Sunday, 25 March 2012

Lath-Maar Holi, Barsana, UP

Last year on the same day, I visited this small village near Mathura called Barsana. It is known to be Radhaji's village. Barsana and a few neighboring villages have this very interesting and traditional way of playing Holi. The females of one village beat the men of the neighboring village who come and tease them in their own village. Thousands of devotees come here every year to see this eccentric Holi. The visitors are mostly from nearby villages and states. And ofcourse the non-Indian backpackers. No one visiting this village is spared. The locals make sure that everyone is colored. No matter what religion, profession or level of society you belong to, at the end of this day everyone looks the same. And feels the same too, I guess. There are no rules and unlimited colors. Majorly attracted by this fact, my passion had to get me here.

I visited this village for the first time in 2011. Loitering in the narrow lanes of Barsana, I was attacked by these little, angelic devils with their water guns, spraying out gallons of coloured water and unbound love. They knew nothing but innocent mischief and happiness. Let alone the children, most of the locals too, made sure there was color all over me and my dearest camera. I was enjoying it and was merrily clicking pictures. While on the colourful, joyous spree, I ended up in this supremely attractive lane. No idea how and when, but I found myself in this narrow, cobbled and hued lane. Something made me wait exactly between these two houses. It was probably the human instinct of wanting to be safe, regardless of the innumerable colour-attacks I had already gone through. I heard some chuckles above me and instantly understood that some notorious monkeys were plotting to colour me yet again. I looked up to see a little boy positioned on one of the two terraces, to splash blue coloured water on this person standing right next to me. I clicked. That shot was just as spontaneous as the registration of its sight in my head. And both probably happened at the same time. I checked my camera- it was the best shot I had ever captured in my life. 

I somehow could imagine myself playing the exact same prank, in the exact same way, if I was a kid in Barsana. So totally awed by his kittenish moves, I asked him his name and he replied impishly, “Sab muje Chotu bulate hain”. I asked him if I could join him on his terrace and click a few pictures. We spent half a day together and I was overwhelmed by the warmth I received from everyone at his place, including his mother. It was one of my most memorable and satisfying experience in more than just one way.

That picture travelled places. It was published in one of the best photography magazines named “Better Photography” in India. I received a lot of appreciation from friends and followers of my work. Good pictures seep into you, but then there are some that define you. Needless to say, this picture is extremely close to my heart for reasons, I still sometimes wonder about.

Its 2012 now, I have come again to this magical place, for the sole reason that I have grown. Grown as a photographer, saw and understood things in a better way, have better equipments to cover the festival in a better way and also because I got connected to the place. This time I am traveling with a very close friend and a phenomenal photographer, Indrasen. We are staying in Mathura, an hour’s drive from Barsana. We reached here early morning on the day of the festival. I was very well aware of how crazy Barsana was going to be that day. Just as excited as we were, I was also cautious to cover our bags and cameras with plastic. Getting our souls drenched would be cool but we could not afford to let the madness seep into our equipments. We reached Barsana around noon. The village was as crazier than what I had experienced and anticipated. It felt as if the sole purpose of these myriad of people was to soak me and Indrasen with colours. Through and through, again and again. We were ceaselessly bombarded with pure gulaal and coloured water. Not one person in the village was uncolored, now including us. We walked a little as I explained to ndrasen how and what I did last year when I was here. We kept on walking and clicking for a few hours.

As we were exploring the place, somewhere deep down my heart, I was hoping to find that lane where I clicked Chotu last year. Eventually, as we spoke to people on our way, and while capturing the festive moments, we reached a lane which looked a little similar to the Chotu lane. My heart started thumping in hope and excitement. The hand pump at the end of the lane confirmed it to be the one I was wishing it was. I wasn't expecting anything more to happen. I just wanted to show to Indrasen where exactly I clicked that super shot last year. I went and stood on the same spot and was waiting for Indrasen to come. My friend was capturing the frolic of this little girl who was happily lost in her play of colors, throwing 10 grams at a go. Her hands were really small and it wasn't possible for her to grab more gulaal.

I suddenly hear this voice above me and I look up. It was an unknown face. I asked Indrasen to rush as that was the exact situation as last year and I really wanted him to feel it. As soon as he came, we saw this man who was holding a similar bucket, filled with pink coloured water, at the the exact same spot at the terrace, splashing it on people passing by down there. Deja-vu. I quickly clicked a few shots and you will not believe if I tell you that I ended up getting an equally amazing picture. 

My emotions were just about to overflow and guess who I saw. Yes, Chotu, looking at me from the exact same terrace giving me a look which I could not help but capture. I clicked and didn’t stop.

I called him down this time. No words can even remotely define the rush I was going through at that point. I just couldn't believe how the whole thing just repeated itself. I never in my life thought, I would meet this little boy again. This little soul because of whom my photograph went places. I couldn't believe I was living through that moment. I literally had to close my eyes for a bit and tell myself, this is happening, Trupal. Everything around you is for real. I guess he remembered me and was obviously unaware of the fact that he got published in a magazine. It's funny how he holds so much significance in my life and hardly knows about it. It’s funny how thousands of people have seen him but he is least bothered about it. It was one of those intense moment when you completely lose the ability to think or react. He came down and Indrasen told him, “tujhe pata hai tera photo magazine me aaya hai”. And he didn't know how to respond to that. He wasn't interested. Not one bit. All he wanted to do was to play with colors and run around. I was still glued at the same spot, thinking how life if full of surprises. How a small moment or a person can make it so memorable. It's impossible for me to forget that instant. I obviously went to his terrace again, spent some quality time with his family again, and captured some inexplicable moments for life, again. This entire experience made me feel rooted, connected- closest I’ve ever been to my god.

कवि के कुछ लव्ज़ों में जैसे,
यादों का असर बस जाता है..
तस्वीर- - कैद लम्हों में ऐसे,
रब का अक्स नज़र आता है. 

I didn't want to leave that place but I had to go. We had a lot of other things to click. We left and started walking back from where we came. Someone from the crowd suggested that we should go to this place where the boys from the neighboring village gather before coming in Barsana to get beaten up. They gather there to drink 'bhaang'. An Indian drink which has the capablity to give you a trip equivalent to LSD or any other hard drug. People say it can make a person hallucinate for 24 hours or 36 hours, in worst cases. I really wanted to try it but thought should be responsible as I was carrying some expensive equipments. We reached that place which was under a tree, outside the village where boys were enjoying themselves over bhaang.

We clicked a few pictures there and headed back to the temple which was on a small hill next to the village. According to the tradition these boys have to come up to the temple, pray and then run down the hill back to the village where the females are waiting to welcome them with the sticks in their hands, obviously to beat them up. We reached the temple and couldn't believe what we saw up there. Thousands of people drenched in colour. It was a different sight all together. Since morning we had not seen so many people together anywhere. Here people were going barbaric on the live music of dhol. Many danced like there was no tomorrow. Many watched and a lot of other people threw water and colours on these myriad of men who were dancing and enjoying themselves.

There was no need to know anyone to dance with, play holi with or to simply sit back and enjoy with. It was an environment which would make any human being go crazy and happy. Uncountable number of people playing holi, together. Even if one didn’t want to play, he/ she didn't have a choice. We were standing within this huge wave of people who were ready to race to get inside the temple as soon as the doors opened. All these people were dancing in the temple’s courtyard that was surrounded by high walls and balconies from 3 sides. Masses were standing on those walls and at the balconies to pour coloured water at others. There was absolutely no chance that one could be spared. We really had to take care of our equipments because we wouldn’t know how and when would we get showered with colour and water.

To add to this madness the authorities arranged for a helicopter which would come every 5 minutes and downpour rose petals on this already mad crowd. Everytime it came, people would get charged up and welcomed it with loud roars and hands cheering high up in the air. I had never before this day seen anything so insane. Not even the previous time I came here. I remember this one time just before the doors opened how this huge splash of water drenched me and Indrasen. Before we could get back to our senses, the door of the temple opened, and good god gracious!- we were floating in that wave of almost 700-800 people, being pulled and pushed by a thousand more, who were trying to get inside the temple as soon as possible. It was like pushing a watermelon through a keyhole. I remember how I saved my camera and myself from getting crushed. I also remember shouting to Indrasen “take a left as soon as you get in” because it was impossible to be together in such madness. We entered getting squeezed and thrown around by people. By this time I could premeditate what would be happening inside. And I was right. Hundreds of people were just waiting for the rest to get in. The were ready with unlimited yellow water and colours. As soon as we entered we lost the sense of direction. Our brains stopped working. We didn’t know how to save ourselves and our equipments from this yellow cloudburst that came in from all 8 sides. It was utter madness. I remember this look on Indrasen's face which was confused and lost.

 I was sure he had never seen something like this ever before. We were drenched and so were our cameras. It was a million dollar opportunity to click this madness but our brains stopped functioning. It took us quiet some time to get back to normal. We couldn't even see each other, let alone figuring camera settings and clicking pictures. We were clicking blind(colour)-foldedly.

In this hysteria, no matter how crazy and bad it became, it is only our souls and hearts that know this to be the ultimate happiness. This is what life is for me- crazy, mad, unpredictable, full of colours and happiness. There was so much energy. Everywhere my eyes could see, I saw untapped excitement. Each and every human being was lost in iving to the fullest. Enjoying to the core. That is exactly how I’d choose and expect my life and of the ones around me to be.

I and Indrasen together had the best photography equipments one could dream of. From the most expensive cameras to the most amazing lenses ranging from wide angles to 50 mm to zooms. We were skilled and had enough knowledge to get good pictures. A photographer could not have asked for a better view. The place was full of subjects, energy and life. We spent 15 mad minutes inside that temple and the irony is that both of us, together, could not even manage to get one decent picture. The message was very clear that equipments hardly matter. It is all just in the moment. We probably got too lost in those magical minutes. Every second was worth it. It felt like we travelled all this way only because we were destined to feel those maddening minutes of bliss.

We got out and decided to walk down hill. Exhausted, confused and puzzled what just happened with us. We were surprised at the sight we saw as we were coming down. It was this gang of guys who came running down only to tease these females and to get beaten up. The entire village went mad. The crowd from all around the village gathered in those lanes to witness the crazy beating. I still don’t understand the logic behind this tradition, nor do I wish to find out why they beat and take the beating. There are a lot of things I would love to witness/ feel and just enjoy without knowing why. I think I leave it as soon as I get happy. All that matters is happiness. For them is beating and for me it’s clicking. Haha

I and Indrasen kept on walking towards our car which was only a couple of miles away. Not to forget the streets were flooded with people. 10 people were standing on a platform which could religiously accommodate only 5. I knew that walking down those 2 miles was going to be a mission. I was actually enjoying while I walked clicking and saving myself from getting hit by these crazy females. Soon I realized I didn’t have to put in any efforts to walk at all. I was floating amidst the crowd. The mob literally was transporting my, luckily in the same direction that I was supposed to go in.

I was lost in my thoughts as I lost Indrasen too and was walking alone and suddenly I could feel this gush of people behind me. I knew I was going to be pushed by those thousands of people behind me. Before I could think much, that little push started getting converted into a rage. I was lucky enough to be on the side of the road and decided to sit on this really small platform with exactly 10 inches of place to rest my butt. I thought I was lucky till I realized that what I simply thought could be a stampede was actually a bloody STAMPEDE. Imagine this. I was sitting on a small platform like wall on the side of the road, there are thousands of people and a stampede on the road and I sort of forgot my legs in that stampede. Yes, my legs were a part of the flow with my butt resting on that platform. Trust me and excuse me for my language, but I had my balls in my mouth when I realized that I am being pulled by the fucking bull like people. I felt as if I was going to fall and die in this madness. I was on the knee level of the rest of the people who were actively IN the stampede. I really flipped. I remember piercing my nails in someones thighs who was standing on that platform. I shouted and kept on shouting “ (bhaiya muje khada karo)3 “. It was a feeling of being swallowed by this huge blind and deaf mad crowd. I thank god and that man who felt the pain of my penetrating nails and realized that there was a man who needs to be rescued. He pulled me up. I was shivering and was completely blank. I swear it is impossible to even begin to express the feeling of almost facing death. It was scary. All this while I had my video on and somehow I have managed to capture the fear in my voice. Check out this video.

After the man pulled me up I stood in those 10 inches for more than 30 minutes. I didn’t want to go home. I didn’t want to reach the car. I didn’t want to move from that place. I just wanted to be there and feel alive. I just wanted to be there and acknowledge my existence. I saw that entire stampede pass by. I saw people fighting. I saw the females with the sticks hitting the people around them randomly. I saw a man with a stick in his hand gone crazy and was hitting anyone and everyone in the crowd. I was shivering and I completely zoned out. I just couldn’t think and felt zombified . I stood still with my video on and kept talking videos of that hysteria around me. It was after 45 mins that I dared to step down on the road and walk back to my car. I met Indrasen near the car equally blank and zonked. It was like someone punching you on your nose and then drowning you in the water. Yes I swear it was a bad. I will never ever forget those last 2 hours I spent in Barsana.

We were dead by the time we reached home. But the ride back was fun. There was this local boy called Kaluaa, who was sitting with us on the back seat of this long jeep called Toofan. Haha.He entertained us so much on our way back that we forgot all out tiredness and mental shocks. I am sure he was tripping on the bhaang. He kept on cracking dirty jokes and passing 'ghati' comments revolving around this female who was sitting on the front seat of our Toofan. It was hilarious. Loads of uncontrollable laughter- a peaceful end to the mad/ blissful/ colourful/ traumatic day.

One of the major reasons why I love traveling so much is I can meet so many people. It doesn’t matter what cast or level of society they belong to. They become my best of friends. He still calls me quiet regularly. I love such bonds which only share happiness. You know whenever you pick up calls from such people all you'll hear is happiness. Lot’s of it. With every trip that I make, I get closer to my unison with the universe. And every person I meet, plays the role of a piece in my cosmic puzzle- even one block missing and I’ll be incomplete. At the end, everything begins to feel one- like my life’s jig-saw is being completed.

Monday, 5 March 2012

Junagadh, Shivratri

The roots of this story actually go 10 years down. My dad has a friend whose native is Junagadh. As a kid, sitting with my dad and him, I heard him talking about something very interesting. They were talking about how Naga Babas/ Aghories dwell in Junagadh. I remember him talking very fondly about how they meditate for years in the caves, how powerful they are and a lot of other things which got me intrigued at that age. He mentioned how hundreds of Aghories, coming from unknown places gather on this particular day, Shivratri and vanish somewhere as soon as Shivratri is over.

I don’t know what made me relive that conversation 10 years later and 2 days before Shivratri, this year. As soon as I realized, I called my uncle to find out if this was the day he has been talking about all these years. I was just hoping he says yes and he did. However, he advised me not to go there on that day as around 1 million people, from all over the country gather there to celebrate Shivratri and to meet their gurus. That is exactly when I knew I was going.

I and my cousin, who is equally inclined towards photography and traveling, got our backpacks ready and set off for Junagadh. It is a 6 hours drive from my city, Vadodara and it took us 9 hours to reach. Yes, untapped excitement and wrong exits. Always happens.

We reached our destination at 10 in the night. The festival had actually begun a week before we reached. The day we reached was the last day and hence people were at their excitement-peaks. I could not believe what I saw- Ocean of people. It was a 5 kms road and I couldn't find even half a foot of clear space. People were flooding in and out of the grand fair. We decided to not walk further and call it a day. It was going to be a long shoot day after a couple of hours.

Before I went to sleep, I was wondering how powerful religion is, in my country. Call it blind faith, superstitions or miracles. The Shivratri fair takes place at the foothills of a holy mountain called Girnar. I just couldn’t believe that so many people were simply walking towards this holy mountain, with nothing to give, nothing to take back. No expectations, no regrets. Just unconditional, divine faith.

Next morning we geared up for the day with extra memory and batteries because I was sure we were to witness madness all day. As we started walking the road that which led to the festival setup, we learned that a stampede had occurred there a while ago, causing six people to lose their lives. We gulped that news down, and in the name of god, kept walking ahead.

We reached this place called Damodar Kund- a small man-made lake that has a lot of religious significance.  They say, “Damodaram Jalawasam Sarva Papharam Harim” ( The holy waters of Damodar Kund are the holy home of Shri Hari, sacred bath of which relieves all kinds of sin), and “Sakshat Sthitah Krishna Damodara eeti Smritan” ( Bhagwan Shri Krishna is eternally present here in the form of Shri Radha-Damodarji ).

I saw hundreds of people taking a dip in that pond. We went in and continued walking after clicking a few pictures. Finally having reached the fair area, I just couldn’t believe what I saw. Hundreds of Naga Babas/ Aghories were sitting in small tents that were erected on both sides of the road. I was taken aback by their aura and the strong vibes around them. 

I didn’t dare to click for the first 10 minutes and just kept walking as the Babas kept changing in the different tents. Finally I gathered my guts to click a picture of this one Aghori, only to get abused in the face, “Aye photu wale, hatt Bhenchod!” and I didn’t even think for 2 seconds before expediting my pace of walking. Yes, they do swear. Walking like that, trying to get away as fast as possible, I was looking on my right side when suddenly I felt a strong, rough hand on my head. The grip was the hardest ever. I felt someone’s thumb on my forehead and four fingers around my skull. The hand forcefully turned my head around and I flipped when I saw an Aghori standing 1 foot away from me. Holding my head like that, with his grip getting tighter, he pressed his thumb against my skull and did a tika on my forehead. The tika was from the ash that was in this wired, wooden bowl he was carrying in his other hand. I was so scared that I didn’t know how to react. Before I could do or say something, he commanded in a very deep, aggressive voice, “Dakshina de”. It wasn't a request, it was an order that I had to follow. My hand quickly ran into my pocket and I pulled out a Rs. 50 note and kept it in his bowl and wished to vanish. It took me a while to calm down and catch my breath. I was surrounded by such insane Aghories. Gradually as time passed, I got slightly comfortable and started clicking. We clicked for a couple of hours and got exhausted. It wasn’t the shooting that got us drained but probably the crowd, lack of space, ear-splitting noise and hardly any air to breathe in. We set off to look for a place which had no people and was peaceful. While we were walking further up the hill, my cousin suggested that we should rather go off-road and try finding something in the forest. We walked perpendicular to the main road and ended on a parallel road which was surprisingly empty, quiet and in the middle of dense trees.

 It was nice, cool and calm. Funny how just a few meters away was this huge fair with almost 1 million people and here we were in the forest alone relaxing, under a tree. Suddenly we saw an army of jungle monkeys just 10 meters away nibbling and playing.

 They had a new born member who was the most curious of them all and was hell bent on entertaining us. Something like this was really needed. We spent 2 hours clicking that monkey family which towards the end, got comfortable enough to sit around us, as we fed them with fancy bites. It was all fun till I tried to get my camera on the floor to get a wired perspective shot. And I pissed the mother off.

A forest officer who was passing by told us that it was a restricted area and we weren't allowed to be there. No wonder it was so peaceful. We bid goodbye to the ancestors and made a quick move. We reached a nearby Jain temple and asked them if we could rest there for a bit. The place was serene. They allowed us to sleep and we took a nap. We woke up at 6 in the evening and were absolutely revitalized to click again.

I had not gotten even one decent shot till that time except for the monkeys. We went back to the fair and started exploring a new area. A lot of devotees were heading back and some paused to watch the young girls walking on ropes and doing their typical stunts. I still hadn’t got a shot that could trigger my creative juices.

Finally when we reached this new place with similar tents around, I decided I am going to shoot fearlessly, no matter what. I sat down in front of a Baba and took a shot. He didn’t react. I took two more shots and stood up. I was just looking at the pictures in my camera and I heared a voice “Oye!” I looked at the man I had just clicked. He looked straight into my eyes and asked “ Bhole Naath jaisa dikhta hu na?” I smiled in relief and replied “Haan Baba, beshaq!”. 

I sat down confidently to click one last picture while he raised his hand to bless me. I clicked just then and got the shot I wanted. There was no looking back after that picture. I simply sat in front of a lot of Babas and kept clicking. All my pictures in the album that I have uploaded, were clicked after the Bhole Naath moment. After clicking for seven hours, I finally got some mad pictures. I acted as if I was from press and kept clicking ceaselessly. Once you are set, there is no stopping.

 We were dead by 12:30 am. It was more than 12 hours that we were in the festival. We realized we had to walk 5 kms back to reach our vehicle. We were really tired and hungry but were satisfied to have gotten some good clicks. It is amazing how I could simply connect to so many unusual people, may it be only for a few moments. I realize that I will probably never see them again in my life, but I still have them captured permanently.

Gir- the last home for Asiatic Lions, was just 1 hour away from where we were. No cookie-points for guessing if we went there or not.

 We spent two days in the forest and captured what we were hoping to. We were lucky to spot a nicely built, handsome lion- just a few feet away. With him were 8 beautiful lionesses and a cub. Perfect.

One of the best trips of my life came to an end as we packed up and left for Vadodara.