It is often said that there are 33 crore Gods in the Hindu religion. There’s a God for virtually everything. Lord Krishna is not a God in the true sense, because he was a person just like us during the time of the Kauravas and the Pandavas. However, having said that, the ancient Bhagavata Purana describes Krishna as the “Bhagavan Himself”. He is the 8th incarnation of Lord Vishnu, one of the three most important Gods in Hinduism.
So for all practical purposes, Lord Krishna is no less than a God. In fact, we often relate to him much more because he is so much like us – human-like. Lord Krishna is often seen as an infant or a young prince offering guidance and direction to lead life in the best possible way. Many people see this as God’s wish, because Krishna is Lord Vishnu himself.
What is the Janmashtami Festival?
Janmashtami or Krishna Janmashtami is the birthday of Lord Krishna. It is celebrated with much vigor across the Hindu world on the eighth day of Krishna Paksha (new moon fortnight as per lunar calendar) of Shravan month every year which coincides with some date in August or September. Actually there are very few religious days that are more important than Janmashtami in the Hindu calendar. The day is also referred to as Sree Jayanti, Sri Krishna Jayanti, Gokul Ashtami, Ashtami Rohini, and Saatam Aatham. That’s because, the event falls on the 8th day or Ashtami of the Krishna Paksha in Shraavana according to the Hindu calendar.
Janmashtami Celebrations in Mathura and Vrindavan
Though it is celebrated across the world, but if there’s one place where you want to be on Janmashtami, then it is Mathura, because this is the birth place of Lord Krishna. Vrindavan is next on the list, because the Lord spent his childhood here. Luckily Vrindavan is very close to Matura (Vrindavan is just 10 kilometers away from Mathura). So you can easily visit both these places on Janmashtami to enjoy the celebrations. You can take one of the conducted tours as well to visit both Mathura and Vrindavan on Janmashtami. Such tours are organized from all over the country. Sure enough, both these towns are going to be very crowded on the big day, but it is worth it. After all, it is Lord Krishna’s birthday.
Janmashtami Celebration in Mathura
Janmashtami has been celebrated in both these places for ages. And it’s continuing with the same pomp and show to this day. The main celebration is of course held at the Dwarkadhish Temple in Mathura (not to be confused with the Dwarkadhish Temple in Dwarka in Gujarat). Actually it begins much earlier than the Janmashtami day. Jhulanotsava is held throughout the Shravan or the monsoon here, but it culminates at midnight of Janmashtami because that’s when Lord Krishna was born. Pujas and aartis (worship and devotional songs) are held throughout the day across the Hindu world, but once again, everything becomes a feverish pitch around midnight. Devotional dances and songs are also organized. There is a lot of conch blowing too. Some people like to even rock the cradle, thinking of the baby Lord Krishna. Prayers are offered at temples. Even the kids are encouraged to stay awake till late at night, because it’s a special day of the year. Both temples and homes are illuminated and decorated. People exchange sweets and pleasantries, celebrating the birthday of Krishna.
Another unique feature of the Janmashtami celebration in Mathura is the “ghattas”. There are probably hundreds of temples in the city. They are all decorated in the same color throughout the month. And this includes the idols of Krishna as well. There are floral decorations everywhere as well. This gives both the cities their distinct jeweled look on Janmashtami.
Birth of Lord Krishna at Mathura
The Lord was born around 5,200 years back. That was a dark and windy night. A storm was blowing outside as Krishna was born in a prison, as Krishna’s uncle, King Kansa had imprisoned Vasudeva and Devaki (Lord Krishna’s parents) because of the prediction that Devaki’s eighth son would be the cause of Kansa’s death. But who could kill Krishna when he was an incarnation of Lord Vishnu himself? Of course, Kansa, and even his own parents didn’t know this.
Read the Birth Story of Krishna
The Distinct Style of Janmashtami Celebration in Vrindavan
As mentioned before, the birthday of the Lord is celebrated amid a lot of happiness across the Hindu world. However it’s quite special in both Mathura and Vrindavan. The style of celebration in Vrindavan is quite distinct from anywhere else in the world. Processions would be taken out across Vrindavan and also Mathura. They are always heavily decorated with tableaus or “jhankis” that depict various episodes from the life of Lord Krishna, right from the days when he was a child to his days in the Kaurava-Pandava battle at Kurukshetra in Mahabharata. You’ll see that usually the most spectacular displays are the silver and gold swings or “jhulas” that are always a part of the display. Almost everybody become a part of these processions. People from outside town too come to see these processions and take an active part in them. There are visitors from outside India as well, taking pictures, as the Janmashtami celebrations at Mathura and Vrindavan depict the best of Indian culture.
But probably the most important displays in the jhankis are the days of Krishna’s romance with the gopis, his days of stealing butter from his mother when he was a child, and also the matured Krishna offering advice and guidance to Arjun in the battle of Kurukshetra.
It has been estimated that there are about 5000 temples in Vrindavan. But of course, Banke Bihari, Shri Krishna Balram Temple, Rangnathji Temple, ISCKON Temple, and the Radharaman Temple are the most important of them all. They mostly have the same itinerary every year. The timings of various devotional activities, pujas and ceremonies are mostly the same, and they continue throughout the day till the midnight hour. One main draw is the holy bath or Abhishek of Lord Krishna. A huge crowd gathers to watch as the priests take out the idol and washes it with a lot of care, devotion and pride.
The Dahi Handi Celebration
Human pyramids are also erected, where people would climb on each other’s shoulders to try and reach Earthen pots of butter and curd that are hung high up over the streets. Sometimes the pots also have dry fruits and honey. The pot is fetched to enact the childhood days of Krishna. This is not just symbolic, but it is a lot of fun too. Water cannons are fired at those who are making the pyramid to make it more difficult for them. But they continue doing their work, overcoming the challenge.
This celebration is seen throughout both Mathura and Vrindavan, and other parts of the country, but of course the pyramids are best done in Mumbai. Often competitions are also held to determine which group can erect the tallest human pyramid. Local communities are encouraged to have their own pyramids. Prizes are given away to test the courage. This is known as the “Dahi Handi” celebration. Dahi Handi is sometimes also called “uriadi” in Tamil Nadu.
Janmashtami and the Rasa Lila in Mathura and Vrindavan
The Rasa Lila is another special celebration of Janmashtami in Mathura, where Krishna was born, and in Vrindavan, the place where he grew up. Young Krishna was best known for two things – stealing butter and curd from his mother, and his flirtations with the gopis or young girls. It is often said that Krishna had more than 16,000 gopis. He was quite naughty as a child.
Photo Credit: Hariharji Blog
Rasa Lila is celebrated with a lot of festivity in Mathura and Vrindavan, and also by those who celebrate Vaishnavism in Manipur. Young girls would dress up as gopiyas in colorful dresses, while there would be a single young boy who would be Krishna with a feather on his cap. Of course one of the girls would dress up as Radha. The young Krishna will have a flute in his hands. Much like the Pied Piper, the young boy would play his flute, and the girls would all be almost magically drawn to him. They would then all dance to the tune of devotional songs and have fun. It’s all done in great spirit.
Fasting During Janmashtami
One ritual that almost everybody follows in Mathura and Vrindavan during Janmashtami is fasting. Devotees would all fast throughout the day, and have their food only after midnight, which is the hour of Krishna’s birth. It is believed that those who are fasting on this day are offering themselves to the Lord and showing their love and respect to Lord Vishnu himself. This brings them closer to God. It shows that they are ready to sacrifice themselves to a good cause. However it’s a grand feast after midnight. They will have all kinds of milk products after midnight including Shrikhand, Kheer, Pedha and also Singhare ki poori, which is a local delicacy in both Mathura and Vrindavan. They will have milk products because Krishna was himself very fond of them as well.
Janmashtami is often followed by another festival – Nandotsav. This is related to Lord Krishna as well. It is celebrated one day after Janmashtami. Nanda Baba, who was the head of the Gopas, a tribe of cowherds, visited Mata Yashoda on this day to congratulate her on becoming the mother of Krishna. Fruits and sweets are distributed. Bhajans are held throughout the day to celebrate Nandotsav.