I have two tales to tell of Holi celebrations in India. I opted for Vrindivan, the home of Holi and the birthplace of Krishna to play Holi. Here thousands of people descend to celebrate the colours and chaos of Holi; the festival of love or the festival of colour. A commemoration of Krishna and Radha’s love (his girlfriend, not his wife). A two-day festival; but in this area celebrations start well before the actual Holi day and extend a couple of days afterwards.
Day 1 – Mathura
I wanted the whole experience so I checked into the ashram and headed down town. Day one was quite tame; visiting the local temples I experienced the fanfare of the festival with people approaching to smear coloured chalk on my face and give me a hug. Others playfully threw colour from tuk-tuks and rooftops while hollering – Hare Hare or Happy Holi. Fun, playful, festive.
I got swept up in the dancing at the temple as the bells and drums played, chanting echoed the walls and even the constant request for selfies with the locals was palpable at this stage. I explored the temple in Mathura and attended the Holika ritual, the ceremonious burning of an effigy. Holika was a demoness who tried to kill a young Prahlad and in an elaborate attempt to burn him, she herself went up in flames. A great start to my Holi experience and feeling a little coloured out but still excited, I was ready for the big Holi day.
Day 2 – Vrindivan
Day two was a completely different experience. All ‘saried up’ and feeling very Indian, my new friend Alessandro and I headed to the Banke Bihari temple in town that is said to have the best celebrations in town. Not that I would know as we never made it … and that’s where the dark side of the story starts.
Like the day before we were assaulted with colour from every angle and today the coloured water was also out in force. What started out quite fun rapidly deteriorated into a nightmare the closer we got to the temple. The streets were jam packed and as very few foreigners were around I felt like we had massive targets on our back. The boys were either stoned on Bhang or drunk and seemed incredibly rowdy compared to the day before. And if the constant battery of coloured chalk in your every crevice, ears, eyes, mouth, wasn’t enough, the wandering hands in the crowd started. Not fucking cool!
As we approached the temple we got caught in what can only be described as a stampede of people. The type of situation that ends in headlines ‘10 Killed in Crush During Holi Celebrations.’ Thank God for Alessandro. His quick thinking swept us onto a little ledge where others were seeking refuge and he protected me like a bull and kept me safe.
Once the crowd dispersed we both agreed: fuck the temple, let’s get out of here. But it was not as easy as it sounds. Wandering the labyrinth of laneways, we were battered again and I copped a massive handful of chalk directly in my eye, not to mention opportunistic grabby hands in the crowd, resulting in more than one Indian boy copping an earful from me. Cheeky little shits.
Exhausted, feeling completely harassed we eventually found our way and sought refuge in a more subdued street. We massively overpaid for a tuk-tuk to escape, which at this point did not bother me. I was tired, violated and soaked to the skin. We were still attacked intermittently on the ride home from the street whilst in motion, including an entire bucket of water as we slowed for a cow just to ensure the small dry bits were now drenched.
As a final gift some little bastard threw cow shit at us. The driver went nuts but it didn’t stop the shit from being on my sari now, did it. Safely back at the sanctuary of the ashram a few teens were out the front and attempted to colour me and they copped all the wrath from the morning and backed off very slowly. I felt like as soldier retuning from battle being safe in the barracks as we debriefed with the staff who said the centre of town wasn’t the smartest idea. Well, no shit (pardon the pun). Now you tell us. I was left feeling quite violated and wondering why people would come here and hoped that the next day would be less violent … it was. Thank God!
Day 3 – Barsana
I welcomed day three with stained pink and blue skin and hair. We headed to Stick Holi (Haurunga); a tradition celebrated in a town 50 kilometres from Mathura where it is said Krishna made fun of Radha and her friends, so they beat him up. So, to commemorate that, men parade through the Dauji temple and get covered in red water and the women rip the men’s clothes off and beat them withtheir clothes. We managed to score a spot on the roof with the soldiers and had a bird’s eye view of the whole event which was incredible.
The fanfare was again chaotic and colourful, however this time I was safe out of harm’s way. Thousands of people participate and it felt vibrant and light. The chalk was still freely thrown but with care and playfulness, not malice, and my personal space today remained intact. I really enjoyed the celebrations at Barsana and highly recommend making the trip if you’re here for Holi, I even got interviewed for Indian television. Bonus!
In the evenings, everything calms down and I had the opportunity to explore the many temples of the area and chat to some Hare Krishna’s who explained to me the importance of Holi. In summary, I think Holi is well worth the visit and the rituals at the temples, Barsana and Mathura, on the peripheral days are enjoyable. My tip would be to stick to the back streets if you’re in Vrindivan and you will enjoy it a lot more.
Girls, don’t go alone. I rarely say that as I traipse around the world on my own, but I am so thankful for having Alessandro by my side because it was quite a difficult situation to be in alone and he deterred a lot of the carry on, and still it was rowdy and unacceptable.
So was it Happy Holi – I think yes but I’ll be rethinking my plans for Deepvali to ensure my safety and comfort during these mass celebrations.
Yours in Faith,
The Unlikely Pilgrim