Tilak, the clay “V” marking found on the foreheads of devotees of Krishna around the world, is called Gopi Chandan, but sastra says the Gopi’s tilak is made from sandalwood, not clay. So why the name?
It is sometimes thought tilak is clay from the bank of the sacred Ganges, but this is also not correct. If you do a little research, you will find that tilak is mined from a dry river bed in Dwarka, Gujarat, nowhere near Vrindavan.
So what’s the connection with the Gopis?
It is in the Gargha Samhita that the origins of the pale yellow Gopi Chandan that devotees in ISKCON place on twelve places of their bodies every day is found.
During the the time that Lord Krishna was playing the role of a King in Dwaraka five thousand years ago, the Gopis of Vraja went on pilgrimage to Kurukshetra. Unbeknownst to anyone, they secretly met Krishna during the night in a forest outside of royal city to perform Rasa dance with their beloved. After dancing and playing musical instruments for what seemed like a day of Brahma, the Gopis were very fatigued.
Krishna took them to a nearby lake where they refreshed themselves by bathing and sporting with Shyamasundara in the cool water. As they swam, all the sandalwood, mascara, fragrant oils, saffron and musk they had applied to adorn their beautiful, transcendental bodies washed off and settled at the bottom of the lake, merging with the clay of the lake bed.
It is this same riverbed where we get our tilak from today. It is literally the divine Chandan coming from the bodies of Gopis themselves, and has been used by devotees of Krishna to decorate their bodies since that time.
Some people say this tilak still carries the fragrance of those heavenly substances.
It is said in the Padma Purana that because this clay is so supremely pure, if one is wearing this Gopi Chandan while performing Yajnas, Homas, or other Vedic rites, even if mantras are chanted without proper pronunciation or an error is made in ritual, one will still get the full benefit of those acts.
We will continue describing the glories of Gopi Chandan tilak in a future article.