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Shri Vraja Dhama

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Vrindavan deities in Jaipur

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The year: AD 1669. King Mirza Rajah Jai Singh, who was at the Mughal court, sends a messenger to the temple priests at Vrindavan with some chilling news. The emperor Aurangzeb has turned his vengeful gaze towards Vrindavan. In short order, his army will invade the temples and destroy everything inside, including the precious murtis of Krishna.

Flee, says the Rajput king to the temple pandit, Shiva Ram Goswami. Take the murtis and flee. Go via adjoining Bharatpur. The hardy Jat king, Surajmal, will give you safe passage. Once you get to Jaipur, the murtis will be safe. Aurangzeb’s army dares not invade Rajputana.

The man who is recounting this incident is Durga Singh Mandawa, who has converted his family haveli into Dera Mandawa, a boutique hotel. Like many Rajputs, he recounts the past as if it were the present.

“The sad thing is that Aurangazeb was 82% Hindu. His mother, grandmother and great-grandmother were all Hindu princesses,” he says. “Yet, he treated the Rajput kings like slaves because they took the side of his elder brother, Dara Shikoh.”

Threatened by Muslim raids, each of the temple priests grabbed a murti of Krishna, wrapped them with diaphanous white dhotis and fled into the mists of the night. After a treacherous journey where they travelled by bullock cart and camel in the stealth of the night, hiding in caves during the day, the priests and five murtis reached Jaipur, where they make their home and are worshipped under the names of Govind Dev, Radha Gopinath, Radha Damodar, Madan Mohan and Vinodi Lal.

One murti, Madan Mohan, accompanied a princess of Jaipur who got married and moved to Karoli. She was “so attached to Madan Mohan ji that she wanted to take him with her to her in-laws’ home, but her father would not allow the murti to be moved,” says a priest.

Krishna conveniently appeared in the princess’s father’s dream and instructed him to send the murti along with the daughter, and so it came to be that Madan Mohan moved to Karoli. Another, Radha Damodar, was returned to Vrindavan in the 18th century, although a mirror image (pratibhu) of it remains in Jaipur. Two murtis remain in Vrindavan: Banki Bihari and Radha Raman. All of which leads to my first question: who are all these Krishnas and why do they have so many names?

“It is all part of the Gaudiya sampradaya,” Durga Singh explains.

“Like Srinath ji,” I ask.

“Srinath ji is part of the Vallabh sampradaya,” he replies, foxing me further.

The problem with a polytheistic religion like Hinduism is that it is hard to keep track of its regional, and rather glorious, variations. As a South Indian, born into a traditional Shaivite (Shiva-worshipping) family, I grew up with the sayings of Shankaracharya, the poetry of Annamacharya, the songs of Deekshitar and milk-soaked hand-drawn Kalamkari textiles depicting images from Hindu mythology. Traditional feasting and fasting in south India took the form of the Satyanarayana Puja and Varalakshmi Vratam.

Many south Indian Hindus, I would wager, remain wholly ignorant of how their faith finds expression in north India. The Radha Krishna cult, for example, which is supposed to spread like a lotus petal from Mathura, or Vraja, as it is called, remains a mystery to us. I had to look up what Vraja meant. It is the area around Mathura where Krishna was born and grew up.

The cult of Radha and Krishna gave birth to some of north Indian Hinduism’s most sensual pleasures in the 15th and 16th centuries. This was when the poet Jayadeva composed the emotionally charged and erotic Gita Govinda; when the songs of Surdas, Bhagwandas and other poets were sung in front of the Krishna murti of Nathdwara; when miniature paintings portrayed the pranks of Krishna; and when the folk dances emulated the Ras Lila, or Krishna dancing with his gopis. The temple of Govind Dev is one expression of the Radha Krishna cult.

Govind Dev Ji Ka Mandir is Jaipur’s most famous temple. It isn’t nationally known like other Krishna temples, be it at Vrindavan, Dwaraka or even Nathdwara. But ask anyone in Jaipur for its most sacred site and chances are that they will point to this temple.

It lies behind the City Palace, within the old city, near the Hawa Mahal. Perhaps its fame comes from its proximity to royalty. When Maharani Gayatri Devi died, her daughter, the current Rajmata of Jaipur, visited the temple with a vast entourage of relatives on the 12th day after finishing the funeral rites.

Every royal function, be it a wedding, birth or death is accompanied by a visit to Govind Dev, who stands with his flute in a temple that still retains the makeshift feel of a lord who has taken up residence in a new land in a hurry. The temple is about the size of a bara-dhurrie, or a space where bara (12) dhurries (rugs) can be spread out. It began as a transplanted abode that turned permanent thanks to local devotion.

All of Jaipur wakes up to worship at Govind Dev ji’s temple, say the locals. On the day I visit, early one morning, none of Jaipur is present. It is 6.30am. Exactly four people are sitting in front of what seems like a large stage curtain. They sit cross-legged, muttering prayers and humming songs. Sparrows chirp. A sadhu sits on a chair, welcoming the rising sun. The air is cool, the atmosphere, quiet—or what passes for quiet in India.

“Where is Govind Dev ji’s temple?” I asked one of the seated men.

“This is Govind Dev ji’s temple,” he says, staring at me.

“But where is he?” I press.

Turns out he is behind the large curtain, which will open at 7.30. The architecture here is more like an auditorium and quite different from the maze of corridors and multiple sanctums that you have to pass through in, say, Madurai or Chennai.

To pass the time, I decide to visit a few nearby temples. Why can’t I sit still and meditate like the others? Why must I rush from temple to temple? If it is connection with the divine that I seek, isn’t it better found by staying put rather than seeking?

Happiness is like a butterfly, said one pompous slogan that I heard when I happened to be unhappy. If you chase after it, it will fly away. Only if you stay still will the butterfly alight on you. A load of crap, let me tell you. I have tried staying still and no butterfly ever alighted on me, except in the Butterfly Garden of New York’s Museum of Natural History. Even there, it was because of the density and the enclosed space. There were more butterflies in the Butterfly Garden than there were people in the slums of Dharavi and they couldn’t fly away. These butterflies had no choice except to alight on the people swarming around, and if these butterflies symbolize happiness, I got a dozen of them.

The question holds weight though. Do you seek the lord or let him or her come to you? Too late. I am in the Toyota Innova, driving towards the Birla temple, or rather, the path beside it where a large orange Ganesh holds court.

A sacred ficus tree streaked with vermillion—echoes from past tribal blood sacrifices, according to Hindu scholar Diana Eck—stands in the centre of what feels like a courtyard. On one side is the Ganesh temple. Beside it are two sweet shops selling laddoos of various types: those made with desi ghee are more expensive; as are the creamy ones shaped like a modak, Ganesha’s favourite sweet.

I haven’t figured out my stance with respect to offerings for god. Flowers will get crushed; sweets will aid and abet India’s rising numbers of diabetics. I walk into the temple empty-handed, spend a few minutes with an orange Ganesha, then walk to the Shiva temple a few yards away.

It is a small open temple, a neighbourhood shrine, much like the scores of tiny temples dotting India’s cityscapes. Devotees walk in carrying water in copper pots and pour it on the Shiva lingam that lies a little below the ground.

Access to the murti is a great advantage in north India. In the south, the average devotee wouldn’t dare touch the lord. You need an intermediary in the form of a priest to carry your entreaties to the higher plane—somewhat like the mother in a traditional Indian household who mediates between the children and the strict distant father.

In north India, however, direct access is permitted. You can touch the lord, bathe him with water and shower him with flowers. It is intoxicating, like freely entering the principal’s office.

I find a copper pot full of water just sitting there and carry it towards the Shiva lingam. Two others beside me are pouring water on the lord’s head—doesn’t he ever get a cold? I follow suit, wondering if I am pouring someone else’s prayerful water on the lord and whether I would therefore get any merit.

Half of me wishes that I hadn’t just picked up what was easy and available, but instead gone the extra step of actually opening the tap outside and filling my own pot. It is called prayatnam in Sanskrit. It means effort, and it was a word I heard a lot, growing up. Only if you do some prayatnam will you reap the reward, was the saying.

Does my little ritual hold water, figuratively speaking? Does it carry weight with the lord or will he consider this a shortcut and deduct marks? Will I get the full benefit of this particular abhishekam?

I suppress my angst and concentrate on pouring. I gently aim for the black granite lingam; then a marble Parvati who sits across from him; then Nandi the bull. For good measure, I pour water on the snake’s hood over Shiva’s head; and on Shiva’s trident. When I am done, I go outside, fill water from the tap and leave the copper pot where I found it. The circle is complete. Hopefully, I will get the benefits.

As I walk back into Govind Dev ji’s temple, I hear the sound of singing. A crowd of people are standing in front, waiting for the curtain to open. They are singing a bhajan in a spirited if slightly off-key chorus. I stand with the women on one side. There is no pushing or shoving. All temples should have a wide, broad opening to allow for panoramic viewing by the throng of devotees. The tiny entrance of south Indian temples is poor design. Devotees have no choice but to push to catch a glimpse of the deity.

The curtain opens swiftly. Everyone raises their arms like in a rock concert. The singing continues. Some of them are swaying; some dancing with their arms in the air. Before Bollywood choreographed how Indians ought to move, before rock bands like Indian Ocean made the youth fist-pump and headbang in a way that was no different from Western rock concerts, this was how Indians made merry, sought joy and engaged with song and dance—at temples, with bhajans.

Two months ago, at an ancient Murugan temple in Bengaluru, a similar bhajan happened. My mother invited my daughter and me to go along. A crowd of people sat cross-legged on the ground, singing along with the musicians on stage. Half an hour later, the singer began a popular bhajan on Krishna.

The singing gained momentum. The drumbeat became faster. A few people in the audience stood up, raised their hands and began dancing. My mother reached for my daughter’s hand.

“Shall we also dance?” she asked.

Embarrassed, my daughter shook her head and pulled back her hand.

The bhajan went on.

A week after that, I accompanied a group of teenagers, including my daughter, to a concert by a visiting British rock band called Poets of the Fall. The atmosphere was joyous, even delirious, with some 10,000 kids dancing non-stop for what seemed like four hours to me, the tired chaperone to six giddy teenagers. These kids had no problem dancing at a rock concert but could not bring themselves to do it at Hinduism’s version of a rock concert.

My daughter associated religion with unsmiling, serious devotion that didn’t tolerate her cracking a smile; with boredom that came from standing in line at stuffy temples; with sombre rituals where she was permanently in danger of being wrong: “Don’t put the lamp there. Put it there.”

Where is the joy in all this? If “fun” is what children were after, can religion be made fun? The singing and dancing congregation at the Govind Dev ji temple provided a potential roadmap. People were grinning, swaying from side to side, smiling, raising their hands, clapping and moving in time to the music. It was the Indian dance idiom, folksy and informal, exuberant yet spiritual, completely different from the sexy twirls and seductive shakes created by Bollywood and imitated by the vast Indian diaspora from San Jose to Stockholm. I ought to incorporate more song and dance with prayer, I thought.

Krishna’s marble murti looks modern to my eyes, used as they are to dark, carved stone images in south Indian temples. But it is over 5,000 years old, if legend is to be believed. The image was carved by Krishna’s great-grandson, Bajranabh, according to lore. In his spare time, he wanted to carve an image of his great-grandfather. (Which kid does that these days? Wouldn’t I love for my great-grandchildren to pay this homage to me?)

Bajranabh made a murti and showed it to his grandmother, who said that the feet looked like Krishna’s, but that was about it. That murti became Madan Mohan of Karoli.

Bajranabh tried again. His grandmother, a stickler, said that the chest looked like Krishna. They called it Gopinath of Jaipur.

The third was a perfect match and won the grandmother’s approval. It became Govind Dev ji.

The three murtis were buried under the sands of time, quite literally, till about 500 years ago when a saint-savant named Chaitanya Mahaprabhu sent two disciples to the area to recreate or rediscover Krishna’s playground—the places described in the ancient book, Bhagavata Purana.

Apparently, one of the disciples, Roop Goswami, found cows shedding their milk on a particular mound. Underneath were the murtis that were first placed in Vrindavan before making their way to Jaipur.

Like most temples, there are seven daily openings of the curtain, or jhankis (glimpses of the lord), as they are called here, beginning at dawn and ending late at night. The 7.30am one is full of office-goers who pray here before heading out to schools, post offices, offices and shops to begin their workday.

The priest begins doing the aarti: waving a lamp with a single wick around the murtis. In front is the sacred food offering: piles of sweets—orange, yellow and white—arranged in pyramids. The pride of place goes to the laddoo-prasad, sold in the premises as the temple’s signature offering.

After the parikrama or circle around the temple, I go out to the sales counter and buy a couple of laddoos for Rs10. They aren’t as tasty as Tirupati laddoos, but for some reason, I cannot stop eating them as I walk outside. By the time I get into the car, I have polished off both the laddoos.

Religion through community is a new thing for me. Prayer, particularly at south Indian temples, is a solemn, solitary act, even though throngs of people surround you. It is between you and your maker. The singing and dancing at the Govind Dev temple is nothing if not communal. In a way, it shows me the way to access my religion. I have visions of dancing in a circle—like the folk dances that we did at summer camp in Michigan. How can I duplicate that in my life?

As I walk out, I run into Durga Singh’s wife, Usha. She agrees to show me the other temples that have the murtis that made their way from Vrindavan.

After a quick stop at the Radha Damodar temple, we make our way to the Vinodhi Lal temple, up a flight of stairs and hardly visible from the road. We are the only ones there. The priest rouses himself, decorates the murtis and invites us for the puja. At the end of the short ritual, he hands us a bowl filled with rabdi-prasad.

Usha is delighted. “This is not just prasad but Mahaprasad,” she says. “This is not made for general consumption but specifically for the lord. We are so fortunate to get it today.”

The rabdi is delicious. Made with whole milk that is slowly boiled till it condenses into a thick sugary liquid, with dollops of cream and nuts, it reminds me of south Indian payasams, but tastes a whole lot better. Or maybe it is just the novelty of it.

Our last stop is the Radha Gopinath temple. Right outside, I find a shop selling my “desert island” food. There are mounds of savoury bhujia-sev, deep-fried into thin strips of flour, flavoured with mint, green chilli, red chilli and salt. I could eat this every day if I were stranded on a desert island. But religion comes before food, and so we hurry into the temple.

The sound of music fills the air. A music troupe, comprised entirely of women, is sitting in front of the murti and singing. There is a drummer, a tambourine player and other accompanists, all clad in colourful saris. They sing with spirit, with joy. For a moment, I’m envious. What is it that I am seeking when I know not what I am missing?

To figure it out, I sit down with a group and follow the leader. The songs are easy enough. Bhajans are simple to follow. Indeed, that is their purpose. Unlike these women though, I am unable to forget myself through song and dance. I am still held hostage by my rational mind.

“The one thing which we seek with insatiable desire is to forget ourselves, to be surprised out of our propriety, to lose our sempiternal memory and to do something without knowing how or why; in short to draw a new circle,” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in his essay, Circles. “The way of life is wonderful. It is by abandonment.”

These singing women give me a glimpse of this abandonment. They sing with their eyes open, yet lost to the world, smiling and making merry. In their minds, they seek refuge in the lord. They have abandoned their egos and surrendered themselves to his mercy.

As a result, they are able to dance like nobody is looking and sing like nobody is listening (which nobody is, by the way, because in bhajans everybody sings together and nobody needs to listen to each other).

To achieve this kind of abandonment from the chores of everyday life, without the help of drugs, is to my mind one of the greatest “uses” of religion. Will I ever find this peculiar bliss through abandonment, particularly if I remain sceptical about embracing my faith?

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