Rambles and recollections of an Indian official!
Major-General Sir W. H. Sleeman, K.C.B.
Govardhan, the Scene of Krishna's Dalliance with the Milkmaids

On the 10th[1] we came on ten miles over a plain to Govardhan, a place celebrated in ancient history as the birthplace of Krishna, the seventh incarnation of the Hindoo god of preservation, Vishnu, and the scene of his dalliance with the milkmaids (gōpīs); and, in modern days, as the burial—or burning-place of the Jāt chiefs of Bharatpur and Dīg, by whose tombs, with their endowments, this once favourite abode of the god is prevented from being entirely deserted.[2]

The town stands upon a narrow ridge of sandstone hills, about ten miles long, rising suddenly out of an alluvial plain and running north-east and south-west. The population is now very small, and composed chiefly of Brahmans, who are supported by the endowments of these tombs, and the contributions of a few pilgrims. All our Hindoo followers were much gratified as we happened to arrive on a day of peculiar sanctity; and they were enabled to bathe and perform their devotions to the different shrines with the prospect of great advantage.

This range of hills is believed by Hindoos to be part of a fragment of the Himālaya mountains which Hanumān, the monkey general of Rāma, the sixth incarnation of Vishnu, was taking down to aid his master in the formation of his bridge from the continent to the island of Ceylon, when engaged in the war with the demon king of that island for the recovery of his wife Sītā.

He made a false step by some accident in passing Govardhan, and this small bit of his load fell off. The rocks begged either to be taken on to the god Rāma, or back to their old place; but Hanumān was hard pressed for time, and told them not to be uneasy, as they would have a comfortable resting-place, and be worshipped by millions in future ages—thus, according to popular belief, foretelling that it would become the residence of a future incarnation, and the scene of Krishna's miracles.

The range was then about twenty miles long, ten having since disappeared under the ground. It was of full length during Krishna's days; and, on one occasion, he took up the whole upon his little finger to defend his favourite town and its milkmaids from the wrath of Indra, who got angry with the people, and poured down upon them a shower of burning ashes.

As I rode along this range, which rises gently from the plains at both ends and abruptly from the sides, with my groom by my side, I asked him what made Hanumān drop all his burthen here.

'All his burthen!' exclaimed he with a smile; 'had it been all, would it not have been an immense mountain, with all its towns and villages? while this is but an insignificant belt of rock. A mountain upon the back of men of former days, sir, was no more than a bundle of grass upon the back of one of your grass-cutters in the present day.'

Nathū, whose mind had been full of the wonders of this place from his infancy, happened to be with us, and he now chimed in.

'It was night when Hanumān passed this place, and the lamps were seen burning in a hundred towns upon the mountain he had upon his back—the people were all at their usual occupations, quite undisturbed; this is a mere fragment of his great burthen.'

'And how was it that the men of those towns should have been so much smaller than the men who carried them?' 'God only knew; but the fact of the men of the plains having been so large was undisputed—their beards were as many miles long as those of the present day are inches. Did not Bhīm throw the forty-cubit stone pillar, that now stands at Eran,[3] a distance of thirty miles, after the man who was running away with his cattle?'

I thought of poor Father Gregory at Agra, and the heavy sigh he gave when asked by Godby what progress he was making among the people in the way of conversion.[4] The faith of these people is certainly larger than all the mustard-seeds in the world.

I told a very opulent and respectable Hindoo banker one day that it seemed to us very strange that Vishnu should come upon the earth merely to sport with milkmaids, and to hold up an umbrella, however large, to defend them from a shower.

'The earth, sir,' said he, 'was at that time infested with innumerable demons and giants, who swallowed up men and women as bears swallow white ants; and his highness, Krishna, came down to destroy them. His own mother's brother, Kans, who then reigned at Mathurā over Govardhan, was one of these horrible demons. Hearing that his sister would give birth to a son that was to destroy him, he put to death several of her progeny as soon as they were born.[5]

'When Krishna was seven days old, he sent a nurse, with poison on her nipple, to destroy him likewise; but his highness gave such a pull at it, that the nurse dropped down dead. In falling, she resumed her real shape of a she- demon, and her body covered no less than six square miles, and it took several thousand men to cut her up and burn her, to prevent the pestilence that must have followed.

'His uncle then sent a crane, which caught up his highness, who always looked very small for his age, and swallowed him as he would swallow a frog. But his highness kicked up such a rumpus in the bird's stomach that he was immediately thrown up again.

'When he was seven years old his uncle invited him to a feast, and got the largest and most ferocious elephant in India to tread him to death as he alighted at the door. His highness, though then not higher than my waist, took the enormous beast by one tusk, and, after whirling him round in the air with one hand half a dozen times, he dashed him on the ground and killed him.[6] Unable any longer to stand the wickedness of his uncle, he seized him by the beard, dragged him from his throne, and dashed him to the ground in the same manner.'

I thought of poor old Father Gregory and the mustard-seeds again, and told my rich old friend that it all appeared to us indeed passing strange.

The orthodox belief among the Muhammadans is that Moses was sixty yards high; that he carried a mace sixty yards long; and that he sprang sixty yards from the ground when he aimed the fatal blow at the giant Ūj, the son of Anak, who came from the land of Canaan, with a mountain on his back, to crush the army of Israelites. Still, the head of his mace could reach only to the ankle-bone of the giant.

This was broken with the blow. The giant fell, and was crushed under the weight of his own mountain. Now a person whose ankle-bone was one hundred and eighty yards high must have been almost as prodigious as he who carried the fragment of the Himālaya upon his back; and he who believes in the one cannot fairly find fault with his neighbour for believing in the other.[7]

I was one day talking with a very sensible and respectable Hindoo gentleman of Bundēlkhand about the accident which made Hanumān drop this fragment of his load at Govardhan.

'All doubts upon that point,' said the old gentleman, 'have been put at rest by holy writ. It is related in our scriptures.

'Bharat, the brother of Rāma, was left regent of the kingdom of Ajodhya,[8] during his absence at the conquest of Ceylon. He happened at night to see Hanumān passing with the mountain upon his back, and thinking he might be one of the king of Ceylon's demons about mischief, he let fly one of his blunt arrows at him. It hit him on the leg, and he fell, mountain and all, to the ground.

'As he fell, he called out in his agony, 'Rām, Rām', from which Bharat discovered his mistake. He went up, raised him in his arms, and with his kind attentions restored him to his senses. Learning from him the object of his journey, and fearing that his wounded brother Lachhman would die before he could get to Ceylon with the requisite remedy, he offered to send Hanumān on upon the barb of one of his arrows, mountain and all.

'To try him Hanumān took up his mountain and seated himself with it upon the barb of the arrow as desired. Bharat placed the arrow to the string of his bow, and drawing it till the barb touched the bow, asked Hanumān whether he was ready.

'Quite ready,' said Hanumān, 'but I am now satisfied that you really are the brother of our prince, and regent of his kingdom, which was all I desired. Pray let me descend; and be sure that I shall be at Ceylon in time to save your wounded brother.'

He got off, knelt down, placed his forehead on Bharat's feet in submission, resumed his load, and was at Ceylon by the time the day broke next morning, leaving behind him the small and insignificant fragment, on which the town and temples of Govardhan now stand.

'While little Krishna was frisking about among the milkmaids of Govardhan,' continued my old friend, 'stealing their milk, cream, and butter, Brahmā, the creator of the universe, who had heard of his being an incarnation of Vishnu, the great preserver of the universe, visited the place, and had some misgivings, from his size and employment, as to his real character.

'To try him, he took off through the sky a herd of cattle, on which some of his favourite playmates were attending, old and young, boys and all. Krishna, knowing how much the parents of the boys and owners of the cattle would be distressed, created, in a moment, another herd and other attendants so exactly like those that Brahmā had taken, that the owners of the one, and the parents of the other, remained ignorant of the change. Even the new creations themselves remained equally ignorant; and the cattle walked into their stalls, and the boys into their houses, where they recognized and were recognized by their parents, as if nothing had happened.

'Brahmā was now satisfied that Krishna was a true incarnation of Vishnu, and restored to him the real herd and attendants. The others were removed out of the way by Krishna, as soon as he saw the real ones coming back.'

'But,' said I to the good old man, who told me this with a grave face, 'must they not have suffered in passing from the life given to death; and why create them merely to destroy them again?'

'Was he not God the Creator himself?' said the old man; 'does he not send one generation into the world after another to fulfil their destiny, and then to return to the earth from which they came, just as he spreads over the land the grass and corn? All is gathered in its season, or withers as that passes away and dies.'

The old gentleman might have quoted Wordsworth:

We die, my friend,

Nor we alone, but that which each man loved

And prized in his peculiar nook of earth

Dies with him, or is changed; and very soon,

Even of the good is no memorial left.[9]

I was one day out shooting with my friend, the Rājā of Maihar,[10] under the Vindhya range, which rises five or six hundred feet, almost perpendicularly. He was an excellent shot with an English double-barrel, and had with him six men just as good. I asked him whether we were likely to fall in with any hares, using the term 'khargosh', or 'ass-eared'.

'Certainly not,' said the Rājā, 'if you begin by abusing them with such a name; call them "lambkanās", sir, "long-eared", and we shall get plenty.'

He shot one, and attributed my bad luck to the opprobrious name I had used. While he was reloading, I took occasion to ask him how this range of hills had grown up where it was.

'No one can say,' replied the Rājā, 'but we believe that when Rāma went to recover his wife Sītā from the demon king of Ceylon, Rāvan, he wanted to throw a bridge across from the continent to the island, and sent some of his followers up to the Himālaya mountains for stones.

'He had completed his bridge before they all returned, and a messenger was sent to tell those who had not yet come to throw down their burdens, and rejoin him in all haste. Two long lines of these people had got thus far on their return when the messenger met them. They threw down their loads here, and here they have remained ever since, one forming the Vindhya range to the north of this valley, and the other the Kaimūr range to the south.'

The Vindhya range extends from Mirzapore, on the Ganges, nearly to the Gulf of Cambay, some six or seven hundred miles, so that my sporting friend's faith was as capacious as any priest could well wish it; and those who have it are likely never to die, or suffer much, from an over stretch of the reasoning faculties in a hot climate.