Uttar Pradesh or UP is the third largest state in the country. The Ganges River, which forms the backbone of the State, is the sacred river of Hinduism and two of Hinduism's most holy towns are in the state, namely Varanasi and Allahabad (Prayag), which is also one of the venues of the Kumbha Mela that is held once every 12 years. Often referred to as the 'Hindi Belt' or the 'Cow Belt', the State has been most dominant state in Indian politics and culture since Independence, producing over half of India's prime ministers. This is partly because it is also the most populous state of the country and partly because the region plays a central role in the religious landscape of the Hindus.
It is surrounded by Tibet and Nepal in the North, Madhya Pradesh in the South, Haryana, Delhi and Rajasthan in the West and Bihar in the East. Most of Uttar Pradesh consists of the vast Ganges plain, an area of awesome flatness, which often floods dramatically during the monsoon. Over 2000 years ago the state was part of the Mauryan Emperor Ashoka's great empire. More recently it was a part of the Mughal Empire and for some years Agra was its Capital. After the British took over the state was known as United Province when Agra was merged with Avadh but was renamed Uttar Pradesh after Independence. Uttar Pradesh is also a place of major importance to Buddhists, for it was at Sarnath, just outside Varanasi, that the Buddha first preached his message of the middle path.