The sprawling city of MATHURA is celebrated as the place where Krishna was born, on the banks of the Yamuna River. Hindu mythology claims that it was founded by Shatrugna, the youngest brother of Ramayana hero and earlier Vishnu avatar Rama, while Mathura's earliest records date back 2500 years. Buddha himself founded monasteries here, and the city reached a peak under the Indo-Bactrian Kushan people in the first century AD.
Mathura's enduring prosperity and sophistication attracted such adventurers as the Afghan Mahmud of Ghazni in 1017, whose plundering signalled the death knell of Buddhism. Sikandar Lodi from Delhi wrought further havoc in 1500, as did Aurangzeb. In recent years, Mathura has expanded rapidly, incorporating the teeming old city, a vast British military cantonment known as the Civil Lines to the south, and haphazard industrial development on the outskirts.
The sandstone Holi Gate at the entrance to the old city is Mathura's major landmark, surrounded by similarly decorative temples boasting Mughal cusped arches and intricate carvings of flowers and deities. To the east, the riverfront, with temples crowding the ghats, is minute. Flanking each temple are shops selling Krishna dolls, outfits to dress them in, and other devotional paraphernalia.
Heading through the lanes from the brightly coloured Vishram Ghat to the south, you come to Radha Dhiraj Bazaar and Mathura's most popular shrine, the large and ostentatious Dwarkadhish Temple, dating from 1815. A little way north on a plinth raised above street level, the Jama Masjid, completed in 1661, has lost its original glazed tiles, but still has its four minarets and assorted outer pavilions. Around 500m west, directly behind the impressive red-sandstone Katra Masjid mosque, a shrine marks Krishna's exact birthplace; its cage-like surround signifies that he was born in captivity, when his parents were prisoners of the tyrant King Kamsa. Inside the adjacent Bhagwat Bhawan – a flamboyantly modern, towering hulk also known as Gita Mandir – a garishly painted ceiling depicts scenes from Krishna's life. Nearby, the impressive stepped sandstone tank of Potara Kund is believed to have been used to wash Krishna's baby clothes.