Sharing my Holi days in 2020, this was when I was just lucky to attend the festival last year. I happened to visit Vrindavan just before we hit the nationwide lockdown for pandemic insurgency.
As, I had always been an exuberant girl since childhood about all the festivals being celebrated. And, being a Bengali, I wholeheartedly embrace the idea of “Baro Maashe Tero Parbon”, as in we celebrate 13 festivals in 12 months, in fact much more !!!
So, Holi is no different. It is also a much-celebrated affair in West Bengal called Dol or Basanta Utsav, which usually falls on the day before the actual holi dates. Shantiniketan (aka Bolpur) being quite a place or a hub to capture the Bengali version of grand celebration, it is solemnized by Tagore songs and Abir (natural colors made out of Palash flower).
I was always fascinated by the idea of Holi, celebrated in Mathura and Brindavan in North India but shuddered by the idea regarding safety concerns. Well, before I put up all my travel tips out there, regarding how to or whether to plan for Holi there or not? Let me tell you that yes fear is GOOD. But, awareness and precaution is the BEST !!
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A little bit about the festival – Holi
Holi being one of the major and as well as the biggest Hindu festivals is celebrated across India mostly in North and East. It also in a way, commemorates the onset of the spring season when the flowers are in full bloom to bid goodbye to the winter and to welcome summer. There are several mythological stories which are associated with Holi.
One of the first being, that King Hiranyakashyap who being an atheist couldn’t tolerate the fact that his son Prahlada was a devout devotee of Lord Narayana. And to stop his son, he approached his sister Holika who had a boon that whoever she took in her lap would be burned to death. And as per the tales, she took young Prahlada in her lap to burn him, but instead of him getting burnt he got saved and she was immolated. And thus, the rituals of Holika Dahan is performed by lighting a born fire while chanting prayers on the previous day of Holi.
The second tales and mostly what this festival is associated with is the Raas-Leela of Radha and Lord Krishna in the holy land of Mathura and Brindavan as the former is also the birthplace of Lord Krishna. It is believed that Krishna being a playful one, used to come to Radha’s place and danced and flirted with her and her friends (Gopikas). And, as per the folklore, entire love tryst between them was known as Raas-Leela where Krishna playfully put colors on Radha and teased Gopiyas in the form of divine dance. Since, Radha’s birthplace is in Barsana and Nandgaon being the town where Lord Krishna hailed from. Hence, the traditions of Holi are celebrated on a large scale in these places, apart from Mathura and Brindavan. And the entire place in Uttar Pradesh is also referred to as Braj Bhoomi.
The actual itinerary Vs my itinerary
Even before I planned for this, little did I know that Holi in Mathura/ Brindavan is not just anyone particular day of celebration but it starts much before the actual day.
Note: So, If you plan to cover the entire chain of events, then you will have to plan at least 5-6 days minimum before HOLI just to witness the grand celebrations at different locations of Braj-Bhoomi .
Last year, the actual holi was slated on 10th march, but the line of events was scheduled from as early as 3rd of march itself. Since I had nearly exhausted all my paid leaves for the year hence managed to bargain two days leave clubbed with a long weekend of Holi.
Day 1- Laddoo Holi
Celebrated in Barsana village, where it is traditionally played mainly in the premises of Radha Rani Temple. As goes with the theme, the priest of the temple throws laddoos (Indian sweet) on the people, just for the fun sake. The entire celebration involves a massive quantity of laddoos being thrown at each other. Of course the real fun also involves the riots with color and maybe water occasionally. But it’s fun to witness, the entire event along with your camera to capture the color splash.
Day 2- Lathmaar Holi, Barsana
Today is when, one of the main and peculiar styles of holi celebration, takes place in Barsana Village popularly known as Lathmaar Holi. Legends says that Barsana village was where Radha used to stay and Lord Krishna used to come to play and tease with Radha and her Gopika friends. And in retaliation, the woman from her village chases him away with sticks to teach a lesson. Even now this being one of the main attractions for tourists and photo enthusiasts from around the globe.
Even though I didn’t join this day, what I heard from my fellow photographers that it is a challenge to take a well-framed shot because they had to struggle three major hurdles which were unexpected rains, insufficient light, and a small place with a large number of gathering. I would take an opportunity to appreciate all the photographers who bring out the best shots out of such difficult situations such as these. Now that I have been a part of the same and can easily say that it is indeed difficult to get picture-perfect shot with absolutely unfavorable situations many times.
Some of the picture, which my fellow photographer captured beautifully amidst all adverse conditions like bad lighting, rainy day and human chaos are as linked below :
Day 3- Samaj Celebration at Sirji Temple and Lathmaar Holi, Nandgaon
So, I reached Brindavan in the early hours to join the photography group in the hotel. After a quick freshen up and ensuring that my camera gear/ phone was well protected. We headed towards Nandgaon.
Nandgaon is about 50kms from Brindavan, hence it took us nearly 1.5 hrs to reach there. Police had already barricaded the area to cordon off the mass gathering of vehicles to avoid traffic jams. So, we had to walk about 1.5 km to get inside the actual temple premises. As soon as we were nearing to the temple premises while passing through the narrow lanes of the village. The young boys and the kids were all ready to attack us with piston sized pichkaris and gulal (colors). It was advised to stay close with the group as a safety measure. Well, looking at the situation, I felt it was best to surrender to them, with a polite request to be gentle while playing. And, to my disbelief, they behaved well. A pro-tip to all fellow female travelers would be that, do not argue or resist them as they will never listen to you, instead let them put colors but with a very gentle note of agreement. As we entered the temple there was a huge celebration with a mass gathering here and there.
I also witnessed a few transgenders (as they play an integral role in the mythological tales of Braj Bhoomi)and they were performing a beautiful dance.
The second half, as the celebration was in full swing and photographers had well placed themselves as per their preferred vantage points. The elderly group of villagers came inside the temple premises by chanting prayers and sat in the middle for Samaaj celebrations. It was a congregation of rhythmic recitals along with playful riots of colors making it an ecstatic ambiance. Before sundown, we quickly headed towards the other side of the town, this time, to witness the Lathmaar Holi celebrations of Nandgaon.
Day 4- Phoolowali Holi, Banke Bihari Temple
Today was planned mainly for wandering around the streets of Brindavan to catch the glimpses of the local way of celebrating Holi. Hence, while passing through several streets and bylanes, we saw several men and women occasionally playing colors and singing while marching either towards Banke Bihari Temple or towards Kesi Ghat on the banks of Yamuna. There was a huge fair-like situation, near the ghat but I was not clear where exactly was the main attraction.
The evening was lined up for the actual event, at 4 pm the Banke Bihari Temple gates are supposed to open, for a massive celebration of Holi with flower shower on the idol. The actual duration takes place for 20-25 mins tops. So, it is generally suggested to keep their gears ready in hand and frames ready in mind to capture in that little duration of time.
BUT, here is what happened to me. We were already waiting behind the large queue of curious photographers and devotees to enter the temple, well before time. As soon as the gates opened around 4.30 pm. There was an incessant rush towards the premises. A large number of people just thronged the area by pushing each other. There was a huge commotion to get inside. I was, as usual, carrying my backpack in front to protect myself and the camera was tightly held in my hand right above me. Almost been dragged inside the temple willingly or unwillingly as if the massive momentum was pulling me into the entire fiasco. The moment I struggled to enter the temple building, I was already gasping for breath. It was simply suffocating for me ..Yes, there was a massive flower shower from all corners but there was also commotion, anxiety, and suffocation. Thanks to my friend that I was saved out at the right moment. I though feel bad that there are no shots that we could take from there. I would say there is still a lot of mismanagement considering the volume of people who come to witness the event. I know a little could be done in this scenario, one may wish to avoid it totally but still better organizing skills could have made the situation less grueling. However, my experience !!
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Even though I have faced this but I would still say, it may not happen with you. Hence, one must always be prepared for any situation. AS SAFETY IS NECESSITY NOT A CHOICE.
DAY 5 – Widow Holi
This was one of my main reasons to plan the trip accordingly, so that I could have witnessed the enchanting celebrations meant for those sections, who are often not revered because of their fate. The widows, having lived a life of quarantine and austerity have been bereft of any societal norms of happiness. But over the last few years, with the initiative of newfound NGOs and other aided help, these women get an opportunity to celebrate Holi without any prejudice. And, that’s a beautiful riot of emotions blended with the joy of colors. Unfortunately with Covid-19 pandemic scare which was already doing rounds nationwide, compelled the state govt to call off the celebrations. And I could not witness the same. But, I have some visuals from my fellow photographer, who have exceptionally captured the moments in his previous years of visit. It usually happens in Pagla Baba’s ashram. For me I would say this gives me an urge to pay a visit once again in the future to witness this soulful celebration of Holi.
Although my trip ended and I had decided to proceed towards my day’s visit to Agra before heading back to Kolkata. But these are some of the following events which continues till the actual Holi dates
DAY 6 – Gokul Holi/ Holi procession in Mathura
DAY 7 -Visit to Dwarkadheesh Temple, Mathura
DAY 8 – Huranga Holi at Dauji Temple , Baldeo
NOTE: The last three days, get rowdy and as if almost all hell breaks loose. Because this is when mostly all locals come out in full form to play to their heart’s content ( not a preferred way for outsiders though).
Hence, as a female traveler I had already made up my mind that I will only witness the one, I have mentioned before.
Some of the Practical Tips and advice out of my experience :
1. Attending Holi, will it be safe?
-Let me address the most concerning issue i.e. safety factor especially for women. I don’t rule out that men get spared, because sometimes even they don’t :). Now, as I have mentioned before that FEAR is legit, but prudence is wise. And, you heard me right-lewd comments, sexist remarks, sometimes inappropriate gestures will be a common practice while there. Still ruling out all that my main advice would be that if you still wish to attend then to stay in a group and always be surrounded or rather guarded with people whom you know.
2. What to wear
-Needless to say that layering up is the call of the moment. Make sure to cover your body parts (including head, full arms, legs) as much as possible. It helps in avoiding color retention and also from a safety point of view, I felt it is crucial. Since, you will be drenched in color and water almost the entire day. It is advised to carry some quick-dry clothes which work well in this situation.
-Also, do carry and apply a copious amount of oil well before the event on your body and head which helps to take off those colors.
3. Camera Gears/phone protection
-I am already assuming that readers of this article would love to capture the moments during the celebration. Hence, it is essential to carry proper plastics/ wrap / or camera covers to protect your precious gears/ phone. It is simply impossible to change lenses there, hence lugging too many options may be unnecessary. Also, there will be a lot of water and color splash which may soil your gears, so cleaning the same daily is an essential ritual. Please carry your cleaning kit for the same.
4. Plan your itinerary and book hotels in advance
If you are planning to go in your own group. Then kindly book hotels in advance as there are not many choices in and around Brindavan considering a large proportion of tourist flocking from all over.
5. What to Eat
-Whats Holi without tasting a Thandai / Bhaang ? A potent drink made out of milk, Cannabis leaf paste, and some other condiments well mixed, available mostly during Holi. So, a little fun with a correct dose and with the right company is always recommended.
– I would also advise you to keep some light snacks in your backpack always. Because during holi, it becomes really difficult to scout for a proper restaurant or food joint in those areas.
-Oh Vrindavan / Mathura is famous for its Peda (sweet made of thickened milk), lassi, Kesar milk, rabdi, kachoris and the list goes on.
How to Reach
Vrindavan is about 185 km from Delhi. There are plenty of buses/trains which run daily from Delhi to Mathura. And, Mathura is just 18 km from Vrindavan. The nearest airport to Mathura is New Delhi. Barsana and Nandgaon are both different villages which are about 50-60kms away from Vrindavan. Not many modes of transport are available to commute there but private cabs can be hired to visit the same. Local buses mostly run from Mathura and one can also avail that to visit the places.
Maybe I would like to visit again or maybe not as each experience had its mark on me and will continue doing so. But then that being said, I would say if you really want to experience the real taste of Holi and are prudent enough to handle few circumstances, then you can go for it. Calling is especially for photography enthusiasts.
Holi was one of a kind experience for me and I hope I have covered all the information that I could in the article. Should you require any further information, please feel free to connect with me in the comments below. I would be more than happy to help. I would also take this opportunity to thank all my fellow photographer friends Arun Saha, Sanhita Sinha, Sreeram Naini, and Sumit Walia who have contributed with their amazing captures. You may like to follow their amazing work on INSTAGRAM