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ANCIENT INDIAN TEMPLES – Is environmental disaster in making?

SCORES of Indian cities developed over the centuries thanks to glorious ancient temples which brought pilgrims and development. Today spiritual tourism has turned some of them into thriving metros and urban hubs.



SCORES of Indian cities, including thriving metros and urban hubs, have developed over the centuries thanks to their proximity to glorious temples in their vicinity.
Many have developed as temple towns over the centuries and have today won international fame, attracting millions of visitors every year.

Historic temples can be found across the sub-continent – right from Jammu & Kashmir, Punjab and Rajasthan in the north, coming down to Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, going westwards to Gujarat and Maharashtra, and eastwards to Assam and West Bengal, and finally down south to Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and other states.


Most Indian states are homes to countless temples, many of them dating back a few centuries. While Varanasi, Ayodhaya, Amritsar, Ujjain, Puri, Tirupati Madurai, Tanjore, Rameshwaram and Kanchipuram are mid-sized towns and cities – primarily focused on the temples located there – other major metros including Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Bengaluru, Chennai and Ahmedabad are home to popular places of worship, which attract millions every year.

Some of the oldest temples of India date back to about 100 AD.

The Mundeshwari Devi temple in Bihar, for instance, is believed to be the oldest, with the Archaeological Survey of India dating it to 108 AD.
The temples built by the Pallavas and carved out of rock along the Coromandel coast in the 7th and 8th centuries – the Mahaballipuram temples in Tamil Nadu – are dedicated to Lord Shiva. Mahaballipuram’s history itself dates back to 1st and 2nd century AD.
The Kailasa temple, carved out of a single rock, in Ellora in Maharashtra, was built in the Pallava style in the 8th century. Indian temples have over the centuries not just shaped architecture, but also urban planning.


Indeed, they greatly influenced the development of towns since ancient times especially the start of the Indus Valley civilisation (also known as the Harappan or Sarasvati-Sindhu civilisation).
Unfortunately, there has been a gradual decline in the influence of these religious places on Indian cities and many of the temple towns are today facing problems that are not only common to urban areas, but get accentuated during festivals and special occasions.

The urban infrastructure in many of these cities is in terrible shape and the inflow of millions of tourists every year adds to the woes of the local residents.
Local administrators and the state governments blissfully ignore these handicaps and let the cities remain chaotic.
Today, there are scores of temple towns across the country where the local administrations crumble as hundreds of thousands of pilgrims descend on the temples on special occasions.

They are unable to provide the visitors the basic civic necessities – including drinking water, bathrooms and toilets, easy access to temples, etc – despite the huge sums that are spent by the pilgrims.

Huge crowds have necessitated building better infrastructure to accommodate rush of pilgrims and maintain discipline


A visit to Hardwar last month by this writer saw the chaos that can descend on a temple town. A mindboggling 20 million devotees – mostly young men dressed in saffron and orange clothes – undertook the annual ‘Kanwar yatra,’ to collect the holy waters from the Ganga.
They then carry the water in elaborate vessels tied to poles on their shoulders to their hometowns hundreds of kilometres away; the Ganga jal is offered to the Shivalinga in their villages or cities.
Of course, the tragedy is that entire routes from states such as Delhi, Rajasthan, Haryana and Punjab to

Hardwar – and back – are taken over by these youngsters, some of who engage in rowdy acts, blocking highways, vandalising vehicles and disrupting normal life.
Authorities across several states in India and also at the centre are aware about the growing menace caused by the gathering of millions of people for a few days at temple towns.


While a majority of the pilgrims are devout believers, who are keen on fulfilling their goals – of visiting the temple, paying homage to the deity, and bringing back blessings to their loved ones – there are a few who try to exploit the situation.
But things are gradually changing, as the authorities in various states and in the temple cities try to regulate the visitors. In many temple towns, there is better management of the vast crowds, especially on special occasions when a small city like Hardwar, Varanasi, or Nashik can attract millions of visitors over the short span of a few days.

The Indian government and many state governments are focusing on building infrastructure to handle such huge crowds and maintain discipline and order at the religious sites.

For instance, at Varanasi – the parliamentary constituency of Prime Minister Narendra Modi – the local civic body claims that the multifarious problems currently confronting the city will be a thing of the past, once the smart city project gets going.
The Varanasi Municipal Corporation (VMC) has signed an agreement with three firms for implementing the smart city project. According to Ramgopal Mohale, the Varanasi mayor, the project will transform the city, resulting in the revival of it as a heritage place.

In Mumbai, hundreds of thousands of devotees throng the Siddhi Vinayak temple near Dadar every Tuesday from early morning.Thanks to planned monitoring by the temple authorities and the police, the devotees stand patiently in long queues for hours for the ‘darshan.’

Ganesh Chaturthi, one of the most popular festivals in the metropolis, unfolds this month.
On the last day of the 10-day event, millions of devotees carry idols of the deity to the Mumbai beaches and offer them to the sea.
The authorities in Mumbai have ensured that the entire 10-day festival goes off flawlessly and on the last day the idols are immersed in the seawaters.

Across India, administrators and the police coordinate with the local committees organising the processions and manage to control the crowds.
Observers, however, note that there is need for improving the gamut of activities to ensure that post the festive processions, the cities and towns are cleared up of the garbage that is inevitably left behind by the hundreds of thousands of devotees.

Ahmedabad’s architectural heritage

First Indian city to be recognised as the UNESCO World Heritage Site

The 41st session of the World Heritage Committee, held between July 9 and 12 in Krakow, Poland, and chaired by Jacket Purchla, founder and director of the International Cultural Centre in the Polish city, inscribed three cultural sites in Cambodia, China and India.
“The walled city of Ahmadabad, founded by Sultan Ahmad Shah in the 15th century, on the eastern bank of the Sabarmati river, presents a rich architectural heritage from the sultanate period, notably the Bhadra citadel, the walls and gates of the Fort city and numerous mosques and tombs as


well as important Hindu and Jain temples of later periods,” said the UNESCO. “The urban fabric is made up of densely-packed traditional houses (pols) in gated traditional streets (puras) with characteristic features such as bird feeders, public wells and religious institutions.”
According to the UNESCO, Ahmedabad continued to flourish as the capital of Gujarat for six centuries.

“A matter of immense joy for India!” tweeted Prime Minister Narendra Modi on hearing of the UNESCO decision.

As chief minister of Gujarat, Modi began the process of Ahmedabad’s nomination to the World Heritage Committee way back in 2010, according to Ruchira Kamboj, India’s ambassador and permanent representative at the UN.

“The journey began in 2010 when Prime Minister Modi proffered the dossier of Ahmedabad to UNESCO,” she said. “For over 600 years, it has stood for peace as a landmark city where Mahatma Gandhi began India’s freedom struggle. It has stood for unity with its elegant carvings in its Hindu and Jain temples, as well as standing as one of the finest examples of Indo-Islamic architecture and Hindu-Muslim art,” said the ambassador.

‘Sapta Puris’

Ayodhya, Mathura, Haridwar, Varanasi, Kanchi, Ujjain and Dwarka

The Garuda Purana described the seven sacred and ancient cities (‘Sapta Puris’) of India as those ensuring ‘moksa’ on human beings. The seven cities include Ayodhya, Mathura, Maya (Hardwar), Kasi (Varanasi), Kanchi, Avantika (Ujjain) and Dwarka.
All these seven cities – besides dozens of other temple towns – have developed over the centuries because of the presence of temples, which have attracted millions of followers. The seven cities are also known as ‘Mokshadas,’ or the ‘Bestower of Liberation.’

Lord Ram was born in the city, which has emerged as the most important pilgrimage place in India. Millions of visitors come to Ayodhya every year and visit several places of attraction.
They include Ram Janmabhoomi, the Hanuman Garhi, Treta-ke-thakur, Guptar ghat, Ramkot and the Nageshwarnath temple. Other places that draw visitors include the Lakshman ghat, Vasistha kund, Bharata kund and the Ram ghat.

Known as the abode of Lord Krishna, Mathura has great religious sanctity among Hindus. It also has one of the oldest historical records.

The city, just an hour’s drive from Agra, is located on the banks of the Yamuna. Its twin city, Vrindavan, is known to be the birthplace of Krishna. Mathura and Vrindavan are dotted with several temples, prominent among them being Govind Dev, Rangaji, Dwarikadhish, Bankey Bihari and the Iskcon temple.

Temples in these seven cities are also dedicated to different deities. Ayodhya has the Ram temple, while Mathura and Dwarka are known for the Krishna temples. Hardwar has its Vishnu temple, and Varanasi and Ujjain have Shiva temples. Kancheepuram has its temple for Parvati.
We take a look at the ‘Sapta Puris’ of India, which continue to be thriving hubs even today.


After the ‘Samudra Manthan,’ formed by the churning of the oceans for the nectar of immortality, the ‘Amrita,’ (the heavenly nectar of immortality) spilled over four cities – Haridwar, Prayag (Allahabad), Trimbak (Nashik) and Ujjain.
One of the holiest places for Hindus, Hardwar is also the gateway to two of the holiest shrines in the Himalayas – Kedarnath and Badrinath. Har means Shiva, the deity of Kedarnath, and Hari means Vishnu, that of Badrinath. And Dwar is the gate to these two holy places.


“Benaras is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together,” remarked famous writer Mark Twain.
Considered to be one of the oldest cities in the world, Varanasi (or Benares or Kashi), continues to fascinate millions of people from around the globe.

For decades, writers around the globe have been heaping praise on the holy city. Lonely Planet, the world’s leading travel guide publishing house, says “Varanasi is the India of your imagination. One of the most colourful and fascinating places on earth, surprises abound around every corner.”

The city, located by the banks of the Ganga, is home to several temples including the Kashi Vishwanath, Durga, Tulsi Manas, new Vishwanath and the Bharat Mata, which was inaugurated by Mahatma Gandhi in 1936.

The most famous Shiva temple at Kanchi is the Ekambareswara, where the lord is worshipped in the form of an ‘earth linga.’ The Kailasnathar temple was built by the Pallava dynasty in the first quarter of the 8th century. With a unique architecture, the temple is also famous for the attractive panel depicting Shiva and Parvathi in a dance.
Other prominent temples at Kanchi include the Varadaraja Perumal, Kamakshiamman, Ulagalandar, the Vaikunda Perumal and Kacchapeshwarar.

‘The town fallen from Heaven to bring Heaven to Earth,’ is how Kalidas, the famous poet, once described Ujjain.
Dating its history back to 600 BC, Ujjain is situated on the banks of the Shipra and was once the residence of the mighty Ashoka.
The temple city was also the political and commercial hub of central India for centuries and the capital of the ancient Avanti kingdom.

Till the onset of British rule, it was the political, commercial and cultural capital of central India. However, the British decided to sideline Ujjain and promote Indore in the central part of the country.

The city was established by Krishna after he left Mathura. Dwarka, besides being part of the ‘Sapta Puris’ is also part of ‘Char Dham,’ the four divine abodes (which also include Badrinath, Puri and Rameshwaram).

Adi Shankaracharya, the 7th century sage, who established four ‘mathas’ across the country selected Dwarka for the western part of India. The other three mathas include Govardhana in Odisha, Sringeri in Karnataka, and Jyotir in Uttarakhand.
The most famous temples in Dwarka is the Dwarkadish, believed to be more than 2,000 years old and dedicated to Krishna.

Known as the city of a thousand temples, Kanchipuram has 108 temples dedicated to Shiva and 18 to Vishnu.
Festivals are held round the year and ‘rathas’ (temple cars) are taken out in January, April and May. And idols from temples are frequently taken out in processions in their ‘vahanas.’


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