Holi, the vibrant festival of colours is celebrated with gusto and merry abandonment as part of the spring season. Holi celebrations in UP (Uttar Pradesh) are not just a one day affair, but they start few days before the actual festival. Mentioned in many songs, poems and other writings, as well as depicted in the paintings is the much famous Braj ki Holi – the festival of colours from the region of Braj – the cluster of towns associated with the life and times of playful and wise God Krishna. The most famous of pre-Holi festivities is the Lathmar Holi of Barsana – a satellite town near Mathura which is the birth place of Lord Krishna. As the name suggests, lathmar denotes beating with the wooden staff. Photographers and tourists throng these towns a week before Holi to capture and enjoy this unique tradition.
The tradition enacts the antics of Lord Krishna and his consort Radha – there are many stories around their playful friendship and romance. It is said that Krishna along with his friends travelled from Nandgaon to Barsana to meet Radha few days before Holi. Krishna was dark skinned and Radha was fair skinned, and Krishna tried to smear colour on Radha’s face to make her appear not so fair. Other stories suggest that Krishna and his friends played pranks and teased Radha and her friends. The gopis decided to teach the menfolk a lesson by beating them up with the sticks and chasing them away; and this is the story that is enacted even today in this town.
Celebrated on the ninth day of the waxing moon of the Phalguna month in the Indian lunar calendar, the men folk from Nandgaon armed with the shields reach the town of Barsana where the women wait with their wooden staffs. The festivities start a day before when the town plays holi with laddoos, after the invitation to visit Barsana is accepted by the people of Nandgaon. The main festival is celebrated at the Radha Rani temple, supposed to be the only temple dedicated to Radha in the country. As soon as the men from Nandgaon reach the temple, amidst the shower of colours and the singing of bhajans and holi songs, the women of Barsana dressed in the traditional attire of gopis start beating the men with sticks, who, in their turn try to save themselves, with the shields they carry. The antics are ofcoure part of the rituals and folklore.
The shower of different colours, the colourful attire of both men and women folk, the music and the crowds dancing all add to the festive frenzy of Lathmar Holi. Doused in the colours of Holi, the participants and the audience form a vibrant atmosphere and immerse themselves in the festivities of this sleepy this little town for the week long celebrations.
The next day the action shifts to Nandgaon, when menfolk of Barsana visit Nandgaon to reciprocate the gesture and they are welcomed with colours, and it is the turn of womenfolk of Nandgaon to play Lathmar Holi with men from Barsana. On the eleventh day of the lunar calendar, festivities continue in Vrindavan where holi is played with flowers at the Banke Bihari temple, followed by holi celebrations at Gokul the next day.
While many of our customs are getting coloured with the influence of the Hindi film industry, the continuation of the age-old community traditions of celebrating different festivals even in the garb of religion carry the chain forward from past to the present into the future. Celebrated for centuries, the drama along with the history make this colourful visual spectacle of Lathmar Holi of Barsana a treat for all senses.
Note: Photos courtesy Bhanu Devgan.