Vidya Rao on Vrindavan

India’s eminent singer Vidya Rao has contributed this piece for Jahane Rumi. In this personal account she writes about her recent visit to Vrindavan, near Mathura, which is a major place of pilgrimage for Hindus. It is said that this area had the woods where Krishna frolicked with the gopis and tenderly wooed Radha.

Vrindavan is always a moment of pure magic. This time too.

This time, after the morning darshan, Acharya Shrivatsa Goswami took those who stayed and had the time to smell the flowers, about 10 people— to the site of the old temple where Radha Raman ji had manifested–in a basket of shaligrams– in 1542. He was lovingly brought by Gopal Bhatt to a tiny temple where He lived for several years–in fact till 1861.In that year, He moved to the present larger temple built for him by Kundan Lal and Phundan Lal, courtiers and sons of Shah Bihari Lal, lately of the court of the deposed nawab of Avadh,Wajid Ali Shah, and now seeking shelter in Vrindavan in– as Shrivatsa ji put it– the court of the greatest king. What is interesting and moving about the tiny old temple is the small room (actually the largest space in that temple) that is the kitchen, which houses the eternal fire. This fire was lit in 1542 to cook the deity’s first meal after He moved here, and the same fire burns today too. It has never been extinguished. When Shrivatsa ji said this, when I looked at the glowing embers of that ancient fire, I thought of the arani sticks. Going in search of these eternal fire sticks, Yudhishthira met and answered the riddles posed to him  by Dharma (his father, lord of justice and of death) in the guise of a yaksha. What is the riddle that I must answer as I stand here in search of this unextinguished fire? What is this fire? The fire of nurture? Of passion? Of creation? Of destruction? Of transformation ? Of the energy that keeps the universe spinning? All of these? None of these?

The kitchen is still in use in 2007 and it is here that, even today, Radha Raman ji’s meals (8 in all– for each seva) are lovingly cooked by the priests (Shrivatsa ji and his sons and nephews). Surely this cooking is the manifestation of vatsalya bhava– the emotional universe of the mother and her love for her child. The meals are cooked in huge gleaming kansa vessels that are coated with a thick layer of clay to slow down the process of cooking, to retain heat, to impart flavour– and perhaps to remind us that all is contained in the womb of muddy matter. These meals of course are the juthan, the prasad, that is shared with hundreds of pilgrims every day. (Yummy, I might add.) Lightly cooked, steamed vegetables, dal fragrant with the most delicate spices, perfect fluffy phulkas and steaming hot pearls of rice. Dahi, of course and kheer too, fresh ghee and butter, straight from His mouth. Now we who eat the prasad are experiencing vatsalya bhava– which mother had not picked up her child’s half-eaten plate of food and made a meal of those leavings?

There is something so incredible happening here. The recieving of food from ‘the mouths of babes'(!), so food as Truth? The world made ‘streemay’, feminised, by these burly (and burly they are) priests as they take on the womanly tasks of cooking for, and feeding the child-God, and for the child-God manifest as the world and every person in it. The priests also clean the kitchen, wash the cooking vessels, again feminine tasks, tasks that bring to my mind a beautiful poem in the tamilpillai poetic tradition, where the all-too-human baby girl-child, rocking to and fro on her mother’s lap, is addressed as Meenakshi, Queen and Mother of the universe, lovely bride of the beautiful bridegroom (Kalyana Sundaram is Shiva’s name in Madurai) who is here just a little girl playing house- house with the universe.

The poem says (and I translate badly) Little girl, playing house-house — you take Mount Meru and make it the pillar of your toy house, spread over it the canopy of the sky. You pin to that canopy the twinkling lamps of sun and moon and stars. You wash the soiled vesels of the worlds in the crashing flood-waters of the pralay-deluge, and you neatly stack them, lovingly, in your home. Then that madman, your husband, comes dancing into your courtyard and overturns your work, messes it all up. You don’t say a word– only smile and pick up the pieces and begin all over again.

Are the priests, washing the vessels of the worlds, sweeping the kitchen of creation, mirroring Meenakshi? Who is human here– who is divine? Who is man/woman/child?

Shrivatsa ji spoke of the daily seva for this child-lover god. He is a rasik, Shrivatsa ji said, a lover of all things beautiful, so we dress him in beautiful clothes and jewellery and we sing for him, we please him. Those who are his lovers sing for him.

I remember what musicians say– ‘Raga, rasoi, pagri, kabhi kabhi bante hain” (Perfect music, that special taste to one’s cooking, the perfectly tied turban– these happen but sometimes). Raga, rasoi, pagri– these echo the nitya seva of raga, bhog, shringar (music, food and ornamentation/clothes/also love, devotion, bhakti) that is offered every day, eight times a day to the Beloved.

And I understand too why the word for kitchen (and by extension, for cooking) in Hindi is rasoi– this is the place of rasa, taste, yes, but also enjoyment, immersion in the essence of all aesthetic delight.

What a strange and powerful experience that was to be there before that 500-year old fire, with those muscular, feminised men, to know the temple as the kitchen of the universe (and so to also know the kitchen as the temple of the self) from where (as my dear friend Ramu Gandhi had put it in when speaking of Sita ki rasoi– “Sita’s Kitchen”) every creature in the universe receives nourishment– “sab ko khurak milta hai”.

And that this ‘khurak’ is only apparently bread– the same bread of which Jesus had said “man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God”. In Radha Raman’s old temple-kitchen I realise again, powerfully, that Life, Truth IS bread, khurak, that nourishes us so deeply– physically and spiritually; and that bread, my humble sookhi roti IS– none other– every word that proceeds from that baby mouth, every kiss of that Dark Beloved’s lips.

Mealtimes will never be the same again!

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