The Madness of Holi
It’s that time of the year when the madness of Holi grips the country. It’s also the time of the year when I retreat into my shell like a turtle. Or, like an ostrich, I bury my head in the sand. Personally, I prefer the turtle analogy because an ostrich exposes its rear end to the attack.
Some Old Myths
We, and many people, call Holi “The Festival of Color”, and it is that. If you go down into the dusty vaults of history, you will come to know it was not called Holi, but Holika. And, if you dive deeper into the legend around Holi, then you may come to realize we burn Holika on Holi.
If you are wondering whether Holika was a real person, then you may be forgiven. First, I must mention this: Holi predates Christ, and it’s quite possible the Christian ministers who roamed in India in the 18th and 19th centuries frowned on our pagan practices. We are unashamedly pagan in our beliefs and, I know, the extreme variety in customs, festivals, and religious beliefs completely bemused the early Muslim travelers who came to India in the 9th and 10th centuries AD.
At any rate, the madness of Holi is ancient indeed.
The Most Common Myth
The most common myth surrounding Holi revolves around a demon king called Hiranyakashyap. Despite his deepest desire that everyone worship him, he found, to his dismay, that his son Prahalad worshiped Lord Narayana (one of Vishnu’s avtaars). Hiranyakashyap’s sister, Holika, had one power: fire could not burn her. So, after spending months or years tearing his hair out in frustration, the wonderful king ordered his sister to enter a burning fire, with Prahalad on her lap. To his utter dismay, Lord Narayana stepped in, saved Prahalad, and burned Holika instead.
Therefore, in one sense, the festival, like many others, celebrates the victory of good over evil. Yet, if you attempt to answer Christ’s question to Pilate during his trial (What is truth?), you may scratch your head while defining evil. After all, Krishna commanded Arjuna to fight his cousins and uncles at the Battle of Kurukshetra.
Krishna & Holi
People closely associate Krishna with Holi, and they say that, when he threw color on Radha, the love of his life, on the day of Holi, we associated the festival with color.
“Braj Bhoomi” is the region in India associated with Krishna and his legends. I will not go into this now, but I may do so another time.
Several years back, I had gone to Braj Bhoomi to photograph the way the people there celebrate Holi. Every town or village in that area has some legend associated with Krishna and Radha. Or, shall I say, Radha and Krishna.
People say Radha spent a few years in a village called Barsana. One year, on Holi, Krishna–a naughty fellow that he is–stole her clothes while she and her friends were bathing in the river. The women whacked him with lathis, and I believe he returned to his village–Nandgaon–with a few welts.
Folks in Barsana and NandGaon celebrate “Lath-Maar Holi” as it is called and play out an ancient myth. They told me that on the first day, men from NandGaon visit Barsana, taunt the women who then smack them with lathis. The men crouch down and protect themselves with leather shields. On the second day, the men from Barsana visit NandGaon to complete their end of the ritual.
A lathi is a six-foot-long bamboo pole and is lethal. If you assume the women, tap the men gently, and plan to insinuate yourself into the action, then you may return home with a cracked skull. The people told me the men spend a month training and perfecting their taunts, and the women likewise, are fattened up for a month before the festival.
Barsana is also a place where you will experience the full madness of Holi. They use dry color, so it washes off easily. Crowds fill the streets, and it’s advisable not to carry your wallet or credit card around.
Riding The Waves
I remember that day well because I was standing at the edge of the crowd, straddling a gutter at about 4 pm. The crowds stood there, waiting for the men from Nandgaon. Then, someone at the far end of the crowd must have signaled their imminent arrival, because ripples of energy and motion ran through the crowd.
Most of the people there seemed to move with the wave, except for one idiot: me. It is possible the crowd sensed me standing there with my mouth foolishly open. I say this because I was picked up in the wave’s crest and being deposited in the gutter in the trough. A few men tumbled over me, and I don’t know who smelled more, them or me.
At any rate, I struggled to get to my feet and made a few images.
“Lath-Maar Holi”, which literally translates as “Hit with a Lathi” has become something of a commercial event, and the state government had helicopters showering flowers on us. No one has showered flowers on me ever since, and I am saddened by this.
That was Barsana–the madness of Holi, in dry color!
A Commercial Break
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