Photo by Sangsuk Sylvia Kang

VRINDAVAN — The Covering Religion team arrived in this “city of a thousand temples” on the banks of the Yamuna River today after an early morning drive from New Delhi. We came to observe Holi celebrations in the city where it all began. Over the course of the day we experienced both the ancient Hindu holiday and one of the enduring symbols of Muslim Moghul rule in India, the Taj Mahal.

Vrindavan’s narrow roads were closed to tour buses for the holiday, but we got special permission to enter and had the benefit of a scooter-riding police escort as we entered the city. With his guidance, the bus bumped along dirt roads crammed with locals, rickshaws, cows, dogs, and ever-watchful monkeys.

Holi technically began the next day, but that didn’t stop people from celebrating raucously on the street. As soon as we stepped off the bus, we were showered with colored powders, paint, and water. Cries of “Happy Holi!” and “Holi mubarak!” were interspersed with shrieks and laughter as unsuspecting passers-by—including the CJS team—were caught up in the festival of colors. Our clothes and faces smeared with multicolored powder, we began to embrace the anything-goes spirit of Holi.

By contrast, the quiet, orderly pace of life inside Shrivatsa Goswami’s ashram seemed a world away. We set our bags down and took off our shoes to enjoy a few minutes of sun—and to dry our clothes—in the jasmine-scented courtyard.

We were delighted that Alice Guilhamon, CJS ’15, joined us on this leg of the trip. Alice first traveled to India with the Covering Religion class in 2015, and now works for a French film company in Delhi. She fit right in with the group as we eagerly awaited the next element of the Holi celebration.

Soon enough, strains of music issued from the ashram’s main hall. We were right on time for the Holi play. The Rasdeva theatrical performance commemorates the original Holi; it recreates the story of Krishna’s playful interactions with the gopis (milkmaids) and his favorite gopi and consort Radha. An all-male troupe dressed in elaborate gold saris danced onstage; these were the gopis, enjoying their work in the village of Barsana. Krishna and his friends arrived next, decked out in gold pantaloons and bristling mustaches. The two groups engaged in a tit-for-tat exchange, drawing laughter from the large audience. After a tug-of-war and whirling musical numbers, Radha won their game. She sat triumphantly on Krishna’s throne, enjoying her victory as the musicians

The gopis began to toss flower petals over Krishna and Radha, ceremonially binding their love with flowers. The couple sat in a growing pile of gold, yellow and red petals as baskets of petals were poured over their shoulders. Then, in a startling move, Krishna and Radha jumped up from the flower pile. Petals flew everywhere in spirals of gold and red, catching the light before floating down to the stage. The actors playing Krishna and Radha then jumped offstage and into the audience. They scooped more petals into the air, which swooped down to land on the audience’s clothes and hair. The hall filled with the scent of crushed marigold as the performance ended with a joyous flower petal fights.

Shaking flowers out of our hair, we adjourned to the tiled dining hall for a delicious vegetarian meal served on banana-leaf placemats. Monkeys scurried overhead, fruitlessly searching for a chance to snatch our leftover chapatis.

After our late lunch, we hopped on the bus bound for Agra. We arrived at the Taj Mahal just as the sun was setting; the white marble was luminous in the fading light. The nearer we drew to the mausoleum, the more impressed we were by its sheer scale and symmetry. Families in bright holiday clothes strolled along the periphery of the building, small as ants. Looking beyond the monument, a lone boatman punted his colorful rowboat along the river, back toward Vrindavan.

Daily Dispatch: Day 4
Daily Dispatch: Day 4
By SYLVIA KANG
« 1 of 8 »