Intro to India: Uttar Pradesh

Uttar Pradesh, literally ‘northern province’, is the most populous state in India. It stretches 700 km from Agra in the west, through the centrally located capital Lucknow to Varanasi in the east. It constitutes part of the so-called ‘cow belt’, a Hindi-speaking northern part of India. In many ways, it is stereotypical India. If you’re interested in culture, you cannot skip a visit to UP. However, be prepared for a couple of inconveniences.

Symetrical triple domed white marble Taj Mahal with crowds of tourists milling around
Taj Mahal – the most recognisable Indian monument is located in the state of Uttar Pradesh

Why visit Uttar Pradesh?

Cultural heritage

The main reason to visit UP is to see the monuments dating from the times of the Mughal empire and the Muslim Kingdom of Oudh (aka Avadh). Agra, best known for the Taj Mahal, is an indispensable part of any north-Indian tour itinerary. Fatehpur Sikri, an old Mughal capital located just 35 km from Agra, is another must-see featuring as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Far less visited Lucknow dazzles with an array of 18th-century mosques and imambaras.

A tall, three-storied gate from red brick adorned with bell shaped chattris in Fatehpur Sikri
Fatehpur Sikri – Mughal capital and a UNESCO World Heritage Site

UP is also the very heartland of the Hindu community. The cow belt term refers to the reverence still shown to those divine creatures. Varanasi (aka Benares) at the banks of the Ganges is one of the holiest places for the Hindus and the best place to observe Hindu religiosity. Similarly, Mathura and Vrindavan near Agra are important pilgrimage sites for the devotees of the Hindu god Krishna. Whether you’re interested in Muslim or Hindu heritage, UP won’t disappoint you.

Ghats (stairs) leading to the Ganges in Varanasi decorated with flowers, with crowds gathered for the evening arati prayers
Devotees gathering for evening arati prayers on the banks of Ganges in Varanasi

Last but not least, Sarnath, just 13 km from Varanasi, is a place where Buddha taught his first sermon and where a 3rd century stupa still stands.

A simple brick collosal cylindrical stupa in Sarnath
The Buddhist stupa in Sarnath

Indian lifestyle

If you’re not interested too much in the monuments but would rather watch the throbbing, thriving, everyday life, UP is the place to be. In Varanasi, you could see devout pilgrims dipping in the Ganges and even drinking a few drops from this polluted yet holy river. That’s where passers-by fold hands in front of a cow, pleading: ‘Go Mata (mother cow), please let me pass’.

Indian men having a bath in the Ganges, while white cows search for food on the stairs leading to the water
Taking a dip in the holy Ganges in Varanasi

People and culture

UP is a predominantly Hindu state with a significant, 20% strong Muslim community. IN the Lucknow area, many Muslims belong to the Shia branch of Islam. Also sufism (Islamic mysticism with syncretic elements) has a strong tradition in the state. Hindus in UP speak Hindi, while Muslims generally speak Urdu, a very similar language with some Persian influences, written in Arabic script.

The remainder of the old court culture of Avadh is kathak – a form classical dance born in Lucknow and the art of chikan embroidery.

Two elderly men in white robes and caps are reading Quran in front of an inlaid , colourful mihrab, the prayer wall in a mosque in Fatehpur Sikri
Muslims constitute 20% of the UP population

UP is a rather conservative Hindu state, where the caste system and family honour still prevail. In the countryside, it’s often the panchayats (village courts) that resolve disputes, rather than the state legal system. The cult of lord Rama is prevalent throughout the state (Ayodhya was Rama’s birth place), while the cult of lord Krishna concentrates in the Braj region (with Mathura as his birthplace).

Safety, precautions and cultural taboos

One warning is that Uttar Pradesh isn’t easy to travel around, especially if you’re a female solo traveller. Perhaps due to large amounts of tourists coming, touting is prevalent in its extreme and most aggressive form. In Varanasi and Agra, sellers and service providers will follow you incessantly, without respite. Child beggars will pull you by the clothes and follow you for many hundred meters.

A moustauched Indian silk merchant shows pillow cases in his shop in Varanasi
Be careful of the sellers offering you ‘pure silk’

The prices quoted by sellers and rickshaw-pullers often have little to do with the actual fare. Be particularly wary of the sellers offering you ‘pure silk’ or ‘real marble’ – if you’re not an expert, better buy from emporums. The prices are much higher but at least you have a guarantee the products are of genuinely high quality.

Female travellers get quite a bit of gazing, especially if not covered enough for the cultural standards and unaccompanied by men. Uttar Pradesh scores high in rankings for sexual violence. There’s a risk of being groped on the crowded train. A female traveller shouldn’t roam alone at night.

When you visit Hindu temples, always cover the legs, shoulders and be barefoot. Many mosques don’t allow tourists to enter. However, you can visit imambaras (Shia prayer halls) barefoot and decently dressed. Please, don’t take photos of the cremation ghats in Varanasi – how would you feel if someone came to take photos of the body in the coffin at your relative’s funeral?

Uttar Pradesh cuisine

North Indian food, with distinct Mughlai influences, is probably the best in the country. The north Indian Muslim cuisine is famous for kebabs and other meats. Lucknow, the country’s culinary capital, reached the peak of sophistication. Expect rich and heavy, predominantly meat-based cuisine (goat or even buffalo). Vegans can find vegetable kebabs (made of lentils) and a wide array of deep-fried fritters.

A steel plate filled with deep fried patties, oily sauce and a sort of pancake
vegan Lucknowi kebab with paratha

On the contrary, Varanasi fares mostly to vegetarians. Indeed, there is a ban on serving meat within 250 meters radius of holy sites. Varanasi is also famous for the best paan (sweet snack wrapped up in a leaf).

When to visit UP

Climate

Northern plains are best to visit in the cooler season, between October and March. From April, it becomes unbearably hot, while June brings the monsoon downpours. December and January could be chilly: the temperature could drop to just a few degrees above zero at night.

Important festivals

There is no better place to celebrate Holi, the spring festival of colours, than Vrindavan and Mathura. As the festival relates to the love of Radha and Krishna, no wonder it is celebrated with pomp at this Krishna pilgrimage site. While elsewhere in India Holi lasts one day, it’s celebrated in the Braj region for over two weeks. Holi usually falls in the month of March or April. The culmination is the day of playing with colours: throwing colourful powders on one another. Beware that crowds of young men, drunk and high on hashish, could get dangerous for female travellers.

A small street in the residential area where children and teenager throw coloured water from toy pistols during the Indian Holi festival
playing Holi on the streets

July/August is the time of Shia Muslim Muharram celebrations. Muharram is a day of mourning marking the anniversary of the death of Imam Hussain, the grandson of the prophet Muhammed. Muharram celebrations in Lucknow – a city with a sizeable Shia community – are most elaborate. Part of the tradition is building tazia – miniature mausoleums of Karbala. But the most spectacular is the mourning processions during which men self-flagellate and walk on burning ambers.

Colourful paper-mache miniatures of Karbala mausoleum carried by young boys during Shia celebrations in Agra
tazias during Shia celebrations in Agra

In September/October, you can watch spectacular Dussehra celebrations, remembering the victory of good (god Ram) over evil (demon Ravana). During this festival, giant effigies of Ravana are burned, causing significant air pollution. For nine days before that, amateur folk theatre performances enact Ramlila (life of Rama) through dance, narration and dialogue. The best places to see it are Ayodhya, Varanasi and Vrindavan. According to UNESCO, the Ramlila festivities are Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Two men light a firecracker on a small street somewhere in India
Firecrackers used during Divali significantly worsen the air quality

In October/ November, you can also observe the Divali, the festival of lights. Once again, the number of firecrackers used significantly contributes to the air pollution during that time.

A thin, long- haired and bearded ascentic in a safffron robe sits  cross- legged on the stairs leading to the Ganges
A sadhu at the banks of the Ganges

Last but not least, Kumbh Mela, the largest religious gathering in the world, takes place every 12 years in Allahabad, at the confluence of the Ganges and the Yamuna. In 2013, 120 million Hindus gathered to make a ritual dip in the water to wash away their sins. Among them are sadhus, holy men, including fiery looking aghori – ash-covered, dreadlocked ascetics.

Travelling to and around UP

By air

There are no large international airports in UP. It makes most sense to fly to Delhi and then make the way from there by a domestic flight or by rail.

Lucknow and Varanasi have their airports with plenty of budget domestic connections. There is also a small airport in Agra, with flights to Lucknow, Banglore and Mumbai.

By train

Uttar Pradesh is located right at the centre of the country, between the metropolises of Delhi and Kolkata. There are multiple and convenient rail connections to all UP cities from both east and west of the country.

A bull with a prominent hump stands in front of a train on the railway station in Varanasi
Train at the platform in Varanasi

Delhi is just 1.5h away from Vrindavan and 3 hours from Agra. The train journey to Lucknow and Varanasi takes just 8 hours, making it perfect for an overnight trip. Bear in mind that the standard of cleaniness of the sleeper class train compartments and the train station facilities is visibly lower than, let’s say, in Maharashtra or Goa.

By bus

On smaller distances, such as Agra to Fatehpur Sikri (1.5h), you can rely on Uttar Pradesh State Road Transport Corporation (UPSRTC) buses.

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