For a few days every year people from across the world head over to two small villages in Uttar Pradesh, India to witness and experience a spectacle that never ceases to amaze.
Over the years this celebration with colours has especially enticed photographers, enough for them to risk taking their expensive camera equipment, covered in all kinds of professional and homemade covers, to capture that one perfect shot featuring an explosion that is an exemplary amalgamation of gulal (dry colours), dance, music, and all around cheerfulness.
Barsana and Nandgaon are villages that are immersed in Indian heritage, mythology, and culture. Barsana being the village of Radha and Nandgaon taking its name from Krishna have long been the epicentre of Holi celebrations in the region. The Phoolon ki Holi (Holi of Flowers) played in Vrindavan on the third day makes this the “Holi-Trinity” of all major Holi celebrations.
Holi, a Hindu festival, is played and celebrated all across India – usually in/around March – and even internationally now. So, what makes the celebrations in these two small villages of India so unique?
To find the right answer, you simply have to experience it yourself. But to give you a little insight, what makes Holi so unique is the zest and vigour with which it is played in these parts of the country, and of course the extravagance and plot that forms the basis of the origin. Call it an Indian-ized Romeo and Juliet if you may – without any bloodshed – that oozes fun, frolic, naughtiness, jubilation, colour, and of course sticks… lots and lots of sticks.
I spoke to some locals in Nandgaon, and each one had a slightly different variation to the story behind the festivities. In a nutshell, the scheme of things consists of firstly the boys from Nandgaon going to Barsana to play Holi. On the next day, the women of Barsana come to Nandgaon and try to enter the temple atop the hill. As a result, more Holi is played as the residents of Barsana are “stopped” by having water thrown on them. In the end, though, the women take on sticks and beat the boys for being troublesome – thus the name Lathmar Holi.
On the third day, villagers go to Vrindavan – close to Mathura – to play Phoolon Ki Holi. As a tourist, if you would rather stick with an authentic city-holi experience, the celebrations in Mathuraare perfect for you.
Talking to some more people – this time, visitors from practically around the world – I was told that the crowds at Barsana were massive, to the extent that many couldn’t even make it to the temple there. Nandgaon, on the other hand, seemed bigger and while the crowds definitely increased as the day went on, it looked just about manageable – if you can call standing on rooftops to witness Lathmar Holi that.
Another reason for celebrating Holi in either of the villages is that each location brings a certain uniqueness that is unparalleled and equally fascinating. The people – especially the locals – are incredibly welcoming. I was surprised to see how open they are to being photographed. Many-a-photographers directed them to stand a certain way, throw colour on cue, smile, play, dance, sing, and they would do that in a heart-beat without expecting anything in return – maybe put some colour or take a selfie, but that’s about it. Not once did I see anyone ask for money in return for posing.
Now, celebrating Holi in this region isn’t for the weak at heart. The festivities do begin with the people casually putting gulal on cheeks, but it slowly moves on to a more intense celebration as coloured water comes into play. All this though is amidst a lot of laughter and revelry, ever increasing, as the number of people involved multiply with each passion hour.
Witnessing and partaking in Holi at Nandgaon is a once in a lifetime experience that, if you get the opportunity, you should never miss out on. The trick to enjoying Holi in Barsana, Nandgaon, and Vrindavan, as an outsider, is being ready for it, both mentally and physically.
How can you do that?
Below, I’ve jotted down of my observations, tips, and thoughts that could help you plan your trip better…
Holi is a physical festival. You simply cannot expect, if you go out – anywhere in India for that matter – to not get colour and water thrown on you. It is also one of the few festivals where strangers are more than likely to walk up to you and put colour on you.
That’s the magic of Holi; it breaks down barriers and brings people closer together.
Going to Nandgaon and being there for Holi is taken as a sign that you want to be part of the celebrations. If you don’t want too much colour on yourself, use a raincoat or a poncho. People will still come and wish you “Happy Holi” by putting colour on your cheeks, and they might aim their Pichkaris (water-guns) at you… but that is it.
If you are there to play or even photograph, do not expect that colours will be thrown at your request. No one will ask for your permission, but most people are generally careful not to throw water on the face. When they put colour, most usually do so in a civilised manner. The rest of your body is fair play with regards to the pichkaris. How you save yourself – by running away, turning around – is entirely up to you and part of the fun as well.
If there to photograph, make sure you protect your camera well. Having an expensive camera in your hands doesn’t exclude you from being a “target”. While I chickened out from taking my DSLR, many people brought really expansive cameras with them, albeit adequately covered in rain-covers or homemade hacks.
There is one matter of grave concern, and that is of unwanted harassment of women. Unfortunately, some miscreants take advantage of the enormous crowds and the Holi scene to inappropriately touch women. But, this is few and far between. There is no question that this issue should be brought to notice; however, it would also be wrong to use terms such as “Un-Holi” in regards to the celebrations at Nandgaon. These are acts of some desperate individuals, and everyone present shouldn’t be labelled because of that.
In a perfect world these occurrences would never happen and the more it is talked about, the more there is a chance that it will lessen over time; till then, women should take precautions like they would in any public place – crowded trains/buses, concerts, or any such gatherings which have “uncontrollable” crowds.
On a positive note, Nandgaon, on the day of Holi, had large Police presence all of whom were extremely approachable. Every street, little lane, the temple, nooks and corners, had policemen on duty. They stood there for hours, in the sun, with only water packets to quench their thirst; some in groups, some alone, and I did see them reprimand the odd troublemaker.
A welcome omission was water balloons. There was not one insight throughout the day, be it in the temple or out in the lanes. Although you are more than likely to get hit by a water balloon walking anywhere in any city of India around Holi time, on this day, in Nandgaon, it was only gulal and coloured water being thrown on people.
One, somewhat surprising, missing feature, often synonymous with Holi, was alcohol. In fact, the group I was part of, did venture out in search of Bhang, but we all came back empty-handed. Nor did I come across any inebriated person. We, ordinary city folks that we are, did have a beer in the car which in all honesty proved to be rather refreshing in the end, after a long and tiring day.
There are a couple more “myths” about Nandgaon Holi that I would like to address; firstly, although the colour used isn’t organic, I find it very hard to believe that sheera (shard glass) is put in it by some individuals. I had colour go into my eyes, and coloured water was thrown all over me as well, and I came back with no problems whatsoever.
The other being that certain foreign ingredients (shards etc.) are put into the water and colour so that the outsiders – especially women – remember playing Holi with specific individuals. Now, anyone present in Nandgaon on Holi is more than likely to play with close to 100 people – there are 1000s present, so this is a rough estimate- all with coloured faces, often looking very much alike, so for someone to think that they will be remembered if they put shards in their colour is a little farfetched.
There is no denying that often people put all kinds of extra elements in colour – I’ve played Holi with grease and metallic colours – but there was a sense of purity in playing Holi at Nandgaon, and it reflected in the colours that were used.
Instead, it’s essential that you are aware of your own body and allergies you may have. The colours might have chemicals so reactions might happen. Be careful about open wounds – a scratch even – and dress appropriately by covering your body as much as possible to avoid excessive contact.
There are certain areas in the Temple at Nandgaon where you can spend time and stay away from “playing” Holi. The rooftop – monitored by the police – is where most photographers can be found. It is a vantage point to see the celebrations and while one can still expect to have colour and water thrown on them, it comparatively is less active an area and a place where most people are seen resting and relaxing, hiding from the afternoon sun, and taking in a bite or two of spicy chaat from the street hawkers.
Even though I firmly believe Holi at Nandgaon is safe, I also think it might be a little too much for kids – especially city kids. The temple, the people, the crowded lanes, everything can get a bit intense for the little ones, and it’s best to maybe avoid taking them until they are in their late teens.
Lathmar Holi that takes place later in the afternoon is an entirely different experience. Here, the visitor is just the audience as it is played primarily by the locals. Finding a vantage point is the key to taking good photographs. However, it is watching women beat men – shielded – that brings forth a somewhat sadistic joy to everyone.
Since all the best spots get filled up quickly, make sure you head over to one of the residences around the main playing field early in the day and “book” yourself a spot to avoid disappointment later. You might have to pay them a little, but it is definitely worth it, rather than standing in the crowds below – lots of pushing and shoving around.
Lathmar Holi is an event that is full of colours of a different kind. The womenfolk come in their best -wedding like – clothes, some shimmering in the late afternoon sun. Whereas the men, mostly in orange, fill up the spaces in-between all the women. Instead of throwing gulal or water, there are festive songs sung, more dancing – men dressed as women sometimes – and lots of pulling each other’s legs with words, eventually culminating in the women taking long laths (sticks) to beat the men present there.
There is tradition behind Lathmar Holi as well; groups of young men go from house to house shouting and intimidating women with words and lyrics – if you understand the language, these are rather rude. It is actually a way to let out all the bad thoughts and simultaneously an invitation of sorts to call the women for Holi. In reply, the women take on the laths (sticks) to beat the men – who, at this point, sit quietly under a shield and take the beating.
Learning about the cultural significance of a place before visiting often helps better understand the rituals. Or do as I did and make the most of conversing with locals around you and question them to discover the origins of all the activities that are taking place right in front of your eyes.
A day spent at Barsana, Nandgaon, or Vrindavan can be tiring. It leaves you with enough options to walk as much as you want and play as little as you like. But it helps to take a few breathers in-between to replenish yourself.
A sure shot way to gain back some of that lost energy is walking through the streets to small eateries and tasting local delicacies full of lip-smacking flavours that range from hot samosas and kachoris to freshly made Lassi and sweet Rabri.
It is important to remember that when you visit Nandgaon or Barsana, you are inviting yourself to someone else’s “house”. The locals welcome you and let you be a part of their lives. Therefore it’s essential that you respect their traditions and culture, even if it is different from your own. Keeping your cool, a smile on the face, and being part of the festivities can undoubtedly help make Nandgaon’s Holi a pleasant affair.