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Archive for June, 2012

Childhood

Just beyond the wrought iron gates along a section of the curving driveway stretches a row of dull brown rattan, gleaming brass, and brilliant colours.    Giant circular brass plates stand mounted on waist-high hourglass-shaped wicker bases.  Each plate is spilling over with  a different, brightly coloured powder  – yellow, red, orange, purple, green, magenta… Standing just opposite is another identical curving row of brass plates on wicker bases.  Only, here each plate is piled high with a different Indian sweet. Orange jalebis, pale yellow barfis,  white pedas, golden yellow laddoos, brown athirasams,  cream coloured badushahs.  Further along the driveway is a row of large galvanized-iron troughs filled with coloured water – green, pink, yellow, orange, magenta, red,  matching the colours of the powders.  At the end of this row is a metal tub stacked with foot-long metal pichkaris  (squirts). Attendants in white uniform – baggy trousers and baggier shirts – stand behind the plates, ready to assist those wishing to sample any of the offerings.

To the left of  the curving driveway stretches a garden, and today it is full of multi-coloured people at play, the colours on their faces and clothes reflecting the powders  on the plates and the waters in the troughs on the driveway -yellow, red, purple, green, magenta….  Every now and again, one of the coloured people dashes to a plate or trough, scoops up a handful of powder or refills a  pichkari before running back to throw the powder or squirt the water on someone of their choice; creeping up from behind them or screaming wildly while charging at their prey. 

In the centre of the garden is a large fountain sitting in its own basin.  Today, this basin, too, is filled with coloured water.  The people on the far side of the lawns are filling their pichkaris from here.  But this basin is also the scene of rougher horseplay and, here, men are the players.  They suddenly swoop down on a victim, and to the accompaniment of screams from the victim and yowls from those standing witness, they dunk the unfortunate in the water with a loud chorus of “One, two, three…go”.  The victim lands in the water with a splash, while everybody around claps and laughs and jeers in friendly fashion.  By then,  someone in the gathering has identified the next victim who senses it quickly, and with screams of  “Noooooooo” runs for dear life, with the tormentor(s)  in hot pursuit. 

My mother, looking all messy in colours that are all over her clothes, face and hair is smilingly walking among her guests, greeting new arrivals or people whose presence she had missed noticing earlier. She is making sure that everybody is playing with colours, and that they are keeping their energy levels high on sweets and their bodies warm on hot chai.  Servants, in white but with some splotches of colour,  are scurrying around, making sure that the plates and troughs on the driveway are regularly replenished,  plying the revelers with steaming cups of fragrant chai from laden trays, and running back for refills. My father is welcoming every person entering the gates with a smiling namaste and an embrace.  He  graciously accepts the gesture of having his cheeks smeared with red colour (the most auspicious colour of all) and reciprocates in kind.  He waves them on into the garden,  urging them to enjoy themselves.  

To my baby eyes, the garden seems impossibly crowded that day.   I learn years later that there must have been at least several hundred people at any point of that morning in that front garden.    

It is the first Holi (festival of colours) since father’s transfer to this city – the headquarters – to take over as the chief of the railways in that zone of India.  And he is demonstrating his desire to cross all boundaries of status and rank, and extend the hand of brotherhood to railway employees at all levels, by keeping the party an open one.  Father, with his ever over-the-top extravagant hospitality.  Fond of throwing lavish parties. For colleagues, friends, acquaintances,  relatives, visitors.  Parties that always happened at home and not at the club (there were no fancy hotels in those days).  And all in the full knowledge that mother stood solidly behind him to execute his every wish.

I also learn – when I am older – that my mother had made all the colours at home that Holi, with the help of the servants. That was how it was in those days.  Most things were natural products, made at home by the women of the house.  So also with Holi colours.  Yellow from the turmeric root.  Red from the pomegranate flower.  Green from assorted leaves.  Orange from the marigold flower.  And so on…For days before the Holi party, mother had been busy organizing the colours. Getting the  sweets made.  Planning their presentation.  Sending out the invitations. All I was vaguely aware of was that I hardly ever saw her.  Something seemed to be going on all around me, but I had no understanding of it.  She hardly paused in her incessant work except to give me a vague hug or pat my head.  My father of course was probably in the office most of the time, returning home late.  I saw very little of him anyway.

I must have been a little over three years old and it was my first Holi.   It is also the very first major memory I have from my early childhood.  What defined that memory was not the trays and colours and sweets or the busyness of the house, but the way in which all of these came together in a moment of terror for me. 

I remember standing in the garden, concentrating on staying close to my mother as she circulated among her guests.  Suddenly I became aware that the whole crowd had fallen silent.  They were watching a group of men from among the guests walk swiftly across to where my father stood smiling and greeting some newly arrived visitors.  They picked him up from behind, without any warning, and carried him to the fountain.  There, yelling triumphantly in unison they threw him – the super boss – into the coloured water with a “One…two…and three…”. 

There was a stunned silence.  I remember clutching at my mother’s sari in terror.  I remember thinking in that minute that I would never see my father again.  I remember my mother standing stock still, silent. And probably tense;  I know now that she must have trusted him with all her heart to do the right thing.  Pulling himself out of the water and displaying no shock or surprise – or annoyance – , father smilingly climbed out assisted by multiple hands and cheering voices.  He waved and called out to his guests to continue playing.  I learnt later that his nonchalance made a huge impression on his new colleagues who spontaneously raised a chorus of “He’s a jolly good fellow…”. 

I remember Gopal, father’s general factotum for years and now the family cook, running across with a towel which he wrapped around father’s shoulders before  leading him into the house, mother following after a dignified interval.  I remember bursting into loud wails at that moment and running into the house after them crying, but being ignored.  Until Gopal was able to pick me up and comfort me.  Nobody else took notice of me.  I continued crying uncontrollably through that day, screaming with fear at the sight of everyone who had colour on their face.  The mixture of bright colours on people’s faces that made them look frightening and unrecognisable, and  seemed to give them licence to scream and chase each other with more colours.  What had happened to my father who became the scary-coloured-no-longer-familiar-figure who walked out of the fountain basin that morning. It was as if  it was a matter of time before something terrible would happen to me, too.    

Who were all these people?  And what was this gory play with colours all about?  Nobody in the house had said anything to me to prepare me for this.  So different from my style of parenting, where I would talk to my child constantly, and tell him what I was doing for him and what was going on around him, even when he was just a few days old.   

Gopal had been the only person who had spotted my terror.  Who took an interest in me.  Dear loving Gopal Singh Garhwal, the rough Pahadi domestic help turned gentleman’s gentleman, who had been with my father for several years and was now the most unmatched cook by general consensus.  Above all, someone loved and trust by all of us in the family.  That day, it was only Gopal whom I knew I could stay with and be comforted by, who would do what I wanted him to do for me, which was to hide me from what was going on all around.  Clinging to his neck, I remember insisting through the day that he stay with me and with me alone, and that both of us stay out of sight of the guests.    It must have been so difficult for Gopal to do this for me.  As the cook of mother’s ever-busy kitchen and, on that day, having to supervise several temporary cooks who had been hired to prepare the lunch for the invitees to the Holi celebrations, he did have to leave me from time to time.  His kindly eyes crinkling in sympathy and understanding, he would assure me that he was going to lock me in from the outside, and that nobody, just nobody, would dare to enter.   He kept his word and came back after each disappearance,  something I will never forget as a signal of trust.

That moment of lonely terror linked with Holi revellery was responsible for Holi being forever imprinted on my mind with a certain measure of ambivalence.  From a state of total fear, I tried slowly to find out more about why the people around me seemed to enjoy it so much.  For, if one has spent any length of time in northern India, one can never get away from the experience of, or at least feelings around, Holi.   

It is a festival where the “play”  goes by broad rules of consensus.  But the boundary between consenting play and coercion can easily get blurred.  Even on that Holi day I remember a truckload of Class Four (manual labourer category) railway employees arriving at our gates, and the men in the truck squirting indelible purple ink on the guests in the garden.  People were horrified and some women screamed while trying to avoid getting the ink in their eyes.  Suddenly the purple on people’s clothes and skin seemed to outdo all the other Holi colours.  I remember my father requesting his guests to step back, and engaging with the men – it turned out that they were drunk – in the truck.  I learnt later that he told them that while all railway brothers were welcome at his Holi party, this did not apply to drunk and rowdy elements who broke the rules of consensus.

The opportunity to truly enjoy the innocent fun of playing with colours came soon enough.  I was five going on six.  Due to my father’s recent transfer, we were in a new city in a different region,  the western part of the country.  Since we had moved in the middle of the school year and they were unable to decide on a suitable school for me in the new city, my parents decided that I should stay at home and resume my formal schooling only in the new academic year.  It was a wonderful six months, when I did a hundred different things – freelance teaching of my reluctant neighbour to prepare her for her first school admission which included slapping her regularly when she refused to sit down to her studies, writing and putting up plays with my new friends in the neighbourhood, reading, reading and reading, learning to play badminton and table tennis and taking swimming lessons, starting on classical music and dance classes three days a week.

When Holi came round, I was ready to play.  I already had friends, and a friendly “uncle” in the railway fraternity had decided to organize a Pied Piper-like procession of us through the officers’ homes in the sprawling railway colony that extended along the seafront.  With him at the head, we sang and skipped and shouted our way from one house to another, starting off with our own colours and pichkaris and replenishing our stocks of powder and coloured water from each house that we visited.  At most of the houses we were welcomed with smiles and sweets and hot drinks.  Colours were exchanged, the children of the house came out to play with us and several of them joined our traveling circus. But at some of our stops the hosts were reluctant to open their homes and have their clothes spoilt.  Here we sang and serenaded, pleaded and threatened, all in good jest, until the doors opened for us.  By the end of the day,  there were very few persons who determinedly kept us out.  It was fun and exhausting, and I was soaked to the skin and deeply coloured – it took days for the colour to wear off and I wore my blotchy skin proudly as a badge of honour – by the time I got home, happy and hoarse.

Adolescence

The next Holi that I played was when I was in my late adolescence.  In the India of my generation, those who were socially privileged – and particularly girls among them – had an extended adolescence due  their sheltered upbringing.    I was already in my early-20s – a young adult out of university – and doing a teaching job at a postgraduate professional college.  For the first time I was living on my own, in a city in yet another region of western India that was also a new cultural experience for me.  Yet, I was still an adolescent at heart, a time of life when  the atmosphere of romance so integral to Holi assumes paramount meaning.  Stoking this atmosphere was the event of the day.  A classical music concert of spring ragas on the Sarangi – a deceptively simple-looking folk stringed instrument that has been superbly adapted to north Indian classical performance – played by the one and only  Pandit Ram Narain.  The college where I was teaching had organized the concert in the open, on the lawns under the trees, in keeping with the spirit of spring and Holi.  

The programme began at around 10 in the morning.  The cool breeze wafted the poignant notes of the Sarangi past the blooming flowers all around us and wove them through the heavy-leaved trees that formed a canopy above. As the performer slid his bow over the strings to coax out note after note of the deliciously tender and sensuous ragas that he had chosen for the occasion, the  atmosphere in the gathering became charged with the sense of romance and abandon. We were a group of predominantly young people – students and young faculty – come out to celebrate Holi in large numbers. The convivial playing with colours began even during the intermission, interspersed with hot chai served in earthen cups.  By the time the concert resumed, everyone returning to their seats was in a state of collective intoxication with the simple fun of this beautiful festival of bonding and togetherness.  That day Pandit Ram Narain, an inspired performer at the best of times,  played like one possessed.  In a way that I have never before nor since heard him perform.  The concert went on for hours well beyond its original programme,  and like the musician the audience, too, lost track of time.  That Holi was one of the more memorable markers of my life as a young person.  

The present

All these years later, this spring, I began to feel a restless desire to play Holi again.  A lot of it had to do with being resident in northern India again –  the cultural homeland of Holi – after a gap of several decades.  In my growing-up years we had lived for much of the time in northern India, and it was easy to imperceptibly imbibe an understanding of Holi as a festival rich in overtones. 

At the most basic and popular level, it is a festival of playing with  colours, with  children everywhere enjoying it most for just this aspect.  Metaphorically, it is a replay of Krishna’s love-play with the hundreds of girls of Vrindavan who were in love with him.  Celebrated by the most sensuous poetry composed in the dialect of the region of Vrindavan – Braj – and set to classical spring-time ragas,  Holi comes alive to the young at heart through this medium.   Philosophically and spiritually, the key concepts here are “love” and “play”.  The Vaishanava belief is that the path to reaching god (personified as Krishna) and experiencing divine bliss,  is one of loving devotion (bhakti) to Krishna.   The manner of expressing this love is through chanting Krishna’s name – through music and dance – with a sense of joyous and total abandon.  In other words, a direct and unconditional communication and identification with the object of love, unconstrained  by ritual and dogma.

The social interpretation – practice – of the above concepts takes many forms.  It becomes an expression of erotic love between romantic partners, a desi Valentine’s Day.  Outside of romantic relationships, exchanging colours becomes symbolic of friendship, the renewing of relationships, the reaffirming of bonds.   Holi  also provides a space in the year where people can set aside their egos and enmities. To exchange colours with one’s enemies or with persons with whom one has stressful relationships, becomes symbolic of burying differences and grudges and starting afresh. A healing balm. A cohesive exchange.

With everyone in the community playing Holi and camouflaged in bright colours and, thereby, losing their individual identity so to say, Holi also plays the symbolic role of an equaliser. The lowering of social barriers in an otherwise acutely hierarchical and caste/class-divided society.  At least for this one day it opens up the possibility of  “absence of difference”.  On this day, neither caste nor class is supposed to count, and one is expected to greet all persons as friends and well wishers. 

The colours are not only drawn from natural sources, they also reflect the multiple colours of nature at their exhuberant spring-best – full-bodied trees, blooming flowers, the plumage of the birds readying themselves for their mating season… The poetry, called Hori and Chaiti and set to classical music, is replete with nature imagery. The festival also marks the end of the winter cold, the shedding of woollies and getting back into cool cottons. Feeling the delicious chill of coloured water on the body while being caressed by the spring sunshine. 

I now live in the countryside in an agrarian setting where nature is at its best in the spring. Trees bursting into new leaf, flowers in bloom everywhere, the grass green and soft underfoot, the mating season for birds bringing birdsong into the air, and butterflies everywhere.  It is impossible to get away from the sense of romance created by all this beautiful convergence of life forms.  

But I was unsure about giving wing to my restlessness.  What would be the ingredients of the atmosphere that I wished to recapture? I am not of an age when romantic love is at its bitter-sweet best.  Nor – unlike my mother –  am I of the generation (or mindset) prepared to labour over the making of natural colours from flowers and leaves.  The colours being sold in the market are abhorrent enough to put paid to any desire to “play” with them.  Positively dangerous,  synthetic and full of toxic chemicals, they are cause for the next day’s newspapers routinely reporting cases of blindness and allergic skin rashes following the play with Holi colours. Nor, indeed, could I think of any group of persons around me whom I would wish  to play Holi with.  Certainly, none of the ingredients of the earlier wonderful memories that I carried within me existed anymore. 

As my restlessness grew, I couldn’t help thinking of why is it that it is always hard to make a decision about whether or not to revisit pleasurable and happy memories from one’s past?  Memories of  books, films, people, places, occasions…In this case, festivals?  Pleasant memories whose fragrance brings with them bottled happiness(es)… As long as one only uncorks these bottles from time to time to lightly inhale their bouquet before re-corking them, adding little fictionalisations along the way to make them look just that little bit nicer, smell just that little bit better, one is fine.  It is when one actually tries to re-visit these mental bottles that things could become problematic.   There is the question of whether it is really possible to recreate the complexity of old memories in a new time, place and social context? What if  the whole exercise proves to be so disappointing that there is then the question of which memory to now instal as the prime one?  The original?  The revisited?  Is it even realistic to choose?  Or does the most recent concrete experience inexorably assert its prominence?

It was with such feelings of expectancy and vague disquiet that I persuaded my husband to travel with me to Vrindavan to witness the Holi celebration there.  Why Vrindavan?   For one,  Vrindavan was neutral ground.  I knew no one there.  And that is infinitely preferable, to being in a place and knowing people whom one may not want to “play”  with. For the same reason of anonymity, we  could simply decide to leave Vrindavan whenever we wanted to if it proved too disappointing.  What commended Vrindavan for a spontaneous trip was also that it is a bare four-hour drive from where I currently live,  with the attractive possibility of halting on our way back at the erstwhile royal principality of Deeg to see its ‘water palaces’, and at Bharatpur, one of India’s prominent bird sanctuaries, to glimpse migratory birds.    We had also received a letter from a young friend, south Indian by origin but born and brought up in the U.S. and now visiting grandparents in India, saying that she had never played  Holi and would dearly love to travel north to do so, so could she come visit us?  The quest for the Holi “experience” was becoming a shared one,  and the fact that a young person – the most appropriate participant in such a festival – might be part of the trip, lent it further legitimacy.  Above all, the most compelling reason for visiting Vrindavan was to be an observer.  I was curious to see what meanings Holi had for the place.  For, Vrindavan’s association with the festival of Holi is unique.  It is where Holi has its origins, so to say.   

Vrindavan

The present-day town of Vrindavan was once an extensive stretch of forest dominated by basil trees (vrinda=basil, van=forest, in Sanskrit), where Krishna is believed to have spent his childhood and youth, and where Krishna and Radha found their love for each other.   Interestingly, I found that in Vrindavan it is not Krishna who is privileged, but Radha.  The  power and intensity of Radha’s  love for Krishna typifies the path of divine ecstasy (bhakti).   Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, the poet saint of Bengal who lived in the late 15th./early 16th. century and who was one of the poets who gave formal expression to the bhakti movement (reaching god through loving devotion)  in this region,  spoke of human beings as individuals (jivas) who are separated parts of the supreme godhead.  While they can never be equal to god, they can aspire to an inseparable union with god, driven by love.  Vaishnavism’s celebration of Krishna’s inseparable union with Radha is expressive of this philosophy.  As I was to discover,  Vrindavan  is a feminine city, where everyone – man or woman – sees himself/herself as Radha, loving Krishna and looking for ways to demonstrate that love.  It is a place where, for men, it is legitimate to be a “woman” in a man’s body.  Of all the places in India, it is probably Vrindavan alone whose sole raison d’etre for existence is love.

I went to Vrindavan to witness what I naively thought might be the “original’ spirit of Holi.  But I had not contended with the millions of people who, too, converged on that little town for the festival.  By the evening of the day we arrived,  the traffic had become impossible, roads were being barricaded, and  police were everywhere trying to control the surging crowds. Parking our car securely at our hotel – actually the Ashram of the Krishna Consciousness Society that also takes in guests – we decided to walk or use autorickshaws to get around. 

We were told that in Vrindavan, all the Holi action takes place in its hundreds of temples that dot the town.  Since everyone is  Radha come to play Holi with the divine Krishna, no one needs to worry about having to play with other people.  We were also warned to keep our room door securely closed at all times, and to sally forth without wearing prescription glasses or dark shades.  Apparently the thousands of monkeys in sight everywhere in the town do not think twice about entering human habitations with a view to explore them.  They also have an obsession with spectacles and collect them by the hundreds. The guest in the room next to us, on a ten day visit to Vrindavan from the Czech Republic, told us that he had already lost three pairs of glasses to the monkeys of Vrindavan which had simply sat on his shoulder and plucked them off his nose each time.  We sighted him a couple of times, blind as a bat, but enthusiastically leaving for yet another excursion into the town.  On both occasions he returned covered in colours and looking cheerful and satisfied. Carefully taking out his spectacles from the plastic bag he carried in one of his pockets, he clicked a picture of himself in Holi regalia before going in to shower off.      

Armed with a list of what we were told at the Ashram were the most important and interesting temples, we began our roller-coaster ride along the bumpy narrow winding inner lanes of the town in our rickety autorickshaw.  The idea was to time our visit to each temple to coincide with one of their Aartis (lamp offerings) during which, our driver told us,  Holi would be played with Krishna and we could join in. 

As we chose to linger on at each halt to savour the architecture of the temples and explore their surroundings, we found ourselves not bothering too much about keeping to our time-table.  It was like being in a cultural time machine that took us back several centuries.  Almost all these temples were built in the 16th. century, following the revival of Vrindavan as a centre for Krishna worship inspired by the teachings of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu.  Nothing, just nothing seemed to have changed in these five hundred years.  Most of the temples and their neighbourhoods were far away from the surging crowds that had come to Vrindavan.  Neighbourhoods of ancient crumbling stone and brick houses, inhabited by people whose dress and deportment looked almost medieval.   Missing the Aartis was probably a good thing, because at many of the temples we found ourselves to be the only visitors. In quiet courtyards with paving stones missing and whole trees growing out of walls, and silent high-domed shrines.  The exteriors and interiors were frozen in time, medieval and archaic, and no attempt had been made to dress them up.  Only the gods – Krishna and Radha – were brilliantly arrayed in their shringar (adornment).  In every one of the temples we saw faded sign boards requesting donations for restoration; but, clearly, nothing had come in as yet.

The officiating priests in the temples, too, could have belonged to medieval picture books.  I couldn’t help reminiscing about old style Bollywood films of the 1950s and 1960s,  where the rich hero from “the city” arrives at the quaint little town and is totally charmed by the simple and child-like people he meets there – the humble temple priest stringing flower garlands for the deity, the ayurvedic doctor pounding away at his herbal medicines.  Invariably, one of these worthy gentlemen has a pretty and shy daughter with whom our hero promptly falls in love.  After the song and dance routine of boy and girl, he returns to his life in the city, promising to be back to marry his girl.  Invariably, the shy daughter gets left behind, pregnant and forgotten, shamed forever in the eyes of her community.    A lot of city folk of my generation no doubt got some of their stereotypes about Indian temple towns and northern India’s small towns in general from these movies.  Well, in some of the off-the-beaten-track temples that we visited, we actually did encounter the proverbial pretty and shy daughter  of the priest sweeping out the temple precincts of flowers and colours after each Aarti, and helping her father prepare for the next Aarti!   Completing the atmosphere in some of the more active temples, we found religious discourses or  bhajan sessions (devotional songs sung to the accompaniment of simple stringed and percussion instruments) in progress,  in the presence of the resplendent deities.  Attentive audiences filled these halls, looking like they had collectively walked out of a map of India. 

When we stopped for a cup of sweet milky chai outside the gates of the Rang Ji temple before getting back on to our autorickshaw, we heard so many languages being spoken around us it felt like being in a non-sectarian India.   Everywhere we saw extremely spartanly dressed ordinary people who looked happy to be there, and certainly in no hurry to get to the next place wherever that might be.  It made us want to slow down, too, in our progress through the day.  It was indeed amazing that we hardly encountered any “big city” folk during our time there, except in and around the marketplace, the more recently built temples in that location and, of course, our Ashram.  In the “modern” areas of Vrindavan   there were all the  accoutrements  of a touristy pilgrim town – with a couple of massive engineering and management colleges thrown in – none of it too pretty.   Massive crowds of people in all manner of vehicles – the crowds that we had encountered on our first day around the traffic jams – were apparently surging towards another “religious tourist” site called Goverdhan, a few kilometres away. This pilgrim spot, we were told, was for those looking to fulfil prescriptions of religious ritual.  

In Vrindavan, each of the ancient temples reflects the architectural design of the region of its patron/ religious sponsors.  Chaitanya’s followers even in his own lifetime were active in many regions of the country such as Bengal, Bihar, Assam, and Orissa, and were also propagating the Vaishnava philosophy across what are today Jharkhand, Manipur, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, and all these regions looked to represent themselves in Vrindavan through their temples.  The Govind Dev Ji Temple (also 16th. century) , for example, is different from any typical temple in India in both its exterior and interior design.  Built in deep red sandstone by the Rajput princes of Amber (later Jaipur), in a combination of Rajput and Mughal architectural styles, its gigantic hall with its shrine of  Krishna and Radha at the far end  felt more like the prayer hall of a mosque than a typical Hindu shrine.  Similarly, standing in the courtyard of the Rang Ji Temple and facing the large square temple tank filled with sparkling clean water, the whole complex surrounded by stone walls painted in the red and white stripes so typical of temples in  Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, evoked a different atmosphere altogether.  Clearly some temples  – such as these two – seemed better-endowed and better-maintained.  We also encountered many more visitors there.  

On every wall in the town of Vrindavan you will see the logo “Shree” (one of the names of Krishna) followed by “Radhey”.  The latter word is invariably in letters double in size of those in the word “Shree”.   And in the temples,  the chant of “Radhey Radhey” rents the air as the Aarti (offering of lit lamps) is offered to the gods, with music playing and temple bells ringing in the background.  In the narrow winding streets of Vrindavan, too, the greeting exchanged between friends and strangers is “Radhey Radhey”.  From finding it strange to hear this everywhere, and awkward to respond in kind, I found myself intoning it as greeting and farewell by the time I left, so infectious was the spirit. 

When we came out of the Govind Dev Ji Temple , we took a few moments to sit on the stone steps to slip on our footwear and take in the scene around us.  Searching in our pockets for small change to pay the young boy who had sat guarding our shoes,  we jokingly asked him what if we were unable to find the required change?  Would he let us leave without payment?  Smiling sweetly he said,  “It doesn’t matter if you don’t pay me money.  If you say to me ‘Radhey Radhey’ it will fill my heart, and that will be sufficient payment”.  I thought it was a  deeply touching  response from one so young. 

Walking around the streets and in the temples, I did not see any rowdyism anywhere, although we had been warned at the Ashram by a friendly gentleman from Bombay who is now a resident at the Ashram,  to stay indoors over Holi or leave the town, as things got very drunken and rowdy.  We chose to stay on for the planned two days, and left unscathed.   But he may well have been telling the truth, for much has changed, and I am willing to believe that this includes even Vrindavan. 

As of now, at least, toxic colours are not permitted to be sold in the town.  The colours sold on the streets and in the shops are in just a few shades and are all natural in origin.  Since they are in demand in such huge quantities, they are not made from flowers but consist of naturally coloured stone that is finely powdered and sold in bags.  In the temples, multiple colours are available, and the coloured water is warm and fragrant, for here, the colours are made from flowers offered the day before to Krishna and Radha.  

Our last temple halt while at Vrindavan was for the evening Aarti as the sun was going down behind the nearly five hundred year old Banke Behari Temple.  Unlike most of the other temples that we visited that were tucked away in unobtrusive little corners of the town, or the busy but still serene Govind Dev Ji and Rang Ji temples, the Banke Behari Temple rises out of the centre of an ancient busy market.  The whole atmosphere – the huge temple itself visible from a distance, the crowds milling around the entrance, the dense labyrinthian market lanes criss-crossing all around it –  conveys the impression of a surging, heaving humanity.  It looked daunting enough from a distance.  Our autorickshaw driver urged us to walk faster lest we miss the last Aarti for the day; he was already very annoyed with us for dawdling through the afternoon and casually missing the Aarti at every other temple.  “You said you wanted to play Holi,”  he barked, “don’t blame me if you miss it here also”.  Panting our way up the steep lane, we promised him we’d  pay him more than the agreed amount to make up for our truancy.  But at that moment  it was impossible to walk faster, as there was just too much going on in the narrow-as-a-string lane we were on.     

The entry into the temple itself was a preview of the mayhem that awaited us inside. It was here that we encountered the “big city” folk who had eluded us earlier. In fact, the place was quite full of them.  We were clearly in a tourist destination. The temple seemed to be performing the function of  providing  a snapshot experience of Holi for the visiting tourist.  If someone is not looking to explore Vrindavan for its quaint ancient character, the logical stop would be here.   

In the main hall that was packed to capacity with batches of people leaving and new batches entering, people were self-consciously chanting “Radhey Radhey”, arms up in the air while moving their bodies awkwardly…To imagined Bollywood numbers?   On the podium, flanking  the gods’ images, stood three young male assistants clad in yellow robes and wielding the largest brass pichkaris – nearly three feet long – that I have ever seen.  Two of them were spraying warm coloured water onto the crowd,  while the third was sending out dry red coloured powder into the air. 

It was slippery underfoot, the air was a red haze, the temple bells were clanging frenziedly, and everything seemed to be spinning out of control.  I tried to peer through the haze but could not see much ahead of me.  Only moving bodies.  But my gaze was arrested by the sight of a fourth person also dressed in flowing robes – much older and probably a priest – standing on the podium.  He seemed to be in a frenzy as he rapidly and repeatedly hurled open a heavy silk curtain to reveal the gods – Radha and Krishna – and then pulled it shut equally forcefully to block off their view.   By now we had given up trying to figure out what was happening and were more than happy to gingerly make our way to the exit. 

Once out of the temple, we took refuge at the cart of a buttermilk seller outside the temple gates who had been kind enough to let us hurriedly leave our footwear below his  cart before rushing into the temple.  He now refused – in his gracious Braj dialect – to accept money for that service.  So we spent what turned out to be an entertaining half hour in his charming company, chatting with him about his business and what he thought about life in Vrindavan, and answering his questions about us.  By the end of two glasses of buttermilk each we had almost become buddies, and he was inviting us to his home for a meal!  We declined the invitation but happily consented to have our third glass of delicious creamy buttermilk laced with home-ground bhang (a locally grown plant-based narcotic that is customarily consumed while playing Holi)! 

The market looked too alluring – and by far more interesting than the temple – to miss out on, so we wandered for a bit down lanes that were tightly packed with shops on either side selling all manner of simple things – snacks and sweets, curd and buttermilk, flowers and joss sticks, watches and trinkets, wooden toys, and what have you.  Here, as everywhere in Vrindavan, ordinary residents, saffron-clad monks and mendicants, and obvious visitors like us rubbed shoulders. I was hoping I’d feel nice and stoned, but nothing happened!  And then for the first time, I saw the yellow-robed “beggars”.  They were not asking for anything, nor did they try to win sympathy.  Sitting on the road cross-legged with backs upright and eyes closed or looking straight ahead, neat little squares of cloth spread out before them, they were impressive in their dignity and silence.  They were lining both sides of the already narrow streets, and with  the odd bicycle and  motorbike also trying their luck at navigating their way through, we made slow progress.   

Seeing a lot of activity outside one establishment – in fact a lot of going in and coming out, including the sound of  fast-paced singing and drums – I stopped to see what was going on. It was some kind of religious establishment –a tiny temple – and some intense looking men in wild hair and beards, orange robes, and sonorous voices were lost in their singing, while some of their equally intense-looking companions were beating out mesmerising rhythms on drums.  What was totally incongruous was the sight of some “big city” males in the watching crowd, trying to drive themselves into a trance while maniacally dancing Bollywood-style to the music.    

I realised that it was time to leave, in more ways than one. Time to let my childhood and youthful memories of Holi rest in their original happy space.  Time to move out of  Vrindavan, carrying with me only the memories of those of its still-beautiful original – albeit crumbling – spaces that seem to have been mercifully ignored by modernising  India.

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