Any person who has grown up listening to stories of the lovable Krishna from Hindu mythology, the blue-faced one sporting a naughty smile and holding a fistful of butter, will know that Mathura and Vrindavan were Krishna’s stomping grounds.
The numerous temples and the flow of devotees into the towns of Mathura, Vrindavan and and the adjoining hamlets of Gokul, Barsana, Nandgaon that constitute Brajbhoomi tell the story of how Lord Krishna is loved as much as revered. The colorful stories of the innocent pranks of adolescent Krishna vanquishing demons as a child and his playfulness as a youth and of his teasing and frolicking with gopis and ardently wooing his beloved Radha with a peacock feather tucked in his hair-band and a flute in his hand ensure that the Krishna legend continues from Dwapar Yug (epoch) to Kali Yug.
It was on a sunny spring morning that we drove on the Yamuna Expressway from Delhi to the twin towns of Vrindavan and Mathura. It was just a week prior to the celebrated festival of Holi and a joyous mood pervaded the towns.
As we got off the Expressway on to a narrow road snaking through the cultivated fields towards Vrindavan the soothing rays of the sun warmed the cockles of our hearts. Spring was in full bloom and cheerful flowers set the mood while vast fields of potato cultivation spread a verdant hue. Harvesting of the tubers had commenced and heaps of potato lay on the roadside. Bullock carts trudged past and farmers walked to work while stray dogs roamed around.
The laid back charm was soon replaced by the cacophony of a pilgrim town as we entered Vrindavan. Once known for its fragrant groves it now resembled any other dusty mofussil town from the Gangetic plains.
With signboards showing the direction to Vrindavan’s most famous Banke Bihari temple we reached the site before the Lord retired for his afternoon siesta. The roads were all spruced up and the lanes cleaned for Holi. Rahul, a local student who doubled as a guide in his free time was awaiting the festival during which hordes of devotees and curious foreigners flooded the town. “Everything is awash in color and on the day of Holi. ‘Lathmaar Holi’ is played and then beats of dholaks rend the air as the participants enthrall everyone with mellifluous folk songs,” he described.
Banke Bihari Temple
As we walked down the lane leading to the temple, hawkers were arranging peacock feathers, shop owners were displaying Radha-Krishna pictures for sale, and sweets were being arranged at mishthan bhandars or sweetmeat shops. Sadhus with their weird hairdos and saffron robes sat whiling away time as monkeys pranced around causing commotion. It was hilarious to watch devotees struggling to hide their spectacles and prasad from the monkeys. The only sight that unsettled us were those of widows clad in white sitting quietly by the roadside. It was ironical for a town known for the youthful shenanigans of Krishna and his gopis to be so cruel to its widows who are driven away from their own homes to live in penury.
Inside the temple there was much jostling and without much effort we were pushed to the front. The black luminescent idol of Banke Bihari draped in shimmering brocade and silk and adorned with jewels looked awesome. The aura of the divine deity had a calming effect on us as we fervently prayed.
With prayer on our lips and hope in our hearts we looked around for the famous “Mathura ke lal pede” or the famous red sweets made from evaporated milk in Mathura. Outside the temple there were stalls that dated back a century. We bought some delicious pede from Lakhan ki Dukan (Lakhan’s store).
Janmashtami and Holi are two festivals that are celebrated with much fanfare in Vrindavan and Mathura. The Holi celebration, the rite of spring heralding the New Year, starts almost a week before the actual date (March 6, 2015). The devotees play Holi inside the temple. As fistfuls of abeer and gulal fly, they create a haze of pink, red, yellow and saffron hue.
The Holi festival is strongly associated with Lord Krishna and Brajbhoomi comes alive with frenzied celebrations during the period. For a week, priests and devotees partake in the celebration as colored water and powder cover everyone.
Games People Play
In the afternoon the Banke Bihari temple organizes Huranga (a game played between men and women using liquid colors) or Lathmaar Holi (a game where women chase men away with sticks) on its premises. Hordes of tourists throng to the temple to soak in the mood of joy and gaiety and hundreds of photographers vie for a perfect shot. After the games the women and men sing folk songs inside the temple and immerse themselves in devotion to the deity to seek his divine blessings.
The tradition of playing Lathmaar Holi has an interesting genesis too. The legend says that Krishna once went to see Radha in Barsana when her friends chased him and his friends away with sticks. Krishna later came back with his friends from Nandgaon to play Holi with Radha. The modern festivities ensure a playful enactment of the scene when women in ghunghat (head covering) chase the menfolk with sticks while the men protect themselves with shields.
Nidhivan and ISKCON
Listening to all these colorful tales we decided to pay a visit to Nidhivan, where Krishna indulged in RasLeela (a dance) with the gopis in the forest. It was here in a secluded spot that Krishna’s devotee Swami Haridas meditated. Legend says that Lord Krishna transformed himself into an idol on Haridas’ request and the black luminescent idol was installed in the temple in 1864. The aura of the idol is such that no one can continuously look at it. This is the reason why a curtain is drawn every few minutes over the idol in the temple.
From there we headed to the Krishna Balram temple of ISKCON (International Society of Krishna Consciousness) that has made “Hare Rama Hare Krishna” chants an anthem for foreigners and Indians alike who are drawn to Krishna’s allure. The society is also credited to have taken up a number of social projects including feeding the poor.
It was post noon and the rumble in our tummies signaled that we too needed some succor. We ate at the Shri Govinda restaurant on the premises. They are known the world over for delicious vegetarian food prepared sans onions and garlic. Besides the Indian cuisine we also loved the Italian spaghetti and macaroni and coaxed the manager Balram Das to tell us the secret to his sauce. He explained that it was the addition of a specially made organic sauce that gave the unique taste to the dishes.
In the evening our next stop happened to be the current hot favorite of tourists, the Prem Mandir (Love Temple) built entirely of white marble enticing the public with a colorful musical fountain (7pm-7:30pm) and a bedazzling display of lights. The grandeur of the temple, its vast garden with statues depicting events from Krishna’s childhood and the intricate carvings inside draws old and young alike.
Delectable Desserts and Savory Selections
Next day as we continued our temple trail from Vrindavan to Mathura, we noticed that modernization had brought newer chains of eating outlets. But North Indian cuisine still predominated in the region and most restaurants served vegetarian food even without onions and garlic in both Vrindavan and Mathura. The bylanes of Mathura are the places to go to gorge on delectable sweets and savory snacks from the umpteen hole-in-the-wall shops and kiosks. My morning stroll in old Mathura from Chowk Bazaar to Holi Gate was a sensory and culinary experience. As the street stirred to life the tea stalls were first to light the stoves with hissing kettles letting off an inviting aroma and I could not resist a piping hot kulhad (terracotta cup) of sweet milk tea. A little later the Mishtan Bhandars and bhojnalayas (eating places) would also become busy frying hot kachoris to be served with delicious aloo ki sabzi, syrupy jalebis and chhena ki mithai.
After breakfast it was time to visit one of the oldest temples that was built as a haveli (historical mansion) in 1814. Here Lord Krishna is depicted as the King of Dwarka so his idol is flanked by his queens Rukmini and Satyabhama. The temple is famous for its annual 13 days Jhulan Yatra (swing festival) celebrated with grandeur in the month of August.
In the evening as we walked towards Vishram ghat on the banks of the river Yamuna from Holi gate to Chatta bazaar the tangy chaat, aloo tikki, pani-puri, hot samosa with chutney, chana chivda, moong dal pakode, stuffed parathasand dal vati vendors eateries could be seen doing brisk business. We gorged on some hot and spicy treats before settling down for the evening aarti at the ghat where once Lord Krishna and Balram rested after killing the cruel king Kansa.
In the birthplace of “Makhan Chor” (another playful term for Lord Krishna) one is spoilt for choice of food and drinks and dessert with lassi, rabri, badam (almond) milk, pede being sold at every nook and corner.
So what better place to have lassi and rabri than the temple of Shri Krishna Janmabhoomi itself? This temple holds great significance as Krishna is said to have been born here and a jail has been erected in the temple to get the feel of the captivity of Vasudev and Devaki (Krishna’s parents) by the evil king Kansa. As legend goes a lot of miracles happened when Krishna, an incarnation of Lord Vishnu, was whisked away to the cowherd village of Gokul on that stormy night when the river Yamuna swelled with heavy downpour.
When we drove to the Gokul Barrage over the river Yamuna, I couldn’t help getting down and watching the river that appeared so calm. I could visualize, many centuries ago, a naughty Krishna being chased by a loving Yashoda in Gokul after breaking the pot full of butter. Truly Krishna still resides in Brajbhoomi, his presence can be felt everywhere.
Famous Mathura Eating Joints:
Om Pahalwan Kachoriwala (Holi Gate) and Brijwasi Chaat Wala (Tilak Dwar) are good for Indian street food.
Brijwasi Mithaiwala has seven outlets and is famous for mawa sweets. The Mathura ke pede, Meva vati peda and export quality special peda last for three months after purchase. At this store, you get Mathura specialities likeKhurchan, Rabri, Ghewar, Faini, pista sweets and lots of namkeens.
Shankar Mithaiwala (Tilak Dwar in Holi Gate) is an institution in itself where traditional food is prepared in shudh Desi Ghee. Their pede, sugar free moong dal burfi, creamy lassi, sumptuous breakfast of chhole bhature, khasta kachoriand dahi bhalla will keep you full for a long time.
Kavita Kanan Chandra is a freelance journalist and travel writer based in Mumbai. She has lived and worked in different parts of India and understands the pulse of her country.