I expected celebrating Holi in India to be colourful. What I never expected, however, was the scale at which it would be celebrated: the sheer joy, the throngs of faithful participants, the explosive song and dance, the endless stock of powdered colour, and the hours and hours over the weeks to come that it would take to scrub my body clean of Holi’s colours.
Authenticity is what I was looking for. Thankfully, I learned about a town called Vrindavan, which is said to have the most lively Holi celebrations in all of India. Keen tourists head there for the massive celebrations, but more than anything, Indians flock to the area to sing and dance — and to get down and dirty.
As the story goes, Lord Krishna was born in Mathura and spent his childhood in nearby Vrindavan. It’s a sacred and important town of Hindu pilgrimage, and a hot-spot to be for the famous festival. Holi in Vrindavan, unlike other places in India, is celebrated for seven days.
Holi, often referred to as the festival of love or the festival of colours, is a Hindu observance that celebrates the victory of good over evil; fertility and love; the arrival of spring; and the passing of winter. It is also, among other things, a thanksgiving for a successful harvest.
When I arrived — the day before the major events — the main strip of tarmac in front of the The International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKON) complex was already covered in shades of pink, which is the cheapest of the coloured powders.
And just like that, as soon as I went wandering, it started. Friendly young Indian men approached me and carefully dabbed the middle of my forehead in reds, greens, yellows, oranges, pinks, and whatever other colours they could get their hands on. Holi isn’t exactly celebrated — more like played: You're not meant to throw powder with any aggression (throwing into the air is fine), but rather, to gently dab it on someone’s forehead and greet them with a hug. That’s playing Holi.
On the eve of Holi, huge pyres consisting of dung and wood are built in order to celebrate Holika Dahan. Holika, as both the event and fire are called, celebrates the death of the demoness of the same name who was burned to death with help from Vishnu. The fire signifies the victory of good over evil.
Later that evening, there was a party happening inside the ISKON temple. Percussive sounds and Hare Krishna songs resonated between the temple walls, as Hare Krishna devotees swayed back and forth to the music in a trance-like state, hands in the air. Sweets and and fruit were set out on the stage and left as offerings to Krishna.
I woke early on the main and final day of Holi, eager to load up on a variety of coloured powders and join in on the festivities. After a few minutes of trying to scrub off colour from the previous night, I realized my struggle was counterproductive. The streets were eerily quiet around 8:30 a.m. — but that changed in the blink of an eye.
We made our way to Banke Bihari, a famous Hindu temple in Vrindavan, where the largest events are held each year for the week leading up to Holi. The narrow lanes leading to the temple were filled with spirited processions of people, and the streets were vibrant, radiating an energetic and contagious joy. Colour literally filled the air. Nothing and no one was safe from the chaos, as buckets of water were dumped from the rooftops and squirt guns filled with coloured water were fired in all directions. The streets quickly became a pasty, colourful, goo-coated slip and slide.
During the evening, the atmosphere takes on an almost apocalyptic feel: the air is full of coloured specks, that cloud your vision and — in the blurry distance — the chanting and singing continue, and the sound of pounding drums make its way through each every maze-like street. The buildings, the ground, the faces — they soon all become unfamiliar, even more unfamiliar than before. All surroundings soon take on the same feel, as everything is covered in a rainbow of pink. Nearly everyone is wearing an ear-to-ear smile.
Holi is played many different ways in various areas throughout India. It was the most colourful event I've ever attended. If I had to guess, I’d say thousands of pounds of powder were thrown in Vrindavan alone. Wherever you are in India, playing Holi is one colourful adventure you don’t want to miss out on.
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