Holi is the festival of colours celebrated in India. The riot of colours is accompanied by the symbolic burning of Holika. Legend has it that Holika was the sister of Hiranyakashyapu, a demon king, who left his pregnant wife in the protection of Narada, while on an expedition to conquer Indraloka. When he returned to his young boy Prahlad, he realised, being influenced by the teachings of Narada, the boy was an ardent follower of his arch-enemy Lord Vishnu. Infuriated, he made every attempt to kill his own son. The last of which was to light a pyre and make Holika carry Prahlad on her lap as Holika had a boon that fire would not hurt her. What she forgot, however, was that the boon would work only if used with good intentions and as it turned out she burned in the fire while Prahlad emerged unscathed still praying to Lord Vishnu. Lord Vishnu in Narasimha avatar then killed Hiranyakashyap. Holi is played to celebrate this victory of good over evil.
However, the story behind use of colours starts somewhere close to Mathura. Krishna, the dark-skinned notorious one, threw colour on Radha ‘cause he was jealous of her extremely fair skin. Not to mention his routine of teasing Gopikas. The origin of playing colour holi lies in their playful banter.
The Barsana experience :
It was a mystical Holi this time, as I visited the land where it all began. Barsana, the birthplace of Radha, and Nandgaon, where Krishna resided, are about 10kms apart and still have deep bonds running through. Barsana is a bustling town that comes especially alive during holi. As a girl photographer, one has to doubly protect one’s camera as you might encounter kids chasing you down the streets with pichkaris. But the place has a wonderfully welcoming vibe. What I found odd initially was how everyone greeted with a ‘RadheRadhe’. Being a city girl, I was torn between whether it sounded innocent or cheesy. However, later it grew on me, in fact, it added to the charm of the place. Men and women danced to Radha bhajans on the street. They had Radhe written on their foreheads quite literally. The name ‘Radha’ remains on the lips of people of Barsana, the way Krishna would address her, ‘Radhe’. It is said so often that it’s a part of life here. It is shouted in crowds, muttered in solace, exchanged in greetings, hurled in teasing, asked in questions, grunted in everyday tasks; also, it isn’t implied only to girls, but to oneself, to men, to sakhis, to sakhas , to cows, well, all living and sometimes non living things in general. What’s endearing is that one doesn’t say Radha but ‘Radhe’ as Krishna lovingly called her, as if he still lived here in the hearts of these people and urged them to say it. The sound of ‘Radhe’ engulfs you in this town. Maybe that is what brings a sense of quiet peace to the people. They seem content in their world and are likely to offer a cup of tea if you spend two extra minutes to chat.
Samaj in Barsana
Holi begins in Barsana with Laddoo Holi, where permission is sought in the Radha temple and ‘prasad’ in the form of Laddoos is thrown into the crowds. Some serious scrambling happens that infused a fear of a stampede in me. The Samaj (a committee that sits to sing and a few who dance to Radha Krishna bhajans) sits in the temple and a gulal made from the palash flower is strewn around to mark the beginning of the holi festival. No water is used just yet but ‘Red’ the colour of love engulfs the place.
Lathmaar Holi :
The very next day, ample amounts of water is used and the streets come drenched in colour. This day, traditionally, young men from Nandgaon visit Barsana and tease the Barsana girls. In return, the women of Barsana run after them with long bamboo sticks and beat up the boys. Although this is now a pretend play, it is meant to remind us the playful tiffs between Gopis and Gopas. Some heads have been lost, but, as we watched from the rooftop and then upclose in the street, the beating is real, forceful even. If it weren’t for the shields covering the boys, these healthy well-fed (for over two months) women could easily take down a few. And try getting too close to them if you want to get poked with one yourself. The streets are spilling over with crowds and if claustrophobia is your fear, stay away from them. One could sit atop a roof and watch the hour long event. If you watch up close though, you will find, sometimes the banter between the man and woman is real flirting, but so is the muscle of the lathmaar ladies.
Nandgaon Holi :
Following this, a party from Barsana visits Nandgaon the next day and holi is played with natural colours and water. In fact the palash flowers are soaked in water for three days before it is used to play holi in the temple; the colour of which does not leave your body for the next month. Nandgaon is a smaller town with tiny , curved lanes leading to the uphill temple. The temple itself is an old stone structure with an open roof and with beautiful wooden carved doors. The floor is white marble that gets coloured a glistening blood red with the palash waters. Gopas sit waiting on the roof with huge drums of water and pour it by the buckets on unsuspecting people in the temple premises. If you decided you would be safe on the roof, good luck with that. The thing is, you will be drenched in water. Period. You are there to play holi. So get over your self and your cameras and keep it playful. Otherwise you are just polluting their fun. The other thing you need to be warned about is the abuses. It is customary to abuse and in the filthiest language possible; not to mention girls are typically a target for all of the above. The trick, I think, is to carry double camera covers, raincoats, earplugs and a thick skin. How to get there:
One could take a train from the metros upto Mathura or fly down to Delhi and take a train or cab down to Mathura which is a 3 hour ride. Mathura to Govardhan is a forty-five minute ride. Govardhan has only two accommodations. One being a dharamshala and the other a hotel that’s pretty amazing for such a small place. Barsana is a fifteen minute drive from Govardhan.