Legend has it that a young god Krishna once complained to his foster mother, Yashodha, that Radha was so fair in stark contrast to his dark hue. Yashodha humorously told him to smear some colour on Radha’s face. Following her suggestion, Krishna and his fellow cowherds from Nandgaon went to another village, Barsana, and mischievously slopped colour on Radha and the other gopis (maidens). The girls, in turn, responded by chasing the boys away with sticks.
This was the beginning of Holi, the festival of colours. Every year, in the end of February or beginning of March, various parts of the Subcontinent are suddenly turned upside-down: social interactions are riddled with pranks; people are doused with coloured powers; dancing erupts in the streets. There is food, drink and good cheer galore.
Holi is celebrated in many parts of the Subcontinent, with gusto and rambunctious verve. But in Braj Bhoomi – the area in Uttar Pradesh roughly made up of Mathura, Krishna’s birthplace; Vrindavan, where he grew up; his natal village of Nandgaon, and Radha’s village of Barsana – Holi has a particularly special meaning. For more than a week before Holi is celebrated elsewhere, colours and festivities take over the streets and villages of Braj Bhoomi, with people coming from afar to witness and participate in the excitement.
Temples in the area are suddenly packed with devotees. Over these crowds, from dawn till dusk, priests spray saffron-coloured water with their pichhkaris, and throw coloured powder. Meanwhile, hordes of people squeeze into these temples, hoping to fall into a trance and catch a glimpse of the Krishna and Radha idols behind the curtains. Daily processions jostle to get by in the crowded streets and alleyways of Vrindavan. Frenzied chants of Radhe, Radhe!, referring to Radha, blend into the euphoric Holi hai!
The highlight of the weeklong festival is Latthmaar Holi, which is played on consecutive days in Barsana and Nandgaon. On the first day, the menfolk from Nandgaon dress in their traditional attire, and go off to play Holi in Barsana; there, the women beat them off with lathis, in a re-enactment of the interaction between Krishna and Radha. As the women of Barsana teach the young men of Nandgaon a lesson – with their husbands cheering to them hit harder – the elders of both villages congregate in the village temple and sing colourful ballads of Holi. These songs, known as hori, are compositions about the mischievous, irresistible Krishna, cavorting with his Radha among the gopis, drenching them not just with his favourite colour, kesari, but also with love. During the subsequent days, the tables are turned in Nandgaon: the men from Barsana are at the receiving end of the stick from the women from Nandgaon.
Despite its long tradition, Holi has not been free of modern-day changes. What used to be a festival of 16 days, for instance, now lasts only a week. While traditional coloured powder is still in very wide use, colours containing toxic chemicals have also made inroads, worrying many. Plastic pichhkaris and spray-colour cans are now also readily available in the markets. Even nationalism has been allowed to colour Holi in certain places. But as with many customs in our fast-changing world, even as Holi constantly takes on new meanings it still retains a bit of the old. Braj Bhoomi, for its part, remains a fervent bastion of the most traditional form of this great Southasian festival.
1. Holi in Nandgaon.
2. Devotees in a state of trance in Banke Bihari temple wait to catch a glimpse of Krishna and Radha behind a curtain.
3. Devotees in a state of trance in Banke Bihari temple wait to catch a glimpse of Krishna and Radha behind a curtain.
4. A priest accepts offerings from a devotee as coloured powder is thrown on others.
5. A man prostrates himself on the wet temple floor in Nandgaon, while making his way to the shrine to pay respect to Radha and Krishna.
6. A widow in Vrindavan enjoys a Holi procession.
7. Children dressed as Radha and Krishna are carried to a temple after a procession through the streets of Vrindavan.
8. People pay their respects and seek blessings in the form of offerings from children dressed as Krishna, Radha and another of Krishna’s gopis.
9. Handprints made on the walls of the houses neighbouring the temple. Both handprints and footprints are considered to be auspicious during religious festivals.
10. The women of Nandgaon play Latthmaar Holi with the men from Barsana.
11. The women of Nandgaon play Latthmaar Holi with the men from Barsana.
12. In the Nandgaon temple, the elders from both Barsana and Nandgaon sit together and sing Hori songs in a deluge of colours.