While ISKCON Utah has made the news consistently in recent years with its mega Holi festivals attended by 50,000 people, the joyous Festival of Colors has also become a popular way to draw together smaller, family-based communities throughout ISKCON.
On a crisp, sunny morning on Saturday March 10th, over two thousand devotees, congregation and intrigued locals converged on Washington D.C.’s Potomac temple, to celebrate the spring festival originally held by Lord Krishna and his eternal consort Radha, in which revelers cover each other with colored powders.
The crowd consisted of all walks of life—young, old, college kids, families, Indians, and Westerners—giving ISKCON of D.C. by far its biggest attendance yet in this, its fourth year of celebrating Holi.
This was largely thanks to a vigorous online campaign, with iskconofdc.org drawing three times its usual amount of daily ‘hits’; as well as colorful posters being hung at the temple, at colleges such as the University of Maryland, and in local Indian stores.
At 11am, visitors began to stream into the temple courtyard, which was surrounded by a multitude of tents and booths, including a large Holi table where they could purchase powders in all the colors of the rainbow for $5 a pack. This not only makes Holi a self-funding festival, but contributes towards other temple festivals too.
There were also many food booths selling mouth-watering sanctified vegetarian food including a full thali plate, pakora fritters, French fries, pizza, sandwiches, desserts like cupcakes and cheesecakes, and drinks like hot tea and lassi.
Last but not least were the book tent, which sold many volumes of spiritual literature including children’s books, and the japa meditation tent, where over 200 people learned how to chant the Hare Krishna mantra on beads.
“Initially we thought people wouldn’t be so interested in that kind of thing at Holi,” says Community President Ananda Vrindavaneshwari Dasi. “But many are in fact very interested in spirituality and in festivals that are built around deeper, internal meanings. One lady approached me before she had even played Holi yet to ask, ‘Where’s your meditation tent?’”
Keeping the focus on Krishna, festival organizers also roped off areas and posted signs guiding guests to visit the temple and pay their respects to Sri-Sri Radha-Madan Mohana first, before having their Holi fun.
“Different traditions in India celebrate Holi for different reasons, which can be as simple as just heralding the beginning of spring,” Ananda says. “But we bring it back to how Krishna played Holi with the gopis in His hometown of Vrindavana. It’s an opportunity to remember Krishna, and to celebrate His playfulness, and to say hey, religion and spirituality can be beautiful and colorful and fun too.”
While guests were welcome to cover each other with Holi powders to their hearts’ content, there were three organized “Rainbow Throws” throughout the event, wherein after a suspenseful countdown the entire crowd hurled handfuls of color into the air at one time to stunning effect.
As they threw color, the crowd also danced to kirtan—played in the temple and broadcast outside over a speaker system—as well as Brijbasi tunes such as “Radhe Radhe,” straight from Vrindavana, India. The festive atmosphere was joyous and palpable.
Thrilled, festivalgoers texted their friends and even uploaded photos live to Facebook, creating a viral effect with more and more locals pouring onto the property to see what all the fun was about.
“By 1pm, we had sold out of the 700 packets of color we had brought, and had to run out and get more,” Ananda says. “We even sold out of all of our prasadam, and had to make more.”
At 2:30pm, in another Holi tradition, devotees lit a bonfire containing an effigy of the demoness Holika. Once again, this brought the event back to a Krishna conscious message.
Holika, as the story from the ancient text Srimad-Bhagavatam goes, was the sister of the powerful demon king Hiranyakashipu. Hiranyakashipu ordered her to kill his five-year-old son Prahlada, who was a pure devotee of God, for he couldn’t stand his own son worshiping his mortal enemy. Holika, who had been given a boon that she could not be burned, took Prahlada on her lap and sat upon a blazing pyre. But Prahlada was unharmed because he chanted God’s names, while Holika was burnt to ashes, for she had used her boon for evil means.
Besides the bonfire, there were also special children’s activities, including a game wherein children aged five to ten were blindfolded and tried to hit a hanging clay pot with a stick. When they were victorious, the famous ISKCON sweets “simply wonderfuls” poured out for all to savor.
Ananda Vrindavaneshwari explains that the whole festival was family friendly, and thus less hectic than some celebrations in India.
“I think what puts a lot of people off Holi is the liquid color,” she says. “We found that it creates a much more wild mood—and in March in D.C., people would have been freezing after five minutes and left! So we just used powdered colors, which easily wash off. Also, there was nice music, and the event was off the streets in a controlled environment. If you didn’t want a lot of color, people respected that, and you could just sit up on the hill and watch if you wanted, or stay in the temple and listen to the bhajans.”
Still, it was all so much fun that most participated.
“People threw color at each other, and danced, and sat on our beautiful lawn to relax and talk and eat Prasad together,” Ananda continues. “And by then, everybody had so much color on them, nothing mattered anymore. No one cared how they looked, they were all just falling about laughing.”
Ananda feels that Holi breaks down barriers in a beautiful way, turning everyone into one big family.
“While I was helping in the parking lot, I saw a group of young Western college girls leaving, all colored-up and happy,” she says. “Just then, a car parked, and an Indian family with two children got out, ready to attend the festival. The girls immediately approached them, put a bit of Holi powder on the children, and invited them to return the favor. There was no sense of social awkwardness or being from different backgrounds. Usually people so easily stay within their own groups or contexts, and it can be hard to find reasons to break through that in ordinary every day life. But the color just took away all self-consciousness—it was so nice to see.”
Holi is also a comfortable way for newcomers to visit an ISKCON temple for the first time.
“They’re coming into a sacred space, but on very neutral ground—they’re not making any commitments,” Ananda says.
Still, visitors get a taste of Krishna consciousness whether or not they realize it. And they show their appreciation enthusiastically.
For instance, Ananda overheard one college student say to her friends on her way out, “This was beyond fun!” Others praised the “Fabulous crowd, fantastic colors and superb food,” and called the event “The best Holi in the U.S.” Some promised to bring their friends next time: “I was able to get a few of my non-desi colleagues to come this time,” said one commenter on Facebook, “But I’m surely gonna invite the whole department next year.”
Ananda Vrindavaneshwari, who lived in Vrindavana—Lord Krishna’s hometown where Holi originated—for twenty-one years before moving to Washington D.C., looks forward to more guests participating in Holi and experiencing the Vrindavana mood.
“I felt the Vrindavana spirit at Holi here in D.C.,” she says. “That sweet, Krishna-centered experience of a Vrindavana evening, with lots of people being really happy in chanting Krishna’s name together; that joy that people have when they relate to Krishna and want to become involved in activities connected with Him.”
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