Walked into Old Vrindavan through narrow lanes lined with beggars; stores selling paintings of your favorite deities with faces surrounded by twinkling christmas lights; the chinka chinka chinka of finger cymbals; holy chants echoing in temple halls; honking rickshaws and old black ball bicycle horn farts. The ubiquitous starving crippled cows browse through piles of trash, munching on discarded napkins and plastic bags that will twist around their intestines killing them slowly and painfully. Momma monkeys with tiny big-eyed babies clinging to their bellies fight street dogs for scraps. Hawkers standing at their rough-hewn, gray, wooden carts piled high with roses yell to the passersby - the scent of the roses strong and sweet, perfuming the air. Garlands of flowers are being sold everywhere to lay at the feet of deities in temples as prevalent as bars in Istanbul's clubbing scene in Beyoglu. The scents of incense and roses mingle with the steam of deep-fried samosas, pakoras, aloo tikka and puri, cow shit and urine. Pilgrims buy sweets and flowers as offerings to Krishna.
I'm headed to Banke Bihere - the Black Krishna. Indian pilgrims ply the lane to cast their eyes upon this strange wide-eyed black idol.
I ask directions of a man who gestures I should follow him. He's dressed in white kurta pyjamas with an impeccably folded blue shawl across his left shoulder, hanging over his chest and back. He leads me down a side street of sweet sellers and points to the temple on the left.
I kick off my sandals and push them to the side of the pile of removed footwear and pad slap slap slap barefooted along the marble floor to the entrance.
Inside, I begin the serpentine metal-post-lined path to the deity. It smells like a rose oil factory. Teary-eyed devotees stop periodically, bring their hands together in prayer and gaze toward the enshrined idol on the stage at the front of the temple.
Holding onto their garlands of flowers, baskets of lit candles and marigolds, boxes of sweets, they haul themselves up the steep wooden steps - women on the left, men on the right side of rails that protects the little statue from his worshippers.
Two priests stand in the neutral zone between the men and women. The floor is a raised bed of discarded pressed leaf wrappers that held offerings.
From either side, the rapturous worshippers thrust their boxes , baskets, and other offerings toward the two priests. Ten, twenty, fifty, and a hundred rupee notes shoved toward their faces.
The two scowling priests grab the rupees, pocket them, fling handfuls of round ping-pong sized and shaped milk sweets at the feet of the little black idol, hand the half full box back to its owner and toss the flowers on the ground. Some people get their garlands sprinkled with holy water and returned to them.
The faithful gaze big-eyed at the black idol.
It's a quirky little statue even by Hindu standards, with a jet-black face, huge staring white eyes, and a jewel-button nose, all dressed up in a sparkling glittery gold party dress, accessorized by strings of marigold, rose, and daisy chains.
The worshippers weep and tremble. Pray to the unmoving little black deity. The priests' eyebrows furrow. They wave us away and back down the wooden steps.
My travel agent, Pankaj Yadao explained the story of the "Black Krishna" when I came to pick up my train ticket.
"In the time of the Muslim King, Akbar - you know him, Madame?"
I nod in affirmation having read about Akbar - the most liberal of all Muslim Kings - who invited scholars from every religion: Muslim, Hindu, Jain, Sikh, Parsi to gather together regularly to discuss far-ranging issues.
Pankaj continues. "There was one singer who was the greatest of all singers. His name was Hari Das Mahraj - you write that down Madame," he instructs me like a strict primary school teacher. And I dutifully write down the name on the sheet of paper with names of the important temples to visit.
"Hari Das Mahraj's singing was sooo beautiful, that when he sang, all the animals and birds in the forest came to listen. And stayed until he finished singing."
"One day while he was singing soooooo strong, a Black Krishna rose up out of the ground and told him his singing had called him up to be worshipped by all. So they built a temple around the Black Krishna. And that's the temple Banke Bihere."
* * *
I make my way out to the harsh, sunlit entrance. Squinting, I search for my sandals. I don't dare put on my sunglasses as cheeky monkeys hop about just looking for some glasses to snatch and ransom for a treat. I slip on my sandals and make my way out in search of somewhere quiet to have some breakfast and write about the Black Krishna.