Mathura & Vrindavan – In the footsteps of Lord Krishna


The cities of Mathura and Vrindavan which are so intrinsically linked with the legends and stories of Lord Krishna, are mesmerising, even though many changes have occurred over the past decades. Yet, the devotion of the pilgrims and the sheer magnetism of the sacred towns have ensured that these towns continue to attract visitors by the hordes.

Many moons ago when we first visited Vrindavan in Uttar Pradesh, river Yamuna flowed past the ghats of the holy city, fielding reflections of the monuments, that lined its banks, in its placid waters. On our recent visit, two decades later, we felt a stab of pain when we discovered that the course of the river had shifted some 50 metres away, with sand banks rising between it and the ghats. Sadly, the monuments, languishing like a lover separated forever from its lover, had started to crumble.

Our mind raced back to the time we cruised town the ghats in a rowing boat when two European girls, draped in saris, walked down a flight of steps lapped by the river and took a purifying dip in its waters. “Modern day gopis,” our boatman observed with a chuckle. He was referring to a childhood prank of Lord Krishna who stole the clothes of cowgirls bathing in these very same waters. Born in Mathura, 15 km away, under compelling circumstances, Krishna played out his rather mischievous childhood in Vrindavan, slaying demons and performing miracles, even as he teased the gopis and tenderly wooed his beloved Radha.

“I don’t think Lord Krishna would recognise the Vrindavan of today,” our boatman commented. We could not agree more as we were witness to change in a span of two decades. Yet the little wooded village in which Krishna grew up, still revolves around him, and this was evident in the number of temples, each one as distinct as the many avatars of the Lord, that stood the jumble of narrow congested streets and boisterous little markets of the bustling pilgrim town.

Temple hopping in the land of Krishna

We started our temple hopping foray with Prem Mandir, undoubtedly the most flamboyant of the new temples that have been added to the roll call of temples and shrines in Vrindavan. As we gawked at the vast expanse of white marble, intricate carvings and the ambitious scale of the project, we recalled what an information officer of the temple had told us. A whopping 30,000 tons of pure-white Italian marble was used to construct this grand edifice on whose walls the highlights of the life of Lord Krishna (as also the guruji who built it) were etched in brilliant colours. The complex had the feel of a religious theme park that exploded in rainbow hues – red, green, purple, yellow – as floodlights washed over the central structure after sunset.

The marble ISKCON temple of the Hare Krishna Hare Ram order was of older antecedence (built in 1975), and it was the star attraction on an earlier visit. It still draws visitors but has the feel of a religious fair ground where devotees loiter around its courtyards, while disciples – many of them originating from foreign shores – chant bhajans to the clash of hand cymbals, the pounding rhythm of tablas, and the strains of sitars and harmoniums. Located on the premises is a restaurant with a takeaway counter, a book shop, a guest house, and a tourist office.

The mid-19th century Rangaji Temple, however, has a different kind of buzz, one stirred with faith,
devotion… and laughter. A clutch of women milling around in one of the pillared halls suddenly burst into raucous laughter. We looked around us to see what was the source of their mirth. Seeing our bewilderment, one lady offered us a simple explanation. “When the gods see us happy, they are happy too, and they laugh along with us.” Huge smiles lit up our faces, and we knew the gods were smiling too.

The feel-good emotion stayed with us as we continued to explore the shrine whose towering entrance gate was etched with sculpted images. It is unique in that it is very South Indian in its architectural design. Not surprisingly, Lord Krishna, as an incarnation of Lord Vishnu, enshrined in the holy sanctum of the 204-pillared complex, is cared for by 108 pundits from the southern reaches of the country.

Once every year, during the months of March-April, Rangaji Temple is the heart of a grand Ratha Yatra or car festival known as Brahmotsavam. Over a period of 10 days, the main deities of the temple are taken in procession atop elaborately decorated chariots around the city.

The only way to Banke-Bihari Temple, our next stop, was to walk there and the narrow roads leading to the shrine were crawling with devotees, pouring in from Delhi and other major cities. “Don’t forget to make a wish, for Lord Banke-Bihari grants whatever you ask of him,” our guide reminded us as we pushed through the milling crowds towards the temple.

According to our guide, the idol of Banke-Bihari, a manifestation of Lord Krishna as the supreme ‘enjoyer’, was discovered in Nidhuvana by Swami Haridasa, guru of the famous musician Tansen, whose music was reputed to draw tears from wild animals and rain from clouds.

A swirling ocean of devotion, the chanting of bhajans and loud invocations of the gods greeted us as we entered the shrine. The courtyard in front of the main alter was packed tight with devotees but that did not deter our guide from nudging, pushing and short of fighting his way – with us in tow – through the throng. Around us, devotees let out full-throated, ear-piercing cries, supplicating Banke-Bihari and Lord Krishna for favours.

Suddenly: Pandemonium! The battery of priests tending to the black stone idol, smothered in garlands, started to hurl garlands into the crowd. Hands flew all around us, snatching at one of the floral necklaces that floated in our direction. Yank, pull, tug…The garland was torn to shreds in seconds. Our guide managed to emerge from the tussle with a fist full of flowers of which he offered us a few. “Even one petal is enough. Banke-Bihari will make your wish come true. Let’s go.”

The narrow street outside the temple was awash with the rich aroma of deep-fried snacks – orange jalebies, mountains of kachories, sizzling samosas – that emanated from the row of stalls that hemmed it. We treated ourselves to a glass of the city’s famous lassi, and as we slurped the thick white liquid, a street band struck up a raucous rendition of a popular Bollywood song which was cluttered with a flurry of false notes.

Some monkey business!

There was serious monkey business going on at the Govind Deo Temple. As we approached the grand red sandstone edifice built by Maharaja Man Singh of Amer in 1590, a monkey sprang out from behind a pillar and snatched the glasses right off the face of a European tourist walking in front of us. She screamed. We were in a flap, wanting to help her but not knowing how to. Our guide, however, understood the cunning of the thieving simian and sprang into action. He picked up a few savouries from a nearby handcart and tossed it on the ground near the monkey who in turn tossed the spectacles aside and accept- ed the offering in exchange.

The first time we had been warned about watching out for our glasses, we figured that the grey bearded man with caste marks on his ample forehead was joking. But as we encountered others dishing out the same warning – “Take off your glasses,” the more strident ones cautioned – we figured there must be an element of truth in it. But the spectacle raid in front of Govind Deo Temple – which looked more like the palace of a favourite queen than a place of worship – was the first time we had seen the thieves in action. “You can’t really blame the monkeys,” our guide pleaded the case of the four-legged bandits. “They are only doing what Lord Krishna did when he stole pots of butter and the garments of the bathing gopis.”

Lord Krishna as a kid was undoubtedly a mischievous imp, but he was also a demon slayer and the Kaliya Ghata shrine marks the spot where he jumped into the river to chastise the many-hooded serpent Kaliya who was contaminating the waters with its deadly poison. (Today, the river no longer flows past the shrine).

According to the scriptures, the venom of the enormous serpent Kaliya (black) that one day took up residence in a lagoon of the river was so potent that it not only killed all the fish in the water, but even the birds flying overhead started to fall off the sky, and the surrounding trees and grass started to wither and die. Seeing this devastation, Lord Krishna decided to confront the serpent by jumping into these poisonous waters. His splashing about attracted the serpent which reared its hundred-hooded head (each head adorned with a precious gem) to see what the commotion was all about.

Breathing fire from its nostrils it coiled itself around Lord Krishna, who responded by expanding his body and forcing the serpent to release its grip. Quickly regaining his original form, Krishna started to dance upon the serpent’s many hoods. Bewildered, confused and tormented, a dizzy Kaliya started to vomit blood. Just as he was about to die, his many wives pleaded with Krishna to spare their husband. Taking pity on them, the Lord banished Kaliya and his family forever to a great ocean.

We settled for the story but skipped the excursion to the Kaliya shrine as also the Madan Mohan Temple which is believed to be built on the hillock where Krishna rested after his encounter with the serpent. We needed to get to Mathura, where the story of Lord Krishna started.

At the outskirts of Vrindavan, we stopped briefly at the Glass Temple whose walls and pillars were covered with mosaic images of glass pieces with scenes plucked from the life of Lord Krishna.

The temple to the ‘mad saint’

A few kilometres down the road towards Mathura, the marble Pagal Baba (mad saint) Mandir pierced the sky. The temple is named after a 20th century sage whose obsessive devotion to goddess Kali drove him to a point of insanity. According to legend, Goddess Kali was so pleased with Pagal Baba’s devotion that one night she appeared in his dreams and gave him a red handkerchief. The next morning, the Baba awoke to find a red piece of cloth under his pillow. And it was no ordinary piece of cloth, but one that granted his every boon, including the funds needed to build his temple. The miraculous swathe of fabric is enshrined in the Electronic Ramayana museum in the basement of the shrine where mechanical dolls enact scenes from the legendary epic, much to the delight of devotees who crowded round the exhibits with wide-eyed fascination.

Our final stop just before entering Mathura was at the rust coloured Birla Temple (also known as Gita Temple) in which the entire text of the Bhagwat Gita – Lord Krishna explaining the true meaning of life and karma to Arjun as two mighty armies prepared for the final showdown of the Mahabharata War – has been inscribed on marble tablets within the shrine. As we started to leave the temple complex, we came upon a group of women in brightly coloured gaghra-cholis dancing at the entrance of the main shrine. “Lord Krishna’s gopis,” our guide answered our unstated question.

The town of Mathura

It was a fitting welcome to the city in which Lord Krishna was born under extraordinary circumstances. The story goes back to the time when the evil king Kansa unleashed a reign of sheer terror. No one dared to challenge or confront him. However, one day a learned sage informed him that he would be defeated by one of his Prime Minister’s offspring. King Kansa did not quite believe the soothsayer, but as a precautionary measure he threw the man and his wife in a high security prison. Over the years, as each child was born to the couple, the king entered their prison cell and killed it.

The script changed dramatically the moment the eighth child was born. The heavens raged as lightning and thunder rent the sky. The chains that bound his parents fell away. The prison gates flew open. Despite all the commotion around them, the guards nodded off to sleep, and did not notice the child’s terrified father carry the infant past them. Once out of prison, the former prime minister swam across the River Yamuna to the neighbouring village of Vrindavan where he swapped his son for a daughter born that very moment to one of his kin. Quietly he returned with the infant girl to his prison cell, and was not unduly alarmed when chains that bound him clamped back in place, the doors closed and the guards awoke.

Early next morning, news of the birth was out. The evil king entered the prison to repeat the heinous drill he had been through seven times before. He grabbed the child from its parent’s arms and prepared to slam it on the floor. But this time something amazing happened. The infant slipped from his grasp and soared up to the heavens.

Deep down, the king knew that he was doomed; that even the gods had conspired against him. In a desperate bid to stay the inevitable, he deputed the services of an evil rakshas (demon) who delighted in carrying out the monstrous plan chalked out for him. Masquerading as a woman he started to kill all the new born male babies in the kingdom by getting them to suckle at his poisoned breasts. Little did he realise what would happen to him as he honed in on his intended target. The moment Lord Krishna attached his mouth to the demon’s breast, he sucked the life out of him, and what remained of his body was an empty shell.

The prison cell where this miraculous birth took place is enshrined as the central sanctum of the Janmabhoomi Temple complex which is located in the heart of the gasping old section of the city where narrow winding streets are paved with enormous flagstones and cud chewing cows play the role of road dividers and traffic islands. Driving down to the temple was like entering a lost world where sadhus with flowing locks whizzed past on motorbikes.

At the enormous gate, atop which a blue-bodied Lord Krishna drives the prancing horse chariot of Arjun, security police, armed with metal detectors, checked everyone – holy men, devotees and tourists – passing through. The reason for this heightened security was more than apparent to see as the Janmabhoomi Temple complex shared a common compound wall with the Jami Masjid built in 1661 by Abd-un-Nabir Khan.

The Janmabhoomi complex which comprises a number of temples was a festival of devotion, celebrated with the chanting of mantras and bhajans. Shaven head women walked endless circles around a tree, people prostrated themselves before the various shrines while others browsed around a little bazaar lined with shops selling religious trinkets and souvenirs.

The heartbeat of Janmabhoomi, however, was a little prison cell, quite unlike any temple building, where Lord Vishnu, incarnated as Lord Krishna, came down to earth in dramatic fashion to eventually fulfil his destiny and slay the evil king Kansa. Years, later, when he had completed his karmic mission, Krishna went down to the banks of Yamuna River to have a purifying dip in its waters and rest. Today, that spot known as Vishram Ghat is crowned with a temple which is the venue of a flaming river aarti every evening. To a rising crescendo of chanting bhajans, tolling temple bells and throbbing drums, a battery of priests performed a synchronised fire dance of swirling lamps.

Today, the waterfront is lined with 25 ghats which receive a steady stream of pilgrims and visitors. After a leisurely boat ride with an old weather-beaten boatman, we hurried along for a darshan of Lord Krishna enshrined in the popular Dwarikadhish Mandir, built in 1815 by Seth Gokuldas Parikh, treasurer of the State of Gwalior, in the narrow bustling street behind the ghats. We reached the temple a few minutes before the main deity was to be awakened. (At the stroke of noon, the deities in the temples around Mathura and Vrindavan retire for their afternoon nap to return once more at 4 pm and shower blessings on their devotees with rejuvenated vigour.)

As the second hand of a large wall clock ticked towards the appointed hour, the chanting of bhajans rose to a fevered pitch. Then a hushed silence as the pujaris prepared to draw back the curtains behind which Lord Krishna was enthroned. And as the curtains parted, a cry of devotion exploded like a thunderclap. We added our voice to the chorus that soared up to the heavens where each prayer, we liked to believe, was individually blessed.

File Facts
• Though Agra (62km) is closer, Delhi airport (175km) offers far better and convenient connections.
• Mathura is an important stop on the Western Railways’ Mumbai-Delhi sector. All trains – including the superfast August Kranti Rajdhani Express except the Rajdhani – stop here.
• Mathura and its twin city of Vrindavan are 15 km apart.
• Most of the important temples across Mathura and Vrindavan are open between sunrise and 12 noon and then again from 4.00 pm to sunset.
• Of the many festivals, Holi (Feb/Mar) and Janmashtami (Aug/Sep) are the most important and particularly colourful and vibrant.
• By way of accommodation, there are a number of dharamshalas, hotels and UP state tourism lodges.

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Gustasp and Jeroo Irani

Gustasp and Jeroo Irani are travel companions for whom life is a never-ending journey. Over the last 25 years they have travelled extensively across India and the globe, taking the rough with the smooth; sampling different cultures and cuisines. In the process they have trekked in the Australian Outback, slurped snake soup in Hong Kong, have danced with the Samburus in Africa, stayed with a local family in a Malay village, cracked the Da Vinci Code in Paris… For them, writing and photog- raphy are more than just freezing moments of that journey; it’s a passion.