With a profusion of secular “color runs” and “color festivals” everywhere these days, it’s hard to find one that stands out. But Holi D.C., beginning with its conspicuous moniker – it purposely retains the festival’s original spiritual name rather than calling itself “Festival of Colors” – is decidedly unique.
“We don’t want to water down the spirituality behind the festival,” says media coordinator Christy Freer, a kirtan singer, yoga teacher and lawyer who has been part of the ISKCON community in Potomac, a suburb of Washington D.C., for about two years.
“Yes, it’s a color festival, yes it’s fun, but we also view it as a unique opportunity to present the ISKCON lifestyle, culture and values to the greater D.C. area in a way that’s both meaningful to people and that they can understand.”
It’s an approach that has clearly worked. ISKCON of D.C.’s first Holi event, held in 2010, attracted just a few hundred people. This year, the festival was stretched out over two days (April 11th and 12th) and drew about 8,000 people from throughout the Washington Metro area.
It helps that registration is free, and items for purchase inside, like food, t-shirts and organic, non-toxic color packs are priced reasonably.
A brave festivalgoer runs down through the crowd as he gets pelted with colors
Running the gamut from young white college kids to Indian American families, the crowds were shuttled constantly from an offsite parking garage to the ISKCON of D.C. temple festival site.
“It was wonderful to see the thrilled looks on people’s faces as they arrived in their clean white t-shirts, and saw festivalgoers returning to their cars completely covered in colors from head to toe,” says Christy, laughing at the memory.
As participants entered the property, they were met with a continuous family-friendly festival experience from 11am to 4pm on both days.
Looking down the hill, they first spotted the stage – the designated color-throwing area – where music blared and crowds danced with a cloud of color floating above them.
Walking down the hill under a bright blue sky, visitors found a host of ISKCON’s best musicians and kirtan singers creating an exciting atmosphere with a variety of musical styles.
Hip-hop artist and DJ Srikalogy brought a sunny reggae vibe with his funky electronic beats.
Srikalogy brings some good vibes
Kirtan artists Gaura Vani and Visvambhar debuted songs from their new project The Juggernauts, featuring both kirtan and rock songs in Sanskrit and English.
Kish from the Mayapuris and Purusartha Das from The Hanumen joined them, with everyone playing kirtan together at times.
And Raghunath, former lead singer of hardcore band Shelter and now a yoga teacher, held everything together as the MC.
Bass, trumpet, turntables, cajone, mridanga, harmonium and flute all blended together. But no matter the type of instrument or music, the Hare Krishna maha-mantra was the thread binding it all.
And with Gaura Vani guiding them in chanting, the crowd responded with heartfelt enthusiasm, calling out Krishna’s names and dancing for all they were worth.
Kish (jumping) and Vish of the Mayapuris lead the crowd in chanting
“People kind of went nuts with the dancing,” Christy recalls. They jumped up and down and threw color around. We had a color throw every hour, and sometimes we’d throw alternating specific colors to get the crowd engaged. Sometimes we’d open up the crowd and have someone run right down the middle and get pelted with color by everyone else. At one point myself and a few other volunteers led everyone in temple dancing, going around in circles; and there was a guy breakdancing in the middle of that. It was a spectacle.”
For those seeking a more relaxed time after dancing and throwing color, there was plenty more on offer throughout the 12-acre property.
Children crossed a bridge over a creek to pet and feed the cow Laksmi. Their parents stopped by the gift shop or had a photo of themselves covered in color printed on the spot at the photo booth.
The famished picked up fresh organic juices, mango lassi, snacks like veggie kebabs, samosas, fries, or pakoras, and full “thali” plates.
Meanwhile there were many options to discover something deeper. Some browsed through ISKCON founder Srila Prabhupada’s books.
Festivalgoers grab some snacks to eat on the sunny lawn
2,500 festival participants chanted a round of japa at the Mantra Meditation booth, and 1,000 took “meditation-to-go” kits including beads, a card explaining how to chant the Hare Krishna Mantra and a copy of the book Chant and Be Happy.
Others visited the temple itself, where they were guided through offering a candle to the Deities. There they also asked questions and devotees chatted to them about the benefits of vegetarianism and other goals of a Krishna conscious lifestyle such as mercy, truthfulness, cleanliness and discipline.
“It’s a great opportunity for us to share our culture, and message with people who otherwise might not ever be exposed to it,” says Christy, who adopted a Krishna conscious lifestyle after attending Holi herself, and knows several others who did too.
“Part of the beauty of this festival is that once you’re covered in color, all of the differences that we usually identify with, based on our bodily identification – race, gender, ethnicity, class – all of those things break down,” she adds. “And everyone is equal – dancing, chanting, smiling and covered in colors!”
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