The Cultured Traveler – A column exploring the many miles of what South Asia has to offer.
If you appreciate the vastness of the sea, boat rides, and heritage temples of India, then this place is for you. A place where you feel immersed in serenity one moment and the adventure in the next.
Okha is a small coastal town in the Dwarka district of Gujarat. It is surrounded by the sea on three sides and has a sandy beach on the Arabian Sea coast. BET Dwarka Island situated 3 km across a small creek from Okha port and reached by ferry, which was a memorable experience for me. For the about 20-minute journey, you only have to pay Rs 20 per person. If you want to hire a personal boat, you will have to shell out Rs 4000.
For me, amidst the clean blue sky, hovering seagulls, and the coos of birds, the soothing cool breeze was like a tranquilizer.
Indeed, Bet Dwarka is a magical, beautiful, untouched, and enchanting island. This is a place on the western coast of India where I get the opportunity to see both the sunrise and sunset from the ocean. It is a lifetime memory. The long stretch of the Bet Dwarka beach is perfect for a long walk. The best part was that I did not find a lot of commercial activities here and it might be because Bet Dwarka beach was the first in Gujarat that the Government earmarked for eco-tourism development.
The place derived its name from the ‘bhent’ or gift that Lord Krishna received at this place from his friend Sudama. The island is also called Shankhodhar as it is dotted with a huge number and variety of conch shells. Archaeological remains found under the sea suggest that there were settlements of the Harappan civilization from the Late Harappan Period or immediately after it, from the Indus Valley Civilization. It was an important shell-working center during the Harappan period. During the explorations in and around Bet Dwarka, a large number of antiquities of late Harappan period which include pottery, a seal, coins, etc, were found.
That is the reason Bet Dwarka has always stirred the curiosity of archaeologists. Probably because of the mythical claim that points that this place had been Lord Krishna’s original house in the yesteryears.
The Beauty of Nature
While getting to the jetty to board the boat, I saw people selling packets of bird feed. Not knowing why, I also bought some packets. And as soon as the boat left, seagulls flocked to the boat for the feed that’s in our hand. It’s was an incredible experience to see the gulls flying extremely low at such close range and even picking the feed from your palm. After getting down at the jetty, I walked for nearly 700 meters to reach the Lord Krishna temple. I saw hand-pulled trollies taking elderly persons to the temple. The main temple which closes at 12 noon, is believed to be built by Rukmini, wife of Lord Krishna. This is the place where Mirabai, the devotee of Krishna, disappeared at the feet of the Lord’s idol.
Story of Sudhama and His Gift
The main temple here is Sri Keshavrai Ji Temple. Interestingly, here the idol holds the shankha (conch) in an oblique position. The temple is like a palace, built in pink limestone and filled with carvings. Small shrines are built for every queen of Krishna. Rukmani who is believed to have carved the idol here is not found, instead, Satyabhama, the second wife of Krishna, is very prominent here.
Devotees offer ‘rice’ here, which reminds one of the legendary tale that tells how Sudama, a friend of Krishna, had bought him ‘rice’ as a gift.
When Sudama decided to seek Krishna’s help, to come out from his poverty, his wife packed him a handful of Poha to offer to the Lord. Sudama was hesitant about how to give his gift to Krishna. Krishna asked what gift his friend has brought for him. Sudama tried to hide it but Krishna took it and ate the Poha and offered it to his wife. Sudama returned without asking for help. But a surprise awaited him back home! Instead of his broken hut, there stood a palace and his wife and children were dressed in expensive clothes. That’s when he realized of Lord Krishna’s magical powers.
Apart from the main temple, there are various small shrines dedicated to Radha, Rukmani, Jambavati, Lakshmi-Narayan, Devki, Matsya form of Lord Vishnu, and many more. Hanuman Dandi temple of Bet Dwarka enshrines idols of Lord Hanuman and that of Makardhwaja – Hanuman’s son. According to myths, a drop of sweat from Hanuman Ji’s body was gulped by a fish who later delivered a son known by the name of Makardhwaja. Interestingly, the Bet Dwarka region has two Dargahs – Sidi Bawa Peer Dargah an Hajo Kirmil Dargah.
Mobile phones and cameras are not allowed inside the temple, so better leave either in the hotel or you will have to keep them in the lockers specially made for this purpose.
Suman Bajpaiis a freelance writer, journalist, editor, translator, traveler, and storyteller based in Delhi. She has written more than 10 books on different subjects and translated around 130 books from English to Hindi.
This pandemic is the most collective experience we have been through as a generation. And yet, it is also one of the most uniquely individual experiences. Its effect on certain people, families, or businesses, and even countries is so particular to their circumstances, responsibilities, responses, and coping mechanisms. In spite of the stimulation of endless input from technology, this time has caused people to look within, into deeper places where they have not been before. A feat that was unthinkable in the old normal where we had no time to breathe, let alone reflect.
And if we have listened, within these deeper places we humans have found a playground of emotions and revelations. For me, the biggest observation has been of my own fears.
Fear is one of the most private emotions. Unlike sadness, anger, and grief it is not a very visible one. We rarely see a physical display of this deep-rooted emotion. But during this time, we have seen fear on a large and collective scale. With its seed in the fear of the virus, this mass unfolding of fear became a mirror for my own garnered fears that were unrelated to the pandemic. Shocked at this discovery and its parallels with the current world situation, I realized that if I did not address them in a healthy way, I would be paralyzed from moving forward just as the world currently is. And worse than outer lockdown is inner lockdown! In the case of my own latent fears, there is no medical research or promised cures, I had to find my own solution. Propelling me to realize that solutions even if supported by external forces, must come from within.
I have always looked at the wisdom of Indian philosophy to provide answers. As a Vedanta student of many years, when in doubt one turns to the Bhagavad Gita. The Gita or the Divine Song is known to be a text that can answer any questions. The Gita is a sermon of courage to the despondent, a manual of duty and dharma through which one can get to the goal without incurring any bondage. The Gita takes place on the Battlefield of Kurukshetra where the cousin armies of the Pandavas and Kauravas face each other in the battle to claim the throne of Hastinapur. The Pandavas have Krishna, while the Kauravas have the royal armies and all the skilled and respectable teachers. On seeing his kith and kin: uncles, brothers, and teachers, the illustrious warrior Arjuna sees the battle as pointless, he starts to think in the moment that it would be better to live on alms than to murder those that are his own. He drops his weapons and says that he will not fight. To his utter surprise, his Lord and friend Krishna says, “Yield not to this unmanliness, O Partha, it does not befit you. Casting off this mean weakness of heart, arise O Parantapa.” (Chapter 2, Verse 3, Bhagavad Gita, translated by A. Parthasarthy)
The profound message of the Gita is not to freeze, not to be paralyzed by the circumstances but to stride through them with courage, fortitude, and a sense of duty. Duty is higher than the envisioned concepts of right and wrong, likes, and dislikes. This would of course mean different things to different people according to their dharma in life. This time as I read the Gita, once again it did not fail to pick me up from the shambles and inspire me to arise against my inner obstacles.
In the same thread, I was reminded of Swami Vivekananda’s messages on courage and fearlessness. Swami Vivekananda was the first ambassador of Vedanta in the West and he became known for the bold messages that evoked a sense that we are full and complete because we are part of Atman, therefore all is well and we have nothing to fear. He said, “Freedom can never be reached by the weak. Throw away all weakness. Tell your body that it is strong, tell your mind that it is strong, and have unbounded faith and hope in yourself.”
If it were not for the pandemic, I could not have dwelled deep in my fears and allow myself to be inspired by the great leaders of my culture and faith. While we all continue to stride through the storm, may we remember that how we face this in our own lives is a choice. While being informed and precautious, may we approach our unknown New Normal with courage, acceptance of what we cannot change, and most importantly, without fear.
I immigrated to the United States of America in 1992. I was a young man, under 21 years old. Shortly after my arrival, I found myself working at TEXACO to earn money, not realizing that I had just then personified the American cliché of a brown man from India working at a gas station.
As my family became situated, I joined the United States Army Reserves. I was sent to Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri for basic training. After the tragic events of September 11, 2001, I put my studies on hold and volunteered for active duty and was sent into the active war zone in Afghanistan. I wanted to do my duty, and fight back in the face of the massive terrorist attack that we had all experienced. This drive was inspired by Lord Krishna’s teachings in the Bhagavad Gita, where he instructed me to do my duty, since action (karma) is superior to inaction.
I suppose you could say I was a staunch “Rush Limbaugh Republican” from the moment I arrived in 1992. Looking back, I believe my Republican identity was due to the very fact that I was an immigrant: I came through the proper legal channels and had worked extremely hard for what I had. It felt natural to align with conservatives living in my community in Georgia.
After I moved to Arizona, I became active in my local Republican party and nearly ran for political office. At that time, I was virulently anti-illegal immigration, owned many guns, and supported all of America’s military engagements overseas. Even as I was deployed multiple times into combat zones in Afghanistan and Iraq, I had no second thoughts about any of my deployments. I completely trusted President Bush and Secretary Rumsfeld and did not see any reason to doubt any decisions they took to send me to fight other brown people.
I did not realize then, in the manner I do today, that throughout my deployments, I was in subconscious conflict with people who shared a culture that was quite similar to my own. They even resembled me physically much more than my white compatriots did. Though there were horrible people on the battlefield who would have readily killed me, my family, and other Americans if presented the opportunity, the majority of the people caught up in the conflict, had no such terrorist credentials.
I failed to realize after my deployments that I was suffering from combat-related Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD) No amount of cost-benefit analysis could justify my involvement in these unjust U.S. led wars, which made my PTSD suffering even worse. My war buddies and I belong to a generation of war veterans who absolutely detest being “thanked” for their service. Most people who have not served in the military do not realize that this country’s Republican leadership at that time, in waging the war in Iraq, had subjected their own military forces and their families to absolute hell without a clear endgame in sight.
I hadn’t realized that while fighting in barren combat zones, my erstwhile Republican utopia had had a tiny seed of reality planted in it for the first time. Fast forward a few years past both my daughters’ births, and I fully realized that I could no longer ignore reality in my search for arbitrary acceptance into American society. I could no longer afford the false belief and luxury of thinking that as a successful and well-off Indian American, I was “white enough” in a society that was getting more virulently anti-minority by the minute. Around the time President Obama’s second term in office ended, and Trump ripped apart Hillary Clinton’s dreams of a Presidency, I finally accepted my truth and became a Democrat.
As November approaches, I realize that as a Hindu, I must take action. Lord Krishna states in Bhagavad Gita 3.8, “niyataṁ kuru karma tvaṁ karma jyāyo hyakarmaṇaḥ śharīra-yātrāpi cha te na prasiddhyed akarmaṇaḥ” (action is better than inaction). If I refuse to fight against the injustices I see, I will sin (pāpam). Lord Krishna says as much to Arjun in the Bhagavad Gita, 2.33. It is for these reasons that blind acceptance of all the destructive and racist policies of the Trump administration, simply because he appears to have a friendly relationship with Indian Prime Minister Modi, is morally wrong for Hindus. Excusing the Trump administration’s criminal actions in Washington, D.C., or Portland, Oregon, or the deliberate separation and imprisonment of little kids in cages away from their parents at the border would make me a deserter of my Dharma.
As Indians and Hindus, we must remember that it is the Democrats, and not the Republicans, who are fighting for the poor, the weak, the minorities, and for social equity and justice. Vice President Joe Biden is a man of conviction who has suffered unimaginable losses in his personal life, which in turn have honed him to be laser-focused (what we refer to as “एकाग्रता,” or concentration) on what he feels is vital for social good. Biden has been and always will be a friend to India. More importantly, he will support us immigrants who willingly chose to leave India behind and voluntarily became citizens of our new home, the U.S.
On this auspicious occasion of the 73rd Indian Independence Day, it would be a fitting tribute to our former home to stay true to our culture, our traditions, and our compassion for others. We represent India in the best light possible in our new home through our actions. I hope that you join me in voting for Joe Biden for President on November 3, 2020.
In the words of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel: “Take to the path of Dharma – the path of truth and justice. Don’t misuse your valor. Remain united. March forward in all humility, but fully awake to the situation you face, demanding your rights and firmness.”
Ruchir Bakshi is a U.S. Army combat veteran with deployments to locations in South Asia, the Middle East, and elsewhere. Ruchir has a MA degree in Management, and he is a highly experienced Instructional Systems Design professional and has worked on both unclassified and classified projects within the federal government. He is a national board member of South Asians for Biden.
You are the seed within a tree, You are the tree within a seed
If I look for distinctions, then that is all I will see.
Narsinh Mehta was a 15th century poet-saint and exponent of Bhakti (worship) form of poetry. He is highly revered, especially in Gujarati literature where he has earned the accolade ‘Adi Kavi’, first among poets, in Sanskrit.
Narsinh lost his parents when he was five years old and was raised by his grandmother. Poor and singularly focused on worship, he faced considerable discrimination in society, including from within his own family. At a young age, he married Mandalika and, having no real means of livelihood, the young couple lived with Narsinh’s older brother and his wife in the old city of Junagadh in north Gujarat. While Narsinh had a loving relationship with his brother, it is believed that his sister-in-law often derided him for his excessive devotion to God and lack of gainful employment.
One day, overwhelmed by the dreary circumstances in his personal life, a distraught Narsinh wandered deep into the nearby Gir forest. There, in the solitude of nature, it is said that he meditated for seven days without food or water. Pleased with his sincere devotion, Lord Shiva appeared before the young man and, on Narsinh’s request, led him to Vrindavan, the garden-city where Krishna had lived. Here, Narsinh witnessed the ethereal Ras-Leela dance of Krishna and the Gopis (cow-herding girls devoted to Krishna). Legend has it that the divine experience so transformed Narsinh that he dedicated his life to composing and performing kirtan, or religious recitals, singing praises of Lord Krishna. From that day, Narsinh Bhagat regaled everyone with stories of Krishna’s life: from his mischievous childhood exploits stealing butter from the Gopis to his erotic encounters with them.
One of Narsinh Mehta’s famous creations about the young Krishna’s carefree days is the delightful Jal Kamal Chhandi Jaane Bala (Leave these lotus-filled waters, Child), a poem based on Krishna’s mythological encounter with the dreaded ten-headed Cobra, Kali Naag. The mighty Cobra’s wives (Naagan) enquire of Krishna who has jumped into the Yamuna river, where Kali Naag dwells and terrorizes the people of Mathura, to retrieve his ball:
Kahe re Baalak tu marag bhuliyo, Ke tara veriye valaviyo
Nishchal taro kalaj khutiyo, ahinya te shid aaviyo?
Tell us, Child, did you lose your way, or did one of your enemies lead you here
Surely your time must be up, why else would you come here?
To which Krishna responds:
Nathi Naagan hu marag bhuliyo, nathi mara veriye valaviyo
Mathura nagri ma jugatu ramta, naag nu shish haariyo!
I have not lost my way, Naagan, nor have any enemies led me here
During a betting game in Mathura, I happened to lose the head of your Naag!
In the end, the story goes, Krishna valiantly fights with and defeats the monster Kali Naag but does not kill him because he has promised the faithful Naagan that he will spare their master’s life; instead, he banishes the Cobra and makes him promise never to return to those waters. “Behold!”, the poet-saint seems to be saying, “Krishna, the all-powerful, in might as well as compassion!”
So steadfast was Narsinh’s faith that he was considered the ‘chosen one’ whose love was reciprocated by the object of his affections, Lord Krishna. Narsinh Mehta’s writings include autobiographical stories, one of which is Kunvarbai Nu Mameru, where Krishna comes to the rescue of his special disciple. According to the custom of Mameru, the parents of a woman expecting a child offer gifts to her in-law’s family during a celebration held in the seventh month of pregnancy. All Narsinh had to offer when his daughter was pregnant were his priceless bhajans, and he proceeded to sing his heart out. Suddenly, it is said that Lord Krishna arrived in the form of a wealthy merchant and fulfilled the materialistic needs of everyone, thereby saving Narsinh’s honor! Like most of mythology, the story is an allegory – in this case, of human greed and prejudice.
Narsinh Mehta was a pioneer in many ways: as a man with scarce regard for social status, since he was stigmatized by members of his Brahmin community for worshiping with members of a lower caste. He was a saint who did not denounce family, unlike other men of faith, and he continued to fulfill his duties as a husband and father after devoting his life to Krishna.
His sentiments are well proclaimed in what can be considered his most famous work, ‘Vaishnav Jan Toh,” which describes what it means to be a ‘Vaishnav’ (worshipper of Lord Vishnu, one of whose avatars is Krishna). The bhajan, a favorite of Mahatma Gandhi’s, is well known nationally as well as internationally, having been featured in films and documentaries based on the Mahatma.
Vaishnava jana toh tene kahiye je peed paraayi jaane re
Par dukhe upkaar kare toye man abhimaan na aane re.
A Vaishnav is one who understands the plight of his fellow humans
Though he helps those that are in need, he does not allow it to inflate his ego.
Amazingly, Narsinh Mehta’s original work has been passed down by word of mouth – very little has been found in written form! A devotee of the immortal God, a human with indestructible faith and a way with words, seems to have imbibed some of that immortality, uniting several generations through his reflections on humanity, faith and love.
Bela Desai, Ph.D., has been working in biotechnology in the San Francisco Bay Area for more than twenty years. Besides science, she enjoys reading and traveling to different places around the globe. She loves to dabble in singing and writing as well.
Before you get ready to see Lord Krishna at Brindavan, you have to watch out for the monkeys! They snatch your cell phone and glasses. At every corner, vigilant citizens shout out to visitors to take off their glasses and to hide their phones. What use is a cell phone to these cheeky imps – I wonder; naughtiness fills the air of Brindavan thanks to these monkeys.
It is also the place where Krishna and the gopis still dance every night!
Frozen into dancing forms, the trees of Nidhivan come alive every night. It is believed that as the sun dips beneath the horizon, Krishna enters the Rang Mahal in the Nidhivan gardens, and dresses his favorite gopi, Radharani. The garden closes at 5 p.m. every day for the Lord to make his way to the garden where gopis await him. The trees come alive unfurling their twisted limbs to dance with him as his gopis. Not even the monkeys dare enter Nidhivan after dark where this nightly divine dance occurs.
After the Raas Leela dance, the duo Radha and Krishna rest on the sandalwood bed in the Rang Mahal. It is found unmade every morning, the sheets askance. The water in the silver jar placed by the bedside is gone as is the pan (betel leaf with areca nut) and the neemdatun (herbal tooth-brush). The tour guide narrates this as he sings his way down the path of the garden watched keenly by the monkeys. Red color streaks some of the trees. Holi, the festival of colors, is still more than a month away and already the gods are sprinkling fun upon the city. The guide asks us to twirl, clap our hands and laugh in happiness. It is the place to dance!
In Nidhivan, Krishna and Radha had once appeared before Swami Harisen, guru of Tansen, Emperor Akbar’s court singer. Swami Harisen was singing when Krishna and Radha appeared before him and became one form, it is believed. The resulting statue of Krishna bent in a sensual “S” shape, curving at the waist and neck, was named Banke Bihari.
We head to Banke Bihari temple where this statue is now established. As we peer at the statue of the Lord, every few minutes the priest draws a curtain breaking our gaze. Staring continuously at the beauty of the dark idol of Bankey Bihari Ji is not recommended. The curtain breaks the spell that Bihariji’s beauty casts on the devotee. It ensures that the devotees cannot look at the Lord for a long time at a stretch and be overpowered by divine love.
The bells toll for the evening worship. Unlike other temples where the loud bells of the morning service or mangal aarti, wake up the lord sometimes as early as 4 am, in the temple of Bankey Bihari he sleeps in late. Shayan Sewa, the evening service aarti prepares him for the night.
We had entered the temple just as the evening service or aarti was starting. The beauty of the temple, with a central courtyard and Rajasthani palace design overwhelms us. The priest distributes sweet, milky pedas and draws a streak of red on our foreheads.
A small commotion ensues as we exit onto the street. I had forgotten to take off my glasses as I fiddled with taking a picture. Before I knew it a monkey had swiped them off my face. All the boys in the neighboring lanes started shouting at the same time. One chased the monkey and the other ran to me. “He took your glasses! Two hundred rupees and we can get you your glasses back,” they shouted urgently as I groped blindly. “Yes. Yes!” I affirmed, and quickly struck a deal. Just as I was thinking about what the Brindavan monkeys wanted with my Warby Parkers – voila! – the boys threw a fruity drink at him. He caught the drink and dropped the glasses. Rs. 40 for the fruity drink, Rs. 160 for the quick thinking boys and Warby Parkers for me, a bargain deal. I heaved a sigh of relief as I stuffed them into my pocket. It was time for a snack.
We headed to the shop of Titu Cheele wala, steps down from the Banke Bihari temple. Titu folded yummy cottage cheese filling into mouth-watering crispy savory chickpea-flour pancake and spooned some mint chutney over it. “How much do you reckon I could sell the cheela for in the US?” asked Titu. When I demurred, he confessed that he was in talks with a franchisee in London who had said the pancake would easily sell for 8 to 10 pounds a pop. I nodded in assent, and left the business planner behind to head back to the hotel. Lord Krishna stepped into Nidhivan with other things in mind.
The ISKCON temple I learnt wasn’t that indulgent about the nighttime activities of the Lord. They still woke him up at 4 a.m. with the morning service or mangal arti. Devotees were swaying to the chants of Hare Krishna when we entered the temple at 4 a.m. A line of dhoti-clad young boys sang gustily to the lord. The gentleness of the linen clad congregation harmonized with the wisps of fragrant smoke that filled the soft dawn light. Magic filled the air. Sounds of conch shells trumpeted through the air. The doors opened and the Lord made His appearance. A bright light illuminated his being. The girls gathered around the tulsi plant to offer their prayers and the men formed a circle in the courtyard. A sweet-smelling flower passed through the congregation. We inhaled its fragrance. The soft light of the lamp washed us with its promise of enlightenment. Soon it was time to leave for the Radha Valabh temple that woke the Lord at 7a.m.
The Radha Valabh temple is special as the devotees present marijuana or hashish to the Lord. The story goes that a very diligent priest who served the Lord had one failing – he loved to smoke marijuana. When the temple authorities threw him out of his job, the Lord appeared in the dreams of the other priests looking very sad. On enquiry, “I’m not getting any hashish these days,” said the Lord. On hearing this, the temple authorities realized the mistake they had made and instantly reinstated the priest.
We entered the Radha Valabh temple. A number of women were singing softly as they sat in the little marble square in front of the garba griya or the sanctum sanctorum of the temple. The singing, starting gentle, picked up rhythm and as the time approached to open the doors to the deity, a frenzy of singing erupted. Loud shouts and gusty hailing ushered the Lord into a new day. Thrusting hands were warned that the prashad would only be given to those who waited patiently for the blessing. We emerged from the temple clutching a packet of sweet powder, our reward for good behavior.
A trip to Brindavan is incomplete without a visit to Prem Mandir, the latest addition to the temple tour. Inaugurated in February 2012, the 54-acre site on the outskirts of Brindavan is dedicated to Lord Radha Krishna and Sita Ram. It took about $23 million, 30,000 tons of Italian marble, and 1000 artists toiled for about 12 years to build the complex. Tableaus that recreate scenes from Krishna’s life surround the marble temple. As evening approaches, the white marble façade is lit up. Awash in many shades of changing lights, the temple is a beautiful sight. Spiritual master Kripalu Maharaj conceived and established the temple. Shimmering green, red, and purple lights signal the end of our day.
It is time to retire for the night. Outside the Prem Mandir, on the wall above the fruit vendor, sits a monkey clutching a green woolen cap. A grey haired man below tosses him an orange. The exchange is completed as we head to our hotel.
It is now time to leave the city to Krishna and his gopis.
How to get to Brindavan
By Road : Brindavan is situated on Delhi-Agra NH-2. Another road that leads there is the new Yamuna Expressway. Delhi is about 200 Km away. It can take about 4 hours to traverse this distance.
By Train : The major railway station nearby is Mathura on the Delhi-Chennai and Delhi-Mumbai main line. Several express and passenger trains connect Mathura from other major cities of India like Delhi, Mumbai, Pune, Chennai, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Calcutta, Gwalior, Dehradun, Indore, and Agra. A rail bus runs between Brindavan and Mathura station 5 times a day. Vrindavan or Brindavan itself is a railway station.
By Air: The nearest airport Agra is 67 km away. The nearest international airport is Delhi.
Ritu Marwah’s travel tales reflect her deep interest in history. Her well-researched articles are informative while making for interesting reading.
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.