Mathura: Lord Krishna’s Playground
A land that belongs in both history and mythology, Mathura lays many claims to fame. It is the birthplace of the eighth Avatar of Lord Vishnu, Krishna, and his most endearing incarnation. Every square foot of this area is wrapped in timeless devotion to Lord Krishna, the evergreen hero of Hinduism, the lover of Radha and the cowherd-prince. The entire region almost resonates with Krishna's childhood antics and days of youthful dalliance with his consort in the forests of Vrindavan. The little towns and villages are still alive with the tales of his mischievous pranks and extraordinary exploits, still seeming to echo with the sound of his flute. Each and every phase of Lord Krishna's early life is rooted in reality in this region. Fact mixes with make-believe and it's all there.
Hindu mythology claims that Mathura was founded by Shatrugna, the youngest brother of another incarnation of Lord Vishnu, Rama, the King of Ayodhya and hero of the Ramayana. Earliest references to Mathura are some 2,500 years old. It is mentioned in the Indian Epic Mahabharata. An important Jain religious site before Buddha visited the city and established monasteries here, Mathura became a powerful principality under the Kushan Empire, whose greatest king was Kanishka.Mathura went into oblivion until the resurgent movement of the Bhakti cult. At the time, Hindu rulers, chieftains and rich merchants built temples, riverfront ghats and other structures to revive the Krishna legend. Today, Mathura has grown into a crowded town with pilgrim and tourism services, heavily steeped in Hindu tradition. The temples, the ghats, in fact the entire riverfront, are all centres of religious activity.
The city of Mathura is located in the northern region of India and is the nucleus of Brajbhoomi (the area associated with Krishna) covering about 3,800 sq km. Mid-way between Delhi and Agra, Mathura is easily accessible. The city is entered through the ornate sandstone Holi gate, which has been restored recently.
Birth of Lord Krishna
Krishna was born of Devaki, the wife of Vasudeva, while the couple were imprisoned in Mathura. They were imprisoned because their eighth son, Krishna, was prophesied to kill his maternal uncle, the evil King Kansa. When Krishna was born, the doors of the prison magically opened and the guards fell asleep. Vasudeva walked out of the prison and took Krishna, across the Yamuna River to Gokul to be cared for by his foster parents, Nand and Yasoda in Vrindavan.
According to legend, Krishna revealed the first signs of divinity in his early childhood itself. King Kansa sent many demon followers to Vrindavan to kill him. He sent Putana, a witch, who assumed the form of a beautiful woman. She offered to nurse baby Krishna after covering her breast with poison, but Krishna sucked both her breast and her life-breath, killing her.
He then killed Trinavarta, the wind demon, who grabbed Krishna and flew away with him. Krishna made himself so heavy that the demon fell to the ground and died. Arishtasura, the bull demon and Kesi, the horse demon, both fought with Krishna and were killed.
He also punished Kaliya, a many-hooded serpent. This snake had poisoned the Yamuna River. Krishna danced on his head and eventually the serpent surrendered to him. All of these exploits were interspersed with harmless pranks and fanciful dalliances with his gopis and with Radha, his beloved. He then went to Mathura to kill Kansa and stayed in Mathura till he was 28. After that, he moved to Dwarka where he lived to a ripe old age.
Shri Krishna Janma Bhoomi
This is the spot where Lord Krishna was born in Mathura. A marble slab marks the original spot of birth in the Katra Keshav Deo Temple at the site. The main shrine is inconspicuous, a narrow passage leads into a small room with a raised platform to the left, beautiful pictures of the child Krishna adorn the platform and the story of his birth is both written and illustrated on the walls. A narrow set of marble steps lead to a terrace through a walled corridor, creating the effect of a prison while leading out. The shrine is open everyday from dawn till 12 noon and from 4 pm till dusk.
Rangbhoomi, or the ground on which Lord Krishna fought and defeated King Kansa, is situated right opposite the city post-office.
The Dwarkadhish Temple built in 1814, with its temple carvings and fine paintings is Mathura's most visited shrine and is beautifully decorated during the festival of Janamashtmi.
The Gita Mandir on the Mathura-Vrindavan road has been built by the Birlas, one of India's premier industrial clans. It has a fine image of Lord Krishna in its sanctum. The entire Bhagwad Gita is inscribed on a pillar called the Gita Stambh.
Ghats of Mathura
The continuous line of Ghats or banks, stretching along the right bank of the Yamuna, make a splendid spectacle when viewed from the opposite side. These Ghats are of great architectural, cultural and religious interest and are believed to have been built at the sites of ancient ashrams where the great sages performed their penances. Vishram Ghat where Lord Krishna is believed to have rested after killing his Uncle Kansa is in the middle and is lined with elegant temples. Every evening, during the aarti or worship with oil lamps, the view of the Ghats with its numerous flickering lights is wonderful to behold. Boats for river excursions can be rented for a nominal fee. There are 12 Ghats to the south and 12 to the north; those in the south extend to Moksha Ghat. Pilgrims take a bath in all 25 Ghats before beginning the Vraj Mandal Parikrama or circumambulation of all the important religious and cultural places in the city.
The Vraj Mandal Parikrama is undertaken in the rainy month of Bhadon (Jul-Aug) when Lord Krishna was born. It visits most of the places where Lord Krishna spent his time as well as the twelve main forests of Vraj.
No pilgrimage to Mathura is complete without a visit to its kunds or holy waters. Tradition has it that there were 159 ancient kunds in all. Of these only four survive, the Balbhadra and Saraswati, the elegant Shiv Tal and the famous Potara Kund where the child Krishna's clothes are reported to have been washed.
Mathura has a number of temples dedicated to Lord Shiva as well, the four main temples are the Bhuteshwar Mahadev Temple, the Gokarneshwar Temple, the Rangeshwar Mahadev Temple and the Pipaleshwar Mahadev Temple.
Vrindavan is 10 km away from Mathura. The name is believed to have been derived from Vrinda, another name for the sacred tulsi (basil) plant. Legend has it that the entire place was a tulsi grove at one time and its fragrant groves were Krishna's childhood haunts. It is in this forest that Krishna indulged in adolescent pranks like flirting with the gopis (cow herding girls) in the forests and stealing their clothes while they bathed in the river. All that remains of the fragrant groves where Lord Krishna is believed to have played his flute are gardens called Seva Kunj and Nidhivan. Though the river has also meandered away from most of the bathing ghats, Vrindavan remains a transcendental world, a place of Krishna's lila or play, and still attracts a lot of pilgrims.
An important and vibrant temple in Vrindavan is the Bankey Bihari Temple. The deity was discovered by Tansen's guru, Swami Haridas, a great Krishna devotee. The temple houses a sacred image of Lord Krishna called Thakur Ji, which shows Krishna with an almost blackened body. Devotees enter the shrine room carrying garlands of flower petals and offer them to the spirit of the statue, as Brahmins (priests) move back and forth in front of the icon, occasionally drawing across the curtain to shroud the icon for a moment. The main hall and the sanctum sanctorum of this temple are decorated with floral carvings.
The towering Rangaji Temple is the longest temple of Vrindavan and dates back to 1851. It is dedicated to Lord Shri Ranganath or Rangaji (a form of Lord Vishnu lying down on the celestial serpent or Sesh Naga.) This temple is a bizarre mixture of architectural styles, which includes a Rajput-styled entrance gate, a soaring South Indian-styled Gopuram and an Italian-influenced colonnade. One of the enclosures within the precincts of the temple has a 15-meter-high pillar made of gold.
The Govind Dev Temple was an architecturally impressive seven-storey structure with a magnificent vaulted ceiling, but after it was demolished by Emperor Aurangzeb only three of its storeys remain. However, its red sandstone edifice is still quite impressive.
The Madan Mohan Temple is Vrindavan's oldest existing temple. Some other interesting shrines worth a visit are the ornate Shahji Temple built in 1876 and the opulent Jaipur Temple built in 1917 by the Maharaja of Jaipur, the Pagal Baba Temple, Nidhi Van Temple and the Radha Vallabh Temple.
Lake of Tears or Mansarovar
Roughly 5 acres in size and a few miles across the Yamuna River from Vrindavan, lies this rare wetland grove and bird sanctuary. Local lore has it that the lake was formed from the tears Radha shed when she feared she had lost Krishna. A solitary image of her is worshipped in a small shrine beside the lake. An atmosphere of desolation among the surrounding aged bowers heightens the remote beauty and melancholy of this place. Though pilgrims visit this spot throughout the spring and autumn seasons, the real visitors to Manasarovar are the crowds of waterfowl and heron that frequent the place. A special visitor is the revered Sarus Crane, an endangered species which breeds only in North India.
A scenic village 16 km south of Mathura, Gokul is the place where Lord Krishna was secretly raised by Yashoda. According to legend, King Kansa and his courtiers could not enter the region because they were cursed by a Rishi that they would turn into stone if they did so, hence this was a safe place of residence for young Krishna. The most important temple here is that of Gokul Nathji, which is one of the three oldest temples here, the others being Madan Mohan and Vitthalnath Temples. Mahavan, 18 km from Mathura, is well known for its temple of Mathura Nathji, famed for its Chaurasi Khambha or 84 pillars with its brick and plaster edifice built in the Buddhist style.
26 km west of Mathura is Govardhan, where the young Lord Krishna is said to have lifted the Giriraj Hill and held on the tip of a finger, to protect the people of Braj from a deluge of rain sent down by Lord Indra. Worth visiting here are the 400-year-old red sandstone temple of Haridev and the Kusum Sarovar, where, it is believed, the gopis would pick flowers for Krishna. At Kusum Sarovar are, also, the exquisitely carved Chhatris or cenotaph of the royal family of Bharatpur, especially one of Raja Suraj Mal, with its interiors embellished with fine paintings of court and hunting scenes.
Govardhan is set along the edge of a masonry tank known as Mansi Ganga, which is believed to have been brought into existence by the divine will. Its enclosures were built by Raja Bhagwan Das of Amer in 1637 and embellished by Raja Man Singh, who built a long flight of steps leading up from the end of the tank. A dip in the Mansi Ganga is felt to be more potent than one in the Ganges because it fills one with love for Krishna. Radha Kund, where Lord Krishna is believed to have killed Arishtasura the bull demon, is 5 km north of Govardhan.
Situated on the foot of a hill named 'Brahmasaran' after Lord Brahma, Barsana is 47 km from Mathura and was once the home of Radha Rani, Krishna's beloved and consort. Temples dedicated to the divine couple ornament the elevations of the hill. Chief among them is Radha Rani Temple more fondly termed the Ladliji Temple. It is a splendid structure of red sandstone and was built by Raja Bir Singh Ju Deo of Orchha in 1675. The new marble temple adjoining it is a later addition. The temples dedicated to Radha are the only ones where Radha is worshipped in India apart from at the small shrine near Mansarovar. Nearby is the Prem Sarovar, where Krishna and Radha met for the first time.
Barsana is also famous for its Holi (festival of colours) played between the residents of Nandgaon and Barsana. Holi in Barsana is termed as Lath-maar Holi and is unique to Barsana because the women of the village beat the men with wooden sticks while the men try to spray them with coloured powders or gulaal!
Nandgaon, 8.5 km north of Barsana, was the home of Krishna's foster-father Nand. In his memory stands the 19th century spacious temple on the top of a hill. Close by is the Pan Sarovar, where Lord Krishna is said to have taken his cows for a drink of water.
Festivals in Mathura
Since the ethos of Mathura is centred around Krishna and his tales, Mathura sees heightened activities during major festivities related to the Lord, like his birthday or Janamashtmi in Aug-Sept., Radha's birthday or Radhashtmi in Aug. and Holi, the festival of colours in February-March The lesser-known festivals like Kans Vadh, Hariyali Teej, Guru Purnima, Govardhan Puja, Jhulan Yatra and Basant Panchmi are also occasions for celebration. Most of the temples are decorated beautifully for the celebrations.
Janamashtmi is the birthday of Lord Krishna. Translated, the word Janam means birth and Ashtmi is the eighth day in the Hindu calendar. Krishna was born on the eighth day in the Hindu month of Shravan, which falls in the months of August-September. A twenty-four hour fast is observed on this day and prayers are chanted at midnight, the time of Lord Krishna's birth. The idol of Krishna is bathed and placed in ornate cradles. Decorated tableaus show scenes from Krishna's birth stories. The Raaslila (a form of dance) is enacted, recreating the many legends of Krishna's life and his amorous exploits.
Holi, the spring festival of colours (celebrated on the full moon day in the month of Phalgun in Febuary-March) has a special flavour in Brajbhoomi and is celebrated for several days. Men and women play with coloured powder (gulaal), water and flowers. The atmosphere is filled with a spirit of teasing and playful repartee. In Barsana the festival includes colourful processions with music, song and dance and the famous 'Lathmaar Holi'.
Other places to visit include the Brahmanand Ghat in Gokul, where Krishna revealed his true identity to Yashoda, the kadamba tree where he is believed to have stolen the clothes of the milkmaids, the narrow 'Sankri khoh' where Krishna is believed to have waylaid the milkmaids of Barsana, and Nidhivan, where believers are convinced that Krishna still plays raas with gopikas. Every grove, every tree, every mountain in the area is richly interwoven with the Krishna legend and is held in great reverence by his thousands of devotees.