Pilgrim's journey

Pilgrim's journey

Krishna rules (Top/bottom left) Vishram ghat ; crowd outside a temple;  ‘rasleela’ in progress.   photos by author

‘How about getting into a religious mode this Janmashtami?’ this suggestion came as a bolt from the blue from an agnostic friend. Stunned, I did a double take. Since when had religious fervour hit my friend? But, the stories of Krishna’s country seemed to have taken effect and I was not one to refuse an offer to visit the most happening place of the season.

Driving past the dhabas and parched fields waiting for a good shower, we raced along the smooth highway from Delhi, at the break of the dawn. Janmashtami is considered an auspicious day for a religious tour of Vrindavan and the swelling crowds as we neared Mathura confirmed that belief.

A steady drizzle that morning made my progress a little sticky and mud stained because the holy town is best covered on foot. The lanes are too narrow for vehicles to drive through. Neither was it possible to unfurl the umbrella without hitting another person so I walked, soaked to the skin, along with the swelling crowd of devotees that had not lost any of their spiritual fervour due to the dampening weather.

The entire city seemed to be immersed in the spirit of devotion with euphoric celebrations among the devotees. The sound of bhajans and chanting reverberated from all corners, drowning the melee of voices, the clanging of the rickshaw puller’s bell and the mooing of the patient cows. Only the cowherd was missing.

Celebrations in the city of Vrindavan begin more than a week before Janmashtami. The small hotels and dharamsalas fill up with devotees who keep themselves busy attending functions at different temples. Evenings are a riot of colours with plays enacted on stories from Lord Krishna’s life and rasleela performances at different places in the city.

When we joined the throng of revellers on the narrow and slimy lane that led to the famous Banke Bihari Temple, I was conscious of the stalls overflowing with hot jalebis, pedas, boiling milk, and marigold. My senses were overloaded with the smells, colours and noises around me, while my friend was busy capturing the pictures of a city gone crazy.

Long queues thwarted our attempts to enter the main temples. The day for the devotees had begun very early, with a dip in the sacred river of Yamuna and now the rush was on for the blessings of the Lord. For all the priests it was a day of windfall as they rushed about performing elaborate poojas for the rich and the famous. Businessmen in crisp white dhoti-kurta, accompanied by their cotton-clad wives, their fingers ablaze with diamonds, performed the rituals required for the purification of their souls while we ordinary mortals hung around doubtfully. Money holds religion in its tight grip.
Gaining entry into a smaller and less opulent temple, we watched the cradle with baby Krishna’s idol being rocked by women even as they sang songs of praises and blew the conch. A few fervent ones got up to dance and soon the whole crowd was swaying with the beat. The magic of faith ruled every heart.

Divine life
“Let’s get an eyeful of the tableaux even if we can’t get into the sanctum santorum,” my pal nudged. Thus began our circumnavigation of the temples. The galaxy of tableaux at the different temples seemed to draw curious crowds who, like us, had been unable to gain entry up to the sanctum of the almighty. Clay dolls attired in colourful lehengas, dupatta, dhoti and kurta, formed the theme of the tableaux to bring to life the interesting landmarks of Lord Krishna’s life. The themes were woven around the birth of Krishna in the prison cell of Mathura, with depiction of the scene when Vasudev carried the little baby in a basket and walked across the swollen Yamuna in pouring rain; the killing of Kansa by Krishna; the lifting of Govardhan hill on his index finger to provided shelter to the people of Gokul when the city was almost drowned by the flooding river and the slaying of Kaliya. Everything seemed to drum up the sentiments of the devotees who flocked to each important landmark to offer special prayers.

The hours seemed to glide away smoothly amongst the gaiety and madness that gripped the city. One of the things on my agenda was to catch a rasleela performance before I left the city. The rasleela is performed only by boys born in Brahmin families, who are between the age of 10 and 13 and they are a big event during the pre-Janmashtami period just like the Ramlila before the Dussehra.

Performed in Brajbhasha, they render a local flavour to the stories of the divine cowherd’s life. I did catch a bit about the frolicking Radha and Krishna performed by a plump Krishna and a pallid looking Radha who acted as coy as a Bollywood star.
In fact, I was also keen on watching the Dahi Handi, which is actually the enactment of Krishna stealing butter from the earthen pots suspended from the ceiling of his house. Over the period of years, the Handi enactment has taken on professional note in Maharashtra and other northern states. Dahi Handi in Vrindavan takes place on the second day of Janmashtami. Earthen pots with mixture of milk, dry fruits and sweets, embellished with silver coins and rupees, are hung high in the air, between the narrow lanes. Groups of boys and men in pyramid formation, reach for the pot while enthusiastic crowds drown them in water.

Since I was not staying over till the second day, I was likely to miss the exciting event but the evening was young and there was a lot to celebrate. The sun was preparing to set as I made my way to the Vishram Ghat where, according to legend, Krishna took rest after killing Kansa. It is here that the traditional parikrama (circumambulation of all the important religious and cultural spots of the city) starts and ends.

The ghat lined by tiny shops selling all kinds of ritualistic material and its worn steps dotted with innumerable small temples, was ablaze with colour and crowd. It seemed as though the whole city had descended on the ghats that evening. Finding a square foot of place required an immense effort but I did find my little patch of foothold and settled down there.

Just as the sun went down, scores of little oil lamps began floating on the river setting the placid water sparkling with myriad flickering lights. Milk and flowers were being offered by devotees to the goddess Yamuna. Boats floated lazily by and the diyas bobbed up and down on the polluted waters announcing the end of yet another day in the land of Krishna.

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