When a fire is first lit, the kindling in the center unfurls its tongues upward, catching the logs around it and producing a brilliant blaze and choking smoke. Only after this phase of a fire’s growth has played out do the embers in the center begin to smolder as the more humble heart of the fire. This is when sitting beside a fire becomes manageable. After a week and a half of the wild heat of Delhi and the disorienting smoke of Vrindavan’s streets, the fire of India has settled and we can finally stare peacefully into its smoldering heart.
The Hare Krishna monks at our ashram take us out for a day of spiritual sight seeing and we end up at the gorgeous Kusum Sarovar temple. We’re purchasing some water and cold drinks at a roadside stand before we enter and I decide to snap a couple photos of an impressive *bambor* tree hanging over the road. Two policemen in tan uniforms with enormous rifles approach me. They begin speaking Hindi and point at my camera. They don’t look particularly pleased. Raised in the US, I’ve been conditioned to think that in this sort of scenario the police would be antagonistically saying something along the lines of “Why are you taking these photos? Who are you? Why are you here?”
Yet I have glimpsed the embers of India’s heart.
I take a stab at what I think the policemen may be saying and I point the camera towards myself as if taking a selfie. Their faces, stern a second ago, light up in smiles. Bingo. We take a couple selfies, I show them, we laugh, I go on my merry way.
We walk over to the entrance of the temple. It’s locked. Not a problem. We hop the fence, waving at the policemen across the street. Smiling, they wave back. I get a full history lesson from the monks as we walk deeper into Kusum Sarovar.
Many years ago, they say, this is the spot where Radha Rani, the Hindu goddess of the divine feminine, would pick flowers for her partner, Krishna, the Hindu god of the divine masculine. I run my fingers across the cool surface of intricately carved floral patterns in the stone walls as they tell me of King of Bharatpur, Jawahir Singh who decided to build a temple on this location to honor the divine goddess. This king, they tell me as we approach the central edifice, reigned over 250 years ago, and that the painting of his story inside the domed ceiling of this structure is a sight to behold. We push on the front doors. Locked. This time, however, there’s no climbing a fence to get in.
From outside I can peek through the holes in the grated walls to see the slightest glimpse of the bottom of the painting, just tantalizingly enough to know what I can’t get. For about ten or fifteen minutes I continue straining from every conceivable angle to try to see more while everyone else loses interest and wanders off. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, a short old man appears in a white robe with a ring of keys.
“This is a blessing from Radha Rani,” says a young Colombian monk as the old man unlocks the door, opening a gateway to the past. We step inside and the monks immediately bring themselves to repeated prostrations in front of the engraved lotus feet of Krishna in the center of the floor. I look up and hear my own breath exhale sharply through my teeth. We are inside an open room with small statues of Radha and Krishna placed atop dials where the wall connects to the dome. The lower half of the dome is painted with myriad scenes of antiquity.
“Krishna. Gopi.” The old man points directly above us, speaking from his ruffled beard with an ancient husk I’ve always imagined oak trees to sound like.
“This is how the *gopis* would dance for Krishna” the Colombian monk translates.
“Krishna. Radha Rani. Holi”
“This shows Krishna tossing color on Radha. This is where the tradition of *Holi* comes from.”
Above these seven scenes is a pantheon of gods and goddesses painted in concentric circles up to the apex of the dome, from heaven to earth. They are all various manifestations of Krishna, I’m told. Looking up, I can’t help but think of the Southern Air Temple and all the manifestations of the same Avatar.
Later in the day we arrive to the house of a woman who owns a large *gaoshala*, a pen for the sacred Hindu cows. We pass the afternoon playing music and singing with Lalita, the *gaoshala* keeper and his family, swapping stories and bits of cultural knowledge.
“Hasta la mañana, papito…AHAHAHAHAHA” the wife repeats, nearly toppling over as she roars with laughter. Apparently, “papito” means ‘papaya’ in Dhripura, the language of an indigenous community in northeast India where they came from. The wife’s name is Vibha, meaning “morning sun” in Sanskrit. Our stay comes to an end and we exchange our farewells.
“We’ll meet again someday. Or if not, we’ll meet again for sure in our hearts, in our memories,” says Lalita. With a wave, we are off and our time in Vrindavan comes to an end.
I have glimpsed the embers of India’s heart.
And now they live within my own.