Mathura

I try to maintain a healthy attitude to guidebooks. I certainly don’t go for the hardcore traveller’s “I never use them” approach. They have many uses, and do tell you which places are specifically interesting and which aren’t. By ignoring them you end up wasting a lot of time in the less interesting places when there’s something unique and incredible around the corner. On the other hand, I don’t want to be a slave to them, as some of the best experiences are off-piste on crazy, unpredictable journeys.

The other reason I stopped in Agra, as well as visiting Fatehpur Sikri, was for another day trip, to nearby Mathura. I’d heard from several sources, including Peter Hopkirk‘s book Quest for Kim, that it had a hidden gem of a museum, rarely visited but containing a wealth of ancient sculpture. It’s also mythologically the birthplace of Krishna, eighth incarnation of Vishnu, and has a major temple marking the site.

I wasn’t put off by the fact that Mathura wasn’t mentioned at all in the Rough Guide. Perhaps I should have been.

Courtyard of the Mathura Museum, with renovation work in progress

GREEDY, CHEATING BASTARD

After being dropped off by the Delhi bus on the bypass outside Mathura, my first experience of the city was the most outrageous and brazen attempt to rip me off I’ve experienced on the whole trip. Keeping the story as short as I can: I tried to find an autorickshaw driver to hire for a couple of hours, to take me from the bus drop-off point to the Krishna temple, then the museum, and back to the start. I didn’t know how far from the city we were but I guessed Rs300 would be a good price (for the driver). None of the drivers in Mathura spoke English so the negotiation was tricky. One seemed to understand the request, but I assumed that I must have misheard or misunderstood his quote of “pundrah sau” (1500) as it was so ridiculous. I tried asking for just the Krishna temple and he held up five fingers and said “paanch” (5), which seemed a bit cheap but maybe in this non-tourist town I was getting the Indian price. When we arrived, fives minutes and a couple of km later, he claimed we’d agreed five hundred. A long argument and stand-off ensued which was only resolved by bringing in some independent adjudicators from nearby offices, who must have told the driver that he was out of his mind if he thought he was getting 500 rupees for a five minute drive, even if I was a foreigner. I paid him a much lower sum, returned his obsequious forehead-touch with a middle finger, and went off to the temple.

Trying to understand it later, my best theory is this: none of the auto drivers in Mathura can speak English. Presumably if you can, you work in Agra down the road, where the foreign tourists make the trade much more lucrative. The Mathura drivers probably hear rumours about how much the Agra drivers are able to rip off the clueless foreigners, and the rumours, though true, are massively inflated by the time they reach Mathura. So when the driver saw me, he must have imagined I was his opportunity to pull off the scam of a lifetime, and sort out his mortgage, pension and children’s school fees in one go. But the incompetent moron had no idea how much to overcharge, and instead of asking for a few times the normal price, he multiplied it a hundred times, wasted everyone’s time arguing, and ended up with a lot less, missing out on the potential 300 he could have got if he’d been more reasonable from the start.

KRISHNA TEMPLE

At the Krishna Temple I decided to take a guide, since I had no information on it at all. It was a good decision. The separate locations of cloakroom and shoe deposit stall weren’t obvious, and the security was the most thorough I’ve experienced anywhere in India, including airports and railway stations – after the conflict over the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya, built on Rama’s birthplace, they’re paranoid about any kind of religious terrorism. Also, going in on my own, I would have assumed that the big temple in the middle of the complex, the one poking up prominently in the photograph below, was the big deal. But it isn’t. The big towering temple is Kesava Deo. The main attraction is the small, unobtrusive single-storey building behind it, which is Shri Krishna Janmabhoomi, “Lord Krishna’s birthplace”.

The guide took me to the latter, leading me through a dark, plain corridor into a fairly bare square chamber, all red sandstone and quite dark and womb-like. Apparently it’s supposed to be an ancient jail cell, as Krishna’s parents were imprisoned at the time of his birth, but it’s clearly more modern. A few people were sitting on the floor facing the altar, a waist-high red sandstone plinth with some pictures on the wall behind it, depicting the birth of Krishna and related scenes. The guide gestured me forward, pointed to the plinth and told me it was on this very spot that Krishna was born. I asked how old it was, and he said “5000 years”. Looking at it, I’d be surprised if that altar was more than 100 years old. He also told the same thing to some Indian visitors who received the information in awe. Outside the chamber, I declined to buy any Krishna souvenirs from the many stalls inside the complex and, tour over, I left.

The only remarkable thing about the place was how credulous everyone was. Unlike Buddha, Jesus or Muhammad, there’s absolutely no evidence of Krishna’s historicity at all. It’s quite amazing that Brahmins and Hindu “scholars” are able to make an absurd claim such as, “this was the birthplace of a mythological character”, based on no archaeology and with no effective peer-review, and get people to believe it. Especially when the location is very clearly not even a fraction as ancient as other temples and heritage sites in India.

MATHURA MUSEUM

The guide helped me find a rickshaw to take me to the museum and then the bus stand, earning the cash the cheating auto driver missed out on. We went down an alley half-covered by a reeking stream of sewage and through a small railway-side slum to reach the museum.

A gallery of the Mathura Museum

It’s an old-school museum, none of this narratives and interactivity nonsense you get these days. Just a lot of stone sculptures on plinths, with hand-painted labels giving brief descriptions, dates and locations. It was all pretty good and some of it dated back to the 3rd century BCE, but there was nothing especially noteworthy. There’s better sculpture in the National Museum in Delhi, and in location at sites like Ellora and Ajanta. In fact, there’s better Indian sculpture in the British Museum in London. You’ve got to be a real enthusiast for it, or particularly interested in the Mathura School of art, to make a special trip here.

The most interesting thing I saw all day was from the window of the bus back to Agra: a man on a motorbike with a monkey casually riding pillion behind him.

People say that travelling is about the journey, not the destination, and it’s worth having these kinds of adventures for the experience. But as I said at the beginning, if you follow that philosophy all the time, all you end up doing is wasting time at uninteresting places. There’s got to be a balance between how much time you spend going off on unpredictable adventures, and how much time you spend on precision-targeted trips to well-researched locations. Besides, in India, even the precision-targeted trips are usually pretty crazy, unpredictable experiences as well. For me, Mathura was worth the risk, as I’d spent the last month or so seeing lots of World Heritage Sites and popular tourist spots, and I had a couple of days to spare, so it was time to adjust the balance. And I did see that monkey on a motorbike.

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