Nothing prepares a traveller for coming face to face with his final destination. Not legend, not stories, not first-hand accounts, guides, books or blogs- nothing. The first sight of the escape-from-mundane-land can either completely blow you off your feet or leave you perplexed, wondering whether you got down at the right station.
In India that all important first impression becomes painful to formulate if it is a religious place. You can’t call it dirty for fear of divine scorn and wouldn’t want to recommend it either. But this Janmashtami for you, dear reader, I hereby risk my moksha which, I am sure will be granted if I am not wrong.
The trouble with Vrindavan is that, even though it is on the international pilgrimage map for anyone who has ever been swayed by the thumping-jumping-life pumping Hare Krishna chanting, it is an ancient village trying hard to come to terms with the 21st Century and in retaining its characteristic aura of being one of the holies
t spots in India for thousands of years.
Located over 150 kms south of Delhi, the land of cow-herders and milk maids finds itself hurtling towards an economy of anything but prosperity. Profits yes, but prosperity- as they call anything that is past its time in these parts- has gone Govinday Namonamah.
As you drive on the National Highway-2, crossing small towns and some badlands like Palwal, there is no missing the toll that the state government’s Yamuna Expressway project has taken on the luscious countryside which is a must-look-out-for in any traveller’s itinerary.
Acres along acres of land lies abandoned, bereft of cultivation or population and is marked for housing societies with an approximate investment of Rs 15000cr and promising proximity to the Omnipresent One, sprawling educational institutions doling out MBA and engineering courses and that other must-look-out for on Indian highways- dhabas.
No farms, no villages. Schools & colleges in the middle of nowhere- which is not a bad thing considering UP’s literacy rate is a little over 50% as compared to the national rate of over 65%.
But, for the uninitiated, the swathes of land bought by the state government or sold to private parties at throwaway prices was once ground for a thriving agrarian economy. Only last year, the farmers of Mathura were up in arms against the land buying policy of the government. Not only that, some sadhus of Vrindavan launched a movement to save the natural heritage of the sacred land under the Brij Foundation from illegal mining and forest cutting.
The four-lane highway that lead to the unkempt bylanes of Vrindavan that plunge into darkness at night- there is an international guest house of ISCKON, but no street lights- are dotted with huge warehouses and auto-mechanic shops. Obviously, the highway sees a lot of truck traffic. It almost appears as if development didn’t get impressed by Krishna’s heavenly flute notes and carried on with the main road.
Government apathy reflects in the pathetic power supply, bad roads, crumbling buildings- beautiful, but in urgent need of repair-, water supply etc. Only last year, did the Dalit CM Mayawati announce a Rs 250cr package for the region in order to garner the upper caste votes.
The revolutionary that Krishna was- yes we adore the sweet romance of the sky-toned one, but he was a social activist at the core- his spat with uncle Kansa caught larger political dimensions when the daring lad asked his gwala brethren to stop selling milk to the King of Mathura for almost free, and instead told them to revitalize Vrindavan’s economy, turning it into the legendary land of milk and honey.
Sure He is the God of Joy but looking back 5000 years would sadden Him.
That it is a big tourist spot has made the Brijmandal- a cluster of places associated with Krishna’s life viz., Vrindavan, Mathura, Barsana, Nandgram among other 1300 villages and towns- dependant on the faithful who throng the illustrious temples of Bankey Bihari(the Dark Lord is in full bloom when he gives darshan standing in a phool bangle- a bungalow of flowers. Heavy rush, but no police presence here.), Madan Mohan, Nidhi Van (they say Krishna still engages in raslila here) etc.
Now, a tourist economy is a good thing. Incredible India earns around USD10bn from tourists every year and religious sites are a major contributor.
But the damning catch here is that right from the first shop to the last one in Vrindavan, all sell the same merchandise- Krishna’s cloths, sweets, photographs etc. There is absolutely no variation and hence no competition and hence earnings don’t grow.
What else, commercialization is so rampant and unchecked, that almost every household has opened a shop, a cybercafe or if nothing else- and this is the worst part- they have opened a small temple and fleece devotees by making up ancient lore around it. So a crumbling small one room house also promises nirvana what with Krishna having supposedly sat there for a while!
Another thing that has left Vrindavan- apart from the Lord in flesh & blood - is the greenery. Its not just enroute that you miss the green countryside; Vrindavan and Mathura have almost no trees left.
The town draws its name from Vrinda or Tulsi plant, the mythical partner of Vishnu, but all of it is behind the guarded walls of a small patch of a forest called Nidhivan. Here the tulsi grows as if it is bowing low in Krishna’s presence. Perhaps the belief that He still plays around there at night has protected this little lung of the area.
As my mother put it aptly while we made our way back to Delhi, the land of Vrindavan is still standing purely on the name of Krishna. Every tree and public space available has graffiti dedicated to Radha and Krishna. But for Vrindavan, the writing on the wall is quite clear: the land which is a vital part of the subcontinent’s culture is slowly dieing away and not even God will save it unless we take good care of it lest Braj-raj, the holy dust of Vrindavan, turns into dirty dust.
(The views expressed by the author are personal)