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Growing Stories from IndiaReligion and the Fate of Agriculture$

A. Whitney Sanford

Print publication date: 2012

Print ISBN-13: 9780813134123

Published to Kentucky Scholarship Online: May 2012

DOI: 10.5810/kentucky/9780813134123.001.0001

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The Festival of Holi:

The Festival of Holi:

Celebrating Agricultural and Social Health

(p.121) Chapter 5 The Festival of Holi:
Growing Stories from India

A. Whitney Sanford

University Press of Kentucky

Abstract and Keywords

During the Hindu springtime harvest festival of Holi, devotees celebrate the renewal of social bonds and agricultural fertility because Holi festivities demonstrate the intimate ties between social and agricultural health. This chapter, which is based on the author's experiences in the Braj region of northern India, describes Holi rituals and practices in Baldeo, the center of Balaram pilgrimage. It explores Holi's comedic role in releasing social and agricultural tensions and stabilizing society but argues that defusing tensions do not resolve structural problems, and the resulting stability tends to maintain existing hierarchies. For example, anxieties over the fear of famine, that the earth will not cooperate, tend to lead to stricter controls and narratives (and practices) of domination rather than reciprocity and partnership and so make it more difficult to envision alternatives for food production. Analyzing the social role of stories of control and mastery over the earth provides insight into the reluctance to explore alternative agricultural practices.

Keywords:   Holi, Hinduism, gender, ritual, agriculture, comedy, satire, pastoral, India, Braj

THE SPRINGTIME FESTIVAL of Holi in Braj, the setting for the story of Balaram and the Yamuna River, celebrates the importance of agriculture and fertility in the social realm. The agricultural narrative embedded in Holi has broad religious, social, and cultural implications, and demonstrates that agricultural practice reflects and shapes social practices. Holi rituals confirm that agriculture is central to the social realm in Braj—and, I argue, in the contemporary United States as well. Although both the Braj pastoral narrative and contemporary environmental thought marginalize agriculture, Holi ritual practice, an example of Vaishnava devotion, reveals the inadequacy of this construct because human survival relies upon agricultural bounty. Despite the relative anonymity of food production in the contemporary United States, the intersection of food and social tensions shapes social hierarchy and food production, and I draw parallels between Braj and the United States to explore how agricultural tensions both reinforce social hierarchy and provide opportunities to rethink these relations.

Although the Yamuna River demonstrates agency in her relationship with Balaram, his obligation to protect his region's fertility renders her subject to his force. Similarly, the human need for agricultural production can result in commodified and objectified relations between humans and the earth. Assessing the expression of agency and protection in Balaram's relationship with the Yamuna River provides conceptual tools to consider how these themes might emerge in alternate agricultural paradigms. For example, although humans often assume a protective role toward the earth, protection can engender attitudes of (p.122) entitlement and ownership; and protection, whether of the earth or people, may be used to justify hierarchical or oppressive structures.

Balaram and the Yamuna River's story is situated during the springtime festival Holi, and Holi ritual practice in Baldeo, India, celebrates the renewal of social and religious bonds and agricultural fertility. The relationship between Balaram and the Yamuna River, for example, reveals anxieties related to social hierarchies, sexuality, and agrarian fertility that could weaken social structures if not resolved. Holi ritual practice enacts social anxieties related to agriculture, hierarchy, and sexuality, and the ritual enactment of these anxieties defuses tensions that emerge between classes, genders, and generations, thus maintaining existing social hierarchies. Although the temple guides and priests of Baldeo state that Balaram's actions and the accompanying Holi rituals reflect concepts of protection and agriculture, these practices also provide a vent for forces, such as sexuality and violence, that might otherwise prove destabilizing to society.

While Holi's comedic rituals perform the serious work of resolution, however, the temporary instability manifest in Holi's play and role reversals creates a disorienting space from which we might question existing social structures and ask what is sacrificed to ensure social stability. Anxieties about famine and survival—irresolvable tensions between death and the need to eat—add an ironic dimension, a competing theme, to Holi, and memes such as ambivalence, ambiguity, and disorientation offer possibilities for us to imagine different relations between humans and food. The Holi practices of Baldeo, then, offer an opportunity to revisit Balaram's role regarding agriculture and relations between agricultural and social health. In short, Holi rituals embody the intimate ties between social and agricultural health, and in this chapter I illustrate how Holi ritual practice mediates the social and agricultural tensions that appear in Balaram's story.

Baldeo's Holi rituals illuminate broad concerns about human relations with the earth because they articulate, through practice, narrative structures that guide human behavior toward the earth. Acknowledging dilemmas of hierarchy and demand for production that are inherent in agricultural practice is a step toward developing alternative narratives for agricultural practice. This festival, celebrating fertility and the renewal of social bonds, mitigates fears related to food, famine, (p.123) and hierarchy, and simultaneously exposes human ambivalence about human treatment of the earth and procurement of food.

A Celebration of Spring

The springtime agricultural festival of Holi commemorates Balaram's redirecting the Yamuna River to restore the fertility of Braj. During Holi, Hindus across India celebrate the return of spring and renew social bonds. Devotees in Baldeo read this episode as a testament to Balaram's status as a guardian, both of society and of agriculture, and the Holi rituals of Baldeo embody social and agricultural renewal. Balaram is the king of Braj and the patron of agriculture; he is responsible for social and agricultural health. And these two concerns are intimately related, because agricultural success and prosperity are foundational to social connections and harmony—and vice versa. The stories and practices associated with Balaram in Baldeo reaffirm his status as a protector, as both the king of Braj and as the premier agriculturalist. These stories and practices, however, also raise significant questions regarding the extent to which human need overrides ethical concerns. Understanding how participants interpret Balaram as a protector of agricultural fertility reveals human attitudes of entitlement to the earth's productivity.

Baldeo temple priests are central players in Braj devotion, especially during Holi. At temples and other pilgrimage sites, members of a hereditary group called Pandas are responsible for guiding pilgrims, telling the appropriate tales, and ensuring that the proper rituals are performed. These traditions of Balaram devotion are documented in the Balabhadra Mahatmya, a section of the Sanskrit text Garga Samhita. The Pandas preside over rituals at Balaram's temple in Baldeo and regale Balaram's devotees with story and lore. They shape and communicate what constitutes knowledge about Balaram and present interpretations of Balaram narrative for devotees, so much of my discussion of Holi centers on the Pandas.

The Pandas understand Balaram as an exemplar of propriety, and they note the necessary link between violence and protection. Force and violence, it seems, are necessary for protection. One Panda explained to me that Balaram destroys depravity with his plow and mace. (p.124) It is worth reiterating that Balaram's identity as a naga helps conflate kingship, protection, fertility, and agriculture. In Hindu thought, nagas are responsible for bounded areas, and their responsibilities lie primarily in their association with fertility and water provision. This connection determines in part their association with kingship, because kings also are held responsible for the agricultural productivity of their region. A king who does not ensure the agricultural productivity of his region has failed, in both agricultural and societal guardianship. Balaram's status as a protector and the king of Braj is inextricably bound to his identity as a naga, a capricious, potentially destructive entity that must be appeased.

Holi enlivens the months of February and March in north India, and during the six weeks of the Holi season, the telltale splotches of red, yellow, and pink on hair and clothing mark the enthusiastic celebration of this festival. Although Holi is celebrated throughout India, residents of Braj are arguably the most enthusiastic participants. Visitors observing Holi festivities might be struck by the raucousness of the festival. Water fights and the throwing of colored powders are some of the most obvious manifestations of Holi. It is a festival of fun and celebration, not one of solemnity and dignity; for example, I have seen temple priests douse entire congregations with super-soakers. After all, water fights are fun, and throwing things is fun.

However, these festivities associated with Holi—elements we might call ritual levity—provide important social functions, and the fun of Holi is not incidental but critical for these social goals. The events of Baldeo's Holi, like much of Holi in India, appear riotous, but have specific meanings in Baldeo. In particular, the Holi festivities provide a means to renew social bonds as well as to reinforce a sense of Balaram's rectitude, even when at first glance these events might be seen as encouraging the exact opposite. Further, the festivities celebrate the continuity of the agricultural cycle and demonstrate the critical connections between social and agricultural health, particularly the alleviation of the fear of famine. Baldeo's unique Holi festivities reflect an embedded agricultural narrative that continues to naturalize sets of social hierarchies and their attendant agricultural narratives. By drawing parallels between the Pandas' stories and those of industrial agriculture, we might better understand how narratives achieve authority.

Holi in the Agricultural Calendar

(p.125) Holi marks the arrival of spring, and by February most of north India is eager to celebrate the passing of winter. Braj was and still is a rural agricultural community, and festivals such as Holi, which are interpreted in terms of Krishna and Balaram, have older agricultural roots. Prior to the sixteenth century, many rituals and practices reflected this agricultural lifestyle and later were incorporated and adapted to devotional cycles. The forms of revelry in Braj have no textual referents, but the agricultural and fertility elements of the Holi festivities are clear in text and practice.1 Balaram's dragging the Yamuna River with his plow has obvious sexual connotations, and the Holi festivities as practiced today demonstrate a sexual license that would be inappropriate at any other time. The importance given to seeds, plows, and bonfires demonstrates that the celebration of spring with its attendant focus on fertility is an essential aspect of Holi and further that ritual exchanges of seeds and color reveal the role of agriculture within social relationships.

Most festivals in India are intimately linked with natural and agricultural cycles.2 This close linkage between the festival and agricultural calendars suggests that even Hindus with no close ties to agriculture still maintain familiarity with the lunar calendar. The dates when Krishna and Balaram danced with the gopis (cowherd girls), Sharad and Phalgun, the full moons of autumn and the end of winter respectively, are two such occasions. These dates are significant for the agricultural cycles, and remnants of these emphases can be seen in practice. For example, Sharad celebrates the bounty of harvest and the attainment of goals of sustenance; and Phalgun, the night of Holi, celebrates, among other things, the end of winter and the onset of new life, commemorated by the burning of piles of straw and dung.

The Balaram temple in Baithain (named for the fact that Balaram and his friends once rested there) inaugurates the six-week Holi period on Vasant Panchami with a processional singing of Holi and Vasant (spring) songs as well as the throwing of color. Some devotees travel to Baithain to begin Holi on Vasant Panchami, but most devotees outside of Baldeo begin to play only in the last week of the month of Phalgun (February–March), which actually is the fifth week of the Holi season. (p.126) The six-week Holi period ends with a final blast of color on Rang Pancami, the fifth day of the dark half of Chaitra (March–April).

To celebrate Holi is to play Holi. Although it is played throughout India, Holi is most enthusiastically observed in north India and has become tied in myth and practice to Krishna devotion. Holi festivities throughout India demonstrate its agricultural connections, but particularly in north India most devotees play Holi in the context of Braj devotion to Krishna, Balaram, and Radha. Devotees playing Holi in Baldeo provide the exception to the exclusive emphasis on Krishna. The throwing of color commemorates Krishna's play with his beloved consort, Radha, and her friends, the cowherd girls of Braj. By the actual day of the Holi festival, the streets become a battleground of color, and anyone who cannot remain in good humor while getting doused with color should stay home.

The throwing of color is but one aspect of Holi that, both in text and in practice, contains strong aggressive and sexual undercurrents. Pranks and outlandish behavior are common during this time, and the strictures of normal society are loosened—to a point, anyway. Women tease men, younger people gang up on elders, and lower castes wreak havoc on the upper castes.3 However, this reversal should not be overstated. Certainly everybody has more license than normal; yet, despite claims to the contrary, those wielding power—such as men or the higher castes—have considerably more license to violate social boundaries. The phrase on everyone's lips in Baldeo at this time is “Don't take it badly, it's Holi.”It is considered poor sportsmanship to complain about rough behavior at this time. This attitude discouraged public discussion of differential treatment of women, for example. When I was in Baldeo, it seemed to me that this behavior was less a reversal of norms than an extension of behavior typically held in check.

Residents of Baldeo stressed repeatedly that Baldeo's Holi is different from the rest of Braj, and they remarked that Holi in Baldeo is played with love (of course, residents of other Braj villages might take exception to that distinction). These statements were in response to the reality that throughout much of north India, Holi has become synonymous with egregious behavior, and many residents, particularly women, simply stay inside for the duration. Most residents of Baldeo view Holi behavior through a lens of beneficence and camaraderie, and they (p.127) stress good sportsmanship, which makes critiquing this behavior difficult. Their rhetoric echoes the tired cliché that feminists have no sense of humor. Few women I spoke with, including myself, enjoyed being the target of Holi “fun,” but the dominant narrative, which defined “fun” from a male perspective, tended to stifle alternate perspectives. This narrative and its social role exemplify the power of an influential narrative to shape interpretation and to silence critique.

Many Hindus travel throughout Braj during the week of Holi to participate in the different celebrations in each village, so while the main day of Holi festivities is the full moon day of Phalgun, the festivities are staggered throughout the week to accommodate pilgrimage travel. In Balaram's village of Baldeo, residents play a form of Holi unique to that place. Baldeo is one of the more important stops on the Holi pilgrimage tour, and three days are particularly important for Baldeo's Holi: the full moon day of Phalgun (Holika bonfire); the first day of the dark half of Chaitra (Holi Dhulendi, or the throwing of color); and the second day of the dark half of Chaitra (Huranga).

Playing Holi in Baldeo

In 1999, when I observed Holi in Baldeo, I was a guest of the Yogendra Pandey family. Dr. Pandey and his family are Ayurvedic doctors and run a clinic in Baldeo; they are also Ahivasi Gaur Brahmans and thus hereditary Pandas, and they act as ritual servants when it is their family's turn to do so. They trace their ancestry from Kalyandev, who discovered Balaram's image, and are the eleventh generation from him. The Yogendra Pandeys are an important family in Baldeo for at least two reasons: first, they run a clinic and fulfill much of the community's medical needs; and second, the Pandeys organized the Baldev Research Institute, a research institute dedicated to Balaram.

Holi at the Clinic: Chaitra 1, Dark Half (March 2)

On the morning after the Phalgun full moon, the main day of the Holi festivities, I spent most of the morning—as I did many mornings—with the elder Pandey brothers in their clinic. The Pandeys take seriously their commitment to provide medical services to the members of their community. I spent many days sitting at the clinic observing the process (p.128) of treatment and chatting with patients while they waited their turn. Undergoing medical treatment here is quite unlike visiting the doctor in the United States, where doctor-patient interactions occur primarily behind closed doors. Here the visit and the diagnosis are communal, conducted publicly in the front courtyard of the building. As a service for Balaram and the village, on the morning of Holi, the Pandey brothers offer an antidote for snakebite to the town's residents. The main ingredient is baur, the mango blossom, and a teaspoon of the antidote is said to last an entire year. In the spirit of scientific experimentation, I took this remedy and suffered no ill effects.

Virtually all of Baldeo's residents visited the clinic, played a mild Holi, and paid their respects to the Pandey family. As a sign of respect, they touched the doctors' feet, which Ravi Pandey, the youngest of the Pandey brothers, told me they did to ask the doctors' blessings. The Pandeys' service and the responses of the town's residents demonstrated a social component of the connection between Balaram's protection, agriculture, and health. The Pandey family provided important social and medical services to Baldeo and nearby towns, and they repeatedly stressed to me Balaram's social responsibilities. The Pandey family is not alone in their commitment to social service; other Pandas, including a Mr. Shastri, ran schools and were heavily involved in education. These families understand Balaram's role—and their own—as one of service, particularly in terms of food and health; and, through their clinics and schools, they adapt Balaram to meet contemporary needs. Although Holi and Balaram's story tend to reinforce social norms, the Pandeys' clinics illustrate a creative reimagining of their Holi duties as response to contemporary social needs.

This day, the first day of the dark half of Chaitra, was dedicated to Holi, and patients played Holi to affirm bonds of friendship. Friends hugged in the side-side-side mode characteristic of Braj. The (male) visitors were not sure what to do with me; they would not typically play with a strange woman. Due to my foreign-scholar status, however, Dr. Yogendra Pandey nodded, to them and to me, that playing would be appropriate. Ravi Pandey explained that Holi is prem, a game of love. The games and passion of Holi reflect the soul's love for the divine. Friends renew bonds, and it is a time to make amends and let bygones be bygones. Traditionally, in Braj, new brides return to their natal families (p.129) for their first Holi, so women, too, are able to maintain familial bonds. After all, Holi is the time when Balaram came home to Braj and reunited with his friends and family for the first time since he left for Mathura long ago. This event is celebrated in a poem that comes from the poetry anthology owned by the temple:

  • The boy Balaram plays Holi.
  • Revati sits radiant with her friends, Balaram with his friends. It is Holi.
  • The lord and his friends are helpless and are forced to jump.
  • Revati hits them with powder. It's Holi.
  • Drums beat out a rhythm, the raised mallet strikes the gong. It is Holi.
  • Sri Vasudeva and Mother Rohini were amazed, seeing his strength. It is Holi.
  • Those living in Braj forget all their wisdom and learning;
  • enemies are broken and defeated. It is Holi.
  • The gods rejoice. Dau is tired.
  • They watch the spectacle of this Holi. It is Holi.
  • Sanaka and the other sages eternally sit in meditation.
  • He makes all of Braj prosperous. It is Holi.
  • Lord Jagannath, your infinite beauty increases and awes your servant.
  • The boy Balaram plays Holi.4
Every day during Holi, the Pandas and visitors to the temple sing this poem, and its refrain echoes in the markets and streets of Baldeo. Holi is a time of joy. Spring is here; Balaram has returned from Dwarka and is reunited with his friends. Even Balaram's wife, Revati—who is rarely mentioned in Braj poetry—plays Holi and renders the powerful Balaram helpless. This is ironic because it was Balaram's strength that caused Revati to perform the austerities that gained her Balaram as her husband. Yet such are the reversals and ironies of Holi: the weak become strong, and the low become high. Normally a wife must show respect to her husband. The Pandas explained to me that, as Balaram's wife, Revati is positioned directly across from him both because she continually honors Balaram's feet, caran-seva, and because Balaram's (p.130) emphasis on propriety requires this separation. Despite the respective locations of their images, though, stories about Revati demonstrate that she can match Balaram's temper.

Residents of Braj, particularly residents of Baldeo, identify with a persona of Balaram that is subordinated—or less obvious—beyond Baldeo. Most residents refer to Balaram affectionately as Baladev or as Dauji or Daubaba, both derived from dau, which means “elder brother” in Brajabhasha, the local dialect of Hindi, with ji and baba as appended honorifics. Devotees' reference to Balaram by his status of elder brother to Krishna is significant; first, it denotes Balaram's pride of place as elder brother to his more popular younger brother; and second, his elder status reflects Balaram's position as guardian. Devotees in Baldeo emphasize Balaram's status as a protector, and this is one way in which Balaram devotion in Baldeo is unique. This emphasis is important and constant; locals refer to the temple, the deity, and the village by the shorthand of Dauji, and this naming reflects the familiarity and intimacy Baldeo devotees feel toward Balaram. For example, on Balaram's birthday, the full moon of Shravan, after one of the young Pandey children stated that he did not want to visit the temple, his father told him that Daubaba would feel sad if the boy did not wish him happy birthday. Despite Balaram's fierce reputation as a warrior and king, devotees relate to him as family, with nicknames that reflect both their feelings of closeness and Balaram's merciful nature.

The element of naming signals intimacy, and since devotees offer their food to Balaram prior to eating, food and those with whom the food is shared are enmeshed in a web of intimate relations. As I reflect upon the meals I shared in Baldeo, I am struck by the lack of intimacy surrounding food in U.S. contemporary culture. The absence of this intimacy of names and naming in regard to our food and its sources reflects our estrangement from the biotic community. The modern industrial agricultural narrative is premised upon anonymity and inter-changeability; for example, McDonald's potatoes are purchased and prepared in such a way that their french fries look identical regardless of their origin. Large-scale agricultural producers and chain restaurants have trained consumers to expect uniformity in food and produce, and many consumers do not want to be made aware of just how their food, particularly meat and milk, is produced. When confronted (p.131) with horrific conditions of food production, many consumers—and even some of those who produce food—become ambivalent about their own choices and personal practices. A 2010 ABC News report, for example, exposed animal abuse at a dairy farm and made clear that those buying conventionally produced milk are complicit in these practices.5 Ambivalence about our own participation in these practices is a stance from which to reevaluate both story and practice, and moving beyond anonymity is a first and necessary step. In Chapter 1 I asked “What stories do we tell ourselves about food?” and noted that I had not, for much of my life, thought about the sources of my food because they were, to me, anonymous. This anonymity is precisely what alternative agricultural movements, such as CSAs and farmers' markets, are trying to eradicate. Programs such as the USDA's “Know Your Farmer” and “The 100 Mile Diet: Local Eating for Global Change” build relationships with individual farmers and familiarity with the specific foods and conditions of consumers' bioregions.

Intimacy and familiarity with our food and its production does not mean that humans have full control over natural processes, nor does it exempt us from the reality that our survival causes harm or death to other beings. Instead this naming process demands that we recognize our food sources as part of the biotic community and also that, unlike a machine, the earth is not subject to human control. Holi practices force recognition of this latter reality, as demonstrated in Balaram's story, that the earth has agency and that humans' ability to control the earth's processes is ambiguous. At the same time, Holi practices, such as the exchange of color and barley seed, highlight the importance of intimate social bonds, and the literal hand-to-hand exchange cements social and familial ties and reverses tendencies toward social anonymity.

Holi at the Temple: Chaitra 2, Dark Half (March 3)

Every year, on the second day after the full moon of Phalgun (the second day of the dark half of Chaitra), boisterous crowds fill every millimeter of the Dauji Temple in Baldeo. Pilgrims arrive by bus, train, tractor, and on foot to play Holi with Balaram. Shouts of “Jai Baldev” (Hail Baladev) and “Jai Dauji” fill the air. Although some of these devotees have been playing Holi for only the previous week, others have been playing Holi for the entire six weeks of the Holi season. One of the (p.132) most obvious signs of Holi in Baldeo is the ubiquitous yellow spatters of color that stain virtually everything. In Baldeo, Balaram plays with yellow dye made from safflowers, which devotees told me is good for the skin, and everyone spending time in Baldeo sports a conspicuous—and seemingly permanent—yellow tint.

The anticipation of the crowds escalates as the midday start of the festival approaches. The Pandas stand before the image of Balaram and sing to him, inviting him to play. As noted earlier, devotees play Holi (Hindi: Holi khelana), and much of Holi appears to be a game. To use the word play invokes the notion of lila, which describes divine activity as a form of play. That is, in Hindu cosmology, all existence results from the spontaneous outpouring of the divine, and lila is the spontaneous play of the divine. Devotees describe Krishna and Balaram's adventures in Braj as lila and note that none of the deities' activities are done of necessity. This notion of play as underlying cause and structure of being is particularly appropriate in Braj devotion. Much of Braj devotion is irreverent, and Krishna and Balaram's games manifest a spontaneous rebellion against authority and poke fun at conventional norms of decorum. In Baldeo, the actual Holi activities—that is, to play Holi, or Huranga—translate the abstraction of lila into real and spontaneous human play and negotiate ambivalences between decorum and impropriety, thus enacting Balaram's redefinition of maryada. While this play is irreverent and mocks authority with sexuality and intoxication, it also does the more serious work of stabilizing society by releasing social and agricultural tensions.

The day's festivities begin at midday on the day of Dauji's Huranga, two days after the full moon of Phalgun, when devotees crowd into the temple and its surrounding courtyard. The image of Balaram is enclosed in a small shrine, approximately fifteen by fifteen feet, and the temple has a roof, but the sides are open to the courtyard. As soon as the crowd takes darshan of Balaram—meaning as soon as they see Balaram—everyone begins Huranga by throwing colored water and powder. An enclosed courtyard surrounds the temple's main shrine, and devotees pack the area. Devotees crowd onto the roof and throw handfuls of powder until the scene below is barely visible through the cloud of color (see photo). When the sprinklers that line the roof are turned on, the powder turns into paste and floods the courtyard's marble (p.133)

 The Festival of Holi: Celebrating Agricultural and Social Health

Throwing color from the temple roof. (Photo by Robyn Beeche)

floor. This pasty mix of water and powder covers the devotees who crowd the temple courtyard. Amidst the devotees, two groups of men carry poles adorned with items associated with spring fertility rituals. Each of the two poles is festooned with mango buds (baur) and leaves, balloons, safflowers, and ashok leaves. The game in the temple ends after about an hour, when the adorned poles are toppled and materials are stripped from the poles and distributed.

The mood of the festival is exuberant and raucous and, to an outsider, might appear chaotic or even violent. In fact, when I observed these festivities, two Canadian reporters asked me if this were a celebration of violence or a competition. Their confusion echoed anthropologist McKim Marriott's experiences of Holi in Braj almost fifty years prior, when devotees explained the Holi pranks and ritual beatings as part of the “festival of love.”6 Devotees understand that these activities play an important social function. The ritual levity reaffirms Balaram's status as a protector—as both the king of Braj and as the premier agriculturalist. Balaram, in his protective capacities, is very much a local deity. For example, residents of Braj state that “Braj is Baldev.”7 Many of the practices that emphasize Balaram's agricultural and protective capacities are unique to Baldeo, so it (p.134) is worth exploring the history of Baldeo and the Pandas, the temple priests responsible for Balaram devotion. As explained below, the history of the Pandas highlights a series of contests over rights to serve Balaram and illustrates the role of story in arbitrating disputes and establishing hierarchy, a parallel process exemplified both in Braj and industrial agricultural narratives.

Pandas and Their Roles

The Pandas of Baldeo play a central role in Balaram devotion in Baldeo, and their responsibilities include serving Balaram in the temple, guiding pilgrims and devotees through the temple, and maintaining lore about Balaram. The Pandas consist of approximately four hundred families, and these families collectively own the temple and serve Balaram, with joint family groups being responsible for two days a year. These families share the daily and seasonal ritual service of Balaram and Revati, and many members of these families are employed as traditional temple guides for visiting pilgrims. They know the songs, rituals, and stories about Balaram, and they play a predominant role in all Baldeo festivals.

The Pandas perform service rituals (seva) for Balaram that are patterned on worship rituals of the Vallabh Sampraday, one of the two major devotional communities of the sixteenth century. Ritual service in Baldeo is similar, but not identical, to that of the Vallabh Sampraday temples. The Pandas emphasize that Balaram is the king of Braj, which is divided in half with the Yamuna River as the dividing line. Krishna reigns supreme in his half, which includes Mathura, Govardhan, and Vrindavan, while the other side of the Yamuna River, including Gokul and Baldeo, belongs to Balaram.8

The focus of the Panda's devotion is the image of Balaram, a naga carved of black stone that is approximately ten feet tall and dates from the Kushana period (100 B.C.E.–100 C.E.). For much of the day, this image is hidden behind a curtain, but during the daily darshan periods the Pandas open the curtains so that devotees can “see” Balaram. Like most naga images, Balaram holds a cup of wine in his left hand, and his right hand is raised over his head. This gesture, or mudra, the Pandas note, conveys assistance and reassurance to his devotees. Baldeo's Balaram sports a diamond in his chin and a mark on his chest where the ass-demon Arishta had kicked him, and a seven-hooded cobra shields his head. The Pandas (p.135)

 The Festival of Holi: Celebrating Agricultural and Social Health

Image of Balaram shielded by a seven-hooded cobra, Dauji Temple. (Photo by author)

offer Balaram food and clothing appropriate to the time of day and season, and devotees see an image of Balaram that has been lovingly adorned and dressed in this clothing by those, according to Baldeo narrative, Balaram has deemed worthy (see photo).

(p.136) Across the temple courtyard, the shrine to the sage Saubhari prominently faces Balaram, and the Pandas emphasize Saubhari's role when guiding devotees through the temple. The Pandas, also known as Ahivasi Gaur Brahmans, descend from the sage Saubhari through Kalyandev, and watching the Pandas and devotees honor this shrine makes the importance of the Pandas' lineage clear.

In a previous era, Saubhari, who had a small ashram on the Yamuna River in what today is the tiny village of Sunrakh, offered refuge to the naga Kaliya from the eagle Garuda. Therefore Ahivas, or, literally, “residence of serpents,” became the name of the great sage Saubhari's place.9 The serpent then bestowed a boon upon the sage Saubhari: “Just as you have protected my lineage, my birth as Shesh-incarnation Balaram will become the family deity (kul-devata) of your lineage, and I will protect you in the Kaliyuga.” Balaram's serpentine heritage is embodied by the lineage of the Ahivasi Gaur Brahmans of Baldeo: they embody their connections to the nagas by tracing their ancestry from the serpent Vasuki through the sage Saubhari who offered refuge to the serpent Kaliya.10

In discussions with devotees and with me, the Pandas highlighted the stories of both their lineage and Balaram's appearance in Braj, and these stories illustrate both contestations over the Pandas' rights to serve Balaram and the Pandas' use of story to reinforce these rights. For example, the story of Balaram's manifestation in Baldeo reveals the negotiations between the Vallabh Sampraday in Gokul and local Braj devotees over rights to serve this image. These narratives about Balaram's appearance demonstrate two points pertinent to my argument. First, the conflict over serving the image demonstrates how Balaram's associations with fertility and agriculture emerge in practice, in terms of both temple ritual and social practices, and have shaped social hierarchy. Second, and more broadly, the Pandas' continued control over and repetition of these narratives illustrates how a narrative becomes naturalized and normative. Once enshrined as the dominant paradigm, the narrative and the resulting social structures are reciprocally reinforced as normative by their very existence. The Pandas, for example, recite those stories that illustrate to devotees exactly how Balaram himself chose the Pandas to be his servants and how their continued service verifies the enduring nature of these stories.

The Pandas highlight two stories in particular to establish that Balaram chose their ancestor Kalyandev, heir to the great sage Saubhari, (p.137) to serve him, and the retelling of these stories explicitly reinforces the Pandas' role as temple guides and ritual specialists. Although these stories detail events that occurred almost four hundred years ago, they are told with a freshness that suggests a contemporary relevance. The first has to do with the Pandas' lineage and Balaram's ritual feeding, and the second has to do with Balaram indicating who should guard his temple. When I heard these stories over and over again, I understood why they must be retold. Despite their prominence in the temple today, the Pandas have faced—and won—legal and social claims from groups such as the Sanadhya Brahmans, who have disputed both the Pandas' right to serve and their status as Brahmans.

So how did the Pandas get to be Pandas? Most devotees and Baldeo temple priests tell the same story of how Kalyandev unearthed the statue of Balaram that now is enshrined in the temple: In 1638, an image of Balaram manifested itself to a local cowherd named Kalyandev in what today is the village of Baldeo.11 This manifestation is called a svarup, or self-manifestation, which is different from the type of image known as murti. The designation svarup indicates that the deity has chosen to manifest itself through a specific medium, and in doing so reveals itself to whomever it chooses. Svarups, unlike murtis, are not created but reveal themselves to devotees of their own accord. Significantly, Balaram, through this svarup, specifically revealed himself to Kalyandev, who was the heir of a naga and a local cowherd.

According to Baldeo tradition, Balaram appeared to Kalyandev in a dream in his joined (yugal) form wherein he revealed himself both as Balaram himself and as Revati, Balaram's wife, and told Kalyandev where to dig. On Marghashirsh Purnima, the full moon of Aghan (December), Kalyandev unearthed the images of Balaram and Revati, installed them under a tree, and built a small temple in which to serve the images. Meanwhile, Balaram had also appeared in a dream to Gokulnath, grandson of Vallabh, the founder of the Vallabh Sampraday, who lived in nearby Gokul and was considered the local lord, and instructed him to unearth the images. When Gokulnath arrived at the site, he discovered that Kalyandev had already done so.12

Gokulnath then attempted to relocate the images to Gokul, Balaram's birthplace and an important seat for the Vallabh Sampraday. Moving the images of Balaram and Revati would ensconce the ritual control of (p.138) Balaram in the auspices of the Vallabh Sampraday and out of the control of the local Braj cowherds. However, Baldeo tradition states that not even “one hundred fifty men or twenty-four oxen” could dislodge the images from the site under the tree, and devotees cite this as evidence of Balaram's determination to remain in Baldeo with Kalyandev. Gokulnath's social status was considerably higher than that of Kalyandev, a cowherd and rural Braj resident; yet Balaram, a naga and farmer, chose Kalyandev over the elite and urbane Gokulnath.

Since 1638, Balaram has remained in Baldeo, and Saubhari and Kalyandev's descendants, the Ahivasi Gaur Brahmans, known today as the Pandas, hold the privilege of serving Balaram. Although daughters can inherit rights to serve Balaram, wives do not inherit this right. The Pandas emphasize that Balaram specifically described to Kalyandev how he preferred to be worshipped. Balaram clearly stated his desires regarding food and clothing, and the Pandas serve Balaram accordingly in the prescribed daily (nitya) and festival (utsava) ritual patterns. As Brahmans, the Pandas are eligible to perform ritual service, although some other local Brahmans dispute their Brahman status.13 Pandit Radharamanaji emphasized that only the Pandas and the Gosains, the heirs of Gokulnath, have the right to stand on the stage with the image of Dauji. I heard much of this information repeated multiple times throughout the year by numerous Pandas. However, two older and particularly knowledgeable Pandas, Pandit Shastri and Pandit Radharamani, offered me nuanced and detailed information about serving Balaram.

As mentioned above, Balaram provided Kalyandev with detailed instructions about how he should be worshipped. He specifically requested and accepted pakka food from Kalyandev, a Brajvasi cowherd, and his descendants, and asked to be served by Kalyandev instead of Gokulnath. Balaram accepts only cooked—pakka—foods, except on rare occasions. Pakka means cooked in ghee (clarified butter) or complete, kacca being raw or incomplete, and the terms function as opposites. Although the words' meaning involves food preparation, the pakka-kacca dichotomy connotes a range of dualisms, including paved-unpaved, finished (as in a building)-mud and firm-not firm.

The cooked-prepared versus raw-unprepared food dichotomy has enormous implications in ritual service: to accept pakka food—such as a type of fried bread called puris—signifies an element of commensalism (p.139) and privilege. In a commensal relationship, one accepts food from another without fear of pollution. Unaltered foods, such as milk or fruits, are the most impervious to pollution, so any devotee might offer those foods. Cooked foods, by contrast, particularly foods cooked in water such as boiled rice, are most susceptible to pollution.14 The Pandas further state that Balaram will only eat pakka food—such as laddus, a sweet made of flour, sugar, and butter, which are favorites of Balaram—after he takes his daily bhang at 3:00 P.M. in the temple.

The stories that are told and retold by Pandas and devotees document how and why the Pandas claim the privilege, knowledge, and responsibility to feed Balaram. According to the stories the Pandas tell, as temple priests chosen by Balaram they are obligated to know specifically what Balaram should eat and how to procure those foods. These stories and the ritual practices of feeding Balaram iteratively reinforce the Pandas' role in the temple. Thinking through the social role of these stories is a means to uncover the process by which certain stories, and the social groups who control those stories, achieve ascendancy. Food production and associated rituals are means of achieving and maintaining hierarchy, and seeing how the Pandas achieved status as producers provides some insight into how large-scale agricultural producers claimed and now maintain the narrative of feeding the world. For example, this narrative elevates producers and makes consumers second-class citizens who are given little or no input into the story or details of food production. As consumers increasingly became removed from food production and the details became obscured, producers assumed the privilege of telling consumers—through marketing and products made available for sale—what they should eat and how new, scientific, and efficient methods of production were feeding the world. The current overabundance of foods and food choices and well-stocked supermarket shelves normalize this story and deflect critique. So, like the Pandas and their stories, industrial agriculture broadcasts the narrative that they feed the world, and the ubiquity of these products verifies the accuracy of these stories.

The second story the Pandas recounted to me numerous times as evidence of Balaram's choice of Kalyandev describes the incident that cemented Kalyandev's lineage as the primary ritual servants of Balaram. In addition to serving Balaram, Kalyandev guarded the temple at night and slept in the temple. Balaram and Revati shared one warm blanket (despite (p.140) being on opposite sides of the room in the temple), while Kalyandev slept under a ragged old blanket. Balaram had offered Kalyandev the use of both blankets in the cool season, and devotees cite this offer to illustrate Balaram's conscientiousness in protecting his devotees. Some devotees arose early and complained to Gokulnath of Kalyandev's “theft.” However, when Gokulnath went to investigate this accusation, he saw Kalyandev sleeping under only his own blanket. Kalyandev then confessed that Balaram had warned him that Gokulnath was coming. After that incident, Gokulnath realized that Balaram clearly favored Kalyandev, and Kalyandev took on the role of head priest, assuming all rights to perform ritual service, rights that have been inherited by his descendants, the Pandas.15

Balaram's choice of Kalyandev is significant for a variety of social and religious reasons, but devotees emphasize that, as the story goes, Balaram specifically chose a person and a group with both naga and rural ties—as opposed to the urbane Gokulnath and his descendants—to perform his ritual service. The Pandas continue to stress their agrarian heritage and identify as farmers as well as temple priests.

Seeing Balaram

When I observed a typical Holi in Baldeo in 1999, the priests and residents of Baldeo played Holi for the entire six-week season, though the most significant days were those surrounding the full moon of Phalgun, the night when Balaram danced with the cowherd women of Braj. As the full moon day of Phalgun approached, the number of pilgrims increased, and a palpable sense of excitement grew. Each day, as Holi approached, I sat with the Pandas in the temple during the different daily periods of ritual service. Crowds thronged to the daily singing (samaj) prior to the midmorning ritual service period in which devotees could view the image of Balaram, known as taking darshan of Balaram (see photo). Samaj is a form of group singing that frequently occurs immediately prior to darshan. Most of the singers—particularly the older ones—knew the words, but the lines were sung and repeated for the benefit of those who did not. The Pandas performed these songs energetically, with animated gestures and enthusiastic repetition of the song's lines. While the singing and throwing of color were daily events during the Holi season, events such as the parade, dancing, and Huranga occur only once each year. (p.141)

 The Festival of Holi: Celebrating Agricultural and Social Health

Singing samaj for Balaram. (Photo by author)

It was impossible to confuse the Pandas with the crowds of pilgrims. They wore their trademark forehead mark—tilak—of saffron, sandalwood, and turmeric smeared across their foreheads. Their white or yellow clothes, dyed safflower yellow, bore witness to days of playing Holi. Safflower garlands, received as consecrated offerings—prasad—from Balaram, were draped around their necks and wound about their heads like headbands. Almost everyone wore at least one item of silk cloth, a tunic or perhaps even a headband, which once adorned the image of Balaram enshrined in the temple. Once a year, just before the end of Holi, the priests divide and distribute as prasad the outfits given to Balaram.

As the time for taking darshan of Balaram approached, the singing and gesturing became more and more animated. At 10:30 A.M., temple servants pulled back the curtain, offering a view of Balaram and Revati to the crowds. This darshan was special because it was the only period of the day in which Balaram played wet Holi—pani Holi—that is, with water-based color; at all other times, he played dry Holi, with powdered colors. The yellow color comes from safflowers—tesu—and was stored in the gullies alongside the courtyard. During the entire Holi season, thousands of gallons of color are thrown. This dye needs at least twenty-four hours to (p.142) set and is considered medicinal, particularly for skin diseases such as scabies; some devotees come for the curative aspect of this festival.

Playing Holi with Balaram is not for the timid. As soon as the curtain was drawn back, the crowds drove forward with handfuls of butter and makkhan-misari, a rock candy that is Balaram's favorite food. Devotees hurled this hard substance over the railing toward the image of Balaram, occasionally hitting the priests. As the priests dodged the hail of butter-coated rock candy and coins, they filled buckets and clay cups full of yellow color and flung the liquid over the crowd. The shoving intensified as the end of the darshan period neared: each devotee wanted to play Holi with Balaram and receive the consecrated offering, or prasad. The younger Pandas climbed over the railing, while the guard ineffectively beat them back with a stick in a futile—and ritualized—attempt to maintain control. Other temple guides propelled devotees to the front of the railing. Those so favored received a full dousing of Dauji's prasad, the yellow color consecrated by having been offered to Balaram. After the ritual, it was easy to distinguish between those who played Holi and those who did not. Although this Holi ritual was open to anyone who wished to play, some devotees were more enthusiastic than others, and some of those who came only for the day seemed less eager to get soaked with yellow color. The yellow-drenched minority laughed at themselves and the spectacle, while the remainder appeared a bit puzzled and headed for their buses.

Holi as Carnival

The color, the singing, and the festivities of the previous weeks—all of this was merely prologue. The real Holi revelry in Baldeo began on the late afternoon of the full moon of Phalgun.

The Holi Parade: Phalgun Purnima (March 1)

On the afternoon of March 1, the residents of Baldeo processed in groups by status through town, winding through the village to a site where villagers were preparing an enormous bonfire. The Pandas, the largest group, led the procession, followed by the Sanadhya Brahmans (Brahmans who have no official function in the temple), and finally the merchants (Baniyas) and others who had far smaller groups. I walked with the Pandas as (p.143)

 The Festival of Holi: Celebrating Agricultural and Social Health

Parading the jhand through town. (Photo by author)

(p.144) they proceeded through town, singing and throwing powder. They carried the temple's large red anthology of devotional poetry that leaves the temple only once each year for this event.

To me, this procession of Baldeo residents—mostly men—suggested an atmosphere of carnival and revelry befitting a springtime festival linked to fertility. One older man with a tricolor beard danced suggestively with a pole; others carried plows, one of Balaram's trademark items; and one rode a donkey sitting backwards. Others carried an adorned pole (jhand) that reappeared in Balaram's official Holi celebration in the temple several days later (see photo).

Approximately thirty minutes after the Pandas' procession, the Sanadhya Brahmans paraded through town, carrying a similarly adorned pole. Their numbers were smaller, and some danced. The procession of the Sanadhya Brahmans seemed the most carnivalesque of the three processions. Men wore fake beards and funny hats, several rode backwards on an ass, and one, encouraged by the crowd, danced in a stuffed bra. This revelry and flouting of social decorum, including the mocking of class roles, has parallels in springtime fertility festivals in other cultures.16 However, although the reversal of gender roles is central to Holi play, women did not participate in this parade, and it seemed ironic that women would not be present at a carnivalesque parade that embodied role reversals and fertility. The women's absence reflects the gendered nature of agricultural narratives, both in Hinduism and in industrial agriculture. Nonetheless, the comedic element of Holi emphasizes social stability and the maintenance of the status quo, not social change or serious social critique. Holi reflects a desire for control—control of the earth's fertility, of water, and of women—to stabilize social and agricultural tensions, yet at the same time the implausibility of control lends Holi a dimension of irony.

All of the processions led to the Holika (the origin of the name Holi) bonfire that would be lit later that night, when devotees throughout Braj set alight bonfires to commemorate Prahlad's devotion to the deity Vishnu. The Puranas tell the story of Prahlad, a young devotee of Vishnu. Prahlad's father, King Hiranyakashipu, however, was a dedicated enemy of Vishnu and was infuriated by his son's steadfast devotion to Vishnu. Hiranyakashipu made many attempts to sway his son's devotion, but the boy appeared both immortal and immovable. Eventually, Hiranyakashipu called upon his sister, Holika, to enter a bonfire carrying Prahlad, assuming (p.145)

 The Festival of Holi: Celebrating Agricultural and Social Health

Piled wood and govar before the bonfire. (Photo by author)

that she was impervious to fire. Holika entered the fire holding the boy on her lap, but to the king's surprise, Prahlad was untouched by the flames while Holika perished. The Holi bonfire reenacts this story and celebrates Prahlad's steadfast devotion to Vishnu.

A statue of Prahlad is placed in the woodpile before a Holika bonfire is lit. When I viewed the bonfire, after it had been burning for some time and just when it appeared almost too late, a young boy leaped up and rescued Prahlad from the fire. The crowds cheered the boy for his daring rescue.

During the day nearly everyone—and especially women—went to the bonfire and performed ritual service, in this case, ritual offerings, or puja. Devotees primarily offered foods such as rice, wheat, barley, and ghee, as well as sticks and branches and govar—cow dung, which is a traditional fertilizer and emblem of hope of future fertility (see photo). All of these materials have both symbolic and practical relevance to agricultural fertility and sustenance, but it would be difficult to overestimate the importance of govar to a traditional Indian agrarian economy. The offerings of (p.146) sticks and branches were draped with strings of govar that had been shaped into small round balls and strung together as necklaces. The devotees received these necklaces as a prasad and wore them around their necks or on their hats. Rice was offered in this puja, but barley was the most important contribution because it indicated Holi's origins as a springtime agricultural festival. Although the bonfires are public events, most families also replicate this offering in their own homes as well. The big Holi bonfire was lit at around midnight, and, at about 4:30 in the morning, house fires were rekindled with materials from the primary fire, a symbolic and material form of renewal. The barley was handed out to family and friends to strengthen and display bonds of friendship and intimacy.

Chaitra 1, Dark Half (March 2)

Later that morning, the day after the bonfire, friends and families visited to exchange color and celebrate the day; from 7:00 to 11:00 a.m. is the traditional time for playing Holi. The first day after the Phalgun full moon (and the first day of the month of Chaitra) is Holi Dhulendi, the throwing of color, the form of celebrating Holi that is prevalent throughout India. Although the more raucous element of Holi that is played in streets and temples is most evident to observers, the Holi played among friends and family in private settings tends to be gentler and less ribald. Nonetheless, when I played Holi with the Pandey family later that afternoon, I was dyed completely purple, and my hair remained that color for several weeks. Typically, Holi is played with a range of colors, particularly reds, purples, and yellows. Baldeo is noteworthy in that the temple priests only use safflower yellow to play Holi with Balaram and his devotees.

By 11:00 a.m. the morning's Holi festivities had concluded, and everyone had returned home to bathe and don new clothes for the afternoon's Maharasalila dance in the temple. Panda men danced with their sisters-in-law—specifically their elder brothers' wives—who held colored scarves between them, and after the dancing, the women beat the men with the men's color-soaked clothes. This dance was the first of several ritual activities that highlighted the devar-bhabhi relationship—the relationship between the younger brother and his elder brother's wife. Most of the Panda families sported silk clothes—mostly yellow and pink scarves—once worn by the image of Balaram in the temple, and many of the temple priests dressed as cowherd women, some wearing green for Rukmini, (p.147) Krishna's wife, and yellow for Radha and Revati. Prem Pandey dressed like a gopi, wearing green silks, complete with anklets, and later he appeared with a hobbyhorse decorated with Rajasthani cloth. According to one learned Panda, Mr. Shastri, these scarves and other pieces of clothing, which are distributed among Panda families, confer Balaram's protection to those who wear them. At 2:00 p.m., the temple opened for a special darshan before the Maharasalila dance. Traditionally, only the Panda families could participate in this dance and the next day's Huranga, although this rule is less strictly observed today. Additionally, women of the more prominent priestly families did not participate in any of the public devar-bhabhi activities. In this event, pairs (or triads) of devar and bhabhi danced, each holding one end of a scarf so that they did not actually touch. After the dance, they circumambulated the temple tank, which sits just outside the temple grounds, following Balaram's flag, which emerges annually only on this occasion. At other times, Balaram's flag flies from a pole on the temple roof.

Chaitra 2, Dark Half (March 3)

The following morning, now two days after the bonfire and the second day of the dark half of Chaitra, Baldeo prepared for its big event: Huranga. Dr. Ghanashyam Pandey, current head of the Baldev Research Institute, stressed that the Huranga, which indicates the throwing of color, is unique to Baldeo. He stated that other villages, such as Barsana or Nandagaon, throw color; but unlike in Baldeo, they also play Holi with sticks, called lathi-Holi. Lathi-Holi is a ritualized role reversal in which women dramatically overpower men. Each year, women from Barsana, Radha's village, travel to Nandagaon, Krishna's village, to protest Krishna's heartless—as they see it—treatment of the gopis. He danced with them under the full moon and then left town the next day, never to return. The women from Barsana who represent the gopis carry heavy sticks and beat the Nandagaon men. The men hold shields to protect themselves from the women's blows. This ritual provides a vent for women's frustration with men and exemplifies one of the major reversals of Holi: that of women over men. Although Holi highlights role reversals, particularly in terms of gender, this ritual was one of the few that centered on women.

There is no lathi-Holi in Baldeo, only the throwing of color, which distinguishes Baldeo's celebration from Holi in the other Braj villages. (p.148) Ghanashyam Pandey's remarks echoed Ravi Pandey's comment that devotees of Balaram play Holi with love. Krishna, he said, plays lathi-Holi, while Balaram plays only with color, and that is Huranga. Huranga, Dr. Pandey and Mr. Shastri stated, is the true form of Holi. However, Holi and Huranga are joined. The pair are husband and wife: Holi is the wife (patni), while Huranga is the husband, or lord (pati). Several lines of a poem composed and sung by Raghubir, a ninety-two-year-old temple priest, echoed this concept:

  • Let's watch the Holi of Braj.
  • She's come to the society of Braj; the wheat-complexioned one resides here.
  • My heroine is Holi; her lover is Huranga.
  • Golden liquid rains down.

By 11:00 a.m., devotees had filled the temple's courtyard and rooftop to capacity in anticipation of the Huranga. Small boys dressed as Krishna and Balaram sat on a raised platform, facing the image of Balaram; the VIPs sat under a canopy on the roof overlooking the courtyard. Others (including myself) sat on the ledge just below the temple roof with large bags full of colored powders. Because I am a foreigner and a woman, there had been some debate about where I should observe—or participate in—this event. I had spent most of my time with the male Pandas, but remaining on the courtyard floor with them could have been dangerous for me and certainly would have spoiled their fun. Throwing color from the ledge seemed the best compromise. Sprinklers were attached to this ledge; and, although they were not yet turned on, the courtyard floor was already flooded with several inches of water. The priests in the courtyard below wore their silks, and many were dressed as cowherd women. They began to dance, and revelers below threw buckets of color and water balloons at the watching crowd. I sat on the ledge just in front of the VIPs. After about twenty minutes of play, the VIPs realized the effect of my presence: They were doused with all the color aimed at me (I was clearly a target) and did not seem altogether pleased with the extra color they received. I was especially targeted by some young boys whose families had befriended me. They aimed their pumps straight at me and doused me with streams of (p.149) colored water. (Later, I surprised them when I asked to “see” the pump and then turned it back on them.)

The mood in the courtyard below reflected the vast quantities of the intoxicating drink of bhang-laced thandai (a cooling drink made with milk, sugar, and almonds) offered to Balaram in the morning and dispersed as prasad. After the dancing had begun, an engineer sitting next to me leaned over and told me that it would start soon. It looked to me as if something had already begun: What more would start? I wondered.

The priests stood in front of Balaram's image, singing songs that invited him to come play Holi. To reflect the fact that Balaram also plays Holi, the statue is adorned with Holi color. At first, it looked like the darshans I had seen during the preceding days, but then I saw the two poles that the Pandas and the Brahmans carried in the procession to the bonfire areas appear in the courtyard. Their arrival signaled the start of the Huranga, and the play would continue until both poles had fallen over. Once toppled, they would be broken into small pieces that would be offered to devotees. The Pandas offered the poles to Balaram, and there was a brief darshan. In the courtyard, the devar-bhabhi pairs danced, and soon the women began to rip off the men's shirts. They twisted the shirts, dipped them in the water on the floor and beat the men with their own wet clothing. No boy or man on the courtyard floor was exempt from this beating.

Then suddenly everyone apparently knew it was time to begin throwing the color, and we all hurled handfuls of powder into the air. Those of us sitting on the ledges threw the powder on those dancing below, and those not dancing threw buckets of color (see photo). A dense cloud of red, yellow, and silver powder made it difficult to see across the temple courtyard. Below, several men paraded the poles around the courtyard (see photo), while others danced or beat someone or tried to avoid being beaten. Some men were raised overhead and carried about. On and off, the cloud of color thinned and rendered visible the frenzied activity below. The colored water on the courtyard floor was almost four inches deep, and wet, colored powder stuck to everything and everyone. All of us were wet from the colored water and covered with a thick layer of wet colored powder that had become like paste. After forty-five minutes, the poles fell, and the offerings were distributed. Everyone then returned home to share a (p.150)

 The Festival of Holi: Celebrating Agricultural and Social Health

Throwing a bucket of color. (Photo by Robyn Beeche)

traditional meal of fried bread (puris) and rice pudding (khir), two of Balaram's favorite foods.

The temple meanwhile was strewn with the remains of gifts offered to Balaram and flooded with color; clumps of soggy powder covered the ground. The following day, the onerous job of cleaning the temple courtyard (p.151)

 The Festival of Holi: Celebrating Agricultural and Social Health

Carrying the jhands during Huranga. (Photo by Robyn Beeche)

 The Festival of Holi: Celebrating Agricultural and Social Health

Weighing and distributing prasad after Holi. (Photo by author)

began in earnest. Piles of powder-covered rock candy and coconut lay in large piles. The priests weighed and distributed this material among all the priestly families (see photo). The gutters lining the temple, which had been full of the safflower color, were emptied and cleaned. The Holi season was almost over. Some devotees still played Holi for the few remaining days, but in significantly reduced numbers.

Chaitra 5, Dark Half (March 7)

The final throwing of color occurred on Rang Pancami, the fifth day of the dark half of Chaitra, and afterward, the devar-bhabhi relationship provided the trope through which to highlight familial bonds. At noon, four days after the devar-bhabhi dance on the first day of the dark half of Chaitra, the younger brother must give his elder brother's wife a sari, and the woman offers her brother-in-law a sweet rice dish. The younger priests sat in front of the temple door, mock-wrestling (in commemoration of Balaram as the master of wrestling) and jostling each other; they mobbed those who carried offerings to distribute to the crowd. The gentle restraint (p.153) of most of Balaram's Holi was gone; today's Holi seemed significantly rougher than that of the previous days. When the darshan period opened at 1:00 p.m., an hour after the devar-bhabhi exchange, the crowds rushed forward to see Balaram. Some priests soaked devotees with colored water, and others threw colored powders. The sprinklers again flooded the courtyard. Then Holi was over for another year.

Balancing Tensions

The rituals and practice of Baldeo's Holi that I witnessed and describe here reveal the tensions of sexuality, production, and aggression that threaten social stability. Devotees in Baldeo interpret the Holi festivities in light of Balaram's Holi play upon his return to Braj, and these expressions of levity and raucousness make sense when we understand the context behind Baldeo's Holi. Previous scholars have demonstrated that the rebellious aspects of Holi provide a vent for social tensions; but, as I point out, Balaram also has a role in expressing and balancing these tensions. Still, defusing tensions does not resolve the structural problems, as discussed earlier. On one level, Holi can be understood as a comedic festival because it results in social stability; but the resulting stability tends to maintain existing hierarchies. What is interesting here is how the social and agricultural tensions related to aggression, sexuality, and fertility converge in this festival.

The Holi bonfires exemplify how ties between social bonds and agriculture are mitigated, but not fully resolved, in a social context. As I noted earlier, the bonfire with its relationship to fertility is a common element in springtime agricultural festivals, and the Holi bonfire demonstrates how slapstick role reversals and accentuations ameliorate tensions about fertility. Certainly the bonfire rescue has a comedic element—a boy jumps into the fire to the crowd's cheers and rescues the image of Prahlad. This ritual is funny and entertains the crowd, but it articulates concerns about food and famine. First, as a spring agricultural festival Holi mediates the anxiety that the earth might not produce or might not be fertile, and the ritual bonfire addresses these concerns. The bonfire burns away the remnants of winter to renew the cycle of fertility. Second, the bonfire incorporates the Vaishnava context of protection when the devout devotee Prahlad is saved from the flames.

Holi ritual practice mediates agricultural and social tensions through (p.154) comedic performances that emphasize restoration and resolution. As Susanne Langer notes, springtime fertility festivals are comedic because they celebrate both social and agricultural vitality.17 This comedic element is important because Balaram's narrative itself, along with associated Holi practices, is plotted as a narrative of resolution and wholeness; and it appears in the context of Holi, a festival that celebrates the renewal of social bonds and agricultural fertility. At the same time, Holi fulfills a satirical role in that those stories and narratives that appear to subvert hierarchy in fact strengthen them. Balaram's actions and Holi's carnivalesque activities mock social norms, but they ultimately strengthen social structures by easing social and agricultural tensions.

These tensions, the fears of instability and famine, are powerful emotions and can inhibit moves toward alternate social or agricultural arrangements. This negative cycle, in which fear prompts even more control and so narrows the realm of imagined possibilities, provides insight into why narratives of control and mastery over the earth and women remain dominant: we fear what might happen if we loosened control. We can hear this dynamic echoed in the voices of critics of organic and other alternative forms of agriculture when, in essence, they ask, as did Earl Butz and, more recently, Lord Haskins, advisor to Tony Blair, “Whom do we wish to starve?”18 The Balaram and the Holi practices described here demonstrate how ritual levity mitigates fears of social and agricultural collapse; yet these rituals and the temporary instability also offer us maneuvering space through which we might rethink relations with the biotic community.

Balaram's associations with fertility and wine render him a satirical figure because he exposes flaws in the pastoral idealization of nature—such as, for example, that the pastoral realm is free from need and nature fulfills human needs. Balaram's diversion of the Yamuna River illustrates human frustration at nature's agency, and, while the surface conflict is resolved, the underlying problem—that the earth might not cooperate—will not go away no matter what we rituals we perform or agricultural practices we adopt. Exposing these flaws is a destabilizing force because the exposure forces recognition both of human reliance on capricious natural processes and inequities of food production. At the same time, though, this destabilization offers an opportunity for creativity because it also undermines constraints on the imagination. The fear and uncertainty of leaving our comfort zones force us to reassess old assumptions because (p.155) what seems solid and obvious no longer is. My fieldwork in India granted me the creative disorientation through which to reconsider long-held ideas on food and agriculture, and the disorientation of Holi similarly provides space from which to question normative narratives and practices.

Agricultural anxieties regarding fertility, protection, and production are central to the realms of family and social sustenance. Barley—a sign of fertility in many cultures—is shared among family and friends to further cement social and familial bonds in India. Food, as well as the consumption and sharing of food, is a foundational social element that underlies and determines many social bonds, and fear of famine destroys those bonds. At a minimum, food security is a sine qua non for a stable society; the creative disorientation of Balaram's Holi provides the space to question whether our food production indeed is providing food security, and to whom. This questioning also provides freedom for us to expand our ecological imagination so that we might also explore the consequences of food production on multiple communities, human and nonhuman, and possibilities of revised relations between these communities. Exploring food production and its consequences then compels us to acknowledge our ambiguous role in the biotic community. The reality that something must die for us to eat introduces a potential stance of ambivalence, an opportunity for us to consider food security from multiple perspectives, including the nonhuman.

Most devotees of Balaram realize that their riotous activities during Holi ultimately stabilize society, and similarly they know that Balaram's qualities of aggression and intoxication underscore his status as protector and elder brother. Kings are, after all, responsible for agricultural fertility. Balaram and the Yamuna's story fits the paradigm of a deity releasing life-giving water, an aggressive act that results in sustenance. Although unchecked aggression—and, more so, intoxication—can weaken social bonds, devotees understand that Balaram uses these qualities in service of his devotees. Balaram's aggression helps him protect his devotees, and his intoxication helps him ready himself for battle. Balaram only uses aggression and intoxication in the service of righteousness and to protect his devotees, so devotees deem these qualities appropriate. This understanding echoes the Rajput (one of India's warrior dynasties) linkage of lust, wine, and strength. Meat and wine are important for male Rajputs because they build lust and strength, important traits for professional warriors (p.156) and kings.19 Similarly, according to Ghanashyam Pandey, Balaram takes the bhang intoxicant to gain the strength necessary for protection from his enemies. Holi manifests tensions of sexuality and aggression in the general teasing and prank playing and, particularly, in the devar-bhabhi actions that characterize the festival. We might recall Balaram's epithet and identity as langulin, the wielder of the plough-penis, here; this association highlights Balaram's sexuality as it relates to agriculture, but it also invokes the languriya as a motif of extrasocietal sexuality.20

My observations, along with my discussions with families in Baldeo, demonstrated that the devar-bhabhi relationship—that is, the younger brother and elder brother's wife—and not the husband-wife relationship, is the central relationship in the Holi festival. In Krishna's familial structure, Krishna and Revati are the devar and bhabhi. Technically, Balaram, the elder brother, does not play (although devotees note that all of Balaram's family plays Holi). Traditionally a joking, and implicitly sexualized, relationship exists between the younger brother and the elder brother's wife. This relationship provides a friendly outlet for women marrying into an extended family. Her relationship with her husband, her husband's elder brother(s), and her in-laws is formal. That is, the bride, particularly if she is a new bride, must show humility—lajj—before her in-laws and her husband's elder brother(s). Showing lajj means that the bride speaks softly with downcast eyes and often covers her face when speaking with elder members of her new family. Her relationship with her husband's younger brother, however, is typically more relaxed, and she can speak freely and laugh in this context.

Cementing this bond is crucial for family stability because it helps strengthen the bride's bonds to the family unit. The actions of the devar-bhabhi pair exemplify this ambivalent mix of sexuality and aggression that is seen in Balaram himself: the pairs dance together in the temple during the Huranga, then the women thrash their brothers-in-law. This thrashing looks like nothing less than a war. This is, after all, a ritual space in which women vent their frustrations with men. It is, however, only a ritual space, and although the thrashing helps women let off some steam, it does not alter their social realities.

These activities and associations manifest the flexibility of the devar-bhabhi relationship itself; it provides a space for an informal and somewhat sexualized bond, yet the informality of this space also provides (p.157) perhaps women's only opportunity to vent anger and frustration. The more formal relationships with other family members do not allow space for such communications. At the same time, this space is situated within the husband's family unit, and so has boundaries, despite the relative freedom within. The dance and beatings of the Huranga ritual express the inherent tensions of the devar-bhabhi relationship and offer women choice and agency, however circumscribed. Similarly, our relationships with nature will always be circumscribed by a variety of factors, including biological ones; for example, a tiger will always view me as food, no matter what I think about that tiger. Still, despite such limitations, approaching members of the biotic community with an ethic of partnership and reciprocity rather than domination, whether that means providing habitat and/or respecting the animal's social structure, is a means of loosening our (attempted) control over the biotic community.

Although Holi practice emphasizes social transgression, at least for the duration of the festival, the participation of women, particularly high caste women, was clearly circumscribed. Their absence from these rituals parallels the loss of agency and the potential penalty for claiming agency and violating an idealized status. The loss of agency, or subordination, can result from violent action or from simple erasure or exclusion—that is, not having a place at the table. I recall a specific conversation in Baldeo with several Pandas as we walked toward the temple. They had been explaining to me how everyone, simply everyone, in Baldeo took bhang along with Balaram, who was noted for his fondness for this intoxicant. I asked if this included the women, and one replied, “Oh, well, not them.” His answer conveyed to me that women were beyond consideration, which further confirmed my suspicions about social—and perhaps more extensive— penalties for women who publicly partook of bhang. In fact, it seems to me that these Holi rituals play a critical role in preventing challenges to social structures, and recognizing these dynamics helps us reflect on our own narratives and practices.

The rituals and dances of Holi offer a space to negotiate a set of social tensions, and these examples of ritual levity fulfill specific social functions in Baldeo. The exuberance and spontaneity of these ritual practices offer participants the flexibility and freedom for working out anxieties, such as those related to sexuality and aggression, that do not have a socially sanctioned release. These rituals are funny—it is difficult to imagine Holi as (p.158) not funny—and that levity is intrinsic to the performance and social goals of these activities. For example, the basis of the devar-bhabhi relationship is humor and teasing, so the tensions and ambivalences of this relationship are expressed and mediated through humor. The social tensions of Holi can be quite serious. For example, serious tensions relating to agriculture or family bonds exist, but the humor and laughter of Holi are effective means of defusing these tense situations. Spontaneity and a degree of freedom are essential aspects of both the devar-bhabhi relationship and Holi rituals. The exuberant spontaneity and freedom of expression of Holi could not exist without fun and levity.

Baldeo's Holi demonstrates the tensions and ambivalences that exist regarding protection and aggression, fertility and sexuality, and these anxieties have the potential to destabilize society. Baldeo's Holi celebration uses narrative and ritual to adjudicate these problems; at the same time, the narrative shapes practice and interpretation. The relationship between text and practice should not be understood as one-sided, but as an iterative cycle, as each shapes and responds to the other. The devar-bhabhi dance presents a visual metaphor: this dance has no set steps, but instead the dancers respond to the other's movements, and each dancer has agency. This dance suggests a metaphor for rethinking agricultural practice that could accommodate agency in the biotic community and offers a model of dialectical responsiveness instead of what can be seen as the prevailing agricultural ideology of control and domination.

Just as Holi's rituals and dances preserve social structures, they might also adjudicate a different set of tensions: the reality of agriculture—and basic survival—is that something must die if we are to eat. The Panda community is strictly vegetarian, although not vegan, so hunting is not an issue. In terms of Holi, survival anxieties emerge in the guise of gender and sexuality. The stories and rituals of Holi reflect the unease or even guilt at how the earth and, by extension, women are used for food production. The anonymity and distance from the source of food provided by industrial agriculture have helped alleviate consumers' guilt by commodifying food and its producers so that these are rarely objects of moral concern. When this veil of anonymity is breached, however—for example, when the New York Times reported slaughterhouse use of electric prods on “downer” cows, those that can no longer stand on their own—the public was understandably outraged, both for concerns about human health and (p.159) also, though somewhat less, animal welfare.21 Although stories about animal abuse are particularly egregious, the fact remains that in the contemporary United States, we have few agrarian narratives that address the human dimension of food production, beyond our narratives of control. Wendell Berry's admonition that we should “eat responsibly,” that we should eat with pleasure and with recognition of the conditions under which our food is produced, is a powerful alternative narrative to that of the willful ignorance necessary for industrial agriculture.22

Balaram's aggression toward the earth reflects fears that the earth will not provide. Devotees explain Balaram's aggression as socially necessary and look to Balaram for, among other things, healing, protection, and agricultural benefits. In this view, violence is justified because protection always includes some risk of danger and violence. As a protector, Balaram's aggression in the service of agriculture embodies farmers' fears that the crops could fail, and that, as a consequence, the social unit would experience famine. Even though Holi rituals negotiate anxieties regarding agricultural violence, these rituals reflect the fact that some level of violence or aggression is necessary for survival, whether that means fighting off enemies or killing something in order to live. Recognizing the fear of famine—the fear that the earth will not produce—helps us understand why narratives that highlight dominance and control (e.g., industrial agriculture's feed-the-world narrative) continue to be so popular and why we are reluctant to reimagine them. While these narratives represent a form of comic resolution of tension, an alternate reading would evoke their tragic dimensions—the death and subduing of nature to provide sustenance.

This chapter delineated how Holi's carnival atmosphere provides an outlet for forces such as sexuality and aggression that can destabilize society if not otherwise resolved. Baldeo's springtime festivities celebrate earthly fertility at the same time that they alleviate social tensions, thereby recognizing the integral connection between agrarian abundance and social order. Nonetheless, as we have seen, relieving tensions typically reinforces existing social structures rather than addressing social inequities. For example, anxiety over the fear of famine, that the earth will not cooperate, tends to lead to stricter controls and narratives (and practices) of domination rather than reciprocity and partnership and so makes it more difficult to envision alternatives for food production. As a festival of levity and role (p.160) reversals, however, Holi offers a set of memes—ambivalence, ambiguity, and disorientation—that provides the space and maneuverability from which we might imagine alternatives to existing narratives and related social structures. Exploring the ambivalence that many feel between the need to eat and the necessary death of other beings has led many people to change their eating habits to reflect their qualms about the treatment of other species, sentient or not. I also wonder whether the Pandeys' clinic service on Holi, and perhaps other days as well, enacts an ambiguity regarding social status. On the one hand, their service on Holi reestablishes their status as a prominent family; on the other, the flexibility of Holi play provides them the imaginative space to enact their interpretation of Balaram's story as one of service to their community.

We have seen how social and agricultural anxieties can paralyze attempts to rethink existing food systems and also how, at the same time, destabilization reframes established norms and spurs the imagination. The anonymity of industrial agriculture and the distance of consumers from the sources of food contribute to the maintenance of industrial agriculture's feed-the-world narrative. This pervasive narrative relies on a deeply entrenched notion of pastoral that shapes many consumers' ideas of food production. In the next chapter I establish a parallel between the pastoral paradigm of Vaishnava devotion and the neglect of agriculture in Western environmental thought, and I argue that the pastoral construct has contributed to this neglect. The dominant Braj paradigm is the pastoral, an idealized nature that excludes the realities of agriculture and the consequences of sex and violence. In this religious and cultural paradigm, agricultural and related social anxieties are subordinated to a utopian pastoral realm of simple joys and cowherding. I discuss Balaram's subordination in the Braj pastoral realm as a way to consider the neglect of agriculture within environmental discourse and develop an agricultural discourse that leads to practices that can benefit both human and nonhuman communities.


(1.) Marriott notes that Holi must represent the assimilation of local festivals with sixteenth-century Vaishnavism: “The Feast of Love,” 209–210.

(2.) The Indian subcontinent has developed numerous calendrical systems, both solar and lunar, and there are even regional differences among these. Braj and Uttar Pradesh follow the Purnimant calendar, in which the lunar month goes from full moon to full moon, but the month is named for the new moon, which occurs a fortnight after the first of the two full moons (i.e., between them). The Indian lunar calendar is adjusted to the solar calendar, which is eleven days longer, so technically this calendar is a lunisolar calendar. An intercalary month, adhik mas, is inserted every few years to readjust this schedule, Chatterjee, Indian Calendrical System, 40.

(3.) Marriott, “The Feast of Love,” 204–205. Also see Haberman, Journey through the Twelve Forests, 174–175.

(4.) I found a similar version in Ghanashyam Pandey's Srihaladhar Nityarcana.

(6.) Marriott, “The Feast of Love.”

(7.) Vaudeville, “Multiple Approaches to a Living Hindu Myth,” 112.

(8.) Narayan Bhatt's sixteenth-century Vrajabhaktivilasa discusses the division of Braj and notes that Braj rests upon the central head of Shesh's one thousand heads. This image reiterates the concept of Shesh as the support of Braj and the earth. Entwistle, Braj, 252–254.

(9.) The Bhagavata Purana uses the word Ahivas. In the Brahma Vaivarta-purana, the word is Sarpavas. Pandey, Srihaladhar Nityarcana, 3.

(10.) Vaudeville, “Multiple Approaches to a Living Hindu Myth,” 114; Bhagavata Purana 9.6.

(11.) Vaudeville mentions numerous parallel stories in which a cow or cowherd (Ahir or Gval) discovers a deity and suggests that this story is not of Vaishnava origin: “The Govardhan Myth in North India,” 30–31, n. 30.

(12.) Some versions of the story state that Gokulnath himself unearthed the images. See Sanford, “Negotiating for Srinathji, Dauji, and Jakhaiya.”

(13.) Sanadhya Brahmans do not consider Pandas to be Brahmans and just refer to them as Ahivasis, not Ahivasi Gaur Brahmans.

(14.) The Vallabh Sampraday has developed elaborate rules regarding food preparation in addition to the pakka-kacca classification discussed here. See Bennett, The Path of Grace, 123–147; Toomey, “Food from the Mouth of Krishna,” (p.235) 64–70, 78, n. 18. Appadurai, “Gastro-Politics in Hindu South Asia,” and Babb, “The Food of the Gods in Chhattisgarh” discuss hierarchy-producing aspects of food ritual.

(15.) In this case, the local Braj folk retained primary control of the image. According to Baldeo temple guides, a close connection between Balaram's temple and the Vallabh Sampraday in Gokul existed historically and continues to a lesser extent today. Today, Kalyandev's descendants perform ritual service daily, except for one day a year when the Gokul Vallabh Sampraday come to Baldeo during the Caurasi Kos Yatra, an annual circumambulation around Braj.

(16.) Bose, Cultural Anthropology and Other Essays, 98–99; Marriott, “The Feast of Love.”

(17.) Langer, Feeling and Form, 331.

(19.) Harlan, Religion and Rajput Women, 127.

(20.) Entwistle, “Kaila Devi and Lamguriya,” 89.

(21.) Wald, “Meat Packer Admits Slaughter of Sick Cows.”

(22.) Berry, Bringing It to the Table, 227–234.