A toli of men from Palwal are busy with their dholak, harmonium, and cymbals, singing and improvising verse and counter-verse in Braj bhasha. The rhythm goes up and down the roadside, more colourful than the jets of gulal streaming around. Two women, in their thirties, draped in nylon saris and holding two children by their hands, come up to this troupe and stand listening. Then, as if possessed, unable to contain herself, one of the women steps forward to dance. Casually, least surprised, the men shift and make space for her. She pulls her pallu over her face and in that moment becomes something else. She unleashes a flurry of hands and feet and movement, dances to her heart’s content and then goes away, on her way to worship Ladleeji. In a small shrine by a pond, the beat of dholak reverberates to songs of Holi.
Every so often a man or two steps up — either dressed in a salwar-kameez-chunni outfit or with a chunni borrowed on the spot — and does a lusty but graceful dance perfectly mimicking the movements of a dancing girl.It is Barsana. Famous as the village of Radha. They have come from all over to worship their Ladleeji; she who gives so much joy and meaning to Holi. They have also come from Nandgaon, believed to be Krishna’s village. And when a group of elders chant in praise of Ladleeji, their goddess, a youngster from Nandgaon says: “Krishna is from Nandgaon, he’s our brother, Radha may be goddess for you, but for us she is just our bhabhi.” Radha. Sitting atop the hill in Barsana, she is ‘Ladleeji’ for the locals — the little darling who refuses to play with the mischievous Krishna, who wants to literally beat him when he arrives to spend a naughty Holi harassing her, who complains of him all the time, and who, of course, has no entity without him, as he has none without her.
It’s an expression of love that has defined love in this land for centuries. And when Radha and Krishna are not looking, engrossed in each other, lost prancing among the ponds and forests of Braj, the locals indulge in some role playing, the way children imitate their seniors. They play, sing and dance as Radha and Krishna. This then is where we can find the great raison d’être of Holi and its supreme abandon and revelry in Braj. Holi is all about Ladleeji and love: her love, love for her, the love play between Krishna and Radha, but also love beyond genders, love expressed as selflessness and as craving for the universal. Love expressed as eventually merging into something that is greater than oneself, at the beautiful risk of obliterating oneself. That’s what they do in Braj Holi. They obliterate their individual selves and become Krishna and Radha. We hear the Goswami of Radha Raman Temple at Vrindavan explain this aspect of Holi. We all wish, he says, for a joyous, love-filled future.
But the past, its unpleasant memories, its demons inhibit us. Come Holi, we can burn all that is bad in the past, play unhampered and find love for everybody. However, ego intervenes. Ego that is male, the big I, the big He. Krishna had the same dilemma, he says, but he found a way out. He became a woman, Krishna became Radha, not physically but in essence. This ‘becoming woman’ has a profound and lovely tradition in Braj. Lord Shiva once wanted to see Krishna’s divine Ras Lila with the Gopis, but was told that there could be no other male but Krishna in the Ras arena, and so Shiva became a Gopi. Thus, in Vrindavan’s Gopishvar Mahadev Temple, the Shivaling — the ultimate male phallic symbol — is dressed in the evenings as a Gopi with a nose-ring and silk sari!
The 15th century saint Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, who discovered Braj, is believed to be a combined reincarnation of Krishna and Radha. In another famous legend, Mirabai came visiting the Vaishnava saint Jiva Goswami in Vrindavan but was rebuffed by an attendant — how could the celibate ascetic meet a woman? — but she remarked that she hadn’t realised there was another man in Vrindavan apart from her beloved Krishna. And Jiva agreed with the essence of her statement. All of Vrindavan is but a lover of Krishna, and becoming his gopi is their way of love that knows no bounds. The gopis, who could teach the highest of saints a thing or two about passionate, unflinching devotion, are referred to as sakhis (female friends) their love for Krishna called sakhi bhava.
In Holi you will see many men in Braj do this; they become gopis or sakhis and play Holi in what is called the sakhi-vesh (persona). Dressed as women, dancing as women, loving their god as women. I find clerks and shopkeepers dance with abandon as sakhis in the service of their Krishna; I read about a housewife who dresses like a man, identifies herself with Balaram, Krishna’s brother, and considers her god to be her beloved playmate in an eternal childhood; I hear somebody explain, “Barsana is Radha’s village, all men here are in sakhi-bhava.” During Holi, through the villages of Braj, in Barsana, Nandgaon, Dauji, Jabat… men and women, come together in small groups called tolis. In these groups they simultaneously let go, and keep control over what’s happening, without losing their autonomy in the mass. There is a great sense of freedom. An incredible amount of licence is taken by women. The toli also makes sure that there is no separation between ‘performer’ and ‘audience’; everyone participates. Of course, you can also simply see the great carnival Holi is: a reminder of our traditional celebrations when we welcomed spring and nature’s fertility with uninhibited merry-making, when festivities were an anarchy during which it was a disgrace to remain sober, when transgressions and liberties were joyful and ‘revelerous’.
Things to see and do
They sing and dance in temples and on roads; they play Holi with flowers; they weep and laugh in Ras Lila performances; they look forward to women beating men with sticks; and sometimes, they cannot so much as be seen in the sheer abundance of colours, caught in a monsoon of gulal. Watch them, join them, feel with them, and rediscover an abandonment and joy that city festivals have all but lost. The Holi we know of in cities is celebrated on the first day of the month of Chaitra. On the previous evening, the Phalgun Purnima, that is the full moon day of the month of Phalgun, the holika bonfire is lit. In Braj, Holi begins a week before the full moon and lasts till a few days after. Barsana (41 km NW of Vrindavan) Late in the afternoon in Barsana. Legs are tired, but the music goes on. We are sitting on the steps in the temple courtyard, next to a group of village women. A man, so drunk that he can hardly stand straight, is dancing and keeps asking the assembled women to join in.
And they do, dancing joyously, expertly. He then gestures for the oldest of the lot to join him. She, frail and elderly, seemingly agrees with a lot of reluctance. We think she will go, shake a leg and be back. But once on her feet, this feeble lady pulls a long pallu over her face and does the most graceful and exquisite dance, her steps perfect and movements silken, in complete unison with the unknown, strange, drunk man. Usually, Holi in Braj brings to mind the famous Lathmar (hitting with sticks) Holi of Barsana and Nandgaon, but for us its real attraction is the great song and dance sequence that it is, all sheer lyricism and gorgeous rhythm but also delightfully unrestrained and even provocatively coquettish. The action in Barsana, Radha’s village, begins on Phalgun Ashtami (8th day) in the evening, when the temple of Ladleeji on Barsana Hill begins the festivities with colour and song.
A messenger comes from Nandgaon (Krishna’s village) to announce that the next day Krishna and his friends will come and play Holi. The next morning, people from all corners of Braj start arriving in Barsana and do a parikrama of the village, walking the arid landscape through a narrow crack between two hillocks, and up and down the rugged terrain. They enthusiastically sing and dance all the way and throw colour on one and all, and visit the shrines on the way. In the afternoon, everybody gathers in the Ladleeji Temple up on the hill and waits for the men from Nandgaon. Just outside the village, next to a pond called Peeli Pokhar, men and boys from Nandgaon take hours to dress up in shining white dhotis and kurtas, and yellow or saffron turbans, with colourful shields to protect themselves from the lathis of the Barsana women. The lathis will soon rain blows on them in a pantomime of Radha and her friends beating the mischievous Krishna and his playmates.
Around 4 o’clock the group proceeds to the temple, singing and dancing all the way. By now, the temple is besieged by crowds and the steps are dangerously jammed with people. In the temple, priests (who are now Radha and her sakhis) welcome Krishna and his friends from Nandgaon; there is a stirring exchange of wit and repartee between Radha and Krishna, all in lovely Braj bhasha verse, and showers of colours, dry and wet, are poured on all. The famous women of Barsana, dressed in saris and jewellery, with their faces veiled, are ready with their long lathis on the steps and streets below the temple. The Nandgaon men, as they descend from the temple, are greeted with showers of these sticks, in a mock beating, and they receive these blows on their shields and bodies with downright pleasure. “Each blow feels like a blessing,” says a Nandgaon lad, “from Ladleeji.” Nandgaon (50 km NW of Vrindavan) The Holi carnival moves to Nandgaon the next day, the Phalgun Dashami.
This afternoon, men from Barsana climb the hill in Nandgaon to reach the Nanda Bhavan Temple. Here they sit in the courtyard facing men from Nandgaon in a samaj (a community gathering), which is a great festival of music, dance, banter and wordplay. This is accompanied by a deluge of gulal and jets of coloured water from giant pichkaris. Drenched to the core, they come down from the temple and in a reversal of last evening’s events are set upon by the Nandgaon women with their sticks. Phalain (50 km NW of Vrindavan) As elsewhere, so in Braj, the story of Prahlad is central to the lore of Holi — the righteous son, who worshipped Vishnu against his demon-father’s commands, and remained completely unharmed in the fire conjured up by Holika at the command of the father. In Braj, a village called Phalain is said to be the place where this miracle took place, and every year on full moon night before Holi, the miracle is re-enacted there: the priest of the local Bhakt Prahlad Temple runs through a truly massive fire and comes out entirely unscathed. We reach the village much before the midnight of Phalgun Purnima and crowds keep pouring in for the event that is to happen at 4 am.
A huge mass of dead wood and cow dung have been made into a circle, 30 ft across and 7-8 ft high in the village centre. The priest has prepared for the trial with a demanding routine of abstinence, celibacy and meditation for 40 days. The excitement builds up, the atmosphere is thick with energy and with everyone’s anxiety for the priest. A friend remarks that it is the collective faith, the combined energy of everybody that will take him through, that will make the miracle possible. A while before it is time, the priest comes out of the temple for a dip in the pond. Crowds surge around him, but they cannot touch him because that is taboo. Up from our rooftop perch the scene looks and feels electric. The fire is lit, the dry wood ignited and the flames leap up. It is unbearably hot even on the rooftop. The priest emerges from the pond, rushes across the dry ground and leaps into the raging fire. At one point, his dark silhouette framed in fiery orange stumbles over the dry uneven wood and all hearts stop, but he regains his balance. A step, one more, and he is out, safe, unharmed.
There is a collective sigh louder than the yells of “Bhakt Prahlad ki Jai” that bellow in the air and drive the gleaming white herons from the treetops around the pond towards the pristinely glowing perfect circle of a moon. Vrindavan The darkness has become more and more intoxicating with the smell of flowers. In the ashram we are based in, people have stayed up all night plucking petals off thousands of roses and marigolds. It is Phoolon ki Holi that morning. In the morning, the ashram stage hosts the last of a series of Ras Lila performances. The boy-actors playing Krishna, Radha and the gopis start throwing the petals at each other, and then at Krishna and Radha. Then Krishna throws flowers at the crowd. It is a signal for all heaven to break loose.
We all throw flowers at each other, stuff them in each other’s clothes, rub them in each other’s hair, and flee laughing when our friends come running, threatening us with… flowers. I remember shaking flowers out of my hair in my bath that afternoon. Later, in the Radha Raman temple, a woman in a bright orange ghagra-choli, face covered, dances like some powerfully flickering flame in front of the Krishna idol. We are all entranced, till we wonder how she could afford to be so intimate in her dance with the other male devotees? And then my friend whispers, is she a man? She is. In sakhi-vesh, incarnating the passion of Radha but also of Lalita, Chanda…. The eight original sakhis who are venerated in the temples of Vrindavan to teach us that worshipping Krishna is essentially an aesthetic experience and means, simply, to be in love with him. Vrindavan, the centre of Braj, is the heart of all action from Ekadashi (11th day) till the day after the full moon. An elephant carrying a young boy and girl, Krishna and Radha for the occasion, is taken out in the streets of Vrindavan to herald the beginning of Holi. From then on, the temples and streets are alive with colour and music.
People go from temple to temple, where priests wield pichkaris and drench the devotees with coloured water, prepared by boiling tesu flowers. In many temples, people sing devotional songs in sittings called samaj. These are fluid gatherings where anybody can join in for a song or just dance in abandon, often exhibiting skills as profound as the devotion. Still later, in some streets you can see men and women busy with colourful chalk, creating pleasing patterns of rangoli. And then there is the Braj Ras Lila, a 400-year-old local tradition of enacting Krishna’s youthful pastimes with music, dance and witty repartee, with elements akin to dhrupad, kathak and folk theatre thrown in. What you will find there, writ large and deep on the faces of the crowd, is utter and joyous adoration, brought on by the easy antics of Krishna and Radha.
By Amit Mahajan and Juhi Saklani
Amit Mahajan has earned money as an engineer, reflexologist, travel writer, translator and has done a few other odd jobs.
Unlike the villian in the Harry Potter series, who divided his soul into several pieces to avoid mortality, Juhi Saklani is multiplying hers by travelling, under the guise of being a travel writer.