Brajbhoomi is the termed applied to the land of Lord Krishna. It emcompasses his birthplace, places where he spent his youth and sites of many legendary tales and legends associated with the Lord. Krishna Leelas that are so often depicted in Indian art have their origin here. Raas Leelas of Lord Krishna and the gopis have their home here.
There are literally scores of important places in Brajbhoomi and just as many temples. Many of these are places of pilgrimage. I don’t know why I am here. I am not a great believer although I can think of Lord Krishna as just another human representation of the One God I hold close to my personal beliefs. I don’t think anything is to be gained by visiting Brajbhoomi. I am here to see what others believe in. This is just another colourful tile in the rich mosaic that is India.
It is not possible to visit all of Brajbhoomi in a short trip. Some months ago I had met a man in Andhra Pradesh. He told me that he had stayed an entire month in Mathura and loved it. My trip is just a couple of days for a taste of this holy ground.
I get off the bus and I am hounded by touts. I managed to shake off most of them, except one. His persistence pays off. I allow him to drive me to a hotel and I settle for a room for Rs. 200. His business with me does not end with that.
‘I can take you to all the places around here,’ he informs. ‘It will cost you only Rs. 250.’
‘I prefer to see things on my own,’ I reply blankly without suggesting further conversation.
I freshen up and head towards the birthplace of the Lord. Mathura contains the jail where he was born. I arrive at the place by rickshaw. There is security at the entrance. I move to the cloak room to deposit my mobile, bag and shoes. There is separate charge for each one. This sort of thing annoys me. The idea is not good service to pilgrims but to make money through cheap tactics. A group of four guys are delaying the procedure. When they are done after many minutes, two guys push me aside and get ahead. There is no queue here. I lose my patience, skip visiting the temple and move on. What I see from the outside is a temple-like building with an entrance gateway. I can only assume that this was previously a jail.
A few paces down the same lane I come across Pothra Kund, a large stepped tank open to the sky. This tank is holy in its own right. Legend has it that this is where the Lord’s clothes used to be washed. Had he been born in the 21st century, perhaps a washing machine would have been used. Are we then meant to worship a washing machine?
This rectangular tank is of early 19th century built by the Scindias. Four broad stairs approach the water, one on each side. Arcaded passages, niches, arches and side stairs along the four sides add interest to the structure. Some of these closed spaces might have served as changing rooms for women bathers at the tank. Today the access gates are locked. I find the tank silent and the water still.
I head to the river bank. On the way I pass a 19th century temple of Dwarikadhish. The temple stands hemmed on both sides by old buildings. It is on a narrow street with houses and shops. Except for an ornate facade and some signboards, nothing else betrays that this a temple. Nothing suggests that this is an important temple. Even architecturally it is uninteresting. I move on to the river bank. I reach Vishram Ghat, a place where the Lord rested after killing the cruel Kansa.
The scene suggests another Varanasi. Pilgrims are taking their holy dips in the river Yamuna. Offerings are floated out on the river. Monkeys are everywhere and they are far from being silent and cultured. They are creating a chaos on the ghats by their playful antics or infighting. They scamper, leap and bound across the steps, chasing or being chased. I stand in a corner taking care not to come in their paths. A boatmen suggests a ride on the river. I am not tempted.
I leave the ghat and take to one of the paths that climb up from the river bank. Someone has just squatted in that narrow alley. He is pissing right there in public. Nothing new in India. Open drains are common. So is the constant stench that is so characteristic of places of pilgrimage in North India. Many of these towns play host to thousands of pilgrims and tourists all through the year. Tourist money goes to private pockets. Sure, local economy has improved but public spending remains as dismal as ever. Towns are not equipped to deal with this constant influx of pilgrims. No good roads, no proper drainage, no public toilets, no hygience, no proper waste disposal and no traffic management.
The other thing about Mathura is its museum. In all of Indian art, Mathura School of Art is well-known. Mathura has to its credit a unique artistic style that became so popular that it influenced the styles of South-East Asia. It is a style that supplanted the earlier Gandhara style of the Kushan period. The look of Buddha we recongnize as Indian comes from this school. It has no direct influence from the Greeks or Romans so commonly seen in the Gandhara school. But I am disappointed with the museum.
The collection is sparse. I had expected much more. Perhaps the curators here are not to be blamed. It is likely that the best of the sculptures are overseas or in the museums of Delhi or Calcutta. Parts of the museum were closed for maintenance or rebuilding. Hence, part of the collection was inaccessible. Among the notable exhibits that I enjoyed are broken statues of Kanishka and Kadphises, some Jataka tales set in stone medallions, standing Buddha with sharply cut drapery, seated Buddha of the Kushan period and a 19th century bronze depicting Gajendra Moksha with a six-armed Vishnu coming to the rescue. It is interesting to note that Buddha of Kushan period has hair stretched and tied into a bun while of the Gupta period the same is made of little curls.
Funnily at one sculpture, Buddha’s mahaparinirvana is labelled as “extinction of the Buddha.”
Legend has it that Lord Krishna lifted this mountain with a single finger to save the place from Indra’s wrath. Transport to Govardhan is rather ad-hoc. I manage to get an old van. It appears to be an old police van for transporting prisoners. The iron grills are missing. Glass windows don’t exist. Wooden boards are nailed to the windows. It is dark inside and reeks of its original character. Two rows of passengers sit along its length facing each other. A narrow wodden plank has been placed in the middle. I join a few others on this plank. Once the van is full, we rumble along towards Govardhan.
Once I am there I am looking for the mountain. ‘Where is the mountain?’ I ask someone.
‘We are standing on the mountain. This is it,’ I am told. I don’t recall the old van climbing up any significant slope.
By the road is a temple. Its entrance has a diorama of the Lord lifting the mountain while cattle and villagers take shelter beside Him. Inside, people are anointing a piece of rock. Milk is poured on to it. Flowers are offers. Pilgrims come, pray and leave with great spiritual satisfaction. History and legends matter little in this context. What matters is only your belief.
There are impossible scenes at Govardhan. Pilgrims do a parikrama of this holy land. It is perhaps a journey of many kilometers. To walk such a long distance would be an achievement in itself but many pilgrims have taken to more arduous methods. They do the parikrama by prostration. The pilgrim prostrates on the path. He carries in his hands a small stone which he places on the road as a marker. He steps to this stone, picks it up and prostrates again. In this manner he moves slowly one body length at a time. In some cases, pilgrims use thin mattresses instead of stones. It is quite a scene to see traffic coming to a standstill while motorists wait patiently for pilgrims to clear the junctions. Knowing the impatience of motorists, sometimes I see traffic snaking around pilgrims prostrating on the road. Faith is a dangerous business in Govardhan.
Cow pens are common in Govardhan. The holiness of this animal is beyond doubt. Passing pilgrims will touch and pray to these bovine creatures on the road. Who cares if it is a stray cow that munched through garbage piles just minutes ago? Cow’s urine is holy too. Pilgrims will attempt to collect a few drops, sip and sprinkle the same on their heads. It can sometimes be too much for non-believers. If one has to have any respect for India and her culture, it is important to see her with an open mind.
I pass such scenes and go in search of Manas Ganga. It is a tank said to have been created by the Lord with a single thought. ‘Man se paida kiya,’ tells me a local chap.
The tank is filthy. It is hardly a place for a holy dip. In this tank I see some kids immersed in the stagnant banks searching for something. I find out that coins offered at temples may sometimes make it to the tank. These fellows are raking the dirt with their bare hands and feet to find if something worthwhile can be obtained.
A man is sipping a glass of milk in a verandah. I accost him.
‘Lakho nehi karodo log ate hai. Saal bar me yahan mela hai,’ he tells.
‘Have you been here all your life?’ I ask.
‘I was born here. I don’t wish to go anywhere else. This is heaven on earth. Bhagwan ki charano me rahte hai,’ he tells with pride and satisfaction.
I thank him for his time but it appears that even in parting there should be prayer.
‘Radhe radhe bolo. Jahan jana hai, pahunch jaoge,’ he says in parting.
I walk to the cenotaphs beyond Manas Ganga. These are impressive structures, some derelict and others in phases of restoration. These are cenotaphs of Bharatpur kings. Local knowledge claims that Delhi was defeated and looted. These chhatris were built from that money. Guidebooks may tell me that these cenotaphs are worth a visit but when I am here I learn that these are not yet open to public. Caretakers are appointed to make sure no one enters without prior permission.
‘Where can I get permission?’ I ask an unfriendly woman who is annoyed by my intrusion. I had just entered the cenotaph ruins but she had not seen me coming in. I was admiring some murals in the ceilings when she spotted me.
‘Mathura,’ comes the curt reply.
‘Where in Mathura?’
‘Vishnu Chowbey at Vishram Ghat.’
But I am not likely to come again to Govardhan. I’ll see if I can visit Vrindavan later today.
It is interesting that I have not stepped into a single temple at Mathura and Govardhan. Govardhan in particular has many roadside shrines. You can simply see the installed idol from the road without even removing your shoes. How convenient!
I try to get transport to Vrindavan from Govardhan. I am told that I need to change along the way. The jeep is almost empty and I would have to wait at least 30 minutes. I return to Mathura, visit the museum and leave for Vrindavan in late afternoon. When I reach the place, sun is low on the horizon and the light is fading.
Vrindavan is a place with many temples and I am not sure which one to visit. I am curious to see the unique architecture of the Govind Deo temple. I also want to visit ISKCON temple. I decide to go for the latter. To one local, the term ISKCON rings no bell. It is known to him as the ‘white man’s’ temple. ISKCON temple is the main place for foreign pilgrims. It is actually common to see foreign women dressed in saris at this temple.
The temple is beautifully sculpted in marble. Notice boards are packed with messages from visitors staying here. Would someone like to share a taxi to Delhi airport at 3 am the coming Monday? Would someone be interested in a second-hand bike?
I am more interested in what is going on in the prayer hall beyond the tank. Hare Krishna Maha Mantra is being sung by a group of devotees. With cymbals and drums, some devotees are leading the chanting. I join this group. The next arati is at 7 pm. This one hour of chanting will go on till it culminates in the arati. As the minutes pass, the chanting alternates between soft lyricism and fever pitch ecstasy. The energy of the leading devotees, mostly foreigners who have embraced Hinduism, is infectious. The crowd grows by the minute and the hall becomes packed. The Maha Mantra is sung in varying moods but in every mood and change of rhythm, the energy is never waning. My first introduction to ISKCON was at a weekend camp in Mumbai but it is only today I am feeling fully the energy of group prayer and chanting.
We finish the chanting just as the arati is starting. A part of the floor is cleared for priests and monks who sing and dance as the arati proceeds. The rest of us are jostling for space. I am not enjoying this bit. I have to push my way across the floor to leave. The arati is just about ending. The flame is shown around. There is mad rush.