Uttar Pradesh is home to many spiritual locations. Here's an itinerary for your next visit.
When to go: October to March
Think Buddhist circuit and you’ll come up with Bodhgaya, Nalanda, Sarnath and Sanchi. But often overlooked is Kushinagar, the Buddha’s final resting place. This humble town in eastern Uttar Pradesh was the capital of the ancient kingdom of Malla. It was a lost world for over 500 years before its chance rediscovery in the mid-19th century. Although several impressive new Buddhist temples have altered the town’s landscape, its main draws remain the historic stupas and viharas dating to the 3rd century BCE. Among these, the Mahaparinirvana Stupa and temple (the latter houses a stunning 1,500-year-old reclining Buddha) and the Muktabandhan Stupa (representing the Buddha’s cremation site) are the most spectacular. Gorakhpur, 52 km away, is a convenient railhead.
Sardhana is famous for its beautiful basilica, built in 1822 and dedicated to the Virgin Mary and her miraculous cures. A couple of hours’ drive out of Delhi, close to Meerut, the town hosts a nine-day pilgrimage every November. The church has an interesting history behind it. Listen to locals tell the tale of the Muslim dancing girl who rose to become a Christian princess: Begum Samru married Walter Rheinhardt, a French mercenary, fought by his side, inherited his fiefdom of Sardhana and his six battalions and personally led her troops in battle. She also played a minor role in political dealings with the Mughals, the Marathas as well as the British. After adopting Christianity as her religion, she went on to commission the beautiful church at Sardhana.
In a town as small as Sardhana, the church dwarfs everything around it. As you enter the town, however, notice the Islamic-style monuments that make up the Catholic graveyard. Now under the Archaeological Department, this graveyard’s ground contains the remains of many people who were connected to Begum Samru. Visitors are required to park outside the church compound, as cars are not allowed in. The walk to the church is lined with marble statues depicting the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. The complex is quite large, with mango groves on both sides and a convent school for girls as well. The first view you get of the church, from the gates, is a side one. This is because altars in Catholic churches are built so that the priest and people face the rising sun.
An Italian architect by the name of Anthony Reghelini was commissioned to build this basilica. Doric columns line the verandah that runs around the church. The three domes you will see are replicas of the ones at St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The steeple on the left has two bells while the one on the right contained a clock that was removed once it wore out. Towards the left of the altar is a wing with the tomb of Begum Samru.This monument features the work of Italian sculptor, Adamo Tadolini. Made of marble, the six figures that stand below are purely symbolic while the others immortalise the persons who were connected to Begum Samru, such as her minister. She sits right on top, holding a scroll of the Mughal emperor Shah Alam II, conferring upon her the jagir of Sardhana. Soak in the peace and quiet here while you explore the whole complex. There are also a few other buildings located close to the basilica, such as St John’s Seminary, which was previously Begum Samru’s old palace, Lady Forester’s Hospital and a house built for the basilica’s architect.
When to go: October-March