One of India’s most common stereotype that the West holds is based on our festival of Holi. We are well-known the world over as the country of colors and community. In reality, Holi is a North Indian festival, celebrated most fervently in the state of Uttar Pradesh. In the Braj region associated with Lord Krishna, around Mathura, Holi is a time of pilgrimage. The two towns near Mathura, Barsana and Nandgaon, have an especially significant tradition during Holi. They observe what is now famous around the world as Lathmar Holi of Barsana. This age-old practice speaks to the story of India’s problematic relationship with stalking and consent.
What is Lathmar Holi of Barsana?
For the uninitiated, Lathmar Holi is the famous re-enactment of Krishna’s visit to Radha’s village, Barsana, during Holi. It is believed that Krishna visited Barsana to tease Radha and play Holi with her. The Gopis got offended at his atrocious behavior and started hitting him with a stick. On Holi, men from Nandgaon visit Barsana on Holi, play tease the women and are beaten with sticks. They might even be made to wear women’s clothing. They take the beating and touch the feet of the women, expressing their regret at their behavior. This is accompanied by dancing, merry-making and playing with colors. There is also a revenge march from the Barsana men – who visit Nandgaon the next day to color the women of the village.
So, a Celebration of Stalking, then?
The Indian culture is rich with stories and folklore. Every one of our three million Gods and Goddesses has back-stories that would put George RR Martin to shame. The folklore around Krishna is, however, one that I personally find most problematic. No matter how we slice it, Krishna’s folklore glorifies stalking.
Let’s just pause here once to think about Lathmar Holi. The Lord had shown the way to make stalking playful. The idea that men from one village could walk into another to follow, tease, or put color on women without their consent, has been made acceptable by Krishna’s lore.
I have read articles suggesting that Lathmar Holi is somehow about women’s liberation. After all, the men are so bravely bottling their egos to take a beating from women. But, here is the thing. I just don’t see how the continued celebration of eve-teasing and the playful violence of participatory women can be seen as progress. I can’t wrap my head around the patriarchy of the revenge march.
Traditions can Evolve
Traditions are beautiful. They tie us to our roots and give us a platform on which to evolve and grow. But, there are times when we have to see a tradition for the regression they represent. India’s struggle with stalking and a shaky understanding of consent is beyond control. And Lathmar Holi is the stamp of casual approval on the idea of stalking for fun. So this year, as we bring the cheer of Spring with colors on Holi, let us think about how to discern the traditions that actually are constructive for our society.