I had the opportunity to celebrate Holi, the Indian festival of colour, in a most special way when my friend Alex asked if I wanted to join a photo tour with her. I could think of no better way to immerse myself in Indian culture.
The festival is held at the onset of spring to commemorate the Radha and Krishna’s divine love and is most exuberant in the Braj. In the village of Barsana, believed to be Radha’s birthplace, the festival takes the form of Lathmar Holi, celebrated a few days before the main event. The legend goes that Krishna and his friends visited Barsana to tease Radha and her shepherdess friends. Offended by this, the women chased them away with lathis (long bamboo sticks). Each year along with thousands of pilgrims, people and a handful of photographers, the men of Nandgaon swarm into Barsana to play out this ritual.
Following a religious ceremony in the the only temple dedicated to Radha, packs of boisterous young men tear through the streets throwing colour at women and singing provocative songs. As a choice target (foreign female + big camera) I was frequently smothered in a thick paste of gulal (powdered colour) matted on with a generous splash of rang (coloured water) sprayed at me. These attacks were stealthy – smearing hands snaking from behind, blinding and suffocating me temporarily. My ducking and evading skills were put to the test – I did more squats that weekend than a week in the gym.
Thus we watched in glee when specially nourished Barsana women chased the men away with their lathis later in the day; those ensnared were subjected to a violently loud, mock thrashing in the streets, egged on by the cheering, jeering crowd. Spontaneous outburst of singing, dancing and shouts of “Radhe Radhe!” mingled with the powdered air, electrifying the atmosphere.
Bhang (cannabis leaves) is often consumed in thandai (a sweet milky drink) at Holi. The cannabis plant is believed to have been a favourite of Shiva, and some forms of the drug are used in religious practices connected with worshipping Shiva. It also grows wild in many parts of India, valued for its medicinal value and used to aid digestion and appetite (hello, munchies!). For the sake of safety, it was best not to partake, however if you choose to, do so at your own risk and understand any legal ramifications. I’m not entirely certain whether the bhang added to the frenzy or people were just high on life but the festival was pumping.
The next day, the men of Barsana reciprocate by taunting the women of Nandgaon and are chased away in a similar fashion. We arrived early morning as the village was waking up, safe still from the onslaught of gulal and rang that were in store for us, we had an insight to life in rural India, by far my favourite part of traveling in the region. Villagers obligingly posed for photos and the younger children got in on the fun armed with water pistols.
We meandered through the lanes for several hours before heading to the village temple in the afternoon; celebrations were in full swing. In the temple courtyard, women, men and priests mingled, throwing colour and water and generally making merry. No one was safe or exempt from the onslaught. At times I felt like crying.
Toward dusk, men from both villages, drenched in a cornucopia of colour, gathered in the temple courtyard to sing ballads in an enthralling samaj ceremony, signifying community and unity. The temple descended into a trance-like quiet, lulled and hypnotised by the melodious singing.
The trip was intense, frenetic and challenging – at times I felt like crying and curling up into the foetal position. The village of Barsana usually has 150,000 residents and swells to 1 million. I found myself just carried along with a river of people, going the opposite direction to where I wanted. We had protective camera gear but often I couldn’t not see my viewfinder and was just shooting blind. So definitely not a trip for the faint-hearted.
But celebrating Holi in its spiritual home is like no other experience I’ve ever had. The colour, the madness, the people, the spirituality, the noise, the FUN are all unrivalled. It will forever remain one my best India experiences.