In Search of Krishna in Vrindavan’s Secret Forest

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In Search of Krishna in Vrindavan’s Secret Forest

Illustration: Akshita Monga

I

t’s nearing 11 pm and I am still waiting outside the walled temple of Nidhivan in Vrindavan, in Uttar Pradesh’s Mathura district. I never imagined I’d be investigating a legend I’ve heard since I was a kid at this supposed site of Krishna’s childhood. Vrindavan is now known as the “City of Widows,” as it harbours a floating population of nearly 20,000 women who migrate here after losing their husbands to sing hymns to the Blue God. At this hour though, I can’t hear any of their prayers the last pedha shops around have shuttered, the last rickshaw pullers are fast asleep.

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But the monkeys are still awake. They are everywhere in Vrindavan, carrying out a primate version of UP’s gunda raj. The foot soldiers of this bandar raj hover above houses, terrorising residents and passersby. I’m feeling secure though, as the animals’ penchant for stealing spectacles has forced me to take mine off, forcing me into a temporary blindness.

Blindness just might be my lot if the legend comes true.

I’ve heard this story from my late maternal grandmother since I was child. Nidhivan, she told me, was a walled forest in the middle of Vrindavan. In the solitary temple inside, every evening around 5, the priests would install seven locks and place plates of besan laddoos, khoya pedas, ghee, butter, and kheer outside it. They would remake the bed inside the only other room inside the forest, called Rang Mahal. But no one is allowed to stay inside Nidhivan past 5.30 pm, because every night, for the last 5,000 years, the trees inside the forest turn into gopis. Krishna, it is believed, descends from the heavens with Radha to dance with them, to perform the Raas Leela. After the Leela is done, around 11.30 pm, Krishna eats the food laid out for him, and proceeds to the Rang Mahal to rest with Radha.

But here’s the catch. If any human were to witness the ceremony, the priests and locals say, they will go blind, insane even. It’s an enduring myth around the city, and one that pervades through the city like the stench of open sewers. One person, a chaiwallah near the bus stand tells me, shifted to a house overlooking Nidhivan and found that one of the windows’ view was barred by a plank of wood. Unsure, he removed it, looked outside on his very first night in the house, saw the Raas Leela, and went mad. He never returned to Vrindavan again.

My lovely grandmother repeated the story to me several times while I was growing up, vowing to never take me there — and from then on, I was a Krishna fanboy. The fascination crystallised when I read a truncated version of the Mahabharata for the first time at 13 years. Krishna was the cool cat who engaged in skirmishes not by force, but through psychological warfare. Krishna, with his amped-up flirtation and his luck with the ladies, held infinite appeal for me. It was only magnified by my name, Parth, a nickname Krishna gave to Arjun at the battlefield in Kurukshetra.

Vrindavan I realised by day, is a village with illusions of being a spiritual town. The business day begins at 4.30 am with morning aartis at Chir Ghat along the banks of the Yamuna and ends at 9 pm.

So here I am, surrounded by monkeys and barely working street lamps, patrolling the 15-feet boundaries of Nidhivan, hoping that my reduced eyesight will heighten my other senses. Specifically my auditory perception, so I can hear the “chhan chhan” from the ghunghroos of the gopis who, I presume, dance every night inside Nidhivan.

Instead of blindness though, my lot is disappointment.

I stay at Nidhvan for nearly an hour that night, literally blinded by faith, but my e-rickshaw guy, Vikas, is getting antsy. “It’s blasphemy to see the Lord,” he exclaims, and I have no option but to head back to the ashram. “Radhe Radhe,” he says, as I get in. Krishna would have to wait another day.

Vrindavan I realised by day, is a village with illusions of being a spiritual town. The business day begins at 4.30 am with morning aartis at Chir Ghat along the banks of the Yamuna and ends at 9 pm, when the last temple shut its doors. It’s a faith economy built around the cult of Krishna, where the most lucrative business opportunity lies in opening a peda or trinket shop along the street which leads to the giant Baanke Bihari temple.

The following day, I meet Laddoo Maharaj, the 70-year-old Krishna lifer who will walk me around Nidhivan. By morning light, Nidhivan’s architectural majesty presents itself in full glory. Its main gate is 20-feet high, and built like an entrance to a fortress, followed by a lavish courtyard. The trees, which supposedly turn into gopis by night, are unlike any I’ve seen before: Their roots and branches twist downwards into the earth, giving the impression of two people physically intertwined. The land, Laddoo Maharaj tells me, is barren, but trees remain green throughout the year due to Krishna’s “kripa”.

As we start the tour, old myths transfuse with new ones. I am shepherded to the inner temple, where head priest Pawan Lal tells me that Krishna didn’t eat as much last night as all the pedas laid out for him weren’t finished. At Rang Mahal, I am not even allowed to touch the trees or Krishna’s bed. Everywhere we go though, the priests demand a hefty donation. In all this, I miss my grandmother and her comforting presence and stories.

Filled with disappointment, I go to a tea stall nearby and contemplate the puzzling state of Vrindavan: It’s a dusty, smelly, unsafe place filled with immaculately kept temples. Would Krishna, way up the the food chain, really come here every night for a jaunt with the gopis? And when he did, would the priests hustle him for dakshina? Might the monkeys, spoilt by the town’s spiritual tourists, try to steal his flute?

My reverie is interrupted by Suraj Singh, who takes me to the bus stand on the Delhi-Agra highway for my ride back home. Along the way, I wonder aloud if I have grown up too much, whether my scepticism for organised religion is disallowing me from keeping the faith, when Suraj answers, “No one has seen anything sir; only pandits tell this tale. No one has gone blind or mad here. I’ve been here for 25 years, and it’s the same in Mathura and Gokul: Ye dekho, woh dekho, sar jhukao.”

We agree and then it is time to say goodbye to my only friend in the city. I get on the bus to Delhi, thinking of why my grandmother had repeated the legend to me so often, wondering whether I’d disappointed her by not trying hard enough at Vrindavan.

Suddenly, in that rickety bus, I felt closer to her than I had in years. I felt the tenderness of her palm on my head, the warmth of her paralysis-ridden cracked skin. My irritated nerves felt strangely reassured.

Maybe this is what she and Krishna had intended all along. Raadhe raadhe.

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