Forests and foliage have always been a significant part of Braj culture. The entire land was once green with forest cover, there were as many as 12 forests and 24 sub-forests.
Mahavan, one of the 12 forests of Braj situated on the east side of the Yamuna, was a dense grove that is now a small town filled with houses and concrete structures. In those days, the entire East bank from Bhadravan, opposite Nandghat, Bhandirvan, Belavan and up to Lohavan, was covered with dense foliage.
← Deer at Raman Reti, Gokul
On the Western side of the Yamuna, Sri Govardhan stood tall surrounded by Vrindavan. There were other forests like Kamavan, Kokilavan, Taalavan, Kumudvan, Khadirvan, Madhuban etc. a total of 52 forests and sub forests where Krishna performed his magnificent lilas. The entire Braj was a splendid land of lush green forests where trees were laden with fruits and flowers, birds sung day and night, deer gleefully played and peacocks danced in ecstasy. So beautiful and serene was the place. Its rivers, ponds and lakes had waters crystal clear and pure like the unalloyed heart of a saint.
This sacred land was home to many saints who came here to find the absolute truth, where great sages like Dhruva Maharaj, Rishi Durvasa, Rishi Angira and King Shantanu lived great lives while performing austerities and penances.
The forest of Vraja at Govardhana →
The flora and fauna of Braj plays a vital role in the lives of the Brajwasis. Affection for trees and their importance is deeply ingrained in Braj’s culture. Planting and caring for trees is considered equal to pilgrimage, worship and yajna .The love for Krishna is seen in every home and therefore Brajwasis serve the Lordship in the form of deities with various delightful offerings from nature in the form of garlands made with Kadamb flowers and leaves, crowns decorated with peacock feathers and delicious eatables made with fruits and milk.
Braj is incomplete without the dance of the peacock in the monsoons, the song of cuckoo birds at dawn, the playful cows and calves returning to their homes at dusk, the chitter chatter of the gopis while churning butter, the gurgling burbling of the Yamuna waters, the cool scented breeze and the lush green forests. Tress are the lifeline of Braj. In so many ways they have served us like a loyal member of our family and stood by us in time of both joy and grief.
← The marker of Saubhari Rishi’s tapasya under the banyan tree
O! dear Pipal, Paakar and Banyan tree, the naughty Nandnandan has stolen our hearts! O! Kurbak, Naagkesar, Punnag and Champa, have you seen him? O! Creepers and vines, you have embraced those trees that were lovingly touched by Shyamsundar, can you tell us where he is? We wonder if the trees of Rasaal, Priyaal, Kathal, Kachnnaar, Aam, Jamun, Bel, Maulsri, Kadamb, Kareel, Chonker and Neem and many other trees associated with the pastimes of the Lord still exist on the banks of river Yamuna.
Where else can you find such unconditional love for trees except in Vrindavan? It is a sin even to scratch a leaf with your nail. They are the great sages and saints who after thousands of years of penance and hardship were blessed with a fortune to take the form of these trees and plants so that they can witness the The Divine Couple who are still wandering in Braj engaging in wonderful pastimes.
A Tatia sthan sadhu sweeps the kunj →
Even now when there is unrestricted felling of trees and construction going on in full swing, there are several places where trees are considered more sacred than a temple. Instead of cutting them down. people have built structures around them leaving enough space for them to grow and spread. One such example is Tatiya Sthan situated on the Parikarma Marg, where the temple and ashram has been built in such a way that no plant or tree was hurt or cut down in the process, maintaining the sanctity and tradition of the Dham.
Those trees under which Krishna used to enjoy meals and relax during the afternoon time, where he played on the banks of Yamuna river, where saints meditated on the intimate pastimes of the eternal couple have all disappeared and, instead, large factories have mushroomed emitting poisonous smoke, their waste being dumped on the banks of river Yamuna which has black mucky water now on which thousand of insects and mosquitoes are breeding.
Mathura used to be a beautiful place surrounded with lush green forest but now it has turned into a concrete jungle with houses and buildings to be seen everywhere. The Kunds have been neglected so much that they have been covered with green moss, some have dried up and become dumping areas for garbage. Trees have been cut down to make space for factories and high rise buildings.
← Kanaiyalal Maneklal Munshi (UP Governor 1952-57)
In 1953, the then governor Kanhaiyalal Maneklal Munshi had started a massive afforestation drive at Goverdhan called Van Mahotsav, which became a tradition in the state of Uttar Pradesh that saved the green cover of the region from rapid deforestation. The result is that there are now 25,000 acres of forest in Agra, Mathura has 3000, Mainpuri has 4000, 400 in Eta and 15,000 acres in Bulandhshar.
Near the canals flowing through several towns and cities in the state about 1000 miles of forest area are still existant. Blocks of forest cover are found in Baad, Salempur, Farah, Anyor, Sakeetara, Nandgaon, Kotwan, Kaamar, Kokilavan, Bathankala, etc. which have been saved and protected to some extent.
Places like Agra Janpad, beside the Yamuna, Mau, Kukraitha, Babarpur, Muhammadpur, Artauni, Dhandupur, Chalesar and Nayamatpur also have some green foliage left. Saseem and English Babool trees are very commonly found in Agra.
Bharatpur has a bird sanctuary which has some green cover and lakes for migratory birds arriving each year during winters.
Agra also has the Keetham lake and the Surdas forest which are quite famous and popular with visitors. Mathura-Vrindavan road, Dhorera Bangar and Sunrakh had a good forest block which is now being turned into colonies and residential areas.
These forest blocks had trees like Babar, Kadeb, Sisam, Jamun, Khair, Chonker and English Babool which have almost disappeared and are hardly seen now. A few years back, one could easily spot animals like deer, rabbits, hedgehogs, neelgai (blue bull), jackal, partridge and mongoose. But these animals are much rarer now.
Rapid development and globalization, which may be good in terms of economic growth and employment opportunities, but, along with material advancement, we are sadly losing a rich heritage and culture that holds a very crucial place in Braj.
The divine beauty of this land which enchanted many poets, is unfortunately now vaporizing with the toxic gases emitting out of the huge refineries built on the eternal land of Shyamsundar, who played unlimited pastimes in these forests. Will Braj culture completely perish under the huge storm of devastation wearing a mask of development? Are we so ungrateful to forget and neglect them completely?
It is now imperative that we build animal and bird sanctuaries, a home for deer, monkeys, peacocks, neelgai and other animals that have lost their natural habitat due to urbanization.
On both sides of Yamuna, as well as in the entire Mathura–Vrindavan region there is an urgent need to plant more trees that can give dense shade and shelter, along with fruits and flowers. Immediate action is required to revive the green belt under which 2000 square miles of Braj was reserved for cooling and refreshing forests. Efforts to save the culture of Braj Dham should not be the responsibility solely of the Government but should be equally shared by every Brijwasi. We must save and protect our home.