Cover Story – The Braj Holi : Legend in real life

Cover - Hindustan Times Brunch
Cover – Hindustan Times Brunch

( This year I couldn’t attend the colorful Holi celebrations at Braj, but when Hindustan Times asked me to write a travelogue about my experience, I could easily retrospect the amazing time I had. )

The festival of colours is celebrated in Braj bhoomi for almost 50 days. In Mathura, Vrindavan, Nand Gaon, Barsana, Goverdhan, Dauji and Baldev, Holi festivities begin from Basant Panchami. While the official holiday for Holi around the country may be just a day or two, Braj gets eight days off. In this period called Holika-ashtak, all activities, including weddings and sale or purchase of property, come to a halt.

Two years ago, I received what was almost a challenge from a friend of mine who lives in Agra. We’d been talking about Holi, a festival I’ve never participated in. “This is all rubbish,” my friend announced. “The real Holi is played in my region.”

Naturally, that made me curious. I had to see it. So off we went to Braj bhoomi – the area of Uttar Pradesh surrounding Vrindavan, Mathura, Nand Gaon and all the places associated with Lord Krishna, to see how Holi is really played.

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The real festival of colours
As we turned left onto a dusty village road at Kosi, a small town on the Delhi-Agra highway, we could see signs of a major village festival happening nearby. There were people dressed in bright fluorescent colours, kids spraying each other with water-colours and people traveling in jam-packed vehicles.

In a little while, we reached Barsana, the village of Radha Rani, the beloved of Lord Krishna. Like other villages of the Braj region of Uttar Pradesh, this village comes to life on Holi, the festival of colours. In every village of Braj bhoomi, Holi is played differently. The festival starts in the Fagun season of the Indian calendar, a week before the actual day of Holi.

Barsana is famous for Lathmar Holi. Preparations start a day before the actual event and synchronised chants of Radhe Radhe and aromatic incense fill the air, putting you into a spiritual trance. The first time I became part of this trance, I was nearly blinded by some idiot who splashed a handful of coloured powder straight into my eyes. I couldn’t see. I couldn’t even close my eyelids properly. In those few moments of blindness, I got a flashback of my schoolteacher telling my class about toxins in Holi colours that may blind you for life.

I had never played Holi before and going blind on my first attempt was not what I had expected. The enchanting atmosphere faded away and I ran for a tap to wash my eyes. When I finally opened my eyes, believe me, I was more than glad that I could see!

Everything had been so new to me that I had forgotten to be careful. You have to be extra careful when you’re playing Holi in Braj. You never know what might happen.

“It’s a wildly entertaining ride, not for everyone, but exhilarating nonetheless,” Poras Chaudhary, a photojournalist, told me when I returned to the fray. He was covered with colours from head to toe. As we chatted, I could see colours on his teeth as well.

Back for more
I was fascinated by the Braj Holi and decided to return the next year, this time with my camera. Since I knew what to expect, I covered my camera with rainproof material, and ensured the lens had a filter. It’s important to protect your equipment because photographers are the chief targets of mischievous youngsters who seem to prefer to practice their water gun skills on cameras.

We were lucky to get a room at Rangili Mahal, the only accommodation available in Barsana. To get a room you have to make a reasonable donation and you can stay for a maximum of three days. You should also note that this is the only place where you’ll find toilets. No public restroom is available in the village.

Loud hymns and religious remixes continued as we searched for a place for dinner. I couldn’t find a place that offered a proper meal. You get all sorts of drinks and snacks like thandai, paera and kachori, but that’s it. I had doubts about their hygiene, but it is advisable to avoid milk products to keep your stomach happy. Remember! There are no toilets!

The next morning I sealed my camera and applied oil to my skin. It was a lesson learned from last year, when the colours had stayed on me for more than a month.

Living the legend
When we entered the temple complex, we found hundreds of people on the stairs. The gates were closed and the crowd seemed difficult for the police to control. Then the gates opened and everyone, including me, rushed inside. An old woman in her 80s, with crutches, was among us. “Radha Rani invited me here, I cannot leave without taking her blessings,” said Yamuna Devi, a devotee from Jhansi. She finally made it to the temple.

Then a group of traditionally dressed boys with water guns, singing Holi songs in Braj bhasha, began running, penetrating the crowd in a challenging manner. The Barsana locals rushed to the roof of the temple and responded by throwing flowers soaked in water.

These young boys were from Nand Gaon, the village of Lord Krishna. Legend has it that Lord Krishna, jealous of the fair complexion of his beloved, Radha, came to Barsana along with his friends and smeared gulaal (coloured powder) on her and her friends. When Krishna and his friends refused to leave, they were beaten up by the gopis and sent home.

The tradition continues. The lads from Nand Gaon carry a leather shield, and have their heads covered with a thick, layered cap. They enter the temple, sit with the goswamis (high priests) of both villages and while the elder priests from Nand Gaon invite the people of Barsana to their village in the colourful event known as samaaj, the young lads run around in the streets via Krishna Mahal, singing Holi songs and spraying the women with coloured water.

As they reach Rangili Gali, they are caught and beaten by stick-wielding Barsana women wearing bright costumes and with their faces covered with veils. Thousands gather on the streets, many climb up on every possible location – including rooftops and telephone poles – to experience this event themselves.

Meanwhile the goswamis of both villages sing traditional Holi songs in Braj bhasha while people empty large bags of coloured powder over them in a swirling action, creating a cloud of colour. The scene is changed when another bag of contrasting colour is swirled around. The colourful event is repeated the next day in Nand Gaon, a few miles from Barsana. Everything remains the same, only the roles are interchanged.

Colours dominate the atmosphere during Braj Holi, and for this reason it’s famous among photographers. A large notice reading ‘Photography Strictly Prohibited’ is usually ignored. It merely hangs on the walls of both the temples.

Just do it
After the Lathmar Holi, celebrations shift to Banke Bihari temple in Vrindavan and Dwarkadheesh temple in Mathura and continue till the actual day of Holi. A day after the actual Holi, Huranga is celebrated in Dauji, during which men drench women with colours and women tear the clothes off the men and thrash them with soaked pieces of the torn material.

“This is our tradition, our pride, we should preserve it,” said Dilip, a Barsana boy now working with a multinational in Delhi. “We will not let modernisation come in the way.”

But modernisation may be hard to prevent. There were more tourists and photographers interrupting the celebrations this time compared to the year before. And a tourist was thrown out when he went into the temple with his shoes on. “Earlier, only pilgrims visited Braj, but now it’s becoming a commercial event,” said Jitendra Singh, a social activist based in Delhi. “People holding a camera think they have all the rights. It’s just a colourful event for them; they ignore the religious importance of the event.”

And it’s true. Holi is a religious event. At least, here, in Braj bhoomi, where it has been celebrated the same way for centuries. It’s an experience that leaves you mesmerised with its beauty and awestruck by its colours. An experience that can’t be summed up in words or in photographs. You have to see it yourself.

The Churukula dance
An integral part of fairs in Mathura district during Holi, the churukula dance is strongly associated with the Braj Holi. In the dance, a woman carries a ‘churukula’ – a broad plate that bears three kalashes (water utensils) and 108 diyas, and dances with it, balancing the plate perfectly with the rhythms of her dance.

Getting there
Since today is Holi, you’ve already missed most of the fun in Braj. You could dash off right now from Delhi, if you like. Or better yet, keep this copy of Brunch to refer to next year. To reach Barsana, you can take a taxi from Delhi or get down at Kosi railway station and then take an auto or shared jeep to the village. I would not recommend the shared option unless you want to enjoy your ride on the bonnet of a small Mahindra jeep. A shared jeep usually carries around 20 people – five in the front row, seven in the second, three on the bonnet, some on the roof and the rest in the boot. And the driver won’t move until the jeep is full! The best option would be to book a taxi in advance.

Stay at Vrindavan as it is centrally located and all the Braj Holi venues are easily reached from there. Plus, it has lots of hotels and ashrams. Vrindavan is also home to many famous eating joints, such as Brijwasi where you can get mouthwatering paede and badaam milk. You can also try the organic food at the Iskcon Temple. Taxis and other forms of public transport are easily available to Barsana and other Braj villages.

– Himanshu Khagta is a freelance travel photographer based in the Himalayas. He has travelled extensively across India, documenting people, places and cultures.

– From HT Brunch, March 20, 2011
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