Walk down certain paths in Vrindavan and you will find it difficult to tell the decade, or even the century, you are in. The pilgrimage town, that attracts millions of seekers and ascetics each year, is a peculiar blend of history and mythology, of beauty and blight, of commerce and spirituality. Its long narrow streets were designed to insulate and keep the residents of yore safe from the wild forests that once grew thick around it. Here, you can hear bhajans (spiritual songs) set to the latest film tunes. You are more likely to get a blessing from a poojari (priest) than a bargain from the tenacious rickshaw drivers. The scent of flowers and fresh jalebees (sweets) is never without hint of the open sewers that skirt its streets. Regardless of what you believe or question, whether you are more drawn to its verity or verisimilitude, Vrindavan is sure to enthrall you – even inspire you.
According to the sacred text, Srimad Bhagavatam, Vrindavan, is the place where India’s cowherd, butter-thief, thundercloud-coloured god Krishna, spent his childhood 5000 years ago. Denizens of Vrindavan believe it is the physical manifestation of heaven on Earth. The dry desert dust that, when tousled, forms a sienna haze over the town is considered no different from dust at Krishna’s feet. It is here he danced and enchanted all but, especially the gopis (girlfriends) and his favourite, Radha.
Every corner of Vrindavan marks the site of one of his pastimes or lilas. The parikrama marg, the dusty circumambulatory path along the Jamuna river and around the town, is full of makeshift signs boasting the ‘exact’ location of these lilas. On a walk along the riverside, I located the spot where Krishna had slain the ten headed serpent demon Kalia, and the precise tree which he had climbed with the clothes he had stolen from the unsuspecting gopis bathing in the water. To the devout, Krishna is both mischievous and brave, a thief and a lover, a boy and god and in many ways Vrindavan, with all its dichotomies and opposites, seems a fitting tribute to him.
The parkirama marg bends away from the river into a labyrinth of streets that lead to the many markets scattered around the town. I chose to take a rickshaw down these narrow roads preferring to brave an encounter with a haggling rickshaw driver, to whom I might lose 10 rupees, than an encounter with a thieving rhesus monkey and, lose my entire wallet (which incidentally happened anyway). The profusion of signs in English and Hindi saying “Monkeys remove spectacles” are fair warnings to the newly arrived. These impetuous primates are notorious kleptomaniacs with a specific obsession with spectacles. Sometimes, however, if they are in a good mood and you have an interesting treat you might be able to barter it back, albeit almost always badly mangled.
Loi Bazaar, the main market, presented another dimension of Vrindavan.Here commerce and spirituality combine to give the place the feel of an amusement park or a spiritual carnival. You can buy little brass Krishna and Radha deities and an astonishing number of accessories for them, from bansies (flutes), wigs, dresses, crowns and bracelets to furniture like swings, deewans, and cushions. What might seem like curios or spiritual souvenirs to a visitor here is considered central to followers of Bhakti Yoga. Love of god, whether he is perceived as a father, child, friend or lover, through devotional service and worship is at the centre of their faith and practice.
To witness this devotion one has to leave the bazaars for the temples of Vrindavan. Each of the thousands of temples, worshipping Krishna in his different forms, is unique with their own histories, legends, and architectural styles. Follow the meandering road from the Narasinga temple, dedicated to the half-man, half-lion incarnation of Krishna, and you find the house where the mystical poetess Mirabai spent many years. The temple that fascinated me the most however, was the Radha-Raman Temple.
It is said that on a full moon night in May 1542, the foot high deity of Radha-Raman manifested from a shaligram-shila (naturally formed black spherical rocks with conch and lotus-like patterns on them). Popular belief rules out the possibility it was sculptured as the stones are considered too brittle to chisel to produce the details visible on the Radha- Raman deity.
I was fascinated by the dozens who had assembled in a thick wobbly line for a momentary sighting, or daarshan, of the deity. The curtains hadn’t yet been drawn and there was a great sense of anticipation and expectancy with everyone trying to secure just the right place for a good view of little Radha-Raman. When the moment finally came and the deity was unveiled the whole room spontaneously uttered the single exclamation “Oh”! Old and young leapt up and down to get glimpse of the deity. The fervour and the excitement were tangible, as at a concert or whilst waiting to receive an old friend at the station.
The most popular temple in Vrindavan however, is the Banke Bihari temple, founded by the great musician – Swami Haridas. Krishna as Banke Bihari, meaning “supreme enjoyer”, is said to have been quite hedonistic and playful, always keeping late nights. Consequently, to give him sufficient rest the curtains in this temple never open before 9 a.m, unlike the other temples, which open at daybreak. This temple also received immense public attention when the poojari decided to give the Banke Bihari deity a cell phone and dress him up in jeans!
The diversity in legend is matched by the variety in architecture. In 1876 a wealthy jeweller, Shah Kundan Lal, constructed the Shahji Temple. Unlike the Rajasthani red or pink sandstone used in the other temples, this temple is made mostly with Italian marble. The grand white staircase leading to the temple and the series of 15 feet high spiraling columns at its exterior, mark its Greco-Roman influence. Vrindavan’s temples have had numerous patrons in the past. Moghul emperor Akbar visited Vrindavan in the late 16th century and donated stone and resources toward the construction of temples. A century later, however, his great grandson administered the destruction of many, such as the Govindaji Temple with its bold seven-storey dome that was once visible from Agra.
Vrindavan is home to thousands of temples and is infinite in its legends. It is a place where people, monkeys, peacocks, parrots and pigs, however large a nuisance each might be, have an equal right to exist as per the laws of karma. Emperor and ascetic, historian and theologian, saint, poet and common lovers of stories such as myself, have visited Vrindavan. Some come and stay forever, others come and go, happily or mournfully; most find it difficult to shake off the dust of Vrindavan.