This is an editorial. The opinions expressed here are those of the author and not the editorial board or the BVHA.
We are getting used to hearing about government initiatives for the development of Vrindavan, announced almost daily in the newspapers, usually as a fait accompli without any public consultation. So we have skyscraper temples (1, 2) and a “Krishna Disneyworld” to join many of the garish and commercial ventures that attempt to make religion the engine of economic development.
The other day, we received some information about the Government’s approval the Braj Foundation‘s plan for the beautification of the Parikrama Marg from Chir Ghat up to the Chattikara Road. This part of the road is known to the bureaucracy and local cognoscenti as “VIP Road.” Included in the plan, to be executed after the cleanup, is a new ghat – the first in many, many years – to be built at Imli Tala.
Although all the details are not yet available to us – we are planning a full interview with Vineet Narain, CEO of the Braj Foundation, in January to get them – we would like to share some thoughts with our readers.
The Braj Foundation needs little introduction to anyone taking an interest in the development and restoration of Braj. They have been especially active in restoring and refurbishing Braj’s ancient tanks or kunds, and the Brahma Kund near Ranganathji temple is one of their prize accomplishments. Another important project undertaken by TBF in the old part of Vrindavan is at Seva Kunj. This latter project ran into some controversy.
Whatever the case, Vineet Narain has ably managed TBF into a position where it is the prime non-governmental organization related to Braj development that has the government’s ear, whether it is the MVDA, the Urban Development Ministry, or local officials and government officers. The large amount of money that the Union Gov’t is willing to shell out for this current project is a sign of the faith that elected officials and bureaucrats have in Vineet Narain’s track record. As such, TBF has also been involved in various aspects of planning (Braj Tourism Master Plan).
Here a thing or two needs to be said about Vrindavan Today. This project was started as a part of the Braj Vrindavan Heritage Alliance. Vrindavan is a beehive of interest groups of all types, and BVHA was meant to function, not as an activist group per se, but as a forum where different groups could come together and debate government initiatives such as the infamous bridge project at Keshi Ghat, and to lobby collectively for goals that were agreed upon by the majority. BVHA was ideally conceived as an umbrella group without a specific institutional objective, but despite that, it has not as yet fulfilled its purpose.
Vrindavan Today is also far from realizing its potential in serving as a forum for discussing development issues in Vrindavan and Braj, what to speak of actively exerting as much influence as we would like to have on the way that the Dham grows in this period of intense modernization. But it would be wrong for those who love Braj’s culture and ethos to silently allow even well-meaning persons who lack such sensitivity to dictate to them what Vrindavan is to become.
The Parikrama Marg
I have a long wish list for the way I would like to see Vrindavan develop, but the revitalization of the Parikrama Marg is first on that list.
The Parikrama Marg has been a matter of great concern to us at Vrindavan Today since it was first paved and made into a Potemkin Village type of thoroughfare meant to scuttle very very important people in to see the Madan Mohan temple and Banke Bihari, without seeing too much poverty or pestilence on the way.
In fact, the Parikrama Marg is one of the essential elements that make up the character of the Dham. From my point of view, and from the point of view of most in the BVHA, the transformation of the meditative and devotional walk around Vrindavan town, the Panchakosi Parikrama, into a road dedicated to automobile and bus traffic without much concern for pedestrians, is the greatest proof that the powers that be have no concept of what Vrindavan is about or what Vrindavan should be aiming at becoming.
Vrindavan must adjust to the modern situation and live with the fact that crowds of people will come. But if hordes of tourists are come to Vrindavan, then let them find still living at least some of the traditions that make Vrindavan what it is.
If TBF’s initiative is about restoring the original Vrindavan Panchakosi parikrama to its sacred status, where devotees can extract the maximum benefit by not having to worry about speeding cars passing each other or blocking the road or being run over, then we are all for it.
Every year there are a few days such as Sharat Purnima when the police close down the road to traffic and allow millions of pilgrims to enjoy the walk around Vrindavan in peaceful devotion. On other days like Hariyali Teej, the streets of the town are also closed to facilitate the movement of pedestrians. But in fact, Vrindavan was built for pedestrians, and at least the old town should be closed to cars, what to speak of buses, for at least a few hours a day, out of respect for those who want to enjoy the sights and atmosphere in peace.
In Rishikesh, where I spent quite a bit of time, the Uttar Khand government has invested in a beautiful promenade along the Ganga, so one can follow the river almost all the way from Laxman Jhula to Virbhadra, more than 7 kilometers away. In the evenings, especially in the summer, thousands of local residents use the path to run or stroll, or to sit on one of the ghats or gazebos or benches to sit and socialize. Many of the ghats have regular kirtans or small temples that add to the spiritual atmosphere.
Needless to say, there are no cars disturbing the good citizens and tourists of Rishikesh, at least not here on this walk.
Pilgrimage and tourism are not the same thing. Pilgrimage can be a lucrative source of economic development, but the product being sold is not the same. There are many pilgrimages around the world that are based on the idea of making a walk with the purpose of self-purification (e.g., Camino de Santiago in Spain). In former times, people had to walk sometimes for months to arrive at their destination. Now people want to come rapidly and leave rapidly. They see something and get some momentary distraction and then hustle back into their cars to make the return trip to Delhi. Why do we encourage this?
So if the beautification of the Parikrama Marg and the building of a ghat are meant for improving the pilgrim’s (and tourist’s) experience of the sacred Dham, then we are for it. Let this beautification not be the lining of trees and red sandstone chatris that cars will only whiz by, mildly pleased by the sight of some greenery.
Let the tyranny of the automobile be overthrown in Vrindavan. Cars are still relatively new in India for most people, so why should there be such a feeling of entitlement for car owners, that the world should be reorganized in their interest only? There are already parking lots outside the Vrindavan periphery. Let the cars and above all the buses be warehoused there while electric and cycle rickshaws take people to their hotels and ashrams, or from where they can enjoy the Dham on foot. Barefoot, as they were always meant to.
The Yamuna Ghats
It is not unlikely that Vineet Narain and the Braj Foundation were inspired by the frequent talk of the Sabarmati project in Gujarat or the effect these talks are having on discussions about the Yamuna in Delhi.
But more than that, the idea of building a new ghat further upstream from Keshi Ghat is a brilliant idea. It brings attention back to the Yamuna and increases hopes that the pollution problem will be dealt with. Eventually, the river is going to have to be dredged so that its current flows closer to Keshi Ghat in all seasons. To extend the ghats upstream is furthermore a very good idea for transforming the entire area, adding value to the entire zone. Then later, Chir Ghat can also be restored and brought closer to the river. And why not Bhramar Ghat also?
People from the town will come out in the summer months to get some refreshing breezes from the river. The clear view across the river to the greenery on the other side also creates a feeling of peace and release from anxiety.
The old chatris and Yamuna ghats are really one of the great attractions of Vrindavan and the creation of an embankment road in the first place (in the 19th century) was an unfortunate necessity built to prevent floods, which though periodic are extremely disturbing and destructive.
The old ghats may be restored to their former beauty, but the Yamuna will never make it back all the way to Kaliya Daha or Madan Mohan. Building on the flood plain has to be stopped. Formerly one would get a beautiful view of the Yamuna and the surrounding greenery from Dwadashaditya Tila, but now one is treated to another dismal view of unregulated construction, parking lots and garbage dumping.
Moreover, if TBF is going to go so far as to solve the problem of the filthy drains that empty into the Yamuna in this general area (Chir Ghat and Bhramar Ghat, etc.). We have been complaining about this dereliction of duty of the municipality to the holy river for decades, and yet nothing seems to be done. Is it really so hard to set up pumping stations to move this filth into a water purification plant and away from the Yamuna?
And how about removing those unsightly pillars from the aborted bridge project be removed, along with all the supposedly temporary buildings that workers were using as residents and godowns?
Beautifying the Parikrama Marg is a major project, perhaps the biggest that TBF has undertaken until now. I have it on Vineet Narain’s assurance that there will be no widening of the road for cars, no reprising of the bridge project.
From my point of view, a great problem with the mentality of many people is that they do not recognize the common ownership of public spaces. A project like this one, if it is seen as something belonging to all the people and not merely a publicity effort for an NGO, can go a long way to augmenting municipal pride and create a knock-on effect for cleanliness and other efforts that benefit the entire populace.
Of course, the recent word trickling down from the bureaucratic caverns like the MVDA that rule Vrindavan’s future, include the new Brij Development Board, is that more access roads to Vrindavan will be built. The increase in automobile traffic has increased exponentially in the past decade until the town has become unbearable due to it. Many medieval towns in Europe, including towns with a sacred history and character, have banned cars in the central areas in order to make life more pleasant for pilgrims and visitors. Let’s be smart about Vrindavan’s future and favor the [bare] foot not the wheel.
After many years of observing the situation in Vrindavan, I have come to the conclusion that Vineet Narain is the principal player on the NGO side. One reason, he has told me, is that he is not interested in rallying the community but in acting unilaterally as effectively as he can. He is results oriented and pragmatic. Endless wrangling and no action are anathema to his approach. This no doubt has its practical effect, but it has also made him a somewhat unpopular figure with many of the other activists in the Braj-Vrindavan area. However, we are become desperate to see results and if he does indeed move Vrindavan in the right direction, then his energy and influence will be of the greatest benefit to all the stakeholders.
Lets be honest: Everyone else has been pretty ineffective. And all the major external and internal forces seem to be in the favor of those who would kill the goose that lays the golden egg: seeking immediate personal gain at the cost of the long-term outcome for the Dham.
If people trust Vineet Narain’s vision and leadership, it could be very useful. But of course, we are some distance from that kind of unity. There has to be constant public debate and I want Vrindavan Today to play a role in that.
I am interested though in creating community bridges. I don’t believe that everyone is morbidly self-interested, not even in Vrindavan, and even if they are, they must be made to see what kind of Vrindavan is in the interest of all those who live here, especially the old guard.
Vrindavan Today’s role is not that of a crusading site with the aim of dredging up dirt and destroying evil. I am still a foreigner and that would not be wise.
But I do want the “foreign voice” in Vrindavan to be heard by all, as well as the voices of the “tourists”. If Vrindavan is to be a tourist town, then let it be one that has some class.
The foreigners who are really at the basis of Vrindavan’s economic potential are not Germans with protruding bellies in Hawaiian shirts and shorts looking to take photographs of a widow begging next to a starving child and a skinny calf. Or of strange Hindu religious kitsch.
The real foreigners Vrindavan wants here are the ones who dream of Vrindavan, who come here with Krishna in their hearts, and they are the ones who will be the most faithful to a spiritual vision.
They are not the only ones like that, of course, I think that there are plenty of sadhus and Goswamis who have the right idea, just they are not caught up to the gravity of the new Kali Yuga situation quite yet.
In fact, the gawking first world tourist, if they come to Vrindavan, should be given the Vrindavan of the sadhus and the Gosais, not Nashville or Memphis or some other caricature of materialism in spiritual dress.