On Dec. 25, a few hundred persons, mostly from Vrindavan’s religious community, including many foreigners from several maths and ashrams, gathered at Vrindavan’s Keshi Ghat to protest the building of a bridge.
This bridge, which loops around the ancient redstone ghat, will permit car traffic to make the full tour of Vrindavan, turning the Parikrama Marg into a Ring Road.
Even ten years ago, the Parikrama Marg was still mostly a sandy trail that circled the hallowed central portion of Vrindavan, the site of so many temples—Banke Bihari, Radha Vallabh, Radha Damodar, Govindaji.
Hundreds of barefoot pilgrims from dawn to dusk quietly followed the 14 kilometer trail, reciting their japa or singing God’s names, or simply walking in meditative silence. Some even covered the length lying prostrate on the ground.
But the success of many Vaishnava preachers, Bhagavata pathaks and bhajan singers has drawn a steadily increasing flow of the faithful from around the world and, more to the point, from Delhi, to the sacred home of Krishna’s play with Radha.
And, to accommodate the ubiquitous automobile, more and more of the Parikrama Marg has been paved. Parking lots increasingly line the sides of the road and block the view to the green fields and the Yamuna, which stretch out on the southern side.
No pilgrim can now make the sacred circumambulation without being repeatedly honked at by contemptuous chauffeurs. The one remaining ghat in Vrindavan, Keshi Ghat, where daily Yamuna arati is held, was the single part of the parikrama that was vehicle free.
But now, Mathura-Vrindavan Development Authority, which sees the prosperity of Vrindavan as linked to the automobile, has decided to destroy what is left of this sacred tradition by building a flyover type bypass to link the two ends of the circumambulation path.
The view of the holy river will now be obstructed by an ugly concrete structure, the peace broken once and for all by the sounds of racing cars and beeping buses.
But there seems to be no bridge crossing the divide that separates the environmentalists and traditional religious community of Vrindavan from the government and development agents, who are clearly living in different worlds.
In their high-minded arrogance, the latter did not even see fit to consult those who have guarded these traditions for the last half-millennium or those who have come there to make Vrindavan their spiritual home before they started work on the project.
So PWD Chief Engineer C.D. Rai calls the Goswamis and saints “vested land owning interests” when they make objections, and Mathura-Vrindavan Development Authority Vice Chairman R.K. Singh scoffs that they “neither understand development nor the environment.”
What is clear is that the issue of the sacred has been completely ignored by the development authorities. If Vrindavan has become attractive to tourists, it is only because of the promise it holds out of an encounter with the sacred, and such an encounter requires something quite different from a rapidity of access to goods and services. It needs space for contemplation.
Recently in Delhi, I noticed a billboard in the Jahangirpuri metro station. The poster on display there had a quote from the famous American scholar of myth and religion, Joseph Campbell, which immediately attracted my attention: “Your sacred space,” it said, “is where you can find yourself again and again.”
But, in the true spirit of desecration, these words had been turned into a sales pitch: “This space is where people can find your company and products again and again.”
So this is what it has come to: the sacred places are now for sale to the highest bidder, a hook to pull in the patsies. But if you cut off the branch on which you are sitting, then where will you sit?
Indians are still proud of their ancient heritage and the attraction it holds for foreigners. On Independence Day, 1947, Sri Aurobindo addressed the new nation on the radio:
“The spiritual gift of India to the world has already begun,” he said. “India's spirituality is entering Europe and America in an ever increasing measure. That movement will grow; amid the disasters of the time more and more eyes are turning towards her with hope, and there is even an increasing resort not only to her teachings, but to her psychic and spiritual practice.”
But this spirituality is fast becoming a joke. Amidst the noise, accumulations of dirt and plastic bags, the polluted holy rivers, and the haphazard and insensitive development, it is becoming harder and harder to find the fulfilment of that hope.
It is time for all the sacred places in India, from Vrindavan and Varanasi to Rishikesh and Srirangam, to immediately be declared heritage sites by the state and central governments. Let them too be developed for tourism, but only one that takes into account the thirst for spirituality that brings pilgrims there.
They should not be treated as playgrounds for jejune city dwellers, with nothing on offer but more tired old theme parks, shopping centers and traffic jams.