Heavy rains, the euphoria of crowds at dahi handis, singing and dancing and street performances, midnight celebrations in temples, and great food – that is how the birth of Krishna or Janmashtami is celebrated.
Here are a few places you should visit to get a slice of the action.
We are all familiar with the story of Krishna’s birth – it was on a stormy night by the banks of the Yamuna river in Mathura, that he was born. The birthplace of Lord Krishna gets all decked up on the occasion of Janmashtami and reverberates with the sound of conch shells, bells and hymns. Krishna idols are bathed with milk, curd, honey, and ghee in the morning in a ceremony known as Abhishek (anointment). After the bath, Krishna is adorned with new clothes and ornaments and placed in a swing (jhulan). Pujas are performed in various temples to mark the time of Krishna’s birth. The best temples to see rituals are Bankey Bihari, Dwarkadhish, Krishna Janmabhoomi Mandir and the ISKCON temple.
A great spectacle is the Raas Leela, a dance drama that acts out facets of Krishna’s life. These are held all over Mathura. Jhankis, cribs and scenes depicting the various stages of the life of Lord Krishna are a common sight, much like the Nativity scenes of Jesus Christ that spring up during the Christmas season. Another important feature of Janmashtami celebrations in Mathura is the Jhulan Utsav when swings are put in courtyards of temples and houses to celebrate Lord Krishna’s birth. Krishna loved dairy products so make sure you sample the delicious peda and buttery lassi.
There are various sacred points in Mathura which serve as markers or milestones of Krishna’s childhood – like Potara Kund where his clothes were washed, the neighbourhood of Mahaban where he was raised, Vishram Ghat where Krishna relaxed after his battle with Kansa.
Drive down 15 km to Vrindavan. It is believed that it was in the forests of Vrindavan next to the Yamuna that Krishna did the Raas Leela with Radha, and the cowherd girls or gopis. The Govind Dev temple is one of the oldest shrines in this area. Check out Nidhi Van, a sacred temple of Bankey Bihari in Vrindavan. Bankey Bihari, Murlidhar, Kanha, Leeladhar are all various names of Lord Krishna. The temple is in the middle of a dense forest of trees. Devotees believe that Krishna comes here every night and performs Raas Leela with Radha and his gopis. The park that surrounds the temple is full of Vana Tulsi trees (basil).
A detour to Gokul from Mathura across the Yamuna can be enjoyable for kids for its rustic and pastoral charm. Gokul celebrates the festival the day after as Krishna was brought from Mathura after midnight and the residents of Gokul got to know about him one day after Janmastami. Gokul residents celebrate Dadhikana or Nandotsava – people drench each other with curd and turmeric. Radha Raman temple and Radha Damodar temple in Vrindaban are the most visited by pilgrims.
Dwarka (it means the “gateway to heaven” in Sanskrit). Legend has it that Krishna came here from Mathura here after killing his uncle Kansa. Located on the Kutch coast, it is one of the four holy cities (char dham) of India. Janmashtami is marked by night-long celebrations with bhajans, sermons and garba and raas dances. Visit the five storeys-high Dwarkadish temple with its beautifully carved 60 columns and a spire that towers above the city. The inner sanctum dates back to 500 BC. Another must-see is the Rukmini temple, dedicated to Princess Rukmini, Krishna’s wife. A short trip away from Dwarka, is Bet Dwarka, where Krishna is believed to have died. In nearby Saurashtra and Kutch regions, traditional fairs mark the advent of Krishna’s birthday.
The dahi handi celebrations in Mumbai are legendary. Groups of young men called Govinda pathaks scale a human pyramid to break a handi (clay pot) filled with Krishna’s favourite drink – curd/buttermilk hanging by a rope sometimes over 30ft high, while their attempts are thwarted by onlookers who splash water on them. Old Mumbai neighbourhoods with chawls – Dadar, Worli, Thane, Lalbaug – are famous for dahi handi celebrations. It has become a sport of sorts –competitions are organised during Janmashtami with people vying for the prize money. The handis are set up around the city and thousands of Govinda pathaks (including some all-women troupes) travel around in trucks trying to break as many handis as possible during the day. The pyramids are usually below 9-tiers, and pathaks given three attempts to break the pot. An interesting tidbit – in 2012, a mandal from Jogeshwari made it into the Guinness World Records with a pyramid of 9-tiers – 43.79 ft.
Dahi handi is celebrated because Krishna used to steal butter from the gopis of Vrindavan. Many Bollywood films made the ‘dahi handi’ celebrations popular and nowadays, to add some colour, popular film songs are also played during the festival.
Jagannath is one of the forms of Lord Krishna and Jagannath Temple in Puri celebrates the festival with great fervour. Special midnight prayers are held and the deity of the infant is set in a swing decorated with flowers. Chronicles of Lord Krishna and Balaram are enacted every evening. They begin with the Krishna’s birth, with one episode being performed each day by communities in the city. Episodes that stand out in Krishna’s life like the tale of Bakasura badha and the legend of Kalia dalana when he slew a multi-headed snake are looked forward to. Children, dressed up as Krishna and Radha, perform Krishna Leela. The episode of killing of Kansa ends the series of days filled with folk theatre. The festivities go on for 17 days from Janmasthami, ending with the enactment of Kansa badha (slaying). Many areas organise dahi handi celebrations.
UDUPI – GURUVAYUR
The Sri Krishna Mutt at Udipi is believed to have come into existence after the city of Dwarka submerged (as it was supposed to after Krishna’s death). The main temple has eight monasteries around it. The viewing deity sits on a splendid golden rath or chariot. In Udupi, the birth of Krishna is celebrated with special regional tones. Street performers add to the atmosphere. Plays portraying episodes from Krishna’s childhood life are held, besides singing and dancing late into the night. Locals cook kottige or gunda (idlis steamed in jackfruit leaves). Festivities include processions with a clay idol of the infant Krishna and street performers. Expect to see a variety of cultural shows and performances from puppetry troupes and Yakshagana performances to flute recitals.
The highlight of Janmashtami celebrations at Kerala’s Guruvayur temple is a procession of a golden idol of ‘Balakrishna’ accompanied by the temple’s elephants. This is accompanied by classical dance and music performances. Do taste the nei appam and pal payasam that are given as prasad to visitors.
Janmashtami is celebrated in a big way at the Dargah of Narhar, situated in Jhunjhunu district, about 200 km from Jaipur. The dargah has been holding a three-day festival for the last 300-400 years. It attracts people from all communities. Hundreds of pop-up stalls come up in the area. Qawalis and dance dramas are held late into the night.