Mirabai Soulful Love of God

  • By Mariellen Ward
  • October 2017

My Mirabai Expedition

By Mariellen Ward

My Mirabai ExpeditionBy Mariellen WardIN OCTOBER OF 2014, I UNDERTOOK THE MIRABAI EXPEDITION, A cultural journey in the footsteps of Mirabai, a 16th-century poet and Krishna devotee, travelling to all of the primary sites in India associated with her amazing life. It was made possible by an Explorer’s Grant from Kensington Tours, as part of the Explorers-in-Residence program. Mirabai’s life has relevance today because her story parallels the struggle many women have attempting to live a fulfilled, creative life while society pressures them to settle down, marry and devote themselves to domestic obligations and duties. 

My First Stop: The Mirabai Temple in Vrindavan

It is the first day of my journey and I’m a 54-year-old feeling very vulnerable. India can cut you open. The early morning taxi to Nizamuddin train station, leaving behind friends, leaving behind Delhi and festival time, leaving behind Ajay. Last night we walked in the park at dusk with the sounds of Ravanna burning, and bursting fireworks all around us. Trees filled with unseen birds making a roof of noise. Sikh taxi driver in a black van with yellow stripes, the kind of Delhi taxi I know so well. Then the first early morning India train in a long time. Very skinny people on the side of the road, wrapped in fabric, noisy chai stalls, shantis, broken pavement, a stream of litter, everything tinged in red sandstone and pink sunrise. 

Arriving at the station, I’m greeted by a porter who demands way too much money, and I don’t have very much fight in me. He seems nicer than most, less hard, so I capitulate at an exorbitant Rs 150, two or three times what I should be paying. But he is going to wait with me for the train, find my car, my seat and put my bags on the rack. It’s convenient and frankly worth the money. The train arrives on time and I find my seat beside a large and assertive couple. I sense they would like to spread out and take all three seats and feel I have to fight for my space, as first her elbow, and then his (after they change seats) appears in front of my face. 

I try to read my book about Mirabai but it’s hard to concentrate on the flowery language, full of descriptions about her devotional fervor. I don’t feel this kind of spiritual intensity, so it’s hard to imagine or grasp. Is belief an act of faith? Is it a feeling, like falling in love? 

As I set out to trace her route, her journeys and try to get a sense of her life, I wonder how similar we are, and how different. I was born into a kind of freedom she could never have imagined as a woman in traditional India. But I cannot imagine her religious ardor, and her courage in striking out on her own to travel the dusty roads of this ancient land. 

The train ride from Delhi to Mathura Junction is just two hours, and it arrives pretty much on time. I’m hungry, as I have only munched on some fruit, an Indian milk drink and some railway chai—which comes in a small cup with milk, sugar and tea bag for seven rupees. I forgot to pack my thermos. 

The Taj Express stops in Mathura only for three minutes, and a large group has piled up their suitcases in the door. They notice my concern and make way for me to move to the next door. After I get down, I notice someone has been calling me on the phone, and before I can answer, a smiling young man says my name—actually a word that sounds enough like Mariellen for me to know it’s

Pupendra, the person I am supposed to meet. He takes my bags and we walk a long distance down the train platform to the car park, where masses of green-and-yellow autorickshaws are waiting. Pupendra tells me Vrindavan is “a special place, best place in India, most sacred city.” Then he hands me over to his friend, whose name sounds like Sagar, and whose auto is somewhat less smart than the others. Sagar is going to take me to Gopinath Bhavan in Vrindavan, where I’m staying. 

It’s a long, hot, dusty, bumpy ride—first out of Mathura and then through a stretch of countryside and into Vrindavan, which does seem a bit different than your typical Indian town. We drive down narrow cobbled streets, and everything is dry and dusty and a kind of pale ochre color that reminds me of Italian Renaissance paintings. 

Finally, the river Yamuna appears on our left and we drive along a narrow road with a line of intricately carved temples and ashrams on the right, facing the water. Some of the buildings are quite lovely, with cupolas and spires and carved facades. We stop at one of the loveliest, a large three-story building made of deep rose sandstone and carved in traditional haveli style. 

This is Gopinath Bhavan, a ladies ashram in Vrindavan that looks old but is actually quite new. Out front, cows are gathering to drink. I see monkeys above in the single tree, and a group of devotees walking barefoot. 

Inside, the courtyard is cooler and rosy-hued. I am met by Tungavidya Dasi, whom I know only from Facebook, and she signs me in and shows me my room. I’m happy to meet her in person; she is a warm and sweet-faced Dutch woman in a pale sari with white hair. I’m on the top floor with a view of the river and Parikrama Road—the road the devotees walk along as they do their circle of the town. 

After failing to buy an umbrella and finding only empty ATMs, I go back to the ashram with almonds, water and Limca. Happy to see my room cleaned, I promptly fall sound asleep, which seems like the sensible thing to do between 2 and 4 pm, when the sun is baking hot. 

At 5 pm, the scene outside my window seems milder, the long slanting rays adding a picturesque quality to the Indian version of Canterbury Tales. It’s time for me to find the Mirabai Temple, so I grab my camera bag, make sure I am monkey proof and head out into the melee. 

After walking for about 15 minutes and asking many people, I find myself in a narrow, ancient street. A sewage drain runs down the side of the cobbled lane, brick shows through the crumbling ochre-tinged plaster, scalloped door frames surround heavy, wood doors, and again I am reminded of medieval Europe—except with monkeys and Eastern architecture. Finally, a small sign, and a door to an even narrower lane. Another false start, another tribe of menacing monkeys, and I find it. Through a rusty gate and I’m in a small, cool, serene, blue-and-white courtyard. Charming, fresh and modest, the Mirabai Temple is more like a home.  

A small group of Indian pilgrims sit in front of a gate where a white-bearded man is talking to them. They are all very engaged. Unfortunately, it’s Hindi and I understand only a fraction. However, the man also speaks English and agrees to repeat what he’s said. 

He explains that his ancestor built this home for Mirabai five centuries ago, and she lived here in this spot for 15 years, before going to Dwarka. I am absolutely delighted to find such a charming spot and such an articulate, open and fascinating man. I can’t believe that I have been so lucky on the very first day of my pilgrimage expedition. 

I take photos and a short video and realize I have not brought a notebook. I tell the man I will be back tomorrow to interview him and I leave at sunset. As I walk back along the busy road, I take a detour along the riverbank, avoiding the monkeys but putting myself in the way of the river boat touts. It’s worth it to take some stunning photos of the huge orange ball of the sun sinking into the river, and the colorful small boats gliding along the surface. A boy rides a huge black water buffalo across the river and as I take a video they suddenly emerge right in my path and I run. 

Everywhere, there are animals and people in this dry landscape. A manic, naked holy man suddenly appears and runs down to the boats. He is wearing only a Brahmin’s thread. He doesn’t surprise me at all. 

I pick my way carefully back to the ashram and dive into the quiet and safety of my room—which luckily, and surprisingly, has an A/C unit—to think about my day. I realize that I desperately need a sanctuary to be in India. I can only expose myself to the heat and the crowds and the challenges and the noise for so long. It’s hard on my nerves, and it’s emotionally draining. 

During lunch at Govinda’s, I listened with bemusement to the Russian woman’s talk about Vrindavan, and the mythical lore of this place—where Krishna and his gopis cavorted on the river bank. The classical image of pastoral, lush and harmonious Vrindavan is so far removed from the dirty, polluted, over-crowded, dry, monkey-menaced, scorched-earth reality of today that it’s shocking. 

I read that Mirabai was also shocked when she arrived in Vrindavan in the mid 16th century, because she didn’t expect any buildings. She, too, was expecting a pastoral paradise. Is this what faith is all about? That we hold up an ideal to hang onto in the face of the disappointments of reality? 

Anyway, I’m here, and I’m lonely, and I don’t love Vrindavan, I don’t feel I have found a sanctuary, and I’m not sure what I’m doing here, except dedicating myself to the discipline of the pilgrimage, to stick with it and go through whatever ups-and-downs, emotional roller coasters and life lessons are in store for me. Perhaps this is my first glimpse into what it may have been like for Mirabai to leave the comfort and safety of home to follow her heart and the call of her soul. 

Finding My Way in Vrindavan

I awake in Vrindavan with two problems on my mind: money and food. I slept without dinner, and no breakfast is available; and the day before, I tried two ATMs and both were out of money. So, with a mixture of hope and trepidation, I haggle for an auto and go straight to the ATM. The sound of the money dispensing is more delightful to me than all the temple bells in this moment. Even in a holy city like Vrindavan, money is necessary. 

From there I go directly to Govinda’s Restaurant at the ISKCON Temple for breakfast. As it is an “ekadasi day” (a day without grains), I have a strange breakfast of fruit, juice, a mango lassi and kind of potato dosa. Then I have their thick herbal tea and a coconut laddu. With money in my wallet and food in my tummy, I feel so much better about life and about the day. I hail a bicycle rickshaw outside ISKCON and fall into the usual negotiations over the price. They say 100 rupees, which is two or three times the price that Indians pay. A young woman joins in and bargains one driver down to 50 rupees to take me to the Mirabai temple. 

We ride through a long, narrow market area. It’s fascinating to see the stores, the old buildings, some carved, and the crazy traffic jams. Bullock carts, a camel cart, every type of vehicle, all vying for space in a narrow street. We pass tiny children playing and open-air barbers and groups of devotees walking parikrama in their bare feet. Finally we get there. Because of the distance and the heat, and the man’s advancing age, I decide to give him 100 rupees after all. He isn’t sure whether I mean for him to keep it. I feel his sweetness and humility in my heart; I feel humbled. 

Immediately on stepping through the old rusty gate and entering the small residential temple, I feel cooler and calmer. I love the feeling in this shady, airy house, full of light and greenery, painted pale blue and white. The bearded man appears, this time in a more priestly garb, a white robe trimmed in red, and we sit down to talk. He gives me a piece of paper with information about Mirabai, tells me it’s at least 45 years old, and that I should have it translated and copied. On it he has carefully printed his name and address: Praduman Pratapsingh, Mirabai Temple, Govind Bagh, Vrindaban. Praduman tells me, in simple English, what’s written on the paper, which is in Hindi. He goes through the main details of Mirabai’s life, and how she was rejected by her husband’s family because of her devotion to Krishna, her dancing and singing. This is why she came to Vrindavan—to find peace and devote her life to Krishna. 

Praduman’s ancestor built this temple for her to live in, and she lived here for about 15 years. Apparently she wrote many poems here. He continues to tell me her life story. Mirabai went from Vrindavan to Dwarka. While she was living in Dwarka, when she was about my age (around 50), there was a drought in Rajasthan. Some of her family members travelled to Dwarka to entreat her to return, but she refused. That night, according to Praduman, she dissolved in Lord Krishna—and the drought ended. 

Praduman talks about Mirabai with conviction and enthusiasm, and though he must do this several times every day, he seems passionate. He has an open face, large eyes, and is very expressive. He shows me around the temple, poses for me and even opens the altar grate so I can photograph the statues. He tells me he is the ninth generation of his family to be born here, and to maintain the temple. He has a son and daughter—they are the 10th generation (but his son is an artist and animator in Mumbai). “People come here for peace, love and spiritual strength,” Praduman says. “This is the real place of Mirabai. She lives in this temple. People who come here can feel Mirabai and Gopal (Krishna) in their hearts.” Though I am not a Krishna devotee, I do feel a light, happy atmosphere in this temple. 

Onward to Rajasthan

I wake up on the third day feeling satisfied. Meeting Praduman and basking in the delightful energy of the Mirabai Temple is such a great start. Vrindavan in myth and legend is a fecund place of peace and harmony, a kind of Garden of Eden where Krishna and his gopis (milk maids) cavorted in innocence, bathed in love. Vrindavan in reality cannot be further from this image. It must take enormous faith for the many devotees who flock here to feel the spiritual energy of this place. I feel a bit bad about not feeling Krishna’s energy here. But when I was discussing the Mirabai expedition with a woman I met at Gopinath Bhavan, she said it’s great that I am giving attention to one of the female players in the Krishna story. So be it. I am happy to move on. 

I have to be in Agra to take the train to Rajasthan at 5pm, so I make plans for a taxi to drive me there in the late morning. I consider seeing the Taj Mahal (for the third time), and decide to stop at the ITC Mughal hotel, taking me on an unplanned detour into luxury, and it feels right. Mirabai was a princess who lived in a sumptuous palace before striking out on her own, both to escape the cruelty of her husband’s family and to follow the voice of her soul, the call of her devotion to Krishna. There is synchronicity in this visit, too, as the ITC Mughal celebrates the era of Emperor Akbar—who visited Mirabai in disguise and praised her talent and devotion, bestowing upon her a valuable necklace. 

So, as Mirabai left her palace home, I have to leave the comfort of the ITC Mughal to brave the chaos of the Agra train station. 

A Broken Heart, a Spiritual Journey

The train is late, but eventually it arrives, I find my berth and settle in for the journey to Ajmer in Rajasthan. I’m in a lower berth in the second-class compartment. Somehow I like taking the train in India. I like the gentle movement and knowing I am going somewhere fascinating—plus I like it better than driving. The roads in India are a chaotic obstacle course and you really do feel you are taking your life in your hands. The movement of the train makes me philosophical.  

In Pushkar, Avtaar meets me and we walk together through town to meet someone that Anoop, owner of Inn Seventh Heaven, suggests I talk to about Mirabai. So we walk out of the haveli, around the corner and we are in the busy market that wraps around most of the lake. We go straight to meet Ravi, of Roots of Pushkar music store. Luckily he’s there and happy to chat. 

As a music lover, Ravi knows Mirabai primarily through the songs and bhajans she wrote, or that were written about her. He brings out three CDs, two beautifully produced (by Roots of Pushkar) with great cover art and booklets, and I buy them all. Then he calls his brother-in-law Milap, in Merta City, and arranges for me to have a tour of the Mirabai temple the next day. 

I have come to expect this kind of over-the-top helpfulness in India, but I hope I never take it for granted. India can be challenging and frustrating in so many ways, but the people usually make up for it. I have never met more warm and helpful people anywhere.

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