Here I was again in New Delhi, the place where I had spent the better part of my childhood, pondering over the fact that though I had visited the Taj Mahal many times, I had never been to Vrindavan or Mathura, the birthplace of Krishna, and the theme of many a song and dance and painting. That decided it. The time for action had come!
Vrindavan is only 83 miles from New Delhi, but much to my surprise, I could not find any air-conditioned tourist coach that would take me there. I tried calling the numerous tourist agencies that ply coaches to Agra and was disappointed to learn that none of them serve Mathura and Vrindavan. “Don’t you dare go alone in a taxi,” everyone warned. So I took a rickety old transport bus that rattled so much that I had my doubts if it would reach Vrindavan with the body of the bus still sitting on the chassis!
I found myself at the outskirts of Vrindavan at 9 in the morning, wondering where and how to visit the temples I had heard so much about. A lone autoriksha was parked, and the driver agreed to take me. I got in and waited for him to start, but he obviously had other ideas. One by one, people piled into the two-seater. When the 10th passenger approached, I offered, “Okay, I will pay his fare, but leave him out and go.” Cleverly seating that passenger in front, the driver set off. He dropped me off unceremoniously in the middle of nowhere. Seeing my plight, a Muslim gentleman, a fellow traveler, came to my rescue, and soon I was safely ensconced in a cycle ricksha on my way to Banke Behari Mandir. I fixed the royal sum of 50 rupees for a three-hour ride, which only made the rickshavala suspicious. “How many of you are there?” he demanded loudly. Possibly he was used to one local woman approaching him, negotiating a fare, and then a whole caboodle getting in for the ride! “Just me,” I assured him with a smile.
The Banke Behari temple has a large hall that seemed to echo and amplify the prayers and chants of the priest and the worshipers. The checkered black-and-white marble floor added to the visual drama. Since it was Navaratri, colorful dolls were arranged in a traditional way right outside the temple under a festive shamiana. In a land of over 4,000 temples to Krishna, nothing prepared me for the wondrous eight that my rickshavala Nandan took me to.
Happily chatting as we came to a deserted locale, we saw a magnificent red building at a distance. In total contrast to the Banke Behari Mandir, the Gurudevji Mandir is large and empty. Flanked by alcoves of delicately-carved pillars, the cool hall stretches invitingly toward the sanctum. It was built by Raja Mansingh of Jaipur in 1590, the pujari said. He believed that Shah Jahan saw its majestic splendor and vowed to build something that would overshadow its beauty. Later, when Aurangazeb wantonly destroyed many a temple, this one too suffered a loss of four stories.
Teda khamba? Crooked pillars? “Hey lady, take off your glasses! The monkeys love to snatch them away!” someone shouted in Hindi. As I removed my glasses and looked up, I saw that the entrance to this temple was a marble verandah. Magnificently turned marble pillars, like large twists of candy, skirted the verandah. Each pillar was 18 inches in circumference, with smooth turns spiraling upwards. Between the pillars I got a glimpse of a lady in a flowing marble sari poised elegantly, also in white marble.
Built by a rich trader from Lucknow, it is also called the Shaji Mandir. Strains of “Radhe Radhe,” a chant typical to Vrindavan, wafted toward me. I entered a room with peacocks carved on each of the many doors. A pundit sat on one side, offering prasad. The walls were etched with gopis as if they were dancing around the central Krishna. Radha and Krishna in white marble, bedecked with bright-colored flowers, sat in a pool of even whiter marble. Each figure was inlaid in white marble and the artist had created the feel of many gopis dancing around with their skirts swirling in movement. Shah Kundanlal built this temple with an idol of Krishna that was not black, although the name Krishna means black. Other temples have dark alcoves with a black Krishna.
Nandan took me through the alleys of Vrindavan, meandering like the river itself, and all of a sudden the broad, rushing Yamuna appeared with a breathtaking drama that only nature can create. It is on these banks that many a story of Krishna is woven.
The Kalighata temple is in the open air, on the banks of Yamuna, with an image of Lord Krishna sitting on a tree, playing his flute. The temple is representative of Krishna playing pranks on women bathers, taking away their clothes, and hiding them on the branches of a tree. From this evolved the custom of women worshipers praying for the well-being of other women in the family, by tying a cloth on a branch. I tied a colored cloth in prayer for all the women in my family. Then, as I gingerly dipped my feet in the river in a hypnotized trance, I was pulled into the flow and had visions of being carried away in the heady rush of the waters.
It was nearing noon. Wondering aloud where to eat, I asked Nandan. No problem, he said, and took me to an alley where a maharaj (chef) had set up an eatery. He had hot rassevala alu (potatoes with gravy), and dal in large stainless steel vessels. A stack of half-made phulkas sat by his side; as we finished one, he fluffed and served another. Wondering about the absence of yogurt, I asked tentatively if I could have some. For an extra 5 rupees, I got an earthen pot of fresh creamy curd; for, after all, if you can’t get good curd in Krishna country, where could you? We had a healthy, sattvic meal, and with the Radhe-Radhe chant echoing in my ears, I reluctantly wended my way back to the Big City.
Usha Kris was awarded the prestigious Bharat Nirman award for artistic photography. She can be contacted at [email protected]