It was spring and I was headed for an official meeting in Gurgaon on a Thursday. Just as I communicated this to my better half Ronita earlier in the week, she jumped on the idea and suggested we take a day off and do a trip to Delhi and Agra, sans the kids. We grew up in Kolkata and was now settled in Bangalore for more than 10 years. Though I have been to Agra a few times in my childhood and on official meets – this was the first for Ronita.
As we landed in the morning of Thursday at the Delhi Airport, Ronita was met by one of her school friends who took the liberty to show her all the do’s for a day trip and we agreed to meet at the hotel for dinner. While I finished the official do’s for the day, I was surprised to know that she had covered the Qutab Minar, Lotus Temple, drives arounds Rajpath with time to pose in front of India Gate, Rashtrapati Bhavan, the Secretariat and the Parliament. The high point was taking some amazing photos of the Jama Masjid and doing the round of Chandni Chowk’s streets in a rickshaw and stopping for Biryani at the Karim’s. Her travel shoes were not done till she had finished seeing the Red Fort in the evening. A rather uneventful day for me but a great start to discover Delhi for the first time by Ronita. I realized that she had her “avid traveller” shoes on.
In the madness to rush to book the holidays, we forgot that the Taj in Agra is closed on Fridays (it’s still a Mausoleum and Friday prayers are still held in one the masjids adjoining the Taj). I thought of spending time in Agra Fort and Sikandra to kill time on Friday and realized that it was the Holi weekend. I had forgotten Holi as a festival after moving from Kolkata to Bangalore a decade ago. I knew that Holi will be exciting in North India with its joyful celebration, laden with vibrant colours. Ronita’s indomitable spirit was evident and she suggested why not drive through Vrindavan and Mathura on our way to Agra. I had some rusty memories of Vrindavan during our family trip when I was a 9-year-old. We stayed a couple of nights in a large ancestral home of one of our relatives, next to Kesi Ghat overlooking the Yamuna river. I remembered that we visited many temples, rich with history and tradition, and travelled around in tongas, rickshaws and walking barefooted. The diet for those days was rich with some mouth-watering sweets like rabdi, kheer and the quintessential peda.
We started early in the morning from Gurgaon and took NH2 (part of the original Grand Trunk Road running between Kabul and Kolkata and is supposed one of the oldest and longest roads in Asia before the Yamuna expressway was commissioned) to reach Vrindavan a few hours later. Vrindavan is where Lord Krishna spent his early childhood and Mathura was where he was born. The entire region where he lived is what folklore calls Brajbhumi. Vrindavan claims to have a few thousand temples rich with history and the notable ones are Madan Mohan, Govindaji, Rangaji, Banke Bihariji. As we entered Vrindavan in our car, the whole town was in festive mode and the dusty roads were covered in the colours of Holi.
While we reached Vrindavan around 10AM, we knew the temple timings are quite strict and some temples close around 11AM and late afternoon. We were running against time and the driver suggested we do the Banke Bihariji temple and he said he would take the car close to the temple. Vrindavan can be seen by walking or a rickshaw nowadays and most temples are not approachable by automobiles as these are narrow old lanes in a timeless, old and spiritual city. What followed in the next few hours was an experience of lifetime. As we started walking, people were celebrating Holi and throwing colours at passers-by in the narrow streets. Strangers were inviting you, as friend, and were putting coloured powder (called gulal) on your head or smearing your face. Unlike our fears, no one was doing anything that was intrusive. Tourists, devotees and residents were soaking the spirit of Holi and in the land from which it was born.
The temple is almost 150 years old. Interestingly there are curtains in front of the richly decorated deity. After the main prayers, the curtains are drawn apart to give ‘darshan’ (viewing) to a long line of devotees. The curtain before the Deities is not left open like at other temples but every few minutes it is pulled shut and then opened again. During Holi, as the curtain are drawn apart, the devotees sing the devotional songs and hymns and throw colours at the God . In the temple, small boys take the 4 corners of the sanctum sanctorum and spray “rang” (colours mixed with water) with spray guns. As we walked into the temple to have a glimpse of the god, you just saw devotees with hands folded, chanting Holi songs, throwing gulal in the air and the ‘rang’ sprayed on clothes. This was truly an unforgettable experience for city born adults like us and the sheer joy and happiness through devotional interplay was the first of its kind in our lives.
We got out of the temple and thought to see one more temple close to Banke Bihari temple and my recollection is that it was Shri Gopinathji temple. We were getting in when temple darshan was closing and we walked into the courtyard and the white marble was covered in red “rang” and as we waited for darshan, we saw that we were standing in red water and our feet had completely turned red.
Some experiences like these cannot be photographed and, for some hours, we left our digital world behind and soaked up in the purest human spirits of love, romance and devotion.
After we enjoyed experiencing the riot of colours in Vrindavan we headed to Mathura 14 kms away. Lunch was vegetarian with a generous overdose of calories of Lassi, Peda and Rasmalai. As we drove along, my childhood memories of Tonga were replaced by blazing diesel powered auto rickshaws. We went onto to see the birth place of Lord Krishna with the coexistence of both religions Hinduism and Islam being practiced side by side. A beautiful experience to see the place where he was born and then ended our trip in Agra after a long walk in Agra Fort later in the evening.
We eventually did the Taj the next day and did the essential photo op with my beloved wife. The few hours in Vrindavan were no less exhilarating and wish to do the same someday in future with the liberty to soak up its spirits for a week in Holi. Planned or unplanned, one can never be prepared for the overwhelming experience that a trip to Brij Bhumi entails!
Brij or Brijbhoomi is a region around Mathura-Vrindavan in Uttar Pradesh, India, where Lord Krishna is said to have spent his childhood and adolescence. This year, breaking all traditions, the widows of Vrindavan played Holi inside the temple premises for the first time – thus breaking earlier traditions.
[Images & story exclusive to FoodeMag dxb]