VRINDAVAN – There may be no better place on earth to spend the night of Holi than in an ashram in the center of Vrindavan, the city where Hindus believe Lord Krishna was born. It wasn’t the Holiday Inn (where we had stayed in Delhi) but it did have features that few accommodations can match, like the early-morning sound of monks chanting the Bhagavan Ghuran in Sanskrit. Our host for the night was Shrivasta Goswami Maharaj, the head of the ashram known as Caitanya Prem Sansthan.

Holi may best be known for its use of color – vast quantities of pigment powder is thrown by revelers into the air and at each other – but at its core it is a celebration of the love between deity Lord Krishna and his supreme wife, Radha. It is also marked by bonfires lit along highways and in the front of temples, symbolizing the burning off of hatred or vices.

A small group of students emerged from the Ashram early this morning to document pilgrims bathing in the Yamuna River and welcoming in the day with offerings or “puja,” small boats of orange and yellow carnations centered around a wick, that were pushed out into the river.

A particularly beautiful sight was a group of women with their long hair loose, slowly venturing into the river in saris and submerging under water. “You can tell they are from Bengal by the way they bathe,” Paresh Ji said, nodding to group. The fact that the Yamuna is polluted beyond purity did not seem to bother these devotees. For them this is the river famed as the playground of Krishna and Rhada. Another sight (and Vrindavan is a kaleidoscope of sights and sites) was the line of medicants, easy to discern by their orange dress, seated along the banks of the river with silver prayerful pots in front of them. They wore bright smiles. These men and women are devout Hindus and have chosen to denounce worldly desires and goods and they are as integral to the Vindravan landscape as the colorful boats on the river, the bathers and temples, which number over 1,000.

Daily Dispatch: Day 5
Daily Dispatch: Day 5
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In atmosphere, Vrindavan feels like a village. It’s mud streets and tiny alleyways cloak a population of approximately 57,000 people, and yet, in the history of Hinduism, its importance is profound. Krishna, the eighth incarnation of the Lord Vishnu, was born here. Radha, his supreme wife was born in a neighboring village. To celebrate their love and, in turn, love in general, Indians of all faiths spend a good part of the day pitching pigment at each other. Those of us who ventured out of the confines of the ashram came back splattered from head to toe in all the colors of the rainbow.

Part of our personal privilege as J-school students was sitting with Guru Goswami, a joyful-looking man with a round face, kind eyes and a choti, or ponytail at the back of his shaved head. While he began with the love story that is behind Holi, the conversation soon turned to something else on his mind: the devastation of the Yamuna River which runs through the town. “It is a stream of sewerage,” Goswami said. Every year, Vindrandan welcomes over 500,000 pilgrims to the town, which has limited septic structures. While some may claim that religion is the cause of the pollution, Goswami rejected that notion. “It is not about religion, it is about awareness,” he said.

And then we were off to Rishikesh! But not before a monkey pinched Nicole’s glasses off her face and scampered up a tree with them in his paws. A crowd gathered and various on-lookers offered solutions. One piece of fruit and then another and then a third was tossed to the monkey in the hope that he would drop the glasses. When that didn’t work, a youth with a stick followed the monkey to the roof of a temple and managed to retrieve the stolen item. The incident gave new meaning to the phrase “it takes a village.” It all happened very quickly and Nicole, glasses in hand, was much relieved.

We finally boarded our bus and headed north to Rishikesh. Some seven hours later we arrived in the village on the banks of another holy river, the Ganges. Hot showers were welcomed.

Photo by Ana Singh