"You came to Holi to play...so you must play." The snarky comment came from an Afro wig wearing Vrindavan youth with a push spray gun in his hands. By play he meant he wanted to squirt me with a fluorescent blue liquid that would soak through my shirt and stain my skin. The "play" of Holi, a major Hindu festival celebrating the return of spring and triumph of good over evil, is a game of cat and mouse between raucous youths and unsuspecting participants, typically Westerners. The festival is a wild and good time but can quickly escalate out of control with a wayward throw of powder into someone's eyes or the sucker punch dousing of a sticky stain-inducing liquid. There's no complaining though - this is what you sign up for when you visit the village that hosts India's craziest Holi parties.
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I arrived in Mathura, two hours south of Delhi, two nights earlier as part of a ten day trip to India centered around the Holi celebration. There's not much to the village other than dirt and a few temples. The street scene involved herds of wandering cows, a couple of interesting buildings, and a camel pulling a cart down the main road. Monkeys coexisted with humans scurrying across rooftops and swinging from electrical wires.
Hindu Pilgrims flock to the village because one of those temples happens to be the birthplace of Krishna, a child avatar of Vishnu. His birthplace is the Shri Krishna Janm Bhoomi Temple. I couldn't bring a camera in although it was not too much of a disappointment - the only photo worthy image was the ceiling and beams of the temple which were decorated with colorful paintings and scenes from Krishna's life. Less than fifty meters away from the Shri Krishna Janm Bhoomi Temple is the Keshavde Ji Temple, a descending stair temple with a pool. After walking around the temple I joined a group of people I saw earlier.
We walked down Mandi Ramdas Road and through Dori Bazar. The street is lined with ancient houses, temples, and shops. It reminded me of Kathmandu - small shops with a platform extension were hidden on the ground floor, sometimes below street level, of a five hundred year old building. Former mansions and gates led to courtyards and apartment style living. The street reached the Yamuna River where we rented a boat to view a few more temples and ghats.
After taking a tuk tuk back to the hotel area I picked up a few supplies for the next day's celebrations then rejoined the group for a thali dinner. I then walked through the nearby neighborhoods to see if any residents had started the Holika Bonfires that involved burning cow dung to signal the start of Holi. I caught one group around a bonfire before heading to bed to get rest for the upcoming party day.
Around eight in the morning the group was on our way to Vrindavan. Shortly after exiting the tuk tuk local revelers were applying powder to my face to get in the Holi spirit. Then the guy in the Afro wig appeared and mayhem started to break out. When visiting India during Holi, particularly towns such as Mathura and Vrindavan which have the most raucous celebrations in the country, it's difficult to be an outside observer of the party. At some point, on some level, you become a participant. A fifty meter walk down a busy street and my clothes, face, and hair were covered in powder.
Our group sought sanctuary, both literally and figuratively, in the Krishna Balaram Mandir, a Hare Krishna temple. The Hare Krishna monks, with their distinct shaved head and pony tail patch, were in a celebratory mood. Music, chanting, and dancing filled the temple's inner sanctum. I spent the rest of the morning and early afternoon moving between the temple inner area and a stairwell that provided an overhead view of the mayhem the continued to unfold outside.
Around two, with the celebrations still continuing along the street in front of the temple, I snuck out a side door. I avoided any more color shots and fortunately caught a tuk tuk ten minutes later and offered a fair price for the return to Mathura. Back at the hotel I showered all the powder off - the powder in my hair was difficult to remove and I had a temporary auburn shade for the following days. A short nap and it was time for dinner. I thought about the past 36 hours. Color. Crazy.
For additional photos see FLICKR ALBUM.