At Barsana, it is Lathmar Holi, where the women take sticks and beat the men who have improvised shields to protect themselves; at Cirkula, the ladies strip the men of their clothes, and use the shreds to whip them; in Javgaon, there is the excitement of the forbidden, as wives play uproarious Holi with their husband’s elder brothers. The parallel here is of Radha and Balarama. Masti is a word typical to India and difficult to render in the English language. It is a combination of ecstasy and joy and heedless abandon. They say that during Holi in Braj, masti was at such a peak that Balarama abandoned the restraint normally expected of an elder, and played Holi with Radha, who too jettisoned the customary reserve of the bahu, the daughter-in-law. Balarama has been profiled as the strong, earthy, uncomplicated, gentlemanly hedonist.
His Holi was horanga, famed for its vigour and lack of inhibition. Fond of wine, his Bacchanalian exploits included dragging Yamuna, the river, by her hair closer to himself to quench his thirst. The bend in the river, at Ramghat, is attributed to this tantrum. At Baldevgaon, close to Vrindavan, there is a temple where he is worshipped along with his consort Revati. On Holi, devotees gather and offer cannabis to him and there is much rakish revelry in evidence.
Rasa leela, amateur theatre, enacting incidents from the life of Krishna, draws huge crowds in Braj, particularly during the days preceding Janamashtami. The rasacharyas of Vrindavan are respected doyens of this local theatrical tradition. Their repertoire includes over a hundred rasa leela plays, covering mostly Krishna’s life from birth to the slaying of Karnsa Karnsa vadha.
Devotees reach the Ram-Mandap—open air theatrical arenas—in the evening, having spent the day completing the ritual ablutions (snana), prayer (puja) and worship at the temple (murti darshan). The microphones are often faulty, the actors hardly professionally rehearsed, but the mood is devotional, with spontaneous public participation in the singing, dancing and music. And when, in the midst of the play, the actor and actress playing the roles of Krishna and Radha are brought out in tableau (jhanki), the spectators offer monetary offerings to them, seeing in this human portrayal the reflection of the divine.
At the famous temple of Nathdwara, near Udaipur in Rajasthan, Krishna is worshipped as Shrinathji—Lord of Shri. The entire worship in the temple is premised on the assumption that the image of Krishna in the sanctum sanctorum is living. Shrinathji is ceremonially woken up every morning—the mangala darshan—and actually offered a light breakfast, consisting of fruits, and his favourite—butter. A little later in the day, during the sringara darshan, he is, as part of prescribed ritual, shown a mirror to check his appearance and a flute is placed in his hands. The gwala darshan, where he is dressed as a cowherd, coincides with the time when he would have taken the cows out to graze. In the afternoon, the temple is closed for a while, for it is his time of rest.
Following the siesta, devotees can see him being offered the afternoon meal. The last darshan is just before he sleeps and some food is left by the side of his bed, in case he feels hungry at night. His clothes change according to the time of the day and season of the year. At the height of summer, he is given a ceremonial bath. The Snana Yatra—bathing festival— is a popular occurrence. Srinathji is lovingly placed in a silver chariot and taken out in procession.This is the time when the mangoes have come to fruit, and an offering of 25,000 of the best of the harvest is offered to the god who makes no secret of his love for the good things of life. In the adjacent states of Gujarat and Maharashtra, the monsoon sees the Jal Jhilani festival, which celebrates the bathing of the cowherds in the rain. When the clouds gather, Krishna is set out in the open and bathed with his young friends in the rain amidst a great deal of fun and revelry.
Across the land from Udaipur, at Puri, on the eastern coast, Krishna is worshipped as Jagannath—Lord of the world. The Jagannath temple at Puri is an extremely important centre of Krishna worship. The image of Krishna here shows definite tribal influence and the iconography is unusual in that he is flanked by his sister, Subhadra, and brother, Balarama. As in Nathdwara, Jagannathji is ceremonially bathed in May or June, but what is interesting is that after the Snana Yatra is over, the deities are kept in a sick chamber for fifteen days out of public view as they are said to have contracted fever from bathing at midday! The most famous festival at Puri is the Rath Yatra—the Car Festival. Every year in June or July, Jagannathji is placed in a wooden chariot and taken to his summer residence—the Gundicha temple some 3 km away. The chariot is pulled by over 4000 special coolies—the kalebetiyas—who enjoy hereditary concessions in neighbouring villages for this service. The distance is short but such are the vast crowds that the journey can take up to three or four days. A sea of humanity greets the eye and there is much vociferous if benevolent confusion, and even greater devotional fervour, as each devotee seeks to contribute to the pulling of the chariot.