Follow our journalist and photographer to Mathura, where they explore the Krishna Janmabhoomi temple and enjoy the the town’s spectacular Holi celebrations, then visit the nearby sacred lakes of Goverdhan and the Radha Rani temple
By Rajiv Malik, New Delhi
The shri krishna janmasthan complex in Mathura is an extremely important place of pilgrimage, not only for all Vaishnavites and devotees of Lord Krishna but for Hindus of other traditions as well. All come to see the sacred birthplace of the Lord in one of Hinduism’s seven holy cities. By some accounts, it is the most frequently visited temple in all of India.
From childhood I had heard the story of Krishna’s being born in a prison cell and how His cruel maternal uncle, Kamsa, wanted to kill Him. Visiting the prison cell believed to be Lord Krishna’s birthplace was one of the most thrilling experiences of my life.
Every Hindu child of my generation would have visualized this cell, so vividly described during the Bhagavat kathas and raas leelas that were performed in every village and city of India around four decades ago. At that time these performances and events were an innate part of our religious lives. They connected us to our ancient culture and religion. Now we have movies, TV shows and YouTube.
We were taught the stories of the Gods in school. During major festivals we absorbed the tales through the lifelike displays set up for Janamashtami at temples or at huge fairgrounds during festivals. Here in Mathura, standing before the well maintained, authentic-looking cell, I felt transported back to the time of Krishna’s birth.
Mathura is home of the Yadavas, the tribe in which Krishna was born. Vajranabha, Krishna’s grandson, is said to have established the first temple at Krishna’s birthplace, janmasthan, shortly after He left His physical body. There he installed the Deity of Keshavadeva, or Keshav Deo, a form of Lord Krishna. The temple was located on Katra Mound, a large area several meters higher than the surrounding town. Even when Mathura became a stronghold of Buddhism and then Jainism, worship at the Janmasthan temple never ceased. Around 400ce, the Gupta emperor Chandragupta Vikramaditya built a big temple on the janmasthan site.
The temple was improved by the Rashtrakuta kings and others—so much so that in 1017, Mahmud of Ghazni and his army came here specifically to loot and demolish the temple. It was reported at the time that Mahmud’s army carried off the gold and silver murtis of many Deities. One of the gold statues weighed 1,120 pounds (worth us$20 million today) and was decorated with a 3.5 pound (8,000 carat) sapphire, most likely a blue one. To give some idea of its value, a huge blue sapphire was discovered in 2015 in Sri Lanka. It weighed 1,400 carats and was appraised at upwards of 300 million dollars.
Mahmud came only to plunder, not to rule, and left the devastated area after a few weeks. By 1150, local kings and devotees had rebuilt the temple. But it was destroyed again in the 16th century by the Sultan of Delhi, Sikandar Lodi. The temple’s Deities were broken up and, according to a report from the time, “used for weights in butcher shops made on the temple site to shed the blood of the cow over the birthplace of the heathen by the decree of Sikandar.”
Around 1614, Raja Vir Singh rebuilt the Janmabhoomi temple once again on Katra Mound. The huge structure, 250 feet high, could be seen from 33 miles away. Jean-Baptiste Tavernier, a French merchant traveler, recorded in 1650 that the red sandstone building as “the most magnificent he had seen; the main Deity [in the form of Keshavadeva] was of black stone and had rubies for eyes and was flanked by His two consorts of white stone, all in golden robes. It is one of the most sumptuous edifices in all of India.”
In 1662 the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb ordered that a mosque be built to the east of Katra Mound. In 1665 he banned the celebration of Holi and Diwali, and also banned cremations on the banks of the Yamuna. In 1670 he ordered that the temple and all ancillary shrines be completely destroyed. The Deities were broken up and used as foundation rubble under the steps of the Jahanara Mosque in Agra. The Eidgah Mosque was built upon the plinth of Raja Vir Singh’s temple. The overall destruction was such that the report, Mathura, a District Memoir, written by local magistrate F. S. Growse in 1882 (bit.ly/Growse), stated, “Thanks to the Muhammadan intolerance, there is not a single building of any antiquity either in the city itself or its environs. … At the present day it has no lack of stately edifices, but they are all modern.”
In 1815 the 13-acre Katra Mound, including the mosque, was purchased by Raja Patnimal of Banaras. Attempts to rebuild the Janmabhoomi temple finally came to fruition in the 1950s under the patronage the Birla and Dalmia industrialist families, who were instrumental in forming the Sri Krishnabhoomi Trust. India Today reported in 1993 (bit.ly/Eidgah) that management of the mosque was entrusted to the existing Eidgah committee, with the understanding its right to the mosque would not be challenged thereafter. By 1982—three centuries after its last destruction—the Shri Krishna Janmasthan complex as we see it today was completed, including the restoration of the prison cell directly west of the mosque. I was told the mosque has few worshipers, local Muslims preferring to attend the Jama Masjid to the east.
After Babri Masjid in Ayodhya was demolished by Hindu militants in 1992, security was greatly enhanced here in Mathura as well as at Kasi Vishwanatha Temple and the adjacent Gyanvapi mosque in Banaras (built by the same Aurangzeb, upon the site of the original Vishwanatha temple). While thousands of mosques in India have been built upon the sites of temples, it is these three that have been specifically targeted for repossession by the RSS and VHP.
Security is extremely tight here; 15-foot-high security fences surround the Krishna Janmabhoomi complex, and an even higher barrier stands between the temple and the mosque, which share a common wall. Soldiers with loaded rifles patrol many checkpoints; visitors are thoroughly scanned before entering the complex, and all must surrender cellphones and cameras. Photography is prohibited. Yet, despite the security and the extreme heat and humidity when we visited, the whole complex was overflowing with devotees and pilgrims queuing up to visit the sanctum sanctorum and other temples and places of religious interest within this well-maintained complex.
Throughout my trip to the Braj area, I was pained at the way the Hindu temples were damaged and destroyed, again and again, by Muslim aggressors. Here at Mathura Krishna Janmasthan one can see the mosque that stands right alongside the temple. The temple’s long and painful history of being repeatedly rebuilt only to be yet again razed to the ground, recounted by the priests and guides to the devotees and pilgrims, is deeply disturbing. The intense security only serves to augment this distress.
Due to our tight schedule, we could not visit the Shri Keshav Dev Prachin Mandir, across the street from the Janmabhoomi complex, as it had closed for the afternoon. Popular with the local devotees—in part because it is outside the high-security area—this is today a magnificent structure which was visited in its original form by Chaitanya Mahaprabhu in the 15th century. It is said that after taking darshan of the Deity, he was so imbued with love for Krishna that he started dancing, singing and crying out the Lord’s name, and the devotees present, mesmerized by his acts of divine love, joined him in chanting “Hari Hari.”
On our way to the Yamuna River we visited Shri Rangeshwar Mahadev Temple of Lord Siva, protector of Mathura city. Even on this hot afternoon it was overflowing with devotees, most of whom belonged to Mathura itself. To reach this beautiful temple, one walks along a narrow lane full of shops selling puja materials, fancy gifts and souvenirs. The temple has many paintings related to Hindu mythology and is a wonderful example of ancient Hindu architecture. Inside, a large number of devotees were performing puja and presenting offerings to Lord Siva. Meanwhile, a few priests were performing a big private puja for a Mumbai family in worship of Goddess Kali, whose statue is also prominently placed in this temple.
Mathura has 25 ghats along the Yamuna River, each one associated with a story of Lord Krishna. Many scriptures recommend pilgrimage to these ghats. Though only a short distance downstream from Vrindavan, the river flow here is stronger, the water much cleaner, and devotees bathe without reservation. We opted for a boat ride, which was cooler than walking along the stone ghats. Our priest guide advised us to sprinkle a few drops of the river water on ourselves in purification and to ask permission of the Goddess Yamuna to enter the boat. As we proceeded down the river, we encountered a steamer boat carrying a huge machine which scooped up garbage from the surface of the river, part of the government’s Yamuna cleaning project.
At this time of day, devotees had congregated at the famed Vishram Ghat. This is the centermost of the 25 ghats, with 12 to the north and 12 to the south—the traditional beginning and ending point for circumambulation of the holy city. Here devotees pay homage to their ancestors through the shraddha ceremonies, and it is here that the festival of Bhai Duj is celebrated, in which sisters apply tilak to the forehead of their brothers. This is possibly the most popular festival observed at the ghats, with brothers and sisters by the thousands coming to celebrate each year.
Behind the ghats is a row of ancient buildings of the haveli type, originally owned by wealthy kings and merchants and used to house sadhus and saints, but more recently converted to rest houses and hotels for pilgrims. The area is also home to hoards of monkeys. Our guides assured us these are not as aggressive as those of Vrindavan, but we nevertheless took no chances with our cell phones and eyeglasses.
Barsana’s Radha Rani Temple
The following day we visited Barsana, about 22 miles northwest of Vrindavan, with Vishakha Dasi as our guide. The spirit of Radhe Radhe rules everywhere in the Braj; She is the embodiment of true love, with even Lord Krishna subservient and wanting to please Her. Nowhere is this felt more than in the temple dedicated to Radha Rani in Barsana. The hilltop site was overflowing with devotees and pilgrims when we arrived. Despite the hot, humid weather, hundreds were climbing barefoot the 820-foot hill, chanting “Radhe Radhe.” Many, I discovered, were youth from the neighboring state of Uttar Pradesh. Radha Rani Temple is also called the Temple of Barsana’s Ladli Ji or “pampered one,” i.e., Radha. This palace-like structure was built by King Veer Singh in 1675 using red and yellow stone.
Hundreds of devotees were sitting on the floor of the huge main hall, enjoying melodious bhajans sung by a professional group of musicians. The whole place was reverberating with spiritual energy amidst the loud singing of “Radhe Radhe.” A group of young women started dancing to the music; my wife Renu joined them, her eyes closed in deep concentration, totally immersed in the bhakti bhav of the Goddess of supreme love. Later she shared that the few minutes she spent dancing provided her the most blissful and memorable moments of her trip to Braj.
Radha Ashtami, Her birthday festival, which occurs fifteen days after Krishna Janmashatami, is celebrated in Barsana with great fanfare. The whole area is decorated, and hundreds of thousands come from all over to participate.
Barsana is also famous for its Holi celebrations. The Holi here is known as Lathmar, “beating with the sticks,” Holi. This unique form of Holi is played between the residents of Nandgaon and Barsana. During the celebrations, the womenfolk of Barsana beat the men of Nandgaon with wooden sticks while the men defend themselves from these attacks with stout shields. Lathmar Holi is also popular in Mathura and Goverdhan.
A few days later we visited nearby Goverdhan, site of the Goverdhan Hill, which the child Krishna held aloft to save the town from the wrath of Indra. It is also the site of two small reservoirs, Radha Kund and the adjacent Shyam Kund, a famous leela sthali of Radha and Krishna known for its serenity and high spiritual vibration. Our guide, Vishakha Dasi, and the priest we met there, Pandit Kaushik or Anna Master, told us the reservoirs were created in penance and purification for Krishna’s killing of the demon Arishthasur, who came there in the form of a bull to attack Him. Shyam Kund, the story goes, was created by a kick of Krishna’s heel and filled by all the sacred rivers of India, and Radha Kund was dug by Radha and the gopis with their bangles and similarly filled. As this took place on Kartik Krishna Ahoi Ashtami, many devotees bathe in Radha Kund on this day at midnight to fulfill all their desires.
Our visit to Radha Kund was most uplifting. We came at noon, when Krishna and Radha are believed to come for their leelas every day. Perhaps it is because of their divine presence that we were feeling extremely refreshed and blessed. We enjoyed every moment spent in the Radha Kund area, where we prayed at some of the small shrines dedicated to Goverdhan Parbat and Radha Rani. This area is full of small temples, ashrams and cottages of saints and samadhis (burial sites) of some of the six goswamis of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu who developed this area.
We visited Swami Prankrishna Das Baba’s ashram, a place where they do kirtan singing and Bhagwat katha, and met his team of young musicians and singers who sang melodious and highly devotional bhajans for us. By this time, having visited Radha Kund and meeting and having darshan of some of the realized saints, I was so ecstatic that during the bhajans I myself went into a trance and started dancing and chanting “Radhe Radhe” and “Radhe Krishna.”
Swamiji told me, “My message to the Hindus all over the world is that India is the best country, and in Goverdhan the best place is Radha Kund. Here Krishna and Radha melted and merged in this water. Anyone who takes a bath here will be blessed with complete love by the grace of Radha Rani. In this Kali Yuga, we must recite the name of God to be liberated; chasing material things will lead us to the world of sorrows.”
I must say on a personal level that my time in Braj was quite a spiritual experience not only for me, but my wife Renu as well. Braj Bhoomi is the magical land of Radha and Krishna, where today one comes into contact with the holy dust on which the divine couple trod, and where they together still engage in their raas leela, at night in Nidhi Van and Sewa Kunj of Vrindavan, and during the day at Radha Kunj in Goverdhan. Experiencing their presence is extremely easy and accessible to everyone. It is a thrilling experience to visit Krishna Janmabhoomi in Mathura, where He was born in a prison cell.
The Brajwasi people of this area are proud of their connection to Lord Krishna, who lived among them so long ago, and His consort, Radha Rani, Herself hailing from a family of Barsana. Brajwasis delight in their Hindu way of dressing—dhoti kurta for the men and sarees and gopi costumes for the women. Each greets the visitor with “Radhe, Radhe,” a mantra you will also find painted on the walls as well as the faces of devotees during the Holi festival.
Even in this age of computers and the Internet, to truly experience Sanatana Dharma, one must spend some time in the sacred Braj Bhoomi, where the chanting of “Radhe Radhe” will open the inner doors to connect you to Radha and Krishna.
The Widow Mothers of Vrindavan
Swami Kalikrishnananda, Assistant Secretary, Ramakrishna Mission Sevashram Charitable Hospital Vrindavan, provides a concise overview of the town’s “widow mothers.”
Due to Vrindavan’s close connection with Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, many people have moved from Bengal to this place since his time. Now 40 percent of the population here traces directly or indirectly to West Bengal. These Vaishnavites initially came on pilgrimage to do their bhakti and sadhana, and eventually settled here. The belief in Bengal is that if old widows spend their last days here they will attain Vaikuntha, the abode of Lord Vishnu, just as many believe that by spending their last days in Varanasi they will be liberated. Almost all these widow mothers come from West Bengal and surrounding areas, since this practice is prevalent only in that region. They come only to Vrindavan and not to other pilgrimage centers. Widows from other religions and communities sometimes get settled in Vrindavan in the garb of Hindus for the sake of their livelihood, but they are a small percentage.
Family members sometimes bring their elderly women or widows here on the pretext of pilgrimage and abandon them. Left with no other options, they go to the widows’ homes here and seek shelter. Even sons have abandoned their mothers here. Another category is women who were married at an early age and lost their husbands. Very few really come here voluntarily with the idea of spiritual practice. Most arrive due to compelling circumstances, and that is the truth. Some take up jobs, but most subsist by begging.
By one estimate there are as many as 6,000 widows in Vrindavan. Of these. the RK Mission is providing full food rations to 1,600 of them, which is what our funds and staffing allow. We issue ration cards, and every month, from the 10th to the 17th, they can pick up their ration for the entire month. We give them rice, dal, oil, sugar, salt, milk powder, tea, soap, etc. From time to time we also provide gas stoves, boxes to keep their belongings, blankets and clothing. If we have more funding, we will increase the number we support. There are many NGOs and ashrams doing their part to improve the widows’ living conditions.
The widows take up residence in some of the ashrams or rented houses. They sing bhajans in the local temples, which in turn feed them and provide them small gifts. No doubt, either willfully or forcibly, they are leading an austere religious life while taking the name of the Lord. All-merciful Lord Krishna makes sure that these widows get their food and shelter at all times.