Photos by Abhishek Basu | Words by Joyona Medhi
“Rangili Gali mein shuru hui thi Radha Krishna ki leela, aur har saal, Rangili Gali mein khatam hoti hain inki kahani (It was in Rangili Gali that Radha and Krishna’s tales of playfulness and love began, and it is in Rangili Gali that it finds an end every year),” says a pundit dressed in impeccable saffron, passing us on our way through this ancient, narrow and incredibly colourful lane.
We are in Rangili Gali in Barsana, in the week of Holi last month. We’ve reached here after many recommendations from the locals of Vrindavan, where we were based out of. What we expected to be a celebration of the festival of colour just like elsewhere, instead is an immersive universe of myth, lore, folk songs and age-old rituals.
In Rangili Gali, we dart this way and that, in the hopes of avoiding the coloured jet-sprays being shot at us by little children with water guns. We begin to notice a pattern:
The old are just sprinkled with abeer/gulaal(powdered colour) as a mark of respect. The middle-aged received a mild dose of hair ruffling, and an occasional spray or two of water colours. Young men are head-dunked into plateful of colour. And finally young women are drenched from head to toe, leaving no aim missed (or as we put it, no misogynistic khwahish of having your way with the ‘Radha’ of your imagination, unrealised). The day becomes a mere excuse to do what Lord Krishna did — i.e. sneak into the Rangili Gali/s of Radha’s village Barsana, in order to tease her into celebrating the colours of spring with his cowherd brethren all the way from the neighbouring village of Nandgaon.
Lathmar Holi is essentially the story of the two love-locked villages of Nandgaon and Barsana in Mathura, Uttar Pradesh, believed to be the birthplaces of Lord Krishna and his consort Radha, respectively.
While the men of Nandgaon put on a show of playful moves accompanied by folk songs at the chowkhat (doorsteps) of the married womenfolk of the village of Barsana (believed to be the descendants of Radha's family), the ghoonghat-clad (veiled) women wield laths (sticks) to warn them off with an equally intimidating performance of song and dance. Come sunset and the balconies and terraces of the entire stretch of Rangili Gali, are filled with onlookers peering down in anticipation of this performance. “Gosains or Goswamis are the only families who can protect the honour of Radha,” says 70-year-old Alka Goswami, who has now passed on the ‘lath’ to her daughter-in-law, who hopes to pass it onto her own son’s wife someday.
An entire day’s revelry comprises cloud-like bursts of colour in the air every few seconds, folk songs of the land of Braj playing from the speakers at almost every junction (“Aaj Braj mein Holi hain rasiya”), interspersed with chants of “Nandgaon ka chora hain, Barsana ki chori hain” from devotees visiting the only temple dedicated solely to Radha — the Shree Radha Rani Mandir in Barsana. In the midst of a pandemic, there’s nary a mask in sight, nor any social distancing, although we’re informed by the locals that the crowds are in no way comparable to the stifling hordes that are generally synonymous with the festival in normal times.
The following day sees a fascinating turn of events as this time around, the women of Barsana come to Krishna’s village of Nandgaon to play out another round of “lathmar” in what is referred to as Rangili Chowk here. We suppose that this U-turn of scenarios originates from a feeling of revenge, cleverly masked as playfulness. Rangili Chowk is equally, if not more, colourful.
It is here that we meet Yash Goswami, a 19-year-old Gosain of Nandgaon and the youngest of five brothers, all of whom are priests at the Nand Bhavan temple. He sits aloof, and is completely dissociated from the celebrations he considers unruly. “I’m here because my elder brother made me promise that I would be here,” he tells us. “I actually live with my friends in Barsana, and I’m pursuing my final year in BCom from Rati Ram Mahavidyalay.”
Yash mimics his family members telling him “Jitna kharach koroge, utne se dugna Kanhaiya wapas karenge (However much you spend, Lord Krishna will return doubly to you)”; he says he uses this as a justification to ask for Rs 5 lakhs a year from home. This, he says, helps sponsor not only his, but also food and lodging for four of his friends in Barsana. They too have left their homes in Vrindavan and Mathura to stay independently. It is this space between the world of lore and the world of the present that many like Yash find themselves in during the festival of Lathmar.
A group of beautiful hijras gracefully twirl their lehengas whilst pocketing currency thrown at them by men. Meanwhile, a shopkeeper selling glasses of chilled lassi informs us of how it was forbidden for girls and boys from the two villages to ever get married as Radha and Krishna were apparently one and the same being.
On our way back to the relatively calmer town of Vrindavan, we happen to witness a debate between two parties arguing vehemently over whether Krishna was a jija or a saala (younger or older brother-in-law) to the people of Barsana. We’re initially puzzled, but then surmise that it is out of these very snippets of hearsay, myth, belief, and of course the abundance of sights and sounds, that this unique occasion of Lathmar Holi in the twin villages of Barsana and Nandgaon is born.