Radha Kund, 2017.03.17 (Vishakha Dasi for Vrindavan Today) To me, Holi is all about who you want to go crazy with, and who better to go crazy with than the incomparable Shri Radharamanji? He was the inspiration for my Holi planning process, and in fact the schedule I set for myself looked pretty crazy.
After getting back from Nandgaon I took two days to catch up on work, do some laundry and clean up the house, then proceeded to New Delhi on the 10th.
“Wait a minute!” you scoff. “New Delhi during Holi? How could you?” But a Delhi detour was all part of my crazy plan.
The evening of the tenth was our bi-weekly sankirtan with ODev (Ocean of Devotion), a group of Vaisnavacharya Chandan Goswamiji Maharaj’s disciples and followers. It’s a bit far away for me but I try to attend when I can. Such sweet association is something I find very difficult to resist. This time the ODev crew really had a blast with flower Holi, which transformed into sandalwood-paste Holi when our host, Ashishji, broke his own rules of not using any colors or wet stuff.
It was a fun and inspiring evening with the most beautiful rasiyas (Holi songs) and we all felt extremely fortunate that Maharajji and his lovely wife Radhika Goswami blessed us with their presence. A small group of ODev devotees would also be coming to Vrindavan, to play Holi with Maharajji and Radharamanji. We sketched out a rough plan to meet up and play at intervals during the next few days.
I so cherish meeting the Delhi devotees who love Vrindavan so much and always live there in their hearts. In fact, I brought one back with me; Maharajji’s disciple Kirtida Anuragini and I hopped on the train at Nizamuddin Station the very next day and came straight home to Braj.
Upon reaching Mathura Junction, I looked over the station affectionately and the sight of its well-kept platforms brought feelings of pride in my heart. Imagine how many mahatmas have come and gone from this very station! I know my param gurudev Shripad Ramdas Babaji Maharaj used to come here when traveling to Braj from Kolkata. Even the train station here is sacred: a part of the dham!
My friend and I stopped to take a selfie with the Mathura Junction sign, happy to be home.
At this point I’d like to offer a bit of advice. For those of you who want to come to Braj for Holi, I would say planning is key. As the days pass, the play only gets crazier, and the main day of Holi can get out of control. On that main day, you’ll want to pre-plan the place you will play. You’ll need to plan who you will be with, and get yourself early to the scene of the crime – the earlier the better! – and stay put in your chosen place till the play ends around 1pm.
My chosen place was Shri Radharaman Temple, and luckily my friend Geneve, who lives very close by, kindly offered to let Kirtida and myself stay with her for a few days. We are very thankful to her for her hospitality and her adorable company.
During the eight main days of Holi (holikashtak), Radharamanji comes out into his jagmohan (the outer part of the altar) to play Holi with his devotees. His Goswamis act as his arms and legs to distribute the deluge of color, often in the naughtiest of ways.
(I stupidly took few videos, so here’s Radharamanji’s Holi, 2015!)
I remember on a few occasions, I saw a Goswami hold up a garland and motion to an unsuspecting devotee, who came forward happily to accept the prasad, only to receive a bucket full of orange tesu-flower water or a whole plateful of gulal on his or her head. (I wasn’t sure if I should reveal His little trick here, but then again I am sure whatever I have seen is only a tiny fraction of His repertoire of cheeky pranks).
Unfortunately, on that first night we made it to the temple too late to play Holi with Radharamanji; he was already taking his dinner by the time we arrived. I had attended Radharamanji’s Holi celebrations before, but I felt bad for Kirtida, who was attending for the first time. I hoped that somehow we would still get a chance to play Holi with Radharamanji before it was all over. Still, it was beautiful to watch the devotees so charged, absorbed and dancing.
Here I would like to mention that bhang (cannabis) is also a part of Braj Holi, as it is in other places is India. It is often drunk in a creamy beverage called thandai, or eaten raw in the form of a paste.
Some people I know, who will remain nameless, partook of a bit of the green stuff. I enjoyed watching how one of them lost all inhibitions and became like a little child, letting all his love for Shriji pour out in the form of dance. We were also offered bhang on various occasions, but I always decided against it, and for a good reason. I tried the green drink once in Dauji gaon some years ago, and let me just say, I guess I am not the type of person who dances under the influence of bhang. In my mind, the experience was going to be like Amitabh Bachhan slightly tipsy on thandai singing in the movies, but it was really more like getting completely paralysed for ten hours and becoming trapped in some really crazy fictional scenarios in my head. I was also extremely high for four days straight and for the next six months, every time I would sweat, I became slightly high again! Maybe I got a little extra something in my drink, or maybe my lack of exposure to drugs and alcohol just made my body unfit for for the Amitabh Bachhan flimi bhang experience. Whatever the case may be, bhang and I are not friends!
Despite all my Holi planning efforts, one thing I neglected to plan was our meals; we sustained ourselves on fruit, sweets, and other odds and ends. On this night, we sneaked out and grabbed some Maggi noodle packets. The spice packs were not good to use – they contain onion and garlic – so we flavored them with the only things available; salt, pepper, and a little sesame oil, and offered the bland soup mentally to Giridhari. Our scrappy little meal was surprisingly delicious. No doubt it was the special seasoning of gratitude that gave it that special taste.
The next morning was Gaur Purnima and Choti Holi (little Holi). Once again we enjoyed darshan, but no Holi play in the temple. In the afternoon, Kirtida Ji and I finally met up with some of our ODev crew to play. Shyamsundarji, Manuji, Abhishekji, Nihitji and Shrimati Rai Dasi all were there.
It felt like a weird time to play Holi; all the temples were closed and the streets were quiet as we set out from Shri Radharaman Temple. No one else was playing. But without a shred of shame we pranced aimlessly through Gopinath Bazaar and beyond, smashing each other (only) with gulal all the way. We drank lassi and wandered around the back of Shri Govind Dev’s temple where we emptied several five kilo bags of colored powder on each other.
Feeling a little worn-out, Kirtida and I left our friends and went home to bathe and hopefully get presentable enough to attend the Gaur Purnima function at the Amiya Nimai Mahaprabhu Temple (Boro Gaur Mandir). Geneve also got dolled up and accompanied us to the mandir.
The Amiya Nimai temple is owned and cared for by Shri Chandan Goswamiji’s family. It has a very special history; the Deity was previously worshipped in Kolkata, but his sevak passed away whilst singing to Him from Jaidev’s Geet Govind. Thereafter He was brought to Vrindavan.
You will always remember Amiya Nimai, because His special way of dressing makes Him look like a beautiful, shimmering, ten-foot-tall butterfly. It was a wonderful blessing to be there with Him on His birthday.
After the abhishek we changed back into our colour-stained outfits and went back to see Radharamanji again. This time he was playing Holi and we were so thankful to finally get the chance to be drenched in His colors.
Kirtida ji describes the moment beautifully:
When we went to Radharaman temple, eager to play Holi with Priyaju’s beloved, our Shriji, we had already missed our first evening play with Him (that would be Saturday). Eager to know when would we get another chance, we naturally asked around, but received different answers. Some even said that there will be no more Holi in Radharaman temple. Our minds had registered the idea, but our hearts refused to believe it.
The next evening, after attending Mahaprabhu’s abhishek at Amiya Nimai temple, Maharaj (Gurudev) invited us to play holi with him. When we went back to Radharaman Temple there was the usual rush of devotees seeking His divine darshan. Thinking that He will not play Holi, I offered a little prayer to Him to come out and play with us. Suddenly after Sandhya aarti, the Goswamis started sprinkling powdered and water (tesu) colors on all of us. When the first drops of colored water and gulal powder hit me, I felt Holi had really started. The Goswamis went all out with showering devotees with colors. My heart could not contain the excitement and feeling of being blessed beyond measure that Shriji had indeed heard my prayers and had Himself come out to play Holi with all of His devotees.
When the play was done, we soaked in Radharamanji’s beautiful and ethereal shayan aarti, where the devotees bid good night to Him to the song of the bamboo flute. Finally, we returned home.
Quickly we bathed and changed yet again, and got ready for bed after our small feast of Maggi noodles.
The next morning was the big day, and it was so difficult not to stay up all night chatting, so excited we were!
The next morning many groups of Vaishnavs passed through our lane singing absolutely gorgeous kirtans. It was so otherworldly to hear group after group pass by, lifting up the song of the Holy Name. The melodies they sang were in praise of Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, and I gathered they must be doing so in continuing celebration of Gaur Purnima. I was amazed that they were able to perform nagar sankirtan without being overwhelmed by colors; perhaps if we left early, I thought, we would also be spared to a point!
And so we left the house around nine a.m., and sure enough, we made it to the temple without incident. Although to be fair, it was not a long walk. We went inside and spent our time with Radharamanji. Soon we were found by Karan Vig and K.D. McComb, whom I met for the first time. It just so happened we had some lavender gulal that exactly matched K.D. ji’s scarf, and so we sprinkled some on her liberally… and a little on each other. But we got in trouble from the sevait Goswamis; no Holi play was allowed in the temple today. It was hard to restrain ourselves, but we did!
It was around eleven by the time our ODev brothers showed up in the temple and we all shifted, as a group, to the area of Radharaman Ghera which is right next to the front gate; directly in front of Shanti Kutir. There we met Shri Chandan Goswamiji. The rest of his family had also come out to play, including his father Shri Padmanabh Goswamiji, his brother Anuragg Goswamiji, and later his uncle Padmalochan Goswamiji as well. The women of the household also participated, though in a slightly more subdued manner. We were very thankful to Radharamanji and His servants for allowing us to be there and participate.
First, the Goswamis blessed us all by covering everyone completely with color. I remember how Shri Chandan Maharajji kindly removed my head-wrap and filled my hair with gulal. But I got off very easy. Maharajji had ordered many bottles of alta (the red paint which women use to dye the edges of their feet) to bless the heads of certain very special devotees and give them a very lasting memory of Holi to take home with them!
The area in front of their house became an ambush area where every devotee coming to the temple was covered with colors. No one was spared, and those who hesitated were teased and chided till they had to come forward. There was much gulal and wet color, and the little children of the family fired pichkaris and water guns from the front porch.
Near the beginning of the Holi play, a friend and I made the mistake of going to a shop around the corner to buy some packets of gulal. In front of Shri Radha-Gopinath Temple, there was a crowd of rowdy boys, and sure enough, we were both accosted. It makes me wonder what’s in the boy’s mind. Do they think that women will fall in love with them if they randomly grab a piece of their flesh? Or are they just being jerks? The first time something like that happened to me, I felt so violated that I went home and curled up in a ball and cried. But that was years ago. This time I was just pissed off. I picked up a brick and lunged at the boys, who scattered like a flock of wimps. Mmm hmm… I thought so! And just like that I went on with my day.
Unfortunately, a third friend who also got groped by them took it hard and came back to Radharaman Ghera crying. But after we, and the Goswamis, showered her with lots of love and colors, she mended up pretty well and her eyes stopped sprinkling.
And with that, another piece of Holi advice – buy all your gulal in advance!
It was amazing to spend time with the Goswamis, who to a great extent did away with formalities and became quite playful and humorous. In fact, they played Holi very intensely. There were many fun, funny and crazy moments. It’s all a bit of a blur, but I do remember how Karan got alta dumped on his head and how he quipped, “Well, I guess I won’t be going to Fashion Week now!”
I also remember how, when the colors were finished, we started scooping up the muddy grey colour-paste from the ground and filling buckets with it, then dumping it on anyone and everyone we could find. This was not refuse, Chandan Maharaj reminded us; it was the dust from the lotus feet of the rasik saints of Vrindavan, so we should wear it with honor!
When even the mud Holi became tiresome, the devotees resorted to attacking and ripping each other’s clothes off. (This happened to the men’s shirts only of course.)
When it was finally over, we sat on the front steps of the temple’s gate for some sweet group photos, squinting dazed into the sun. At last, unwillingly, we all returned home.
When I saw my face in the mirror, I started laughing! My hair was completely caked in mud. It took fifteen or twenty minutes just to wash the mud out of my hair, and the entire bathroom floor was filled with mud! That evening was the grand finale of our Holi journey: the ravishing darshan of Radharamanji dressed all in pink on His flower swing (phool dol).
After forty days of Braj Holi, it seemed impossible that it was really over!
And as it turns out, it wasn’t!
But that’s a story for part four of this series!
Jai Jai Shri Radhe!