Religion is something divine for many of the people living on the planet earth and that is why Marx called it the opium of the masses. India is no exception where most of us are more or less religious whether we work as scientists or pull a rickshaw (though in recent years there has been a spurt in religious fundamentalism all over the world). India being the cradle of various religions has been a bastion and source of Hinduism since times immemorial. Like all other religions whether old or new, places inhabit significant place in Hindu belief system. I remember my grandmother telling me of my great grandmother last wishes to cross the bridge to the other world in Kashi (modern day Varanasi) or Mathura. Probably Kashi and Mathura are sacred places every devout Hindu person would like to visit once in life. My great grandmother did her part and lived in Kashi for more than 6 months before she died on the banks of river Ganga. My mother tells me that this was just few months before I arrived into this world.
I never had the calling or the chance to visit any of these places till I made that train journey from Delhi. It was a wintery morning of 2007 in Taj express train from Delhi going back to Agra where I had my first tete-a-tete with some unusual Krishna devotees. These devotees clad in white Sarees and Dhotis together with sacred mark of sandalwood paste on their foreheads were going to Mathura and were mostly from outside India (mostly from Europe, Latin America and Australia). One of them offered me a book on Krishna for which I contributed some money. In the meanwhile I told them that professionally I am a linguist learning to specialize in teaching Hindi as a second or foreign language. We exchanged emails addresses and soon they left for their destination with the arrival of vendors of Brijvaasi PeRaa (a famous brand of sweets made from milk) at Mathura railway junction. Mathura being the land of lord Krishna is a corner occupying a mystical place among Krishna devotees from around the world. Moreover Mathura district in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh is home to various places associated with lord Krishna like Vrindavan, Govardhan, Barsana, Gokul, Mahaban,Nandgaon etc.
Months passed and I almost forgot about that encounter and visiting Mathura appeared least in my thoughts. But on one good day of January 2008, I received an email from one of the devotees asking me to come to Vrindavan to teach Hindi to some of the Krishna devotees from abroad staying there. I accepted the offer. In February we arranged for the first class of Hindi at Vrindavan. I had never been to Vrindavan before, therefore my anxiety was evident. I took the UP roadways bus to Mathura from Agra and embarked on a very different sort of pilgrimage.
After a ride of around 45 minutes, our bus reached the gates of India’s one of the oldest and biggest oil refineries i.e. Mathura Oil Refinery. The huge flame burning at the top of the chimney of the refinery welcomed us to the birth place of Krishna. Nearby I could spot a gigantic drive-in McDonald outlet for our Burger hungry Indian denizens. Another 15 minutes ride and we had reached Mathura new bus stand. What I saw was the usual hustle-bustle of any North Indian old town. The meaningless but beautiful chaos in order.
Legend tells us that how over 3000 years ago, the throne of Mathura was usurped by Krishana’s despotic uncle (Mama), Kansa. When Kansa came to know that he will be killed by the son of his sister Devaki, he sent Devaki and her husband Vasudev behind bars. Then he ordered the killing of every newborn baby in the city. However under the cover of darkness and a stormy night, Vasudev managed to smuggle the infant Krishna across the river Yamuna. And here I was standing at the same place where this legend was born.
I was told that by one of my fellow traveler in the bus that I could get shared auto-rickshaws going to Vrindavan from nearby. I managed to find one and started the destined journey to the Krishana’s legendry pastoral playground of Braj with 12 smaller forests together with Vrindavan described in eloquence by 16th Century Bhakti saints such as Chaitanya and Vallabha. On the way I saw the over barricaded Shri Krishna Jnamsthana (Krishna birthplace complex) standing cheek by jowl to Shahi Masjid (a mosque built by Great Muslim ruler Aurangzeb).
Our overstuffed auto-rickshaw soon galloped outside Mathura city. I could see signs of a new and planned Mathura developing on the fringes with boldly displayed signboards of residential colonies like Radhapuram and Krishnapuram. I was relieved when I finally witnessed the vast but sparse expanse of forested land over the sides of the road where the mythical 12 forests once stood.
On the way I saw the huge red sandstone temple built by the industrialist Birla family, the Pagla Baba temple, the Vatslya gram complex and numerous shelters built for old, sick and abandoned cows.
We crossed a huge complex of Gayatri temple complex adorned by bold slogans written all over the boundary walls. The one which intrigued me the most was ‘sau hathon se kamao, hazar hathao se baanto’ (meaning ‘earn using 100 hands but distribute by using 1000 hands’). What a paradox! If one is earning by 100 means then it is certain that one is depriving many of their right share at the first place. A completely elitist statement.
Next in sight was Ramkrishana Mission complex standing tall with its hospital and temples. Our auto rickshaw soon came to halt at the autorickshaw stand of Vrindavan. I was left standing in the dusty little town of Vrindavan. I asked for the way to Sewakunj Street where I was summoned. After walking another 10 minutes I entered the real old and charming Vrindavan where bicycle rickshaws plied in narrow and shadowy by-lanes. This is the place where I heard people shouting Radhe-Radhe (the name of Krishna’s consort) to make way for their vehicles. I could hear chattering in Bengali and Brajbhasha all around with old and infirm old people walking slowly with their clay smeared foreheads with numerous monkeys overcrowding the rooftops.
The Bengal connection was evident. Founder of gauRiya Vaishnavism, Caitanaya Mahaprabhu (1486-1534) and his followers first advocated Bhakati-Yoga (Krishna consciousness) in Bengal (gauRa desh = present day West Bengal + Bangladesh) in 16th century and later ‘rediscovered’ the geographical features and boundaries of the holy area and identified it with “Braj”, Krishana’s legendry pastoral playground. They mapped out the sites of Krishna’s youthful adventures in Mathura,Vrindavan, Gokul, Mahaban etc, pinpointing 12 smaller forests, various woods and assorted lakes and ponds that he might have played in. Though nothing much remained of the ‘sacred sites’ in 16th Century, knowing well that the area lay in between two great Mughal capitals of Delhi and Agra, they rejuvenated the mythical Braj area.
I was now walking in the street going to Sewa Kunj Gali, somehow feeling nostalgic about the place where my Great Grandfather Shri Ramdas Tiwari (1900-1991) built our ancestral house in Lohanipur of great town of Patliputra (modern day Patna) and lived till he left for his heavenly abode in 1991. I remember the street was narrow, shadowy, paved in stones and smelt the same. I kind of liked the smell of the drainage mixed with dingy-spicy air going in my nostrils cause it sent me to the memory lanes of my childhood summer vacations. The Sewa kunj Street was lined with small shops selling all sorts of things from paan leaves (betel leaves) to samosas (a popular Indian fried snack made with wheat flour and spiced boiled potatos).
A point of diversion: samosa is the word used for the above mentioned Indian snack in Northern India (i.e. Delhi, Western Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Punjab, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand etc) but as you go eastwards it will be better known as singhaRa. There is no doubt that eastern variety is better one especially cooked by expert cooks of Bengal. In fact I believe most of the popular Indian snacks (whether sweet or salted) have either originated in Bengal or Maarwar (Rajasthan). Of course snacks (Banana wafers, Muruku,papadam etc) from Southern India also rules over a large corner of our gastronomical desires. Indian food history is another area which is rather quite neglected.
To be continued