Pusthi Marg – On the Path of Bhakti at Naroda Bethak, Ahmedabad

1999 AD, the end of the millennium year… I was a member of an excavation team at Balathal, a Chalolithic site near Udaipur in Rajasthan. On an off day, I along with other friends had visited Nathadwara, the shrine of Srinathji, the holiest site of Bhakti cult in western India and well-known for the institution of haveli temple.

At that time I did not know much about Srinathji. The only information I had that he was a deity of riches and the temple treasury was filled with jewellery and money worth billions of rupees. Of late while preparing for a book on ‘Shrines of Ahmedabad’, I started recalling my memories on Srinathji. This time not Nathadwara, but Naroda Bethak in Ahmedabad, a shrine where Vallabhacharya had given his sermon to his followers some 500 years back.

Vallabhacharya or Vallabha Acharya was a devotional philosopher who was born in 1479 AD at Champaranya in Chhattisgarh. The time of Vallabhacharya’s birth was a tumultuous one as most of northern and central India was often being raided by Muslim invaders.  Migration for safety and to escape religious persecution and conversion was a common practice among Hindus of that time. On one such occasion, Lakshmana Bhatta, the father of Vallabhacharya, who was a resident of Varanasi, had to urgently move out of the city with his pregnant wife. Due to terror and physical strain of the flight suffered by the mother, there was a premature birth of the child, two months in advance. As the child did not show signs of life, the parents placed it under a tree wrapped in a piece of cloth. It is believed that Krishna appeared in a dream before the parents of Vallabhacharya and signified that he himself had taken birth as the child. According to legends, the parents rushed to the spot and were amazed to find their baby alive and protected by a circle of divine fire. The blessed mother extended her arms into the fire unscathed. She received from the fire the divine baby, and pressed it gleefully to her bosom. The child was named Vallabha.

By the time Vallabha was 7, he was well versed in the four Vedas and other spiritual treatises. He was applauded as Bala Saraswati. After studying till the age of 11, he went to Vrindavan. Vallabhachrya performed three barefoot pilgrimages of India. He wore a simple white dhoti and a white covering to cover the upper part of his body. He gave discourses on Bhagvata at 84 places and explained the meaning of the Puranic text. These 84 places are known as Chaurasi Bethak.

In Ahmedabad, one of these 84 bethaks is located at Naroda.  

At Vrindavan he mediated on Krishna who appeared to him in a vision in the form of Shrinathji.

The followers of Shrinathji assert that the deity’s arm and face first emerged from the Govardhan Hill, and thereafter the local inhabitants of Vrindavan started worshipping the deity as Gopala, who was later named as Shrinathji. Shrinathji was originally worshipped in a humble shrine at Jatipura Village near Govardhana and subsequently was moved to a larger temple on top of the hill.

At Naroda Bethak, a mound of rocks symbolically represents the Govardhan Hill and a fraction of it is shown symbolically at Jatipura Village. The deity of Srinathji is nothing but a boulder which goes through various stages of transformation as the day proceeds. Hundreds of devotees make circumbulation (parikrama) around the mound in the morning. I was told that it is those devotees who find hard to visit Gokul fulfil their desire at Naroda through a circle of circumbulation.

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Circumbulation around the Symbolic Govardhan Hill

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Preparation of Chhapan Bhog

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Preparation of Chhapan Bhog

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Making of Garlands

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Feeding Cows – an Essential Act of Service in Pusthi Marg

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Laddus for Cows

The image was however shifted from Mathura in 1672 AD along river Yamuna and was kept at Agra for almost 6 months in order to safeguard it from anti-Hindu iconoclastic policy of Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb.

Subsequently, the idol was transferred further south in a chariot to a safer place to protect it from the destruction unleashed by Aurangzeb. When the icon reached the present spot of Nathadwara Village near Udaipur in Rajasthan, the wheels of the chariot were stuck in the mud and could not proceed further. This was considered an auspicious sign and the spot was selected for his temple.

Vallabhacharya wanted to remain a lifelong celibate but the deity-guru Vitthalanatha of Pandharpur commanded him to live the life of a householder. Obeying his guru, he married Mahalaxmi and had two sons: Gopinath and Vitthalanath (also known as Gusaiji). In 1530 AD Shrinathji commanded Vallabhacharya to leave worldly life and go near him. He reached Kashi and renounced the world by taking sanyasa and a vow of silence. He lived in a hut made of leaves for a week and spent his last days in contemplation of Krishna. The members of his family assembled near him for his last darshan. When asked about his advice, Vallabhacharya scribbled three and half Sanskrit verses in the sand by way of counsel. To complete this message, it is believed that Krishna manifested on the spot and inscribed a verse and a half. Vallabhacharya entered into the waters of the Ganges on the day of the Rath Yatra. People witnessed a brilliant flame as it arose from the waters and saw it ascend to heaven and disappear in the firmament.

After Vallabhacharya, the seva of Shrinathji as well as the responsibility of the sect fell on the shoulders of his elder son, Gopinath. But unfortunately Gopinath was short-lived and thus the responsibility of the sect came to rest on Vithalnath, the younger son of Vallabhacharya. Vithalnath was just 15 when Vallabhacharya passed away.

The era of Vithanath or Gasainji, as he is fondly known, is called the golden age of Pusthimarg.  He was instrumental in spreading Pustimarg in Gujarat including Ahmedabad. He travelled six times to Gujarat to spread Pusthimarg. The seva or worship of Srinathji was elaborated and enriched with precious stones, rich cloths, enchanting music and food offered to Tkakurji. The concept of chhapan bhog (56 food offerings) was introduced by Vithalnath.

I was fortunate to witness the entire process of rituals at Naroda Bethak. First the deity was given a cold birth followed by hundreds of litters of milk that was poured to cleanse the deity’s body.  Vermillion and sandal was applied and finally the deity was given the swarup through adorning rich cloths and offering chhapan bhog.

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Bathing the Deity

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Cleansing with Milk

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Cleansing with Milk

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Preparation for Shringar

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Preparation for Shringar 

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Preparation for Shringar

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Preparation for Shringar

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Preparation for Shringar

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Preparation for Shringar

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Shrinathji

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Purifying the Shrine through Frankincense

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Chhapan Bhog

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Chhapan Bhog

Pusthi Marg has a deep mark in Ahmedabad. A large percentage of population is its followers. They are mostly Vanias or business community. The essence of the marg is child Krishna, a symbol of ideal son for all mothers.

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