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Think of Holi and you think of two places in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh where the festival has a special status. First, the area known as Brajbhoomi comprising Mathura, Vrindavan, Govardhan, Gokul (all connected to Lord Krishna’s birth, childhood and early youth) and Barsana (Radha’s village). Here Holi is a robust enactment of the legends of Radha and Krishna.

Then there is the Holi of Banaras. The way it is celebrated is the talk of the town and the famous kavi sammelan or poets’ gathering at Banaras is one reason for this. But that happens only in the evening when everyone has finished drenching each other in coloured water and gorged on chips and sweetmeats like gujiya and malpua.

Where Holi is the Talk of the Town
Where Holi is the Talk of the Town [Illustration by Anup Singh]

It’s a typical Holi day in Village Nuav in Banaras. There’s great excitement in the air. The first thing you hear is the yelling and screeching of children – you see, they have taken sunrise as the signal to begin their drenching drill.

Soon, the families in the neighbourhood gather outside and within minutes, everyone makes sure that no one looks like himself or herself any more. What with all the gulal or dry coloured powder that they put on each other – red, yellow, green, blue, orange, pink – and the water squirts, they look like rainbows from head to toe!

A little later, it’s time to play Holi with the rest of the village and the women head towards a nearby ground. Men, too, go off towards the temple to sing the hori or the special Holi song and dance to the beats of the dholak or the two-sided drum.

A little after noon, it’s time to do the rounds again. The womenfolk are back in their houses. The men visit each house in the village by turn and there is more singing and dancing. The guests are hungry with all the excitement. The lady of the house serves them gujiyas and malpua. And what do they drink? Why, what else but bhang or a homemade drink made with the leaves of the bhang plant that has an intoxicating effect! No Holi is celebrated without bhang in northern India.

Krishna and Radha Celebrating the Holi Festival
Krishna and Radha Celebrating the Holi Festival with Companions. Source: This file is in the public domain because it has been released by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art

There is a special feature of this Holi revelry. It is the ordeal that the mama, or an uncle that the whole village looks up to, has to go through. Imagine a horde of villagers coming to your house with a garland made of shoes! But, what is this for? Well, it is a village custom that everyone pokes fun at the mama, forces him to wear this ‘garland’ and parade the whole village on a donkey!

But the mama does not feel bad about this. On Holi, everyone takes a joke in the spirit of this festival. Holi is the day when the world turns ‘upside down’. On this one day all hierarchies are suspended, and people in authority willingly become the butt of all ridicule. Women too use Holi to batter men – quite literally.

This is also the reason behind the sammelan in the city. Since there is no mama whom everyone knows, the poets instead poke fun at the local politicians – everyone knows them, you see!

The sammelan is a strictly male affair. Dressed in their new clothes, the men – young and old alike – gather at Beniya Bagh. The municipality makes the arrangements well in advance and as always, it is a big function. Everyone has a chance to say what he wants and needless to say, no one passes up the opportunity to poke fun at the politicians. This sammelan is so famous, that its audio cassettes are sold in other cities as well!