Yet recent changes such as satellite television, digital phone service,and real estate development have brought this medieval site on the banks ofthe Yamuna River into the 21st century. Not everyone is happy with thetransition.
"It is a painful subject," says Shrivatsa Goswami, whose family tracesits roots to Vrindavan's 16th-century restorers. "In those days, this placehad the most beautiful riverside architecture in India's history. It waslike a miniature painting come alive."
Goswami notes that previous generations of temple authorities understoodthe importance of holy places and took responsibility for their maintenance.Today, he says, that sense of stewardship is absent.
"Many religious leaders here have a narrow view," Goswami says. "Theydon't see the universality of their own message. They don't see how a sacredsite such as this can inspire people of all faiths. What they see iscommercial opportunities, and the result is garbage and sewage backing up.In a few more years, my own children will not want to come here."
Beginning in the 17th century, Moguls and other invading forces razedVrindavan's temple domes and left the town in architectural ruin. Butaccording to Goswami, the real damage began with India's independence in1947. Rather than return to its spiritual roots, the nation became a secularindustrial power. India's cultural heritage in general, and holy places inparticular, suffered.
Indic scriptures identify Vrindavan as the place where Krishna, theSanskrit name for God in personal form, appeared 5,000 years ago. Followersconsider Vrindavan as having its genesis in the spiritual world. Devoteesconsequently worshipped the town as fervently as Krishna himself.
Yet with modernization, the nature of pilgrimage to this holy spot hasshifted dramatically. As recently as the 1980s, hardly one car a day arrivedhere, and there was little to distract from an all-day walking tour ofmedieval sites. Today, traffic backs up along the newly completed six-laneNational Highway. A water park has opened less than seven miles fromGovardhan, a hill that is among Vrindavan's most sacred spots. Near theactual site of Krishna's appearance in nearby Mathura, Pepsi-Cola hasconstructed a production plant. Cell phone towers loom up into the sky overtemple domes.
"There is a risk of the spiritual experience becoming diluted," saysBraja Bihari, an American scholar who has lived in Vrindavan for 27 years."Previously, you never saw people playing boomboxes or contaminating theroads with plastic bags. They came here to get away from those influences.The deep, contemplative experience is still available, but you have to worka little harder to find it now."
Some environmental organizations such as the World Wide Fund for Natureare working to restore Vrindavan through programs of reforestation. RanchorPrime, the project's India liaison, notes that ecological values have alwaysplayed an important role in Hinduism but have suffered in the rush ofmodernization.
"If the faith leaders brought back their own tradition of cleanlinessand respect for nature here, in one of the greatest holy places of India,"says Prime, "it could have a dramatic impact nationwide. Environmentalawareness is not a hollow religious sentiment. It makes practical sense."
Not everyone sees the changes in dire terms. Lokanath Swami, a religiousleader from South India, sees an upside to modernization: comfortablefacilities attract clients.
"First, people have to want to come to a holy place," he says. "Then theinner experience can occur."
Still, he agrees with Goswami's assessment that leadership must take anactive role in protecting the site's integrity.
"The scriptures tell us that the real pilgrimage is not bathing in ariver," he says, "but taking instruction from the saintly people who makesuch places their home. And certainly they have an added degree ofresponsibility."
Historically, holy places have been the refuge of ascetics seekingescape from the material world. It would take days or weeks to arrive at aholy place. Once there, pilgrims confronted austere conditions that quicklyseparated spiritual dabblers from the truly devout. Today, the oppositeholds true as developers encourage tourism and Vrindavan struggles toadjust, for the first time in history, to market economics. Like many otherplaces of pilgrimage in India, this is a town faced with reconciling itscultural and spiritual purposes with its need for a stronger economicinfrastructure.
Even staunch defenders of Vrindavan's innate sanctity acknowledge theinevitability of modernization and accept, as well, its potential value.From the roof of his art institute, called Sri Caitanya Prema Samsthana,Goswami can see solar panels on buildings in surrounding villages. Thepanels feed energy to satellite dishes that connect farmers toHindi-language Internet Web sites, which provide district-specific weatherreports, current market prices and tips on modern growing methods.
More than half the residents in the Vrindavan area live off the land,and Goswami acknowledges that the technology could lead to improved qualityof life and possibilities for saving Vrindavan from urban blight.
"Spirituality has never been an enemy of science and technology," hesays. "Devotion and knowledge have always gone together. That is the Indianapproach. I'm not afraid of laptops and satellites. It is losing thespiritual content of Vrindavan that has me concerned. That cannot be stoppedby better technology alone. That can only be stopped if the religiousleaders come out of their shells and renew their emotional bond with theirown culture and history."