Lord Krsna in His enchanting form as the lifter of Govardhana Hill draws thousands of pilgrims to one of India's most popular temples.
IN KALI-YUGA, the present age of quarrel and hypocrisy, so many bad qualities prevail, but when we reached Nathdwara we found the quality of devotion to Krsna still strong.
Nathdwara is in the Indian state of Rajasthan, but most of the pilgrims who come here are from the state of Gujarat, whose border lies less than a hundred kilometers away. So the mood in Nathdwara is very much influenced by the Gujaratis.
Gujaratis have gone all over India and all over the world, and they are a very successful kind of people, especially in business. Many are doctors, professors, and professionals. The Gujaratis are a cultured, sophisticated people. They are capable, modern, intelligent, "with it," but at the same time they have their devotion to Krsna. It's an inseparable part of Gujarati life. So Gujaratis are sometimes said to be the most pious people in the world.
In Nathdwara we find Gujaratis not only from Gujarat but from Bombay (Gujaratis are the main business community there), and also Africa, England, and even America and Canada. You see them everywhere in the temples and on the streets, men wearing silk kurtas and chains of tulasi and gold, and women in fine saris. The people have fine features.
Gujaratis are also famous for wonderful food, and this is reflected in Nathdwara. This is a holy place, but definitely not a place of austerity. Food that has first been offered to Krsna is called prasadam, and this article could be titled "Nathdwara Prasadam City." Nathdwara is famous for the Deity of Srinathaji and maybe just as famous for the prasadam of Srinathaji. I'll get back to that later.
"All glories to Lord Krsna!"
Nathdwara is a town that lives around its Deity. It's a small town. You'd find it hard to say what the actual population is. When you ask people they give you different ideas, but I would guess around twenty thousand, though there must be an equal or greater number of visitors. Many of the people who live here are priests, temple workers, and merchants who sell flowers, fruit, and vegetables to offer to the Deity. Then there are those who sell prasadam and pictures of the Deity, others who sell tape cassettes with devotional songs, and others who cater to the needs of pilgrims by providing hostels and hotels, buses, auto-rikshas, and so on. Nathdwara has every-thing a good-sized town should have, but somehow or other nearly everything is connected with the Deity.
The standard greeting here is "Jaya Sri Krsna!" ("All glories to Lord Krsna!") All about, you'll see written the words "Jaya Sri Krsna!" Sometimes you'll also see the mantra of the Vallabha Sampradaya, sri krsna saranam mama ("Lord Sri Krsna is my shelter"). In Nathdwara the Hare Krsna movement is well known, so often people greet us by saying "Hare Krsna!"
The Rajasthani villagers in Nathdwara stand out brightly. They're a lively, robust people, with their own language, their own food, and their own traditional dress. And they're deeply devoted to Lord Srinathaji.
Early in the morning, a Rajasthani milk seller calls out in a deep, gutsy voice, "Jaya Sri Krsna. Jaya Vamsidhari." The high-powered devotion of the Rajasthanis and the gentle devotion of the Gujaratis makes an interesting contrast.
At quarter after five in the morning, a shenai band playing over loudspeakers calls everyone to the temple for mangala-arati, the early-morning greeting of the Lord. The band itself sits on the arch above the main entrance to the temple, playing musical instruments and chanting. The sound creates a spiritual atmosphere as you walk in.
Until some years ago, foreigners were not allowed into the temple, but now they are. In any case, members of the Hare Krsna movement have always been welcome.
Getting to See the Lord
The arati starts at 5:30. The temple doors open, and everyone just piles in. They may be sophisticated businessmen or whatever, but when it comes time to see the Lord it's "get in somehow or other."
The hall for darsana (seeing the Deity) has a series of broad step-like platforms gradually going higher toward the back, as in a sports stadium. The entrance is on one side and the exit on the other. Women enter toward the front, men toward the back.
It's pretty rough and tumble. The temple staff at the doors and by the altar in front constantly move people on, saying, "Calo Ji!" ("Please keep moving"). The sevakas, or assistants, by the altar hang onto ropes with one hand to keep their balance and lean into the crowd, waving cloth gamchas in the other hand to whisk people on. Everyone is moving, saying their prayers, and at the same time being pushed and shoved. But for a few seconds before you get moved on you get a very nice, close darsana of Srinathaji.
The self-manifested Deity of Srinathaji appeared, it is said, from a big rock on Govardhana Hill in Vrndavana. Physically He appears as a bas-relief, the front of His form emerging from the stone. He is dressed with cloth wrapped about Him in a stylish and pleasing manner. His dress is changed several times throughout the day. The weather here, as in most of Rajasthan, is ferociously hot in the summer, cold in the winter. So in summer He is lightly dressed, and on winter mornings at mangala-arati He is wrapped up so warmly you can only see His face.
Although the temple now has electric lights, torchbearers inside the temple still keep up the tradition of shedding light on the Lord with torches (thick sticks topped with cloth soaked in burning oil). When the Lord gives His darsana, beneath His lips shines a large diamond, said to be a gift from the Muslim emperor Akbar himself.
After the mangala-arati, darsana goes on and on. The mukhiyajis as the priests here are known close the curtain in front of the Deity, but everyone cries for more darsana. So the curtain is raised and lowered several times.
Finally the mukhiyajis close the door, but still people clamor for more darsana, and so it is opened again. People call out names of the Lord, "Jaya Kanaiyalala! Jaya Vamsidhari!" Then the door is finally closed, and a curtain made of bamboo is let down in front of it, and that's the end.
People at once offer obeisances and then take up brooms to sweep the temple and the adjoining courtyards. You can see that the people sweeping are not temple staff. They're people who have taken up the work in the mood of seva, devotional service.
The Mood of the Spiritual World
This mood of doing service for the Deity is a wonderful feature of Nathdwara. When I entered the temple yesterday, there was a big pile of chopped-up logs for use in cooking for the Deity, and people from the temple staff were telling everyone to take it inside to the kitchen. Seva karo: "Do service!" So people were doing it. I also was fortunate enough to get a chance to help.
And there's all sorts of service you can do. There are places you can help chop vegetables, places to make garlands, places to churn milk, and so on. Even people coming from big rich families feel happy to do some menial service for the Deity.
Out in the courtyard people sit in circles, cutting vegetables in the early-morning sun. This groups cuts one kind of vegetable, that group another. Panditas in the courtyard sit and read from scripture.
In another courtyard a cultured-looking kirtana group sits chanting with various instruments, but few people are there to listen, because everyone is busy bringing things for the Deity or carrying wood or doing other service.
One might ask, "There are temples of Krsna in Bombay, and people even have temples in their homes, so why should people come all the way here to do this service or see this Deity?" One answer is that people feel that this Deity is very special, powerful, and attractive.
Krsna is one, but the atmosphere generated in each temple is somewhat different. Here the atmosphere is certainly wonderful. So in many ways you feel like you're entering part of the spiritual world, where everyone is serving Krsna. The devotees who stay here and the devotees who visit create an atmosphere of service to Krsna: "Come serve the Lord, take darsana of the Lord, take prasadam of the Lord, and be happy in Krsna consciousness."
A Well of Ghee
Another important part of seva is giving things to the Lord. In front of the temple early in the morning, you can buy milk, flowers, vegetables, and fruits and bring them into the temple to offer to the Lord. People also give lots of money. The temple of Srinathaji is said to be the second richest in India, after the South Indian temple of Tirupati.
People also give ghee and grains. Most of the food prepared for the Deity is cooked in pure ghee. People give ghee in cans of ten, fifteen, or twenty kilos. Sometimes a whole train car full of ghee arrives in Nathdwara. The donor often prefers to stay anonymous. The shipment is simply marked, "From Srinathaji. To Srinathaji."
The temple has a literal well of ghee. Cans of ghee are cut open and slightly heated, and the ghee is poured into the well. A pipeline extends from the well to the Deity's kitchen ghee on tap. Ghee, of course, is expensive. But money is no bar in the worship of Srinathaji.
In the grain stockroom, everything is very orderly. All the grains that come in and go out are recorded. And when it goes out it goes only to the kitchen of Srinathaji. Nothing given is ever resold in the market. It's all used in the service of the Lord.
The temple has many storerooms that pilgrims can see. One room is for keeping the Lord's clothing and jewels. Another room, just opposite the temple, is called Sri Krishna Bhandar, "Sri Krsna's Storeroom." (It's named after Krsna Dasa, the first manager of the temple.) This is the treasury and accounting office, and it's where gold, pearls, saffron, and expensive clothing are kept.
There's a room for flowers. There's a tailoring room where clothes are sewn for the Lord. Another room holds gold and silver pots. There's a rose room, where rosewater and rose scents are prepared. And there's a room where books are on hand, spiritual teaching is given, and new publications are put out.
There's a room for vegetables, a room for milk, cream, and butter, and a room for misri (rock sugar). There's a grinding room for grinding grains (it's still done with a big wooden mill, powered by bulls). Then there's a room where the ingredients for the Lord's meals are assembled before they are prepared and offered, and a room where offered food is kept just before it's distributed.
No One Goes Hungry
The prasadam from the Deity is distributed profusely. A portion of the prasadam goes to the sevakas and temple workers, many of whom sell it. Right after the early-morning mangala-arati you'll find pujaris standing just outside the temple, holding steel plates bearing clay cups full of different kinds of liquid milk sweets. Later in the morning, pujaris go around to hotels and dharmashalas with covered baskets full of varieties of prasadam to sell to pilgrims.
Apart from the pujaris, in the bazaar outside the temple you'll find shops where you can buy prasadam, and pushcarts selling prasadam, and people sitting on the street selling prasadam.
In Caitanya-caritamrta we find that the Deity Gopala, the same Deity known as Srinathaji, told Madhavendra Puri, "In My village, no one goes hungry." Now, here in Nathdwara, where Gopala has come, we see that this is true. Even the street dogs here are fat. I've traveled all over in India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Burma and never have I seen street dogs look so well fed. Here even the dogs get plenty of prasadam lucky dogs.
Prasadam is available all through the day, and in countless varieties different kinds at different times. After the midday raja-bhoga offering you can get a leaf-cup full of tasty vegetables for only one rupee (less than the cost of the ingredients themselves). You can get a leaf-cup of acar (pickle), again only a rupee. There are many kinds of chutneys, fruit salads, and a unique raita made with chopped fruit in thin yogurt spiced with mustard seeds. There are big capatis full of ghee for two or three rupees, depending on the size. You'll find rice, dal, curry sauce, fried vegetables, and samosas so huge that one is practically enough for a meal.
Then there are milk sweets and sweets made with grains and sugar, rich with ghee. You can buy big blocks of laddu, made with grain, ghee, and sugar, for a hundred rupees. Some sweets include such costly ingredients as musk and saffron. People don't haggle much over prices. Whatever the shopkeepers say, people just accept it, and that's that.
Items like grain sweets and sugar-crusted fried puris keep for months without losing freshness. A pilgrim traveling abroad from Nathdwara may bring prasadam of Srinathaji to his friends overseas. Like the Deity Himself, the prasadam of Srinathaji is famous all over the world.
Bhakti Vikasa Swami is from England but has been teaching Krsna consciousness in India for many years. When he's not traveling around India writing articles for BTG (which you'll be seeing more of in upcoming issues), he works with the Bhaktivedanta Book Trust in Bombay.