Religious tourism taking off in Agra

By Brij Khandelwal, IANS

Agra : Most tourists flock to Agra to see that ever-beautiful monument to love, the Taj Mahal, but the city is a treasure trove of many religious monuments as well.

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Now the Agra Hotels and Restaurants’ Association has released a new tourist guide map, highlighting centuries-old shrines in the city.

Muslims, Sikhs, Christians and Hindus all have their places of worship here, most of which are ancient. Few cities in India perhaps have such a diversity of shrines.

“The new information will help tourists prolong their stay in Agra and soak in the local cultural and religious flavour,” Rakesh Chauhan, president of the Association, told IANS.

Agra is headquarters of the Radha-Soami faith. The 500-year-old Akbar’s Church and the Guru Ka Taal Gurdwara are equally revered by the faithful.

With Mathura-Vrindavan just 50 km away, the entire area around Agra draws hundreds of thousands of pilgrims and domestic tourists round the year. The Uttar Pradesh government has started giving a religious orientation to tourism, which is expected to start yielding results in the next few years.

Two new centres of faith are also proving to be a big draw. The Tirupati Balaji temple in Sadar Bazaar and the Sai Baba temple on the Raja Ki Mandi crossing are the latest add-ons to the list of religious tourist sites here.

The Tirupati temple, which resembles the original Balaji shrine in Tirumala, has been done up in true southern Indian style. Priests from Andhra Pradesh look after three presiding deities, decked in heavy jewellery and embellishments.

The main attraction, however, is the ‘prasadam’, or holy offering, which includes anything from curd rice to cooked lentils. The temple management has successfully maintained a high standard of cleanliness. Visitors have to take off their shoes and leather belts before entering the temple.

The Sai Baba temple that has recently come up on the city’s main traffic intersection attracts hundreds of devotees.

On Thursdays, there is a virtual traffic jam on the “main arterial crossing” as the faithful queue up to pray and partake of the special “holy fare” – usually a combination of fried Indian bread and curry, accompanied by sweets. The deity sits on a raised pedestal with its feet up.

Another centre of faith that continues to attract thousands of people is the temple of Hanuman (monkey god) at the St John’s College crossing. On Tuesdays and Saturdays, the premises become a fair ground as thousands of devotees come to pray.

In the 1970s, it used to be a small temple. “But now it is a full-fledged complex that supports half a dozen sweetmeat sellers in the vicinity,” recalls a devotee.

Attendance at the Sher Jung and Abu Lala ka dargah has also registered a significant increase.

The Guru Ka Taal Gurdwara on the national highway is a favourite with local residents and truckers, who never forget to pray at the old Sikh shrine. It is said to have been visited by four of the 10 Sikh gurus. The gurdwara was built over the place where Guru Tegh Bahadur offered his arrest to Mughal king Aurangzeb. The structure that stands today was built in 1970.