Photo Essay

Holi - A Spring Festival of Colours and Love

Holi, Nandgaon

The Holi celebrations start from the villages in the Braj region where Radha and Krishna grew up & spent their childhood, viz. Barsana & Nand Gaon about a week before Holi celebrated by all. The dates vary according to the stars, etc. as almost all festivals take place in India.

The festival is on the arrival of Spring and end of winter. A festival of victory of good over evil, people meet each other to forget and forgive their rivalries to play with colours embracing each other.

Krishna from Nand Gaon used to come along with his friends to meet his young love Radha in Barsana who used to be surrounded by her female friends. The playfulness of those times is being continued between the two villages as a prelude to the main festival of Holi. Barsana near Mathura, Uttar Pradesh has a Ladoo Holi (sweets in ball shape) where representatives of Nand Gaon come.

The next day Nand Gaon representatives are playfully repulsed by ladies of Barsana using sticks while men come prepared with shields save themselves . It is called Lath Mar Holi. There is lots of colours both dry Gulal and water colours smearing each other.

On the 3rd day representatives of Barsana go to Nand Gaon and meet up in the court yard Nand Bhawan Temple. It is all free for all colour that is smeared and coloured water thrown by buckets, Puchkari (a pump like used for filling air in bicycle tubes). The representatives of both villages (now towns) sit across each other in the center of the courtyard and sing songs dedicated to Radha & Krishna. This is called Samaj (Society).

On the 4th. day the Holi celebrations take place in Vrindavan. Various towns in Braj region keep up the celebrations in different ways but of course it is all dry Gulal that fills the air and coloured water colours using buckets or similar vessels, Puchkari, coloured water filled balloons. None gets spared from getting coloured and no one takes an offence.

Special sweets and salted snacks are served to visitors/guests who come visiting to wish Holi. Cold drinks are served like Kanji (spicy drink from fermented black carrots) and many homes intoxicating drinks made from local herbs - Bhang (Cannabis) - basically for adults are served. Today with changing times wishkey, beer, vodka, etc have replaced the herbal intoxicating drinks. These herbal drinks are milk based but when consumed the effect takes place much much later where often people end up doing the same thing till the effect lasts, like if some one is eating will keep on eating or if some starts laughing will keep laughing till the effect lasts.

There is little or small Holi - Holika Dahan - where in the after sunset a bonfire is lit. Not every house can light a pyre so on various cross roads community pyres are lit where people do their prayers. Holika tricked Prahalad into the pyre but Holika gets burnt to ashes while nothing happens to Prahlad - a victory of evil. People smear Gulal or drench each other with colour water, offer sweets, etc.

Next is the main Holi - Dulahandi/Dulahendi also known as Dhuli in Sanskrit. family, friends, neighbours make rounds meeting people or visiting homes applying Gulal and wishing Happy Holi. Special cuisines along with snacks are prepared to be served to visitors. Those who drink or not allergic to liquor serve it otherwise cold drinks are served since it is warm during the day. Generally it is after eleven in the morning people move around as during the early part cooking takes place since after playing with colours it is tough to prepare meals. Gulal in the air in itself gives a kind of intoxication.

In earlier times colours were water based that used to come off after a bath or in a few days time but some people started selling and using inks/paints/metal paints, etc. that require lots of efforts to wash off besides these cause skin irritation that remains for many days.

Holi is celebrated with lots of vigour that can vary from place to place or region to region and continues for many days in some places. A few years back I came to know that celebrations started a week before Dulahandi, did see images but thought these celebrations took place on the day we all play. Never wanted to spoil my festival by being away from home, never ventured to Braj region. It was last year I went to cover the festivities. This was my second year covering celebrations in Nand Gaon as for certain reasons I got delayed for Barsana action. These start around noon time but actual action starts around 15 hours only. I reached Vrindavan around 15:30 hours and reaching Barsana would have been when things would be closing down with low light levels.

I had booked a hotel in Vrindavan but there was massive construction was on so I decided not to stay there. I had to look up an accommodation in time as most hotels get occupied with regular pilgrims and photographers. There were two hotels side by side where one was fully occupied luck to have got a room in the second Hotel Krishnam. Got to know it was one year old. It is a good property with modern rooms and amenities. The rooms were comfortable. The only thing that lacked was ice that they could not serve on any of the days. The small fridge used to get switched off when going out of the room. One could not keep any perishable eatables in it. This was one negative. Why keep a fridge when guests are normally staying in the room all day long.

Met the owner during my second evening in the hotel after returning from Nand Gaon. While interacting he mentioned a photographer Mr. Xavier Zimbardo who has been coming to photograph Holi since many years. Mr. Xavier took the owner on one of his coverages when he stayed in his hotel. Here I got know after Dulahandi Holi celebrations take place in Dau ji Temple. Dau ji or Balram was elder brother of Krishna. He showed a few images on his mobile. I got interested to cover this celebration.

The Yamuna Expressway becomes a bit boring to drive alone as there is very little traffic. I talked to a friend Mr. Sushil Khandelwal. We became friends through FaceBook as he contacted me since he also lived in Noida; and a keen photographer. His forte being architecture not much on candid photography but he agreed to try out some new aspect of photography. He was a nice company.

Dau ji is before Mathura and Vrindavan if take the Yamuna Expressway. The road was pathetic towards Dau ji and we took another route on return which was again nothing better. One thing on return route along the canal and fields, we found more than 10 to 15 peacocks and many different birds along with parrots. Took time off to photograph some of the birds and peacocks. Krishna always had a peacock feather in his head gear.

We reached pretty late as we found the roof surrounding the courtyard of the temple fully filled up. There was a section just for foreign photographers and foreigners only. Another section for other photographers, one for VIPs and there was the general people. The courtyard was filled up with people playing Holi and some who could not get a place upstairs were in verandahs/corridors. Not finding a place upstairs I decided to plunge myself in the courtyard right into where action was taking place.

The Holi was being played very differently to what I had witnessed in Barsana or Nand Gaon, it is called Harunga. Top clothing of males were being ripped off by women. There was liberal use of Gulal and coloured water. The temple authorities had fixed many showers that sprayed water in to the courtyard beside many sat with sacks full of Gulal who sprayed into the courtyard. Rows of menfolk came in to get their clothes ripped off and whipped by women there. I too got some nice hits by the ladies. It was amusing I was being requested to photograph them and they thanked me by really whipping me with those wet clothes. I asked one of the girls if the females ripped off clothes of known people like friends and family members. She said no there was no such thing. She said see how all the males come in for Harunga. There was no misbehaviour by any male member. The people danced and had real fun.

I heard Gokul, Mathura, Kosi Kalan and other adjoining regions in Braj play differently. Some using mud pits where people are shoved in. More research needs to be undertaken for future shoots.

I hope to continue the project in near future to maximise recording of Holi playing styles.

It is a common guideline in all over the world where there is a huge gathering to take care of valuables from pickpockets. Never to put money, wallet in the pant's back pocket. I had kept a few hundred rupees in a plastic bag in my back pocket. After it was over I checked and found the money missing. My friend suggested I might have kept it in my waist pouch. Later he checked his pant's back pocket and confirmed our pockets being picked. He lost Rs. 3500 that he had kept all together in 500 denomination currency notes.

In temples we are not permitted to wear footwear. I had carried a small water proof children's backpack where in I had put my foot wear when visiting Nand Gaon. This time I missed carrying it with me so had to leave the footwear in the car that had to be parked at some distance. Walking barefoot to the temple was quite uncomfortable. Often foreigners do get a better treatment by shopkeepers near the temple who make their footwear kept safely.

Many foreigners come to photograph or just enjoy the whole atmosphere of Indian festivals.

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