The world turns pink

Trip Start Aug 16, 2005
Trip End Apr 14, 2006

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Where I stayed
ISKCON Guesthouse, Krishna Balaram Temple Complex, Vrindavan

Flag of India  , Uttar Pradesh,
Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Holi is a Hindu celebration known as the festival of colours. It marks the end of winter. Revellers carry bags of brightly coloured powder, water guns filled with coloured water, cans of coloured foam and cover anything that moves. We had decided to spend it in Vrindavan which is a small town but an important stop on the Hindu pilgrimage route. The Hindu god Krishna was born in Mathura, just down the road, and he spent his youth in Vrindavan playing tricks on the milk maids. Apparently he used to steal their clothes while they were bathing! Vrindavan is also thought of as a great place to die - where you can escape the cycle of rebirth - and there are some very doddery old men wandering around and waiting.

I had romantic visions of these places where pilgrims flock too, but in fact on arrival they both looked grimy, ugly modern places with the usual sea of rubbish strewn around the streets. That is apart from the temples, which as always seem to rise above the greyness, and blossom like lotus flowers do in polluted water.

When our bus terminated in Mathura we faced the sight of a young cow dying right in the middle of the bus station. It was on its side and its neck was at an unnatural angle - maybe it had been run over. Because cows are holy to Hindus they are tolerated, have the freedom of the town and roads (they're often just lying on traffic islands) and may be fed and looked after, although some are painfully thin. However, because their lives are seen as sacred we doubted that anyone would put the cow out if its misery. It was just left there to die and people were putting their bags down around it and stepping over its tail. It's a strange contradiction.

We got in a rickshaw and travelled through the streets past many bonfires that were being prepared for that night. Don't think Guy Fawkes though. The fuel for these fires was big piles of dried lumps of dung, topped by a Hindu god - or rather a large doll dressed in garish clothes and gobs of gold jewellery. The whole thing is covered over with a decorated marquee. I was trying to take a photo when we had our first Holi attack. Mandy and I had talked for a long time about which old clothes we would wear and how we would cover our hair in scarves for Holi. But we had been taken totally off guard with good clothes on and all our bags with us. Some young boys sprayed us first with pink water, then our driver stopped to get petrol and the attendant insisted on smearing yellow powder across our faces. Next, we saw a big gang of men up ahead and our driver laughed at us and slowed down so they could throw handfuls of bright red powder all over us. Then it started to rain. We thought the powder might brush off, but now it was soaking into our clothes and running down our skin. There was nothing to do except shout 'happy holi' and grin at all the sniggering passers by.

We checked into our guest house which was part of a Krishna Temple complex. Little were we to know that we would be imprisoned in this gated community for the next 36 hours! No, no-one tried (too hard) to convert us, but the streets outside were completely inaccessible during Holi.

The next morning we got all covered up and went to the temple entrance to see what was happening. People were coming in with not a speck of natural coloured skin showing so we were a bit hesitant. But I thought I'd come all this way for Holi, so I should get into the spirit. We walked out of the safety of our compound and managed a full minute before scurrying back inside again. During that minute we were both completely blinded, lost each other in the crowd and had pink powder and blue foam sprayed directly into our face and eyes. It was vicious. And to make things worse I had nothing to retaliate with as I had not invested in any powder.

We saw a lot of people later that day who had problems with their eyes. I was wearing sun glasses but had a spray can nozzle directed behind them. We decided that Holi was much safer and more fun to watch than to participate in, and feeling satisfied that, now we had some colour and didn't look like complete kill joys, we could stand on the first floor of the temple and point and take photos of everyone else. Later we went into the main room where worshipping was taking place with fervour (it resembled a nightclub - god really is a DJ) and managed to get caught up in an Indian TV broadcast.

The 'International Society of Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) ' attracts hundreds of Western devotees every year and all of them that we saw looked pale, earnest, dour, serious and to be frank, miserable (unless they were in the temple and then admittedly things got quite lively). Their motto is 'chant and be happy' and the irony was not lost on us. Mandy even got told off for giggling at the bakery and for her bad handwriting when signing in. However, there was one person that made our stay here pleasurable. A devotee from Crete called Thassus. Mandy described him as Greek's answer to Ozzy Osbourne, mixed with Demis Roussos! He was an old hippie, still used phrases like 'far out' and had not really come back to reality yet. We laughed a lot together. He explained about the ISKCON guru, beliefs and practices in response to Mandy's questions but wasn't too pushy. He also told us that there are 18 types of misery in the world, one of which is mosquitoes. Mandy bought his CD which is a mantra consisting of the same 3 words, sung to 18 different tunes!

On our first night Thassus took us out to explore the complex. We went into the main temple as it was in full swing - chanting, dancing and clapping all performed in the most sumptuous surroundings. Huge chandeliers dangled from the ceilings. Three shrines shimmered and sparkled. The main room opened through archways onto a colonnaded courtyard and the floor was polished marble. It would be a perfect place for a party. Hare Om.

The next day, we ventured out to explore Vrindavan. All the streams and sewers were running pink, the streets were ingrained with a pink hue and walls were splashed with colours. Most people had changed their clothes, but still had red ears or scalps. Everywhere were discarded clothes from the day before (tailors do well out of Holi it seems). Vrindavan has dozens and dozens of Hindu temples, a handful of which we explored. In one we arrived just in time for a 'service'. It was fascinating and quite stirring to watch. The congregation stood in a narrow area stretching from the front of the hall to the back (where we were peeking over their heads) and craning to see through an archway to the temple's inner shrine. Then a large gong was struck and a velvet curtain swished back to reveal their deities resting in golden splendour and covered in flowers and jewellery. Everyone raised their hands, chanted and threw rose petals. Two men waved large feather fans at the gods sitting splendid in their sparkly cave. Then the curtain closed and it was all over.

We also found Vrindavan's old centre and saw many historic buildings with beautiful carved balconies and doorways, just rotting away. Trying to find the river on the edge of town, Mandy took me to a shack serving cold drinks. It was next to the rubbish tip and the flies were relentless. It was a lovely spot to relax!

At one of the bigger temples we settled down to do some sketching of the carvings on the pillars. Suddenly we were the tourist attraction and had a continuous stream of people peering over our shoulders, pointing at what we were drawing, calling their friends over, and sometimes standing right in front of us and blocking our view. They seemed absolutely fascinated, both adults and children. It was nice to interact with Indians without being asked for money or to buy something, but trying to concentrate on drawing with all that going on was pretty hard.

Soon enough though, we got properly distracted when we noticed there was an elephant in the courtyard behind us! It was all dressed up in a processional outfit. We ended up following the elephant, a brass band, rows of people carrying flags, a deity being carried under a canopy on men's shoulders, and crowd of pilgrims as they circled the temple and went on to march around town. It was great timing as we had no idea it would be happening.

I haven't so far mentioned Indian toilets, but it is probably time. Some hotels have Western toilets, but most restaurants, trains, public toilets etc are the squat type. However, in Mumbai Darren and I had a strange hybrid toilet which had foot rests built into either side of the seat. Actually, if you do it the Indian way and don't use toilet paper (which I have been attempting!) the squat toilet is a lot easier and more hygienic to use. The other effect of Indian's not using toilet paper (it really puts in perspective how much of the stuff we get though in the Western world) is that a constant accompaniment wherever you go, is the sound of people hawking up big gobs of phlegm and clearing their noses by doing what Mandy refers to as 'snot rockets'. After 10 days here, the sound is really starting to grate on my nerves!

Waiting at the station for our train to Delhi, we heard an announcement that another train was delayed by an unbelievable 8 hours and 15 minutes. The announcer then said the classic words 'we apologise for the inconvenience'. Only in India...
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