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None the people I was with in Delhi was particularly interested in going to see Mathura. Although I had never been there, I had read about it, and tried to persuade the others it was an irresistible “must-see”, kind of place. It is one of India’s seven holy cities, being the birthplace of Krishna, the Supreme Lord of the Universe. One of my colleagues had the irreverent attitude to holy cities that if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. It was still the monsoon season in Uttar Pradesh, although nearing its end, and another colleague did not fancy the ninety mile drive in what might be rain or at least low grey cloud.
Out of Delhi
In the event, the day dawned dry and sunny, the blue sky punctuated by fluffy white clouds and I set off south with a driver in a white Ambassador. At seven on a Sunday morning Delhi was quiet, or at least as quiet as it gets. A few pavement dwellers were still asleep under their blankets but already the daily movement of goods was under way. Wheelbarrows and donkey carts and thin men bearing heavy loads moved north and south, east and west in equal numbers, their shadows long in the morning sun. In side streets and open spaces were the cycle rickshaw men who live and sleep on their machines. Their canopies were pulled over and they lay curled up on the double seats behind the cycle saddle.
Out of town the countryside was a broad plain, flat and green with paddies and the road ran long and straight. For the first forty miles or so it ran through the state of Haryana, before going back into Uttar Pradesh. It was the first time I had ever been in Haryana and for a while, it looked no different from anywhere else, the flat, wet fields dotted with ponds and pools in which water-buffalo bathed. But at the first cross-roads where, as always, there was a small settlement of mud houses and a few dusty shops and fruit barrows, there was a troupe of what could only be called entertainers. They wore bright colours and stood out in the road to slow down even further the crawl of vehicles at the crossing. One had a stringed instrument, another had a kind of flute and numerous supporters covered the scene with collecting tins. At the next settlement, the same thing was repeated with the addition of a snake charmer by the side of the road.
I do not know whether it was to do with the season or a festival, or whether it was a special Sunday or whether it was in fact something more characteristics of that state than any other, but that 40 miles of Haryana had more drummers, dancers and performers than I have seen anywhere else. Even on the open road, away from the villages, we were stopped by men with trained dogs and performing monkeys, and several groups with chained, dancing bears.
Mathura was a small place of a few dusty streets crammed with people and every type of vehicle. The Shri Krishna Janambhoomi was the holy complex of stalls and buildings which included the temple.
At the gate of the complex, however, policemen with rifles searched everyone thoroughly, certainly for cameras, maybe for guns or bombs. The prohibition on cameras could not have been more complete.
Inside the temple itself there was some resemblance to a Christian cathedral, or a Catholic church, with several “chapels” round the sides, each with the image of a different god in garish colours, usually with an array of golden beams coming out of their heads.
Krishna’s mother had been put in prison by her brother, King Kamsa, and two thousand years before Christ, Krishna was born in a prison. Here, the very spot is set in a metal cage to represent his captivity. Crowds clasped their hands in prayer, some kneeling, some prostrating themselves on the floor.
The town sits on the Yamuna river which has meandered its way down from Delhi and where, on the Vishram Ghats, the pilgrims can complete their worship with their river rituals.
These were one kilometre downhill from the temple and the road there began wide, lined with stalls with pictures of Krishna, a million bangles, and barrows selling red, yellow, orange and purple powdered dyes for dabbing on the forehead.
The approach to the river became narrower and narrower through the old town, in parts no more than five paces wide. Small cars tried to squeeze both ways, but at one place a cart pulled by a bullock blocked the way while the driver unloaded six huge sacks of I know not what. At another, the stall at the side was a tiny metal forge and for some reason the furnace had to be wheeled out, blocking the road, for the charcoal burner to be boosted by bellows.
The slope increased just before the road came to a dead end meeting the river at right angles. All way down, the narrow street had been separated from the shops and stalls at the side by two open launders which ran along its length, one on each side. You stepped over one to get from the road into a shop. The open launders were the sewage system and where they, and the road, dipped steeply into the Yamuna the flow of sewage was a gushing, gurgling torrent. Here sat the river temple, boatmen offered trips for 20p and devotees immersed themselves in the holy water.
On the way back to Delhi, the performers had disappeared and the traffic was becoming quiet, but the road through Haryana still held a certain strangeness. The last sight before darkness fell was of a cart piled high with sugar cane, silhouetted against the setting sun, pulled by a camel.