By Hrimati Devi Dasi
What was supposed to be a brief, casual trip to accept an invitation from an old friend turned out to be a wonderful, purifying, spiritual journey.
Two of the holiest places we in the Hare Krishna movement hold dear, Vrindavan and Mayapur, are sites where the Supreme Personality of Godhead – Sri Krishna and Chaitanya Mahaprabhu respectively – made Their transcendental appearances. But there is another very spiritual place we don’t hear enough about. Only a few of us know much about this gem, where Lord Rama stopped twice: to rest on His way to exile, and to perform puja (worship) for purification on His way back; where Lord Chaitanya went to the temple of Veni Madhava and danced day and night; where He instructed Srila Rupa Goswami in the Vaishnava philosophy; and where the founder-acharya of ISKCON lived with his family and received spiritual initiation. This place is called Allahabad, also known as Prayag Raj.
Thirty-seven years ago, 1977, in Mumbai (then Bombay), I saw my spiritual master, His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, for the last time. With my two-year-old son Raghunatha holding onto my sari and my six-month-old daughter Nandini in my arms, I waved farewell to him as he drove off in his maroon Ambassador to attend the Maha Kumbha Mela in Allahabad, which occurs every twelve years.
Vrindavan lies in northwest India, near the river Yamuna, while Mayapur is located near the Ganga, in the eastern state of West Bengal. Allahabad, UP, lies in the heart of India. Though nearly three thousand kilometers wide, India has only one time zone, and clocks across the country are set to the time in Allahabad. Just as the city is the heart of India’s time, it is also the heart of India’s spirituality. It is where millions of people come every year for a holy dip in the Triveni Sangam, the confluence of the three rivers Yamuna, Ganga, and Saraswati.
Adwaita Acharya Dasa, a family friend from Mayapur, requested me several times to visit the ISKCON temple in Allahabad, where he serves as the temple president. How could I refuse to visit this holy city, where every year many millions of pilgrims flock to find spiritual peace? Also, knowing that Allahabad has a lot of history connected with the Lord’s pastimes, as well as with my spiritual master, I finally made the journey.
First Impressions and Some Temple History
After a twelve-hour train-ride from Kolkata, I hire a private auto ricksha from Allahabad Junction station to Balua Ghat, where the ISKCON temple is located. This being Allahabad – “the city of Allah” – many of the shops I pass display Arabic signboards. The Moghul emperor Akbar gave the city its current name in 1575.
As the ricksha arrives near Balua Ghat on the Yamuna River, I hear loudspeakers broadcasting chants of “Jaya Gange Mata!” (“All glories to Mother Ganga!”) “Yamuna-mayi ki jaya!” (“All glories to Mother Yamuna!”) and “Jaya Hanuman!” (“All glories to Hanuman!”) – mixed with the names of many other demigods and demigoddesses.
The ricksha drops me off in front of the palace of the late king Dr. Vibhuti Narayan Singh (1927–2000), just next to the ISKCON Sri Sri Radha–Veni-Madhava Mandir. As I walk through the beautiful arched entrance to the temple property, Adwaita Acharya Dasa gives me a warm welcome. After I’ve settled in, he tells a brief history of the temple.
In 1989 a group of devotees headed by Madhai Dasa arrived in Allahabad to start an ISKCON center. In the beginning they stayed as paying guests at the house of Mr. S. D. Sinha. Then in 1991 they rented a house at 403, Baghambari Housing Scheme, Allahapur, with Madhai Dasa as the temple president. They struggled for quite a while to obtain land to start the center. Eventually they met Mr. B. N. Rama Roy, whose son owned Hotel Elchio and who was a close friend of the popular king of Kashi, His Highness Maharaja Dr. Vibhuti Narayan Singh.
On Mr. Roy’s suggestion, the devotees traveled 125 km to Varanasi and asked the king for land. He agreed, but did not pay immediate attention to the matter, and in time the devotees grew anxious. Unexpectedly, Mr. A. K. Chadda, a school organizer, offered to donate two acres of land near the airport. The devotees accepted the offer and started conducting programs on the land. Hearing this, the king sent his lawyer to inform the devotees that he was ready to donate his land immediately. Finally, after a prolonged struggle, the devotees took possession of the property, next to the king’s palace by the bank of the Yamuna in Allahabad.
The leased property was officially registered in the name of ISKCON in March 1997. But the struggle did not end there. Although the devotees had received a written consent order from the king in 1995, some servants of the king and other tenants gave the devotees a lot of trouble and refused to vacate the property, although they eventually left after some time. The property was a jungle, however, wild with vegetation and infested with snakes. The devotees cleared the land and made it fit for the Lord’s residence, along with a garden and a goshala (cow sanctuary).
Seeing the property, I could never have guessed at all the struggles the devotees went through to make it look like it does today, with beautifully manicured flower and vegetable gardens.
Being an animal lover, I immediately want to see the cows. Narahari Dasa Brahmacari introduces me to about twenty extremely friendly cows and bulls, many of them curiously sniffing me. I am taken by how clean they are. The devotees themselves are looking after the cows with much love and affection under the leadership of Acintya Balai Dasa Brahmacari.
Organic Vegetables, Flowers, and Grass
Next to the cow barn extends the large temple garden. Sidhu Dadu, the head gardener, is very dedicated and makes it a personal affair to look after the garden. He planted beautiful symmetrical rows of cauliflower, cabbage, spinach, eggplant, and other vegetables for the Lord, along with Nepier grass for the cows. On the opposite side of the footpath you can find beautiful scented flowers and a big area of tulasi, the sacred plant used profusely in the worship of Lord Krishna.
The flowers, vegetables, and fodder for the cows are grown organically with only cow manure used as fertilizer, which is derived from the slurry coming from the big gobar-gas tank, where biogas is produced by mixing cow dung (gobar) and water. The biogas is then channeled through a pipe into the main and used for cooking the much-loved chapatis.
The Lord’s cook, Sarvajaya Krishna Dasa, lets me have a glimpse into the smaller deity kitchen while he’s cooking for the deities.
I observe harmony in ISKCON Allahabad, where the devotees are peaceful and devoted in everything they do for the presiding deities, Their Lordships Sri Sri Radha–Veni-Madhava, installed in November 2003. Their Lordships are gorgeously decorated and smiling at you. Their temporary temple building was formally inaugurated in August 2003, and the temple services have been carried out regularly ever since. Festivals such as Krishna Janmashtami, Rama Navami, Gaura Purnima, and Srila Prabhupada’s Vyasa-puja are celebrated annually in grand fashion. Adwaita Acharya has plans for a large permanent temple.
After touring the temple grounds, I take a holy and refreshing dip in the river Yamuna at the Prabhupada Ghat, which descends directly from the back gate of the temple property.
In the evening, after honoring dinner prasada, I offer a ghee lamp to Sri Sri Radha–Veni-Madhava and retire for the night at the ISKCON Allahabad guesthouse.
Srila Prabhupada in Allahabad
Allahabad, or Prayag Raj, has a lot of history connected with the Lord’s pastimes, as well as with ISKCON’s founder-acharya: His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada.
At the Allahabad Gaudiya Matha in 1933, Srila Prabhupada, then known as Abhay Charan De, received Vaishnava initiation from his spiritual master, Sri Srimad Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura, and received the spiritual name Abhaya Charanaravinda Dasa. At their very first meeting, in Calcutta, 1922, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati had instructed Abhay Charan De to spread the gospel of Sri Chaitanya to the English-speaking people of the world. After that first meeting, Abhay moved to Allahabad and ran his own business, Prayag Pharmacy, for thirteen years. The building that housed the pharmacy can still be seen today. During this period as a family man, Abhay helped establish the Allahabad Gaudiya Matha for his spiritual master’s mission.
On my second day in Allahabad it is time for parikrama, or pilgrimage to the holy places.
Our first stop is the ancient temple of Sri Sri Veni-Madhava, the presiding deity of Prayag. According to the history painted on the walls of the temple, there was once an evil entity named Gajakarna who troubled all the demigods. On the request of Lord Indra, the king of heaven, the great sage Narada Muni sought an audience with Gajakarna to find out his weakness and discovered that he suffered from a skin infection on his leg. Narada told Gajakarna to bathe where the three rivers Ganga, Yamuna, and Saraswati meet – the Triveni Sangam at Prayag Raj – which Gajakarna proceeded to do. Amazed at finding himself cured, and wanting to possess the three great rivers that had cured him, he drank them. When the rivers pleaded with Lord Vishnu, He arrived in the form of Veni-Madhava, killed Gajakarna, and restored the rivers to their rightful place.
According to oral history, Lord Ramachandra, Sita Devi, and Lakshmana visited the Veni Madhava temple during their fourteen-year exile many centuries ago in a previous age, Treta-yuga. And we learn from Chaitanya-charitamrita that Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, while visiting Prayag Raj about five hundred years ago, chanted the holy names and danced here every day.
After returning from the USA, Srila A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada visited this temple and found it in a dilapidated state. He encouraged the temple authorities to renovate this important temple, which they did, and ever since his visit the temple has flourished. Recently, the mahant (head priest) expressed a desire to install a mufti (carved form) of Srila Prabhupada in the temple.
Not far from the Veni-Madhava temple, at Dashashwamedha Ghat, Lord Chaitanya Mahaprabhu taught the essential principles of devotional service to Rupa Goswami for ten days. Here the nectar flowed from Lord Chaitanya Mahaprabhu’s mouth into the ears of Rupa Goswami. A sign marks the historic meeting place: “Rupa Shikshsthali” (“The Site Where Rupa Received Instruction”).
How can I describe my emotions when I fall down and offer my obeisances at the plaque bearing the lotus footprints of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu? Having been a follower of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu since my childhood forty-one years ago, I feel surcharged with a mixture of spiritual energy and emotions. Based on the discourse that took place here between Srila Rupa Goswami and the Lord, Srila Rupa Goswami gave us the Vaishnava culture as we still practice it today. References to their meeting can be found in Chaitanya-charitamrita:
Sri Rupa Goswami and Anupama Mallika went to Prayaga, and they were very pleased to hear the news that Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu was there. At Prayaga, Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu went to see the temple of Bindu [Veni] Madhava, and many hundreds of thousands of people followed Him to meet Him. . .
(Madhya 19.37–38 and 19.114–118)
Due to the great crowds in Prayaga, Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu went to a place called Dashashvamedha-ghata. It was there that the Lord instructed Sri Rupa Goswami and empowered him in the philosophy of devotional service. Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu taught Srila Rupa Goswami the ultimate limit of the truth about Lord Krishna, the truth about devotional service, and the truth about transcendental mellows, culminating in conjugal love between Radha and Krishna. Finally He told Rupa Goswami about the ultimate conclusions of Srimad-Bhagavatam. Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu taught Rupa Goswami all the conclusions He had heard from Ramananda Raya and duly empowered him so that he could understand them. By entering the heart of Rupa Goswami, Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu empowered him to ascertain properly the conclusions of all truths. He made him an experienced devotee whose decisions correctly agreed with the verdicts of the disciplic succession. Thus Sri Rupa Goswami was personally empowered by Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. In his book Chaitanya-chandrodaya, Kavi-karnapura, the son of Shivananda Sena, has elaborately described the meeting between Sri Rupa Goswami and Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu.
At the beginning of creation, Lord Brahma conducted the first (pra) ten sacrifices (yaga) at Dashashwamedha Ghat. He referred to Prayag as tirtha-raja, “the king of all pilgrimage sites.”
Confluences of major rivers are commonly referred to as prayagas, of which there are fourteen on the Ganga, with Prayag Raj, the king of confluences, being the most important. The Puranas, the Ramayana, and the Mahabharata contain references to its sanctity. Today, Prayag is an important religious center, with hundreds of temples. It is this ancient spirituality of Prayag that you can really feel when you go there.
Next, our pilgrimage leads us to the Allahabad Fort, built in 1583 by the Mughal emperor Akbar. It was the largest fort he built and one of the best garrisons of the Mughal Empire. Presently the Indian Army occupies the fort, and only part of it is open to visitors.
Lord Ramachandra, with Sita and Lakshmana, came to this site on their way to His exile and here performed His father’s shraddha ceremony (for one’s departed ancestor). For three days Rama, Sita, and Lakshmana stayed underneath a banyan tree, now known as Akshaya-vat. At the entrance to the fort we pay our respects to deities of Radha-Krishna and Sita-Rama, Lakshmana, and Hanuman. Inside the fort we view the much revered Akshaya-vat, or “immortal banyan tree.” In the Padma Purana Lord Narayana says,
“Prayaga is a place of Vaishnavas where an akshaya vata exists. That is my residence; for Me it is better than Vaikuntha.” (Prayaga-mahatmya 12.16)
It is said that the Akshaya-vat used to extend all the way up to the Yamuna River, a few hundred meters away.
Before leaving the fort, our guide, Adwaita Acharya Dasa, takes us to the underground Patalpuri temple, one of the oldest temples in India. Being underground, we also get to see the roots of the Akshaya-vat.
Our parikrama would not be complete without a holy dip at the Triveni Sangam Tirtha. Tri means “three,” vein means “braid,” and sang means “confluence.” The invisible Saraswati is said to flow underground and join the two other rivers from below. The muddy pale-yellow water of the Ganga merges with the blue water of the Yamuna. The water is about forty feet deep near the point of their nexus, after which the Ganga continues on until it meets the sea at the Bay of Bengal (Ganga Sagar).
The Padma Purana (41.16–17) states:
“Those who are truthful, who have conquered anger, who are non-envious, religious, mature in scriptural knowledge, and engaged in the well being of the cows and brahmanas, take bath in the middle of the Ganga and Yamuna. They become freed from all types of sins, and they achieve all types of enjoyment to the fullest extent.”
We ride on a boat out to the Sangam to take our holy bath from a wooden platform connecting two other boats. The ride out provides a picturesque view of the confluence and many migratory birds. With the onset of winter, these birds migrate to this holy spot all the way from Siberia.
During Kumbha Mela, in the cold month of January, it is said that all the demigods come in human form to take a dip at the Sangam. Srila Prabhupada explains that people should take advantage of the association of the many highly learned saintly persons who assemble during Kumbha Mela:
Kumbha-mela is sat-sanga. If you go to Kumbha-mela to find a man of knowledge, then your Kumbha-mela is right. Otherwise, yat-tirtha-buddhih salile na karhichit . . . sa eva go-khara. If one thinks that this salila, the water – that just to take bath in the water is Kumbha-mela, then he’s a go-khara, a cow or an ass. But if he thinks, “Now there is an assembly of so many saintly persons; let me take advantage of their knowledge,” then he is intelligent. (Conversation, January 8, 1977, Bombay)
On our way back to the ISKCON temple, we pass by the old Prayag Pharmacy building where Srila Prabhupada had his business as a young family man.
A Grateful Visitor
Back at the temple, paying my humble obeisance to Sri Sri Radha–Veni-Madhava and then offering them a ghee lamp, I meditate on my great fortune in receiving Their darshana, and I pray They may engage me in Their service.
Only after going to this spiritual city Prayag Raj and seeing and experiencing it myself did I open a new fresh connection with my spiritual master and his Lord. It never occurred to me before why Srila Prabhupada, even in his old age, had insisted on going to Allahabad on that day in 1977 when I last saw him. Now I have a better sense of the spiritual allure of this special place.
I encourage devotees visiting India to make Prayag Raj part of their itinerary.* The beautiful smiling faces of Sri Sri Radha–Veni-Madhava will surely capture your heart, as They have mine.
*Pilgrimage places within 150 kilometers of Allahabad include Chitrakoot, where Lord Rama went to the forest for twelve years; Ayodhya, Rama’s birthplace and capital; and Naimisharanya, where Srila Suta Goswami recited Srimad-Bhagavatam.