Text by Susmita Mukherjee
“It was such an exhilarating experience,” she said sipping some tea. For Radhika Chalasani, a New York-based photographer, it was just another visit to capture the colours of India in 2006. She was in Barsana (Uttar Pradesh) to find out more about the famous lathmar Holi. “The normally mute and shy Indian women of the village, with a lath (stick) in their hands, charged at the men without a care,” she laughed recalling the event. “Several men got hurt but the women stopped only to laugh and then hammered away with renewed vigour. Frankly, I thought it was ghastly.” So it seems to anyone who has spent time at the quiet village of Barsana at any other time of the year.
Riddled with tales, the celebration of Holi in the land of Lord Krishna and his beloved Radha is such that any form of insanity is not just welcome, it is an added excuse to take celebration up by a few more notches. “The tradition dates back to the time when Thakurji (Krishna) had crept into the village to pester Radharani a week before Holi. She got all the gopis together and beat him and his friends out of the village,” explained a woman of the custom. The enthusiasm has only grown. For Devika, a new bride who celebrates her first lathmar Holi this year, it is an excuse to gorge. “My mother-in-law has been serving me rich food everyday so that I can beat up more men than any other bride of the village,” she chuckled. The number of men you can beat up at Holi is considered to be auspicious. “Last year, I took down seven men,” said a proud Sunita who has been participating for nearly a decade. While tradition requires the men to hoist a Krishna flag at the Radha Rani temple top to signify their victory, escaping the charge of the women, very few make it anywhere close to the temple precincts. The celebration continues till one man makes his way up the high stairs of the temple and hoists the flag. In return for the lathmar, the men of Gokul and neighbouring villages take their revenge the following day when they raid Barsana again a few days after the lathmar Holi and colour every woman they can find. The celebration begins right after Basant Panchami, the official beginning of spring in Northern India.
Dance to eternity
As I walked close to Nidhi Van, I was warned to alter my course before nightfall. “The Lord still comes here every night to visit his priyatama (lover),” warned a local. “If you try to interrupt, you will go blind,” he said ominously. This is the legend of Nidhi Van, where Swami Haridas is said to have had a vision of Krishna visiting the forest with Radharani and the gopis. It’s a vision that the locals believe reappears every night. Prod them some more and they will tell you stories of the sounds of ghungroos and the flute that permeate the compounds and how foreigners who tried to sneak into the premises were struck down with disease, deformation or death. In the light of day, Nidhi Van sees hundreds of pilgrims visiting the shrine of Swami Haridas and monkeys who are infamous for making off with spectacles. The priests of the temple decorate the bed for the Gods after the evening aarti, place food and incense for the nocturnal visitors and even leave toothbrushes and other modern amenities for the Gods. It’s a one-of-a-kind experience.
There is no way you can miss the glory of the Lord’s leela if you visit the Brajbhoomi during this season. I could see hundreds of devotees dressed up as the flirtatious Krishna, his beloved Radha and the besotted gopis, moving around the city showering colours lured by musical chants of Hare Krishna. The raas leela is performed by trained classical dancers as well as devout villagers. The sound of Lord Krishna’s flute is said to have magical powers. It commanded the undivided attention of every living being, including the women, cows and trees. And when he played his flute on the banks of River Yamuna and made his way through the villages, the women and animals flocked to his side to experience the divine form of love that flowed through the melody. The priests of any temple in Vrindavan, Mathura, Gokul or Nandgaon will tell you that the Lord and his divine love can still be experienced if only you can surrender your soul to him during the raas leela.
Reason to riot
It felt as if I had gone back in time. It’s hard not to get lost in this land of legend. As if on cue, a tea vendor mentioned Pootna in his conversation. As the story goes, the residents of the region were bothered by the demon, Pootna, who fed poisoned milk to infants on the order of Kans, Krishna’s evil uncle. Kans, who feared that his sister’s son might still be alive, set out Pootna to kill all new-borns in the region. It was in the month of spring, close to Holi, that she arrived in Gokul where she found little Krishna and tried to kill him. Only, Krishna killed her before her evil plans were realised. The night before Holi, young men are encouraged to go around the village shouting abuses and making loud noises to keep demons like Pootna at bay. Similarly, the ogress Dhundli, who bothered children in Raghuraj, is also kept at bay by screaming, shouting and boisterous activities carried out by the young men of the region. Hence, at holi, being upto no good isn’t an excuse, it is mandatory.
In search of love
“Love is a concept that you, the generation of instant noodles and solutions at your fingertip, cannot possibly understand,” said the bearded man sitting before me. Behind me the crowd raised its arms and sang the name of the lord. “My wife and I cut costs for 15 years to give our son an international education. He returned six months later as an alcoholic after being jilted in love. What does he know of love? This is not love,” he said disgruntled. At 65, a former superintendent of Archaeological Survey of India, and one of the most senior priests at the Banke Bihari Temple at Vrindavan, Acharya Vijay Goswami is perhaps one of the rare few who understand the concept of love, seeing thousands turn up at the door of the temple of the Lord and through his own years of service. “If you want to know love, the love that the Lord showered, you have to look from His eyes, not yours.” As I made my way back after the evening aarti, I saw what the Acharya meant. Every person in every street of the town of Vridanvan exuberated their own love story with their Thakurji. Brajbhoomi does, still, resonate with the romance that history is still struggling to establish. But to the people of Vrindavan and Mathura, the love of Radha and Krishna is captured in the numerous tales that have passed through centuries and immortalised in little temples dotting the region as a humble tribute.
This article was originally published in Exotica magazine.