Timeless Ritual

February 26, 2007 at 6:21 pm Leave a comment


Feb 25, VRINDAVAN, INDIA (THE HINDU) — The Lat Maar Holi is an enactment of an incident from the life of Lord Krishna.

Colours of Tradition: Women dancing in the forecourt of Baldeo temple
[Photos by Hugh and Colleen Gantzer]

IT was go-dhuli time in the Braj. In the twilight, cattle plodded home across the scrublands of the Braj, raising pollen-clouds of dust: go-dhuli is, literally, “cow-dust” time. Such pastoral metaphors are typical of the heartland of Uttar Pradesh with its long historical associations with herds-people. About 3,500 years ago, their Aryan ancestors, migrating down from the steppes of Asia, discovered these lush meadows. When they settled here they called this green terrain “Braj Bhoomi”: Land of the Encampments of Herdsmen. From these growing encampments, usually occupied by one extended family, came the term gotra: literally cattle-pen. To prevent the genetic dangers of endogamy, they established the tradition that one could not marry within one’s own gotra. Significantly, the dominant clan here was not any of the martial Rajputs, but powerful herds-people: the canny Yadavs. One of the great Yadav chieftains was Lord Krishna.

Pastoral festival

We had come to Braj Bhoomi to experience a festival closely associated with Lord Krishna and his pastoral people. So did thousands of others, the majority of them pilgrims. Dressed in the festive finery that make all our celebrations look like flower gardens breaking ranks, they gazed in awe at a mural in a pavilion showing the peacock-plumed Krishna lovingly dressing Radha’s hair while a winged attendant looked on. They inch-wormed their way around a holy hillock, measuring the 22-km path with their prostrated bodies: the hillock was Govardhan, the one that Lord Krishna had raised on his little finger to protect his people from a deluge.

The village of Nandgaon

We drove on through roads increasingly crowded with pilgrims. In the distance, a hill soared into the sky. This was Nandgaon: the legendary village of Nanda, foster father of Krishna. The hill was encrusted with houses, crowned with a white temple. Pilgrims, like streams of colourful ants, climbed up to the temple and then scrambled down again. Another age ago, according to devotees, the young Krishna had led a raiding party of his companions from Nandgaon to Radha’s village of Barsana. There they teased her and her milkmaid-gopis and, in their good-natured boisterousness, broke some of the women’s pots of yoghurt and milk. The irate gopis retaliated by belabouring their tormentors, using the long staves they carried to herd their cattle.

This event is re-enacted every year in the famed Lat Maar (literally the Beating with Staves) Holi of Barsana.

Entering Barsana, we got out of our car and merged with the river of humanity flowing through the narrow lanes of this ancient town. In spite of the teeming crowds, no one pushed or jostled or prodded: it was all very civilised, disciplined. We streamed into Rangili Gali (Colourful Alley), found a perch on a raised platform in front of a chemist’s shop. Every balcony, every elevated plinth and staircase, every veranda and window overlooking the street, bulged with people. And yet the crowds got thicker and thicker: streaked, daubed, rainbow-hued with the coloured powders of Holi. Clouds of colour rose like smoke, handfuls cascaded down on us and the vibrancy of Holi was like the frisson of static electricity shimmering over the restive crowd.

Strange resonance

Across the road, in a rising lane, a group of robed and turbaned priests began to chant an invocatory prayer. They were the Goswamis, literally Lords of the Cows. They belonged to a sect that placed considerable emphasis on an emotional acceptance of Lord Krishna with song and dance. Then, through their chant, we felt a strange resonance starting to throb within us. Slowly, huge drums on wheels appeared, approaching us and, with every thud! delivered by their enthusiastic drummers, the resonance leapt within us. Suddenly the deep beat of the drums was muffled by a cacophonic chorus of voices. They bellowed with more enthusiasm than skill but together, they and the drummers, seemed to cancel out the harsher effects of each other! We were relieved.

The staves come crashing down

They were the heralds of the main performers: the voluntary victims from Nandgaon. They followed the heralds with a certain reluctance. They wore yellow robes, padded turbans on their heads fastened securely with yellow bands tied firmly under their chins; and they all carried leather shields padded on the inside. Then, trooping in with staves their own height, or even taller, came the vengeful women of Barsana. The colours kept raining down from overhead, as soft as talcum powder. The crowd murmured impatiently. The women lined up like an honour guard and the men began to dance, very gracefully, in front of them. There seemed to be a reversal of roles: graceful men, determined women.


Then we heard the thuds, as if a dhobi was slamming clothes against a stone. Incredibly, many of the men were crouching down on the ground, padded shields raised above their heads. The women were lifting their staves, and slamming them down on the shields as hard as they could. Some of the men sprang up after every blow. The women, too, leapt in the air before every whack! And this went on for two long hours: thud! thud! thud; the compulsive drumming, the bellowing chants, the colours raining down in clouds of red and pink and green; the staves raised and crashing down; the yellow-robed bodies moving over and over again. The emotional overkill began to gnaw at us and we wanted to leave but there was no way we could get through the mass of bodies jelled by the spell of that compulsive violence before them.

When it was over we were as limp as dishrags, drained of all feeling.


The next morning, however, we visited the fortified hilltop town of Gokul where Krishna and his brother had spent much of their childhood. In the courtyard of the small temple of Baldeo, singers and musicians played lively, foot-tapping music. And women, their faces covered by their saris, got up and began to dance. Their steps and gestures were gentle and provocatively feminine.

Clearly, the catharsis of Lat Maar Holi unveils the many hidden faces of humanity.



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Natural Disasters, Extreme Weather Dola-yatra, Holi & Gaura Purnima

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