A couple of hours south of Delhi by train lie the misty flat lands of Braj. The area isn’t marked on many maps – being more culturally than politically defined. It’s the birthplace of Lord Krishna and once a year, centre of Holi – Hinduism’s most colourful and lively festival.
Holi celebrates the beginning of spring, Krishna and the triumph of good over evil in the legend of Holika and Prahalad. The story tells how King Hiranyakashyap became invincible as a reward for his devotion to Brahma. Thinking himself all-powerful, he demanded his people worship him as a god. Everyone in the kingdom obeyed apart from his young son Prahalad, who worshiped Vishnu instead. Incensed by this, Hiranyakashyap commanded his sister, the demon Holika, to carry the infant into a fire. Holika perished but miraculously Prahalad survived, protected by chanting Vishnu’s name. On Holika Danan, the night before Holi, people light bonfires topped with effigies of Holika and Prahalad to celebrate the tale. Holi takes its name from Holika.
The festival is best known for the coloured powder (gulal) and water people throw at each other, a tribute to a prank played by the young Krishna. It’s one of the few times caste and wealth is forgotten. By the time everyone is covered in dye it’s impossible to tell who is rich or poor.
Nowadays, despite Holi’s religious origins, it’s mainly a time to have fun with family and friends. Families celebrate near the safety of their homes, whilst raucous groups of young men roam the streets looking for as much trouble as they can find.
I travelled to Braj with Toby Deveson at the end of a short photography trip to India. We spent the first week motorcycling in Ladakh, high beyond the Himalayas, then flew back to Delhi where we picked up a hire car and drove to Mathura, in the centre of Braj.
I’m a poor driver so Toby, who is far more skilled, agreed to take the wheel. The journey started out with a few near misses that were easy to laugh off, before descending into an endurance test as night fell. What we’d estimated to be a short journey became five, then eight hours. Huge trucks raced towards us on the wrong side of the road. Livestock and people came at us from all directions. Other cars veered across lanes with no warning – impossible to see in the heavily polluted air. It’s fair to say that we were relived to arrive at our hotel, something the manager might have sensed by my rather enthusiastic greeting. I would have hugged him but there was a desk in the way.
Morning brought Holika Danan. While the people of Mathura built their bonfires, we set off for nearby Govardhan. The town is on the route of one of many pilgrimages in the region and the main temple was crowded with devotees – arriving, chanting and praying before continuing their journeys.
Still free of colour, we stayed in the sanctuary of the temple for a while, bracing ourselves for what we knew would follow. Almost as soon as we left, we got our first good covering in gulal. Most Indians seemed to get away with a light coating, but we were totally smothered – powder and coloured water forced into our eyes, ears, noses and mouths by joyful mobs of young men. Little concern is given to quality control or the recipient’s health. Industrial strength dyes? Perfect. Cow dung? Absolutely. Water from the gutter or filthy oil? Why not!
We escaped the crowds to clean the worst off and joke about our baptism. I was bright yellow from head to foot.
From Govardhan we went to Vrindavan. We photographed the festivities in town and at the riverside, before an extraordinary few hours at Banke Bihari temple. Hundreds had squeezed inside. It was joyfully chaotic – scary, noisy and exciting. Worshippers sang and danced, whilst temple attendants drenched everyone with long metal water guns.
The coverings in colour were unremitting, and it was only when we returned to shower at the hotel that night, eyes burning and half deaf, that we realised it doesn’t wash off. Later on at dinner in the restaurant, we sat sheepishly at our table whilst passing waiters politely stifled their laughs.
The next day was Holi and we decided to stay in Mathura. We photographed for a few hours before squeezing through the crowds for the biggest event of the day – a carnival style procession from the town’s main temple its landmark – Holi Gate. Concerned, the local police tried to remove us, ‘you’ll be blinded’, but we persevered and were glad we did. Brass bands, holy men, local dignitaries and decorated floats all passed by as the colour rained down from the rooftops.
Not long after, everything went quiet. The gulal was put away and people changed into clean clothes. Crowds walked home along the railway tracks and the TV reporters got back in their vans. Boys started games of cricket and exhausted, we relaxed by the river. Holi was an incredible spectacle and a privilege to witness.
A couple of days later we flew home. Krishna smiled on us, and despite the way we looked, we got upgraded. As we prepared to take off, we amused ourselves by reclining up and down in our luxurious seats. The other travellers didn’t share the enthusiasm of their brightly coloured companions.
This article first appeared in Sidetracked, an excellent travel and adventure online magazine run by designer John Summerton. See more images from Holi Festival.