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Vrindavan, the land of Krishna’s ‘raas-leela’ with the gopis, is where Holi celebrations start at least a week before the actual festival. Deciding on impulse to make the trip and managing to rope in a friend as well, I ignored that little voice that warned me of the dangers of two women travelling to experience Holi at the crowded Banke Bihari temple.
As we stopped the cab on the main road and got out to walk through lanes to the temple, I felt I would have been under more threat in Delhi’s Lajpat Nagar locality, where I live. There were no water balloons, just greetings of Radhe Radhe, before people threw dry (mostly) colour on you. As you get closer to the temple, the crowd swells and chants of “Hathi, ghoda, palki, Jai Kanhaiya Lal ki” fill the air, accompanied by dholak beats. As you walk, people get chatting, telling you how much longer the “1km” stretch to the temple will take. The cop, before we got off the car, had told us encouragingly, “Wahan jam ke Holi khel rahe hain (Holi’s being played in full force at the temple)”.
Just before entering the temple area, it took a minute to decide whether we should stop there or go ahead. Fearing being groped, I saw a group of women and decided to stick with them, but the bigger challenge was to stay on our feet as the crowd pushed. We made it to the entrance and even found a spot on some steps, which became our perch for the next half an hour. But, before I could claim my spot, a man from the crowd decided he wanted a picture with the blonde woman there. I asked her if she knew him; she didn’t, but gamely posed anyway. A few minutes later, I saw a conversation in progress, where two men confidently advised the girl and her companion to just “relax” as the crowd would thin soon.
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One asked, “Where are you from?” and when she answered, “USA”, he responded in open admiration, “By God!” Soon enough, the girl turned to look with disgust at the man who wanted a photo-op and confided that he was trying to feel her up. Since all this action was happening on the three steps that we were sharing, I turned to ask him why he would do that. He looked mildly hurt and asked me how I could say that; the space was so narrow that she just brushed past him. I was distracted by a baby, who kept pulling my dupatta, while his mother in turn adjusted it.
There was also conversation about no “darshan” of the deity happening inside the temple. So what was happening inside? Oh, people are just sitting there, somebody informed. There was also the issue with removing footwear, as I saw one man emerge from the crowds holding aloft a pile of chappals. A sign at the temple informed that if anyone was allergic or had any issues with colour, they should avoid coming to the temple during this period…basically meaning, it’s Holi, deal with it! However, like clockwork around 12.30, the crowd thinned and people started making their way back from the Banke Bihari temple.
The spirit of Holi is everywhere in Vrindavan and we had a sense of being included in the town’s celebrations, as kids stood strategically in corners with pichkaris, women sang bhajans as they walked and families stopped for a bite at restaurants. However, a couple of well-meaning guys on the street warned us not to come back the next day, the official date for Holi. “Today, it’s for outsiders, so people are showing decency (“sharafat”). Tomorrow, it’ll get rowdy and people will rip each other’s clothes off.” There’s lots else to do, though, like watching Holika go up in flames in the evening and witnessing priests prepare “bhang” in the early hours of Holi.
So, was Holi in Vrindavan really worth the trouble? The festival of colour is known for removing barriers of class and caste and, outside the rough and tumble of metros, people here seem kinder. As one man stumbled in a lane and seemed to twist his ankle, he was propped up by a stranger. What is the message behind Holi? As Osho sannyasin Ma Naina tells us, “We created festivals because our lives are dry and dull. Once a year, we observe the festival of colours, painting ourselves and each other with bright colours. We sing and dance, we throw all our morality, rules and etiquette to the winds; for one day, our river flows, breaking all disciplines. It is just a consolation. Again, the next day, we return to the same gloominess, the same prison, misery, anxiety.” Holi should be a non-stop celebration, encouraging us to add a little bit of joy and silliness to our daily lives.
And, once in Vrindavan, if you listen carefully, Osho has said, you can “hear the echoes of the ‘maha-raas’ even today. If someone can play a flute near the hills that in the past echoed with the music of Krishna’s flute, he can hear those hills still echoing it, everlastingly.” We haven’t tried that, but one thing’s for sure, there’s definitely magic in Vrindavan!