Chal Barsane Hori Khelen,
Jaha Basat Hai Radha Gori,
Hori Khelen, Chal Barsane, Hori Khelen…
Radha Kund, 2017.03.15 (Vishakha Dasi for Vrindavan Today): Now that Holi is over, I am gathering my memories like the fragrant and sparkling pank (mudlike paste) on the ground of the Holi battlefield, for one last round of play for Vrindavan Today.
I feel completely hung-over, though I promise I did not take bhang. I’m also sick as a dog, though I’m not sure if it’s from chemical-laced colors or from food poisoning. But despite all the aches and pains, it was totally worth it, and I would do it all over again.
Rewind to last week on the second day of my Nandgaon trip. The day before, I had driven to Nandgaon by scooty and stayed the night with a Goswami family of Krishna and Balram’s temple there.
I woke up on the floor next to about six other people, who slowly got up and began their morning chores. Then Krishna Murari Goswami, our young host, appeared. He brought the two shields that the men of his family use to protect themselves from the lathis (sticks) of the Barsana ladies. I felt very honored when he asked me to help decorate them.
My job was to cut a Pushti Marg tilak out of shiny gold paper, while Krishna Murari ji covered the two shields with brightly-colored giftwrap – one pink and one red. Thank goodness he gave me a ruler or I might not have been able to hack it. But somehow with a little care I was able to create something to his satisfaction.
He used a paste made out of wheat flour and water to stick my tilak on the pink shield, then made a blue one for the red shield. It felt a little bit like a kindergarten art project, which made me ridiculously happy.
Krishna Murari ji pasted on some leaves made of shiny blue, red and green paper, then covered the whole shield with yellow cellophane; the kind you might use to wrap a fruit basket. Despite the chintzy supplies, the end product looked pretty darn fancy!
After bathing and taking prasad, it was time to depart for the temple!
Upon arriving, I saw that many Goswamis were already there, dressed in their best with white dhotis and bagabandhis. Yellow scarves adorned their waists and necks, and a variety of classy turbans decorated their heads. They dressed to express their cowherd-boy mood. Many also wore sunglasses to protect their eyes from the colors.
I really appreciated the designs they came up with for their shields; each one was unique. My favorite was a tiny one made out of a steel plate covered with golden paper, held by an adorable Goswami child.
In Nandgaon, this day was dominated by men. The Goswami women stayed home, but the next day would be their day, when their turn came to play lathmar holi.
Krishna Murari ji explained that tomorrow he and his male relatives would accompany the women in his family through the crowd, taking care that they were given ample room to walk, and ensuring that no one would misbehave with them, and so forth.
It was only after some convincing that, as an outsider, I was allowed to accompany the men on their journey!
You may be wondering if I encountered any sexual harassment during the rowdy Holi play, and I must admit there were a few sketchy moments. Initially I didn’t want to write about this aspect of my experience, but after seeing some recent articles talking exclusively about the negative aspects of Braj Holi, I felt I should address that part too.
Some of the Goswami men were a bit more forward than perhaps they would have been on a normal day; I suppose the giddiness of Holi mixed with the bhang that I saw being passed around had a role to play.
In the temple in Nandgaon I had strangers ask to take selfies with me (standard behavior, really), strangers ask me to take pictures of them and send it to them later on whatsapp (a ruse to get my number?), and one gentlemen I did not know suggested I should choose a nice boy from Nandgaon to marry so that I could become a Brajwasi.
I did not feel offended by the cheekiness but I didn’t encourage it either. Mostly I found myself being treated pretty respectfully, and being called “aunty” and “amma” by them.
There was one uncomfortable moment the night before where a young man randomly shouted out the name of the male generative organ at me but that was more confusing than anything. The most unpleasant experience of this year’s Holi occurred in Vrindavan, but we will get to that in part three!
All in all I felt like I got off pretty easy in that department, and it certainly wasn’t the most memorable part of my Braj Holi experience.
The kirtan began with kartals and the thundering heart-beat of the daph drum. As the Goswamis crowded into the inner part of the temple, my friend and I sneaked around the back to watch the fun through the temple’s side door.
Through the cloud of pink powder we could see the Goswami men pumping their shields up and down while intensely chanting a song in Brajbhasha. They were inviting Krishna and Balram to come out of their temple and make the journey to Barsana, to play Holi with Shri Radha and the sakhis.
Next, the whole crowd shifted to the altar of Nandishwar Mahadev, where the Goswamis invited Lord Shiva to come to Barsana with them as one of their sakhas! I climbed the stairs to capture this moment from the roof.
When everyone had been duly invited, the Goswamis went home to bid farewell to their womenfolk and let them know they would be back in the evening.
We took this opportunity to go back to our host family’s house and enjoy a snack together. The ladies said they would go to a neighbor’s house and enjoy a little dance party while we were gone.
Suddenly two or three young Goswami men came running down the street in front of the house carrying the Nandgaon flag: a huge traingular yellow pendant on a long pole. That was our signal to depart for Sanket, the village at the midway point between Nandgaon and Barsana where Radha and Krishna love to meet.
Some of the Goswamis set out on motorbikes and some piled on the back of a tractor, while others sprinted all the way to the next village!
Krishna Murari ji, my friend, her son and myself all piled onto my motor scooter and drove there. On the way, we passed the boys who were running full speed – barefoot – carrying the Nandgaon flag.
Krishna Murari ji explained the importance of Nandgaon’s flag as the symbol of Shri Krishna’s victory in the Holi play. Thus the flag is the honor of His cowherd-boy companions.
“If we were to drop the flag, that would be like losing,” said Krishna Murari ji. “So the boys entrusted with the flag feel very blessed and they carry it with great pride and respect!”
Once in Sanket, the Goswamis ascended into the temple of the presiding Lord of Sanket – Shri Radharamanji – to have His darshan. This is the same Deity of Shri Radharaman who was kidnapped by robbers some years ago only to be found and reinstalled later.
The Goswamis from Nandgaon called Radharamanji “Sanket Bihari” although to my knowledge the Sanket Bihari temple is on the other side of the village. Well, of course – I thought – Radharamanji is Sanket Bihari too! Coincidentally the village has a baithak of Shri Gopal Bhatt Goswami although I have no idea if the naming of the Deity has any direct connection with him.
After enjoying darshan of the supremely adorable Shri Radharamanji, the Goswamis sat down in a shady spot outside His temple to sing a traditional kirtan. One of the temple’s elders, Shri Ramesh Chandra Goswami led the kirtan, which describes how Shri Krishna comes to Barsana to play Holi with Radharani.
Krishna Murari ji soon rushed us off so that we could get a good parking space in Barsana before it was too late. On the way, I told him that some of my friends would be attending on the Barsana side, including my shiksha guru, Vaisnavacharya Chandan Goswami of the Shri Radharaman Temple in Vrindavan.
“Oh, lovely. You should tell Gosain Ji and your friends that you’re on Nandgaon’s side,” said Krishna Murari.
“Actually, I’m on Radharani’s side,” I beamed.
“Nooooo!!!” Krishna Murari screamed as I laughed with glee.
“Alright, alright… just for today, I won’t say anything at all.”
After parking at a Dharamshala near Rangili Gali, we proceeded to Piri Pokhar (Priya Sarovar).
There, snacks were ready for the Goswamis and their entourage. The refreshments included sweets and pakoras and – of course – thandai (a creamy, nutty milkshake).
I asked ten times if mine had any bhang in it before drinking. One of the Goswamis, perhaps misconstruing my question as a request, offered me a small green ball of the intoxicating stuff, which I politely declined. Bhang-laced thandai is part of the Holi package in Braj too.
“Are you sure you want to go up to Shriji Mandir?” Krishna Murariji asked me yet again. “It’s not just the crowd, but there will be crazy men up there.”
“You mean, they will have taken bhang…”
“Yes,” he replied.
“It’s worth the risk.” I decided.
“Well then, stay in the midst of the Nandgaon boys.” said Krishna Murari. “You will be safe with us.”
The next step for my Goswami friends was to have their turbans tied. Generally, the elders tied the turbans of the younger boys.
These turbans consisted of a gamcha (a light towel) with yellow cloth wrapped intricately around the head, and various decorative elements according to each boy’s preference. Some used sparkly cloth borders, or fake jewels. Some tucked leaves or peacock feathers into the folds of the turban, and a few decorated theirs with rupee notes!
Soon I lost track of Krishna Murari ji, and would not find him again till the end of the program.
I hovered near the edge of the group, chatting with my friend and waiting for the kirtan to start. We also stopped into Shri Binod Bihari Das Babaji Maharaj’s ashram to get his darshan as many others were doing. Maharaj was taking prasad at the time but we were satisfied with seeing him from afar.
When the kirtan began, the Goswamis circled around the flag-bearer and danced, moving slowly towards Rangili Gali.
After about fifteen minutes the boys broke out in a sprint, literally charging Shriji mandir. The Barsana women dumped color on them from the rooftops to slow their advance.
The boys screamed “AHHHHHH!” as they tore through the streets of Barsana like soldiers on the battlefield, and I ran and screamed along with them.
The police had roped off the staircase which leads up to Shriji Mandir, so that only the Nandgaon boys could enter. As team Nandgaon passed freely under the ropes, I was stopped by a group of police officers.
“I’m with them!” I shouted. The cops shook their heads.
“I came from Nandgaon with them! Let me in!” I pleaded. No dice.
“I’M FROM THE NEWSPAPER!!!” I screamed…
They let me in!
I bolted up the stairs with the Goswami/Gopals before the cops could change their minds!
“Wow!” said one boy. “There’s no crowd!” The police had done a great job. One Goswami boy, whom I had never met, came out of nowhere and took it upon himself to keep an eye on me, to make sure sure I made it safely into the temple.
Although most of the ascent to the temple was clear, the last staircase – the one which actually leads into the temple – was really packed. And the crowd was thick between the temple’s gateway and the big hall where Shri Radharani resides.
I had become one with the wave of humanity; we could only move as a unit. One slip, I thought, and I would be crushed underfoot, and no one would find the body for hours. “Vishakha Dasi died in Barsana today, at the door of Shri Radharani’s temple, crushed under the lotus feet of her devotees, face-down in a pool of Holi color.” Considering this one of the greatest possible obituaries, which any Braj devotee would covet, I let the ocean take me where it wished until I was deposited safely inside the temple.
Shriji Mandir no longer looked like Shriji Mandir. It was a world of red (laal), where nothing existed but red – you saw only red, breathed only red, touched only red, knew only red. It was the perfect living metaphor for the state of the sacred lover, for whom nothing exists but Laal (the Eternal Beloved).
It was difficult to breathe in this new red world, and so my new friend – the stranger who had decided to look after me – grabbed my hand and took me to the edge of the temple room near the back, where there was some fresh air. There my cheeky stranger asked me to watch the Holi play from the covered area where it would be relatively safe. Mr. Cheeky Stranger then tried to take a selfie with his arm around me, but when I declined in loud and proud Braj Bhasha, he laughed and disappeared into the crowd.
From the edge of the red world, I observed how the Goswamis deeply relished this moment in song, at the lotus feet of Radharani, the goal of all their striving complete, having brought their sakha Shri Krishna together with His Beloved. Some boys rolled on the floor in delight, soaking their entire bodies in red colour. From above, the Goswamis of Barsana poured down color from pichkaris and bags of gulal.
Somehow in the fray I managed to lose the Nandgaon boys. How that was possible I could not say, but when I realized they were gone I also left the temple. But when I found myself decending the stairs with a group of beautifully dressed, veiled ladies carrying long sticks, I felt etremely blessed.
Near the bottom of the stairs, again the crowd seemed to merge into a single being, and I wasn’t able to get a place near where the lathmar portion of the festival had already begun.
Exhausted, I wandered towards the end of the market where I downed 100 grams of pakoras and a sprite before jumping back into the crowd. This time I found a spot on someone’s front steps and I was able to see at least a bit of the culmination of lathmar holi. Unfortunately my phone had died by then and I couldn’t get any good photos, but here are some sweet pictures taken by someone else.
Completely trashed with exhaustion, I sat down near my scooty until Krishna Murari ji and a friend of his appeared and we left for home.
The next day we enjoyed playing Holi with pure tesu flower water at Krishna Murari ji’s house with all the male and female family members. But we did not stay for Nandgaon’s lathmar holi.
My friend and I both needed a break before enjoying any more Holi festivities, so we went home to Radhakund. After all, this was not the end, but only the beginning of Braj Holi!
To be continued…