geese, coots, pelicans and waders arrive in the winter. The park was the only known wintering site of the central population of the critically endangered Siberian Crane, and also serves as a wintering area for other globally threatened species such as the Greater Spotted Eagle and Imperial Eagle. During the breeding season the most spectacular heronry in the region is formed by 15 species of herons, ibis, cormorants, spoonbills and storks, where in a well-flooded year over 20,000 birds nest.”

Keoladeo Ghana National Park Ecostsyem and Animals

According to UNESCO: The habitat mosaic of the property supports a large number of species in a small area. The site is situated The area consists of a flat patchwork of marshes in the Gangetic plain, artificially created in the 1850s and maintained ever since by a system of canals, sluices and dykes. Normally, water is fed into the marshes twice a year from inundations of the Gambira and Banganga rivers, which are impounded on arable land by means of an artificial dam called Ajan Bund, to the south of the park. The first time, usually in mid-July, is soon after the onset of the monsoon and the second time is in late September or October when Ajan Bund is drained ready for cultivation in winter. Thus, the area is flooded to a depth of 1-2 meters throughout the monsoon (July-September), after which the water level drops. From February onwards the land begins to dry out and by June only some water remains. For much of the year the area of wetland is only 1,000 ha. Soils are predominantly alluvial - some clay has formed as a result of the periodic inundations. [Source: UNESCO]

In a semi-arid biotype, the park is the only area with much vegetation, hence the term 'Ghana' meaning 'thicket'. The principal vegetation types are tropical dry deciduous forest, intermixed with dry grassland in areas where forest has been degraded. In addition to having the artificially managed marshes, much of the area is covered by medium-sized trees and shrubs. Forests, mostly in the northeast of the park, are dominated by kalam or kadam, jamun and babul. The open woodland is mostly babul with a small amount of kandi and ber. Scrublands are dominated by ber and kair. The aquatic vegetation is rich in species and is a valuable source of food for waterfowl.

An estimated 65 million fish fry are carried into the park's water impoundments by river flooding every year during the monsoon season, which provides the food base for large numbers of wading and fish-eating birds. Primates are rhesus macaque and langur. Large predators are absent, leopard having been deliberately exterminated by 1964, but small carnivores include Bengal fox, jackal, striped hyena, common palm civet, small Indian civet, Indian grey mongoose Herpestes edwardsi , fishing cat, leopard cat, jungle cat and smooth-coated otter. Ungulates include blackbuck, chital, sambar, hog deer, nilgai and wild boar and feral cattle. Other mammals include Indian porcupine and Indian hare. Reptiles include water snakes, Indian python, banded krait, green rat snake, turtles and monitor lizard.

Birds at Keoladeo Ghana Bird Sanctuary

Keoladeo Ghana National Park is an important wintering ground for endangered Siberian cranes which migrate between the Indian subcontinent and central Asia and Siberia. Around 115 species of birds breed in the park which includes 15 water bird species forming one of the most spectacular heronries of the region, A total of 42 species of raptors have been recorded. The beautiful red satyr tragopan is found here.

Among the other species of bird found are painted stork, white ibis, openbills, spoonbills, egrets, herons, cormorants, moohren, jacanas, gadwal, marbled teal, plover, sandpiper, snipe, marsh harrier, osprey, peregrine falcon, tawny eagle, ring-tailed fishing eagle, crested serpent eagle, king vulture, darters, weaver birds, kite, rosy pelican.

According to UNESCO: Some 364 species of bird have been recorded in the park, which is considered to be one of the world's finest areas for birds, with a unique assemblage of species.The park's location in the Gangetic Plain makes it an unrivalled breeding site for herons, storks and cormorants and an important wintering ground for large numbers of migrant ducks. The most common waterfowl are gadwall, shoveler, common teal, cotton teal, tufted duck, comb duck, little cormorant, great cormorant, Indian shag, ruff, painted stork, white spoonbill, Asian open-billed stork, oriental ibis, darter, common sandpiper, wood sandpiper and green sandpiper. Sarus crane, with its spectacular courtship dance, is also found here. [Source: UNESCO]

“Among landbirds is a rich assortment consisting of warblers, babblers, bee-eaters, bulbuls, buntings, chats, partridges and quails. Grey hornbill and Marshall's iora are also present. There are many birds of prey including the osprey, peregrine, Pallas' sea eagle, short-toed eagle, tawny eagle, imperial eagle, spotted eagle and crested serpent eagle. Greater spotted eagle has recently been recorded breeding here, a new breeding record for the species in India and lesser spotted eagle nested in the park in 1986, the first nesting record for the species in India for some time. Several other threatened birds species occur, including Dalmatian pelican, spot-billed pelican, greater adjutant, lesser adjutant, marbled teal, Baikal teal, Baer's pochard, red kite, cinereous vulture and sociable lapwing.”

Conservation at Keoladeo Ghana National Park

One of the problems at Keoladeo Ghana National Park has been herdsmen bringing their buffalo to feed in the lake, which disturbs the nesting birds. According to UNESCO: This is the only park in India that is completely enclosed by a 2 meters high boundary wall that minimises the possibilities of any encroachment and biotic disturbances, but there is no possibility of a buffer zone. As the wetlands of Keoladeo are not natural, they are dependent on the monsoon and on water pumped in from outside, traditionally provided from the “Ajan Bandh” reservoir. The water shortage caused by the erratic rainfall in the region is being addressed by initiating two large water resources projects that will bring water from permanent water sources in the region. There has been some concern expressed over possible air and water pollution effects from the adjacent city of Bharatpur, but these effects are unknown at present.

“Through eco-development activities in the surrounding villages, the grazing of cattle within the park has been minimised and the local communities are also engaged in participatory resource conservation, which includes removal of invasive alien species. Keoladeo attracts many visitors who are taken for bird watching in bicycle rickshaws by trained local guides from surrounding villages, which provides additional livelihoods as well as reduces noise pollution. A recently started conservation program for the 27 satellite wetlands surrounding this park has further enhanced the protection of the migratory waterfowl arriving in the Central Asian flyway to winter in Western India.

“The property has effective legal protection under the provisions of Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 and Indian Forest Act, 1927. The site is managed by the Rajasthan Forest Department with the support of local communities and national and international conservation organizations, and a management plan has been developed for the protection and management of the property.

The major threats to the property are the water supply (both quantity and quality); invasive vegetation (Prosopis, Eichhornia, Paspalum); and inappropriate use of the property by neighbouring villages. These issues are being dealt with through the management plan, and two projects have been developed to bring a permanent solution to the water crisis. Invasive alien species have been removed through cooperative arrangements with the surrounding populations. The 2 meters high boundary wall that surrounds the park virtually eliminates the threats of poaching or pollution, and there is no encroachment or habitations inside the park. Noise pollution from the adjoining Bharatpur city and National Highway are minimal. Due to stringent legal environmental regulations in India, all proposed developmental activities have to be subjected to a stringent environmental assessment process.”

Gwalior

Gwalior (110 kilometers south of Agra) is the home of one India's largest forts and some interesting museums. Worth visiting are the are the exquisitely carved Teli-ka-Mandir temple, the Gujari museum, the Kala Vithika and the Scindia Palace. A sound and light show is held every day at Gwailor Fort. Visitors can sleep at a hotel at the fort, which is situated dramatically on a hill. The city also serves as an access to point to the tourist centers of Orchha (known for its fort and riverside cenotaphs) and Shibpuri (known for its beautiful marble cenotaphs and nearness to Madhav National Park.

Ensconced in the heart of Madhya Pradesh, the royal city of Gwalior stands is famous for its stunning hilltop fort and the resplendent Jai Vilas Palace. With a scattering of heritage structures, Gwalior is also the gateway to several dense forests and tiger reserves. Gwalior's history is rooted in a legend. It is said that in the 8th century, a local chief, Suraj Sen, fell ill and was in a critical condition when Gwalipa, a hermit cured him. In return, as a gesture of gratitude, Suraj Sen built a city and named it after the saint.

Gwalior Fort was described by Mughal emperor Babur as “the pearl among fortresses in India”. The city is also known as a center of sangeet and classical Indian music. The Gwalior Gharana is one of the oldest Indian music traditions and the one to which most classical Indian musicians can trace the origin of their style. Legendary musicians like Tansen and Baiju Bawara were based in Gwalior.

Gwalior was a power center of a number of dynasties, including the Kachchhapaghatas, Tomars, Mughals, Marathas and Scindias. The city has witnessed several wars, among which the most famous is the fierce battle that took place between British and Indians under the leadership of Tatya Tope and Rani Lakshmi Bai, the queen of Jhansi, who was martyred here. Legends of Tatya Tope and Lakshmi Bai still abound in the folklores of the region.

Gwalior has some well-known food delicacies such as Goodroo meat stew. The Mughals are credited with bringing this delicious delicacy to India. The stew is made by boiling mutton in spices and salt for hours until the meat and bone separate. It tastes best with baked naans (leavened flatbread). Bedai Puri And Jalebi is served with spicy potato sabzi. Bedai is a fried and crispy puffy bread. Jalebi is made from fermented batter that is fried in circular shapes which are dipped in a hot sugary syrup before being served hot with bedai.

Getting There: By Air: Gwalior Airport is eight kilometers from the city and is well connected with all major cities of the country. By Road: Gwalior is well-connected with all major towns and cities through good roads. By Train: the train station is situated in the heart of Gwalior city. The train is connected with all major towns and cities in India.

Jai Vilas Palace And Museum

Jai Vilas Palace And Museum (in Gwalio) is magnificent white, European-style castle sitting in the heart of Gwalior. Opulent from every angle, the palace boasts several unique items from the private collection of the erstwhile rulers of Gwalior. Designed by British Lieutenant-Colonel Sir Michael Filose under the aegis of Maharaja Jayaji Rao Scindia in 1874 at a cost of INR 1 crore, the palace is inspired by several European architecture styles.

The first storey of the palace is Tuscan, the second, Italian-Doric and the third draws ideas from Corinthian design. From its 12,40,771-sq-ft area to the endlessly large Durbar Hall, everything in the palace is larger than life. The interior of the Durbar Hall glitters with gilt and gold and boasts two gigantic chandeliers and one of Asia’s largest carpets. It is said eight elephants were suspended from the ceiling of the hall to check if it could take the weight of these two chandeliers weighing 3.5 tonne. Another section that holds pride of place is the banquet hall with a model train made of solid silver that ran along a track on the edge of a gigantic dining table, carrying after-dinner brandy and cigars around. The palace also had a suite of solid crystal furniture and was reached via a staircase with crystal balusters.

The museum occupies around 35 rooms of the palace and showcases among other items from the royal family’s collection, a transport section, which includes a silver buggy, silver chariot, palanquins, and vintage luxury cars. The museum also houses rare paintings by Indian and European masters. Lithographs of Napoleon and Tipu Sultan are some of the rarest collections of the family that are displayed in the museum.

Gwalior Fort

Gwalior Fort is a majestic structure that stretches along a three-kilometer-long plateau, overlooking the city sprawled beneath it. Dominating Gwalior's skyline, the 8th-century architectural marvel seems to be standing guard at one end of the city. Home to hundreds of kings over the centuries, the palaces, temples and other buildings inside the fort complex have been built at different times and show the influences of different dynasties.

Among these structures, the most popular is the Teli-Ka-Mandir and Man Singh Palace. Built in the Dravidian style, the Teli-Ka-Mandir temple is covered with fine carvings. The tallest structure in the compound, the 30-meter-high temple, dedicated to Lord Vishnu and most probably built in the 9th century, is also considered to be the oldest structure here. With a tall gateway-tower or gopuram, that seems to have been inspired by Dravidian architectural forms, the carvings on the walls of the temple are from northern part of the country. A massive image of Garuda, Lord Vishnu's mount, is a popular attraction.

The Man Singh's Palace, built by king Man Singh, a Tomar ruler, in the 15th century is known for its brilliant blue ceramic tile design. Visible on the facade of the fortress from a distance, these designs in blue are iconic of the fort itself. The marvels of the fort begin much before you enter the complex, with several massive sculptures of Jain tirthankaras carved into the rock faces in and around the fort. Built by kings of the Tomar dynasty, these large sculptures bestow benign smiles as one walks up to the fort's main gate. There are nine large and many smaller sculptures, including a stunning 17-meter-high standing representation of the first tirthankar, Adinath, located around the complex.

Gujari Mahal (inside the Gwalior Fort) is a sprawling palace complex located, Gujari Mahal was built by Raja Man Singh in the 15th century as a monument of love for his gujar queen, Mrignayani, who was the daughter of a milkman. Folklore says the king had fallen in love with doe-eyed Mrignayani while on a hunt. She agreed to marry him on the condition that the king would build a palace for her with a continuous water supply from River Rai. While the outer structure of the palace is almost intact, inside it is a museum that houses a vast collection of terracotta items, copies of Bagh cave frescoes, archaeological remains from 1st and 2nd century B.C., and religious scriptures.

Teli Ka Mandir (in Gwalior Fort) dates to the 9th century and is the highest structure in the fort complex. The shikhara or spire of this 100-ft-high structure, decorated with intricate carvings, dominates the fort. Dedicated to Lord Vishnu, the temple also glorifies the god's mount Garuda. There are several legends associated with the name of the temple. One story says, funds for its construction were donated by a teli or oil merchant. While another says it was built by royals from Telengana, in South India. This legend could also support the amalgamation of North Indian and South Indian architecture styles in the temple.

Chaturbhuj Mandir (eastern approach to the Gwalior Fort) is carved into a sheer rock face. Also known as the temple of the four armed Lord, the temple is dedicated to Lord Vishnu and is said to have originally been constructed in 876 B.C. It is most famous for the world’s oldest known zero inscribed onto stone. Inside the temple, there is an idol of Lord Vishnu and the inscription with the zero. There are two figures of zero inscribed and the custodian of the temple or a tour guide can point them out. While the eastern approach to the fort is a tough climb and the cobbled path can't be traversed by car, one can also come down halfway from the top of the fort to see the temple.

Bhind

Bhind (120 kilometers southeast of Agra) is a historical city known for many legendary monuments, flanked by the beautiful Chambal, Kali and Sind rivers,. The prime attraction is the Ater Fort, which was built during 1664-1698, by Bhadauria kings Badan Singh, Maha Singh and Bhakat Singh. The grand structure is a great place to reflect on the region's history and try to imagine how the royals lived back then. The fort has been built inside the ravines of River Chambal and has many distinct parts that are worth a visit. Chief of these is the Khooni Darwaza, which is the first and the main gate of the fort that dates back to the Mughal times. The gate is called thus as in earlier times, criminals were thrown from the battlements above it to fall to certain death. Other attractions include a Ganesha temple, the king's quarters and the queen's quarters.

The impressive Man Singh Palace dominates the structures inside the Gwalior Fort. The palace, which is today considered to be among the very few pre-Mughal palaces to have survived, is known for its colorful exterior tilework. The multicolored frieze and mosaics include ducks, elephants, crocodiles and tigers in yellow and green on a base of brilliant blue glazed ceramic! It is also called Chit Mandir or the Painted Palace.

Constructed by Tomar king, Man Singh, between 1486 and 1517, this four-storeyed building has two open courtyards that are bordered by apartments at two levels. Two halls, circular in shape and supported by columns, on the lower level were designed to keep temperatures down during summer. These halls had unique channels built into the walls for people to speak to each other from their respective places. These halls were later turned into prisons by the Mughals. The Jauhar Kund, though locked now, is also located inside the palace. Shah Jahan Mahal, Gujari Mahal and Jehangir Mahal surround the palace. Every evening, a sound and light show brings to life the history of the fort.

Animal Sanctuaries Near Gwalior

Kuno Palpur Sanctuary (120 kilometers southwest of Gwalior) is home to the endangered Asiatic lion. It has thick deciduous trees, interspersed with meadows rolling across the undulating Vindhya range. There are several species of rare flora and fauna. The reserve sits within the valley of River Kuno, which cuts across the reserve. Designated as a sanctuary in 1981, the 345-square-kilometer reserve is perfect for a wildlife safari and also for a cruise down the Kuno river. It is also home to several migratory birds that visit the sanctuary.

Ghatigaon Sanctuary (70 kilometers southwest of Gwalior) is also known as the Great Indian Bustard Sanctuary. An oasis of green at the heart of Madhya Pradesh, it is home to several species of wildlife, including blackbuck, chital, wolf and wild boa. The sanctuary also shelters birds like the blue bell and the large great Indian bustard. Established in 1981, the park is spread over 512 square kilometers and within its boundaries holds several temples, including the Dhuan Hanuman Temple and the Gupteshwar Temple.

Morena (46 kilometers from Gwalior) has the largest number of peacocks in India. Morena has been named after the bird which is called 'mor' in Hindi. The prime attraction is the Sabalgarh Fort, which is a formidable structure perched on a large rock. It was built in the 17th century by Gurjar sardar, Sabal Singh, who was a noble in the court of the rulers of Karauli. The fort is, at present, in a state of ruin and is believed to be haunted.

National Chambal Sanctuary (105 kilometers west of Gwalior) was formed to protect the Chambal river eco-system. Also known as the National Chambal Gharial Sanctuary, it is famous for Ganges river dolphins, ghariyals (a crocodile variety native to India), muggar crocodiles and freshwater turtles. The sanctuary, in Uttar Pradesh, covers about 400 kilometers of the Chambal river area, which starts from Rajasthan's Kota barrage. It was declared a National Sanctuary in 1979 and it sits across three states: Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan. One can spot a diverse variety of birds here and over 290 species of migratory and resident birds have been identified so far. The main draw of the sanctuary are the flamingoes that arrive here in November and stay until May. Tourists visiting the sanctuary can enjoy the sights while taking a motorboat ride on the river, especially provided by the Forest Department of Madhya Pradesh. It lies at a distance of

Gharials are one the rarest and most unusual looking crocodiles and the most aquatic. They are four to seven meters (13 to 23 feet) in length and spend most of their time in water. Compared to other crocodiles, its legs are relatively weak and its feet are broadly webbed. This because these reptiles spend their time chasing after fish rather than lunging for prey at the shore. There are a few hundred and possibly a few thousand of them in India and Nepal. Before they used to also be also found in Arabia, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Burma, and Pakistan. , a significant gharial population on India's Chambal River was decimated between December 2007 and February 2008 by what some biologists believe was pollution.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: India tourism website ( incredibleindia.org), India’s Ministry of Tourism and other government websites, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Yomiuri Shimbun and various books and other publications.

Updated in August 2020

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