Type Religious Festival Time A Week In March Location Braj, Western Uttar Pradesh

Yahan yeh hi khaas hai, ladki dikh gayi toh rang daal diya” (This is the specialty of this place, the second they see a girl, they throw colours at her), said the 13-year-old local boy Kishen, who accompanied me as a guide to the Radha Rani Temple at Barsana. Sure enough, two minutes after that, while we were still in a cycle-rickshaw en route to the temple, I found myself smeared in red powder; and, I wasn’t sure where it had come from. The narrow road leading to the temple was flooded with people aimlessly throwing colour at everybody and photographers trying to capture the merriment while protecting their lenses with transparent polythene covers.

A solo woman traveller out to experience Holi in parts of western Uttar Pradesh (Braj region) – Mathura, Vrindavan, Barsana and Nandgaon – is something not everyone around me was encouraging of. There were going to be safety issues; a camera to save from the water and myself to save from the local hooligans, who had no inhibitions whatsoever when it came to throwing colour or water at anyone. The general atmosphere during the week-long Holi celebrations around Mathura was similar to the one at Barsana on 17 March, 2016. Only, after getting accustomed to the heightened testosterone levels being projected in the form of colour, I realised that this is one place where the phrase ‘Bura na mano, Holi hai’ (Don’t mind, it’s Holi) had to be truly accepted by a traveller to enjoy the spirit of the festival. People here celebrate Holi by involving the entire community (community for them is a cluster of villages). Visitors are equally welcome and treated the same way as their friends or family – there exists a sense of comfort level with strangers and all it takes for one to enjoy this festival of colours is to understand the essence of Holi and appreciate the bonhomie and jubilant manner in which it is celebrated here.


All over India, Holi is celebrated during the Phalgun month (which roughly corresponds to March) of the Hindu calendar. It is believed that after demon king Hiranya-kashipu’s several attempts to kill his son Prahalada for worshipping Lord Vishnu failed, his sister Holika decided to take matters into her hands and burn Prahalada alive. However, her plan backfired as Prahalada walked out of the pyre unaffected and Holika was accidentally immolated. In a fit of anger, Hiranyakashipu smashed a pillar with his mace; Lord Vishnu emerged out of the pillar in the Narasimha avatar (half-man, half-lion) and killed Hiranyakashipu. People light a bonfire (holika dahan) on this day to commemorate the victory of good over evil.

In Braj, Holi is celebrated with high octane levels and it takes a form that is rarely witnessed elsewhere in the country. The festivities go on for eight days before the actual day of Holi. During this period, people take a holiday and daily trade comes to a halt. According to legends, Lord Krishna, who was originally from the village of Nandgaon, became jealous of Radha’s (his lover) fair complexion and went to Barsana to smear gulaal (red powder) on her face. This made the other gopis (cattle herders whom Krishna flirted with) furious and they chased Krishna and his accomplices with lathis (cane sticks) all the way back to Nandgaon. The tradition continues till today and is called ‘Lathmaar Holi’, one of the most vibrant and interesting customs that is unique to Braj.

Lathmaar Holi in Nandgaon is an entertaining and unusual spectacle
Lathmaar Holi in Nandgaon is an entertaining and unusual spectacle

Things to See & Do

In Braj, during Holi, there is never a dearth of things to do. In fact, after spending time witnessing the festivities at different villages and temples, I was left tired and gasping for breath. Additionally, bhaang (cannabis) is easily available. When mixed with lassi, it is the perfect delicacy to drown oneself in the madness of the festival.

On the first day, Phalgun Shukla Ashtami (the eighth day of the waxing phase of the moon in the month of Phalgun), Laddu Holi is celebrated in Barsana. The event is more of a preparatory one, to kick-start the festivities. Pujas (prayers) are performed at the Radha Rani Temple here to set the atmosphere for Lathmaar Holi, which is played on the following day. On the day of Lathmaar Holi in Barsana, the temple is decorated and people visit in the morning to seek blessings from the deities. They then play Holi in the temple premises itself. The constant beat of dhols (drums) sets the mood for the ensuing merrymaking. The temple shuts briefly for lunch and reopens in the evening when the women of Barsana barge in with their lathis to beat up the men of Nandgaon. The men, in turn, come equipped with shields to save themselves. However, many come unarmed and willingly enjoy a beating or two! The scene is quite euphoric to witness – a bunch of women beating up a few men with lathis amidst constant hooting from the people watching them and shutterbugs running around to capture the frenzy. Adding the right hue to the frame is the gulaal that seems to be floating in the air. Over time, the scene shifts to the streets and then moves to Nandgaon.

The next day, Lathmaar Holi is played in Nandgaon. Again, the temple in Nandgaon opens early in the morning and people visit the temple to celebrate all day, with the constant beat of dhols in the background. By sundown, the temple witnesses another spell of Lathmaar Holi, only this time, it is the women of Nandgaon beating up the men of Barsana. Many gather on the terrace of the temple to see this spectacle, which eventually moves out of the temple onto the narrow, winding roads of Nandgaon and finally to Barsana. It is a good idea to take your own lathis if you wish to participate in this custom; the people here generally show no objection towards that. However, make sure you don’t hurt anyone accidentally.

The festivities shift to Mathura and Vrindavan the following day. In Mathura, a massive cultural programme is organised at the Krishna Janmabhoomi complex. Various artistes stage plays on Lord Krishna and his life, the story of Holi, etc. In Vrindavan, people play Holi at the Banke Bihari Temple and move from temple to temple in large processions to seek Lord Krishna’s blessings.

The intricately carved marble façade of Prem Mandir, Vrindavan
The intricately carved marble façade of Prem Mandir, Vrindavan
Lasya Nadimpally

Over the next few days, the streets and various other public spaces witness several scenes of merrymaking. On the day of Phalgun Shukla Purnima (the full moon night in the month of Phalgun), Holika dahan is organised all over the city, the most notable of which is in the locality of Falain. This is an interesting spectacle to watch as a member of the local Panda family jumps into the fire and ‘miraculously’ comes out alive, emulating Prahalada.

Things to Remember

It is essential to stay vigilant while in Braj. Protect your camera and mobile phone by covering them with polythene or other such material. While walking towards the temples, many people throw colour and water at everyone. If you come across as a snobbish city dweller trying to duck the colour, it will give them an added incentive to drench you in more water. Also, remember that there are no proper toilets available near Barsana or Nandgaon. So if you happen to stay there throughout the day, you will have to settle for open/ makeshift loos or have excellent bladder control.

Find out the date of the festivities in advance from locals – cab drivers and hotel staff. However, do not depend on them for the exact timings and schedule of events. It is better to go to the venues in the morning and stick around for the rest of the day; there is always something or the other happening. The cab drivers here tend to be very non-cooperative with your schedule. Hence, it is best to hire a cab in Delhi and keep it with you for the duration of your trip. Make Vrindavan your base as it has a few decent hotels and is an hour away from Nandgaon and Barsana and 30 minutes from Mathura.


ISKCON Temple, Vrindavan

The ISKCON Temple in Vrindavan is a central landmark in the town. The shrine, constructed in white marble, is a tranquil oasis in this otherwise chaotic temple town.

ISKON temple, Vrindavan
ISKON temple, Vrindavan
Jitender Gupta

Try catching one of the aartis that happen here, preferably the Shayan aarti. The aartis tend to be quite euphoric, putting everyone in a trance with the ‘Hare Rama, Hare Krishna’ bhajan (hymn); people dance and sing along with the bhajans here. The temple also has a library, bookstores and souvenir stores, all of which have books and items related to Lord Krishna.

Prem Mandir, Vrindavan

The riveting structure of the Prem Mandir is sure to catch your attention when you’re travelling in Vrindavan. Some say that 12,000 crores was invested in building this majestic white marble structure. The main deities housed in the inner sanctum are Lord Krishna and Sita-Ram. Around the sanctum sanctorum, there is a wide circum-ambulatory path, which is a quiet place to relax for a while. After sundown, the main temple building is illuminated with multi-coloured lights – a marvellous sight to behold.

Krishna Janmabhoomi, Mathura

Built in red stone, the temple tries to recreate the prison in which Lord Krishna was born. In fact, some believe that he was born at the very spot where the temple stands today. The inner walls of the structure have carvings of scenes from the Bhagavata Puranam. There are seve-ral small shrines dedicated to Lord Krishna around the main sanctum.

Tip Do not carry any valuables here as you will need to submit almost everything you have at a cloak room outside before entering the temple. Also, beware of the monkeys here; they tend to snatch food

Where to Stay & Eat

In Vrindavan

MVT Guesthouse (Cell: 09997725 666, 09997738666; Tariff: 1,900), a minute away from ISKCON Temple, is a decent stay option. Nidhivan Sarovar Portico (Tel: 05664-3037000, Cell: 08958637000; Tariff: 4,500–6,000) near Prem Temple is a luxury property with most amenities. Hare Krishna Orchid Resort (Cell: 08057260001, 08936980001; Tariff: 2,445–7,500), also near Prem Temple, is a pleasant hotel. Kridha Residency (Cell: 09258088041/ 42; Tariff: 3,500–20,000), located opposite Prem Temple; Hotel Basera (Cell: 07500022255/ 88; Tariff: 2,200–2,500) on Raman Reti Marg; Hotel Shubham Holidays (Tel: 2456501–02; Tariff: 1,365–2,000); and Hotel Shubham Majesty (Tel: 6457088, 2455022/ 33; Tariff: 2,500–4,000) are other options.

In Mathura

Best Western Radha Ashok (Cell: 08191800395, 08191900395; Tariff: 3,750–7,350) at Masani Bypass Road on the highway; Brijwasi Lands Inn (Cell: 08899881881; Tariff: 3,500–6,500); and Wingston Hotel (Cell: 09359530910; Tariff: 4,000–7,500) on Masani Bypass are some of the better hotels in town. Hotel Madhuvan (Tel: 0565-2420058/ 64; Tariff: 3,000–4,000) in Krishna Nagar; and Goverdhan Palace (Cell: 07500984400, 09917112000; Tariff: 3,200–4,500) on Station Road are decent hotels.

For more, see Mathura-Vrindavan Accommodation Listings on pp413–14.

Where to Eat

Food available in Mathura and Vrindavan is strictly vegetarian. If you are staying in an expensive hotel, the in-house restaurant may provide you with more variety.

Ammaji’s (Cell: 09997710000), located at the ashram of Swami Balendu, an atheist guru, is the best restaurant in the region. It serves organic Indian dishes as well as authentic European cuisine. The pizza and icecream are especially recommended. Some other options are the cafeteria at MVT Guesthouse and the ISKCON canteen, Govinda.

In Mathura, the International Guesthouse next to the Janma-bhoomi Complex offers a nice thali. There are many eateries selling delicious street food – puri sabzi, chaat and lassi – in the crowded lanes around Vishram Ghat. Outlets of Brijwasi sell excellent pedas, the dessert Mathura is famous for.

Fast Facts

Tourist offices: UP Tourism, 64, Taj Road Agra. 

UP Tourism, Junction Station Road, Mathura

Contact: 09458558611/0562-2226431; uptourism.gov.in

STD code Mathura 0565 Vrindavan 05664

Getting There

By Air Nearest airport: Agra (66km/ 1.5hrs), but Delhi’s IGIA is better connected. Taxi fare to Mathura/ Vrindavan is around 2,500–2,800

By Rail Nearest railhead: Mathura Junction (10km/ 30mins), is served by many trains from Delhi. Agra railway station is now served by the new Gatiman Express which takes only an hour-and-a-half from Delhi. A pick-up can be arranged from your car rental service. Call Sri Ji Tour & Travel, Vrindavan (Tel: 0565-2442980; Cell: 09758461189). Taxis charge about 2,000 for a whole day of local travel, but do negotiate the fare from Agra

By Road Vrindavan is 8km from Mathura on the well-maintained NH2. Buses from Delhi (151km) to Mathura leave from Sarai Kale Khan Bus Terminus to Agra; get off at Chhatikara crossing where autos are available for Vrindavan. The Yamuna Expressway from Greater Noida is also a convenient route to get here