There's a skirmish at the centre of Bankey Bihari, a Hindu temple dedicated to Lord Krishna in this sacred city. Incongruous, given the spiritual nature of the place. But it's Holi festival, the room is heaving with hundreds of paint-hurling devotees, and my large presence (physical not divine) has clearly irked some people.
An agitated worshipper tries to rip my camera from my hands; I'm surrounded by shouting men and shoved toward the door. A smiling Samaritan intervenes and, one by one, the aggrieved individuals meld into the multitude. The peacemaker follows, then turns back. "Happy Holi," he says, smearing wet paint on my face. "Now go."
Holi – also known as the "festival of colours" or "festival of love" – is a Hindu celebration that marks the arrival of spring. Its mythological significance varies by region throughout the subcontinent, and is primarily about relaxing social codes, meeting others and having a good time.
Here in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, where Krishna is believed to have been born, legend has it the young, mischievous, dark-skinned lad – jealous of his consort Radha's fair complexion – complained to his mother about the injustice. To placate him, she suggested he paint Radha's face whatever colour he desired.
He did and people have been painting towns and one another red ever since. Green, orange, yellow, purple and pink, too.
It's mostly good spirits but, for some, cutting loose means quaffing bhang (the base of a drink made with cannabis, milk, ghee and spices). Whisky, too. And as with any large gathering featuring the odd roving gang of inebriated males, problems can arise, particularly later in the day.
There's a scuffle next to a parked tuk-tuk on a busy street in Mathura. It's the day after temple toss and I'm trying to get back to my hotel in Vrindavan, 13 kilometres away. My driver doesn't know my destination but, no matter, his tuk-tuk is kaput. We've only travelled a few blocks and I've already paid him 100 rupees (about $2 Canadian) for his trouble, so I'd like to be on my way. But some celebrants cluster, the drunkest seizing my arm and – while it's possible it might be a prop to keep him upright – he's also shouting. In fact, everybody is – in Hindi.
I finally figure out what they want: another 100 rupees.
I'd started the day early with a brisk tuk-tuk ride in the dark from Vrindavan, arriving in Mathura in time to see the holy city's ghats at sunrise from a boat on the Yamuna River, before downing a cup of chai and walking over to Dwarkadhish Temple for Holi festivities.
I needn't have bothered – it's more fun on the streets.
More welcoming than Bankey, (though Vrindavan's streets were a hoot), I spent the next several hours getting doused with paint in every form: powder, paste, spray-foam and the occasional full bucket of watercolour hurled from windows and rooftops lining the street.
Eventually, I made my way back to a main street and hailed that ill-fated tuk-tuk. Sure, I was 200 rupees poorer, but there's never a shortage of tuk-tuks in India, and I was soon en route to my hotel.
All told, the 13-kilometre journey took two hours.
That evening I booked a taxi for the next morning's 35-kilometre ride to Dauji Temple.
It broke down less than two kilometres from my hotel. But, after staring at the engine for a few minutes, the apologetic driver called for backup and, within 45 minutes, I was on my way in another vehicle.
I still arrive an hour before things get going but Holi here is popular and all the best elevated vantage points have already been secured by dozens of long-lens-camera-toting tourists and credentialed media. I shell out 500 rupees (about $10) for a less-than-ideal sliver of real estate – but bodies are squeezing me on all sides. It's uncomfortable and I won't last long.
The oversized shower heads surrounding the open-air floor spring to life, paint cannons spew red paint, young boys fling flowers from the temple's roof.
I snap a few shots with my camera but it feels as if we're watching a raging house party through a peephole in the attic.
"Are we allowed down on the floor?" I ask an Indian photographer.
"Yes, but it's risky," he says.
There's a woman whipping me with a wet towel. It's nothing personal – all the men are being lashed. This is Huranga – a playful tradition that goes back more than 500 years. Men drench women with buckets of coloured water; women strip and beat the men.
Water, paint, flowers and bodies are flying. Glitter, too. Trains of half-naked men are marching in circles. My shirt is partially torn off. The perpetrator's veil doesn't conceal her giggle. Several more sari-clad women flog me with gusto.
The whole thing leaves a mark. The paint washes off, eventually, but the colour seeps into the bones. I elbow my way to the front of the temple but, once outside, can't find my sandals among the hundreds left at the gates.
Suddenly, the crush of people parts and a smiling boy appears with my flip-flops in hand.
For 50 rupees, the Holi spirit had saved my soles.
Where to Holi
Holi is celebrated throughout the Indian subcontinent. Because it's determined by the lunar cycle, the date changes every year. (In 2018, it will fall on March 2; in 2019, it's March 21).
In the Braj region (Vrindavan/Mathura), festivities can go on for more than a week. Always verify dates before you go; talk to people on the ground about times, etc. They change often.
Holi at Bankey Bihari Temple (Vrindavan): Takes place the day (morning) before Holi proper. Mostly men. Somewhat aggressive but an experience nonetheless. The mood is lighter on the streets of the town, but temple is the celebratory epicentre.
Holi at Dwarkadhish Temple (Mathura): Starts in the morning. The streets outside temple are jammed by 10 a.m. and stay that way past noon. Lots of tourists and families. Much more playful and welcoming than Bankey Bihari.
Huranga at Dauji Temple (Dauji): Starts late-morning. Arrive a couple of hours early to get prime, elevated seating (you'll have to pay). Or brave the floor – it's worth the risk.
There's a slew of other celebrations I didn't attend that happen around the same time: Lathmar Holi at Barsana and Nandgaon (women beating men with sticks) goes down about a week before Holi proper; Phoolon wali Holi (Banke Bihari in Vrindavan) is a flower Holi that happens several days before Holi (only lasts 20 minutes); Widow's Holi is, reportedly, a must-see that takes place at Pagal Baba Widow Ashram in Vrindavan a few days before Holi. There's also a Holi procession in Mathura the day before Holi, and Holika Dahan (the burning of the effigy of Holika) lights up the town that same evening.
How to Holi
Arrive early, leave early. The later it gets, the more rowdy the crowd can get. Travellers, particularly solo women, should exercise caution.
Wear the same clothes for playing Holi. Toss them in the trash afterward. Paint comes off skin with a good scrubbing. Wear a bandana or hat to protect hair. Sunglasses are an option; a must for kids.
Protect your camera with a good rain cover or waterproof housing.
How to get there
Mathura is 161 kilometres from New Delhi. The train takes two to three hours and, depending on class selected, tickets range from 300 to 1300 rupees (between $6 and $27 Canadian) each way, about $6-$27 Canadian. (Caveat: booking train tickets in advance through www.cleartrip.com or www.irctc.co.in is fairly straightforward, but foreign users have to be verified manually from Indian Railways' end, which requires several steps.) Travelling through India by train is enjoyable, although backup plans are a good idea. My train to Mathura was delayed six hours, so I booked a return taxi (shouldn't cost more than 7000 rupees). Indian taxi drivers are reliable.
Vrindavan and Mathura have basic accommodations. A better bet is nearby Agra (home of the Taj Mahal). It's possible to take a taxi from Delhi, play Holi and return same day. Note: it's three-four hours each way, depending on Delhi traffic. Most visitors will want to incorporate Holi into a larger trip to India.