Krishna’s wildest colours

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Cloud-travellers Holi being played the traditional way in Nandgaon

I HAVE NEVER seen Holi played the way it is in Nandgaon. Holi here is no polite spraying of colour. Instead, it’s played for 41 days with wild abandon, every moment threatening to be the pleasantly dangerous one in which someone gets ‘too carried away’. As a photographer you are in danger too, about to be buried under sackfuls of gulaal or, on the last day, under floods of coloured water.

Nandgaon in Mathura Vrindavan district is at the heart of Braj Bhoomi, and the story of Holi is tied to the story of Krishna. Legend has it that young Krishna once complained to Yashodha that Radha was very fair in contrast to his dark skin. Yashodha teased him by telling him to smear some colour on Radha’s face. Taking her suggestion seriously, Krishna and his fellow cowherds from Nandgaon went to another village, Barsana, and slopped colour on Radha and the other gopis. The girls responded by chasing the boys away with sticks. In Braj Bhoomi then — the vaguely defined area of Uttar Pradesh encompassing Mathura, Krishna’s birthplace; Vrindavan, where he grew up; his natal village of Nandgaon; and Radha’s village Barsana; Govardhan and Phalan — Holi takes on a particularly special meaning.

Latthmaar Holi is played on consecutive days in Barsana and Nandgaon. On the first day, Nandgaon’s men dress in traditional attire, and go off to play Holi in Barsana; there, the women beat them away with lathis, in a re-enactment of Krishna and Radha. As the women of Barsana teach the Nandgaon young men a lesson — with their husbands cheering them to hit harder — the elders of both villages congregate in the temple and sing horis (ballads) about Radha and Krishna. The next day the tables are turned: the men from Barsana are at the receiving end of the stick from the women from Nandgaon. No signs of bhang, but everyone seems intoxicated with pleasure. You are constantly in a cloud of pink, green, yellow, red and blue.

Will Braj Bhoomi’s Holi survive in the face of changing times? I don’t know but I intend to go again this year