Braj Bhoomi: Krishna's Land

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Mural at Prem Mandir depicting the nightly raas leela at Nidhivan where Krishna, shown with Radha in the center, appears in many forms to dance with all the gopis

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Vrindavan is the land of Lord Krishna’s childhood leelas, which still take place nightly in the town’s sacred tulsi groves. In this article, Part One of our visit to Braj Bhoomi, we’ll tour the temples and meet the swamis, scholars, priests and the Bhagwat katha vachaks—those who daily tell the stories of Krishna’s pastimes to all who draw near.

 

BY RAJIV MALIK, NEW DELHI

VRINDAVAN, THE CHILDHOOD ABODE OF Lord Krishna, is a popular pilgrimage destination located in a bend in the Yamuna River in Braj Bhoomi. Vrindavan’s name comes from vrinda (tulsi) and vana (forest), since tulsi trees once covered the area. Just seven miles north of Krishna’s birthplace, it is a two-hour drive from Delhi. Here occurred many of Krishna’s boyhood leelas or pastimes, most famously the raas leela, or dance, with Radha and the gopis. Even now their dance is believed to take place every night in Nidhivan Kunj and Seva Kunj, the two small groves of tulsi trees that remain in this now heavily developed area.

Photographer Arun Mishra and I spent nearly two weeks in April retracing the steps and reliving the adventures of the young Krishna. Much of our time was spent in Vrindavan, the focus of this first installment of our report. In the next issue we will describe Mathura, Nandgaon, Barsana and a few other significant places in Braj Bhoomi.

We were fortunate to encounter upon our arrival our good friend Swami Gopal Sharan Devacharya, head of the charming Sri Golok­ Dham in Delhi and Vrindavan and honored as Hinduism Today’s Hindu of the Year, 2009. Entrusted to prominent saint Swami Lalita Sharan Devacharya at the tender age of four, Swamiji has a close association with the holy city. He lived here before going to Varanasi for higher education and returns periodically to, as he told us, “recharge my batteries in the place where I did my sadhana and tapas.” He also oversees the ashram here, which is their main publishing center and where they have 24 brahmacharis engaged in Sanskrit study. Swamiji facilitated our meetings with many of the city’s saints.

Swami explained to us that Vrindavan is not just a physical place but a spiritual realm imbued with the presence of Lord Krishna Himself. Swami’s lineage, the Nimbarka Sampradaya, dates its presence here back some 5,000 years, to shortly after the lifetime of Krishna. Other major teaching lineages have become associated with the place since that time, he explained, including those of Ramanuja, Vishnuswami (in the line of Sant Namdev), the Ramanandis and the Gaudiyas.

The Bengali saint Chaitanya Mahaprabhu (1486-1534), founder of Gaudiya Vaishnavism, was primarily responsible for Vrindavan’s present-day renown. He sent a team of his disciples, known as the Six Goswamis, here to mystically rediscover the sites of the leelas of Krishna with Radha and the gopis as told in the Bhagavata Purana. Vrindavan had a few temples at that time, but the area was mostly tulsi trees. The Goswamis, sannyasin monks, designated certain families to carry on the tradition, and the Goswami families still care for Vrindavan temples today.

Some say Vrindavan was unknown before the Goswamis’ arrival, but it is only a few miles from Mathura, which dates back thousands of years and is mentioned in the Rama­yana. A major city by the 6th century bce, Mathura underwent catastrophic destruction beginning with the attack of Mahmud of Ghazni in 1018, then the Sultanate of Delhi and finally Aurangzeb. In each attack the temple marking Krishna’s birthplace was destroyed, then later rebuilt by the devotees.

Vrindavan remained heavily forested until 250 years ago, when local rulers initiated intense development—a process continued today by apartment complex entrepreneurs. Many of the old temples from that time are in a state of neglect. New temples have arisen in the last half century, altering the spiritual landscape. The Sri Krishna-Balaram Mandir, opened by ISKCON in 1975, was popular with visitors until eclipsed in 2012 by Prem Mandir, built by Shri Kripalu Maharaj on a 54-acre site on the edge of town. Even this may be overtaken by the ambitious Vrindavan Chandroday Mandir, which plans to include a 700-foot-high skyscraper in the midst of a huge spiritual park.

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Haridwar: Radha and Krishna at the Radha Golokbihari ji temple in the Shri Golok Dham Ashram, Gaushala Nagar, Vrindavan

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Banke Bihari shrine, Nidhivana Kunj; the tangled tulsi trees of Nidhivana

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Map of Braj Bhoomi and its 157-mile circumambulation route; Vrindavan lies in a bend in the Yamuna River

With a modern highway linking it to Delhi, Vrindavan sees a daily influx of nearly 100,000 people, a number equal to its own population. Weekends see even more, often just for the day. Brij­wasis, as the locals are called, lament that many of these visitors are more interested in a picnic than a true pilgrimage. Between the development and the visitors, the town is something of an environmental mess, compounded by the now highly polluted and dewatered Yamuna River (thanks to Delhi upstream) which nearly encircles it. Government agencies and local environmentalists alike are working to solve both issues.

The Sacred Groves

Swami Gopal Sharan advises, “One can realize the significance of Vrindavan Dham by merely entering its area. The earth and dust of this place are sacred. If you go to any ancient temple in the evening, you will find bhajans and kirtans being performed. The spirit of devotion here has to be experienced to be understood.”

I tasted Vrindavan’s spiritual power on my first visit to Nidhivan Kunj, one of the two remaining tulsi groves, site of the eternal evening raas leela of Krishna, Radha and the gopis. Treading the paths of Nidhivan, where Krishna and Radha walk every day, is magical. The day is hot, the paths scorching our feet, but we and the other devotees pay this no mind; each is thrilled to be connected to the earth and dust which daily come in contact with the lotus feet of Radha Rani and Thakur Ji. The tulsi trees grow twisted and bent over towards the earth. I feel transported back to ancient times when thousands of gopis performed the maha raas leela with Krishna and Radha. But then I realize there is no need to go into the past to experience the eternal leelas of Krishna, as they continue even now. I can hear His decorated flute playing tunes of love. I hear the sounds of anklets and the tinkling bangles of Raja Rani Ji and the eight sakhis, Her closest friends among the gopis.

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Shri Swami Gopal Sharan shares a moment with a friend in his ashram’s modern gaushala

I am brought back to this mortal world by the loud voice of a guide who is relating the stories connected with Nidhivan. For many it is difficult to believe that the raas leela takes place here every night, but great realized souls have said it is so. The priests of Nidhivan’s Ranga Mahal Temple here say that every evening before they close the temple, they make up the bed for Radha and Krishna to rest after the raas leela. They leave various items including a fresh sari, a cosmetic kit, laddus, betel leaves and neem twigs for cleaning the teeth, then lock the temple. In the morning when the doors are unlocked, the bed has been slept in and the various items have been used. We heard accounts of this daily miracle many times during our stay, a testament to the intimate closeness of Radha and Krishna that can be experienced here.

Nidhivan is also famous for the appearance of the shri vigrah (physical image) of Bankey Bihari Ji (Krishna) in the hands of His ardent devotee, famous classical music exponent and guru Swami Haridas Ji, whose samadhi (burial crypt) is also located here. A small temple named Prakatya Sthal is dedicated to the appearance of Bihari Ji, but the shri vigrah of Haridas is now worshiped in the nearby Bankey Bihari Temple, built for that purpose in 1864. Nidhivan also has a small temple to Radha Rani in which She is playing Krishna’s flute that She is said to have stolen to tease Him.

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Busy worship: Seva Kunj, one of the two forested areas left in Vrindavan

After the evening arati, all entrances to Nidhivan are closed, to be reopened for the morning worship. Even the monkeys leave. After nightfall, Radha and Krishna’s raas leela begins. It is believed that anyone staying in Nidhivan overnight would be found dead or insane in the morning—a threat more effective than a “No Trespassing” sign.

Walking barefooted in Nidhivan and remembering all the folklore and stories of the raas leela, I feel truly blessed, intoxicated with the divine nectar of love which Radha Ji symbolizes and embodies.

Also famous is the other forested grove remaining in Vrindavan—Seva Kunj, associated with the saint Harivansh Ji Maharaj. Here, too, it is said Lord Krishna, Radha and the gopis perform raas leela every night. Unlike Nidhivan, the paths are covered with iron grills, keeping the monkeys at bay who might otherwise steal one’s glasses, mobile or purse, apparently just to torment their fellow simians, though sometimes they accept a bribe such as a banana to return their booty. The parikrama walkway encircling the grove has neatly engraved slokas from the Yamuna Ashthak and Radha Sudha Nidhi in praise of Radha Rani and Krishna. In this grove, too, humans and monkeys alike move out by evening, before the raas leela, lest they not survive the night. The Radha Ashtami festival is celebrated here with great fanfare. There are also evening bhajans with famed singers.

In the center of Seva Kunj is the Nikunj temple, famed for its enshrined picture of Lord Krishna massaging the feet of His beloved Radha Ji. A Muslim devotee of Lord Krishna known as Bhakt Raskhan composed a poem about how he searched the Braj area for Krishna and finally found Him in Seva Kunj massaging the feet of Radha Rani, a sign of His reverence for womanhood. The temple has many paintings of Radha and Krishna performing different leelas, in various moods, all according to the Radha Vallabh tradition.

My wife Renu full of joy visiting Seva Kunj and seeing the creator of the world Thakur Ji massaging the feet of His beloved. Other women in our group also exchange the same kind of glances with their life partners after hearing the wonderful story of love of Radha and Krishna, told by the temple priest.

The Temples

From the sacred groves we set out to visit Vrindavan’s temples, starting with the most famous, Bankey Bihari. Many pilgrims make this their first destination here, only visiting other temples afterwards. On weekends, in barely controlled chaos, hundreds of thousands struggle for a glimpse of Radha and Krishna brought into existence as a single form by the tapas of Saint Haridas and worshiped here instead of Nidhivan since 1864. On our second visit, coming with Swami Gopal Sharan, we are allowed within a few feet of the Shri Vigrah, displayed in what is called ful bangla, “house of flowers.” Thousands of people, hands raised, chanted “Bolo Bankey Bihari Lal Ki Jai.”

A unique feature of darshan here is that every few minutes a curtain is pulled in front of the Deity. The eyes of the enshrined form of Krishna are believed to be so powerful that anyone who gazed into them directly would fall madly in love with the God and never leave the temple. Apparently this had actually happened, and the practice of pulling the curtain was initiated as a remedy. In another unique feature of this temple, the Deity is only woken around 9am, in consideration of Krishna’s night of raas leela which leaves Him tired and in need of extra rest.

In the few hours it takes to reach Bankey Bihari Temple through the narrow lanes of Vrindavan and the crush of devotees, one encounters the town’s cultural heritage, food and lifestyle. Those going for darshan are full of longing for the Lord, and those returning are completely blissful and oblivious to the activities around them. But as soon as they come out of that state, they encounter the renowned food and drinks of Vrindavan—jalebis with hot milk, lassi, ras malai, kachouris and scores of other delicacies. By far the most sought-after sweet is brej ka peda, made of roasted dry milk, sugar, ghee and cardamom. A popular offering for the Deity, peda is bought here in huge quantity for friends and relatives who would be tremendously disappointed and even scold anyone returning from Vrindavan empty handed. Swami Shri Sacchidananda Saraswati of Ananda Vrindavan Ashram, among others, complained to us people spend more time in these sweet shops than in the temples!

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The town’s popular sweets market; entrance to Bankey Bihari temple

Radha Raman Temple was founded around 1542 by Gopala Bhatta Gosvami, one of the original Six Goswamis sent here by Chaitanya. We are fortunate to visit it twice, as our guide, Vrindavan Anjali Syal, is a disciple of Shri Shri Vats Goswami, whose family has served this temple since its founding. On each visit the atmosphere is festive with elaborate rituals, complemented by bhajans and performance of Bhagwat katha. The Deity image here appeared spontaneously among a collection of saligrama shilas (a fossilized seashell considered a symbol of Lord Vishnu) which had been discovered by Gopala Bhatta Goswami in Nepal. The Deity is quite expressive and is said to like having His picture taken. The temple’s popular website, radharaman.org, displays frequently updated pictures, from which devotees can discern the Deity’s moods. In this temple Radha is represented only by a crown to the side of the main Deity. We are told this is because among the saligramas of Gopala Bhatta, only the image of Krishna appeared spontaneously.

The unusual Gopeshwar Mahadev Siva temple, popular with visitors and local devotees alike, is based on a story that Lord Siva and Parvati came to attend the raas leela of Krishna and Radha. Parvati gained entrance, but Siva was denied because the only man allowed in the raas leela was Krishna. Assisted by the gopis, Siva dressed as one of them and gained entrance. Krishna discovered the deception when Siva burst into His Tandava dance, but forgave Him and named Him Gopeshwar. The Deity here is worshiped as a Sivalingam in the morning and then dressed as a gopi in the evening and worshiped as Gopeshwar Mahadeva.

Sri Ranganath (or Rangji) Temple is the largest South Indian style temple of Vrindavan and indeed in all North India. It has a traditional South Indian gopuram entry tower and is surrounded by high walls. It is one of the few temples in India that follows a mix of North and South Indian traditions, with rituals performed according to Vedas as well as the Pancharatra Agamas. The temple was conceived by Sri Rangadeshik Swamiji and built in 1851 by his devotees, a wealthy Seth family of Mathura. It is dedicated to Andal, the famed 8th-century South Indian Vaishnava saint who composed Thiruppavai, songs centered around her love for Krishna and His home in Vrindavan. She sings of longing for Him, fasting for Him, and wanting to marry Him, a prayer which was eventually answered. Thus one sees Lord Krishna in this temple as a bridegroom with a walking stick in His hand—the custom in a South Indian marriage. Andal is to His right in the shrine and Garuda, His mount, on His left.

Sri Rangacharya Ji Maharaj, president of the temple trust, tells us they maintain a Sanskrit and Vedanta pathashala which has graduated thousands of students in its 100-year history. We meet a young lady here from Nepal, Pratibha Prajali, 17, who is studying to become a Bhagwat katha vachak and plans then return to Kathmandu. This temple also maintains a gaushala with 50 cows to provide milk for the worship.

The Jaipur Temple, opened in 1917 after thirty years of work and one of Vrindavan’s most opulent and grandiose old temples, has met a peculiar fate, having been cursed at the time of its inauguration. It was built by Sawai Madho Singh II, the Maharaja of Jaipur, of finely carved sandstone and enshrines Radha Madhav, Hans Bhagwan and Anand Vihari (all forms of Krishna). To facilitate the movement of the huge stones required, the maharaja financed a rail line connecting Mathura to Vrindavan. The pujas are done according to the Nimbarka Sampradaya. Today it is managed by the government of Rajasthan, while it appears to us that many of the other temples here are owned and managed by the priests.

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Recreating Krishna’s pastimes: Raas leela performance

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Brahma Kund, where legend has it that Siva transformed Himself into a gopi; temple of Priya Kant Ju, with posters of its founder, Devki Nandan Thakur Ji Maharaj

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This monkey snatched a pilgrim’s glasses and, even though offered a banana as a bribe, eventually threw them in a drain from which they were not recovered; entrance to the Radha Raman temple—the white apartment building is the home of some of the Goswami families who serve at the temple

The temple is nearly deserted during our evening visit, a time when other temples are packed. The chief priest, Roop Narayan Sharma, explains that when the temple was inaugurated, local priests were not engaged. Instead, priests were brought in from Kashi (Varanasi) for the ceremonies. Upset at being ignored, and envious of the rich rewards showered on the Kashi priests, the local priests cursed the temple to never be wealthy. Sharma said that even though newly built temples are attracting many devotees, “this temple gets neither devotees nor donations.”

In stark contrast is Prem Mandir, opened in 2010 and already hugely popular with the pilgrims—one million people visit each month. Though its late founder, Jagadguru Kripaul Ji Maharaj, attracted controversy during his lifetime, this has not impeded the temple’s success. When we arrive in the evening, the road to it is packed with cars. The entire temple is illuminated with constantly changing lights, as is a nearby dancing water fountain. Huge tableaux depicting Krishna’s pastimes are spread throughout the spacious and well-kept 12-acre grounds.

Entering the temple, the 40-foot wide circumambulation route has engraved pillars, lattice windows and large display panels depicted the pastimes of Lord Krishna. Passing between the marble pillars with peacocks and other motifs, we enter the main hall with the murtis of Radha and Krishna. There are elegant arches between the pillars, and a huge dome overhead with a 20-foot chandelier. Everything here is extraordinary and eye-catching, comparable in intricacy only to the much larger BAPS Swaminarayan’s Akshardham temples. According to Prem Mandir’s spokesman, Swami Ajay Tripathi, the temple took 1,000 artisans 12 years to complete.

Vrindavan has 5,000 or more temples, we are told. Describing just the most significant would require many more pages. There is the Shah Ji Temple, built in the Italian style around 1860 by two Shah brothers from a wealthy family of jewelers in Lucknow. It is notable for its Byzantine-style twisted portico pillars, the dazzling Darbar Hall of Chota Radha Raman, its wall and ceiling oil paintings and Belgian chandeliers. The Jamai Thakur or Tarash Temple to Lord Krishna, located in a huge landscaped compound not far from the Yamuna, is mainly frequented by devotees from Bengal. The Sri Katyayani Peeth, said to be one of the 51 Shakti Temples of India, though only built in 1923, was overflowing with devotees when we visited during the Navaratri festival. The Bhagavata Purana mentions a temple by this name as a place where women would pray for good husbands. The Radha Damodar temple is one of the seven holy temples discovered by the Six Goswamis. Built in its present form in the 1550s, it houses the samadhis of several of the Goswamis, including Rupa Goswami and Jiva Goswami. In recent times it is closely connected to Sri Prabhupada, founder of ISKCON, who came to live here in 1959 after taking sannyas.

Most sacred cities are centered around a single major temple—nearby Mathura around Krishna Janmabhoomi, Varanasi around Kasi Vishwanath and Madurai around the Meenakshi Temple. Vrindavan is different. Shrivats Goswami, senior priest of Radha Raman temple, explains, “There was a time when Govind Dev Mandir was very popular, and the Bihari temple not. Gradually the Govind Dev devotees shifted to the Radha Vallabh temple, which in turn slowed down when Bihari came in the limelight. In the 1970s came ISKCON, which reduced Bihari in a big way. And now all temples are impacted by Prem Mandir, which is attracting the largest number of devotees.”

Worshiping the Yamuna

Ganga Arati, the evening worship of the sacred river first performed in Haridwar in 1916, has been adapted here to the worship of the Yamuna at Kesi Ghat by Baba Ganga Das and his team. While most of the ghats built by ancient kings along the river are in ruins today, Kesi Ghat has been well maintained. The format is similar to that followed in Haridwar, Rishikesh and Varanasi: ceremonial worship and offerings to the river followed by the waving of huge lamps as the sun is setting, all accompanied by spirited bhajans and, here, the chanting of “Radhe, Radhe.” It was at this ghat we encountered a particularly peeved monkey who snatched my wife’s shoes and tore them to shreds. The locals constantly warn visitors about these lightening quick creatures who live here by the thousands.

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Town temples: Prem Mandir, currently Vrindavan’s most popular temple

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The gopuram entrance to the South Indian style Sri Ranganath Temple; Google Earth shot of the expansive Ranganath temple grounds, located in the middle of what is now a congested part of Vrindavan

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Devotees shout “Radhe, Radhe” as they enter the Jaipur Temple; Pratibha Prajali of Nepal (at left) with a fellow student at the Rangji temple’s school, both studying to become Bhagwat katha vachaks

The Storytellers

Vrindavan has two great and closely related traditions of storytelling: Bhagwat katha and raas leela. We consulted major exponents of both. Pushpang Goswami, 28, is a Bhagwat katha vachak and priest in the lineage of Goswamis responsible for the Radha Raman temple. As a katha vachak, his main occupation is recounting the life and leelas of Krishna as detailed in the Bhagavata Purana. He tells us Vrindavan is the center for the katha vachaks: “About Vrindavan it is said that if you are standing at any crossing of roads, you just pick up a stone, close your eyes and throw it at any house nearby and you will find a Bhagwat katha vachak in that house. Vrindavan is famous the world over for producing priests, saints and thousands of Bhagwat katha vachaks.”

The Vidvat Parishad is a body of eminent Bhagwat katha vachaks in Vrindavan who meet as needed to discuss various issues, including the meaning of certain shlokas. Pushpang stated, “The grace and purity of Bhagwat is maintained not by the glamorous katha vachaks who appear on TV, but by the real scholars of Vrindavan who keep the ancient tradition alive.”

The Bhagavata Purana, comprising 18,000 verses, can be covered in a summary fashion in seven hours a day for seven days of katha, as the retelling is called. A full explanation would require a month. “Listening is essential for imbibing and learning,” Pushpang explains. “Listening makes you think, and if you listen to Krishna’s name many times, then Krishna will finally settle down in your heart.” He objects to the recent injection of music into the narration, feeling it interferes with a proper understanding of the scripture’s verses, which have their own innate rhythm and music. Satya Narayana Dasa, director of the Jiva Institute of Vedic Studies in Vrindavan echoed the same complaint: “Some of these Bhagwat kathas are just entertainment. They speak for ten minutes, then sing, then speak, then sing. People come from Delhi to Vrindavan for a spiritual picnic, and this is their entertainment.” Katha performances are on YouTube in Hindi and even English.

The raas leela performers convey the same stories as the Bhagwat katha but focus on conveying the emotion of Krishna’s pastimes through dance and music rather than the spoken word. About five hundred years ago, we were told, raas leela was developed by Swami Sri Uddhavaghamanda Devacharya of the Nimbarka tradition. It was intended to connect man with the Divine more easily than by listening to long hours of the Bhagwat kathas, especially for those who did not understand the Braj language of the area. The concept of acting out the parts is said to have been blessed by Krishna Himself when He appeared after the first performance and placed His own crown on the head of the lead actor. After that, whoever wears Krishna’s crown is Krishna Himself to the audience.

Acharya Fateh Krishna Ji Maharaj, an eminent raas leela expert, explains that these dance troupes were formed to be treated as movable representations of the temple Deities. Eight saints of Braj developed rules for raas leela which are followed today by the traditional troupes. The music is dhrupad and dhamal style. Acharya laments that the development of television and movies has resulted in raas leela being performed for entertainment, with no deep meaning.

“The concept of raas is derived from the Vedic concept of raso via sah, in which the different feelings of human beings are portrayed,” Acharya explained. “If raas is performed and there is a character of Lord Krishna in it, then in reality the God is present in that raas leela. That is what is experienced by the realized ones and the knowledgeable audience every time a raas leela is performed anywhere.”

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The many forms of worship: Evening arati worship at the Yamuna River’s Kesi Ghat, with Hinduism Today’s correspondent Rajiv Malik (wearing a yellow scarf) and wife Renu on steps behind lamp

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Evening worship at the Shri Katyayani Peeth; the Italian-style Shah ji Temple, opened in 1860

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Entrance to Tatiya Sthan; Jaipur Temple’s central sanctum

He said there are 30 to 40 raas leela troupes in the Braj area today. Young men and boys play all the parts. As with the Bhagwat kathas, there are many troupes who claim to be from Vrindavan but are not. He himself joined the troupe of his maternal uncle when just eight years old; he was trained in music, dance and the scriptures and performed sadhana and penance.

The performances are expensive to put on, and Acharya worries about the financial viability of the tradition. “Be that as it may,” he said, “it is God’s own leela and we leave it to Thukur Ji Himself how He would like it to continue in the future. I appeal to the Hindus of the world to help us preserve the tradition, for this is how the common people can understand the message of Bhagwat in a simple manner.”

Home of Saints

Everyone tells us that to experience the true Vrindavan, we must visit Tatiya Sthan. Indeed, to enter the ashram compound is to step into the Vrindavan of 500 years ago. Its current guru is Mahant Swami Radha Bihari Das Ji. He and 15 to 20 of his 150 Vrindavan disciples live here in small cottages on several acres of land with no electricity, no cooking gas, no mobiles and, beyond a point, no cameras. They have 17 more properties in Vrindavan where the other close disciples live, plus a large ashram in Mathura. The place is linked to Swami Hardas, the saint who caused the image of Bankey Behari Ji to manifest in Nidhivan. Hardas was a great musician and guru of the famed Tansen, one of the “nine jewels” of the court of Emperor Akbar. Hardas claimed he learned the meaning of love and divine music from the birds, flowers and trees of Vrindavan. Originally this place just had a small cottage with walls and partitions made of bamboo—tatiya in the local Braj language—hence the name Tatiya Sthan, the “bamboo place.” The ground is all sand, as on a beach, with many trees and other plants and a substantial population of monkeys.

We are fortunate to be granted an audience with Mahant Swami Radha Bihari Das. He was most affectionate toward us and explained that they carry on the tradition of Swami Haridas through samaj gayan, a form of collective singing of bhajans. He spoke to us in the local Braj language, which is similar to Hindi. Complying with the rules of the place, we do not record him. He says the lifestyle of Tatiya Sthan is itself their message for humanity, that by remaining connected to nature we can solve many of the problems the world faces today. He invites us to the evening samaj gayan.

This turns out to be another life-transforming experience. The whole place reverberates with high energy as a group of sand-covered young men are immersed in singing and playing musical instruments in the dhrupad and dhamal style. The temple here has only statues and paintings of Radha, Krishna, Swami Haridas and his main disciples. The devotees perform no pujas, but worship through the samaj gayan to please the Deities. It is an extraordinary evening, enhanced by the gentle wind which blows the sand of Vrindavan all over us, the very sand on which Lord Krishna, Radha and the saints walked. Mridul Kant Shastri, a popular Bhagavatcharya here, said, “Just by spending an hour at Tatiya Sthan I have seen big atheists become believers.” Perhaps the same can be said of all Vrindavan, such is the magic of the place.

Looking Ahead to Part Two

I hope I’ve conveyed something of the spirit of Vrindavan as the place of the eternal leelas of Radha and Lord Krishna. Love resides in every dust particle of the city; “Radhe, Radhe” is on the lips of every living being.

In our next issue, the second and concluding part of this report will cover some social and business aspects of Vrindavan, including the town’s widow population, efforts at environmental restoration and a visit to those who create the Deity clothes used by the temples. But mostly we will venture outside Vrindavan to nearby sacred leela sites of Braj Bhoomi, including Barsana Dham, famed for its colorful Holi festival and home today to great saints. We will visit Goverdhan Hill, which Krishna held on his finger tip for seven days and seven nights to protect the people from incessant rains thrown down by Indra. Most importantly, we will visit Mathura and Shri Krishna Janmasthan, a temple built on the site where the Lord was born in a prison. So, look forward to next issue!

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People and places: A devotee carrying a child Krishna which she will take home and care for as if her own child

 

One Insider’s Viewpoint

VRINDAVAN NATIVE DR. B.K. NANGIA RUNS Shri Harinam Press, which produces books related to the Gaudiya Sampradaya. The press was founded by his father, who settled in Vrindavan after fleeing Dera Ghazi Khan, Pakistan, during Partition. Nangia holds a doctorate in the philosophy of Jiva Goswami, one of the senior followers of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. We found him an articulate observer of the local area and recount some of his insights below.

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Dr. B.K. Nangia

“There was a time when to introduce Vrindavan we had to say it is located in Mathura district, but today Vrindavan has an independent identity stronger even than that of Mathura. This is the plus point of commercialization. But from the angle of worship, we need to remember that the name means ‘van of vrinda,’ or forest of tulsi plants. It used to be a lush green forest with no pollution. Now it has huge streets and buildings which have destroyed its original form. On the other hand, the plus point of development is that the people here have become more prosperous due to the increased flow of pilgrims. In the early days, 100,000 might come in a month; now that many or more come every day. The number of residents here for business and commercial purposes now outnumbers those who want the original form preserved. They want all the facilities and glamor of a normal Indian city. Today, there is not a single cinema here, liquor cannot be sold and the entire area is vegetarian. Even an egg cannot be served in a hotel.

“There are two categories of visitors. The first is those whose chief aim is an outing and picnic. Such people will visit the modern temples, have some local chat and lassi and leave. The second category spend more time, visit some of the most ancient temples and ashrams and meet saints as well. Earlier the ISKCON temple was extremely popular and around 60 percent of pilgrims would visit it. Now 60 percent will visit Prem Mandir, 20 percent ISKCON and 20 percent Bankey Bihari. Prem Mandir is attracting so many people because the temple is extremely beautiful, neat and clean. Their system of darshan at the main shrine is also very good. It is in contrast to the chaos at Bankey Bihari, which should be better managed.

“The heart of Vrindavan is this Loi Bazaar area where Seva Kunj as well as our printing business are located. The Yamuna encircles this land on three sides. This is the ancient Vrindavan. This small area should be declared as a preserved and restricted area. There should be no more construction, and even the entry of vehicles should be restricted. Nothing like a mall should be allowed. Those who are here just for business and have no religious angle should shift out of this area, and there they can have all the modern amenities. This will preserve the original form of Vrindavan. Unfortunately, I think the population of people who strongly want the original form of Vrindavan to be maintained is just fifteen percent or so.

“I would say that the role of local residents in destroying the original form of Vrindavan is just 10 percent. The visitors are responsible for the other 90 percent. They take a selfish approach, throw garbage here and there and park their cars wrongly. They have no sense they are in the abode of God.

“There is no need to build or donate to new temples. There are already temples here that do not have the means to do the proper offerings to Thakur Ji. It would be better to support such temples by adopting them. The big and popular temples here must treat all the devotees as guests in the spirit that the ‘guest is God,’ and provide the basic amenities to them, such as clean water, proper toilet facilities and parking.”

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ALL PHOTOS: DINODIA.COM/ARUN K MISHRA

Yamuna river pilings abandoned and scheduled for removal after vociferous religious objections to a planned bridge; flower sellers outside Bankey Behari temple


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