Mathura – History, Facts, Mythology

Mathura, the birth place of Lord Krishna, holds great significance among the Hindus. Krishna is one of the incarnations of Lord Vishnu. Mathura finds mention in all kinds of literature, be it archaeological records, epics, poems and religious scriptures. Mathura in Uttar Pradesh is one of the seven ancient holy cities of Indian mythology. Its antiquity dates back to the times of king Shoorsen who is said to be son of Shatrughna, one of the brothers of Lord Rama. In some of the older texts, few other names have been mentioned like Methora, Madura, Matoli and Sauripur. It is stated that Shatrughna’s son Shoorsen attacked Satva Yadavas who were settled on the western banks of the river Yamuna, defeated them and established the kingdom of Mathura. This region came to be known as Shoorsen Janpada, in Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain literature. Also in one of the ancient treatise known as Manusmriti, this Shoorsen Janpada is mentioned to be under the Brahmarshi Desh, considered to be the oldest region. The Shoorsen Janpada extended from the river Chambal in the south to the Kuru Janpada in the north. On the western end, its boundaries touched what was known as Mastya Janpada and on the eastern side it touched Panchal Pradesh. The kingdom of Mathura had very cordial relations with all these neighbouring kingdoms. Apparently the Shoorsen Janpada maintained its identity till the beginning of Christian era and lost it after the Kushans and Sakas occupied it. It came to be known Mathura since then.

Mathura is one of the holy and historical cities of the Hindus. Whenever Mathura is mentioned, it incorporates Vrindavan, Gokul & Govardhan too. Puranic texts and epics have given vivid description of this place which not only in name but topographically also has undergone various changes. According to Varaha Purana, the expanse of Mathura was twenty Yojan (a unit of measure). The Harivansh Purana mentioned this city situated in a semicircular form at the banks of river Yamuna. Amongst other names ‘Madhura’ or ‘Madhupuri’ have been consistently mentioned in Harivansh Purana, Valmiki Ramayana and the Mahabharata. This name is mentioned in Vishnu Purana as well, which also mentions that when Shatrughna’s son conquered the region, he got the entire Madhuban forest cleared and established his kingdom known as Madhura.

Coming to later accounts, the accounts of Chinese travelers Fa Hsien have got more credibility. It is interesting to know that when he reached Mathura, it was only then that he felt that he had reached India. He has admired the law and order situation and administration in detail. The pomp and glory, the art and generosity of the people seems to have impressed him a lot. According to Alfred Cunningham, Heun Tsang had visited Mathura and had written a vivid account of the place. Both these Chinese travelers had a lot to appreciate in Mathura. A significant fact found in Buddhist as well as Jain texts of that time is that both Buddhist and Jain sects flourished side by side and in total harmony.

Coming to scientific database, it was found that there were many mounds, excavations of which revealed antiquities of great significance spanning a vast period of time. Alfred Cunningham, in his early excavations of a series of twelve mounds known as “Chaubara Mounds” found engraved statues of early Christian era. In one of the mounds he had found a golden casket and another metal casket from one other mound. The most recent excavation of 1996, carried out by a German archaeologist, revealed artifacts of the 1st century BC. The excavations of 1975, carried out by the Archaeological Society of India (ASI) determined that the development of human culture had begun in that region in 5000 BC.

The most striking memory of Mathura in people’s minds is that of life and times of Lord Krishna and his association with that place. They firmly and fondly believe that it was Krishna, the Madhusudan who founded Mathura. Who is bothered about historicity when the enchanting melodies flowing from his flute could spell bound the human and the animals alike, still seem to reverberate in the serenity of the kunjs-the groves. Those echoes will never fade. The soil and the region has a magnetism of its own which is deeply rooted in the entire area called Brajbhumi, where a divinity incarnate, Krishna not only enacted the drama of life complete in its every aspect, but also taught the highest form of philosophy. It adds a unique permanence and grace to the city of Mathura. Mathura became a place of confluence of all the sects of religious thoughts and acquired the status of leadership in that sphere.

The time of Krishna’s birth is believed to be 1500 BC. He is said to have lived for 100 years and spent the early part of his life in Brajbhumi and the later part in Dwarka, though Mathura continued to be the centre of his major activities. It continues to attract people not only from every corner of the country but from other lands as well.

In mid 19th century, a British traveler described Mathura as a “holy land of the pilgrims, the sacred Jordan of his fancy, on whose bank he may sit and weep as did the banished Israelites of old, for the glories of Mathura, his Jerusalem.”

Mathura may have been plundered and bared of all its glories but it is a city which is still alive. It is a symbol of India’s vitality and tenacity and a place to be proud of. Mathura was founded long before Rome was founded. According to the legend, Kansa ruled over Mathura at one time. An astrological prediction which had forecast the death of Kansa by one of his sister's son, frightened Kansa to no end. He, not leaving anything to chance, imprisoned his sister and brother-in-law, so that he could kill all her children. But God had planned otherwise. Krishna, the 8th child of Devaki and Vasudev escaped death. The guards dozed off. The handcuffs of Vasudev and Devaki opened on their own accord. Krishna was carried to Gokul safely. Krishna grew up in that land. The stories of his heroic deeds, his pranks and his spell casting flute have transcended the centuries. Krishna killed Kansa and established a reign of peace and tranquility. Every inch of the soil of Mathura and the entire Braj region, is replete with stories of Krishna who bestowed glory, sanctity and serenity to this place.

With its unshakable link with Indian mythology, Mathura flourished in the later centuries as well. Its wealth, its rich art heritage and culture always attracted people from far and wide. At the turn of the century, the riches even attracted foreign invaders like Scythians and Bactrians. The Kushan rulers made Mathura as one of the principal cities of their vast Asiatic empire. It was a flourishing time for the city and the region. Out of the 10,000 objects in the Mathura museum, 7000 belong to Kushan period. Huns who followed, treated the city savagely. It was Ishan Varma who drove out the Huns and came to be known as National Liberator.

In the 7th and 8th century, the Puranic Bhakti movement swept over the country. Mathura, hallowed by the memories of Shri Krishna rose in eminence.

Though many races invaded India, Mathura stood its ground. In fact, Mathura’s eternal vitality could not be destroyed even after a number of invasions. Mahmud Ghazni plundered and destroyed Mathura in 1017 AD. Not satisfied with all that, he razed to the ground the magnificent temple of ‘Janmabhumi’. But Krishna Janmabhumi Temple was rebuilt again in 1150 AD. Sikandar Lodhi again destroyed Mathura as well as the temple of ‘Janmabhumi’. But pretty soon, Babar gave a new lease of life and Mathura could freely breathe again.

Vrindavan attracted Akbar a lot. He got four temples constructed there. Govind Ji’s temple constructed by his brother-in-law still stands as a fine example of architecture. The glory of the temple of ‘Janmabhumi’ was restored by Jahangir. The grandeur of this temple was graphically described by Tavernier. But Mathura got its saddest blow when Aurangzeb, not only destroyed it but renamed it Islamabad. Mathura’s woes ended when the British took over and Mathura and Vrindavan were rebuilt. However, it leaves a fair challenge to the archaeologists to rediscover the original shape of things.

Besides invaders who left scars, there were others who simply fell in love with the place, like Growse who was genuinely in love with Mathura. He is credited with the construction of Mathura museum. The exhibits in the museum include many artifacts, models of Kushan kings in their long robes, enormous padded boots and broad swords, the headless statue of Kanishka -the king of kings and many beautiful sculptures of Mathura style.

Mathura was famous for its fine and intricate carvings. The artisans who built the temples of Mathura were highly proficient in their art and were good artistic designers. Although some of them even belonged to the ascetic order, their depiction of human form - men and women alike - was absolutely perfect. In the Kushan period, a number of schools of fine arts and especially of sculpture grew up in Mathura and was known as Mathura School of Art. This School was highly original and quite unlike Gandhar School of Art which had Greek and Roman influences easily discernible in their works. Mathura’s sculptures had some Buddhist tinges here and there. The influences of Jain and Mauryan art too were traceable. A special point about Mathura school was the depiction of Buddha in human form.

The resurgence of Hinduism exerted direct influence on sculpture. The sculpture of Shavite gods or Vaishnavite gods became widespread.

The land of Krishna was rich in lovely, luxuriant groves whom the rich river Yamuna had tended with care. There were said to have been twelve green forests of which Vrindavana and Kadambvan were said to have been very picturesque, and also the favourite spots of Krishna.

Govardhan, which according to Puranas was veritable king amongst mountains has its association with the famous legend. Lord Krishna is said to have lifted and held the mountain on his little finger to offer shelter and protection to the inhabitants from the wrath of Indra - the rain god. Another legend linked with the mountain is interesting too. The mountain is said to have received the curse of a rishi (sage) for some indulgence and as a result of that it started shrinking at the rate of a grain of barley every day. But fortunately, it hasn’t totally disappeared so far. Because of its association of having been used by Krishna to protect and shelter the people, is still highly revered. The pilgrims make it a point to do ‘parikrama’- perambulate around the holy mountain. Though Govardhana is almost like a hillock and the length is of about three miles, going round the mountain can be quite uncomfortable in summers as the entire path is completely bare. There are hardly any shady trees around now. But still the faith, and the high sense of reverence prompts thousands to take the Parikrama daily even though they know that the green belt of yore is no more there. Bound by the same faith, people from every comer of the country keep pouring in throughout the year.

Saints, teachers, poets, researchers and the seekers of Krishna keep thronging to seek inspiration in their respective fields. Saints like Chaitanya Mahaprabhu heard the haunting melodies still resonating in the air of Mathura. Vallabhacharya was brought up in Gokul, was intoxicated with Bhakti (Devotion) and inspired many others. The Bhakti movement which developed highly in Mathura, moulded the religious life of the entire country. It was a renaissance of a kind which sparked there and lighted many paths and many lives.

Krishna, though still resides in spirit, the physical surroundings seem to have succumbed to the agony of his parting. The opulent river Yamuna has been drying consistently. The luxuriant groves - the kunjs deprived of all the greenery bear almost a hostile look and Surdas - the famous poet of Krishna’s lore had to sing - ‘‘Bin Gopal bairan bhain kunje.'' The groves look like enemies without Krishna.

Mathura-Vrindavana is a complete complex which is known as Brajbhumi. Its complete expanse encompasses a vast area and this is an area which is said to have had its beginning since time immemorial and is categorized a Swayambhu - something which was there since the time of the creation of the Universe. Dhruva is said to have been advised by sage Narada to go to this place for his penance and have the supreme audience of God. It was a verdant forest at that time and not a city. The river Yamuna was opulent. There were twenty four bathing platforms on the banks of the river with stone steps leading to the water. One of the platforms was naturally named after Dhruva.

With large number of temples, Mathura could very well be called the city of temples. The most famous temple is that of Dwarkadhish. The system of worship and service in this temple is according to the Vallabha sect, started by Shri Vallabhacharya. Another temple known as Ghatashram Narayana Temple is special because it has an idol of Kubja flanked by Radha on the other side of Krishna. Govind ji’s temple is in the vicinity of Dwarkadhish temple. Shii Radha Vallabha and Shii Rangji’s temple were got constructed by Birlas, prominent industrialists.

Gokul, Barsana, Nandgam, are places where Krishna spent major part of his childhood and adolescence with loving and fond associations.

The festival of Holi which is a festival of colours celebrated after harvesting acquired much of its flourish and significance because of its romantic association with Brajbhumi and the way Krishna is said to have revelled in the play of colour with his Gopis is not the same now. The Holi, the festival of colours, of Barjbhumi which is celebrated with great flourish, is something which can’t be left unmentioned. All the dances, songs, and festivities depict and describe scenes of the play of colour between Radha, Krishna and their playmates Mathura with its rich past and lingering charm lives on and may continue to do so for many more centuries to come.

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