Holi Festival in Vrindavan and Mathura
While hanging around Big Brother Hostel in Agra, a few of us were sharing our plans for Holi, set to be celebrated on March 24. My plan at this point was to celebrate it in Jaipur, as that was the next scheduled stop on my list and I had heard that almost any city in North India was a good place to celebrate. A few people spoke of their experiences heading up to Vrindavan and Mathura, about 60 kilometers north of Agra. Here, the celebrations stretched over a week long, with different events happening every day, and is arguably the best place in India to celebrate Holi. Prior to arriving to India, I had never even heard of these cities, and first heard mentioned by some other travelers in Varanasi who were planning on heading there as well. Mathura is the birthplace of Lord Krishna, while Vrindavan, located 12 kilometers north, is said to be the city where he grew up. Since I had yet to finalize any onward travel plans, I had the flexibility of heading there to celebrate. This sounded like a much better opportunity, so I decided to switch up the agenda a bit, and celebrate Holi at the best place possible.
Holi is a spring festival that is also known as the celebration of colors. Originating in India and Nepal, it has now slowly began to spread around the world, particularly in areas where there are a large concentration of Hindus. The timing varies every year and is celebrated on the Spring Equinox. Holi represents the victory of good over evil and the coming of Spring and end of Winter. While normally stretching a day or two days in length, in the area of Vrindavan and Mathura, it stretches over a week long! Each day there are various variations. One day the women are even armed with wooden sticks and are allowed to “beat” back their attackers!
Through talking to a few other people staying at the hostel, a group slowly began to form. We began to make plans to head there the following day, the 22nd, as arguably the biggest day to celebrate there would be the 23rd. We planned to also stay for the celebrations on the 24th before heading our various ways. Our group ended up totaling 8 people: myself, Jason (Chicago), Anne Marie (Wisconsin), Chip (Georgia), Julian (France), and Lea, Johannes, and Phillip (Germany). This would be my first time travelling with Americans since a few of my friends came to visit me in Thailand back in January. Jason, Anne Marie, and Chip were on long-term trips as well, with Jason having been travelling for almost 3 years!
Since we were such a large group, we decided to take a private car to Mathura, rather than dealing with the hassles of the bus or train stations for such a short journey. Once we arrived, we shopped around a few guesthouses, looking for decent accommodation for a fair price. Unfortunately, prices were hiked up because of the festivities, and the owners weren’t willing to negotiate. We finally settled on booking two rooms in an adequate guesthouse (unsure of the name since the sign was written in Hindi). The three Germans bunked up in one room that had a double bed, and the five us remaining shared a single room with one double bed and two single beds all pushed together. This would definitely be one of the most interesting sleeping arrangements I have found on my travels thus far. But, as we were planning on spending all of out time out and about enjoying the Holi celebrations, and lacking any better options, we decided to go with it (Sidenote: It actually ended up being ok, none of us had problems getting any sleep either night since we were so tired.).
We then set off to explore the small town of Mathura, unsure of what to expect. Walking through the main road of the town, we saw a huge line of people extending out into the street. Knowing this must be good, we decided to join the queue. The line was for the Shri Krishna Janmabhoomi temple, which is the birthplace of the ancient Hindu God Krishna. Here we were subject to a vigorous body search-cameras, cell phones, etc were not allowed. In fact, they even refused Chip entry at first since he had a set of ear buds in his pocket! Hundreds of people milled about inside the temple grounds. We decided to check out the main temple and ascended the steps to enter it. We had impeccable timing, as just that moment they were opening a curtain to reveal a statue of a Hindu god. At this gesture, the people in the temple went crazy, chanting and waving their arms. Some even lay prostrate on the floor and began rolling back and forth. Even though I have been in India for a few weeks now, Hinduism is still something that I have not been able to wrap my head around, it totally different to Western religions. Still, one can’t deny that it is certainly fascinating! After wandering around a bit more, we grabbed some dinner and headed back to the guesthouse, for we had an exciting couple days ahead of us!
Festivities were due to start in the town of Vrindivan at 9am on the 23rd. Since we had to catch tuk-tuks there and didn’t want to be miss out on the early stages of the celebration, we headed out a little after 8 am, (donned in all white clothes to help show all the colors we’d receive) and arrived ahead of the schedule 9 am start time. When we disembarked from the vehicles, we saw many people already covered in the brightly colored powder. Seeing that we were foreigners wearing all white and currently unscathed, we were immediately swarmed by a pack of locals. They greeted us with “Happy Holi,” a phrase that I heard (and said to others), no less than a few hundred times over the two days. Our faces were the preferred targets for the first batch of people, as they showed no hesitation in placing their colored powder streaked hands all over our cheeks and foreheads. While the first ones were a bit of a shock, I quickly got used to it.
We all wanted to be able to be able to reciprocate in the throwing of colors back at our “attackers”, so we each bought a bag of the brightly colored powders being sold on the side of the street for only 10 rupees. Now armed with ammunition, we began to venture further into the town. Here we joined the already hundreds of people milling the streets. Conspicuously absent were Indian women. The crowd consisted of men and children, with the occasional foreigner (including women) sprinkled in. We began to weave our way down the street, both dodging and getting hit by the powder and water flying through the air. I had bought a cheap pair of sunglasses prior to this in order to protect my eyes from the mayhem. As I was walking through the crowd, a young kid no more than the age of 10 suddenly jumped up and grabbed them right off my face and started to run away! It took me a couple seconds to react, but as I spun around I saw him being grabbed by a man behind me who took my sunglasses from him and returned them to me. Thank goodness for good Samaritans!
Spying a restaurant, we decided to seek refuge for a few minutes and grab some breakfast before things got too crazy. As we grabbed a table and sat down, we realized that we Lea and Johannes were missing, having gotten separated from us somewhere on the street. We searched through the crowd but couldn’t find them, although we were a bit comforted in the fact knowing that they were together. After washing our hands and faces a bit we had some delicious local food that I’m not even sure of its names, as we just pointed with our fingers what some people near us had ordered.
After our stomachs were satisfied, we ventured back out into the madness. This festival is truly something else. It allows you to embrace your inner child and let loose by causing a bit of mayhem and mischief in the form of colored powder. Normally chaos is frowned upon by society, but during the Holi festival, anything goes! The epicenter of the celebrations was occurring at Banke Bihari temple, so we decided to check it out. As we were en route, we realized that we had somehow lost Julian as well. Our numbers were steadily dwindling, and now our group was down to 5-Jason, Chip, Anne Marie, Phillip, and myself. We managed to push our way to the temple, where we had to remove our shoes before entering.
If the general area outside was characterized as chaos, it was nothing compared to the inside of the temple courtyard, as it was pure anarchy! Priests were standing on a platform outside the entrance to the actual platform and were dumping buckets of powder into the crowd. People were pushing each other trying in vain to make some space, and it was all a giant mosh pit. Hands were waving frantically and people were shouting. Sunlight streamed down from above into the open courtyard, giving the proper lighting for some great photos. We were only inside for a few minutes, but that was definitely enough. It was an experience unlike any I’ve had before.
The rest of the morning was spent wandering the various alleyways and throwing and receiving color. We seemed to garner a lot of attention for being foreigners, with Anne Marie getting the brunt of it for being the only female out of the five of us. Even as we were walking through the crowd and she was third or fourth in line, the passersby would seem to wait for her to pass before throwing a bunch of powder in her face. I will give her credit for handling the experience like a champ, as she was also subject to many handsy men, taking advantage of the chaotic crowds to do a bit of groping, as much as we had tried to prevent that. (Sidenote: Females should think twice before deciding to participate in Holi in India, as while India has a reputation for being overly “friendly” to female travelers, the situation is intensified, as many of them are under the influence of drugs and are extra bold in their interactions. This is why many Indian women choose to remain indoors or participate only in private celebrations. Just a cautionary warning.)
Some of the gangs of young kids were especially vindictive. They seemed to take pleasure in dumping buckets of water or slime on passerbys from the windows or floors overlooking the streets. Others were armed with supersoakers or cans of silly foam (which smelled terrible!) and seemed to only target our faces and ears. Luckily my sunglasses provided good protection for my eyes, but my ears were victim to several attacks of the foul-smelling foam. While there were a few of these people that caused a slight damper on the celebrations, a large majority of the people we interacted with did it in good fun, and were pleased that foreigners were joining in to celebrate alongside. Around noon we decided we had our fill for the day and the five of us grabbed a tuk-tuk for the 12 kilometer journey back to Mathura. Once in the tuk-tuk we weren’t out of the woods yet, as people still tossed the powder and water into the vehicle as it drove by.
Once we made it safely back to the guesthouse, we washed our faces and hands a bit using the hoses outside. As there was a parade happening in the afternoon in Mathura, we didn’t want to get too cleaned up, as we knew we would soon be dirty again. As we were rinsing off, Lea, Johannes, and Julian returned to the guesthouse, having arrived back a little bit earlier and returning from grabbing lunch. We laid out in the bright sun for a bit to let our wet clothes dry, sharing our battle stories from that morning.
Stay tuned for Part II!