Radha Kund

13 May, 2016

“Hey Hari, a really great thing happened.” it’s my boss, Shaunaka, in my office.   When he says, a-really-great-thing-happened, it could mean absolutely anything.  Perhaps there has been an EU turnabout on some policy that he has orchestrated (and I have organised) across fifteen member states, a lottery grant for a few million pounds (which I will manage), perhaps lunch with the Dalai Lama (which I won’t be invited to); or he might have found a new second-hand rug in the antiques market.  He likes rugs.  He used to design carpets and custom-made silk rugs, in his own individual celtic designs, beautiful knots, emblems and crosses of old family trees.  I often wondered what those carpets looked like in real life, not through Shaunaka’s colour blindness, the pinks he saw as beige, the blues he mis-read for green.  I bet his customers showed them off to their expensive friends as one of those technicoloured “designer” items, while he believed he was delivering something subtle and muted.

This day, and this was many years ago when I was young and enthusiastic, someone had sourced some Sanskrit volumes for the library, a really great thing has happened.

“So, someone reliable needs to go and collect them.”  He says smiling.  “From India.”

“Great, we know lots of people in India who could do that.” I reply with casual disinterest.  Shaunaka is the Director of a graduate centre for Hinduism at Oxford, he knows a lot of people in India.

“Aren’t you going on holiday to India, this week?” He replies.

“Nope.” My comeback is emphatic, “I lied about that, I’m really spending three weeks at home decorating my house.”

“Ok,” he pauses, “Just that you don’t have a house.”

“Yeah, well, I might get one.”

Ignoring any idea that I might not want to do this, he continues, “So, there’s a sadhu who wouldn’t part with the books for years and now we’ve had a message, he has agreed to talk to us.”
“Okay, a sadhu.”   I repeat slowly.  A sadhu is a holy man, a renunciate.  Any genuine sadhu will not mix with a young western women.  This is not the world of Maharishis with money, cars and that ilk.  This is the world of deliberate material rejection and spiritual attainment.

“He lives in a hut. Next to a Tulasi grove behind Radha Kunda”

“Are you serious?”   I am serious now.  I am not questioning his vague directions on how I find an old man,  three thousand miles away, who probably hasn’t ever seen a landline, let alone a mobile phone.  I know exactly where Radha Kunda is and what that means.   In India, there are a billion significant places of worship, from palatial temples to a tree stump on a filthy path, the place is alive with belief and superstition.   Of these billions of places, there are a few universally recognised holy places.  And a small place called Vrindavana is one of the most sacred.  Only 40 miles west from the Taj Mahal, but well off the tourist map, or off the western tourist’s map at least.  A place of pilgrimage for hundreds of thousands of visitors, the birthplace of the Hindu god Krishna.  Within the district of Vrindavana, is Goverdhan Hill, a place so holy that pilgrims may even travel through it by what is called “dandavats parikrama”.  This means that they will lie down fully with arms outstretched forwards and pray (dandavats), moving along the pilgrim path in these single body length motions of prayer, instead of walking.  These are the lightweights; the serious devotees have a pile of stones next to them and will lie down 108 times in body lengths of prayer, dropping a stone from their finger tips each time to mark how many they’ve done before moving forward one body length and repeating.  It takes them months to finish the 21km path, they must sleep wherever they are on the road and continue each day.  When they are done, many of them simply start it again.  That is how seriously this place is regarded.  And along the pilgrim path, there are a number of holy water ghats and tanks (kunds).  Of them all, there is only one called “Radha Kund”, or Radha’s pond.  A sunken square water tank, a Kunda, about 30m square with wide stone steps on two of its sides, it’s deep green water hiding giant turtles who surface soundlessly from time to time.  Built up around it are hundreds of ancient temples and shrines.  It is the bathing place of the goddess Radha, created for her by the god, Krishna, entirely to please her.  A place utterly revered, considered the holy of the holy in India – not a place for me to stroll up and buy a few books. Well, not without turning more than a few heads.

“Ok, then,” says Shaunaka, as if it’s all settled, he goes to leave. “Oh yeah” he turns back before he goes, “The sadhu took Mona Vrata 30 years ago.  He is very highly respected, so make sure you do it properly.” He finishes with a customary flourish, pulling the rug out from under my feet, after the deal is done.  I purse my lips and stare silently at him until he edges out of my office, smirking. “Mona Vrata” is a vow of silence.  He wants me, a white, western, unmarried woman to go to Radha Kund, find a sadhu who lives in a dirt hut behind a kund, and buy his prized rare books, in silence.  And, I am to do it “properly”, whatever that means.  But I do know what that means; that’s why he’s asked me to go.

A week or so later I arrive at Goverdhan Hill, just before dawn with an aquaintence as a walking partner.  I don’t remember who, but it is a long walk if I do it “properly”, and totally unsafe to think of going it alone.  We get out of our taxi, remove our shoes and kneel in the dirty road side, touching our head to the ground in reverence – of a hill.  We set off down the main road.  By dawn we are at the palatial old buildings of Kusam Sarovar.  A series of beautiful, three storey sandstone tombs, ornately carved for long

kusam sarovar.jpg

Kusam Sarovar

forgotten kings and queens, it has huge bathing ghats in front.  I have swum in the murky holy water here many times.  We stop to say gayatri, the silent morning prayer to the Surya, the god, as that perfect ball of orange heat appears in the sky.  The once damp, cold path will be burning our feet in just a couple of hours.

It takes about six hours of brisk walking to get to Radha Kund, if you do it properly.  Added to this are detours to bow in temples, visiting the many other kunds, paying respects at shrines, and pausing to acknowledge significant places from ancient stories (sthalis) we pass – God’s footprint in a stone, a special tree, many must be respected if I am to do this properly.  Priests offer blessings with dabs of sandlewood paste on our foreheads and we drop rupees into empty donation boxes in return.  We pass through lively villages, serene countryside, see wild monkeys and abandoned palaces.  There are no food stops, this journey is done fasting, or a partially fasting, depending on the lunar calendar and the month of the year; I know, because I’m doing it properly.  I wear a cheap cotton sari, I carry my shoes in my left hand, my meditation beads in my right and a bottle of water under my arm.  I have a small change purse hidden in the 6 metres of folded sari, rupee coins to offer to widows and sadhus along the way.  On this journey the poor must be properly acknowledge and respected with donations.

In the afternoon, we reach Radha Kund and take time to make the journey around it’s many pilgrimage places.  When we have finished, we rest watching the green water for turtles, I look around for the path behind the Kund, for a hut or derelict building where the sadhu lives.  I can’t find it and I don’t have an address, merely his name.  I approach a local woman and say his name, moving my arm to show I am trying to find him.  She stares at me, in my sari, with my sandlewood paste on my forehead, the grubby feet of one who has walked the 21km of Goverdhan pilgrimage barefoot.  I ask her again and she bows her head, mumbles and vaguely nods in a direction.  I realise she doesn’t want to tell me where he lives.  In her eyes, I can see I am the equivalent of Julia Roberts in that weird stretchy dress in Pretty Woman, thigh high black boots, a prostitute visiting their local holy man.  I go in the direction she has said and ask a man, he smiles bemused, like the hotel manager in the film; not entirely against prostitutes, but surprised to find one here.  He points to a low hut, with wild Tulasi bushes growing in front.  “Tulasi”, or “Holy Basil” as we know it in the West, is considered a natural marker of a sacred place in India.  I walk over but I know I cannot cross the threshold into his “garden”, a dry dirt area in front of his hut; to knock on the door is a sign of familiarity and utter disrespect.  I am being watched, the equivalent of net curtains are twitching all around the Kund.  So I stand outside the makeshift gate to his dusty garden and wait, looking at his house.  I have no idea if he’s in or not.  I must simply wait patiently, till someone comes.  I am prepared to wait and hour or two, out of respect, then, if no one comes I can ask after him locally and return the next day, to wait again.  I must never cross that threshold without invitation.  After some time, he appears beside his hut, he looks confused and rocks his head side-to-side, the customary Indian signal for what do you want?  I say the names of the books, the Vedantas and Sutras I have been sent to buy, I say the word “Oxford” and he signals for me to wait inside the garden.  Radha Kund waits, watching too, I can feel it.  I must do this properly.  After about half an hour, he comes back, he lays a cloth down on the bare ground and he offers me a metal cup of water (which I must accept and drink).  This is no rom-com picnic, the cloth is for the books, to protect and respect them, not for me.  We crouch either side in the dirt, examining his prized possessions.  He shows me the titles and publication dates, they are in good condition, but even if they weren’t, these are years out of print, I will not see them again, they will not appear on any open market.  They probably didn’t ever have a print run, just a few copies produced at great cost, a very long time ago, now all but destroyed by the climate.  They are in Sanskrit, I can’t read them, I guess the titles and he nods when I have the right one.  We silently negotiate the value, he draws numbers, in Hindi, with a stick in the dirt.  He returns to the hut and comes back with other tomes, some of them I am interested in, some of them not.  Eventually, after hours or deliberation, we come to an agreement, it is done.  He excitedly wraps the books in layers and layers of different cloth and ties them up with home-made string.  This is not a seller of tat in some bazaar, where I knock down the price.  These books are probably both priceless and worthless, in India and in the West.  They are lost in a dying culture, but they will be well preserved and much valued one day, where I am taking them.  I do the deal with proper respect and give the holy man what he asks for each volume.  Then, because holy men must be respected with donations, I donate to him generously, on top of the payment.  He smiles and I leave, offering respectful pranamas – folded palms.  As I walked away, I looked back and saw him watching me and noticed how happy he looked, really happy.  I was surprised.  His face, smiling in the sun, slightly looking up is my strongest memory of the whole thing.   In my youthful naiivity, I had no understanding of the demands of older age, the necessities of life that may have forced him to part with his most precious items, to a stranger from the West.  But I remember him smiling, so genuinely that I think it meant a lot more than that to him, like he’d been praying for a solution that was somehow resolved by preserving that legacy of knowledge, in Oxford’s archive-quality care.    I pass the man who gave me directions, he has watched the whole lengthy transaction from a distance, he nods toward me.  I pass the woman, she smiles and nods with respect at me this time.  I have done it properly.

I walk for two minutes through Radha Kund, the ground feels damp again, it is cooling quickly at the end of the day; charcoal fires are lit, burning smoky warmth into the cool evening.  Sunset is coming and silent evening prayers will pay a respectful good-bye to the sun god, Surya as he travels, full circle towards morning again.  We have come full circle too, we have travelled the right way, around the sacred sites, around Goverdhan Hill, respecting its divinity and its inhabitants.  According to the ancient scripts in my arms, we are also changed in divine ways from the experience.  We reach the main road and walk along, looking for our taxi from this morning.  Sure enough, he has stayed all day waiting patiently, properly, where we left him, just like he said he would,.  We kneel in the dirty road side, touching our head to the ground in reverence – of the hill.  We set off down the main road leaving Goverdhan Hill behind us.  Properly.

Radha kund (1)

Radha Kund

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One Response to “Radha Kund”

  1. clairepotterhome Says:

    You have some fascinating tales to tell! Now I’ve had the long version and the pub version!


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