on Oct. 15, 2010
A Vrindavana sadhu (holy man) sits, immersed in chanting the holy names of God.
As the sacred month of Kartika fast approaches, devotees around the world make their travel arrangements for the long journey to Vrindavana. The sacred land of Radha and Krishna's eternal pastimes is the holiest of pilgrimage places for Gaudia Vaishnavas, and the experience is more powerful and fulfilling in the auspicious month of Kartika.
At ISKCON's Krishna Balarama Mandir, the guesthouse as well as other accommodation in the area is booking up fast and taxi runs to Delhi airport are becoming more frequent. Local taxi driver Ghanashyam mentioned, “Today already I made the three-and-a-half hour journey to the airport twice to pick up ISKCON devotees. First time was for three devotees from Russia and second trip was for a couple from the UK.”
The stunning Sri Sri Radha Shyamasundar, flanked by the gopis Lalita and Vishakha
ISKCON's preparations are in full swing for the huge influx of devotees. The back courtyard of the temple, which hosts a large prasadam hall and a mini-market each year, is a hive of activity as painters and workmen beautify the grounds. The temple building is always well maintained and cleaned daily throughout the year. Many Indian people come for darshana of arguably the most beautiful and well-dressed deities in the world. Tulasi and flower garlands are sold outside the temple gates so guests can offer them in the temple. In the evenings, lamps are provided for offering to Lord Damodara as is the recommendation during the month of Kartika.
Offering a lamp in the evenings and being part of the evening kirtanas is one of the highlights of the festival. Of course kirtana continues throughout the day and night. Gopal Dasa and his team have worked hard to maintain the 24-hour kirtana in the absence of the late Aindra Prabhu.
"We had six devotees for the night-shift from 10pm until mangala-arati last night,” Gopal says. “The numbers taking part in the kirtanas will increase as devotees arrive for Kartika. Everyone has been very supportive of the program. It's great having the temple president also coming to sing with us every day."
Beadbags for chanting Hare Krishna on sale in Vrindavana's Loi Bazaar
Vrindavana, despite all its intense spiritual atmosphere, is also famous for shopping. The many stalls in Vrindavana's famous bazaars are fully stocked for the winter season. Pujaris from around the globe descend on the tailors and cloth merchants of Vraja to have outfits designed and sewn for ISKCON's temple deites. Everything needed for puja is available. The nearby city of Jaipur is also a great provider of all the many items used for elaborate deity worship. Devotees will also take advantage of the many cloth, jewellery and bead shops to stock up on devotional paraphernalia and clothes that are harder to get in the West.
However the real essence of a pilgrimage to Vrindavana is the spirituality of both the place and its residents. As usual, parikramas (pilgrimages) around the different sacred spots are organized by ISKCON with senior devotees guiding and explaining the significance of each place.
The sacred Govardhana Hill, enveloped in greenery during the rainy season
Parasurama Dasa organizes a bullock cart and travels with a team of devotees to the many small villages of Vrindavana, giving out Prabhupada’s books, free Prasadam and having kirtana with the locals. "This is the real Vrindavana experience and everyone is welcome,” he says. “Simple living and sharing Krsna consciousness with each other. Vrindavana and its residents give us so much, this is our way of reciprocating with them."
The recent heavy monsoon rains, although completely finished now, have left certain areas of the parikrama path damaged, but they have also made some areas more relishable. The sacred lakes of Radha Kunda and Shyama Kunda have merged into one large lake due to the rise in water levels, and Govardhana Hill—which is normally one of the hottest places on earth—is filled with luscious green vegetation.
The holy Manasi Ganga, flooded by the monsoons
But despite whatever external differences there may be, Vrindavana offers the sincere pilgrim a truly deep and uplifting spiritual experience, and ISKCON Vrindavana does its best to help facilitate it. Those who are fortunate enough to reside there eagerly await the arrival of those who can only visit, to celebrate what is the most exciting month-long festival in the Vaishnava calendar.
Vrindavana residents carry water pots on their heads