Dr. Syama Prasad Mookerjee Research Foundation

Sacred Geography of Mathura, Ayodhya, and Varanasi

Details: Satellite imagery of Mathura, Ayodhya and Varanasi.

Renowned scholar, Narayan Bhatta composed his treatise titled “Tristhalisetu” in the mid-16th century. In the chapter dedicated to Varanasi, Bhatta discusses the continuous demolition of the Vishwanath temple of Varanasi. Bhatta mentions that if invaders have razed the temple, then the vacant place should be properly worshipped. Bhatta highlights that demolition of the temple shall not distract and reduce the relevance and sanctity of the place. His work reiterates that the sanctity of a sacred site ‘tirtha’ remains eternal despite the external intrusions and destruction of the physical structures and forms. Thus, the sanctity is inherent to the sacred territory.

In her incredible scholarly work titled “Flight of Deities and Rebirth of Temples” (2019), historian scholar Meenakshi Jain has meticulously recorded how ordinary devotees sheltered and carried the images of deities enshrined in the numerous temples throughout the subcontinent; how several destroyed temples were reconstructed time and time again by unnamed patrons, and finally how the devotion and affection for the deities were well preserved through bhajan, kirtan and katha. The age-old pilgrimage practices to these sacred sites have also kept numerous sacred places thriving during a troubled time.

Nearly two centuries ago, Varanasi witnessed the reclaiming of several sacred temple sites aided and expedited prominently by Peshwa-s and other Marathas. Maharani Ahilyabai Holkar of Indore rebuilt the Kashi Vishwanath Temple at its present location in 1775-1777. In the early 1950s, president Dr Rajendra Prasad was invited to perform the reinstallation ceremony of Somnath temple. In his speech, Dr Rajendra Prasad invoked the notions of faith and devotion. He asserted that the demolition of our temples was an assault on the external icons of nations faith; however, it did not shake the fountainhead of our eternal faith. The Krishna temple at Mathura was completed shortly after that, in 1956.

Since then, after six decades, on 8 March 2019, Prime Minister Narendra Modi laid the foundation stone of Shri Kashi Vishwanath Mandir Dham (Kashi Vishwanath Temple Corridor Project) in Varanasi. In less than a year and a half, Narendra Modi visited the sacred city of Ayodhya to perform the Bhoomi-Poojan of Shri Ram Janmabhoomi Mandir.

These two historical events mark a significant departure from the sluggish response and impudent approach in perceiving the sacred sites and temples that have endured the series of despotism and destruction by the invaders. In his address at the gathering in Varanasi, Prime Minister Modi touched on a few landmark historical events and stressed on the need of reclaiming and restoring the Kashi Vishwanath temple which was continuously under attack by foreign invaders. In one of the finest addresses at the Bhoomi Pujan in Ayodhyay, Prime Minister cited the numerous sacred sites spread across this sacred landscape of India encompassed by the pure devotion to Sri Ram. The five-century old struggle filled with sacrifices and immense devotion of countless Kar Sevaks and devotees concluded with the reclaiming and construction of a grand temple at one of the prominent sacred sites for Hindus across the world.

As a research student studying the ancient city, Varanasi, Ayodhya and Mathura are not distant places. Therefore, when Prime Minister invoked various prominent and revered geographical sites not only from the city of Ayodhya but from the different parts of the subcontinent, I thought, let us revisit Mathura, Ayodhya and Varanasi to understand another dimension of a unique and familiar topography that has sustained the sanctity of these prominent sites.

Unique geographical features of three sacred cities  

Kashi Khanda of Skanda Purana narrates the story that while answering questions of his wife Lopamudra Sage Agastya describes to her about various sacred tīrtha-s for getting the ultimate liberation, i.e. moksha. Sage Agastya first mentions about the city of Prayag, located on the confluence of three rivers and then refers to the seven sacred cities called as ‘Saptapuri’: Ayodhya, Mathura, Maya (Haridwar), Kanchi (Kanchipuram), Avantika (Ujjain), Kashi (Varanasi) and Dvaravati (Dwarka) that bestow ultimate liberation and called as Mokshadayini.

Mathura is the birthplace of Krishna; Rama, an epitome of a virtuous king born in Ayodhya, and Varanasi is renowned as a place never forsaken by Siva, are from the state of Uttar Pradesh. These three cities were heavily suffered iconoclastic wrath of foreign invaders. The prominent temples were targeted and ravaged. However, with the resilience of deep devotion, footprints of pilgrims and seekers, and also the unique landscape full of groves, hills, rivers, streams, water pools, and temple tanks preserved the sanctity of these ancient sites.

Mathura is located on river Yamuna and Ayodhya located on Sarayu (Ghaghra) river are significant tributaries of river Ganga. Varanasi is situated on the concave bank of river Ganga and almost in the centre of the Ganga valley.

The peninsular landscape is the most common geographical feature noticeable in these three sacred cities. The presence of pure running water in various forms allowed the traditions and rituals to survive and also reveals the spatial dynamics of the sacred sites. The Yamuna river flows down from north to south and has a meandering course at Mathura which is located on the eastern bank. The Braja mandala pilgrimage covers groves, hills, rivers, lakes, and water tanks.

Lakshmidhara Bhatta, who was the royal counsellor in the court of king Govindacandra (1114-1154) of Gahadavala dynasty composed the remarkable volume entitled “Tirtha Vivechana Kanda”. The scholarly work of Lakshmidhara eulogises the sacred sites of Vrindavan and Mathura in the ninth chapter titled Mathura Mahatmya. Lakshmidhara mentions Mathura as a renowned site for ultimate liberation. He describes the detailed landscape and of the sacred site and mentions the water pools. British district officer Growse in his memoir on Mathura district mentions about the plenty masonry water tanks with stunning architecture work. The riverfront of Mathura, Ayodhya, and Varanasi has a number of magnificently built masonry steps on the riverbank called ghata are associated with temples of various deities. Like Mathura and Varanasi, Ayodhya also had numerous water pools and tanks associated with Ramayana such as Rama kunda Sita kunda and Agni kunda. Along with the celestial rivers and other streams, these three cities have sacred water pools that are deeply interwoven with the historical past of the sacred sites and frequently appear in the various texts.

The spatial texts like Purana-s and Tirtha Mahatmya have subtly recorded the geography, its distinct features and the symbiosis of nature and the culture of devotion. I have briefly discussed the sacred landscape of Mathura, Ayodhya and Varanasi as a part of a larger pilgrimage network that are deeply rooted with India’s geography. The process of reclaiming and restoring of temples will markedly celebrate the notions of preserving and valuing the nature and divinity.

(The Writer is PhD/JSPS Research Fellow at Graduate School of Asian and African Area Studies, Kyoto University, Kyoto. Japan. Views are Personal)

Image Source: Zoom Earth, Esri, Maxar Microsoft satellite images