A visit to Vrindavan and Barsana on Radha Ashtami this past weekend indicated that ways of celebrating notwithstanding, people’s faith seems as rock solid as the temples

Time was when children’s birthdays in middle class homes were celebrated with religious ceremonies. Sweets would be made, pakoras fried, the family priest called in to conduct a puja and take a look at what the stars foretold.

Or one might see a family, shining in their Sunday best, trooping to their regular mosque or church or gurdwara, for birthday blessings.

A new set of clothes was in order, often for the siblings too. And the child would carry a round tin of toffees to school for distribution while the class belted out “Happy birthday to you”.

Now that we hold birthday parties at multinational fast food outlets and get ‘free’ toys, why should Radha, the legendary consort of Krishna during his sojourn in Vrindavan, be constrained to a time warp? No longer do we have to content ourselves with chanting “Radhe Radhe”. We can sing along with “Happy Birthday bolo, Janam din Radha ka” on Radha Ashtami, the day she is said to have taken birth in Barsana. It is playing on the public address system at Barsana's Radha Rani temple as we arrive.

It is as if a flash flood of humanity is engulfing the towns associated with the mystic couple.

Never mind that Lord Narayana, the scriptures say, has told us, “I reside in the hearts of my devotees.” It is the stone and brick houses of devotion, like the temple of Banke Bihari in Vrindavan and Radha Rani in Barsana, that this surge seems set to swallow, taking everything and everyone that crosses its path in its chakravyuh-like embrace.

We city slickers would have avoided the temples on this day, especially as Radha Ashtami coincided with a Sunday. But news of a stampede sends us rushing to the spot. The police say it was not a stampede, pointing out clinically that in a stampede the bodies have footprints on them, which the two women who died here did not, though admitting five people were hospitalised with cardiac related problems caused probably by the suffocating crowds combined with climbing hundreds of steps leading to the hilltop Radha temple, and two succumbed.

Tragedy all the same, but it is faith, it seems – blind, foolhardy or questionable – that brings an underlying patience to this impatient throng. At Banke Bihari, a hundred shoulders jostle, someone’s breath is on the back of your neck while someone else’s kid, seated astride her father’s shoulders, plants a foot in your face, and you may have to hold on to your clothes to keep the momentum of this sea of humanity from accidentally ripping them off. But everyone here is cheerful.

Like the sea bringing out its gems, flower garlands – marigolds, lotuses, roses, fragrant through the sweating multitudes – emerge from the throng towards the hands of the priests, who slip them behind a closed curtain. Whatever has been offered to the deity becomes prasad. The priests then launch the garlands through the air to the devotees who reach for them with joy and possibly cricket-honed agility. The curtain opens to a devotional roar from the crowd.

The deities – black Krishna sparkling with jewels and ‘gori’ Radha, bedecked like a bride – smile and shine. They seem to have taken on the lustre of so many glowing hearts. Thanks for saving us from each other, I smile back.

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