Braj, 2018.03.17, Halley Goswami (Kolkata) In the world of sacred art, everything has a purpose and meaning. The deity standing in the temple, the temple where devotees come to pray, the mantras that are chanted, the rituals that are performed — all have inner meanings and symbolism. Sadly, modern devotees are largely unaware and uninterested in making the effort to understand the principals, logic and spiritual science behind religious customs and artifacts. And the ensuing result is catastrophic! Our deities no longer look divine and our temples defy the very spiritual values that they seek to instill among us!
And perhaps, nowhere else is this more noticeable than in Vrindavan, where every religious group is trying to erect the tallest, largest or the most opulent temple. The result is disastrous! The last vestiges of forested wildernesses are disappearing from this already arid and urbanized land!
The picture of Vrindavan we get in the Puranas is very charming — dense groves and forests stretching along the pristine Yamuna banks. Unfortunately, a modern day visitor to this region will find it hard, if not altogether impossible, to reconcile his mental imagery with the actuality of this place.
The climate change that happened several millennia back over the entire northwestern India is well documented in history. Harappan seals show rhinoceroses; rhinos do not thrive in arid regions.
It remains to be seen whether this sudden change in climate was a result of the drying up of the legendary Saraswati river or due to some other natural phenomenon. Nonetheless, the sad truth is that the general ecology of the land in modern times is much different from the recorded evidence in the Puranas.
But despite the climate change, wildernesses still thrived. Peacock, deer, black antelopes, neelgai, monkeys and so many other different animals used to call this place their own. Pilgrims to Vraj, even in the mid 19th century, recorded seeing flocks of wild deer!
Unfortunately, even this wildlife was not meant to stay. As urbanization progressed, we mercilessly desecrated our own pilgrimage place… our sanctuary of peace. We cut down the very trees that were believed to be reincarnations of ‘rasik mahatmas,’ desirous of witnessing Radha Krishna lila!
Even as little as a century back, our ancestors were not so rude. The old temples of Vrindavan were called kunjas. Since Vrindavan was originally a forest set for the pastimes of Radha and Krishna, the early bhakta temple builders ensured that a little bit of forest continued to thrive within the temple premises. As a result , almost all old temples of Vraj had a dense grove of flowering plants and fruit trees inside their courtyard, which was affectionately called a kunja (sacred grove). An example can still be seen in Lala Babu’s kunja in Vrindavan. Man and his religious pursuits were in complete harmony with nature.
The temples too were modest and simple. It is from Vrindavan that an entirely new style of temple building emerged, the haveli style. Haveli literally translates as ‘home’.
As the town emerged under the growing influence of Gaudiya and other Vaishnava paramparas, focus began to be concentrated on the humane and earthly aspect of God. In this land, God is not the ruler, king, or father in heavens. He is a poor cowherd boy next door, or a mischievous lover hiding in the woods.
Such a God has no need for gigantic temples befitting a king. So Vraj set a new trend in North Indian temple architecture. The havelis are architecturally no different from an ordinary man’s home and they provided a chance to the bhaktas to interact with their God at a personal level.
This is not to suggest that the havelis were not grand. They were grand in their own way and the rich paintings that adorned their walls enabled the seeker to meditate on the divine pastimes of Radha and Krishna, becoming completely lost in the atmosphere.
It is possible that this shift in architecture was also a defensive measure so as not to attract the attention of fanatic Islamic rulers whose sword had been razing to ground Hindu edifices.
In Bengal, the same thing was happening under the influence of Chaitanya Gaudiya Vaishnavism. The traditional art of Bengal was completely extinct by 15th century under the yoke of Islamic rule. And after a prolonged lull, the birth of Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu set off an explosion of revivalist movements in Hindu art, architecture and all other arenas . The temple construction also saw a monumental revival, but on completely new lines.
This time around, the temples began to mimic the earthen thatched roof huts of the Bengali countryside. Instead of attempting to reach the sky, the new temples tried to touch the ground, as if in the mood of Chaitanya’s instruction to be humbler than the blade of grass. Gods left their heavenly abodes to stay in hut-like temples with their human devotees!
This peculiar style of architecture would be eventually taken to the Agra Fort by Mughal Emperor Akbar to construct his own palaces, from where it would spread out to all over Northern India and get established as the defining identity of Rajashthani or Rajput architecture . The iconic jharokha or chhatri motif that you see all over Northen India, is nothing but an adaption of Bengal’s temple style, known locally as the “chala” – the thatched roof .
Bengal’s bhaktas began to address their abodes of worship as Thakur bari – the houses of Thakur or God, rather than the old school abbreviation of math (mutt) or mandir. This reflects not only a dramatic change in architecture but also a shift in the way common men approached God and devotional practice, which had been made more personal and lovable by Shri Chaitanya .
The havelis and the Bengali chala temples are also opulent, but their grandeur is of a different, sattvik kind. Their attractiveness arises from simplicity of lines and design. They stand for the madhura bhava – the highest expression of divine love, where wealth is a major detrimental factor. Its opposite, aishwarya bhava (the mood of opulence), is one of the main barriers to attaining madhura bhava.
The reflection of these two different moods in connecting with the divine can be easily perceived, for example, in two different temples – the Ranganath Swami temple of Srirangam which with its imposing structure and gilded spires boasts of aishwarya bhava. And the simple earthen terracotta temple of Madan Mohan at Bishnupur, Bengal, highlights the closely bonded madhura bhava.
The modern gigantic skyscrapers and opulent museum-like temples are paying homage to the very aishwarya bhava that sadhaks of Vraj are supposed to renounce in their quest for God!
As the nation hurtles into a materially promising 21st century, Indians are forgetting and denying their connections to nature and the past. All that matters now is an ugly show of wealth and money, masked as spirituality!
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