Spiritual Travel

Ahovalam—Revisited

In 1980 I was born to devotee parents in the large Hare Krishna community of New Vrindavan, West Virginia. From my infancy my parents brought me to the temple each day. Gradually, as a young child I grew attached to the large, fierce-looking deity of Krishna’s form as Lord Nrisimhadeva (Narasimha) and His foremost devotee, the boy-saint Prahlada. When I was six, Prahlada’s age, the priest allowed me to assist him in the temple worship of Lord Nrisimhadeva. Although the Lord looked frightening, I always felt protected when I stood before Him.

When I was sixteen my family visited India. I fell in love with the spiritual atmosphere there and decided to return as soon as possible. By the time I turned eighteen I had decided to make the journey on my own. I worked hard to save for the trip and agonized over my itinerary. India is so big—where should I go?

One day I visited the Hare Krishna temple in Miami. As I glanced over a large stack of old issues of Back to Godhead, a stray breeze blew open the top one to a full- page photo of Lord Nrisimhadeva. The picture seemed to beckon me. Reading the accompanying article, I was amazed to learn about a young sannyasi, Indradyumna Swami, who had made an incredible journey to Ahovalam, a remote South Indian holy place said to be the very spot where Lord Nrisimhadeva dispatched the evil Hiranyakashipu. His article inspired me so much that I set my mind then and there on making the difficult pilgrimage to Ahovalam.

Warnings

I began my India adventure in Vrindavana, where I visited a remarkable three-eyed deity of Nrisimhadeva. From there I proceeded south to several well-known holy places, including Srirangam and Tirupati, my last stop before Ahovalam.

The devotees at the ISKCON Tirupati temple asked me where I was going next. When I said Ahovalam, they looked at me as if I were crazy and urged me not to go. Seeing they could not dissuade me, they strongly cautioned me to stay only for one day and get out of there. I thought they were just joking until I realized that I was the only one laughing. An experienced devotee warned me that people there try to rob and kill you and that the surrounding jungle holds ferocious, wild animals such as bears, tigers, and cobras. With these words of encouragement I felt terrified—but even more excited! The journey would truly test my faith in Lord Nrisimhadeva.

After a grueling ten-hour bus ride, I arrived at the Allagada station, where I’d catch the Ahovalam bus. As I waited, a large group of people suddenly surrounded me, the only blonde kid in the whole station. An English-speaking man asked where I was going. When I replied, “Ahovalam,” he looked at me very strangely. When he told the crowd what I had said, everyone stared at me even more.

“Why do you want to go to such a place?” he asked. “It is a very dangerous place.”

“I am going to see Lord Nrisimhadeva,” I replied.

“May He protect you,” he uttered gravely, and walked away.

Aboard the bus and getting closer to Ahovalam, I could feel my limbs start to tremble, and my heart beat fast. I didn’t know what lay ahead, but I was going to see my Lord at His home.

The Lord Sends a Guide

After an hour on the bus through the middle of nowhere, I reached the tiny village of Lower Ahovalam. There I saw Lord Nrisimhadeva at the Lakshmi-Narasimha temple, the first of nine forms of the Lord to be seen in the Ahovalam area. Then I arranged for some rough accommodations—the only kind available. A shower is a bucket of water you pour over yourself.

I was in the middle of my shower when someone knocked on the door and called out, “Hello. Hare Krishna!”

Having been warned about thieves, I opened the door cautiously. There stood two Indian men. One of them, tall and saintly looking, introduced himself as Madhu, from Vijaywada. Years before, he had lived in an ISKCON ashram and was now initiated in the Ramanuja line. He said he’d heard that I wanted to see all nine forms of Lord Narasimha.

“Yes,” I answered, thinking, Word sure gets around fast here.

He said, “I’m going to go tomorrow morning. Why don’t we go together? I have been several times and can take you to all nine forms.”

I felt convinced this must be Nrisimha’s arrangement, so I readily agreed. I asked Madhu how much he would charge.

“I am glad just to serve another devotee,” he humbly replied.

Madhu said that to see all nine forms in one day, we would have to spend the night in the jungle.

The Trek Begins

In the morning I rose early and met Madhu. We visited the nearby Lakshmi-Narasimha temple to pray for a safe journey. Remembering a photograph in the old Back to Godhead, I recognized the same pujari who had taken Indradyumna Swami on his tour here in 1979.

Our walk to Bhargava-Narasimha, the second of the nine local forms of Nrisimhadeva, took us through a thick jungle with paths in all directions. Madhu said that no matter how many times you go there you can never remember the way.

“You have to depend on the Lord,” he said.

The next thing you know, we were lost. I felt nervous. We finally found the way and arrived at the beautiful temple, where we chanted for a while. In the past many great sages worshiped the deity here. Madhu said that the deity is named for Parashurama (also known as Bhargava), the warrior incarnation of God. Parashurama had performed penance near Ahovalam at a place now known as Ramatirtha.

Next we set off to see the third form, Catravada Narasimha. Madhu mentioned that if we were lucky we would be able to see all nine forms on this holy day. Catravada was a long walk from town, but I was extremely pleased to see Him. He was effulgent and had a big smile. We were allowed to touch our heads to His lotus feet.

Near Catravada is Yogananda Narasimha, the last of the nine forms of Lord Narasimha in Lower Ahovalam. He looked magnificent and powerful. Of the nine Narasimhas, Yogananda is said to be the most merciful.

We ran back to catch the bus to Upper Ahovalam, a trip through dangerous and treacherous terrain. After a while the bus stopped, and the driver directed us to get off. I saw nothing but jungle, but as the bus drove away, the temple of Karanja Narasimha came into view. He is named after a fruit- bearing tree growing next to the temple.

Having now visited the first five Narasimha forms, we had to walk the rest of the way to the next: Ugra Narasimha, a deity tucked in a cave between two mountains. The walk was beautiful. All around was an untouched jungle, overgrown and full of wild animals, which, fortunately, we did not encounter. Soon we reached the temple of Ugra Narasimha, constructed inside His cave. The deity looked ferocious. We prayed for a safe trip to our next stop, the Ugra Stambha, said to be the actual pillar from which Lord Narasimha appeared.

Atop the Historic Pillar

After a side trip to the ancient Varaha Narasimha cave/temple, we followed an adjacent stream bed to the Ugra Stambha and the seventh form, Jvala Narasimha. The terrain proved most difficult. Madhu told me that not many people make this journey because it requires crossing a huge and dangerous waterfall. On the way up I saw a couple of wooden boxes next to the path.

“Those are for the people who died making the climb,” Madhu said.

I didn’t need to hear that.

Nestled on the side of a cliff, the Jvala Narasimha temple is said to be the exact spot where the Lord killed the demon Hiranyakashipu. Next to the temple is a large stream. At the spot where Narasimha washed his hands after killing the demon, the water flows blood-red and even feels like blood.

After more climbing we reached the top of the large stone pillar. The view was spectacular. I couldn’t believe I’d actually made it. We’d been walking all day long, with very little to eat and just water to drink, but I hadn’t thought of anything except the thrill of being in this spiritual place.

My contentment was short-lived; now it was time to go to the eighth form, which meant another long walk through the mountains. At last we reached the temple of Mohaloha Narasimha, situated on the side of a mountain. According to Madhu, Lakshmi did penance to marry the Lord here.

Next we went to the Prahlada school, which has Sanskrit writing on the walls dating from the days of Prahlada’s studies here. Near this high, mountainous spot was another cave, with a beautiful Yoga Narasimha deity in it. But we still had one more destination: the Bhavana Narasimha deity, four miles away.

Although Madhu had warned me not to walk ahead on the path, I did so anyway. Suddenly a huge cobra slithered in front of me. It seemed to be ten feet long. I heeded Madhu’s warning and let him lead. The jungle was so dangerous, even in the daytime. Now it was close to dark, and we still had miles to go.

As we ascended the mountain trail, nearby villagers screamed angrily at us. Madhu just kept walking. When we reached a mountain-top stopping point, he told me they were saying that it is forbidden to enter the jungle at night because of the wild animals. People who go in, they said, never come out again. They also said that no one should go to the Bhavana temple at night, because at that time the demigods come to worship Lord Narasimha.

Now I was really scared. Then I saw a dead snake in the middle of the path. A bad omen, Madhu said, but we just had to depend on the Lord for protection. Suddenly it was pitch black. I pulled out my tiny flashlight. I shook with fear and prayed to Lord Narasimha for protection.

Protected by Fire

In spite of the dark we somehow made it over the big mountain. As we did, we were amazed to see that the forest ahead was on fire, except for the small path we were following.

I thought, It must be Lord Narasimha lighting up the jungle and keeping wild animals away.

The fire went on all the way to the temple.

At last we reached the ninth and last deity. Lord Narasimha and His consort looked so beautiful. We thanked Him for allowing us to attain His audience.

We were exhausted, and it was too dark to go back, so we decided to sleep in the front area of the tiny temple. I tried to go to sleep, but I felt too excited and amazed to be sleeping in the Lord’s temple.

Suddenly I felt something sniffing and touching the back of my neck and ear. I jumped up and saw nothing. Madhu said he would stay up to see what it was. He turned on the flashlight and began telling me wonderful stories about the Lord. Then, with a loud pop, the brand-new flashlight went out. We tried everything to fix it, but without success.

Just at that moment the wind started to blow ferociously. I wondered if we were offending the demigods by being here. After a while I fell asleep, only to be awakened by Madhu frantically pulling me into the temple’s inner sanctum. I was so groggy I didn’t ask why. Madhu hastily slammed the gate shut and secured it as best he could.

Furry Guests

Looking up I was stunned to realize I was sitting right at the base of Lord Narasimhadeva’s lotus feet. I lay down and felt at peace. Then a bone-chilling roar broke the stillness.

I froze and whispered to Madhu, “What was that?”

He assured me there was nothing to worry about.

“Just go to sleep,” he said.

The next morning we set off for a long walk to two more Narasimha temples, named Giridhari and Jyoti. Jyoti was the most amazing and ferocious deity of all I’d seen. His name indicates that the forest would always be burning because of His anger.

From Jyoti we were able to catch a bus back to Ahovalam. It took seven hours. In the evening when we arrived we went straight to Lakshmi-Narasimha temple—the first stop on our tour—and thanked the Lord for His protection. Later, while we ate, Madhu explained why he had moved me to the inner sanctum of the Bhavana temple the previous night. While I was asleep, three huge wild black bears had come up, smelled us, and circled the temple.

The next morning we returned to see Bhargava Narasimha, the second of the nine forms. I felt blessed when we were allowed to clean the whole temple. As we left, a crowd of villagers surrounded us. Madhu spoke with them, then translated for me. They were shocked to see us alive after entering the jungle at night. They also said that, although they were born there and had lived their whole lives in the area, we were the first people they’d known who had managed to see all nine forms of Lord Narasimha in a single day.

Meeting the Swami

It was time to move on. I thanked Madhu profusely, and we both said we hoped to meet again. Because of his humble and devotional attitude, Madhu had been an inspiration for me. Far from trying to take advantage of me, an inexperienced young Westerner in a foreign land, Madhu had taken care of everything, even our bus fares. As my bus lumbered away, I thanked Lord Narasimha for giving me Madhu’s company.

A few days later I arrived in Jagannatha Puri. After checking in to a hotel, I was astonished to learn that Indradyumna Swami happened to be staying at the very same place. I had never met him, except through the article in the old BTG. I went to his room and paid my respects. Tears filled his eyes as he learned of the journey I had made in his footsteps.

Dvaraka—Lord Krishna’s Royal Home

Dvaraka is the sacred city where Lord Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, spent most of His time during His appearance on earth five thousand years ago. He performed wonderful pastimes there, including expanding into 16,108 forms and creating 16,108 palaces for His 16,108 queens. In Vrindavana, Lord Krishna lived as a simple cowherd boy, but in Dvaraka He lived as a wealthy prince.

Dvaraka means "gateway to the Supreme" or "city of gates." Traditionally, an opulent city would have many gates, indicating the king's confidence in protecting the city. In present-day Dvaraka there were no gates until ISKCON, to commemorate its Padayatra (walking pilgrimage throughout India) and Srila Prabhupada's Centennial, established the Srila Prabhupada Gate at the entrance to the city in 1988.

The original city of Dvaraka, described in the Srimad-Bhagavatam, the Mahabharata, and other Vedic scriptures, was a fort city built within the sea. Lord Krishna built Dvaraka to protect His kinsmen, the Yadu dynasty, from repeated attacks by kings and armies intent on killing Him. By the will of the Lord, Dvaraka disappeared into the sea at the time of the Lord's departure from this world. Archaeological excavations have brought out from the sea many artifacts suggesting that an opulent city stood there in the distant past.

The present city Dvaraka ("Dwarka" on the map) is on the shore. It has a resident population of approximately 30,000, and a tourist population that fluctuates with the seasons. Even though it's remote—on the west coast and a long way from any major cities—many pilgrims make the endeavor to go there. When I arrived with a group of traveling book distributors one cool January morning, we saw buses from as far away as West Bengal and Tamil Nadu, both on the east coast. Dvaraka is one of the most important places for Hindus to visit because it is one of the four prominent holy places in the cardinal directions of India: Dvaraka (west), Puri (east), Rameswaram (south), and Badrinath (north).

Of the visitors to Dvaraka from within Gujarat, city dwellers tend to visit on weekends, when they're free from work, whereas villagers go at any time, according to their farming schedule. Villagers traditionally walk to Dvaraka in groups, bringing beautiful ornate, brightly-colored flags of various designs. The groups present the flags to the temple and then perform the pious act of feeding a group of brahmanas. When pilgrims see their flags flown above the temple, they feel great satisfaction. (To change the flags, a temple worker must climb to the top of the temple spire. It's a long way up—235 feet—and there's usually a strong wind, but the workers don't seem to mind.)

The atmosphere in Dvaraka is peaceful. The people are pious and don't seem harassed by many problems. They happily go to the temple to see the Lord. We arrived in Dvaraka at 6:30 in the morning, and although it was still dark, quite a few people were walking toward the main temple, that of Dvarakadhisha, "the Lord of Dvaraka," a four-armed Deity of Krishna. By the blessings of Lord Krishna, the opulence of Dvaraka survives. Although we don't see fabulously rich people, the ordinary people live a comfortable life.

Regal Worship

Because Lord Krishna lived in Dvaraka as a prince, He is worshiped there in that mood. The Dvarakadhisha Deity is opulently dressed, and the symbols in His four hands (conch, club, disc, and lotus) are covered in silver. During the worship, brahmanas—colorfully dressed with solid red or yellow dhotis and with shirts made from flags that have flown over the temple—beat drums and blow conch shells.

Within the compound of the Dvarakadhisha temple, built in the sixteenth century, are many small shrines, including those of Lakshmi, Siva, Radhika, Balarama, Pradyumna, Aniruddha, Jambavati, Satyabhama, and Purushottama Vishnu.

Directly facing Dvarakadhisha is the shrine of Devaki, Krishna's mother. She's looking at Krishna, and He's looking at her. In the Devaki shrine after the mangala-arati (the early-morning worship), brahmana boys sit in brightly colored clothes and chant Vedic scriptures, creating a soothing and auspicious atmosphere.

One day while we performed kirtana in the Dvarakadhisha temple, the priest serving the Deity showed his appreciation by smiling, raising his arms, and swaying to the sound of Krishna's names.

Religious Gatherings

Dvaraka is a pleasant town on the coast, with a nice strip of beach. The sea is calm there. The climate is moderate, not too hot in summer or too cold in winter. Because the summer there is not as hot as in many other parts of India, religious speakers go there during that time, and many, many people congregate to hear them. Dvaraka is considered an important place to hold such functions.

Other Noteworthy Temple

The temple of Samudra Narayana sits where the Gomati River, one of the important holy rivers of India, reaches the sea in the town of Dvaraka. Samudra Narayana is Krishna's expansion as Lord Narayana lying on the Garbhodaka Ocean. This old temple is the only temple of Samudra Narayana anywhere.

On the bank of the river near the estuary is an ashram where sadhus live. Some have been there for more than thirty years. Some cook for themselves, and some go to the annakshetra, where food is given for free. They live simply and perform various kinds of spiritual practices. Their lives are not meant for materialistic sense gratification.

The river forks just before reaching the sea, producing a small island on which sits a temple of Lakshmi Narayana. The site is ancient, although the present temple is not very old.

On a side road, we found a temple where the chanting of "Sri Rama, Jaya Rama, Jaya Jaya Rama" has been going on nonstop for the last twenty-eight years. The two people chanting invited us to join in. They were very enthusiastic in their chanting. We were there during the daytime, when few people come. In the evening more people arrive, and on festival days huge crowds gather there to chant the names of Lord Rama.

One place worth visiting is the lighthouse (open only from 4:30 to 6:00 in the evening). From the top you get a wonderful view of the sea, the town of Dvaraka, and the dry plains beyond the town.

Bet Dvaraka

Thirty kilometers up the road from Dvaraka is a village named Okha, which most people go to simply to take the pleasant twenty-minute boat ride to Bet Dvaraka. Bet is the Gujarati word for "island." On this island sits an old Dvarakadhisha temple. People here are proud of Bet Dvaraka, even claiming that it is the "real Dvaraka."

About halfway to Bet Dvaraka and five kilometers off the main road is Gopi Tallav, the pond where Krishna met with the gopis, His cowherd girlfriends from Vrindavana. This sacred spot is the source of gopi-candana, a clay that Krishna's devotees use to decorate their foreheads. Everyone is allowed to take freely, so we all stocked up on enough for the next few years.

About three kilometers outside Dvaraka, on the road to Bet Dvaraka, is the temple of Rukmini, Krishna's chief queen. The architecture of the temple is beautiful, and the walls are decorated with paintings of the pastimes of Rukmini and Krishna. The temple is said to have been built in the twelfth century.

Dvaraka is a good place to visit for several days to get away from the rush and frustrations of city life. Pilgrims can go there to relax and consider the ultimate goal of life.

Srila Prabhupada writes: "The heavenly planets are more celebrated than the earth. But the celebrity of earth has defeated that of the heavenly planets because of Dvaraka, where Lord Sri Krishna reigned as king. Three places, namely Vrindavana, Mathura, and Dvaraka, are more important than the famous planets within the universe. These places are perpetually sanctified because whenever the Lord descends on earth He displays His transcendental activities particularly in these three places. They are perpetually the holy lands of the Lord, and the inhabitants still take advantage of the holy places, even though the Lord is now out of their sight." (Srimad-Bhagavatam 1.10.27, Purport)

When we left Dvaraka, we stopped to take photos from the road. We looked out over the plain from which the small town seems to rise suddenly across the banks of the Gomati. Dvaraka's many temple spires point up to indicate that our goal is not here but upwards. We could see the Dvarakadhisha temple dominating the skyline, and the lighthouse standing prominently in the distance behind it.

During the few minutes we stopped to take photos, several pilgrimage buses came rushing by. The cycle of life in Dvaraka today is as it has been for hundreds of years. As new pilgrims come, others leave. Previously, most pilgrims came by foot, and the richer ones would ride horses or be carried on palanquins. Nowadays, people mostly come by bus or train, but still the cycle goes on and on and on.

This was our good-bye to Dvaraka. We don't know when we'll be back, but we certainly hope to return. And we wish to return to Dvaraka of the spiritual world. In His mercy, Lord Krishna has left us a replica Dvaraka to point us back to our eternal destination.

Dvaraka Fifty Centuries Ago

The following description of Dvaraka during Krishna’s presence there appears in the Srimad-Bhagavatam (10.69.1-12) in connection with the sage Narada’s visit.

The City Was Filled with the sounds of birds and bees flying about the parks and pleasure gardens, while its lakes, crowded with blooming indivara, ambhoja, kahlara, kumuda, and utpala lotuses, resounded with the calls of swans and cranes.

Dvaraka boasted 900,000 royal palaces, all constructed with crystal and silver and splendorously decorated with huge emeralds. Inside these palaces, the furnishings were bedecked with gold and jewels.

Traffic moved along a well laid-out system of boulevards, roads, intersections, and marketplaces, and many assembly houses and temples of demigods graced the charming city. The roads, courtyards, commercial streets, and residential patios were all sprinkled with water and shaded from the sun’s heat by banners waving from flagpoles.

In the city of Dvaraka was a beautiful private quarter worshiped by the planetary rulers. This district, where the demigod Vishvakarma had shown all his divine skill, was the residential area of Lord Hari [Krishna], and thus it was gorgeously decorated by the sixteen thousand palaces of Lord Krishna’s queens. Narada Muni entered one of these immense palaces.

Supporting the palace were coral pillars decoratively inlaid with vaidurya gems. Sapphires bedecked the walls, and the floors glowed with perpetual brilliance. In that palace Tvashta had arranged canopies with hanging strands of pearls; there were also seats and beds fashioned of ivory and precious jewels. In attendance were many well-dressed maidservants bearing lockets on their necks, and also armor- clad guards with turbans, fine uniforms, and jeweled earrings.

The glow of numerous jewel-studded lamps dispelled all darkness in the palace. My dear king, on the ornate ridges of the roof danced loudly crying peacocks, who saw the fragrant aguru incense escaping through the holes of the latticed windows and mistook it for a cloud.

ISKCON Dvaraka

ISKCON opened a temple in Dvaraka in 1996 in a house donated by Pritish Bharatia, a friend of Yashomatinandana Dasa, president of ISKCON Ahmedabad. The ten-room building sits in a market area that’s a three-minute walk from the Dvarakadhisha temple. The Deities of Sri Sri Radha-Syamasundara are in one room; guests, staff, and supplies fill the rest. His Holiness Mahavishnu Goswami oversees the project.

With help from many well-wishers, especially Radha Jivana Dasa from the United States, devotees will begin building a temple on the site in the fall of 1999. The three-story stone temple will feature a temple room and a meeting hall above a dining hall and an ashram.

Isvarabhai Pujari, one of the priests for the Dvarakadhisha temple, is designing the new ISKCON temple. Isvarabhai, an architect, is known for his colorful and devotional dressing of the Dvarakadhisha Deities. His plans for the temple call for outdoor dioramas depicting Lord Krishna’s pastimes from Srimad-Bhagavatam. Expert sculptors from Rajasthan will embellish the outside of the temple with traditional stone carvings.

Besides the main temple, the ISKCON Dvaraka project includes a six-acre goshalla (farm for protecting cows) about ten kilometers from town. Lila Avatara Dasa from London has also donated a one-acre plot in the city for future expansion.

When asked about life in Dvaraka, temple resident Vaishnava Seva Dasa said, “Living in one of the four major holy places definitely increases my Krishna consciousness. Materially, living in Dvaraka has been a little austere because of the drought. There have been only seven or eight days of rain over the past year. Water is scarce, but by Krishna’s arrangement our temple is one of the few buildings in the city with its own working well.”

As his name implies, Vaishnava Seva Dasa (“servant of service to devotees”) looks forward to hosting many pilgrims and visitors in the new temple. ISKCON Dvaraka will hold its annual Rathayatra on January 26.

Visiting Dvaraka
How to Get There

Dvaraka is well connected to Mumbai and Ahmedabad by road and rail. The nearest airport is in Jamnagar, about three hours from Dvaraka by train, bus, or taxi.

Getting Around
There are no rickshas in Dvaraka because there’s no need. It’s a small place. You can get around by walking, or you can rent a bicycle.

Where to Eat
The Dvarakadhisha temple has a system of free prasadam distribution for a limited number of people. Coupons are distributed after mangala-arati (seven o’clock) for lunch, and at midday for the evening meal. Hotel Mera and Hotel Radhika are two of several restaurants that sell inexpensive all-you-can-eat vegetarian meals.

Where to Stay
Don’t expect to find luxury accommodations, but here are some clean, comfortable hotels: Toran Tourist Bungalow (phone: 02892-313), Hotel Meera (02892-331), Uttam Guest House (02892-234), Hotel Radhika (02892-754), Hotel Guruprerana (02892-385), and Hotel Gokul (02892-554).

For more travel information, see Holy Places and Temples of India, by Jada Bharata Dasa, available from the Hare Krishna Bazaar http://www.krishna.com.

Jewel in Kampuchea

Does it shock you that Vedic culture existed outside India so long ago?” Ta asked me, “No,” I said. “Veda means knowledge, and true knowledge is everybody’s birthright.”

While viewing a recent exhibit at New York’s Asia Society, I met an extremely interesting fellow named Ta Khan; a—Cambodian war refugee—Although Ta was familiar with Eastern religion, his knowledge of the Krishna consciousness movement was minimal. He had heard about vedanta, yoga, sanatana-dharma and so on, but like most people who frequent the Asia Society had only a theoretical Knowledge of these things. And he was completely unaware that thousands of Westerners had adopted the Krishna Conscious life style.

I was Standing before a beautiful painting from Akbar’s court when Ta approached me “Are you a devotee of Krishna?” he asked: But before I could answer he stammered, "You’re American! American!”

“Devotion to Krishna is the eternal function of the soul,” I assured him, “it transcends cultural designations.” We continued to look at the exhibit together, Soon he turned again to me, obviously anxious to speak, but he seemed unsure of where to start, Hoping to make it easy far him, I explained, “Krishna is God. Actually, there is one God, but He is revealed by different Prophets according to the intellectual and spiritual capacities of a given culture” I could see he was attentive and eager to hear more.

“No matter where you are born,” I continued, “God can come to you. It’s not that Krishna can come only to a Hindu. If you’re sincere, He’ll search you out. He will either come personally, or He’ll send His pure representative.” I concluded my little sermon: “When His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada came to Western shores in 1965, he brought Krishna with him.”

Ta seemed pleased. “I know exactly what you mean,” he ventured. Then with increased confidence he said, “Krishna came to mein Cambodia.”

I thought he was referring to the local concept of God in his country, and I asked, “What form did the Lord come in? What’s His name in your land?”

“Oh, He came as Krishna and also as Rama. He came in the form of the world’s largest Vishnu temple.” Now he had caught my interest.

“Wait a minute,” I protested. “The largest Vishnu temple is in Sri Rangam, in South India.”

“That’s the largest in India,” he corrected me, laughing, “but the largest in the world is called Angkor Wat, and that is in Cambodia.”

“Angkor what?”

“You may like to joke,” Ta said, his face set with gravity, “but when I was a child my father took me to this massive Vishnu temple, and I have never forgotten the experience. We prayed to leave Cambodia” he looked at me earnestly. “Life there was so hard. I made a vow before Vishnu that if I ever got out, I would search for His devotees and learn how to worship Him.”

As Ta spoke, tears came to his eyes. It occurred to me that here was a genuine recipient of Lord Vishnu’s mercy. For that matter, so was I. America, for all its opulence, is as unlikely a place to find devotion to Krishna as Kampuchea (Cambodia).

We went to sit in the Asia Society cafeteria. I was completely fascinated by Ta’s experience at Angkor Wat. I wanted to know more. I shared my lunch of krsnaprasadam with him. He shared his past with me. A member of the Asia Society overheard bits of our conversation and suggested we go through their private book collection; he was certain he had once encountered some literature on Angkor Wat. And sure enough, we were excited to find quite a bit of literature on the subject.

Ta had told me that the name Angkor Wat means, roughly, “the new place,” and we read that “the new place” used to be called, of all things, Yasodapura. I was familiar with the name Yasoda It’s the name of Krishna’s mother. It seems the temple was constructed in her honor. I had to know more.

As we read on, we learned that south India’s Sri Rangam is indeed considered the largest Vishnu temple in India- but Angkor Wat is bigger still. Ta smiled, proud of his country. “Vishnu is still worshiped in Sri Rangam,” I said, trying once again to defend India’s sanctity, “but Angkor Wat has long since become a Buddhist shrine.” But I knew my defense was insubstantial and irrelevant- Angkor Wat still stands as one of the world’s most monumental offerings to God.

The massive Vishnu temple apparently was constructed by the Palava dynasty under King Suryavarman II’s patronage. The Palavas were mostly Vaisnavas, Krishna conscious devotees, and with their great missionary spirit brought Vedic culture from India to many lands.

Angkor Wat, the crown jewel of Palava masterworks, dominates the plain where the Khmer empire-heir to the kingdoms of Funan and Chenla-flourished from the ninth century A.D. Built over a span of some forty years, the temple is one of the world’s most elaborate religious masterpieces, surpassing even the most elegant Christian cathedrals in splendor and magnitude. Worship of Vishnu engaged thousands under its roof until the fall of the Palava dynasty in the fifteenth century, at which time, with the transferral of culture, it became a tribute to Lord Buddha. Today, the temple is being partly protected from its most lethal enemy, water, by a network of hidden drains put there in the 1960s.

As Ta read the description of Angkor, it brought back memories of his homeland and of his vow to search out the devotees of Vishnu.

“Its epic symmetries,” he read to me, “begin with the outer gallery, which runs in a circumference of half a mile. Within the gallery, sculptures in bas relief retell the pastimes of Vishnu and Rama.” What Ta and I were most happy to read, however, is that Lord Krishna’s pastimes are also depicted on the walls of the great structure. As we read this in an old copy of National Geographic (Vol. 161, No. 5, May 1982), we began to feel closer, as if his background in Kampuchea and my involvement with the Krishna consciousness movement were interrelated. Somehow, they were.

“Does it shock you that your Vedic culture existed outside India so long ago?” Ta asked me.

“No,” I confessed. “I can understand that Vedic culture is our birthright. Veda means ‘knowledge,’ and true knowledge is everybody’s birthright. If something is indeed true, it must be true everywhere and for everyone-just like the sun. There’s no question of a Cambodian sun or an American sun-the sun is the sun. Vedic knowledge is like that. It is true for everyone. It is the Absolute Truth.

It was getting late. Ta was reflective. Although we had only met earlier that day, we were already old friends. He repeated his story to me; he spoke of his ordeal in Kampuchea; he reminisced about his visit to the Vishnu temple. His prayers did not go unanswered, he told me. Not only was he able to flee Kampuchea with his life, but he was led to Vishnu’s devotees. I was embarrassed. I realized that he was referring to me. And I, in turn, became even more grateful to Srila Prabhupada, who spread the teachings of Krishna consciousness all over the world so that I could be led to Vishnu’s devotees.

Kurukshetra—The Land of Dharma


Kurukshetra, about one hundred miles north of New Delhi, is best known as the place where the great battle of the Mahabharata was fought and Lord Krishna spoke the Bhagavad-gita. But long before that, Kurukshetra had played a dominant role in the history and culture of ancient India. For thousands of years it was a hub around which the Vedic civilization spun in its full glory. Kurukshetra’s religious importance is described in many scriptures, including the Bhagavad-gita, the Mahabharata, and various Upanishads and Puranas. The scriptures refer to it as a place of meditation and an abode of demigods. The atmosphere of Kurukshetra is still charged with the chanting of Vedic hymns, especially the Bhagavad-gita.

The first verse of the Gita refers to Kurukshetra as dharma-kshetra, or “the field of dharma,” indicating that it was already known as a holy place. Today one can find many ancient temples and sacred lakes at Kurukshetra, an area of about one hundred square miles between the sacred rivers Sarasvati and Drishadvati in Haryana state.

The Great King Kuru

Kurukshetra was formerly known as Brahmakshetra, Brighukshetra, Aryavarta, and Samanta Pancaka. It became known as Kurukshetra because of the work of King Kuru.

The Mahabharata tells of how King Kuru, a prominent ancestor of the Pandavas, made the land a great center of spiritual culture. King Kuru went there on a golden chariot and used the chariot’s gold to make a plow. He then borrowed Lord Siva’s bull and Yamaraja’s buffalo and started plowing. When Indra arrived and asked Kuru what he was doing, Kuru replied that he was preparing the land for growing the eight religious virtues: truth, yoga, kindness, purity, charity, forgiveness, austerity, and celibacy.

Indra asked the king to request a boon. Kuru asked that the land ever remain a holy place named after himself, and that anyone dying there go to heaven regardless of his sins or virtues. Indra laughed at the requests.

Undaunted, Kuru performed great penance and continued to plow. Gradually, Indra was won over, but other demigods expressed doubts. They said that death without sacrifice did not merit a place in heaven. Finally, Kuru and Indra arrived at a compromise: Indra would admit into heaven anyone who died there while fighting or performing penance. So Kurukshetra became both a battlefield and a land of piety.

The Mahabharata Battle

When the Pandavas claimed their legitimate share of their paternal kingdom from their uncle Dhritarashtra and his sons, the Kauravas, they were given the Khandava Forest in the south of the Kuru kingdom. There they built a magnificent city called Indraprastha, located where Delhi is today. The Kauravas kept Hastinapura, situated to the northeast of Delhi, as their capital.

Later, the Pandavas were exiled for thirteen years after Yudhishthira’s defeat in a game of dice. After the exile, the Pandavas demanded the return of their kingdom. On behalf of the Pandavas, Lord Krishna went to Duryodhana, the eldest Kaurava, and begged for five villages for the five Pandavas. But proud Duryodhana refused to give any land. “I won’t even give them enough land to fit on the tip of a pin,” he said.

The war was therefore unavoidable, and the Kauravas and Pandavas decided to fight at Kurukshetra, because it was large, uninhabited, and abundant with water and fuel-wood.

The Pandavas won the Battle of Kurukshetra, which lasted only eighteen days.

The Birth of the Gita

The Battle of Kurukshetra began on the day known as Mokshada Ekadashi. (Ekadashi is the eleventh day of either the waxing or waning moon, and mokshada means “giver of liberation.”) On that day, Krishna enlightened Arjuna with the knowledge of Bhagavad-gita, liberating him. Now every year on that day—considered the birthday of Bhagavad-gita—festivals in honor of the Gita are held at Kurukshetra and many other places in India. The grand festival in Jyotisar, the spot where the Gita was spoken, is organized as a state function, with chief ministers and governors presiding. Coincidentally, this is also the time of ISKCON’s annual Prabhupada Book Marathon, when devotees distribute hundreds and thousands of copies of Srila Prabhupada’s Bhagavad-gita As It Is in India and around the world.

Rathayatra’s Kurukshetra Roots

Once, when Krishna was preparing to go to Kurukshetra at the time of a solar eclipse, He invited the gopis (cowherd girls) and other residents of Vrindavana to meet Him at Kurukshetra. When He had left Vrindavana in His youth, He had promised to return very soon. But He had been away for a long time (about a hundred years), so out of intense spiritual love, the residents of Vrindavana had always felt ecstatic longing to see Him again.

The residents of Dvaraka (a majestic city) arrived at Kurukshetra on chariots; the residents of Vrindavana (a simple cowherd village), on ox carts. Because the families of Vrindavana and Dvaraka were related, a joyful reunion took place.

Of all the residents of Vrindavana, the leading gopi, Srimati Radharani, had felt the pangs of separation from Krishna more than anyone else. She and the other gopis were determined to bring Krishna back to Vrindavana. The loving exchange between Krishna and the gopis at Kurukshetra is the esoteric meaning behind the festival known as Rathayatra (“Festival of the Chariots”). So whenever Hare Krishna devotees put on Rathayatras in cities around the world, they are proclaiming the glories of Kurukshetra.

Pandharpur: Land of Lord Vitthala

Throughout the provinces of India, the Supreme Lord is worshiped in various forms. In Andhra Pradesh He appears as Tirupati Balaji, in Kerala as Guruvayurappan, in Karnataka as the beautiful Udupi Krishna, in Gujarat as Dvarakadhisha and Ranacora Raya. And in Pandharpur, the spiritual capital of Maharashtra, the Lord is worshiped as Sri Vitthala. His devotees also fondly call Him Vithobha or Panduranga.

Pandharpur Dhama is located about four hundred kilometers southeast of Bombay. Some call it Bhu-vaikuntha, “the spiritual world on earth.” Others call it Dakshina Dvaraka, the Dvaraka of the South. The town is located on the western bank of the river Bhima. Because of the way the river bends as it reaches Pandharpur, it is known there as the Candrabhaga (“crescent moon”). For the devotees of Vitthala, this river is as holy as the Ganges.

Along the riverbank are fourteen ghatas, or bathing places. The main one is Maha Dvara Ghata. The short street that links this ghata to the eastern gate of the Vitthala temple is lined with shops and stalls selling tulasi, flower garlands, coconuts, incense, and sweets, all to offer to the Lord.

Temple and Deity Worship

The black stone temple hosts the five-thousand-year-old self-manifested Deity of Lord Vitthala. As one enters through the main door, one sees a deity of Sri Ganesha, to whom the Vitthala devotees pray to remove all obstacles to their worship.

Across the courtyard, up a few steps, one enters the darshana-mandapa, the hall where one can see the Lord. To proceed to the Deity room, visitors queue up through corridors built alongside the walls. Flanking the entrance of the Deity room are huge four-armed statues of Jaya and Vijaya, the doorkeepers of Vaikuntha, the spiritual world.

The slightly smiling, blackish-complexioned Deity of Sri Vitthala is three and a half feet tall. He stands on a brick, His hands resting on His hips. This posture reflects His pastimes in Pandharpur.

The Padma Purana and the Skanda Purana briefly describe why the Lord journeyed to Pandharpur and why He stays there in this form.

Once Srimati Radharani, Lord Krishna’s consort in the village of Vrindavana, visited Dvaraka, where Lord Krishna lived as a king. At that time, Rukmini Devi, Lord Krishna’s queen, noticed that Krishna was dealing more intimately with Radharani than He had ever done with her. Upset, she departed for the forest of Dindirvana, near Pandharpur.

Lord Krishna followed Rukmini to apologize, but His apology left her unmoved. So the Lord moved on to Pandharpur to visit one of His devotees, Bhakta Pundarika, now popularly known in Maharashtra as Pundalika.

When the Lord reached Pundarika’s ashrama, Pundarika was serving his elderly parents. So Pundarika gave the Lord a seat of brick and asked the Lord to wait. The Lord did as told. He stood, lotus hands on His hips, waiting for Pundarika to return.

While He was waiting, Rukmini, having forgotten her distress, came from Dindirvana and rejoined Him. Both of Them stayed in Pandharpur in Deity form. To this day the Lord stands on the same brick, but now He’s waiting for all His devotees to come see Him.

While waiting, the Lord seems to tell the devotees, “Do not fear. For those who have surrendered unto Me, I have reduced the depth of the ocean of material suffering. See, it is only this deep.”

He indicates the shallowness of the ocean by placing His hands on His hips.

Elegantly dressed in yellow and other colors, Lord Vitthala wears around His neck a vaijayanti garland and tulasi, whose aroma permeates the darshana hall and the surrounding area. His right hand holds a lotus flower and His left a conchshell. On His chest He bears the mark of Bhrigu’s foot. His ears are decorated with shark- shaped earrings, and on His forehead beneath His crown is a broad mark of tilaka. The Lord’s smile irresistibly enchants His devotees. Each pilgrim who approaches Him gets a glimpse of His peaceful smiling face and considers this the perfection of life.

The worship of Lord Vitthala begins with the mangala- arati ceremony at four o’clock in the morning. After arati the Lord is offered pancabhisheka, a bath with milk, yogurt, ghee, honey, and sugar water. At some point the bathing is interrupted so that the Lord may be fed butter mixed with sugar candy. A big lump of butter is literally put into His mouth. Then a short arati is offered, and the bathing resumes. After the bath, the Lord is meticulously dressed and profusely garlanded. Finally, He is offered a mirror in which to view His appearance.

As a token of His merciful nature, Lord Vitthala allows everyone to watch His bathing ceremony. After this the crowds, till then restrained along the walls of the darshana hall, are let into the sanctum sanctorum.

Daily, thousands of devoted pilgrims take darshana (seeing of the Lord). It is also the unique tradition in Pandharpur that everyone can go up to the altar and touch the lotus feet of the Deity. Some pilgrims even rest their heads upon His feet. But one has to move on quickly.

After taking darshana, pilgrims re-enter the darshana hall. Looking back, they get a last glimpse of the Lord’s attractive form. In the buzzing atmosphere of the darshana hall they fall flat on the floor, offering obeisances. Then, holding each ear with the hand across from it, they turn about, springing up and down on the same spot, begging the Lord to forgive any offenses they may have committed at His lotus feet.

One of the pillars of the hall—the Garuda Stambha—represents Garuda, the eagle who serves as the carrier of Lord Vishnu. Pilgrims embrace the pillar, with the prayer that toward the end of life Garuda will carry them back to Vaikuntha.

On the way out of the darshana hall, one sees hanging from the ceiling the famous eight prayers known as Pandurangashtakam, composed by the acarya Sankara during his visit to Pandharpur in the eighth century. Each verse glorifies the beauty, qualities, and devotees of the Lord and ends with the refrain para-brahma-lingam bhaje pandurangam, meaning “I worship the supreme spiritual form of Lord Panduranga.”

In the same temple compound, behind Lord Vitthala’s shrine, stands the shrine of Srimati Rukmini Devi, the Lord’s beautiful consort. Darshana, offerings, and aratis go on all day, except for a short break in the afternoon when the Deities rest. After the last arati, at eleven o’clock, the pujaris change the Lord’s dress and chant special hymns asking Him to rest for the night.

Just as the Lord played the role of father and grandfather in Dvaraka, here too He reciprocates affectionately with His devotees. A famous painting depicts Him in a fatherly mood, carrying several devotees, some on His shoulders, some around His waist, and others holding His finger as they walk beside Him.

Devotees of Lord Vitthala

Some illustrious devotees of Lord Vitthala traveled widely throughout Maharashtra. Their preaching and their exemplary devotional mood left a permanent impression on the people. Their unanimous conclusive instruction to their followers was this: “Go on singing, go on dancing, and when you get to the lotus feet of the Lord, beg for love from Him.” So nama-sankirtana, congregational chanting of the Lord’s holy names, is very popular in Maharashtra.

In a letter dated July 30, 1977, Srila Prabhupada encouraged me in this way: “The whole of India and specifically your Maharashtra are enthused with Krishna. Now you have to revive their Krishna consciousness. This is Tukarama’s country, but now they are becoming bad politicians. So revive them by the process of the sankirtana movement.”

Saint Tukarama was the most famous of all Maharashtrian saints. He lived during the seventeenth century, and over the last three hundred years his devotional influence has been deeply felt by the local people. His poems, the 4,500 verses known as the Abhangas, have become part of the public memory of Maharashtra. They are sung in every village and every home.

Tukarama preached throughout his life, exhorting his countrymen to take to the path of bhakti, devotional service. His language was so simple and down to earth that even the most simple villagers understood it completely. He is the main force behind the continuous kirtanas and bhajanas performed at the many festivals in Pandharpur.

In his autobiography, Tukarama says he was initiated in a dream by Raghava Caitanya Keshava Caitanya. Though not everyone agrees, Gaudiya Vaishnavas (such as the ISKCON devotees) understand this to mean Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu.

As Srila Prabhupada comments (Caitanya-caritamrita, Madhya 9.282, purport), “The sankirtana party belonging to Tukarama is still very popular in Bombay. [It] exactly resembles the Gaudiya Vaishnava sankirtana parties, for they chant the holy name with mridanga and karatalas.” They also wear neck beads and tilaka similar to those of the Gaudiya tradition.

Tukarama Acarya was a great devotee of Lord Vitthala. As mentioned before, the Deity is self-manifested. That is, He spontaneously appeared, without being carved and installed. Expressing full faith in this Deity of Lord Vitthala, Tukarama wrote, “If anyone says that this Deity was once installed, his mouth will be filled with worms.”

Saint Tukarama sometimes had to suffer humiliation and opposition from envious people, but he always stayed more humble than a blade of grass, thus changing the hearts of his enemies. The saint left for the spiritual world in his selfsame body while engaged in nama sankirtana, chanting of the holy names of the Lord, with the residents of his home village. The villagers attested they saw a spiritual airplane descend and saw Tukarama board the plane and leave for the spiritual sky.

Another exalted spiritual leader among Lord Vitthala’s devotees was Jnaneshvara, who lived in the thirteenth century. At the age of sixteen, he translated the complete text of Bhagavad-gita into simple Marathi, the language of Maharashtra. His work is known as Jnaneshvari. He attained samadhi (passed away) at the age of twenty-one.

Also famous is the life of Saint Namadeva. Once when Namadeva was a young boy, his father, who worshiped a Deity of Lord Vitthala at home, went out, leaving Namadeva in charge of the Deity. When the time came to offer food to the Lord, Namadeva prepared a plate, placed it on the altar, and sat down, begging the Lord to accept the offering. Following his father’s advice to give the Lord some time to eat before taking back the plate, Namadeva left the Deity room and patiently waited, expecting the Lord to literally eat up the food. From time to time the boy would check, but the Lord seemed to be standing still.

After quite some time had passed and Namadeva saw no sign that the Lord would ever eat, Namadeva decided to intervene. Entering the Deity room, he appealed to Lord Vitthala, insisting that the Lord eat right away. And if He wouldn’t, the boy threatened, he would smash his own head against the wall. To the boy’s surprise, Lord Vitthala then took His lotus hands off His hips and physically ate the offering.

Dindi Procession: 200,000 Pilgrims

The most outstanding display of the Maharashtrians’ devotion to Lord Vitthala is the Dindi Yatra, a pilgrimage on foot that culminates in Pandharpur. It has been performed annually for the last seven hundred years.

In fact, every month at Pandharpur on Sukla Ekadashi (the eleventh day of the waxing moon), a festival is held that attracts a large number of pilgrims. But, four of these festivals are especially large. And the main one, Dindi Yatra—the huge Ashadhi Ekadashi festival—draws a crowd of 700,000 people. As many as 200,000 come on foot. The festival falls during the month of Ashadha (July) and marks the beginning of Caturmasya, the four months of the rainy season. According to the Padma Purana, on that day the Lord goes to sleep for four months. When He wakes up, at the end of the month of Karttika, another festival is held, the second biggest.

For each of these festivals, pilgrims come from all the districts of Maharashtra and from other provinces of India like Gujarat, Karnataka, and Andhra Pradesh. The pilgrims follow in the footsteps of their many saints and spiritual leaders. Many of the pilgrims are varkaris.

The word varkari combines the words vari and kari, the former standing for the regular trip to Pandharpur, the latter meaning the one who does it. Varkari thus means “one who journeys to Pandharpur at a specific time in the year.” Varkaris vow to visit Pandharpur every month, or at least once a year, during an Ekadashifestival.

The varkaris form well-organized and disciplined processions called Dindis, which start off from the birthsites and samadhi places of various saints and converge in Pandharpur. The pilgrims travel 150 to 300 kilometers, depending on where they start. The biggest of all Dindis is that of Jnaneshvara, which forms a gigantic procession. It originates in Alandi, near Pune, and covers about 250 kilometers in an eighteen-day walk. Some of the smaller groups are on the road for about a month. Many more come by bus and train.

The men on the procession, dressed alike in white dhotis, kurtas, and typical Gandhi hats, walk in lines of six or seven abreast. They beat small brass cymbals, called tal, in such a perfect rhythm that even when several hundred play, it sounds like one person alone. In the front, several men carry saffron flags. Next, a group of men on each Dindi carry a decorated palanquin (palaki) bearing symbolic footprints (padukas) of the saint they follow. The leader of the group walks at the back, playing the vina, accompanied by one or more drum players.

Behind the men follow the women, dressed in bright colorful saris. Some carry tulasi plants in decorated pots on their heads. Others carry pots with water to serve their fellow varkaris.

Fifty to five hundred people walk in each Dindi group. Responding heartily to their kirtana leaders, they sing the mantras "jaya jaya vithobha rukhumai! jaya jaya vithobha rukhumai!" and "jaya jaya rama krishna hari," interspersed with lively songs glorifying Lord Vitthala.

Day after day, undaunted by heat or rain, the pilgrims fill the air with tumultous chanting. Sometimes they dance and sometimes run, rushing ecstatically towards Pandharpur and their Lord. In the midst of this procession the words spoken by the Lord in the Padma Purana come alive:

tatra tishthami narada
yatra gayanti mad-bhaktah

“O Narada, I stay where My devotees glorify Me.”

Each Dindi is supported by vehicles—trucks and bullock carts—carrying crews ahead to cook and set up tents. When the pilgrims stop to rest and have their meals, each group finds its supporting crew just as calves recognize their mothers in the midst of a herd.

No one goes hungry on Dindi. The bigger groups cook in gigantic pots and distribute prasadam to anyone who sits in the line. The government supplies water for drinking and bathing.

The walkers reach their day’s destination by late afternoon. The convergence of pilgrims, and the symbolic presence of their saints, awakens the sleepy villages with intense religious fervor. In the evening, groups everywhere perform kirtana, and crowds of thousands listen to various speakers, who spice their discourses with songs of the saints, to the tune of musical instruments. These speakers are like one-act players. They entertain and involve their audience, inspiring them to sing along.

On Dindi everything is done collectively. Crowds are cooking, crowds sitting in lines for prasadam, crowds sleeping side by side, crowds moving around, crowds queuing up for darshana in the temples along the way, crowds meeting the calls of nature in the fields.… You’re never alone on Dindi.

The dense crowd stretches many kilometers, people walking ahead or struggling in the back to keep up. Many people independently follow the Dindi, carrying their few belongings upon their heads. Some begin walking as soon as they get up, as early as 2 A.M. The main group starts at 6:30.

Walking about fifteen kilometers a day, the Dindis finally reach the outskirts of Pandharpur and unite at Wakhari, a small village three kilometers away. On the eve of the Ashadha Ekadashi, still more people join for the last leg of the pilgrimage. The three-kilometer stretch from Wakhari to the holy town of Pandharpur turns into a river of humanity flowing towards the ocean of mercy at the Lord’s lotus feet. In his writings, Bilvamangala Thakura warns travelers passing through Pandharpur, “Do not walk on the bank of the river Bhima. A bluish-black person stands there, and even though His hands rest peacefully on His hips, He is expert at stealing the heart of anyone who sees Him.”

It seems that the varkaris carefully ignore Bilvamangala Thakura’s advice. In fact, they are especially eager to meet that person.

Upon reaching Pandharpur, the pilgrims take a dip in the Candrabhaga River. Then, carrying the palanquins on their shoulders, they perform nagara-pradakshina, walking a circle around the holy town. The circle complete, they queue up all night at the temple to catch a glimpse of Lord Vitthala on the Ekadashi day. In the heavy rush, each will get to see the Lord for perhaps a few seconds. For them it will be enough: their souls will be satisfied, and it will have been worth the trouble.

Pilgrims From Abroad

Lokanath Swami: Amongst the multitude of pilgrims on Dindi Yatra, a pilgimage on foot that culminates in Pandharpur, there are always a few visitors from abroad, their eyes and ears wide open in amazement.

In 1989, some fifty fortunate ISKCON devotees, about a dozen of them foreigners, took part in the Dindi with Padayatra India, our own traveling party. All of us were treated nicely, without discrimination. Our saffron-robed party sparkled amidst the white dhotis and kurtas of the varkaris (pilgrims to Pandharpur). The Vitthala devotees would greet us Krishna devotees with a friendly “Hare Krishna.”

Many people were impressed by our strict following of the Vaishnava principles. The varkaris, most of them householders, are devoted and very faithful to Lord Vitthala, but for lack of a living example to follow they sometimes still have a few attachments, such as tea, onions, and bidis (leaf-rolled cigarettes). So they saw our devotees as real renunciants. Varkaris would often dive to touch our devotees’ feet.

A constant flow of pious souls would encircle the Padayatra Deity cart, eager for darshana, thrusting hands towards the pujari for maha-prasada and caranamrita, the water from the bathing of the Deity. But it wasn’t rare to see a man wearing tilaka take off his shoes to receive the sacred caran-amrita with his right hand while holding a bidi in his left.

Dr. Thomas J. Hopkins, chairman of the Department of Religious Studies at Franklin and Marshall College, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, relates his experience of Dindi:“Pandharpur is pervaded by much of the same quality of genuine devotion to Krishna that you find in a place like Vrindavana. There’s a simple, popular movement there [Dindi] which draws people from a very wide range of backgrounds—college professors, professional people, peasants from farms—all brought together in a conscious community of believers. You really see the power of devotion break through all these ordinary barriers of caste and education and bring people together for worship.

“When I was there in 1969 during the festival period … both of us Westerners there at that festival were welcomed with open arms. There was no question of separation or difference due to caste or nationality.… The association of genuine devotees can exert a powerful effect upon one’s consciousness. I can still not just remember but almost hear the singing of certain devotees at Pandharpur.”

ISKCON At Pandharpur

Across THE Candrabhaga River, right on the bank, rests a small and peaceful Hare Krishna ashrama, started by ISKCON devotees from Maharashtra in the early 1980’s. They cultivate the land, keep cows, and during Ekadashi festivals help serve the pilgrims. The devotees supply Srila Prabhupada’s Marathi Bhagavad-gita, always popular.

The ISKCON ashrama served as host for our Padayatra’s first visit to Pandharpur, in December of 1984. During that visit, the priests of the Vitthala temple warmly welcomed us and gave us the special privilege of bathing the Deity of Lord Vitthala.

We were on a pilgrimage of our own to celebrate the appearance of Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu five centuries before. So we installed symbolic footprints of Lord Caitanya under a huge pipal tree on the ISKCON property, commemorating Lord Caitanya’s visit to Pandharpur.

Chaitanya Mahaprabhu’s Visit

Lord Chaitanya visited Pandharpur while on a journey through South India, apparently to search for His sannyasi brother, Sankararanya, formerly known as Vishvarupa.

After traveling down the east coast of India through the province of Tamil Nadu and up the west coast through Kerala and Karnataka, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu entered Maharashtra. As stated in the Chaitanya-caritamrita (Madhya 9.282-283), the Lord went to Pandharpur, where He happily saw the Deity of Lord Vitthala and chanted and danced.

In Pandharpur Lord Chaitanya met Sri Ranga Puri, a Godbrother of His spiritual master, Ishvara Puri. They talked about Lord Krishna continuously for five to seven days.

Sri Ranga Puri recalled that he had once been to Navadvipa, Lord Chaitanya’s birthplace, where he had visited the house of a brahmana named Jagannatha Mishra. Sri Ranga Puri remembered the taste of a curry cooked from banana flowers by Jagannatha Mishra’s wife. Jagannatha Mishra’s eldest son had accepted the renounced order. Sri Ranga Puri had later learned, he said, that this son had passed away in Pandharpur.

Jagannatha Mishra, Lord Chaitanya then revealed, had been His father, and the son who had passed away had been His brother.

Lord Chaitanya stayed four more days in Pandharpur, before moving on. During His tour of South India, Lord Chaitanya was constantly on the move, but He stayed in Pandharpur for about eleven days. His pastimes there, and those of His brother, establish yet another link between Pandharpur and the Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition followed by the present-day Hare Krishna devotees.