The main road
This morning, again, I decided to take my exercise and meditation walk early, in the cold and fog, rather than waiting for the mid-day sun. It’s not a special holy day, and the mixture of an ordinary day with the cold means the parikrama marg, the road that goes around Govardhana Hill, was mostly empty. Of course, at any time of day or night, on any day of the year, there are always at least some pilgrims circumnavigating around Govardhana Hill. On a holy day with good weather the road is as crowded as Macy’s three days before Christmas. Generally such pilgrims–as opposed to residents–are obvious by their shoeless feet, though some wear heavy socks or wool slippers, or even cloth and plastic on their feet, so they are wearing “shoes that aren’t shoes.” On this very cold morning, most of such pilgrims had sweaters (jumpers), coats, and hats that seem out of sync with their bare feet on the chilly sand or asphalt. My own body, from head to toe, was covered with many layers, such that upon my return I even felt slightly warm from the exertion of the walk.
The government keeps most cars and motorized rickshaws off this road, so the vehicles today were electric rickshaws and bicycles, but even they were few today. So, there was no noise of motors or blowing of horns. There were the street vendors on the side of the road, their handcarts piled with bananas and fried garbanzo beans. Pilgrims mostly buy these to feed the local wild fauna–rhesus monkeys, dogs, pigs, cows and bulls. The cows and bulls eat bananas whole, peel included, whereas the monkeys leave the banana peels hither and thither. All these wild animals–especially as the pilgrims feed them and thus attract large numbers of them–also leave their excrement hither and thither, so a brisk exercise walk must be accompanied with frequent cautious glances at where one is walking. Local keepers of “permanent” shops rather than handcarts open their closet-like structures as I walk past, most of which look as if children assembled them for their first carpentry project. They sell snacks and bottles of water, catering presumably mostly to the pilgrims. Locals and shopkeepers huddle around fires they have made by burning trash and sticks. There are also the “intentionally homeless” people–mostly but not exclusively male. They may also be squatting around fires or, wrapped in shawls and blankets, sitting on the sandy part of the road by the fence that separates the road from Govardhana, holding their begging bowls, perhaps reciting prayers. Some of these “intentionally homeless” are on the Govardhana side of the fence where they have created something resembling a residence in the form of a lean-to type of tent. Others just have blankets. Most of these persons have come to Govardhana to renounce the world and find God, Krishna. I’m sure some have other, not so lofty motives, but, regardless, their living conditions are less than rudimentary, and their residence is at the foot of this most holy of hills.
Through the Gate
Doing my best to avoid the huge, generally peaceful bulls, I get to a gate in the fence that surrounds Govardhana Hill. Making my way inside, there I connect with the inner path around the hill. Most pilgrims walk on the outer path, though on holy days both paths are full. At this gate there is a kind of natural division–to the south the path is very sandy, and pilgrims often switch from the outer to the inner path here, going south. To the north towards Govardhana town the path is firm and solid. The solid path extends up to some ponds, at which there is another gate to the road. Many pilgrims visit the ponds, and many a religious ritual is conducted there. Between those two gates there are rarely pilgrims on the inner path. I surmise that the ponds tend to hide the fact that the inner path starts there and so people simply do not know there is a place to walk in that area oh so very close to Govardhana Hill.
That firm section of the path between the gates has trees on either side whose leaves cover the path as a canopy, welcome when the weather is hot and sunny. The beauty of this firm, tree-lined-and-covered path, with Govardhana Hill so very close, is in its sense of seclusion and privacy, though the road on the other side of the fence is clearly visible and usually audible. The sounds from the road here are not so much horns as in most of India, including most of the general Vrindavana area. Rather, the sounds here are of singing and praying, often groups of pilgrims in call-and-response fashion, and sometimes with amplification.
My main companions on this short part of the path are animals. Today the monkeys were having a battle, aggressively running at each other and screeching. I gave the warring factions a wide berth, bringing me to a sister, more sandy path even closer to Govardhana. Generally the monkeys and I mind our own business here, though I carry a large stick to scare them if they get close as they can be very dangerous. There are also huge pigs here with their offspring. They run at the sight of my stick. The many wild dogs are usually peaceful here, as are the cows. Yesterday I saw a Nilgau, a local antelope, climbing the hill within a few meters of me. Some days there are many peacocks and parrots. Sometimes a pilgrim or two walks here, but mostly the other humans are those who have made their home in this area, though without any type of structure that one could call a house. One is still sleeping wrapped in blankets, another is picking something from a tree, another is praying. As I come here nearly daily when I am visiting Govardhana, I quickly become “part of the scenery” for these persons, as they become to me. We exist here in parallel, without the slightest overt interaction.
The path here, and the pond by the far gate, is nearly always spotlessly clean. Of course, now it is early morning, so some small trash is there from the time after the cleaner went home yesterday. The cleaner is a woman probably more elderly than I am, though she could simply have aged faster in a harder life than I have had. She’s a widow, abandoned by her family, and joyfully living in this holy place. Whereas most of the thousands of such women have only begging (or, if they are young, unmentionable things) as their means of living, the Radha Kunda Seva Project (RadhaKundaSeva TrustProject) generously employs her and similar women in doing something they love–cleaning this holy land they have adopted as home. Before the Trust hired her and took responsibility for cleaning this area, the pond was a giant garbage dump, and the path a veritable river of trash. I’m walking too early in the day to meet her today. When I come at mid-day we greet each other, and if she’s not fully absorbed in her sweeping or in cleaning out the pond, she will beam me a wide smile and sometimes even grant me a hug.
It’s too wet this morning to sit anywhere, though I pass the fallen trees and slabs of construction material I sit on when weather conditions are favorable. Standing as close as possible to Govardhana Hill, softly chanting Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare, I marvel at how Krishna is manifest here as each stone, each pebble. Yesterday I saw many colors of rocks here, a number of them nearly white. Today I see a triangle-shaped pure white crystal rock, like a mini-hill of cloud. On that crystal cloud-like rock is a natural mark that I consider looks either like tilaka or a snake. I marvel at how Krishna lifted this long and rocky hill so many thousands of years ago. I marvel at Govardhana Hill as a continuing shelter, as the friend, as the source of peace. The fog that obscures the more distant parts of Govardhana brings my thoughts to the descriptions in the scriptures of a “dewy” forest in the spiritual world. There is a kind of comfort and mystery in mist and fog, a feeling one gets wrapped in blankets without a care for the world on the other side of the thick wool. Such is the fog on this morning, on this path alone with Govardhana.
Wherever I am in the world, my daily meditation and prayer is centered on Govardhana. Yet, to be here physically has a kind of soft magic. Especially early in the morning, especially on this firm, tree-covered part of the path, especially when the world feels like it’s only Govardhana and me, one is instantly in the presence of God.