Given the paradoxes that surround us in present times such as the coexistence of globalisation and ethnocentrism; and diversity and polarisation, the house of Amarkot serves a peculiar mediation of culture across one of the world’s most contested borders. I am joined by its daughter-in-law, Padmini and princesses—Deval, Aparajita and Mahalaxmi Sodha—to discuss their embodiment of transnational diversity, and how it impacts their identity and sense of belonging. The three sisters have been married into India’s houses of Auwa, Awagarh and Balrampur respectively.
The youngest of the lot, Mahalaxmi begins by introducing Amarkot’s relegation in Pakistan as a result of deliberated sentiments. “In 1947 when Hindus from Sindh were migrating, my grandmother, Rajmata Dev Kunwar was unwilling to part from her roots and chose to stay back. Seeing her, the majority of the Hindus also changed their mind and stayed back. Then, it was the Muslims who stood by the family to protect them from harm’s way”. This sentimental account is topped by her older sister Deval: “You can take a Sodha out of the desert, but you can’t take the desert out of the Sodha.”
Despite hailing from a conservative family, the present-day Sodha patriarch Rana Hamir Singhji kept up with the times when it came to bringing up his daughters. Both Deval and Aparajita pursued their schooling in Rajashtan’s Mayo College Girls’ School while their younger sister Mahalaxmi went to a leading convent school in Karachi. Having spent the most amount of time in Pakistan amongst all three sisters, Mahalaxmi sums up a concise narration of her sentiments. “Pakistan is my motherland, it will always hold a special place in my heart. I am proud to be born in a country whose people in general are very liberal in their thinking and beliefs. Women are safe; and although an Islamic Republic, the people of Pakistan are free to openly practice their religion. We took part in Muslim festivals such as Eid and our Muslim friends were part of our festivals such as Holi and Diwali. The food is exceptionally good and people are very welcoming and hospitable, which compels one to visit again and again. Be it joy or sorrow, Hindus and Muslims stand together.”
The three girls fondly recollect their childhood memories. “When I look back now, I can say my childhood is what any child would dream of. I had the best of both worlds, as my grandfather and father were prominent political figures, we got to be a part of the city (Karachi) and yet go back to the village as and when we wished”, Aparajita says jovially. This much-needed exposure notwithstanding, she lays emphasis on being conditioned around their arranged marriages to a Rajput, and the inevitable geographical displacement implied therewith. She states her own example of a transnational matrimonial alliance with many nuances, “After marriage whether one is in India, the US or Pakistan, they are bound to face challenges and changes. Marrying in the same community comes with the particular advantage of one not having to go through drastic measures of adjustment. Changes are weather, food, clothes, making new contacts. Other than that, it’s just a new home with new faces.” Predictably, this statement could arouse an interesting debate with married women taking varied stances based on their lived experiences.
Regardless of the numerous variables and experiences around matrimony, one can safely admit to married women being important mediators of culture. The realms that a married woman domesticates become an interestingly complex area of cultural fusion, one in which traditional interactions multiply and evolve. In this equation there lies a delicate balance that Deval elaborates on. “It is important for a girl to retain her roots and cultural heritage as that is her identity. However, it is equally important for her to have an open mind to imbibe the culture and heritage of the family that she marries into.” Aprajita adds, “Retaining one’s roots and cultural heritage is as important as knowing one’s parents and identifying with them. I feel there should not be any difference of thought towards a son or daughter. Since they both need to be versed with that knowledge to be able to let the coming generation know and make others aware of where s/he comes from.”
The ongoing discussion becomes all the more complex and interesting when Padmini’s viewpoints are factored in. The outdoorsy lover of sports and erstwhile national-level cricketer spent her childhood in Jaipur lest knowing her destiny lay in marrying the eligible Sodha prince and settling down in Sindh. Bright, vivacious and full-of-life, Padmini comments, “Maintaining culture and heritage differs for a boy and a girl. I believe it is a little easier for the boy as he has to maintain or carry on the culture in his own family where he has been brought up and lived for all his life. On the other hand, the girl has to do so in a family in which she hasn’t been brought up. She also has to bring up her children and instill in them the culture and tradition of the family that she has been married into.”
Having undergone a significant plunge in terms of localities, Padmini is bound to miss her home, her loved ones, the food, festivals and childhood memories, just as the Amarkot sisters do. However, their nostalgia is punctuated by a convergence on the understanding of one’s matribhoomi or motherland. The vivid similarities on either sides of the border starkly highlight how much more similar Indians and Pakistanis are to one another than we understand them to be.
“Now that I have been living in Pakistan for five years, it is sad to see people of the same colour and race have so much confusion and misunderstanding between one another. There are helpful, strong, good and bad people on both sides. People drink tea and suffer from corruption on either sides. We look similar, we share the same level of cricketing passion, we have lots in common. India has Dhinchak Pooja and Pakistan has Tahir Shah. For the past seventy years, our countries could not establish peace with each other, and yet, we share a Nobel prize for peace”, exclaims Padmini.
Similarly, Maha draws parallels between the cities of Karachi and Lucknow, on how either of the cities made her feel closely familiar as did the other. Deval provided a fitting closing statement on the topic, “Historically, we’re all the same people. What is now referred to as a cross-border alliance is something that was very normal. Countries may have been formed and borders created but ties that have been there for over a millennium will not be so easy to sever!”
Like their older sister, Aprajita and Maha are firm believers of cultures cutting across borders. In Aprajita’s words, “Cultures don’t see boundaries and are spread not only within a certain periphery but wherever one goes.”
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Importance of leisure travel during Covid 2.0
Just this morning, when I was washing down my last omelette morsel with coffee did I read the Covid 2.0 news bulletin: “India overtakes Brazil as world’s second worst-hit country by Covid-19 with a record rise in daily cases surpassing the 12-lakh mark.” The ghastly picture of this time around last year sent a shudder down my spine. Another national lockdown? More casualties, an overloaded medical infrastructure and the continued crippling of our economy?
Would 2020 repeat itself after all?
Having had little interim period to recover from the dread of last year, will our rising pandemonium plummet us into a global mental pandemic? With the drastic surges in daily cases, even the nonchalant fence sitters amongst us are beginning to feel a tad bit anxious. And what frightens us all is the continued lack of protocol adherence in densely populated hubs around us. In his recent news broadcasts, Prime Minister Narendra Modi makes frequent reassurances over the surging numbers: higher tests being conducted amount to higher figures. The Covid vaccine will slowly but surely immunise us all. This strain is more virile but less lethal. And the speculations continue. Cases rise, as does existentialist dread.
By the time this feature is published in my column, Himachal Pradesh would be on its last date of permitting entrants without a negative RTPCR report. Regulatory bolts by state governments are already tightening as I write, and for the best reasons of course. But amongst the endless obscurities lies the fate of the hospitality industry during Covid 2.0.
Pardon me for sounding frivolous if you might, but as an independent hotelier in Manali, I am responsible for raising over 50% of my annual revenue in the brief window that lies between April and July. With this, I must secure the livelihoods of dozens of my employees whilst also ensuring their utmost safety at work. My staff and I are fully prepared to comply with more stringent safety protocols, to put ourselves out there in a way that best assures forthcoming visitors as they count on us. But here is why I am more pensive than ever: Despite the hospitality industry being amongst the world’s largest employers, Indian hotels received as little as zero SOPs during the initial stages of last year’s lockdown. As the months straggled by, finances dwindled and many players in the trade were compelled to either lay off their manpower or close down altogether. And what’s more, the lack of leisure travel weighed down more heavily on the global population that underwent indefinite months of the lockdown.
2021 offers us the rare hindsight that we lacked last time around. Without dismissing the paramountcy of disease mitigation to the very least, I make a sincere bid in favour of systematising our prevention and containment strategies with an increased commitment vis-à-vis mental health. It is typical for the average citizen to dismiss this plea as superficial and disregarding of collective health and immunisation. In truth, it is quite on the contrary. Urging the supervised continuance of leisure travel in fact, garners our prolonged resilience to the pandemic. In other words, the power of a physical, emotional and mental recess from our daily mundanities only renews and strengthens our coping mechanisms towards those mundanities. Add on top of those mundanities a global pandemic, and the sanctity of that recess only becomes more apparent.
Take for example our most cardinal set of practitioners: The military, medical professionals, lawyers, engineers, teachers and so on. Whom do they turn towards for their daily recesses? Artists, entertainers, creators. And ironically enough, their relative lack of monetary opulence has led our economies to regard them as redundant or secondary professions. This tendency of ours to generalise holds account for our similar relegation of the hospitality industry as not so cardinal. For a social-scientist, this is barely surprising. After all, doesn’t capitalism condition us all to believe that in order to pursue anything at all, we must derive its commercial worth? So much so that never mind its role in our essential functioning, a general lack of its economical yield must instantaneously induce shame?
A second irony springs out here. How can an economy maximise itself while neglecting the very source of that maximisation? No wonder most gym goers (in that very economy) are unaware of muscle development taking place during the recovery hours/days without which, all they’d be left with is muscular damage and injuries. Why must we then deny ourselves those essential recesses that further not only our survival, but enhance our growth?
On the brighter side, adapting to the new normal has equipped the hospitality sector with tremendous means of innovation that are strengthening its resolve. Contactless check ins and check outs, state of the art fumigations, contactless services, social distancing, QR code menus and responsible tourism is not just the need of the hour, but also a promise for a brighter and better future. And what better symbiosis than one that trades off service, rejuvenation, economic empowerment and experience all at the same time? An answer is yet to appear in sight, but these questions must be asked and pondered, over and over again.
CELEBRATING THE FESTIVAL OF GANGAUR
As Gangaur remains a relatively understated affair this year, the noble families of Mewar, Marwar and Shekhawati offer a throwback into the glorious festivities of the pre-pandemic era.
Ever since I shifted to my ancestral village, Meja, a few years ago after a long stint in Mumbai, I began to realise that one of the best things about residing in rural Rajasthan in the scorching heat of April is that you get to witness the fortnight-long festivities of Gangaur in all its pomp and pageantry. The celebrations commence with the advent of the Chaitra month of the Hindu calendar and continue for eighteen days culminating on Teej.
Each year, from the day following Holi, the corridors of Meja Fort resonate with the laughter of giggly village girls who arrive here straight after school carrying festive garments in their school bags. More giggles and quick makeovers later, these excited teenagers step out donning vibrant “ghaghra-odnis” gorgeously accessorised with colourful bangles and ethnic jewellery. Singing the Isar-Gangaur song in perfect harmony, they gather around and pray to the pindiyas—round-shaped figurines made with ashes of the Holi pyre considered to be symbolic representations of Gangaur.
Elaborating upon this tradition, my grandmother Maaji Saheb Hansa Kumari of Meja explains, “Gan signifies Lord Shiva or Isar Ji and Gaur denotes Gauri or Goddess Parvati. Gangaur is revered as the perfect embodiment of conjugal bliss so women pray to her for marital accord and unmarried girls pray with the hope of being blessed with ideal life partners.” The pragmatist in me knows that these prayers may or may not be answered, but the optimist in me silently prays along with them, hoping their wish is granted. As my grandmother says, “Hope can be a powerful force. When you hold onto hope like a light within yourself, the universe sometimes conspires to make things happen—almost like magic.”
Echoing my grandmother’s sentiments is Rani Manjushree Kumari of Bhadrajun who has been diligently doing the Gangaur puja since her adolescence. She likes to believe that divine intervention may have played its part in finding her a perfect match in Raja Karanveer Singh Ji about three decades ago. “I used to pray to these tiny idols of Isar-Gangaur at my parental home for years. When I got married, I brought them along from Poogal-Bikaner to Bhadrajun. Each year, I pray before them throughout the festival, and on the last day, I pray to the big ancestral idols along with family and the people of our village.”
Public participation has always been an integral part of this festival and people come together irrespective of their social milieus to celebrate one of the most revered female divinities. The eve of Gangaur holds special significance for the potter community as they are visited by a pageant of women dolled-up in fineries accompanied by local musicians to bring home the ladolas or clay idols of Isar-Gangaur. The procession receives a grand welcome on return to the forts and palaces across Rajasthan followed by an evening of festive revelry.
“The final day begins with the puja of the clay idols with sprouted jowar (sorghum) germinated over a fortnight at home,” says Kawarani Rudrangda Kumari of Kankarwa. “An array of ornaments gets made for the Gangaur using besan (gram flour dough) and it is rather intriguing to see pieces of traditional jewellery from head to toe like the tevta (a regal neckpiece), rakhdi (a spherical maangtika), bajubandh (armlets), paijeb (anklets), etc, being created with such an unusual ingredient. The last day is considered the day of Gangaur’s departure from her parental home to her husband’s abode, so this jewellery forms a part of her trousseau.”
Most noble families have their ancestral idols passed down through generations and many of them have captivating stories attached to them. Rani Sugan Kumari of Bedla shares the fascinating history of her family’s fragmented Gangaur whose body was damaged during a battle many years ago and what remains is just the head. “The idol cannot be repaired as per tradition but it is dressed in a way that its disability is not revealed and reverently worshipped year after year.”
Baisa Swati Kumari of Chanoud narrates an interesting tale about a century-old miniature Gangaur in the possession of her family. “We have the regular size wooden idols just like other noble families but our mini-Gangaur was fashioned more than a hundred years ago exclusively for the convenience of little girls to pray during the festival.” The silver coating embossed on this idol has withered with time but the delicate figurine glazed with natural colours beautifully adorns a stone niche at Chanoud Fort even today.
Another anecdote that deserves special mention is about the Gangaur of Kota which was tactfully stolen by Kunwar Lal Singh of Gogunda on being challenged by the Maharana of Mewar. Rajrana Rohitashva Singh relates how his ancestor appeared before the Maharaja of Kota disguised as a skilled rider who could make the wooden Gangaur dance on his horse. “Once he got hold of the Gangaur, he heroically escaped from there and presented it to Maharana Saab on return. Rewarding his daring act, MaharanaSaab asked him to retain this Gangaur at Gogunda. This idol remains a major attraction during our procession every year.”
Processions are carried out throughout the state on the last day of the festival for which the idols are dressed in ceremonial poshaks and traditional ornaments. They are first seated in the zenana chowk where women offer their prayers and later brought out in the mardana chowk where the men seek their blessings. While the women indulge in ghoomar, men perform the gair dance—a local equivalent of the dandiya. Certain families enact the entire wedding ceremony between Isar and Gangaur. Rani Kavita Kumari of Kharwa reveals how their family’s sole Isar weds their two Gangaurs each year completing four pheras with one idol and three with the other!
After the initial ceremonies at the royal residences, the processions head out in the respective villages. One of the most distinguishing characteristics about the Gangaur procession in Mandawa is that parallel celebrations take place in the abodes of the kingdom’s two founders Padam Singh Ji and Gyan Singh Ji, as accounted by Thakurani Manjul Kumari of Mandawa. “There have always been two sets of Isar-Gangaurs which are taken out every year for the procession. Care is taken to ensure that neither one of them is even slightly ahead of the other. In earlier days, this was reason enough for swords to be drawn and a skirmish to take place!”
In its last lap, the regal spectacle passes through lanes and by-lanes of the villages accompanied by colourful dancers, indigenous musicians and a sparkling display of fireworks. Making a final halt at a nearby lake or pond, the convoy performs the puja one last time before immersing the eco-friendly clay idols—the pindiyas and ladolas in water. This signifies Goddess Parvati’s farewell to Lord Shiva’s abode from her parental home. As emotional songs of vidaai reverberate under starlit summer skies, heavy hearts and tearful eyes lovingly bid adieu to the dissolving effigies of Gangaur, while the tangible wooden idols return to their chambers in the forts and palaces to hibernate for the next twelve months.
Bikaner House: Reclaiming its lost glory
The restoration of the Bikaner House is commendable and must be looked up to as a model for the rest of the heritage buildings in Lutyens’ Delhi.
For most of us who grew up in Lutyens’ Delhi, the erstwhile palaces of Princely India merely became synonyms for sarkari offices. I spent two lovely years in Curzon Road (or Kasturba Gandhi Marg, as it is known today) and recall these buildings as everyday symbols of a young girl’s college life. Taking the bus to college, walking across the Rashtrapati Bhavan each morning, trudging to play badminton in the External Affairs hostel, one never realised that many a dilapidated edifice around us were actually home to the erstwhile Maharajas.
Patiala House was where you got your documents notarized, Hyderabad House was at the end of the road, Bikaner House was where you caught a bus to go to Jaipur and Alwar House was where a friend worked for the Human Rights Commision. Hence, it was a real delight to receive a souvenir copy of the Bikaner House from the gracious management of this cultural centre and browse through the marvel of an elegant home which had been restored to near-original glory.
Founded by the visionary ruler HH Maharaja Ganga Singh, historically known for his ambitious Ganga Canal work, Bikaner House was designed by British architect Blomefield and has played host to the who’s who of British and Indian nobility. On several occasions during the 1930s and 40s, the Council of Indian Princes held deliberation as guests of the Bikaner family. HH Ganga Singhji personally played host to King George the Vth, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, while his father HH Sadul Singhji often had his dear friend Lord Mountbatten drop in for a game of badminton with his pretty wife, Lady Edwina.
Restored today by the Government of Rajasthan and turned into one of the city’s most gracious cultural venues, Bikaner House must hold the torch for other royal homes to be restored to their past regalia.
ADHIRAJ SINGH DEVRA: SHOOTING TO THUNDER
Contrary to most children his age, Adhiraj Singh Devra was intrigued by his ancestral guns and weapons to an extent that made him wanted to speed up his growth to an age that would permit him to further interact with these marvels. As a young boy, his introduction to the sport of shooting began as a result of the educational curriculum directed specifically by his father. Based on the Vedic tenets of one’s illumination on shaastras (religious precepts) and shastras (arms), the unique teaching method fuelled Adhiraj’s inborn curiosity vis-a-vis the latter. When he turned 13, he was taken to the shooting range by his father and registered into the Samvit Shooting Sansthan, a training academy after which, it didn’t take him long to turn into a professional shooter.
Throughout his undulating career as a young shooter and now as a budding trainer, Adhiraj has held the late Maharaja Dr Karni Singhji of Bikaner as his idol. After all, it was Maharaja Dr Karni Singhji who inspired Adhiraj’ family to pursue the sport of shooting as a matter of which a passion for shooting began to be cultivated before percolating down to him at a young age.
In the eight years that have followed Adhiraj’s first day at the range, he has won several national as well as state-level awards in the category of air pistol shooting. Yet, there is no sporting journey that lacks its own set of hurdles, and Adhiraj briefly illustrates the biggest challenge that he has faced as a shooter thus far.
It was 2013 and the budding professional was in top form, with a selection into the Youth Olympic Games that were to be held in Nanjing, China in the following year. In what he perceives to be a personal vendetta by a poorly-spirited competitor, Adhiraj suffered a tragic motorbike accident and sustained multiple attempts to injure his dominant arm. This horrific incident proved to be not just physically damaging, but also morally devastating for Adhiraj, with his self-esteem at an all-time low. Nanjing was obviously out of the question and his shooting career had attained an overnight standstill.
Over the next two years, Adhiraj willed his way back to recovery with some intensive therapy and rehabilitation efforts for his hand. He also spent this time to regain his focus and improve on his shooting technique. In a summarisation of this trying phase, Adhiraj emerges stronger as a true sportsman would. In his words, “with this life-changing experience, I reminisce on how it made me stronger. I was not altered in my determination to again become the best. I see life as a gift, and am grateful for the challenge as it made me a gentleman and true sportsperson.”
Once he had made his dashing re-entry into the world of shooting, nothing could stop Adhiraj now. Not only had he resumed his exhaustive list of awards and accolades, but had also taken to teaching the sport to other amateurs and aspirants.
Taking this crucial experience in his stride, Adhiraj became more aware of the psychological imperatives of the sport.
In December 2017, Adhiraj introduced to Ahmedabad the city’s first professional shooting academy called the ‘Thunderbolt Shooting Academy’. Through this initiative, Adhiraj alternates the training of professional shooters with the promotion of the sport as a recreational activity. More specifically, he has opened his doors to walk-ins who are looking to try their hand at shooting with the added guidance of professionals and veterans, hence making the sport more accessible to the layperson.
“My aim is to share the hidden attributes of shooting as a sport and getting more youth to know the sport while providing the best possible training through professionally-run institutes and quality equipment. Ultimately, I’d like to contribute to a greater number of players at national and international levels,” Adhiraj concludes.
TAPESTRY TALES OF ROYAL SPLENDOUR
Shradha Akka Nikam is a tapestry artist, fashion designer, costume restorer, royal furnishing creator and an art aficionado who can magically bring any surface alive.
Tapestry art has always been integral to the handcraft legacy of princely India. A congregation of rare embroideries, these tapestries were traditionally used for costume enhancement of the royals and for creating large chattars, wall hangings and tents for the palace. Tales of love’s enchantment, an ode to the rich flora and fauna that marked the palace gardens, imagery of Gods and Goddesses and linear, architectural lines. Rendered in beads, gold threads, a generous use of vintage techniques, these tapestries have inspired generations of Indians.
Cut to today and the world of tapestry design is in the hands of a maverick genius, a designer who belongs to Kolhapure and today is treating many Maratha royals to her divine designs. Shradha Akka Nikam is a tapestry artist, fashion designer, costume restorer, royal furnishing creator and an art aficionado who can magically bring any surface alive. “While the techniques applied are purist, their interpretation is young, happy and different. Why should the bride weight herself down with paisleys and flowers that she does not identify with in her real life?”
Shradha uses the ancient hand techniques of zardoz, dabka, beadwork and Parsi gara to create embroideries of rare chutzpah. Her bridal lehengas even featuring everyday loves of the bride like a mobile phone, a lipstick, a scissor, and a dresser all created out of the finest of embroideries. Her creations have the right fusion of beauty and fashion and a rich rendering of vintage charm.
I met her at her gorgeous home in New Delhi. I was invited to witness her stunning Ganesh puja. Full of very endearing touches, the puja culminated in the most scrumptiously rich puja food you can ever hope to devour on a Maratha table; Shradha had us stumped out of our food coma when she walked us to her basement where khaddis after khaddis of embroidery in progress left us numb with love.
Shradha Nikam’s ancestral roots lie in the Nikams who are descendants of Suryavanshi king Nikumbh and his successors Nikumbh Rajputs. Born and raised between Kolhapure and Mumbai and married to a brilliant art director, Saurabh Chaddha, Shradha keeps her roots in the Maratha world alive. Close to the Chhatrapati Shivaji’s ancestral family in Kolhapur, she has a great patron in Yuvrani Madhurima Raje Chhatrapati, as well as Her Highness Maharani Radhika Raje Gaekwad of Baroda. The latter also inviting her to re-upholster the ceremonial thrones in the Lakshmi Vilas Palace, Baroda. “The Maratha royals are fiercely proud of their lineage, their rituals and their style of traditional dressing. When icons like these endorse my design I do feel truly humbled.”
Shradha possesses a talent in creating a unique fusion of fine textures, vibrant colours, cutting-edge silhouettes and bold, life-like embroideries: All in tune with the contemporary styling of the modern era enhanced by evergreen old-world charm. A fusion that created ripples in the fashion industry, Nikam launched her own label through a mega-fashion show model. Today, the city that booms with fashion witnesses her set up that creates delightful surprises as she closely works with her team to bring out the most exquisite embroidery designs that brides fall in love with.
Creating chiffon saris with her vintage borders in luscious colours, she also does immense drama with her blouses that sometimes make a bigger statement than the solid-coloured sari itself. Shradha’s bridal ensembles work on the interplay of fit and volume, her signature lehenga sometimes featuring her famed 90 kalis, all rendered in the most beautiful and textural raw silk. But the most stunning of all is when she handpicks the finest chintz prints and florals in soft muslins creating tiny pinafores for her beautiful daughters. Or when she fills her room with the most endearing upholstery in stark white embroidered tapestry.
DIFFERENT HUES OF HOLI CELEBRATIONS IN BRIJBHOOMI
The undisputed festival of colours that heralds spring and harvest, Holi is celebrated year after year throughout the country in the utmost spirit of love and effervescence. Bearing its name after Holika, the mythological significance of this festival traces back to the popular legend of Hiranyakashyapa, who envied his son’s powerful devotion towards Lord Vishnu and felt his godly self-image threatened by the same. Hiranyakashyapa’s sister Holika incidentally had a boon to remain unscathed by fire and hence, when she schemed with her brother to enter a blazing pyre with his son Prahlad on her lap, what followed was beyond her palpable imagination. No sooner was Holika reduced to ashes than Prahlad came out of the fire, completely unharmed. The miraculous outcome of a deliberately sinister conspiracy highlights Lord Vishnu’s divine intervention wherein he had protected Prahlad against all odds of nature while Holika paid for using her supernatural immunity with ill-intention. When seen thematically, the story of Holika illustrates the inevitable victory of good over evil; and the eternal protection of devotees by God.
Although this legend suffices to explain the Holika Dahan ritual (a communal incarceration of funeral pyres symbolic of Holika and all evil that is destroyed and purged under the supreme victory of the good), very few partakers of Holi are versed with the story that brought the game of colour smearing into being, a custom that is central to Holi celebrations in India.
In this Festive Recap issue, Rajputana Collective highlights Holi as it is celebrated in Brijbhoomi, or the mythical birthplace of Radha and Krishna formed by the geographical conglomeration of Mathura, Vrindavan, Barsana and Nandgaon in Uttar Pradesh. Known for its unparalleled celebration of Holi festivities, Brijbhoomi places all its regional counterparts to shame for the sheer magnitude and iconicity in which it rejoices the spirit of Holi. If a U.P.-ite is asked about the nature of Holi celebrations in their hometown, chances are that his/her reply will be: “U.P. mein Holi nahi kheli toh kya kheli?” Which translates into, “you haven’t played Holi until and unless it was in U.P.!” Join Rajputana Collective as it uncovers the mythical significance and symbolism of Holi in the lands where the festival is believed to have originated.
When her beloved son Krishna complained about the injustice done to him by mother nature that made his skin so dark, Yashodha pacified him by suggesting that he coloured his beloved Radha’s fair complexion with smears of gulaal to make it look like his own. Accompanied by his friends, the mischievous Krishna then proceeded to Radha’s residing village of Barsana to lovingly smear her and the other gopis with gulaal or powder made of turmeric and flower extracts. In a playful retort, the damsels of Barsana gave Krishna and his allies a memorable beating with sticks (laths).
As the enigmatic and playful duo of Radha-Krishna became divinely etched into the religious consciousness of the nation, this customary charade finds annual resonance in Brijbhoomi. Home to the only temple to be solely-dedicated to Radha, Barsana embraces its iconic custom of lathmar Holi with much fervour year after year. From days in advance, mother-in-laws of Barsana indulge in their daughter-in-laws with rich food in order to prepare their strength for the exciting battle of sticks and shields that ensues during this festive period. On the day of the festival, women from the Barsana village indulge in what is known as lathmar Holi with their male counterparts hailing from Krishna’s village of Nandgaon by playfully beating them with laths. The men in turn, defend themselves from the heavy stick pelting with the help of shields while singing songs to provoke this playful incentive by the ladies. The very next day, the direction of this offensive is returned. Now, the men of Barsana repeat this playful act with the women of Nandgaon and are similarly hurled at with laths.
An electric array of colours is splashed at one another while songs are sung in the native Brajbhasha. Bhaang-laced thandaais intoxicate this exuberant play of colours while sweetmeats like gujiyas and melodious folk songs engulf the air. Through this communal celebration of fun, fellowship and love, Brijbhoomi’s heart throbs in technicolour as it commemorates its celestial couple: Radhe Krishna.
If Radha’s birthplace hails the annual festival of colours with so much revelry, it is but natural that Krishna’s hometown would strive to live up to the spirit. The townships of Mathura and Vrindavan come alive during Holi in a fashion that is, at best fantasised by remaining parts of the country. As Mathura entertains its holi procession from Vishram ghat to the Holi gate, Vrindavan’s 19th century Baanke Bihari temple pre-celebrates Holi on the day of ekadashi with what is famously referred to as phoolon wali Holi. This is a renowned celebration of Holi wherein colourful gulaal is substituted with flowers. The 15-20-minute-long event comprises of thick showers of flower petals being showered down on devotees by the temple’s priests. The epicentre of Brijbhoomi’s Holi festivities the Baanke Bihari temple opens its gates on the day of Holi such that devotees can ecstatically exchange colours with the temple-residing idol of Lord Krishna. The mesmerising sprays of different colours is truly a sight worth beholding. The Iskon Temple, Prem Mandir and Pagal Baba temples of the area show similar avidness and zeal. What’s more, just three years ago, the widow community of Vrindavan celebrated their first Holi, streaking their perennial white drapes with unapologetic tints of liberation, a proud moment of ceremonial freedom and social progress.
Speaking of colours, it is worth noting that every hue used in the amusement of Holi carries with it a symbolic meaning of its own. For example, as red represents love and fertility, green does spring and new beginnings. Blue carries itself forward as the colour of Lord Krishna and yellow, the colour of unity and felicity. In smearing colour on one another’s faces, people exchange emotional hues irrespective of one another’s age, class, caste, creed, gender or status. Old enmities or ruptures are forgotten on this day as everyone rejoices the all-encompassing goodwill. With everyone’s faces being coloured, interpersonal boundaries come to be blurred even if it is just for this one day, which complicates the habitual distinction that the society draws between the rich and the poor, the twice borns and the others. As the spirit of Holi calls for everyone to drop their guards and inhibitions, a popular slogan that floods Indian streets and village lanes is, “bura naa maano, Holi hai!”, which can be translated into “don’t get offended, it’s Holi after all!” Be it an utterance by the child aiming water balloons on passing cars or the young girl colouring her in law’s cheeks, these mischievous acts are perceived a mile’s distance away from nuisance, for if there is one day to bring alive the Radhas and Krishnas in each one of us, and to let them dance, sing, play and love, it’s this.
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