Navadvip: Finding grace in the birthplace of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu

Sri Chaitanya Chandrodaya temple Mayapur

By Paramita Maitra ( from Malaysia) 

In late spring this year, while visiting my family and friends in India, I longed to travel the chimerical contours of the country roads. The air suffused with life –

“Light, my light, the world filling light, the eye-kissing light, heart-sweetening light!

Ah, the light dances, my darling,

at the centre of my life;

the light strikes, my darling the chords of my love;

the sky opens, the wind runs wild,

laughter passes over the earth.

The butterflies spread their sails

on the sea of light. Lilies and jasmines surge up

on the crest of the waves of light.

The light is shattered into gold on every cloud,

my darling, and it scatters gems in profusion.

Mirth spreads from leaf to leaf, my darling,

and gladness without measure.

The heaven’s river has drowned its banks and the flood of joy is abroad.”

– Rabindranath Tagore

I did not have any specific place on my mind but I was recommended to travel to Mayapur – the spiritual capital of the world. Mayapur, located on the banks of River Ganga and at the point of its confluence with River Jalangi, is considered holy by Hindus especially the Gaudiya Vaishnavite sect as Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, an incarnation of Lord Krishna, was born here in 1486 A.D.

Sri Chaitanya Chandrodaya temple Mayapur
Sri Chaitanya Chandrodaya Temple, Mayapur

India starts to bake by the time spring closes in. I wanted to start early and travel by road. Half the houses in my neighborhood slept with their ceiling fans on and windows open on a cool early Saturday morning when I started my journey. The street lights were still on; the lull of the cityscape broken by the overwhelming chorus of the crows. The roads were empty barring few merchandise laden busty trucks whizzing by. The shops on the roadside were closed; stray dogs and vagrants comfortably asleep in the open hugging the shops’ entrance turfs. The early morning walkers, corporation cleaners, the milkmen and the paper boys were all out on their daily grind.

As soon as I hit the country roads the refreshing cool air gushed inside my car and I rolled down all the four windows fully. The de-congested amorphic roads looked cleaner than the city ones; flanked by emerald paddy fields on both sides with occasional sights of groves of bananas, papayas, and mangoes; the tea shops smoky with the coal fired ovens kindled. Old and wise men sat on the wooden benches; some on their haunches with morning regional dailies folded neatly by their side and waiting for the hot milky sugared tea before starting to read, opine, smoke and re-read the papers hanging on till the end of a second cuppa.

The day was breaking fast and my car sped along. I was not in a hurry now to reach Mayapur. I adored the morning of the spring countryside. Roosters tooting, the ducks and ducklings dawdling in a neat train towards the country pond, and the cows herded outside the stables to sun kissed lush fields preceded by the herdsman chewing the neem twig and looking groggy. The ladies’ sweeping and sloshing the mud floors of their houses ushering in a new day. Washed porches and wet dung aurified the countryscape. Little girls and boys accompanied by elderly ladies and holding onto empty pots gathered around the community water taps either for a wash or for a fill. The dogs did not bother to wink even, lying down on their lazy bones on the dewy spring green grass, though I honked often to avoid running over chicks and ducklings trying to cross the road.

Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu clay life sized dolls, Navadvip
Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu clay life sized dolls, Navadvip

Thus a cathartic journey to ISKCON (International Society for Krishna Consciousness) in Mayapur followed tending to erase the crepuscular shades of life. A spring, a cool morning and a new day beckoning. Before reaching the ISKCON temple I stopped at a couple of unornamented temples on the way all celebrating the life and epoch stories of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. Fascinating to share is the huge lush neem tree under which Mahaprabhu was supposed to be born and the hut where he grew up as a boy. Sri Chaitanya Math, as it is called, houses both the auspicious tree and the hut.

Clay life-sized dolls depicting the growing up years of Mahaprabhu are on display inside the hut. Leaving Sri Chaitanya Math to the left and driving few km ahead I finally reached the Sri Chaitanya Chandrodaya temple which is a rare and first built temple by ISKCON in Mayapur and the whole world. I was astounded at the mammoth premises of the temple – it seemed an infinite spread out complete with beautiful landscaped gardens, walkways, lakes, souvenir bazaars, cow sheds, accommodations, eating and food joints, prayer halls, library, cooking and serving prasad chambers, and temples dedicated to Lord Krishna and Radha, Lord Narasimha, and samadhi of Swami Prabhupada, founder of ISKCON. The deities of Lord Krishna and Radha flanked by four gopis on each side are stunningly decorated, even if one is not religious yet bound to fall in for the Lord’s deep doe-like eyes and his joyful troupe.

The loud soulful Hare Krishna chants, the unnerving ambience all around smelling of mounds of fresh flowers, brass diyas brightly lit with wicks soaked in mustard oil and camphor and dhunas giving out thick vaporous grey smoke from the burning coconut shells and powdered charcoal and incense, the transcendental oscillating dancing of the devotees, the all absorbing aarati and the aroma of the bhog engulfed my senses completely.

The ostentatious new complex still under construction coupled with the swanky cafeterias, piazzas, the younger devotees wiled away onto smart-phones, the exorbitantly priced temple fares was impregnated by a thin blur of racial discrimination where the local boys cook, serve meals and clean utensils and the foreigners or rather the white skinned get to offer the aarati and bhog to the Lord. A more vivid portrait where I was myself very much part of – the sun was too hot at the noontime and the path to the cow shed too long. I thought of taking the e-rickshaws plying on the temple premises ferrying devotees, resident-devotees, tourists and travelers from one building to another. Funnily the one that stopped at my wave was already carrying a white devotee and before I could jump in he shouted out at the driver not to pick up other passengers on the way while he’s on board and the driver barely nodded and whisked by. I could see that the driver was alarmed at the outcry and thought best to heed resident devotees, powerful enough to cancel his rickshaw permit, rather than an accidental traveler whose skin color brushes off as an underling.

Nakchampa flower in bloom, ISCKON Temple premises, Mayapur
Nakchampa flower in bloom, ISCKON Temple premises, Mayapur

Little do we fathom that Lord Krishna himself took the darkish blue black skin color, accounts of such pictorial depictions are diverse, and a whole sect sprung singing glories unto Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu who himself is believed to be an incarnation of Lord Krishna. Devotees – white and black, brown and yellow, local and global of various races and religions – have been all pervaded by the Hare Krishna Movement started by ISKCON. The large constructions inside the temple premises, funded by the rich and the powerful abroad, are sheer masks of shallow pedantry exhibiting the entirety of the ISKCON, sadly obfuscating the spirit of the ordinary people who lose their nucleus on the path to Krishna-bhakti. The love of Krishna should have come on the devotee’s lips for a fatigued traveler both marching onward onto the journey of inward cognition.

To me Mayapur reflected a solemn project with its liturgies unbroken – the quintessence of life’s celebrations openly immersed and washed away by the tumescent grey waters of the River Ganga to the shores of Navadvip. There’s a local adage that when you visit Mayapur never go back without setting foot on the holy soil of Navadvip. Un-feigningly, Mayapur manifests exteriority while Navadvip is its essentiality.

Sonar Gouranga temple, Navadvip
Sonar Gouranga temple, Navadvip

Navadvip, situated on the western side of the River Ganga, is the birthplace of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu and the seat of Vaishnavism. It is from Navadvip Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu and his cult emanated the ardour of their allegiance to Krishna-bhakti in erstwhile Bengal. He played a prominent role as a social reformer in the 16th century when Navadvip was ruled by Lakshman Sen, the famous ruler of the Sen Dynasty. Thick with narrow alleys, vintage buildings and shops, built during the regal rule and mostly dilapidated with doodled walls, the city is house to numerous big and small temples reveling in the golden glories of Hinduism and Vaishnavism. What a merry sight to watch the embellished clay idols of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu and his life’s story! The dexterity with which these clay life sized dolls were brought to life speaks volumes of the artisans’ handiwork. They look so real and a pleasure to experience in person. Time permits a visit to the famous Dwadas Shiv Mandir and Sri Chaitanya Saraswat Math is a must. In the month of November, the Bengali month of Aghrayan, the city enraptures in a convivial mood celebrating the joy and jewel of the Rash festival. The all-powerful reinvigorating Harinam Sankirtan, the congregational street chanting by the devotees of the Vaishnava cult dancing to the lilting mridangas and hand cymbals is a common sight on the crowded roads of Navadvip. I felt that the Hare Rama Hare Krishna/Krishna Krishna Hare Hare chants infuses a heady aura combing out sooty tangles that blanket the subconscious being in us. We, mortal human beings, get caught in the universe’s eternal pursuit of birth and death, annihilation and construction, beginnings and ends – life paused by decay with no cultivation of soul’s cognizance and finally perishing in imprudence.

My travel to Mayapur and Navadvip ended with a visit to the Sonar Gauranga temple – an ethereal sighting of the golden shrine of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. His footwear is preserved here in a glass encase. I was not daunted by the evening setting in and quite determined to enter the shrine and linger on for some time before heading home. The old stately building, that houses the temple has sections in rot and the entrance veiled by low-hanging electrical wires from poles erected near its doorstep, is not actually a charming view from the road. Once entering the building and climbing the few old narrow rickety stairs I was ushered in to a huge black and white chequered foyer with a vast canopy-like ceiling. On my left a long flight of stairs led to the temple entrance fortified in iron bars behind which the gold idol of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, impeccably bedecked, was seated in a silver throne. What an elegant display of humility, love, kindness and benevolence!

Driving back home leaving a pinkish orange sun kissing the sky good night in the background, I sensed the humid, hot and dusty air gradually caressing my limbs. My body and eventually my senses got embroiled in the nature’s fire. I stopped in the Navadvip city market and drank gallons of cool bottled water and dabbed my face with refrigerated ice. The temperatures did soar while I criss-crossed the temples in the sweltering heat of the day but the twilight looked like slapping muggy air onto your face. That was terrible indeed. The pace of life unraveled the night bazaar slowly preparing to open its vegetables, fruits, and fish and poultry baskets, the dust in the tracks being settled by the water sprinklers, hesitant children returning home from playgrounds and some already on their way to tutorials, men enjoying a long smoke and an animated chat in the neighborhood before picking up rations on their way back home from work and women of the households starting to prepare dinner.

Remnants of an era gone by Navadvip
Remnants of an era gone by Navadvip

A conventional setting of a neighborhood amidst the backdrop of a distinctive personality who cultivated a human crop solely on pure love cherishing the heritage intrinsic to Sanātana Dharma akin to cosmic order. Through transcendental love by chanting Hare Rama Hare Krishna/Krishna Krishna Hare Hare Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu was instrumental in spreading the universal message of oneness – the spirit of the soul is supreme and that it vibrates in harmony. The carnal actions performed by the body are mere illusions to realizing the purity of the heart; malevolence, ire and jealousy of the delusional world push us into the quicksand of the cyclic period of life and death and over.

In the Kaliyug when we fought over caste and creed and false prestige, Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu appeared as a flicker in our lives trying to douse the acrimonious fire mightily spread in the sea of humanity. He imparted transcendental knowledge entwining mortal lives to take the plunge into the ocean of transcendental bliss. After the pious soul left his body the human race tried impersonating his teachings but vehemently failed in the conduct of one’s spiritual individuality. Over the centuries and times the ring of material lint blinded our heart’s lens so opaque that we commoditised Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu learning his text and growing his order but ignoring the blight that had gradually settled in Mahaprabhu’ s grounding eroding the essence of his incarnation as Lord Krishna. Krishna’s teachings were directed at all aspects of life and organizing our lives through practical engagements brings us closer to the transcendental plane of Krishna consciousness. True that learning texts, acquiring knowledge, chanting hymns guide our actions well. However without practical application theoretical knowledge is of little value. In Mayapur Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu thus continues to be revered as an ornamental potpourri where an order supplants life; in Navadvip the pneuma is intact in the physique where essence of living a simple life is the bedrock in the thick of long narrow meandering alleys, modest locales, and unpretentious ways of sustaining life.