August 13 to August 26
Braj, Uttar Pradesh
THE SANSKRIT WORD 'UTSAV' encapsulates more than just festivity; it functions to make an individual transcend the realm of spiritual ecstasy. Each of the thousand Hindu gods represents an abstract idea—of protection, love, knowledge or wealth—and these ideas assume a form that could be human, animal or a combination of both. The form allows the common worshipper to access spirituality through a network of rituals and festivities woven in a mytho-spiritual calendar of events.
Of the many Indian gods, Krishna (from the pastoral community) and his overarching lineage from within Vaishnavism postulate the most vibrant form of celebrations through which the devotee finds himself. The cult of Krishna, although present all over India, has a pilgrimage area in Braj Bhoomi (pastoral land). It is located in present-day Uttar Pradesh and has several places correlating to the mythological life of the God, which, through rituals and celebration, becomes a vibrant, lived spiritual reality. As with other gods, Krishna is for many a personal deity (ishta devta) or a family deity (kula devata). He is the anchoring energy for several schools of thought and philosophy such as that of Pushti Marg (Vaishnav sect).
Seva or service to Krishna is an important element for believers to connect with the divine. “We experience Krishna with our eyes, we feel Him through all of our senses. Hari is the desire, the festival of our hearts. To imbibe Krishna’s form is the ultimate reward.” (Venu Gita, Subodhini). A large number of services rendered corresponds to his daily and festival activity calendar throughout the year. His daily schedule is divided into eight units of Hindu time of the day called aath prahar, and each unit comprises services to the lord. Each event has specific prayers, dress code, rituals and food. The services involve three rituals—shringar (adornment), raag (entertainment) that includes music, dance, festive rituals and arts, and finally the ritual of offering bhog or a variety of sacred food. The bhog is offered, blessed and then shared among the believers.
The Hindola or swing festival is a prominent event in the ritual calendar of Krishna worship. In the Hindu month of shravan, the monsoon clouds provide relief from the intense summer heat, giving way to an exuberant spirit. It is time for lovers to unite, the environment is coloured by lush greenery, sweet-smelling flowers and fruiting trees. Krishna is believed to be in service of his consort Radha, whom he woos on the swing. Recreating the spirit, songs are sung beckoning Radha—Radhe, jhoolan padharo, jhuki aae badra hindola (Come on the swing O Radha, see how the cloud also bends).
The arrival of the festival on haryali teej—the third day of the month—heralds the time when lila or divine play of Krishna with Radha and gopis (cowherd girls), symbolising the unity of contrasting energy in the environment of love, is recreated, and believers gather each day of the month to celebrate the festival.
Swings are hung in all temples and every day for an hour in the afternoon, the idols of Krishna and Radha are taken from the altar and placed on a swing, with a string attached. The swings, made of silver, gold, mirrors, fruits, vegetables, jasmine and Indian roses, represent fertility and love in union. And, the bhakts or devotees in the courtyard bind themselves, through the string, to the divine couple. On the opposite side, haveli sangeet (a genre of music associated with Krishna worship) is sung. While flowers are showered on the divine couple, the worshippers are sprinkled with red dry powder (gulal), representing love. “Soon after, a pool of perfumed water decorated with lotus blooms is prepared in front of the swing, and a small boat is launched on which Krishna-Radha are placed and given a joyous boat ride,” says Pandit Anil Joshi, a Pushti Marg priest at a Hindu temple in Chicago.
The boat ride ends, the divine couple is placed back on the swing, after which bhog is offered to the divine couple. Raj bhog, comprising milk products and dry fruits, is offered by reciting a special prayer. The festivities of the day ends with an aarti, where, amidst singing, a metal plate—lit with oil lamps and decorated with sacred food, water and flowers representing the four elements of fire, water, earth and air—is moved in a circulatory path, drawing the devotees to swing in spiritual ecstasy. The divine couple retreats and the curtain closes, leaving the followers with a glimpse of the divine consciousness, and reminding one of the lines by W.B. Yeats:
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance, How can we know the dancer from the dance?
A specialist on heritage, Jafa interprets and curates tours, walks and events. She is also a kathak dancer and writer.