India is a country with a varied and rich mythology. Vrindavan (aka Vrndavana) is located in Northern India around fifteen kilometres from Mathura and is considered to be one of the seven holiest cities for Hindus (Haberman, 272). The city features many sacred land and water features such as the Yamuna River, sacred groves (vanas), ponds (kundas) and ghats (holy steps leading down to a river) (Luthy, 4). It is also referred to as Vrindavan or Vrindivana city. The name Vrindavan is derived from ‘Vrinda’ which is another name for the sacred tulsi (i.e. basil) plant. It is one of the most holy cities within the Hindu tradition and is commonly known as the “The City of Temples” with allegedly five thousand in total.
Major religious routes within the forests of Vrindavan were first established in the sixteenth century based on the Sanksrit text Vraj Bhakti Vilasa written by Narayan Bhatt (Shah, 41). Bhatt is responsible for mapping out a large portion of the religious sites that are worshipped to this day. Bhatt more specifically mapped out the place-names found within the Puranas onto the physical terrain where these sites are found (Ghosh, 193) Pilgrimages are religious and cultural phenomena that are important features the Hindu religion. In the Hindu religion, a pilgrimage is referred to as a tirtha yatra and is a liminal process that establishes participation in the spiritual realm (Singh &Haigh, 783). A pilgrimage has been defined as a journey resulting from religious causes, externally to a holy site, and internally for spiritual purposes and internal understanding (Barber, 1). Today, pilgrimage is defined differently, as a traditional religious or modern secular journey (Collins-Kreiner, 440). For example, the Krsna Balrama Madir Temple, established in 1975 by His Divine Grace Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, has now become Vrindavan’s most popular temple and has one of the highest standards of deity worship and cleanliness. It has become one of the most popular temples and Hare Krsna devotees can be found here throughout the year (Jacobsen, 143).
Vrindavan is one of the most important places of pilgrimage for devotees of Krsna as the city is well-known as the forested region where the deity Krsna grew up as a humble cowherd (go-pala). The city itself is said to be where Krsna spent his childhood and many say that he still resides within the city itself. It is located in the Mathura district of Uttar Pradesh. The area of Vrindavan is described in the Puranas as the childhood home of the deity Krsna. This mythologized place was located geographically when the Bengali Saint Caitanya travelled there to rediscover Krsna’s childhood home where he then experienced visions of the deity in the uninhabited forest (jangala) which is now modern day Vrindavan (Ghosh, 194). Caitanya and his followers began to construct temples in the holy city that can still be found today. For example, the Madan Mohan Temple is the oldest temple in Vrndavan today and is closely associated with Caitanya.
Mathura (just outside of Vrindavan) is a little town and a major place of pilgrimage on the banks of the Yamuna River. It attracts about a half of a million pilgrims each year, especially during major festivals such as Krsna Janmastami, Holi, and Radhastami. These journeys are made to sacred places as an act of religious devotion (Nash, 101). Pilgrimage sites are places that people consider sacred and maintain their sanctity by visiting them regularly and relating them into their religious framework (Eck, 8). In India more than one hundred million people visit around two thousand major pilgrimage sites annually (Shinde, 449). During ritualized pilgrimages individuals travel to a sacred place and perform rituals considered necessary to appease the sacred object in that place. These ritual acts of worship acts by pilgrims (individual and collective) of worship and rituals are regarded as part of their normal their religious duties (Shinde, 450). Pilgrimages are crucial in the Hindu religion in order for an individual to engage all of the senses when to experiencing the sacred sites Vrindavan has to offer. The believer “sees” the sacred sights (temples, churches, relics, icons, monuments), he/she “hears” the sacred sounds (church and temple bells, drum beats, chanting, singing, the call to prayer), “touches” the sacred artifacts (icons, deities, texts), “eats” special food (such as consecrated food); and “smells” specific aromas (incense, fresh flowers) (Eck, 9). All of these experiences vary depending on the individual’s participation in the religious culture developed around the pilgrimage site itself (Shinde, 451).
Although there are thousands of temples erected within Vrindavan there are a few that stand out. Since the establishment in the fifteenth century, Vrindavan has continued to be a center for devotional pilgrimages dedicated to the deity Krsna. Vrindavan is a place for pilgrims to visit Krsna temples, participate in worship and rituals, listen to narration of stories from the religious epics of Krsna, and perform poetry, art, dance, song, and drama dedicated to Krsna’s glory (Shinde, 452). For example, these everyday rituals involve dressing the idol in finery and darshan, communal singing of hymns, and food offerings to the deity depending on the temple of worship. Today you can find a live video stream of the Sri Sri Krsna Balarama Mandir which has now become one of the most popular and visited temples in the world.
Vrindavan is also a major site for Vaisnava groups. For example, widows (mostly from Bengal) have been congregating in Vrindavan for years to live out the rest of their lives. In India, social mores inhibit women from remarrying and they are shunned because they are viewed as inauspicious. Nilakantha Braja (The Blue-necked God) written by Assamese writer Indira Goswami highlights the plights of the widows who reside in the sacred city by depicting the despicable and undignified life and death experiences of these women. Known as the Radheyshamis (widows who sing devotional songs in temples for a pittance) these widows sing bhajans (hymns) in order to accumulate money to survive (Bhushan, 138). Whether young or old, widowed women leave behind their colorful saris, jewelry, and even shave their heads if they are part of the more conservative Hindu traditions (Jamadar, Melkeri, & Holkar, 57). Although these women are not forced to die in ritual sati (burning themselves on their husband’s funeral pyre) they are still expected to mourn until their own deaths. Therefore, these women find refuge in Vrindavan where they lead miserable lives surviving by begging and singing hymns in praise of Gods (Pande, 209).
Today, the city of Vrindavan has become more of a tourist attraction than a pilgrimage site. Pilgrimages, themselves, are being transformed into mere sightseeing tours and can now be more accurately labeled as ‘religious tourism’ (Shinde, 184). Annually, Vrindavan receives more than six million visitors, who are no longer visiting strictly for religious reasons (Shinde, 448). Places that were once Hindu holy sites may be accessed with a simple search on Google where the best flight deals and top places to visit are a click away. However, some temples remain constant to modern Hindus such as the Banke-Bihari Temple which is considered to be the most popular shrine and is associated with Swami Haridas and Nimbarka. Another is Nidhi Van Temple where Krsna and Radha are said to come out after midnight and indulge in raas-leela (dance found in the Puranas) and then rest in the Rang Mahal Temple which is decorated daily for the two deities.
In conclusion, Vrindavan is gaining popularity due to its numerous temples. Construction and development are ongoing which includes temples, guest houses, and apartments. Simply wandering around Vrindavan allows one to see the vast beauty of the holy city and share vicariously in the myths of Krsna.
REFERENCES AND FURTHER RECOMMENDED READINGS
Barber, R. (1993) Pilgrimages. London: The Boydell Press.
Bhushan, Ravi. (2014) “Estranged Identity: The Problem of Hindu Widows in Indira Goswami’s Nilakantha Braja.” Labyrinth: An International Refereed Journal of Postmodern Studies 5 #2:138-141.
Collins-Kreiner, N. (2010) “Researching pilgrimage: Continuity and transformations.” Annals of tourism research, 37(2): 440-456.
Eck, D. L. (1981) “Darsan: Seeing the divine image in India.” Chambersberg, PA: Anima Books: 8-9.
Ghosh, P. (2002) “Tales, tanks, and temples:the creation of a sacred center in seventeenth-century Bengal,” Asian Folklore, 61 #2:193-222.
Haberman, D. (1994) Journey through the Twelve Forests: An encounter with Krsna. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Luthy, T. (2016) “Few people know that Krishna was the first environmentalist”. Political Ecology of Tourism: Community, power and the environment.
Jacobsen, K. A. (2015) “Book review: Modern Hindu Personalism: The History, Life, and Thought of Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī, written by Ferdinando Sardella.” Numen, 62(1): 143-146.
Jamadar, C., Melkeri, S. P., & Holkar, A. (2015) “Quality of Life among Widows”. #1: 57-68.
Mostafanezhad, M., Norum, R., Shelton, E. J., & Thompson-Carr, A. (2016) “Political Ecology of Tourism: Community, Power and the Environment”. Routledge: #2.
Pande, Rekha (2015) “Widows Of Vrindavan-Feminisation Of Old Age In India.” Pakistan Journal of Gender Studies Vol. 10: 209-223.
Shah, B. (2006) “The Pilgrimage of the Groves: Reconstructing the Meaning of a Sixteenth-Century Hindu Landscape”. Arnoldia: 39-41.
Shinde, K. A. (2015) “Religious tourism and religious tolerance: insights from pilgrimage sites in India.” Tourism Review, 70(3): 179-196.
Shinde, K. A. (2011) ““This is a religious environment”: Sacred space, environmental discourse, and environmental behavior at a Hindu pilgrimage site in India””. Space and Culture. 14: 448-463.
Shinde, K. A. (2008) “The environment of pilgrimage in the sacred site of Vrindavan, India.” PhD diss., Monash University: 449-451.
Shinde, K. A. (2007) “Case study 6: Visiting sacred sites in India: Religious tourism or pilgrimage.” Religious tourism and pilgrimage festivals management: An international perspective: 184-197.
Singh, R. P., & Haigh, M. J. (2015) “Hindu Pilgrimages: The Contemporary Scene.” The Changing World Religion Map: 783-801
Related Topics for Further Investigation
Krsna Balrama Madir Temple
Madan Mohan Temple
Sri Sri Krsna Balarama Madir Temple
Vraj Bhakti Vilasa
Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic
http://www.vrindavan-dham.com/vrindavana/ (Sri Vrindavan Dham, 2016).
http://hinduwebsite.com/hinduism/concepts/mathura.asp (Hindu Website, 2016).
http://www.stephen-knapp.com/vrindavana_the_holy_land_of_lord_krishna.htm (Vrindavana: The Holy Land of Lord Krsna, 2009).
http://www.krishna.com/vrindavan (Krishna.com, 2016).
Article written by: Lindsay Tymchyna (April 2016) who is solely responsible for its content.