Holi is a festival of colors, a day to express love and affection with colors. At this time, everybody splashes colors on each other. It is wonderful because it reflects exactly what is happening in the natural environment - when all the beautiful flowers of different colors are blossoming.
It’s believed that Krishna played Holi during the month of ‘Phagun’ (February-March) as per lunisolar Calendar. So, during this time, Holi is played every day in one of the Braj regions of Uttar Pradesh. In modern India, the Braj region lies mostly in northwestern Uttar Pradesh that is between Agra and Mathura. In every part of Braj region, Holi is played in different forms like dry/wet color Holi or mix of it, dry/wet flower petals, laddu maar Holi in temples and Lath-maar Holi. Barsana & Nandgaon are the main hub for Holi and here it’s called Lath-Maar Holi. In Barsana, the lath-maar Holi is played on navami (9th day), on dasthami (10th Day) it’s played in Nandgaon. Inside the ‘banke Bihari’ temple of Vrindhawan, the wet flower petal and dry/wet color Holi on ekadashi (11th day) and on dwadashi (12th Day) it’s played in Mathura.
As per Hindu mythology, Radha spent her childhood in Barsana and Krishna spent his childhood in Nandgaon. Krishna has been known for playing pranks and teasing gopi’s (cow-herd girl). Once during Holi, Krishna colored Radha by playing a prank. So, in remembrance of the incident, the womenfolk of Barsana teach a sweet lesson by hitting the gops (cow-herd boy) with lath (staff) and the gops comes prepared with a leather shield. This is called Lath-Maar Holi. The lath-maar Holi also depicts the teasing relationship between the bride and brother-in-law. One can still experience the teasing after so many decades but it is all in the spirit of Holi.
Barsana is a small town in Mathura district of Uttar Pradesh state. It’s a pilgrimage site for many followers of Radha, as she was the favorite gopi of the deity Krishna as per the Hindu mythology. This small town comes alive twice a year, once during March, to play a fervent form of Holi known as Lath-maar Holi and then in September, to celebrate Radha ashtmi.
The celebration starts by visiting the radha rani temple. As thousands of devotees wait over the temple court for the first glimpse of the idol, on the other side, people apply colors made of kesudo or palash, men in female attire dance along with the eunuchs pose as sakhi’s, people sing Holi songs in braj language. As the temple door opens people hurry to enter first and in the mean time the temple authorities throw laddus on the waiting devotees from the terrace. It’s called laddu maar Holi.
On ashtami, people in their respective groups start the parikrema (procession) from rangeeli gali to radha rani temple. As the various groups proceed, they stop over at various places to relax, sing, dance and play Holi. Also, after every few 100mtr the residents have langaar and share drinks, hawkers selling ice cream/kulfi made of bhang (cannabis). The procession passes thru sankari gali. This is the place where Krishna played Holi with radha and since Krishna was alone, the sakhis grabbed him and tied him up instead on a tree. As the procession proceeds towards the temple, it passes through a steep and rocky patch where devotees build a small structure of stones in the shape of a house and pray to the local deity and believe that goddess will bless them with a house in this life or next.
The lath maar Holi is played between 1645hrs to 1830hrs as per the auspicious time decided by the temple priest. So, in Barsana, the boys (gop) of Nandgaon, come to play Holi with the girls (gopi) of Barsana but instead of colors they are greeted with lath (staff).
The men of Nandgaon are completely aware of what welcome awaits them in barsana, so they come fully padded and a leather shield to escape from the women with staff. The lath-maar Holi in Barsana happens in a long stretch from rangili gali to various streets of the village.
Next day, it’s the turn of Gop (men) of Barsana to reciprocate and invade Nandgaon and play lath-maar Holi with Gopi (women) of Nandgaon. In Nandgaon, the lath-maar Holi happens at the entrance of the village in a very limited space in the evening hours.
In Vrindhavan & Mathura, the Holi lasts for sixteen days. The most famous one is Bakhe Bihari temple at Vrindhavan. Thousands of devotees come from different part of the nation to have a glimpse of their idol. Here, people get drenched in color water with petals. Inside the temple, the authorities make flower rain, no place to stand, people dancing, shouting, singing, crying, tear of joy rolling from eyes is a frequent sight.
The colors of the pigments have a specific meaning: the green for harmony, orange for optimism, blue for vitality and red for passion, joy and love.
Accommodation & Eating:
Barsana being a small town, there are no direct buses to Barsana/nandgaon, so take the bus for Vrindhawan/Mathura and de-board at chattha crossing and take short route buses run by the state transport services. This place has limited guesthouses with basic amenities. Most of the guesthouses are covered under charitable trust, so getting a place to stay during holi is actually very rare. This place doesn’t have restaurants but has 3-4 basic dhabas. Barsana and Nandgaon is ‘No Non-Veg’ zone. Nandgaon is much smaller and 8km away from Barsana.
As a travel photographer, I have seen fellow travelers staying in Vrindhavan or Mathura and then commuting to Barsana or Nandgaon.
Given below are a few points to remember on travel and photographing the lath maar holi in Barsana, Nandgaon and Vrindhavan.
*) If you are driving from Delhi to Barsana/Nandgaon or Vrindhawan, take the old Agra highway, as it will be closer and shorter than Taj expressway from Greater Noida.
*) Consumption and selling of Bhang (made of cannabis) is legal. In Braj region, one will find government outlets selling bhang under licensed shops. The consumption increases during holi, as it’s consumed with ice creams/kulfi, milk, juices, beverages etc. So be sure and check while buying any of such edibles.
*) Girls or young women are treated as gopi and most gop try teasing, putting colors on them and even passing comment, as it’s all very much accepted in good spirit of Holi. So, for all women traveler/photographers, I especially recommend them to be in a group and be accompanied by men.
*) These places have a good population of eunuchs. As they are treated as’ Sakhis’ (Radha's girlfriends). These ‘sakhis’ dance in temple courts and perform ‘Raas Leelas’.
*) Photographers please carry a rain cover for your camera to protect it from dry and wet colors. One can buy DiCapac WP-S10 or S5, kata’s rain cover or basic rain cover. Have at least two rain covers and try to tape it nicely so that it doesn’t open. One can even buy sandwich protective tape and wrap it smoothly to avoid moisture on display and viewfinder. Always carry a hood for your lens, brush, blower and clean cloth to wipe frequently. Even after all this, your camera is not safe so you have to practice some level of precautions.
*) When people see you with a DSLR or bulky camera, they would behave differently and weirdly to get clicked. So please don’t say no to them as most of them would be under the influence of bhang and your ‘No’ can hurt their ego and sentiments.
*) The craziest crowd you will find is in banke bihari temple of Vrindavan. I personally have found the temple authorities to be very rude, abusive towards the photographers and visitors.
*) In Vrindhavan, please avoid to wear spectacles and don’t feed the monkeys and don’t encourage begging. Be extra cautious at chir ghat / kadamba tree, since the tree is full of monkey thieves, expert in stealing foot wear from temple, spectacles/shades from the eye.
*) Watch out for local notorious kids, as they get thrilled by intentionally putting water and colors on your camera