This was in June 2016 during my onward journey to Sheopur in Madhya Pradesh for a work trip. Initially I had planned to take a direct train to Sawai Madhopur from Delhi and then to take a bus to Sheopur which is some 65 kilometres from Sawai Madhopur Station.
But due to work commitments in Delhi I could not book my tickets on time and had to instead take a bus to Mathura Junction. I was still able to book train tickets from Mathura to Sawai Madhopur, the only catch was that I was to arrive in Mathura at 2 in the morning and the train for Madhopur (Patna – Kota Junction Express) was scheduled to leave at 8 in the morning, which left me an overnight window of 6 hours with nowhere to go but stroll around at the station I was visiting for the first time.
I thought I could catch a couple hours of sleep before resuming my journey. But having slept on the bus from Delhi to Mathura only to be woken up at such ungodly hours, sleep would no longer come. I took out a bed sheet I had brought along and using my backpack for a pillow I straightened out and sprawled over the platform floor following the example of numerous other passengers-in-waiting. But having been shunned once already, ‘sleep’ had made a decision to keep to away. Such a sensitive bitch, you know!
So I got up and got ready to look around.
The book shelf I was lying in front of was as interesting as any other “Wheeler” stalls at railway stations across India. The regular options were on display : A Hindi translation of Gandhi’s My Experiments with Truth, Munshi Premchand’s Anthologies, the run of the mill self-help books, Palmistry & Astrology Manuals and likewise.
There were a couple books on Ramkrishna Paramhansa and Vivekanand; and of course the Lal Kitaab(The Red Book)- the generic title on Indian Shamanistic practices. I cannot remember the last time I browsed a book stall across stations in U.P. that did not have a Lal Kitaab on display, which is not all that surprising considering how seriously people take their ‘Gods and Caste’ in U.P.. The obsession with superstitions is but an obvious aftermath of religious preoccupations and poor literacy rate in the State. No wonder according to the 2011 government census, Uttar Pradesh- the largest Loksabha constituency in India ranks a dismal 29th out of the 36 Indian states and Union Territories
Adjacent to the book stall was the office of Ticket Collector, who was up and ready in the pre-dawn hours to catch unexpecting passengers travelling without tickets. He seemed to have a tried and tested template for picking out the ones supposedly travelling ticket-less. To my memory almost everyone he singled out from the crowd ended up coughing bribe.
It is a public secret that bribing of course is more profitable than booking a ticket both for the T.C. as well as the passengers. The ritual was set, the rules followed to a copy – For the ones without ticket, the initial shock and disappointment for having been singled out would slowly give in to mild apologies, requests to let go. The T.C. would feign moral superiority and shame people for travelling ticketless , and mildly threaten them with booking penalties or locking them up if passengers would tell them they don’t have any money. Eventually, the cornered preys would give up and settle for a bribe, which has been the shared motive all along following the unfortunate encounter. It is another matter of course that the revenue losses for Indian Railways have been piling up over the years.
Partly bored and partly appalled by these malpractices , around 5 in the morning I decided to leave the station and travel to the nearby Vishram Ghat (around 5kms from the station), in time for the sunrise. I thought a boat ride across the holy waters of Yamuna would do me some good. I hailed an auto-rickshaw (70 rupees one way charge) and was soon on my way so I could be back in time for the train.
The early morning scenes from the streets near Vishram Ghat reminded me of my stay at Assi Ghat in Benaras(Varanasi) – fresh cow dung plastered over the narrow cobbled pathways, morning preparations for the prayers, priests clad in surf-excel white dhotis, erstwhile magnificent ashrams now dilapidated because with time it has become less and less feasible to restore them to their former glory.
The sun was just coming up as I reached Vishram Ghat and after some haggling with the Boatman I found a ride for 80 bucks(which would have cost lesser had I gone in a group to share the price). The weather was pleasant- a mild morning cool, a flimsy overcast, and a sunrise in process on the opposite banks.
The waters in Mathura appeared to be less polluted than the drain Yamuna has turned into in Delhi. There were signs to dissuade worshipers from dumping offerings into the river, but the muck that had collected on the banks was proof that few paid attention.
The guy paddling the boat (grandson of the man I bargained with) was younger than me, no older than 15 or 16. He asked me if I would like to participate in the Aarti (begins around 7 am), as is the acceptable custom for morning visitors to which I politely declined as I had to get back in time.
The boatman told me that it was at Vishram Ghat that the Hindu God Krishna came to take rest (meaning Vishram in Hindi) after killing his maternal uncle, Kansa, hence the name. It is also the ghat where pilgrims begin their parikrama (covering a string of religious places on foot across Mathura ) to the 24 ghats that are located in Mathura along the banks of Yamuna.
One could see a lot of old architecture, antique domes and minarets in the vicinity of Vishram Ghat.
Around 7 I got off the boat and strolled around the streets taking pictures.Some of the ashrams had inadvertently put up some rather witty signs.
The Upadyay Kala Mandir located nearby had interesting murals and bright yellow wooden doors that really caught my eye.
After a while I took an auto-rickshaw back to the station which by the time I returned was buzzing with fresh arrivals, while the sanitation workers busily swept the platforms clean for the day ahead. I bought myself a cup of tea and some snacks from one of the IRCTC Jan Ahaar Cafeterias and waited for my train.
I would have perhaps preferred to make a planned trip to Mathura, but in the aftermath of my few hours of unexpected stay here I have certainly grown more curious about this rather religious city, the birthplace of Krishna, the naughtiest God in Hindu Mythology.