Amongst India's innumerable festivals, Holi ranks as the most colourful. It celebrates the arrival of spring and death of demoness Holika, it is a celebration of joy and hope. Holi provides a refreshing respite from the mundane norms as people from all walks of life enjoy themselves. In a tight knit community, it also provided a good excuse for letting off some steam and settling old scores, without causing physical injury.
Holi continues to be celebrated with great vigour through out India. Countless Hindi films have brought the vibrant colours of the festival to the screen. Indians all over the world eagerly await the Festival of Colours, as bonfires are lit to banish the cold dark nights of winter and usher in warmer spring. Dhuleti, day after Holi, is the actual festival of colours, when everything in sight is covered in a riot of colours.
Twin towns of Nandagow ( where Lord Krishna grew up ) and Barsana ( where Shri Radha grew up ), near Mathura in the state of Uttar Pradesh, are the epicentre of the celebrations. Lord Krishna, while growing up in Vraj, popularised the festival with his ingenious pranks. Gopies of Vraj responded with equal enthusiasm and the festivities have continued ever since. Role reversal, feminism etc. are accepted customs for the duration of the festival! Men and women of Vraj clash in a colourful display of battle of the sexes.
Celebrations start a week earlier than rest of India. Men of Nandagow raid Barsana with hopes of raising their flag over Shri Radhikaji's temple. They receive a thunderous welcome as the women of Barsana greet them with long wooden sticks. The men are soundly beaten as they attempt to rush through town to reach the relative safety of Shri Radhikaji's temple. Men are well padded as they are not allowed to retaliate. In this mock battle the men try their best not to be captured. Unlucky captives can be forcefully lead away, thrashed and dressed in female attire before being made to dance!!
Famous poets like Surdas, Nand-das, Kumbhan-das and others, have written beautifully as to how Lord Krishna was similarly received and forced to wear a sari, forced to wear make-up and made to dance before being released by the gopies of Vraj.
Rush through Barsana is far more lethal than running with the bulls in Spain, at least you don't have to marry them one day!
The next day, men of Barsana reciprocate by invading Nandagow. Clouds of pink and white powder mark the frenzy of activity taking place in it's narrow streets. A naturally occurring orange-red dye, Kesudo, is also used to drench all participants. On this day, the women of Nadagow beat the invaders from Barsana. It is a colourful site. In the interest of tourisum and safety, the state tourist board has set up excellent vantage points for the public. A large open ground, on the outskirts of the town is specially set aside for the most magnificent display of the festivities.
(To see pics, click here)
The next day, the temples in Vrindavan celebrate the festival with great guesto. The renowned temple of Bakai-Bihari, the beloved lord of the 15th century saint Haridas, is at the centre of the festivities. Clouds of pink and white descend upon the pilgrims, as the Lord of Vrindavan plays holi with all his beloved visitors.
The festival moves on to other parts of Vraj. Soon enough, it is Dhulati and entire India celebrates the joys of spring as the "festival of colour".
Gulal-Kund is a beautiful little lake, set in a delightful grove near the mountain Goverdhan, in the heart of Vraj. Here the festival is commemorated on a more regular basis. Pilgrims who visit the holy land of Vraj, can see the re-enactments of Holi throughout the year at this lake. Local boys, acting in the Krishna-Lila drama troupes re-enact the scenes of holi for the pilgrims.
Royal courts all over North India refined the festival in to an art form of its own. Rajput warriors of the Rajasthani courts used to show off their equestrian skills during the festival. Rajput men would ride their steeds through the white and pink clouds of colour, throwing colour powders on each other. Even the members of the royal families were not immune from being drenched by colour. The entire court used to be drenched in saffron water and an orange-red dye of the "kasuda" flowers.
Pushti-Marga temples, spread throughout North and Western States of India, celebrate the festival in a way reminiscent of rajput courts. In the Pushti-Marga temples, the festivities last for over a month. Beginning on the day of Vasant-Panchami, the festivals last till the day after Holi. This helps prolong the season of joy.
The Deity, and the laity, are liberally sprinkled with perfumes, saffron water, kesudo, and covered in sandalwood aswell as the white and pink powder, abil and gulal. Joyous celebration is accompanied by classical music, poetry and folk songs appropriate for the occasion. Deity's white clothes' are soon transformed into a mass of colour as gold and silver syringes spray colourful water on all participants.
Holi is a fantastic festival. If ever you get a chance to take part, make sure you are armed with colour, water guns and water ballons !!
The weather is most pleasant and the spring flowers are in full bloom.
Skies are clear, days are warm and nights are pleasantly cool.
What more could you ask for,
except to be covered in the "ranga" (colour) of your beloved!
An abridged, Gujarati version of this was published in the "Gujarat Samachar", a UK weekly paper.
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