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A view of  Dwarkadish
Krishna's Capital
... a pilgrimage to Dwarka

Photographs and text: Bill Aitken

Rediff Travel continues its series of travelogs on famous pilgrimage sites of India...

Probably the least visited of the char dham or four holy spots of orthodox Hinduism is the sight of Dwarkadish riding in a mirage of dark-blue surrounded by the run of the Kathiawad salt scrub. I arrived by overnight bus from Ahmedabad. Normally, early morning is a time for nodding off, not sitting up for the electrifying discovery of an elemental religious experience.

But the three other sacred cardinal points cannot compare to Dwarka in terms of dramatic approach nor in maintaining the medieval mood of rural devotion. They are brash and commercialised and their setting cluttered by the expansionist sprawl of shopkeepers.

Badrinath for all its exalted claims boasts of a tumble-down seasonal bazaar -- more photogenic than hygienic. Luckily, at that altitude the bedbugs are more sluggish in their transfusions.

The temple can be called charming to conceal the fact that it has been painted a garish birthday-cake pink. Many buildings in Uttar Pradesh with sarkari (government) administrators advertise themselves with pink paint -- possibly obtained at a discount from the Public Works Department.

Apart from Badrinath, all three of the other temples are out of bounds to non-Hindus though at Dwarka, as travel writers, Hugh and Colleen Gantzer have confirmed, it is possible to have darshan or viewing of the deity, if you show genuine respect for the deity. Like temples anywhere else in the world, the priests are always eager for custom and, while the Gantzers's television cameras got them free darshan, the ordinary mortals -- as at Tirupati -- can file an affidavit (in other words pay)!

But this bottom line of all religious structures is as evident in the decaying cathedrals of Europe as in the contributions for guiding the Dome of the Rock mosque in Jerusalem. However, in Dwarka the brilliance of the seashore makes a parikrama (taking a round) outside the soaring temple a free, delightful, memorable occasion to the most secular of visitors.

The sixteenth century main temple is not beautiful, yet, its mass bedecked by a huge silk banner takes the breath away with its suggestion of spiritual grandeur.

If Puri -- actually Konark -- receives the first rays of Lord Surya, the dazzling coast of Dwarka bids farewell to the galloping horses of the day. Somehow the glorious spring of the temple from the white flats speaks to the pilgrim directly of the quest for the feet of Lord Krishna, and the wave of bliss that comes from just walking around Dwarka's dazzling shoreline (away from the cadging priests) affirms that early-morning wonder you had experienced on the bus. You really sit up to see the temple mirage bob into view and your eyes pop when the dark-blue ocean seems to rear higher than the rippling sand dunes.

In Vaishnava lore, the ritual of jap mala (worship with holy beads) is basic and it so happens that the devotee may use any colour of thread except dark-blue which is the shade of infinity. Just as Christians will not use 'Jesus' as a Christian name, so the Vaishnava will never appropriate the colour sacred to Lord Krishna.

The factual records of the char dhams is much more slender than the myths surrounding them. Their ascribed founder Adi Shankaracharya is regarded as a staunch Shaivite (and to his devotees he is the Lord Shiva himself). But today's temples -- except for Rameshwaram -- are all flourishing centres of Vaishnavism.

Sringeri, the oldest matching monastery in Shankaracharya's scheme, does not find a written record till the 12th century AD. Whatever their origins (and there is evidence that both Badri and Puri had once been Buddhist places of worship) the medieval teachings of Madhavacharya are much more in evidence than any ancient tie with Shankarcharya's monism.

A view
 of  DwarkadishSignificantly, modern Shaivites in Kanchipuram -- flourishing Buddhist establishment till the efflorescence of Vaishnavism's saints (one of whom Tirumangai, stole an image of the Buddha to melt down as offerings to Srirangam!) differ violently with the accepted dates of Shankaracharya's life. And they assert that in addition to the char dham (with their matching monasteries) the great monist had found a fifth in this town.

Intriguingly, Kanchi, like Puri, has strong Buddhist associations and (as at Badrinath) the image in the main shrine of the Kamakshi temple is the Buddha co-opted as an avatar. Those who inquire into the authenticity of the sectarian claims will be met with the astonishing fact that the Shankaracharya's own birthplace was only fixed in the 20th century AD. Though the illiterate pilgrim is led to believe it dates from BC.

To indicate that solemn bluff does not stop with the priests, Dwarka possesses one of the weirdest IAS (Indian Administrative Services) monuments in the country. Inevitably, it is a 'drought relief work' not quite as zany as the Umaid Bhavan Palace at Jodhpur but clearly designed by the same sort of soul -- pious and dotty. This 'Sunset Point' is approached along an avenue lined with Vedic artifacts known as mortars, distant relations of the idli-making machine. These great granite cups were used to grind up som ras, the 'drink' of the Gods from a grass that the modern society is still trying to identify. To judge from the boisterous tone of some of the hymns that access to this fermented mead produced, there can be little doubt that it achieved a satisfactory level of intoxication.

However in modern Gujarat it appears that officers have been instructed to fudge Vedic history and our expert on fermented juices insists that the effects of som ras were nonalcoholic. Sadly, these noble comments on ancient habits, stand contradicted by real life. In Gujarat's villages the visitor will find that in spite of the strictest prohibition, any number of homeward plodding farmers reeling from the after-effects of forbidden substances, alcoholic or otherwise.

But the beauty of Dwarka's shoreline needs no artificial heightening. It is a sumptuous experience that the trappings of formal religion need not impinge upon. The universal beauty of nature and the winning legend of Shri Krishna's last days are all to be found blowing in the wind and the visitor who values the real glory of Dwarka should distance himself from the sellers of a bogus past that has plummeted to such appalling depths these days that even oceanic archaeologists dive not for academic but partisan purposes.

Once you get locked into the formally religious round at the all their magic disappears before the acquisitiveness of their custodians. The trick is to give these hangers-on the cold shoulder and choose a cycle rickshawwallah, who for an honest fare, will pedal you around the various sites and give a running commentary free of fake and fanatical make believe.

The temple at Dwarka, though it seems to preside over the ocean, actually faces an intervening river. However one can wade out and photograph the delightful ghats crowned by the great fluttering banner of the main shrine. The bazaar is small and less commercialised than at the other three orthodox centres. During the late medieval period, a school of dualism that absolved the devotee of Krishna from conforming to conventions, gave the whole theistic movement a bad name on account of priestly debauchery. Part of the puritanical urge of modern Gujarat can be explained as a reaction distancing itself from past excesses.

One reason given for not allowing foreigners into the Puri temple is that they would not be able to interpret the lurid eroticism of the murals in the spirit of symbolic upliftment. But more degrading than any misreading of art intended for initiated eyes only, is the avarice of an administration that refuses to let tourists in but provides them with a peephole for a voyeuristic glimpse into the compound in order to elicit some cash from the enquiring crane of their necks.

Perhaps this is why Dwarka stands out from other famous shrines in the world. It is still modestly unacquisitive. The town, in fact, dates only from the 19th century when the Gaikwads developed it as a famous religious centre. The shoreline leads north to the handsome 12th century Rukmini Temple and south of Porbunder and Somnath. I chose to stay in nearby Jamnagar, a most distinguished coastal seat with a fine array of architecturally royal assets. For the royal darshan I found Dwarka to fit the bill fully, the swell of the billowing ocean enough for my eyes to convince of the presence of Lord Krishna. The raw beauty of the Kathiawad coast is complemented by the absence of the multitude.

At Badri the melee is akin to a rugby scrum while Jaganath at Holi resembles a football crowd. Rameshwaram is comparatively quieter but the devotion from true religion revealed in twice-born arrogance by the contemptible way they toss prasad to the nonorthodox visitor, puts it a long way behind Dwarka for physical grace.

However, the trek to Dhanushkodi (sanded over to prevent the bus from covering the last four kilometers) is as liberating to the soul in its transcendental blueness as the experience of Dwarka. It makes you realise the shimmering approach to Krishna's shore temple speaks of the reflected ocean within. If people get ripped off at temples they have only themselves to blame for mistaking the phoney for the real all around.

Courtesy Sanctuary Features

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