Vrindavan - Somewhat Unremarkable City
The Holi Festival in Vrindavan, India, the city where Krishna (a Hindu deity and physical incarnation or avatar of Vishnu) grew up would be epic. Krishna was born in Mathura, about 15km away but grew up along the river Yamuna in Vrindavan. Krishna in his youth was known for his mischievous nature and that mischief was evident at the Spring Festival of Colors called Holi. We did our research prior to leaving the States and realized we needed to be in Vrindavan for Holi as it's truly the Mecca of Holi Celebrations throughout the world.
The Holi Festival in in the Hare Krishna of Holies is not for the faint of heart or those with problems of personal space. Yet something about this town oozes the Hindu faith and is a pilgrimage town for the people of India. It is said that "all of India can be seen in Vrindavan" due to the many different people coming here for it's sacred significance.
Hare Krishna Orchid
Where We Stayed
We booked our stay at the Hare Krishna Orchid outside of town and the away from the craziness, from the 19th to the 26th. A full week of Holi festivities that included throwing flowers, women beating men with sticks, throwing copious amounts of powder in each other's faces and dowsing each other with water. What's there not to love? Ok... maybe the flowers part. We took a very long and late train from Khajuraho to Agra and hired a pre-paid taxi for 1650 rupees to take us to Vrindavan. As we were making the last 2km into town traffic stopped.
Everyone was walking toward the heap of cars strewn about the 2 lane sea of honking horns from the city center. At one point I got out and tried to direct some traffic much to the glee of around 30 people sitting in the back of a dump truck staring and pointing and numerous mini-buses full with about the same number of people. Traffic lifted enough for us to squeeze past the parade of powdered faces and cars and we made it to our hotel. The hotel was nice, however not spectacular. There was a daily breakfast buffet included that didn't serve meat and for the entire stay, we were vegetarian. The food however was really good.
The Dilemma Of Where To Go
We ran into a dilemma at this point. We wondered if we should hold off on seeing Agra and Taj Mahal until after the Holi Festival. Thinking the crowds might be less and we didn't want to miss out on the festivities leading up to Holy on the 24th of March. The next day we took a tuk-tuk around town for a few hundred rupees and didn't see much of interest. We did however see temples everywhere. Vrindavan has hundreds of temples it seems. On the ride we saw many from outside. Some were new construction and elegant, some were ancient and run down, and some were in the middle.
Our interest in visiting temples was in a low point after visiting so many in Khajuraho. The only one that interested us was Banke Bihari Temple. It's not the oldest, having been built in the 1860s. It's no special temple related to any historical melodrama. But for the Holi Festival, this place goes off! We heard that daily you can go down there and "Play Holi" and opted to not go until the 23rd and 24th when Holi really kicks in full gear. We skipped the cane beatings from the women and thought it a good move to minimize potential injuries that might prohibit us from the 23rd and 24th. So basically we did nothing the 21st and 22nd. The 23rd however was a different story.
And It Begins
March 23rd 2016 - Holi Festival
Banke Bihari Temple was on the plate for the morning. We hear that it's from about 9am to 1pm everyday, but you never really know what the true story is with many things in India. You hear conflicting reports on every question asked and even getting somewhere at times is only achieved by "triangulation". To triangulate, you simply just go one direction and then ask someone else, go for a while then ask another, and after about 5-10 people you get closer and closer to where you want to go and usually find it.
We liberally applied our skin and hair with coconut oil as suggested by various Indians who we have met that have experienced Holi and we hailed a tuk-tuk armed with nothing more than some money in a money belt, a GoPro, and the thirst for an adventure into the unknown. Vrindavan Holi Festival... Hare Krishna style. Mischief abounds and Banke Bihari didn't disappoint.
Banke Bihari Temple
Arriving At The Temple
Our tuk-tuk dropped us off a few hundred meters from the narrow passage that took us to the temple. Within feet we were already getting powdered and shot with some red goop from a seltzer bottle looking device. People were happy and singing and dancing all over the place, throwing powders of different colors and spraying water. We made our way up the alley to the temple and the closer we got, the wetter and more powdered we had become. People were on rooftops with buckets of water and just about everyone had some powder.
We didn't go into the temple as pictures were not allowed... nor video. Besides, we would have to take our shoes off before entering and the pile of sandals and flip-flops were already about 2 feet thick. We figured we would have to run barefoot the rest of the day or at very least have to try to sift through hundreds of shoes to find our flip-flops, while people were stampeding into and out of the temple around us. I gave my shoes to Shelly and tried to get in. When I saw the cloud of dust in the main temple area inside, I opted for a hasty retreat for "cleaner" air outside. There were thousands of people on the steps of the temple. We mingled with Yogis and Babas, common folk from all over the country and foreigners like us.
People Of Holi
It was a mish-mash of color being thrown from every direction and people would come up to you and rub handfuls of powder on your cheeks or head and say "Happy Holi". Most were gentle with the application, yet some were over-zealous and returned repeatedly to wish us a happy Holi. We hung out for a while and decided to make our way through the crowded central areas. The passageways were Varanasi-esque in their narrow congested streets with vendors on each side selling everything from food to clothing. People throwing colors into the air or from roof tops and stopping us to get a picture with them. We finally made it to a larger street and stopped to wipe the color from out of our eyes and ears with some baby-wipes we brought. (a really good tip)
The Center of Attention
Within minutes we were the center of attention and had people coating us with more powder and asking to take pictures with us. We snapped some of them too and made our way down the road to another main road that took us to our hotel. All in all that day we walked about 4km through countless parades of marauding powder tossers and in the face blastings of questionably clean water or colored goop. It was a complete surrender to your personal space issues and even though there were times we thought... "you got to be kidding me???"
On a whole, an absolutely amazing experience for both of us. We also bought some green powder and dished out our own colors to others as well, including the mean people who threw it in your face. They got the same, in a somewhat gratifying show of instant karma on our part. We went back to the hotel in the afternoon and washed ourselves off, exhausted and happy with our crazy day in Vrindavan.
Holi Day Two
The next day we got a little better prepared. We were going to just set out walking from our hotel armed with nerf squirt guns. Kind of like a nerf swimming noodle and a bicycle pump put together, that pushes water out a little hole in the end. We scarfed up as well, by wrapping our faces and hair with bandanas and scarves. Covering our ears (really the worse place to try to get fine powder out of the day before), nose ( I had inhaled enough yesterday) and hair (both of our blonde streaks and ends are pinkish now) was essential this second day.
We looked like jihadists heading out into town to squirt people and nail them with powder. Foreigners get it worse than Indians at the Holi Festival. Maybe it's our light-colored skin or the men feel like they can powder up a foreign woman when they wouldn't dream of putting their hands on any self-respecting Indian woman the same way. Were not sure, but we saw no other Indians colored or plastered as much as the foreigners. Today was our day for revenge.
At War With The Boys
Setting out for War
We set out from our hotel to walk about 1.5 km into town and see what trouble we could get into. Strangely enough, even though this was actually Holi, and we heard that the streets were going to be full of people, we didn't see as many out as the day before. We walked a little while and no powder or water was being thrown at us. Then we see 4 boys with cups of something, cocked and ready to fire upon us. They tried and missed mostly and then ran to the cement trough on the side of the road to refill their containers with whatever sludge or urine they were throwing at us. It was a blue color like windshield wiper fluid.
We stopped the boys and waved our fingers at them not to use that water. "The water will make you sick" we told them. Luckily the boys listened. They were all around 10 years old and looked poor, although tough to tell during the Holi Festival. Everyone's clothes look the same, tattered and colored. We found a spigot on the other side of the street and directed them to use it and we would fight them. They agreed. We watered up and set up on opposite sides of the street.
The War With The Boys
4 boys on one side and Shelly and I on the other. On the count of 3 we ran at each other squirting and throwing water, laughing and then doing it all over again. We did this for about a half and hour then decided we wanted to use our powder and find people so we could exact our revenge. We walked into town and the main road was still not busy. Only a few people throwing powder or wishing us happy Holi with a face plastering. Our squirt tubes were all but useless as we didn't feel like squirting people walking by who weren't really playing Holi today.
Giving Up The Noodles
The kids were coveting our squirt noodles and we could tell they really wanted to use them, so we let the kids borrow the tubes and they weren't scared to use them in the least. We were in front of the police station watching the kids squirt pedestrians, tuk-tuks full of people, and anyone passing on a motorbike or bicycle. There was a well/pump (you can find them all over most towns on the side of roads) right in front, and made for perfect refilling of the noodles.
An Angry Hare Krishna Spoils The Fun
After about 4pm the powder ended, some white-guy Hare Krishna broke one of the noodles after getting squirted by the boys. So much for my mental picture of the peaceful Hare Krishnas at the airports. This guy must have been new to the faith. One of the kids ran off with the other noodle gun with is buddy and the other two, and another boy who joined in from the main road, headed across the street with us to get some food. They waited across the street until we waved the boys over and bought them whatever they wanted from the street stall. We then watched them eat and parted ways. You could tell they appreciated the meal and probably don't get that type of street food often. We didn't even end up eating.
Change In Perspective
An amazing two days of playing Holi. We could have done much more and there was something going on daily all over. However we were completely satisfied with our powder and water days and interacting with the local Indian people in a special way. What is most remarkable is that Holi represents the spring renewal. The reason everyone throws powder at each other is so that everyone looks the same. Really a beautiful sentiment on the equality of us as humans. No matter if you were a foreigner, Man, Woman, white or dark, you all looked the same. There was an amazing happy feeling with the Indians that was palpable. Everyone smiling and wishing good tidings right before they smashed you in the face with some powder. We loved it!