Hinduism Mathura
Vinay Kumar Gupta
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 April 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 April 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0239


Mathura is one of the most important ancient settlements and one among the seven most sacred cities in India along with Ayodhya, Haridwar (Maya), Kasi, Kanchi, Ujjain (Avantika), and Dvarka. The city is situated about eighty-seven miles south of Delhi and thirty-one miles north of Agra on National Highway No. 2 and once served as the junction of the Western, Northern, Central, and Northeastern Railways, making it the biggest junction point of the Indian Railways until restructuring in 2003. The city is also the district headquarter, and the area of the modern Mathura district is 2075 square miles with a population of over 2.5 million people as per the 2011 census. Mathura is most famous for being considered the birthplace of Krishna, the most popular incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu. The surrounding area of Mathura forms part of Vraja kshetra (popularly known as Braj), considered sacred as being the location of Krishna’s childhood activities. Historically and archaeologically, the town was one of the most important trade centers of ancient India and the epicenter of the famous school of sculptural art known in popular parlance as the Mathura school, which gave form to many Brahmanical, Jaina, and Buddhist deities including the earliest imagery of the buddha. Prior to becoming a great center of art, Mathura was one of the biggest settlements during the Painted Grey Ware period, generally dated between 1200 and 500 BCE, and one of the sixteen Mahajanapadas during the Northern Black Polished Ware period, c. 6th to 4th centuries BCE. The archaeological evidence for the early periods at Mathura is limited due to a lack of large-scale excavations but with the increasing evidence of epigraphical and sculptural activities dating from 200 BCE and later, the archaeology and culture of the area is better understood. Key factors that led to the evolution of Mathura as an important city and cultural center are its strategic location on trade routes and the religious/sectarian environment where most early Indian sects and cults developed. Buddhism and Jainism along with the prevalent local and Brahmanical cults gained popularity in the Mathura region from the early historical period of c. 3rd century BCE, if not earlier. Most of the early religious art related to these sects first evolved in the environs of Mathura during the Sunga-Kushan periods. There is enough good evidence for the popularity of the cult of Vasudeva-Krishna at Mathura during the Kushan period, but the popular Krishna cult for which Mathura is renowned became more prevalent and visible during the late medieval period only, particularly with the development of the Vallabhite and Gaudiya sects. The role of Mathura in the intermediary period between the Gupta and late medieval periods is not well known due to lack of information and archaeological evidence, but it seems that the Mathura region lost its political importance during this period and yet the religious importance somehow survived until its revival as the greatest center of Krishna bhakti in late medieval or premodern times.

Historical Geography

Mathura district forms part of the fertile Ganga-Yamuna doab plains except for the hilly outcrops of the Aravallis in the western part at Govardhan, Nandgaon, and Barsana. The river Yamuna bisects Mathura district into two parts cis and trans Yamuna and is the most important stream of the area. In the district, the other smaller channels are the Patwaha and Karban and the Govardhan drain. The Ganga canal, following the course of some old water channel, forms an important part of the present-day water supply system of the entire region. Geographical features of the district would have been more or less the same throughout history as well. Drake-Brockman 1911 and Joshi 1968 provide detailed information of the geographical features, land, soil, agriculture, occupations, etc., of Mathura. Sir Alexander Cunningham for the first time tried to draw a historical (Buddhist) map of ancient India, in which Mathura also finds an important place (see Cunningham 1871). The historical geography of the Mathura region is discussed in Dalal 1989, whereas Bajpai 1989 provides a good analysis of the ancient geography of the region through the author’s study of the interregional and transnational trade route networks wherein Mathura played a great role. Moti Chandra 1953 provides a detailed analysis of ancient trading networks, guilds, commodities, etc.

  • Bajpai, Shiva G. “Mathurā: Trade Routes, Commerce, and Communication Patterns, Post-Mauryan Period to End of the Kuṣāṇa Period.” In Mathurā: The Cultural Heritage. Edited by Doris Meth Srinivasan, 46–58. New Delhi: Manohar, 1989.

    Describing Mathura as the node of interregional trade routes, Bajpai discusses Mathura’s connectivity to various routes of Uttarapatha, to Aparanta, to Madhyadesa and Pracya (the Ganga Plain), and to Dakshinapatha. While elaborating Mathura’s international connections, he mentions the role of Mathura on the routes linking India to West Asia and Europe, to Central Asia and China, and to Southeast Asia and China.

  • Cunningham, Alexander. The Ancient Geography of India. London: Trubner, 1871.

    A foundational work for all subsequent studies on the ancient geography of India. Cunningham bases this ancient geography on the accounts of Greek and Latin historians and Buddhist literature, particularly the accounts of Chinese traveler Hwen Thasang (Xuan Zang). He identifies “Methoras” and “Klisoboras” as mentioned by Arrian and Pliny with Mathura and Vrindavan, respectively.

  • Dalal, Roshan. “The Historical Geography of the Mathurā Region.” In Mathurā: The Cultural Heritage. Edited by Doris Meth Srinivasan, 3–11. New Delhi: Manohar, 1989.

    Examines the role of the topography and environment of the Mathura region in the location and growth of settlements in relation to other factors. Postulates three circles of ancient routes along radial routes converging toward the city of Mathura.

  • Drake-Brockman, Digby L., ed. Muttra: A Gazette. District Gazetteers of the United Provinces of Agra and Oudh 7. Allahabad, India: Government Press, United Provinces, 1911.

    The gazetteer provides important information about the general geographical features of Mathura district, the agriculture and commerce, the people, administration, revenue, and history. Important cities, towns, and villages (e.g., Vrindavan, Chhata, Mahaban, Sadabad, etc.) are described in some detail.

  • Joshi, Esha Basant. Uttar Pradesh District Gazetteers Mathura. Lucknow, India: Government of Uttar Pradesh, 1968.

    Remains the latest gazetteer on Mathura enlarging on the information provided by Drake-Brockman in his gazetteer on geographical features, agriculture, commerce, people, administration, revenue, and history, particularly through the addition of chapters on industries; banking; trade and commerce; occupations; education and culture; medical and public health services; law, order, and justice; and various aspects of administration.

  • Moti Chandra. Sarthavaha. Patna, India: Bihar Rashtrabhasha Parishad, 1953.

    An important work on ancient Indian trade and commerce. Moti Chandra provides detailed accounts of ancient trade routes, important towns, commodities, the nature of trade guilds, etc. Mathura, being one of the important trade centers of the ancient world, finds an important place in the work. In Hindi.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.