Vrindavan, 2016.01.10 (Aradhika Sharma, Chandigarh Tribune): Mathura and Vrindavan embody every element that you associate with ancient temple towns. They are humming, buzzing, and busy places with a vitality that vibrates in the air. Intensely active and filled with the enterprise that’s typical of such places, you can actually feel the energy pulsating under your skin and in your bloodstream.
The presence of Krishna is everywhere — in the greetings of the people (Jai Shri Krishna! or Radhe Radhe!); in the temples along the ghats of the Yamuna river in Mathura and, of course, in the majestic temples of Vrindavan among which are the Baanke Bihariji and Goverdhan and the immensely beautiful ISKCON and Birla temples. After all, you are in Brajbhumi, the birthplace of Krishna! Mathura-Vrindavan is, in fact, counted as one of the seven mahatirthas.
Be prepared for the hurly burly of the teeming millions, who throng the places of worship. You are quite likely to get jostled and pushed by devout parties of tourists; solicited by guides; called by the street hawkers and hustled by the robust pandas (the Chaubes of Mathura) into paying them to perform a pooja or a ceremony for you along the banks of the Yamuna.
The ghats of the Yamuna
The walk to the ghats of Yamuna is charming and full of surprises. It is wise that you park at a convenient spot and walk down the narrow cobbled paths to the river. Cows benignly rule the streets and are venerated as holy beings and fed accordingly. If you see many women around a rehri or a shop, be sure there’s a bangle seller displaying his wares.
The ladies of Mathura love to bedeck their arms with glass bangles and foreheads with bindis.In the tiny rooms along the street, you’ll find the flourishing gajak-reweri cottage industry. Big kadhais of til are roasted over slow fire and then cooked in jaggery and ghee. The paste is, then, spread on the floor and beaten by hammers to make it flaky and khasta. That’s the secret of the melt-in-the-mouth texture of the delightful winter delicacy. The shopkeepers are happy to offer you a taste of the fresh gajak but wait for them to give it to you. You’ll offend the Mathurawalas if you help yourself and break off a bit because the food will then be soiled or unclean. There are strict protocols of food dispensation, even among the street hawkers.
Take a boat ride on the river at Vishram Ghat. As you float down the river, on one bank, you can see poojas being performed, chappan bhog (an offering of 56 food items for the gods) being readied. Arched gateways, old temples and spires are picturesque and quaint and the steps of the ghats lead to the river. Your boatman will give you interesting mythological information about one spot where Krishna rested after killing his evil uncle, Kansa or another where Kansa’s wife committed sati by jumping off a spire.
On the other bank, are the young Mathura lads diving into the river; ladies bathing and washing their clothes. Storks and water birds fly lazily overhead.
Streets of food!
The people of Mathura and Vrindavan are serious about food. Every nook and cranny will have vendors selling chat, kachori, jalebi, peda, pooris, kesar and cardamom milk and other delicious foodstuff. Even the not-too-hygienic-looking thelewala is likely to sell golgappas so full of piquancy that you can’t stop at one. The food is vegetarian and milk and milk products are extensively used.
A walk in the market will leave you spoiled for food choices. Try a kachori with potato curry and jalebi for breakfast. For a quick snack, have a portion of aloo chat, dahi gujiya or papri chat. You won’t have to look far for these tangy delights — these are available everywhere! Follow this with a poori-dubki wale aloo, dahi-bhalla and lassi lunch! Incidentally, there aren’t too many tomatoes used and onions and garlic are usually avoided. The delicious flavours are obtained from the dry, local masalas.If you’re still hungry (or plain greedy), then at tea time, try some cardamom milk with peda, pakodas, khasta-matar, dhokla, samosa or jalebi.
The Vrindavan temple area is the place where there’s a display of a mind-boggling variety of pedas, khurchan, halwas, malpuas, soan papdi, rasmalai and ghewar. Alongside the shops, a big pan of milk will be on the simmer, slowly reducing and gathering up the flavours of cardamom and saffron. In summer, you can opt for a refreshing glass of thandai.To help your groaning digestion, struggling to cope with all the food your taste buds have urged upon you, there are paan shops with paanwalas, who are out-and-out artists! Do watch how dexterously they make the paan of your choice.
There are about 5,000 temples in Mathura-Vrindavan, several ghats, and many vans. If you want to do a major yatra, then you can join the annual Braja Mandala Parikrama organised by ISKCON in Kartika (October-November). This is a month-long walking tour that goes to all 12 forests in Vrindavan and visits most of the major places in the Braja area, including Mathura, Radha Kund, Varsana, Nandagrama, Gokula, Vrindavan, and Govardhana Hill. Most people opt to go barefoot on this walk.
However, just to name a few of the major temples are Dvarkadhish Temple, Baanke Bihari Temple, Madan Mohan Temple, Sri Ranganathan Temple, Radharamana Temple, Govind Dev Temple, Madan Mohan Temple and Shahji Temple.
The cobbled road that leads to one of the most significant temples in Brajbhumi, the Banke Bihari Temple, is narrow and crowded but incredibly exciting and resplendent with colour. Shops offer all variety of things to eat, dresses and ornaments for Krishna, flowers, diyas with ghee in them to be lit in the temple and even an art gallery of Kanhai paintings.
What you do have to watch out for are the monkeys — probably the worst-behaved you will ever come across! If you have a pair of glasses on, you can be sure that they’ll snatch these off your face — even from a moving vehicle — and will give these up only if they are offered a Frooti!Mathura-Vrindavan is a fantastic journey into the land of fables, mythology, worship, tradition and rituals…and of course, a gastronomical delight!