The world turns pink
Trip Start Aug 16, 2005
63Trip End Apr 14, 2006
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Where I stayed
ISKCON Guesthouse, Krishna Balaram Temple Complex, Vrindavan
I had romantic visions of these places where pilgrims flock too, but in fact on arrival they both looked grimy, ugly modern places with the usual sea of rubbish strewn around the streets. That is apart from the temples, which as always seem to rise above the greyness, and blossom like lotus flowers do in polluted water
When our bus terminated in Mathura we faced the sight of a young cow dying right in the middle of the bus station. It was on its side and its neck was at an unnatural angle - maybe it had been run over. Because cows are holy to Hindus they are tolerated, have the freedom of the town and roads (they're often just lying on traffic islands) and may be fed and looked after, although some are painfully thin. However, because their lives are seen as sacred we doubted that anyone would put the cow out if its misery. It was just left there to die and people were putting their bags down around it and stepping over its tail. It's a strange contradiction.
We got in a rickshaw and travelled through the streets past many bonfires that were being prepared for that night. Don't think Guy Fawkes though. The fuel for these fires was big piles of dried lumps of dung, topped by a Hindu god - or rather a large doll dressed in garish clothes and gobs of gold jewellery. The whole thing is covered over with a decorated marquee. I was trying to take a photo when we had our first Holi attack. Mandy and I had talked for a long time about which old clothes we would wear and how we would cover our hair in scarves for Holi. But we had been taken totally off guard with good clothes on and all our bags with us
We checked into our guest house which was part of a Krishna Temple complex. Little were we to know that we would be imprisoned in this gated community for the next 36 hours! No, no-one tried (too hard) to convert us, but the streets outside were completely inaccessible during Holi.
The next morning we got all covered up and went to the temple entrance to see what was happening. People were coming in with not a speck of natural coloured skin showing so we were a bit hesitant. But I thought I'd come all this way for Holi, so I should get into the spirit. We walked out of the safety of our compound and managed a full minute before scurrying back inside again. During that minute we were both completely blinded, lost each other in the crowd and had pink powder and blue foam sprayed directly into our face and eyes
We saw a lot of people later that day who had problems with their eyes. I was wearing sun glasses but had a spray can nozzle directed behind them. We decided that Holi was much safer and more fun to watch than to participate in, and feeling satisfied that, now we had some colour and didn't look like complete kill joys, we could stand on the first floor of the temple and point and take photos of everyone else. Later we went into the main room where worshipping was taking place with fervour (it resembled a nightclub - god really is a DJ) and managed to get caught up in an Indian TV broadcast.
The 'International Society of Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) ' attracts hundreds of Western devotees every year and all of them that we saw looked pale, earnest, dour, serious and to be frank, miserable (unless they were in the temple and then admittedly things got quite lively). Their motto is 'chant and be happy' and the irony was not lost on us. Mandy even got told off for giggling at the bakery and for her bad handwriting when signing in. However, there was one person that made our stay here pleasurable. A devotee from Crete called Thassus. Mandy described him as Greek's answer to Ozzy Osbourne, mixed with Demis Roussos
On our first night Thassus took us out to explore the complex. We went into the main temple as it was in full swing - chanting, dancing and clapping all performed in the most sumptuous surroundings. Huge chandeliers dangled from the ceilings. Three shrines shimmered and sparkled. The main room opened through archways onto a colonnaded courtyard and the floor was polished marble. It would be a perfect place for a party. Hare Om.
The next day, we ventured out to explore Vrindavan. All the streams and sewers were running pink, the streets were ingrained with a pink hue and walls were splashed with colours. Most people had changed their clothes, but still had red ears or scalps. Everywhere were discarded clothes from the day before (tailors do well out of Holi it seems). Vrindavan has dozens and dozens of Hindu temples, a handful of which we explored. In one we arrived just in time for a 'service'. It was fascinating and quite stirring to watch. The congregation stood in a narrow area stretching from the front of the hall to the back (where we were peeking over their heads) and craning to see through an archway to the temple's inner shrine. Then a large gong was struck and a velvet curtain swished back to reveal their deities resting in golden splendour and covered in flowers and jewellery. Everyone raised their hands, chanted and threw rose petals
We also found Vrindavan's old centre and saw many historic buildings with beautiful carved balconies and doorways, just rotting away. Trying to find the river on the edge of town, Mandy took me to a shack serving cold drinks. It was next to the rubbish tip and the flies were relentless. It was a lovely spot to relax!
At one of the bigger temples we settled down to do some sketching of the carvings on the pillars. Suddenly we were the tourist attraction and had a continuous stream of people peering over our shoulders, pointing at what we were drawing, calling their friends over, and sometimes standing right in front of us and blocking our view. They seemed absolutely fascinated, both adults and children. It was nice to interact with Indians without being asked for money or to buy something, but trying to concentrate on drawing with all that going on was pretty hard.
Soon enough though, we got properly distracted when we noticed there was an elephant in the courtyard behind us! It was all dressed up in a processional outfit
I haven't so far mentioned Indian toilets, but it is probably time. Some hotels have Western toilets, but most restaurants, trains, public toilets etc are the squat type. However, in Mumbai Darren and I had a strange hybrid toilet which had foot rests built into either side of the seat. Actually, if you do it the Indian way and don't use toilet paper (which I have been attempting!) the squat toilet is a lot easier and more hygienic to use. The other effect of Indian's not using toilet paper (it really puts in perspective how much of the stuff we get though in the Western world) is that a constant accompaniment wherever you go, is the sound of people hawking up big gobs of phlegm and clearing their noses by doing what Mandy refers to as 'snot rockets'. After 10 days here, the sound is really starting to grate on my nerves!
Waiting at the station for our train to Delhi, we heard an announcement that another train was delayed by an unbelievable 8 hours and 15 minutes. The announcer then said the classic words 'we apologise for the inconvenience'. Only in India...