It’s that time of year again. Today is Govardhan Puja, when we remember Sri Krishna’s incredible lifting of a sacred mountain in Vrindavan. In the Vaishnava calendar there are so many festivals and as the years go by they stack on top of one another like layers of sediment. I imagine my life so far as a rock – each layer a testament to the moments that I spent thinking about Krishna – the thick, densely packed areas, or not – those are the crumbling parts.
I can remember so many distinct Govardhan pujas – many spent in the soggy English October, inside a white marquee, huddling in front of blow heaters while we listened to narrations of the amazing story. As children one of our favourite parts of the day was the creation of ‘the hill’. This is a giant mound of sweets, dressed to mimic Govardhan Hill – usually complete with ponds of honey, boulders made of milk sweets and bright green shredded coconut for grass. The hill would be covered with plastic animals – deer, birds and lots of cows. After everyone had performed the puja of walking around the hill three times, the sweets would start to be handed out, and along with them, the plastic animals. My toy cupboards at home were full of the most prized- the cows. My small herd grew each year, and I would eagerly look forward to each year’s festival, when I would wait with hands outstretched as a priest plucked animals off the mound and dropped them into the reaching palms of all the kids.
So why build a hill of sweets? It’s definitely fun, but deeper than that, it’s just one way to remember the miraculous activities of Krishna, and help our love for him to grow. It’s also a beautiful way to celebrate Govardhan Hill, also known as Giriraj – the king of mountains. In Krishna’s world, everyone has personality – nothing is just stone, or just a tree. Everything is full of life, full of love, full of desire to serve. Giriraj is considered to be one of the greatest servants of Krishna, since he limitlessly gives the bounty of his forests, waterfalls, minerals and more to the villagers of Vrindavan.
Last year I spent Govardhan Puja in Vrindavan, where it is extra special, since the real Govardhan Hill is only miles away. In the central courtyard of the Krishna Balaram temple, I stood on a raised platform with six other girls, scooping handfuls of scorching, fragrant halava and pressing them onto the plastic covered frame of the hill. Our hands quickly became tender, burnt by the steam, and we slid about as the hot ghee oozed from the mound around our feet. In the meantime, raucous, joyful kirtan thundered away. The following week, I was staying at the foot of Govardhan itself. It was one of the most sacred, deep experiences of my life. Each day I would wake and watch the sun light pass over the rocky face of the hill, and after a day absorbed in chanting and hearing about Krishna, I would sit in a small grove of trees and listen to the night songs of the crickets. I never believed I would really feel that a hill was a person, but after seven days, I felt his deep presence, blessing all who came near him to pray.
At the end of my time there, I built a tiny house of stones. Some people do this to pray to Giriraj for a safe, happy home to live in, but I prayed that however long it took, I may one day live there in that sacred place. These days I stay in Manhattan on the 21st floor. Outside my windows the tops of towering buildings remind me of his ridges and peaks, and I realise that whether here or there, his blessings are near.