“Happy Holi! Radhe Radhe!”

By Geertrui Tavernier
Photos: Manolo Ty

Event: Holi festival in India: celebration Lord Krishna and the beginning of spring
Venue: Mathura and Vrindivan (India)
Date: 16–18 March ‘14

Imagine a maze of narrow streets filled with people. As many as in Wall street on a Monday morning. Now quadruple that and make them slightly intoxicated with the excitement of children on Christmas morning. Add the smell of incense, spices and herbs, (cow) urine and feces, human sweat, burning rubbish and fleeing dogs. This mob now happily smears one another with brightly colored powders (gulal) while moving through the small alleys towards the main temple of Lord Krishna.

This gives you a faint idea how Holi is celebrated.

Holi festival, also the festival of colors or of love, announces the victory of good over evil or the arrival of spring. It is held all over India but originates, and is still most extravagant, in Mathura and Vrindivan, the cities where Hindu God Lord Krishna was born and spent his childhood.

We, two Germans, a French, a Portuguese, an Indonesian, a Belgian and an Indian (and no, this is not the beginning of a cultural joke) were there. Armed with our own stash of gulal, our Indian friend Suruchi made sure we were at the right spots when crucial rituals or blowouts were happening.

Pushing and elbowing our way through herds of people overflowing the little streets, our mission was to reach the Banke Bihari Temple. Within minutes, there was not a square centimeter of our body which was not buried under vivid powder or sprayed with colored water.

“Happy Holi, Radhe Radhe!” they shouted frantically each time they smashed a handful of colored dust into our surprised faces. A crazed ambience created by the enticing feeling of freedom of an otherwise repressed nation made them roar out loudly and sway their bodies up in the air and around each other!

Inside the temple, the spectacle was hallucinating. Packed like sardines in a can, people went out of their minds every time the Brahmans revealed the tomb of the Hare Krishna founder. Rapturous cheering and chanting while hands were thrown in the air out of ecstatic happiness and people falling onto their knees crying to beg or thank the gods. Even there the colors were continuously spread and thrown in the air leaving brightly tinted clouds, adding to the mystical of the scene.

We had to climb a mountain of left-behind sandals and flip-flops when leaving the temple as it is considered a token of luck when losing your footwear during Holi. Manuel was one of the lucky ones although he accidentally slipped into another man’s sandal while squeezing his way through the crowds.

In the evening light, at the riverside Ghats, the magic continued. Colorfully adorned women were dancing and chanting to the uplifting beat of young percussionists. Others were preparing flower offers or lighted dozens of candles and candlesticks. A holy man held those above the water and chanted his mantras loudly to praise the gods and appease the river spirits.

All people called out their own gratefulness for the holy river while throwing fresh jasmine flowers in it or they uttered their wishes and desires via a flowered made up little boat with a lighted candle. We showcased our own fair share of Indian dance moves and joined the locals who were beside themselves from happiness and released tensions. We ended this enchanted day in style by sharing some good French wine, cheese and bread, brought by the mother of our French friend Boris. Craving for cheese for months, it was fit for a king!

We thought it would be impossible to even match a day like this, but the next morning, the bewilderment continued. After some more “Happy-Holi-Rhade-Rhade”-powder-encounters, we went to a nearby little town to pay our tributes to yet another Krishna-devoted temple. Even if it was before noon, most of the bunch of “colored” folks were drunk and out of control. From a safe distance, we saw them ripping each other’s clothes of, another of the Holi traditions.

All people were in holiday-mode and the town was immersed in a drowsy mood. We were hungry but no restaurant or street food vendor was up for business. They finally pointed us to an ashram a little further via some off-track paths where marihuana was growing wildly on both sides (!).

The ashram turned out to be another must-visit holy Holi-place. Several hundreds of people lined up to receive their free meal and so did we. You have to follow the rules strictly though. A poor man who forgot to remove his sandals before entering the huge sandy dining hall was slapped hard by the long-bearded ‘holy’ Baba.

We were a bit startled but no Indian gave an inch, higher castes are allowed to treat lower ones like this, more so, they are sort of supposed to.

Hitchhiking on a truck back to Mathura seemed like a great idea. “Yes, yes, mister, we are going to Mathura. Yes, yes, jump in with the others.” After a while, our suspicion grew, this was not the road we came and it was taking much longer than it should. GPS on someone’s smartphone (I admit it can be handy at some times) showed they took us in the complete opposite direction. We jumped off at a seemingly uninteresting small village to soon discover there too some special celebrations were ongoing in their temple! And a parade too!

Those days turned out to be two of those that are imprinted in your memory forever, it made us experience an Indian cultural highlight at first hand, far away from where most tourists go. The energy incited during, kept on vibrating through our bodies for a long time after.