Stairway to Nowhere: Urban Development and Vrindravan’s Sacred Ghats

By Thea Piltzecker

VRINDRAVAN—Mornings at the Yamuna riverbank are crowded affairs; people come to the water to wash, pray, or travel on one of the brightly colored rowboats punting along the shore. But coming to the water means something different than it used to: people walk down a set of stone steps, then across a stretch of mud and sand to meet the river where it flows. The Yamuna has receded severely in recent years, creating a narrow land mass that some see as a real estate opportunity.

Ghats are staircases leading to the water’s edge; in India and elsewhere in South Asia, pilgrims use these steps to pray and bathe. Vrindravan’s ghats are pilgrimage sites, and are important for both religious and secular life. The government has proposed an “expansion, renovation and beautification” project of the riverbank, starting with Kesi Ghat. (Kesi Ghat is revered as the place where the god Krishna bathed after killing the demon Kesi.)

Concrete ghats will replace the old stone stairs and will run along the newly narrowed path of the river. Other proposals include skyscrapers and what the developer is calling the world’s tallest Hindu temple—in fact, this “temple-skyscraper” is currently under construction. The new temple, Vrindravan Chandrodaya Mandir, is part of complex of ISKCON buildings. At 70 stories, it is said to be the tallest and one of the most expensive temples in the world, at a cost of roughly $3 billion US dollars, according to the Indian Economic Times.

The construction plans have been met with opposition from historic conservationists, ecologists, and the Ministry of Environment, which says that no new structures can be built within 200 meters of the riverbank. New structures on the riverbed itself would be both unstable—built on silt—and illegal. That legal protection, however, “has been violated time and time again,” said Jack Hawley, professor of religion at Barnard College. Illegal construction “is now just a part of life in Vrindravan,” he concluded.

Environmental groups like Friends of Vrindravan are concerned that more construction will compound the Yamuna’s high pollution levels. Rather than encouraging riverbank commerce, they contend, the government should focus on purifying the water itself. The city is already straining to provide clean water for its 63,000 inhabitants.

From a political perspective, ecological cleanup plans are a quagmire: expensive, time-consuming, and never quite finished. In the late 1990s, the national government began—but never completed—the Yamuna Action Plan. The project tapered off and the river languished while Uttar Pradesh became one of the most densely populated areas in the world.

In his first term, Prime Minister Narendra Modi made his Ganga cleanup program a priority, with mixed results. Much attention was paid to his appointment of Sushri Uma Bharti, as the cabinet minister for water resources. Bharti was seen by her opposition to be acting as a political partisan first, and a water conservator second. But incremental improvements in the water quality has emboldened Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), who used the Ganga project as a talking point in their recent sweep of the Uttar Pradesh elections.

Given the logistical challenges of ecological improvements, economic revitalization plans may seem more politically appealing. Modi touted his riverbank cleanup in his hometown of Ahmedabad as “one of the most innovative projects in the world,” but critics say that the process effectively broke the city off from the Sabarmati river, for better or worse. Now a concrete barrier stands high above the river, turning the area into something closer to an industrial canal. A carefully manicured park perches atop the concrete, and real estate prices are climbing. There are no rowboats in the water, and, at least downtown, it is impossible to get to the river’s edge to walk, sunbathe or pray.

Waterfront development is nothing new in urban planning circles; perceived economic progress often hinges on a “development hub” close to a body of water. But the context of the sacred Yamuna—in particular, the ghats—complicates developers’ plans.

Hawley said that, on the surface, the new ghat plan “has all the sanction of history” because of the stairs’ long association with the sacred Yamuna. But he said that the call to come to the new and improved ghats is less appealing, even to religious Hindus. “No one will go in, because of the pollution,” he said. Hawley worries that that combination of commerce and pollution will fundamentally alter the sacred nature of the river.

Looking out at the river from his ashram, Srivatsa Gowswami agreed. The guru is a longtime environmental activist and founder of Friends of Vrindravan, and he sees the construction as a tear in the fabric of Indian society.

“The economic community has lost their focus,” he said. Unfortunately, he continued, this shift in priorities means “the disaster is Vrindravan.”

Daily Dispatch 4: A Day of Color in the City of a Thousand Temples

Photo by Sangsuk Sylvia Kang

VRINDAVAN -- The Covering Religion team arrived in this “city of a thousand temples” on the banks of the Yamuna River today after an early morning drive from New Delhi. We came to observe Holi celebrations in the city where it all began. Over the course of the day we experienced both the ancient Hindu holiday and one of the enduring symbols of Muslim Moghul rule in India, the Taj Mahal.

Vrindavan's narrow roads were closed to tour buses for the holiday, but we got special permission to enter and had the benefit of a scooter-riding police escort as we entered the city. With his guidance, the bus bumped along dirt roads crammed with locals, rickshaws, cows, dogs, and ever-watchful monkeys.

Holi technically began the next day, but that didn’t stop people from celebrating raucously on the street. As soon as we stepped off the bus, we were showered with colored powders, paint, and water. Cries of “Happy Holi!” and “Holi mubarak!” were interspersed with shrieks and laughter as unsuspecting passers-by—including the CJS team—were caught up in the festival of colors. Our clothes and faces smeared with multicolored powder, we began to embrace the anything-goes spirit of Holi.

By contrast, the quiet, orderly pace of life inside Shrivatsa Goswami’s ashram seemed a world away. We set our bags down and took off our shoes to enjoy a few minutes of sun—and to dry our clothes—in the jasmine-scented courtyard.

We were delighted that Alice Guilhamon, CJS ’15, joined us on this leg of the trip. Alice first traveled to India with the Covering Religion class in 2015, and now works for a French film company in Delhi. She fit right in with the group as we eagerly awaited the next element of the Holi celebration.

Soon enough, strains of music issued from the ashram’s main hall. We were right on time for the Holi play. The Rasdeva theatrical performance commemorates the original Holi; it recreates the story of Krishna’s playful interactions with the gopis (milkmaids) and his favorite gopi and consort Radha. An all-male troupe dressed in elaborate gold saris danced onstage; these were the gopis, enjoying their work in the village of Barsana. Krishna and his friends arrived next, decked out in gold pantaloons and bristling mustaches. The two groups engaged in a tit-for-tat exchange, drawing laughter from the large audience. After a tug-of-war and whirling musical numbers, Radha won their game. She sat triumphantly on Krishna’s throne, enjoying her victory as the musicians

The gopis began to toss flower petals over Krishna and Radha, ceremonially binding their love with flowers. The couple sat in a growing pile of gold, yellow and red petals as baskets of petals were poured over their shoulders. Then, in a startling move, Krishna and Radha jumped up from the flower pile. Petals flew everywhere in spirals of gold and red, catching the light before floating down to the stage. The actors playing Krishna and Radha then jumped offstage and into the audience. They scooped more petals into the air, which swooped down to land on the audience’s clothes and hair. The hall filled with the scent of crushed marigold as the performance ended with a joyous flower petal fights.

Shaking flowers out of our hair, we adjourned to the tiled dining hall for a delicious vegetarian meal served on banana-leaf placemats. Monkeys scurried overhead, fruitlessly searching for a chance to snatch our leftover chapatis.

After our late lunch, we hopped on the bus bound for Agra. We arrived at the Taj Mahal just as the sun was setting; the white marble was luminous in the fading light. The nearer we drew to the mausoleum, the more impressed we were by its sheer scale and symmetry. Families in bright holiday clothes strolled along the periphery of the building, small as ants. Looking beyond the monument, a lone boatman punted his colorful rowboat along the river, back toward Vrindavan.


Daily Dispatch: Day 4
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From the Conch Shell to the Saxophone, ISKCON Worship Thrives on Music

Subway trains rumbled underfoot and cars honked outside the ISKCON Center on Schermerhorn Street in downtown Brooklyn, but inside the dimly lit hall, all attention was focused on the man with the conch shell. A priest, draped in simple white cloth with a red border, blew the conch to signal the start of the evening’s gaura arati ceremony.

The conch sound is an essential aspect of the ritual; the sound is said to purify the air of evil spirits, and its high-pitched timbre creates high-energy vibrations that are thought to encourage a more enlightened state of mind. The shell’s trumpet-like buzz drew participants closer to the pitha platform even as the priest himself withdrew behind a gilded curtain to make his preparations.

The crowd clustered around the assistant priest, a tall man who wore a wool sweater and socks in addition to his thin white robes. With a mridangam (a wooden double-headed drum) slung on his shoulder, he began a slow a capella chant. The he began to beat a simple rhythm on one end of the drum, while complicating it with tonal pitch variation on the other drumhead. Participants joined in the song, picking up finger cymbals and raising their voices in the call-and-response pattern.

The music swelled, and the peacock-feather-patterned curtain was pulled back to reveal statues of the deities in elaborately decorated robes. Krishna, flautist and lord of the dance, is the supreme god of ISKCON (International Society for Krishna Consciousness) followers. He and his consort Radha represent the unity of male and female energy, and offer unconditional love to their devotees.

As the mridangam continued its syncopated patterns, the deities were offered incense, fire, water, cloth, and a pink rose. Once all offerings had been made, the assistant priest laid down his drum and settled himself in front of a small harmonium. A relative newcomer to Indian classical music, the harmonium, a small pipe organ, is now used in bhajans around the world. One hand played the melody, while the other worked the bellows to produce a constant reedy drone. Hari das began singing a plaintive tune, and participants quickly picked up the melody. A chorus of voices crooned, “Namaste narasingaya,” before everyone sank to the floor in a yogic child’s pose.

For the Zopey family, visiting from Los Angeles, the evening gaura arati ceremony was a chance to connect to the oldest ISKCON community in the US. While the first ISKCON temple was established in the East Village in 1966, the Brooklyn location opened in 1968 and has remained the heart of the New York ISKCON movement.

“We wanted to be here, at this temple,” said Lena Zopey. “It’s like a pilgrimage.”

During the ceremony, Lena, still dressed in her peacoat, raised her arms, and swayed as she sang. Her husband Ashok clinked small metal cymbals between his thumb and forefinger, as did several other participants.

“It kind of resonates in your soul, because you become part of the Lord as you chant,” said Lena. “I love the whole process, the process of devotion.”

Ashok especially loved the evening’s music, a Bengali song performed only at the penultimate arati of the night. “Namaste narasingaya” is a song about the half-man, half-lion form that Vishnu once assumed to vanquish a demon, a rakshasa.

The Zopeys’ son Mohan was preparing for a medical school interview the next morning. Visiting the temple to sing “clears my head and makes me feel less stressed,” he said. Though he admits he hasn’t always been observant, the music has drawn him back in. “I’m starting to see that good things happen from this singing.”

Hari das, the evening’s musician, encouraged Mohan to continue his practice. A Nigerian-born saxophone player, Hari das is now content to use his musical talent in his role as assistant temple president.

“It’s like another wind instrument,” he said of his resonant singing voice. He converted in the 1970s after hearing a devotee named Agni dev singing for two hours at a stretch. “I was transfixed,” he recalled.

As Hari das related this story, Lena started in recognition. She, too, converted after hearing Agni dev sing. Both said they were delighted to find that the devotional music is what had brought them to their ISKCON practice.

“There must be something in that, that attracts people,” Lena said.