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The colours of Krishna

If it weren’t for its religious verve, Mathura would be just another incorrigible small town. Marry the lanes of Delhi’s Chandni Chowk with the gritty ghats of Banaras, and you get the twin towns of Mathura and Vrindavan. From rickshaw rides burgeoning with one too many a passenger to fearless cows and buffaloes walking the lanes with an air of authority; from monkeys that flick your sunglasses to piping hot streetside kachoris and chaat, the Uttar Pradesh small-town checklist is complete here. Once a year though, Mathura gets painted with the colours of Holi and the mélange of dirt and chaos transcends into a hub of devotional love for thakurji, as Krishna is lovingly known here in his birthplace.

While it might not be entirely devoid of unruliness and touts, the average person is honest and generous and the celebration is a great alternative for those who prefer a cultural carnival to rain dance parties. Photo: Mayank Soni

The Holi bonhomie is infectious and finds its way to you, be it in the clay cup of sweetened, frothy milk cooked in giant cauldrons on the roadside or the offer of that dubious-looking but relatively safe thandai laced with bhaang. Holi in Mathura and Vrindavan starts over a week in advance and reflects the true spirit of the festival. While it might not be entirely devoid of unruliness and touts, the average person is honest and generous and the celebration is a great alternative for those who prefer a cultural carnival to rain dance parties.

 

The festival officially kicks off with the famous lathmaar, the most well-known of the events, in a little village called Barsana near Mathura. But a day prior to this is laddoo Holi, when priests at the Radha Rani temple shower sweets on devotees.

After lathmaar at Barsana, it is celebrated again in Nandgaon the next day, and then at Krishna Janmabhoomi the day after. Lathmaar, when women beat up men with sticks, is considered the day when women get their own back. Lathmaar also marks the advent of gulaal Holi celebrated across temples, big and small, with handmade dry colours taking precedence over water.

The Holi bonhomie is infectious and finds its way to you, be it in the clay cup of sweetened, frothy milk cooked in giant cauldrons on the roadside or the offer of that dubious-looking but relatively safe thandai laced with bhaang. Photo: Mayank Soni

The day before Holi starts the main procession from Dwarkadheesh. Devotees dress up like their beloved Krishna and Radha or in traditional costumes, and go around the old town. Holika dehen, or the burning of the effigy of Holika, takes place at the main chowk at Holi Gate the same evening. On the actual day of Holi, residents and devotees visit the many temples that dot Mathura and Vrindavan, including the two most prominent — Dwarkadheesh in the former and Bankey Bihari in the latter — to pray, sing and dance and throw colour on each other.

Some of this starts in temples on a smaller scale about 10 days earlier, and with every passing day, the vigour and energy exuded is contagious beyond comprehension. Crowds also gather on the ghats to make bhaang to offer to the idols and later consume as prasad.

The day after Holi is for the little-known ritual of Horanga, at the Dauji temple, again about an hour from the twin towns. The event essentially follows the philosophy of lathmaar except that in Horanga, women tear the shirts off the men, wet them, and then beat them with it.

In Mathura and Vrindavan, Holi starts over a week in advance. The bonhomie is infectious and effortlessly finds its way to you. Photo: Mayank Soni

The day before Holi starts the main procession from Dwarkadheesh. Devotees dress up like their beloved Krishna and Radha or in traditional costumes, and go around the old town. Photo: Mayank Soni
A walk along the ghats and into the bylanes reveals the Jama Masjid, surrounded by vegetable vendors and ration shops, and the last of the ruins of King Kansa’s fort, where today, children of the neighbourhood play cricket and women dry their laundry. Just around the corner, Muslim workers are engrossed in making tiaras for thakurji, for Krishna holds sway here regardless of religion. Down at Vishraam ghat, where Krishna is believed to have rested after slaying Kansa, are little temples of varying significance, from those that worship Krishna’s parents to those that revere the bond between brothers and sisters.

Once a year though, Mathura gets painted with the colours of Holi and the mélange of dirt and chaos transcends into a hub of devotional love for thakurji, as Krishna is lovingly known here in his birthplace. Photo: Mayank Soni

Come evening, and the ghats come alive with aarti ceremonies ranging from the sober and ritualistic to staged performances. But slip away on a rowboat as the sun begins to set, and watch butter lamps float down a river with a thousand untold stories, and in that quietude, you will discover Yamuna and the complexcivilisations it has given birth to on its banks.

Born and brought up in the Himalayas, Shikha Tripathi is a journalist based in Binsar.

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