It felt like I had travelled back in time. This was not a metropolitan, not even close to it. Mathura was happily living in the past – A small town that was and is popular as the birthplace of Lord Krishna. Its twin city, Vrindavan, barely 20km away, is popular as Krishna’s playground where he spent his childhood years.
It all made sense now, why people visited this place to seek spirituality. Mathura-Vrindavan is a major pilgrim center for Hindus. There was a certain old world charm about these cities. They are culturally rich, although on the Human Development Index the figures aren’t encouraging. I got that vibe that they don’t care either. A non-religious person will be lost here, most likely mock the place. Those willing to soak in the experience will go back home smiling 🙂
My visit to Mathura-Vrindavan clashed with the holy Parikrama in Govardhan – a mountain, believed to have been lifted by Lord Krishna on his little finger. The population in the city had multiplied and hordes of pilgrims roamed the streets from temple to temple. Mathura and Vrindavan, together, have around 4000 temples and more than half of them are dedicated to Krishna.
Fun fact: The city of Vrindavan in Uttar Pradesh has inspired a township in the USA called the “New Vrindavan”.
I gave myself half a day here and decided to check some of the key temples in Mathura-Vrindavan. On and off, I roamed the streets bare feet with a camera on my shoulder and tourist written all over me. The rains kept chasing me in this trip and before I knew it, Mathura was flooded. Pilgrims were walking in knee deep water but rarely did they flap and flutter and remained diligent in their quest to seek religious fulfillment. Mathura-Vrindavan is the least of the hygienic places to visit during monsoons, which is quite ironic since I visited Mathura-Vrindavan in the month of August.
My first stop on the temple trail was Krishna Janmabhoomi, one of the most important temples in Mathura. This is where Lord Krishna was born some 5000 years ago. The number of pilgrims here goes into lakhs and this makes it necessary to have stringent security regulations. Photography and photography equipment weren’t allowed inside the premises and our shoes had to be left in the lockers at the entrance.
A huge mosque is located right next to Krishna Janmabhoomi with a separate entrance. Although this made for a lovely secular sight, I was told that there is tension and conflict much similar to the situation in Ayodhya where people have been quarreling over which god claimed their existence here first. The heavy security in and around the premises is to prevent communal clashes.
Tip: It is best to leave your shoes and cameras in the car rather than trusting the lockers of the temple authorities. If you are using public transport then keep your valuables at the hotel and move out.
Banke Bihari ji temple
I moved on to my next stop, Banke Bihari ji temple in Vrindavan – a popular temple among Hindus and a Kuldevta (family deity) for many. Located amidst narrow lanes, you will have to eventually get here on foot and the experience will overwhelm you 😀
Built in 1921, the novel thing about this temple is when the priest pulls the curtains every few minutes so devotees and Lord Krishna cannot make eye contact for a long duration. Legend has it that the lord, as a child, is naive and will follow you wherever you go. Another story goes that Krishna’s eyes are so magnetic that they make visitors go crazy over him. Hence, the priest has to pull the curtains every few minutes. The fragrance of fresh flowers and decorations inside the temple are worth a special mention here. Photography, again, wasn’t allowed inside the temple.
Bankey Bihari ji temple
A beautiful white marble temple awaited us at dusk. This was Iskon also known as Angrezon ka mandir. The Iskon temple in Vrindavan is renowned worldwide and is visited by believers of Lord Krishna from across the globe.
Iskon was the most active temple in terms of visitor participation. Indians and international visitors merrily danced to the tunes of “Radhe Radhe” and other songs dedicated to Krishna. Free bhog (sweetmeat) was distributed to pilgrims. And there was a samadhi (memorial) of Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, founder of the ISKON, inside the complex.
ISKON temple, Vrindavan
My final stop for the evening was Prem Mandir, a gigantic temple with impressive lighting and massive gardens. Crore of rupees have been spent on the architecture of this temple and the lavishness will show once you step feet inside the premises. The wall carvings are ornate and the exterior of the temple changes its colours every few seconds. I was in the company of a local and was suggested to visit the Prem Mandir after 7pm so one can enjoy the sight of a colorfully lit temple in all its glory. What a great idea!
Do as the locals
It was fun watching cycle rickshawalas snake through narrow lanes. Rarely did they use horns in spite of crowded streets. Instead they say “Radhe Radhe” to clear the crowd in their way. For a true local experience, take a ride in one of these cycle rickshaws.
Street art in Mathura
The aroma of street food on the way to the Banke Bihari ji temple was distracting and left me wanting to try specialties like Aloo Tikki, Jalebi, Rabri and Lassi. And dare I returned without buying Mathura ke famous pede from Brijwasi.
Fun fact: I realized Brijwasi is a sect / community that sells sweetmeat. Their quality has now made them a brand to reckon with. Today, Brijwasi across India is popular as a brand more than the community itself
Street food scene in Vrindavan
Top tips for your trip to Mathura-Vrindavan
- Try and do Mathura-Vrindavan on your own instead of taking a guide. I have heard of many tales of touts tricking travelers in the name of tours
- Do not fall for any donation traps from pushy priests. This is based on my own experience in Pushkar couple of years back. I have read similar stories of Mathura-Vrindavan.
- Mathura-Vrindavan is a relatively safe city to travel during the day. I would highly recommend not venturing out alone during the nights, especially women.
- Plan your visit appropriately. Almost all the temples are closed between 1pm and 4pm every day. A good way to go about the trip is to cover some temples in Mathura in the morning, grab lunch and then drive down to Vrindavan in the second half of the day.
- The Bankey Bihari ji temple takes the maximum amount of time to visit because of its popularity and difficulty in reaching here. You may want to skip this temple if you’re pressed for time or wish to utilize that time to see other temples like Dwarkadheesh, Nidhivan, Vaishnodevi temple and Pagla Baba temple.
- Expect to see shops selling curios like Krishna paintings, Krishna printed t-shirts, Krishna audio song CDs and cassettes, ornaments, books and everything related to Krishna. Tourism is an important means for locals to make money here.
Where to stay in Mathura-Vrindavan?
It is recommended to book your hotel in advance and not rely on touts and rickshaw-wala recommendations. I stayed in Agra and did a day trip to Mathura-Vrindavan. You can check out Clarks Inn or Treebo Panache in Mathura. For stay options in Vrindavan, check out Nidhivan Sarovar Portico or Hotel Krishnam.
How to reach Mathura Vrindavan
A visit to Mathura-Vrindavan is easily doable from Delhi (162km) or Agra (58km) or on the way from Delhi to Agra 🙂
If you’re coming from Mumbai, Mathura Junction is a major railway station. I took the August Kranti Rajdhani that reached me in 14hrs flat.
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