Stories are told in India in a myriad ways. Sometimes they creep upon us unexpectedly in the most deadening of daily routines, awakening new perspectives, increasing our grasp of truth and our capacity for beauty both spiritual as well as aesthetic. Also increasingly, people are seeking to connect their Indic knowledge and wisdom, to places associated with these happenings, bringing alive lore and land.
Storyteller Sneha Nagarkar was exposed to Heritage Tourism when she joined Sanskriti: The Heritage of India, a company promoting Indic travel. Since 2017 she has been regularly conducting heritage walks in Mumbai.
In this interview, Sneha gives a framework for developing an Indic model for travel and tourism.
History, art, and spirituality seem to be converging in your work. How can they be made to come together in people’s minds through effective story telling?
SN: In India history, art and spirituality go hand in hand. Art is actually an expression of your spirituality whether it is a performing art like music or a fine art like sculpture. Right from the Rig Veda, our seers have employed effective story telling techniques to drive home basic values. Even the Brahmana texts use stories or Akhyanas to illustrate the significance of a particular yajna. Our Upanisadic texts are full of stories about eminent teachers like Yajnavalkya, Gautama and Auddalaka Aruni as well as of kings like Janaka of Videha and Ajatashatru of Kashi.
Our Itihasas and Puranas as well as the Jataka tales are mediums to instill eternal cultural values of our civilization in the minds of the common people. Our Itihasas and Puranas speak about a class of story tellers called Sutas who would entertain the royal class with stories. Though these stories had a sizeable content of fantasy, many a times they were rooted in history. The Jataka stories have been depicted in sculpture at sites like Bharhut and Sanchi and in painting at sites like Ajanta and Bagh. Such depictions were visual story telling which cultivated spirituality among the people.
To bring history, art and spirituality together in people’s minds the following things can be done-
- Narrating stories from our Itihasas and Puranas as well as Jatakas and connecting them with ancient inscriptions, coins, sculptures, paintings and artefacts. For instance, the names of many Pauranic kings like Nabhaga, Nahusha, Yayati, Ambarisha, Sagara and Janmejaya have been mentioned in the Nasik Inscription of the Satavahana king Vasisthiputra Pulumavi, dated to his 19th regal year. This is around the third quarter of the 2nd century CE. If we connect the Pauranic stories about these kings with inscriptional data it will create a visual memory in people’s minds. Vasisthiputra Pulumavi’s illustrious father Gautamiputra Satakarni’s prowess has been compared with all these great Pauranic rulers. This also helps us in ascertaining the antiquity of our Pauranic literature.
- Fundamentally spiritual, Indian art is Narrative Art where art is used communicate a particular story. This applies to the depiction of Jataka tales at Buddhist sites like Bharhut, Sanchi and Ajanta and the depictions of the incidents from the Ramayana, Mahabharata, Harivamsha as well as the Puranas in caves and temples. If one is narrating a story from the Bhagavata Purana like the lifting of the Govardhana Mountain by Lord Krishna we can use these ancient as well as medieval sculptures and paintings to make the narrative more lively and interesting to the listeners.
- Most of our traditional folk arts like Baul singing, Yakshaganas, Bharuds, Kirtanas, Rama Leelas and Bhagavata Melas are a perfect blend of history, art and spirituality using stories from Itihasas and Puranas. These art forms are multi-dimensional and very popular both locally as well as abroad.
How can heritage tourism be tapped optimally?
SN: In the last decade or so, there has been a growing awareness among people about heritage tourism though much remains to be done. The first way to encourage heritage tourism is to expose school students to local heritage sites and take them on a tour of that site. College and university students can be taken to distant heritage sites as well.
Heritage tourism faces many challenges including lack of funds and infrastructure. A public-private partnership can help in overcoming at least some of these challenges. There are many groups in Maharashtra who organize treks to forts. Along with the element of adventure and fun, these groups can always invite an expert who could talk to the trekkers about the historical importance of that particular fort. The expert need not be a veteran scholar; there are many young scholars who are as thorough and are looking for an opportunity to share their expertise. Customized heritage tours like a children’s special or a senior citizens’ special tour can generate more clients of that specific age group.
Many institutions/companies have outbound programmes for their employees. Usually these programmes are held at hotels or resorts. If there is some heritage site in the near vicinity, the outbound programmed could include a visit to the same. A few activities which do not disturb the heritage site can also be planned at the site. Apart from visits to heritage sites, local cuisine, performing arts and handicrafts of that region should also be an integral part of the heritage tour. For instance, if there is a tour of the cities of Bhubanesvar, Puri and Konark in Odisha, the tourists should also be taken to the art village of Raghurajpur near Puri which is well known for its Pattachitra Paintings. At least some tourists will definitely purchase the paintings and this is how the art will be sustained. On my visit to Raghurajpur, my friend Dr Arunima Pati who is an expert on Ganjifa and Pattachitra Paintings guided me about artistic qualities of these paintings.
Technology should be tapped to promote heritage tours. Using social media and providing and online booking/payment options can help reach a larger clientele. Training tourist entrepreneurs can help create a new pedigree of tour guides with both an academic as well as anecdotal storehouse of tales.
Architecture, manuscript protection, culture and heritage promotion – how do we approach these things without a National policy for the Arts?
SN: In my view we need an integrated national policy for all the above. There are many private bodies today like INTACH which are working for the protection and conservation of built heritage. Libraries like the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, Deccan College, Asiatic Society of Mumbai, the Oriental Institute at Baroda, the Sarasvati Mahal Library at Thanjavur, The Vrindavan Research Institute at Vrindavan as well as the archives of Mathas like the Sringeri Sharada Peetham have millions of valuable manuscripts. All these institutions are doing excellent work in the preservation of these manuscripts and many of them have also initiated the process of digitalization of these manuscripts. Manuscript conservation is not something that one can easily do at an individual level but one can contribute funds and expertise to institutions involved in this kind of work.
Ownership of culture should be inculcated at the school level. The recent incident where the Mula Vrindavana of Sri Vyasa Tirtha at Hampi was vandalized by some anti-social elements highlights the dire need to not only protect our heritage but also generate awareness and respect among people for the same. If such an untoward incident could happen at a UNESCO World Heritage Site like Hampi, the fate of other heritage sites could even be worse.
History as a subject in school should be more rooted in our tradition and history. Many students are hesitant to study history in college because of their unpleasant encounters with it in school. Short term courses focussing on heritage and culture should be started by Universities/Research Institutions which can be reasonably priced and will be designed in such a way which will appeal to the common people.
In Mumbai many notable institutions like the Asiatic Society of Mumbai, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Vivekananda Prabodhini, Sathaye College, Horizons Centre for Cultural Studies, Jnana Prabha, Pancajanya Cultural Heritage Initiatives as well as Departments of Sanskrit, Philosophy and Extra Mural Studies under the University of Mumbai offer certificate courses covering a wide range of subjects like Ancient Indian Culture, Archaeology, Heritage Studies, Sanskrit, Indian Aesthetics, Manuscriptology, Comparative Mythology and Bhakti Literature. Such courses are very effective means for promoting Indian Culture and Heritage.
Museums like the Chatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya in Mumbai, Indian Museum in Kolkata and Allahabad Museum in Prayagaraj have various programmes where common people can participate and thus get a chance to understand Indian Culture and Heritage.
Archaeologists and Heritage experts like Dr. Arvind Jamkhedkar, Dr. Suraj Pandit, Dr. Manjiri Bhalerao, Dr. Milind Paradkar and Anand Kanitkar have regularly contributed articles pertaining to various aspects of archaeology and heritage to newspapers and magazines. Short videos about heritage sites, a performing art or a regional cuisine with inputs from scholars should be produced.
You have done many heritage walks in Mumbai. Who is the audience for such walks?
SN: The audience includes college students, professionals like architects or software engineers, homemakers and retired people, most of whom are new to Mumbai and want to explore the city. There are also many who have lived in Mumbai for years but have not got a chance to visit the heritage sites in the city and are eager to know more about the history of Mumbai. Architects are more inclined to know the architectural features of specific monuments. Some people are not deeply interested in history and heritage but want to spend their Sunday mornings fruitfully by doing something new. There are also people who actually wanted to make a career in history or allied fields but could not do so for some reason but are now keeping their interest in history alive by attending heritage walks.
Your research on Mathura is very extensive. If Krishna were to participate in a Heritage walk in Mathura today, what would make him happy and what sad?
SN: Mathura is one of the most culturally rich cities in India. For Krishna it is ‘Janmabhumi Priyaa Mama’ or ‘My beloved birthplace’. Krishna emancipated Mathura from the tyranny of Kamsa and saved her from the attacks of Jarasandha, the ruler of Magadha and father-in-law of Kamsa. However the repeated attacks on Mathura by Jarasandha finally made Krishna shift to Dvaraka along with the people of Mathura. Though he never ruled Mathura, Krishna is called Mathuradhipa.
Today if he were to walk in Mathura, Krishna would be very happy to see the great veneration and devotion that the people of Mathura have for him. He would be equally happy to see millions of his devotees from all parts of the world thronging to Mathura and Vrindavana to get a glimpse of his Vigrahas and be a part of his eternal Vrindavana Leela and get soaked in the Madhurya bhava. He will also be very pleased to see that institutions like the Braj Sanskriti Shodh Sansthan in Vrindavan which has been founded by Sri Laxmi Narayan Tiwari are working hard to preserve the culture of Braj.
However the Krishna that the people of Mathura remember is only Vamsidhari and not the Sudarshanachakradhari Krishna. Krishna will be deeply saddened to see the dirt, chaos and lack of development in Mathura. In the Gita, Krishna says ‘Yogah Karmasu Kaushalam’ i.e. Yoga is perfection in every task that you undertake. The people in Mathura have completely forgotten this teaching of Krishna. In the Bhagavatam, Krishna explains to the gopas the importance of trees. The region around Mathura was covered with 12 forests or vanas like Kamyavana, Lohavana, Talavana and Vrindavana till very recent times. Today these forests have been completely destroyed in the wake of rapid spread of urbanization. The river Yamuna, the life line of the inhabitants of Vraja is highly polluted. Krishna will indeed be very disturbed to see the environmental degradation in and around Mathura.
Rituals, practices, very greatly across India. How can people experience these differences as they travel from say Guruvayur or Udupi to Mathura?
SN: Mathura, Vrindavana and Dvaraka are the Dhamans of Krishna which have felt his physical presence and for the devotees the Lord has performed various Lilas at these places. Vrindavana is his Madhurya Dhaman and Dvaraka is his Aishvarya Dhaman. Also Mathura and Dvaraka are among the Sapta Puris. Many of the sacred spots at these three sites have some connection or the other with some episode from Krishna’s life. For instance, the Visrama Ghat or Vishranti Tirtha on the Yamuna at Mathura is supposed be the place where Krishna rested after killing Kamsa. At the same time it is believed that the Vigraha of Krishna at Gurvayur was consecrated there by Guru, the preceptor of the gods and Vayu who had been ordered to do so by Uddhava. Uddhava in turn had been instructed to salvage this vigraha from the deluge at Dvaraka by Krishna himself. Gurvayur is therefore also known as the Dvaraka of the South and at the same time the Vigraha at Gurvayur is the same form in which Mahavishnu revealed himself to Vasudeva and Devaki at Mathura during his appearance as Krishnavatara. So Gurvayur is connected to both Dvaraka and Mathura.
Coming to Udupi, the Krishna temple here was built by Sri Madhvacharya around the 13th-14th centuries CE. The legend behind the temple is that Madhvacharya discovered the image of Krishna in a heap of yellow clay which had been used as a ballast by a ship. This image is said to have been hidden in clay by Arjuna. The image of Udupi Sri Krishna is in the form of a child who holds the churning rod in his left hand and a rope in his right. The pontiffs of each of the eight Mathas established by Madhvacharya get a term of two years to manage the temple. This practice was started by Sri Vadiraja in the 16th century CE.
The rituals at Gurvayur are said to be those introduced by Adi Shankaracharya. At Udupi the rituals are as per the Madhva Sampradaya. In Mathura most of the present day temples are relatively modern though many of them like the Dirgha Vishnu Temple are mentioned in the Puranas. The Keshava Deva Temple was originally constructed by Chandragupta II Vikramaditya in the late 4th or early 5th centuries CE. However from the early medieval period onwards, Mathura faced a series of attacks and invasions which left most of her temples vandalized. This led to a suspension and discontinuity of daily rituals in the temples. Most of the rituals which are today followed at Mathura date back to the 16th century CE or a little earlier. Many of them are not strictly based on the Vaishnava Agamas. Some temples in Mathura like the Sveta Varaha Temple are managed by the Chaturvedi Brahmanas who consider themselves the descendants of Varaha and the original residents of Mathura.
The Gaudiya Temples in Vrindavana follow mainly the Bengali mode of worship and the rituals prescribed by the six Gosvamins of Vrindavana. The Pushti Marga Temples have their own rituals where Krishna is served as a king with elaborate bhoga and shringara offerings along with dhrupad style music. Krishna Janmashtami, Govardhana Puja and Holi are the major festivals celebrated in all temples across Vraja. Except for Krishna Janmashtami, the other two festivals are not celebrated at Udupi or Gurvayur. Apart from these, every temple has its own individual festivals. E.g. – The Radha Ramana Temple in Vrindavana which was established by Srila Gopala Bhatta Gosvami celebrates the Radha Ramana Prakatya Utsava in the month of May. Similarly many temples in Mathura and Vrindavana celebrate the Chandana Yatra in the summer month of Vaishakha starting from Akshaya Trittiya where the Vigrahas of Radha, Krishna and the other deities are decorated with sandalwood paste. This ritual has its origin in the Chandana Yatra which is observed in the Jagannatha Temple at Puri.
Another major difference between the rituals at Mathura and those at Udupi or Gurvayur is the worship of Radha. Corresponding to the Ratha Yatra of Lord Jagannatha at Puri in the month of Ashadha many temples in Vraja have their own Ratha Yatras. The Damodara Lila is another such festival which is observed in the temples of Vraja in the month of Karttika. It is believed that Lord Krishna performed his Damodara Lila i.e when he was tied by a rope to a mortar by Yashoda and he uprooted the two Arjuna trees while he was tied to the mortar. These two Arjuna trees were supposed to be the sons of Kubera and Krishna liberated them. Separate images of Krishna performing the Damodara Lila and Yashoda are worshipped in most temples. Devotees offer lamps to Lord Damodara. This festival is more relevant in the lands of Mathura, Gokula and Vrindavana where Krishna spent his childhood and early youth. The sthala mahatmyas of Mathura prescribe a parikrama of the Mathura Mandala during the month of Kartikka and such a parikrama gives unlimited religious merit and all sins are washed away. In Mathura and Vrindavana, Radha enjoys a pre-eminent position and she is called Vrindavaneshvari or the Queen of Vrindavana. At Udupi and Gurvayur Krishna alone reigns.
So much political action surrounds Ram Janma Bhoomi. How is it with Mathura?
SN: The Katara Keshava Deva is the most important temple in Mathura and is also known as the Krishna Janmasthana Temple. This temple has been mentioned in the Mathura Mahatmya of Srila Rupa Gosvamin as a major temple. Legend has it that this temple was originally built by Vajranabha, the great grandson of Krishna who was given the kingship of the Mathura region by Yudhishthira after the death of Krishna. It is believed that this temple was rebuilt by Chandragupta II Vikramaditya, the well-known Gupta king (375-412 CE) in the late 4th or early 5th century CE. We know this based on one of his inscriptions found at the site and referred to by scholars like Acharya Vasudev Sharan Agrawala.
The temple was demolished a number of times by iconoclastic invaders and rulers and rebuilt a number of times by devotee rulers or noblemen. The temple was later reconstructed by Vir Singh Deo, the ruler of Orcha during the reign of the Mughal Emperor Jahangir (1605-1627 CE). In 1669 CE the temple was demolished by Aurangzeb (1658-1707 CE). Today a huge mosque built in red sandstone stands at the site of the original temple. The present temple has been constructed in the 1950s by some leading philanthropists like Sri Hanuman Prasad Poddar who was closely associated with the Gita Press, Gorakhpur and stands next to the actual site of the original temple.
The political action with respect to Mathura is much less as compared to Ayodhya. This could be due to the fact that today there is a temple commemorating the site of Krishna Janmabhoomi which is not the case with Rama Janmabhoomi in Ayodhya. I visited the Rama Janmabhoomi in 2014 and was saddened to see the deity Rama Lalla being worshipped in a small make shift shrine. The Rama Janmabhoomi issue has been wrongly interpreted by foreign writers like Sheldon Pollock who try to the project Lord Rama, the Ramayana and Ramarajya as tools used by the certain political parties for their election propaganda. He says that the idea of violence is contained in the Ramayana itself. People like Pollock understand nothing about the Indian Cultural ethos and Pollock is a part of what Rajiv Malhotra calls the ‘breaking of India forces’. Fortunately we have scholars like sociologist Dr. Meenakshi Jain who has published two books on the Rama Janmabhoomi issue- Rama and Ayodhya and The Battle for Rama: Case of the Temple at Ayodhya which document the authentic history.
On the other hand, the case of Krishna Janmasthana has not been politically exploited in any significant way. Similarly at least as far as my knowledge goes, no scholar-foreign or Indian has used this issue in matters other than purely academic. Attempts have been made to provoke the people of Mathura to raze the mosque but all these provocations have met with a very cold response from the local people. I have been visiting the Krishna Janmasthana Temple since 2014 and I have always observed that most of the devotees are so absorbed in the thoughts of Lord Krishna that they don’t even take any notice of the mosque. For them all that matters is the darshana of the Lord’s Vigraha and to experience the very place where he performed his Prakatya Lila or appearance in this world. As they say, faith of true devotees triumphs over everything else.
Krishna in human consciousness. How does this motivate people to travel thousands of miles both from India and abroad to see the place where He lived?
SN: Krishna has been worshipped in India at least for the last 2500 years. He was venerated not only by Indians but also by Greek ambassadors like Heliodorus and Greek rulers like Agothocles who had the depictions of Krishna and Balarama on his coins. Many of the oldest temples in India were dedicated to Krishna or Vasudeva. The Bhagavad Gita and the Shrimad Bhagavata Purana are the most widely read Indian scriptures. The Gita is Krishna’s counsel to Arjuna at Kurukshetra and is thus his very words and the Bhagavatam for the devotees is the form of Krishna in Kaliyuga. Though many people may not have read the entire Gita they are aware of its essential teachings. Similarly the stories from the Bhagavatam are well rooted in the Indian psyche.
Lord Rama is Maryada Purushottama but Lord Krishna is the Purna Purusha as his is a multi dimensional personality. He is the supreme bliss – Paramanandam to his mother Devaki and as a son he gave limitless joy and fulfilment to his parents Nanda and Yashoda. He shared a beautiful relationship with his elder brother Balarama and the two were inseparable. The Harivamsha describes them as two bodies but one soul. To the gopa boys of Vraja, he was their closest friend and playmate and to the gopis he was their supreme lover. He dearly loved his cousins Arjuna and Uddhava and for them he was their ultimate friend, philosopher and guide. To the Pandavas he was their mentor and for Draupadi he was her savior and Sakha. Krishna has been described as ‘Yadavanam Shiroratnam’ i.e. the crest jewel of the Yadavas and the best among the Vrishnis as he himself states in the Gita (Vrishninam Vasudevosmi i.e. I am Vasudeva (Krishna himself) among the Vrishnis). He was a loving husband to Rukmini and all his other queens. As a flute player, he is a master musician and as Natavara (Natavara Vesham) he is the best dancer. Though he was never the king of Mathura or Dvaraka he played the role of a king maker. Thus Krishna is the embodiment of all the four Purusharthas – dharma, artha, kama and moksha. It is because of this reason that his devotees share a very emotional bond with him. For some of his devotees he is their lover, to some their child, to many others he is their master and for quite a few of them he is their friend. Krishna’s relationship with his mother Yashoda is epitome of the Vatsalya bhava and the mother-son bond. Even today when we see a healthy and active baby we compare him or her with Bala Krishna. Radha and Krishna’s relationship which symbolizes the Madhura Bhakti is a favourite theme in Indian classical music and dance. Most of the bandishes and thumris, jhoolas, kajaris in Hindustani Classical Music centre around the love between Radha and Krishna and the different moods of the divine pair are compared to the changing seasons. The songs describe the couple swinging joyfully in the forests of Vraja in the company of the sakhis of Radha.
The idea of Bhakti has almost become synonymous with Krishna Bhakti and the devotional songs of saints across India – Adi Shankaracharya, the Alzvars, Jnanesvara, Namadeva, Janabai, Ekanatha, Vyasa Raja, Purandara Dasa, Meera, Suradasa, Caitanya, Vallabhacarya, Tukarama, Narottama Dasa Thakura and Rasa Khan all extol the greatness of Krishna. Even a great Rama Bhakta like Tulasidasa has composed the Shri Krishna Gitavali because for him Rama and Krishna are one and the same. His forms like Jagannatha, Vitthala and Gurvayur Appan have a wide devotee base in Odisha, Maharashtra and Kerala respectively.
Krishna in today’s times, along with Kautilya is considered a Management Guru and many management institutions have special credit courses on Krishna Neeti and its application in modern management. To sum it up, an Indian consciousness without Krishna is unimaginable.
What does Vaishnavism mean to you?
SN: Vaishnavism is essentially a philosophy of Bhakti. The early form of Vaishnavism which is the ancient Bhagavata Dharma was based on the devotion to the God Vasudeva Krishna. For me Vaishnavism is not just a philosophy but a way of life. One does not become a Vaishnava by simply worshipping Lord Vishnu or any of his forms. The core of Vaishnavism is Bhakti which as per the Narada Bhakti Sutras is Paramaprema Rupaa- the form Bhakti is the greatest love for God. According to the Shrimad Bhagavatam-
śravaṇaṁ kīrtanaṁ viṣṇoḥ
arcanaṁ vandanaṁ dāsyaṁ
iti puṁsārpitā viṣṇau
bhaktiś cen nava-lakṣaṇā
kriyeta bhagavaty addhā
tan manye ’dhītam uttamam
These verses which have been elaborately commented upon by Srila Jiva Gosvamin in his ‘Bhakti Sandarbha’ beautifully summarise the meaning of a Vaishnava. Vaishnavism for me is a philosophy which is based on a direct and intimate relationship between Bhagavan and the Bhakta. The Pancharatra and Vaikhanasa Agamas, Vaishnava Upanishads like the Gopala and Nrsimha Tapani Upanishads, Vaishnava Puranas, Samhitas like the Brahma and Garga Samhitas, commentaries and treatises by the Vaishnava Acharyas delineate the tenets of Vaishnavism. Bhakti as expounded in the Gita is so unique that God reciprocates the devotion and love of his bhakta Arjuna. Lord Krishna clearly states in the 9th Adhyaya of the Gita-
ananyāśh chintayanto māṁ ye janāḥ paryupāsate
teṣhāṁ nityābhiyuktānāṁ yoga-kṣhemaṁ vahāmyaham
Apart from the monistic Advaita of Adi Shankaracharya, all the other major schools of Vedanta viz. Vishishtadvaita, Dvaita, Shuddhadvaita and Achintya Bhedabheda are all Vaishnava philosophies and speak of a personal God i.e. Vishnu or Krishna. Krishna ensures the well being of his devotees and they never perish. In the 9th Adhyaya again Lord Krishna declares-
kṣhipraṁ bhavati dharmātmā śhaśhvach-chhāntiṁ nigachchhati
kaunteya pratijānīhi na me bhaktaḥ praṇaśhyati
The Lord’s true devotes never perish and this is clearly seen from the examples of bhaktas like Prahlada, Ambarisha, Gajendra, Arjuna and Uddhava as well as the multitude of our saints. For me Vaishnavism is a philosophy of total love and surrender for and to the Godhead. The essence of Vaishnavism in my opinion is enshrined in the 66th verse of the 18th Adhyaya of the Gita where the Lord says to Arjuna-
sarva-dharmān parityajya mām ekaṁ śharaṇaṁ vraja
ahaṁ tvāṁ sarva-pāpebhyo mokṣhayiṣhyāmi mā śhuchaḥ
On a personal note, my life transformed after I surrendered myself to Lord Krishna and I have made the above shloka the philosophy of my life.