‘Sir, is baar to baba se milenge’ (Shall we meet the Baba, this time around?), it was Girdhari from the Nadi Mitra Mandali at Gadaya. Baba referred to Goswami Pankaj ji, the head priest of the Pushtimarg sampardaye, a religious sect, at Gokul with millions of followers who revere Jamuna maiyya, the river Goddess Yamuna, the fourth consort of Krishna, as their isht dev or reigning deity. We were in ‘Braj’!
The region known as Braj is spread over some 3800 sq km, on either bank of the Yamuna, locally called Jamuna, and is well known for the pilgrimage sites of Mathura, Vrindavan, Gokul, Barsana and Govardhan. It is the fabled land of baby Krishna and his inimitable baal lilas (stories from his childhood) brought to life in verses composed by the ‘blind’ yet divinely sighted poet ‘Surdas’ (1478-1580 AD) and his contemporaries like ‘Raskhan’ (1548-1628 AD) from the bhakti (devotion) movement, a period of cultural renaissance between the 15th and 17th centuries across north India. Braj, sporting a distinct bhasha or dialect, and hallowed to its very core with a rich tapestry of mythology dipped history, lies in western Uttar Pradesh.
Not many know that while Krishna, who from his childhood through adolescence, roamed these lands with abandon it is not him but Radha, his sakhi (friend and companion) and Jamuna, the quintessential river from the heavens (the other being her sister Ganga) that rule the roost in the minds and hearts of the people of Braj. They say ‘Braj’ is Radhamaye (immersed in Radha) for people here speak of Radha with the fondness of a family member and it is the universal salutation of radhey, radhey that confirms one’s presence here in Brajbhoomi (land of the Braj).
But this is less about Radha or Braj and more about three relatively lesser known places in Braj that we got intimate with while researching and documenting the Yamuna river in the company of the local Nadi Mitra Mandalis (NMMs).
Legend has it that Balaram, the older brother of Krishna wished that the Yamuna would flow past his village, Ova. But Yamuna, then flowing quite far west along the village of Barsana (of ‘Radha’ fame), wasn’t too interested. Enraged by this refusal, Balaram, a farmer cum wrestler used his plough to drag her physically (patriarchy in full flow?). Since then the Yamuna flows past Ova with a perceptible northwards meander for a south-bound river that seems to confirm the drag!
A temple dedicated to Lord Balaram (also known as Dauji) in Ova is the claim to fame for this sleepy hamlet by the river side. It attracts pilgrims from far and wide, since this is perhaps the only one of its kind. There are also two old ficus trees by the temple standing in local belief for ‘Krishna’ and ‘Balaram’ and a tunnel that starts from the temple to where no one seems to know!
Near Ova is a green patch with a gaushala (cow shed) which is claimed to be a relic of the erstwhile ‘Bihari van’, one of the several vanas (forests) that find mention in the holy Puranas as the forests which were frequented by Krishna and his band of cowherds.
Guru Gargacharya was the clan guru of the Yadavas (the tribe of Krishna) and is believed to have bestowed the names of Balaram and Krishna unto the two brothers. Gadaya is a corrupted form of Gargacharya and the locals claim that a temple (now partly in ruin) that stands by the Yamuna here is of Guru Gargacharya.
The village of Gadaya, about 3 km from Farah town on the highway to Agra, nestles within a wide Yamuna meander and is part of the 84 kos (a kos is 2 English miles) annual Braj Parikrama (circumambulation of Braj) that the devotees perform with great devotion. For us the temple and its salubrious compound was a very welcome place to rest and meet with the members of the local Nadi Mitra Mandali (NMM).
As part of the entry level activities, the villagers led by the NMM had been assisted by us to repair and restore village wells, their only source of drinking water since the Yamuna had been badly polluted by the effluent from the upstream Mathura refinery and a canal dug with great fanfare a few decades ago had never carried any water in it.
Batesar, also called as Bateswardham is perhaps the most known and visited of the three locations. Its Krishna link is it being the capital of his Nana’s (maternal grandfather) kingdom. A local Shiva temple and annual cattle fair here attract people from far and wide.
While the Chambal river is known widely for its ravines, a less appreciated fact is that it is the entire Yamuna system (including the Chambal) that abounds in them and this fact is most conspicuous in Batesar, where an interesting and rather intriguing, series of meanders in the river has not only formed deep ravines (with lovely ‘habitable’ caves dug in them by the locals) but has created an aquifer link that seems to rejuvenate the Yamuna all along its long curve that at one time is claimed to have held some hundred Shiva temples.
An old fort, a much-revered Jain temple and a British era post office building adds to the romance of being in Batesar. Another though ‘recent’ claim to fame of Batesar is it being the birthplace of Atal Bihari Vajpayee (1924-2018 AD) a former and popular Prime Minister of India.
Another interesting feature of Batesar is a historical physical intervention that has short circuited a winding meander (now relict) of the river by breaking open a longish ravine cum hill. An ‘unknown’ local princess is claimed to have been behind the move.
The local Nadi Mitra Mandali (NMM) at Batesar led by self-motivated Radhey Shyam (a mix of the names of Radha and Krishna) operates out of the village Siyach that sits bang on that relict meander, and is an active NMM despite the project that helped establish them, having been over for more than five years now.
Facilitated by Girdhari we did meet Baba Goswami Pankaj ji at Gokul who was very pained at the ruined health of Jamuna maiyya and wished her health to be restored. It was a good, fruitful meeting at which amongst other things, it was agreed that the Baba with his legions of followers would first tackle the river pollution originating from none other than the town of Gokul itself …
Photos: Manoj Misra
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