Holi Festivals is the most fun festival in India. However, if there is one place you need to enjoy the traditional celebrations – it is in Braj Bhumi or Mathura Vrindavan.
What is Holi Festival?
Holi is the festival of colors. People apply colors on each other and play with colors. It comes during the harvest time in North India when people of agrarian society have funds at hand. Weather is just perfect, with winters behind and summers yet to set in.
The festival is celebrated across most of India although playing with colors is more popular in North India.
Gulal or the bright pink is the most popular color to play.
This is followed by the natural colors that come from Turmeric, Mehandi, Sand, and Sindhoor. Over years natural colors gave way to chemical-based colors. However, recently, there is a conscious effort to revert to the natural colors to play.
Dry colors are in the air but it is the watercolors that soak you in. Children prepare balloons with colored water since morning. It is fun to catch people unaware of your balloon hitting them. Pickhari is used to throw a water jet on the people from a distance. I saw a lovely old Pichkari from Banke Bihari temple at the Braj Museum in Vrindavan.
Playing with colors is followed by the eating of good food. Gujhia is a favorite sweet of the season. Consuming Bhang laced Lassi is a norm.
When is the Holi Festival?
As per Indian calendar or Panchang, the festival in Braj starts on Vasant Panchami and goes on till Phalgun Purnima. The last day i.e. Phalgun Purnima is the day it is celebrated across the country. By Julian calendar, it roughly falls in March. You can check the exact dates online, they are easily available.
In Mathura Vrindavan, the festival lasts for roughly 40 days. Yes, that is right 40 days. It starts on the Basant Panchami day that roughly falls in early February and peaks at the end of Phalgun month.
Holi 2019 Dates
- Laddoo Holi – Barsana – 14th March 2019
- Lathmar Holi – Barsana – 15th March 2019 and at Nandgaon – 16th March 2019
- Sri Krishna Janambhumi Holi – Mathura – 17th March 2019
- Banke Bihari Temple Holi – Vrindavan – 17-20th March 2019
- Chhadimar Holi – Gokul – 18th March 2019
- Holika Dahan – Falen – 20th March 2019
- Chaturvedi Samaj ka Dola – Mathura – 20-21th March 2019
- Dauji ka Huranga – Baldeva – 22nd March 2019
- Mukhrai Dance – 22nd March 2019
Legends of the Festival of Colors
It is one of the two biggest festivals of Braj Bhumi, of which Mathura and Vrindavan are a part of. The other one being Krishna Janmashtami. Braj Bhumi is spread across 84 Kos or roughly 300 odd kilometers. In the current day context, it spreads between the states of Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan. This is the land of Krishna. He did his Bal Leela and Ras Leela in this land. The festival continues to celebrate his stories and legends.
Different Types of Holi Festival in Mathura Vrindavan
While most of India celebrates Holi with colors and music, in Mathura Vrindavan there are different types of celebrations. Each has its own date and venue. I am sharing them in the chronological order as they are celebrated each year.
Laddoo Holi – Barsana
Barsana is the village of Radha or her father Vrishbhanu. Her lovely temple sits on top of a hill called Brahmagiri Hill.
The formal beginning of the festival begins with people of Nandgaon inviting the people of Barsana for celebrations. It is called Phag Amantran Utsav. Laddoo Holi is played in Barsana the same day. Next day it is the time for Lathmar Holi in Barsana and the following day at Nandgaon.
Bright yellow Bundi Laddoos are thrown at each other in the temple. This reminded me of my school days when we used to play with laddoos that were given to us on Independence Day and Republic Day. The place is full of yellow color – the favorite color of Krishna. Remember he is also called Pitambar or the one who wears yellow cloths.
When – Falgun Shukla Ashtami
Lathmar Holi – Barsana & Nandgaon
Krishna lived in Nandgaon as a young man and played Holi with Gopikas and Radha. So, in Nandgaon and Barsana, he celebrates the festival as a youth. This is where the world famous Lathmar Holi happens. So, if you want to see women beating men with big sticks as everyone is soaked in colors all around with choicest of cuss words head to Nandgaon and Barsana.
The story goes back to the days of Radha and Krishna. The relationship between the two villages continues to be derived from the relationship of Radha & Krishna. Men of Krishna’s village Nandgaon who come to play Holi with women of Radha’s village – Barsana.
Women of Barsana beat the men of Nandgaon with Lath or bamboo sticks, who of course protect themselves with a shield. The colors are all in the air while this goes on. Choicest cuss words are used by both parties.
If you are visiting, be prepared to be soaked in color. There is no way you can avoid it. Be careful of the potential teasing that may happen in the highly charged environment, especially if you are a female.
Falgun Shukla Navami in Barsana
Falgun Shukla Dashmi in Nandgaon
Chhadimar Holi – Gokul
Krishna lived as an infant in the village of Gokul on the left bank of Yamuna. This is where his father Vasudeva brought him by crossing the Yamuna at night just after his birth. So, in Gokul, he continues to be treated as an infant.
In most temples in Gokul, you see baby Krishna in a Jhoola or a swing. People visiting the temple swing the swing in a manner of rocking the cradle.
People in Gokul village celebrate with a small delicate stick called Chhadi, called Chhadi Maar Holi. It is a very delicate version of Lathmar Holi of Barsana and Nandgaon.
Krishna Janambhumi Holi Festival Celebrations – Mathura
Krishna Janambhumi complex at Mathura has a huge compound where Holi is celebrated. I am told that color is thrown in the air with fountains & no one in the campus can escape color. Why would anyone want to escape the colors of the festival? It is like becoming one in the colors and losing our fragile identities.
When – Ranbharni Ekadashi or Falgun Shukla Ekadashi
Banke Bihari Temple Holi Festival – Vrindavan
In Vrindavan, the most happening place is the temple of Banke Bihari. The festivities here lasts for 4 days, starting from the 11th day of Falgun till the full moon day.
The images of priests throwing colors on the crowds are mostly from this temple. This is a very popular and crowded temple.
When – Ranbharni Ekadashi or Falgun Shukla Ekadashi to Purnima
Holi Festival at Dwarkadheesh Temple – Mathura
Like all temples in Mathura Vrindavan, the festival is celebrated in the premises of colorful Dwarkadheesh temple near Vishram Ghat.
When I visited it a week before the festival, I saw groups of women singing traditional songs on its platform. The Holi Dola is a popular cultural procession that starts from Dwarkadheesh Temple.
Read More – Dwarkadheesh Temple in Dwarka
Chaturvedi Samaj ka Dola – Mathura
A giant procession is taken out by Chaturvedi Samaj on the festival day. It starts from Dwarkadheesh temple near Vishram Ghat and goes through Chhatta Bazaar, Holi Gate, Kotwali Gate, Ghiya Mandi, Swami gate before returning to Vishram Ghat.
As the procession moves, people sprinkle color, perfume, flowers on each other. Festive songs are sung along with live music. Bhang is also consumed customarily.
Holi Dola usually starts around 2 PM.
Phaguwa is a tradition where the brother-in-laws visited their sisters-in-law and give them a gift for playing. Usually, it is a box of sweets, but then it all depends on the one who gives and receives.
Women celebrate the first Holi after marriage at their parent’s place and the husband goes to her with gifts.
I think this is to formally close the festival on a good note in case someone ended up offending anyone during the festival. So, if you are a woman, and men come to play with you on the occasion of the festival, you can rightfully ask for your Phaguwa.
When – Chaitra Krishna Pratham – 20-March-2019
This is a relatively new way of celebrating the festival in Mathura Vrindavan. As part of many cultural events, playing Holi with flowers has become a new trend. At places, flowers are showered, and at places, people throw flower petals at each other.
This is not traditionally associated with any of the temples of Mathura Vrindavan as of now. In the future, you never know it may become a tradition. It would be fun to be surrounded by flowers all around. This is the time when flowers of all types and colors bloom in this region.
Holi played by the widows living in Mathura has been highlighted. For me, they are as much the citizens of Braj or India as any of us. So, yes, they celebrate as we all do.
Holi Festival in Temples of Mathura Vrindavan
Almost in every temple in Mathura Vrindavan or Braj Mandal, it is played every day during the season. A Dona or a leaf bowl, full of Gulal or the pink color with a couple of marigold flowers is placed in front of the deity. You can throw some towards the deity, apply some to yourself or the people around.
Most of the times I saw families visiting temples singing the songs like ‘Aaj Biraj mein Holi hai re Rasiya’ and playing with colors. I even saw some of them playing it with the Yamuna at Vishram Ghat. They would sing, symbolically apply some color to the Yamuna while singing the same song and then play among themselves.
Besides the Radha Krishna, there is one more legend associated with the festival.
Hiranyakashyap was a powerful demon king with the whole of the earth under him. He wanted everyone to worship him and not any other God. As luck would have it, his own son named Prahalad refused to worship him and turned out to be a great Vishnu devotee.
Frustrated, Hiranyakashyap tried to kill his son in many ways but failed every time. Finally, he requested his sister Holika, who had a boon that fire cannot hurt her to enter the fire with Prahalad in her lap.
When she entered the fire, with Prahalad chanting the name of his lord, she was burnt while Prahalad the devotee remained unharmed. It marks the victory of good over evil.
A fire is lit up on the same day i.e. Falgun Purnima to commemorate this. People usually put a lot of cow dung cakes into the fire. This tradition is followed in Mathura Vrindavan like other parts of India. However, in one village Kosi, it is done with a twist.
Jalti Holi Se Panda ka Nikalna – Falen, Kosi
In the village of Falen near Kosi, Holika Dahan still commemorates the safe passage of Prahalad through fire. A panda or a priest prays at the Prahalad temple in the village. He takes a dip in the Prahalad Kund and then walks through the giant fire surrounded by hundreds of people watching him.
The 30 feet long walk that the Panda crosses is not small. He is received by the people waiting with a wet cloth on the other end. Needless to say, the whole walk takes a few seconds and the Panda comes out unharmed. He does a Parikrama or the circumambulation of the fire and goes back home.
People trace this Holi tradition to the days of Krishna in Braj. It is also believed that Falen is the village of Prahalad and the Panda actually chants his name through the day before crossing through the fire.
When – Falgun Shukla Purnima
Dau Ji ka Huranga – Dau Ji Temple – Baladeva
Dau Ji is how Balram, the elder brother of Sri Krishna is lovingly called. In a region of Braj called Baldeva, about 30 Km from Mathura across the Yamuna is a big temple dedicated to Balram. This was a part of Khadir Van, one of the 12 forests of Braj.
This is where the festival at Mathura Vrindavan reaches its peak. The festival is called Dau Ji ka Huranga. Huranga literally means riot in a way.
Most Brajwasis would close the festivities with Dau Ji ka Huranga.
When – Chaitra Krishna Dwitiya
Mukhrai Charkula Dance – Mukhrai
Mukhrai is the village of Nani or the maternal grandmother of Radha. In fact, the village is named after her grandmother. It is said that when Radha Rani was born, Mukhrai lit up the lamps on the chariot wheels and danced with it on her head.
This dance came to be known as Charkula dance. I believe it comes from the word – Chakra which means wheel or a circular shape. It is still performed in the Mukhrai village.
The lamp is a giant circular wheel-like formation with the 4-5 story of 108 lamps and weighs upward of 30-40 kgs. I love how the legend of Radha and Krishna continues to live in every village associated with them.
When – Chaitra Krishna Dwitiya
It is a festival of joy and it cannot be complete without music. In Mathura Vrindavan, the traditional songs are sung in temples every evening. Most Bhakti poets and Vaishnav poets from different eras have written about the festival or the Phagun Utsav. In popular parlance, these songs are known as Hori.
Communities sit in front of the deity in the temple and sing. There are competitions of singing between villages, especially between Barsana and Nandgaon. I attended the practice sessions at Barsana temple and it was a blissful experience.
The reference book for singing is Shringar Ras Sagara available at book shops in Mathura Vrindavan.
You can enjoy some of the songs here sung by the maestros of Indian classical music.
I heard Hori songs in temples, on banks of Yamuna, in streets and just about everywhere.
Is it safe to participate in Holi Festival in Mathura Vrindavan?
It is a commonly asked question about the festivities in Mathura Vrindavan. Here is what I think of it.
If crowds intimidate you, choose your spot at a distance.
Do not expect No Color or water from Pichkari to come your way. Even before the festival day, I had water balloons thrown on me while traveling in E-rickshaw. Colors were applied after taking permission in temples. It may not happen on the Festival day and in the streets.
It is a festival where liberties are taken. You would see men and women who do not interact otherwise, playing colors. Consent is assumed if you are in a place where the festivities is on.
Anonymity in the crowd and hiding behind the color does give an edge to rowdy elements. Observe before you join, and join only if you are comfortable. Look for the UP Tourist Police officials, they are there to help tourists in any kind of untoward situation.
If you want to see a milder form of the festival, visit Mathura Vrindavan a few days before the peak days of celebrations. You will get the flavor. You can sit back and enjoy the music and other cultural programs that are hosted around this time. Although you might miss taking the colorful images, that is a tradeoff. I chose to visit a few days before the event.
Mathura is well connected by road with Delhi. It takes just about 2 hours to reach Mathura from Delhi which is the closest Airport.
Mathura is well connected by train.
I stayed at Brijwasi Lands Inn in Mathura which is a decent and centrally located hotel to stay in. The same group has two more hotels in the city. Many resorts have come up in the outskirts of Vrindavan and Govardhan. However, it is best to stay in the city to feel the festival.
Local transportation is easily available. To reach the narrow lanes, e-rikshaws are the best mode of travel.
Monkeys are a menace in Vrindavan. Take care of your mobile phones, cameras, and other valuables.