Vrindavan, 2016.08.25 (Shreya Suresh Kumar, itripto) Janmashtami also known as Gokulashtami celebrates the birth of Krishna, believed to be the eight incarnation of Vishnu. Krishna is one of the most popular gods in the Hindu pantheon as are the tales of his growing up years in Vrindavan. This festival is celebrated on a grand scale in several parts of India. But if you really want to experience Janmashtami celebrations, Mathura is the place to be at. Mathura is the birthplace of Krishna and so Janmashtami celebrations in Mathura are unique and unparalleled.
Being the birth place of Krishna, Mathura holds a special place in Hindu mythology to the extent that scriptures call it one of the seven holiest cities (or Sapta Puri) of India. Sapta Puri are also known as tirthas. The region around Mathura and Vrindavan, the two cities most closely associated with Krishna’s birth and formative years is called Braj Bhoomi or the Land of Pastures. Even though Braj Bhoomi isn’t a clearly defined political area, its culture — one associated with herders and cattle breeders — makes it unique. It is here, in the heart of Braj Bhoomi’s Mathura, stands the beautiful Keshav Dev Temple. The general belief is that the spot where it stands is the birthplace of Krishna.
The history of Mathura and Krishna’s birth in Mathura:
Unlike the stories of Krishna’s growing up and adolescent years that are joyous, the one associated with his birth is far from being a happy one. And it involves considerable blood and gore. It begins, as many stories do, in the palace of a just and much loved king. Ugrasen, who ruled Mathura and the regions around it, was a fair and a well-respected ruler. As is wont in stories like these, Ugrasen’s son turns out (we are told) to be the exact opposite of his father. Kamsa is cruel, unjust and therefore hated by his people. But for all his faults, Kamsa has a soft spot for his sister, Devaki, the mother of our story’s hero. And this is where things get complicated.
Hindu mythology tells us that beyond the human realm, the gods have been conspiring to overthrow the evil Kamsa. According to the scriptures Bhudevi or Earth Goddess was so upset by the atrocities committed by evil rulers that she requested Vishnu for help. Vishnu, the preserver of the Universe, agrees to descend upon the earth in a human form and destroy any traces of evil. And Kamsa, it would seem, was his first target.
Back in the kingdom of Mathura, Devaki decides to go against her brother and marries Vasudev, the ruler of the Yadu dynasty. The problem? Yadus were Kamsa’s mortal enemies and the two would fight bitter battles. If things weren’t complicated enough for young Devaki for going against her all-powerful brother, the gods decide to announce to the world that her eighth son would be the end of Kamsa. And so a divine call or akashvani predicts Kamsa’s death! The mortified king of Mathura decides to kill Devaki but is calmed down by Vasudev’s pleas for mercy. Vasudev agrees to offer Kamsa all their children soon after they are born in exchange for his newly-wedded wife’s life. Kamsa agrees to spare her life and puts them into a prison. Years pass; Vasudev stands by his word, offering Kamsa one newborn child after another. Kamsa, and this is where the story gets gruesome, kills all of them! One by one, seven newborns die at the hand of the cruel king.
Just before Devaki is to deliver her eighth child — the one who would kill his cruel uncle — Vishnu appears before the bereaved and imprisoned couple and instructs them to exchange their son for the daughter of Yashodha and Nanda’s who be born in Gokul at about the same time. Vasudev is confounded at the instructions. How could he, a prisoner of a powerful king, escape confinement, take his child to Gokul and return with another one? But soon after the birth of his eighth child, in a stroke of divine intervention, the guards of his prison fall asleep, the doors are magically thrown open and Vasudev strolls out of jail carrying baby Krishna in a basket over his head. Battling torrential rains, Vasudev reaches Gokul and exchanges his son for Nanda’s daughter. He returns to the prison with the changeling and appeals, yet again, to Kamsa to spare the child. Vasudev argues that the divine announcement had predicted Kamsa’s death at the hand of a son and not a daughter. And, after all, how could a female child harm the mighty Kamsa anyway? The pleas fall on deaf ears and Kamsa kills the child anyway.
Since gods work in strange, mysterious ways, another divine announcement is heard. This one comes in the form of a goddess who had been reborn as Nanda and Yashodha’s daughter. The goddess announces that the one who would kill Kamsa has already been born! Devaki and Vasudev go back in prison and Kamsa begins the hunt for his would-be assassin. As years go by, Krishna grows up away from the politics and intrigue of Mathura, blissfully unaware of his true calling. Eventually, he does end up killing his uncle, thus fulfilling the divine prophecy. Ugrasen is released, as are the long-imprisoned Devaki and Vasudev. Peace returns to the land of Mathura and Krishna goes on to do greater things, playing (as we know) a crucial role in shaping the future of Hastinapur and indeed the entire country of Bharatvarsha.
Does it come as a surprise that the city of Mathura spares no expense in celebrating the birth of its most famous son? Here is how Janmashtami is celebrated in Mathura.
Janmashtami celebration in Mathura
According to the Hindu calendar, Janmashtami is celebrated on the eight day of Bhadrapad month. This year Janmashtami falls on August 25. Since Krishna was said to be born at the stroke of midnight, devotees stay awake the whole night, offering prayers to him. The most important part of these celebrations is the reading out of Bhagvad Gita, which is done at homes as also in many temples. Rocking cradles with infant Krishna’s idol is also yet another tradition followed across the country.
Janmashtami celebrations also include the practice of Raas Leela. Raas Leela or the Dance of Divine Love is part of the story of Krishna in which he dances with his beloved Radha and her friends or sakhis. The Indian classical dance form Kathak is believed to have been evolved from Raas Leela.
Raas Leela is a treat to watch for those who love narration of mythological stories. It depicts the salad days of Krishna when he was in his playful best. It also tells stories of his flirtatious nature. The Raas leela was performed on a night when Krishna playing the flute attracted the Gopikas of Vrindavan, which is a town in Mathura district. All the Gopikas sneaked away from their houses and head straight to the forest to dance all night with Krishna. It speaks of love and romance. It is also believed that if one who faithfully watches or listens to the Raas Leela will attain pure love and blessings from Krishna also known as Suddha-bhakti. You have to experience it first hand to understand the joy in watching Raas Leela.
Amidst the many celebrations in Mathura, another main event is the offering of ‘Chappan Bhog’ which consists of 56 dishes which is later distributed among devotees. This offering is made after Bal Krishna’s idol is bathed. The most distinctive part about Janmashtami celebrations in Mathura is their ‘Ghattas’ where every temple in Mathura is painted and adorned in the same color which also includes the idol of Krishna. Color-coordinated temples are definitely a treat to the eyes. With these, putting up Jhankis (pictured above), an art form bringing out the life of Krishna and his childhood through artwork that includes clay models of Krishna, is another very distinctive feature of this district. The whole city looks beautiful and colorfully lit up.
Dahi Handi Celebrations in Mathura:
Human pyramids are formed where people climb on top of each other to reach the pot that is kept hanging from above. This pot has butter and curd with dry fruits and also honey. This is done as an enactment of Krishna’s childhood when he stole butter from people’s homes. It is believed that Krishna always convinced his friends to form the pyramid so that he can reach the pots of butter and curd. These pots were tied from the ceiling by his mother Yashoda, who was well of Krishna’s antics. This particular event is not just symbolic but also fun to watch. Called as Dahi Handi, this is celebrated all across India. People who come to watch throw buckets of water at those who are making this pyramid to make it more challenging for them. The ones who reach the top and manage to break the pots are considered as winners. Dahi Handi in many cities like Mumbai has a price as a reward for the winners. Though the best Dadhi Handi celebrations can be witnessed in Mumbai, Mathura also has its share of fun and delight.
Apart from the performances and celebrations that happen in Mathura, Vrindavan is also a noted town where Krishna is said to have spent his childhood joyfully playing and stealing butter from people and also their love and affection. Vrindavan is a quaint town that is situated in Mathura district. The Janmashtami celebrations in Vrindavan begin 10 days before the festival actual starts. The whole town and district of Mathura comes to life with bhajans and prayers and festivities. Raas Leela is performed here too and Krishna is usually played by young boys here. You can experience the grander of these celebrations in the many temples of Mathura. There are several Krishna temples in Mathura that you must visit during Janmashtami. You will find approximately 5000 temples in Vrindavan alone, out of which temples like the Banke Bihari, Krishna Balaram temple and Iskcon are the most famous ones. All the temples in Mathura and Vrindavan specifically are the same. The puja timings and the rituals are not much different. But in all these temples, the most important ritual is the Abhishek of Krishna. The priests of that particular temple take out Krishna’s idol and cleanse it with a lot of devotion and care. A massive crowd gathers to just watch this. You too must witness this ritual!
Here are a few temples of Mathura and Vrindavan that you must visit.
Krishna Janmabhoomi Temple
The Krishna Janmabhoomi temple in Mathura was built around the same prison where Krishna was born. Situated very close to Mathura railway station, this temple is one of the major attractions in Mathura. It sees many devotees every year. This temple is situated right next to a mosque and hence you will always find heavy security. It is said that this temple has been rebuilt at least 17 times and today this temple is one of the most visited holy places in India. And during Janmashtami, people flock in large numbers. The temple was originally built by Vajranabha, who was the last living person of the Yadu dynasty. It was later rebuilt by Vikramaditya, an emperor of ancient India. During Janmashtami, the temple is lit up and is hustling with prayers, hymn chanting and poojas.
One of the largest and the oldest temples of Mathura, the Dwarkadheesh temple is a renowned Hindu shrine in dedication to Krishna. It was built in 1814 by Gokul Das Parikh who used to be the treasurer of Swalior State. This is where Krishna shifted to from Mathura and lived until his last breath on earth. The main deity of this temple is Dwarkadheesh who was the King of Dwarka. Dwarkadeesh is kept in this temple in Krishna’s form and the idol is made of black marble. With Krishna’s idol you will also see a white marble idol of his love Radharani. From Mathura junction is it only 3.5 km away and an auto rickshaw ride will take you to this temples in about ten minutes. You can also opt for a cycle rickshaw which will take about 20 minutes.
Kesava Deo Temple
Kesava Deo temple also known as the Keshav Dev temple is also another most sacred shrines of Mathura. Situated right next to Krishnabhoomu, Kesava Dev is the main deity of this temple. When this temple was first built, the deity was Bajanabh who was Krishna’s great grandson. In 1992, the unfortunate events in Ayodha let to tighter security at the main complex of Krishnabhoomi. This temple is most visited by Krishna devotees from within the country and abroad as well. Once you visit this temple, you will notice that the charm and quaintness of this temple is still intact. This temple hosts every major festival and Janmashatami is one of them. The Goverdhan temple is followed commonly here to celebrate festivals. This temple is said to be built above the prison where Krishna took birth. This temple is said to be so grand that neither paintings nor words could best describe it.
The construction of this beautiful temple was completed in 1965 at a whopping cost of Rs 15 million. You will also find a small room next to the temple that resembles a prison. If the stories are true, it is believed that this is the room where Krishna was born.
The Krishna Balarama Temple is one of the main temples of ISKCON situated in Vrindavan. The main deities of this temple are both Krishna and Balarama who is Krishna’s elder brother. This temple is very strict about cleanliness and maintains high standards of the same. ISKCON is ‘For International Society for Krishna Conscience’ where Janmashtami is celebrated with much pomp and merriment. Wherever you might be, this is one temple that you must visit during Janmashtami to witness the devotion and faith that people have towards Krishna. Preparations begin well in advance and the temple premises are cleaned and decorated for Gokulashtami. The altar and the hall of this temple are lit up vibrantly and adorned with flowers. On the day of Janmashtami, a total of 108 offerings are made to Krishna. These offerings consist of sweets and savouries and are mostly made by devotees with mush devotion. Another important event is the bathing of Krishna’s idol with water that is purified with saffron, tulasi leaves and also cardamom and rose petals. Authorities who work here make sure the make ample arrangements for devotees who come from across cities. You will find many ISKCON temples in India; however the whole vibe of this festival is best felt and experienced in Mathura- the birthplace of Krishna.
If you are planning to head to Mathura to experience how people celebrate Krishna’s birth then let us tell you, you are going to have the time of your life. You do not have to worry about the stay options in Mathura since there are a lot. Do not expect the 3-star accommodations that you find in cities. The hotels and homestays in Mathura are decent enough and are ideal for a couple of days’ stay. And because Janmashtamai is just few days away, make your reservations before they are all booked.