Holi, an ancient festival which commemorates Lord Krishna’s playful throwing of colored dyes with His most beloved devotees, the gopis of Vrindavana, is at least 5,000 years old.
But it’s just now going mainstream. And New Vrindaban, West Virginia temple president Jaya Krishna Das wants to make sure ISKCON doesn’t miss the boat.
“The last issue of Time Magazine featured a two-page spread on a Festival of Colors in Dresden, Germany,” he says. “Last week, CBS News’ website ran a photo feature on another celebration in Berlin, attended by 3,000 people. In March, 10,000 attended Holi in London’s West End. None of these were run by ISKCON devotees.”
Of course, one ISKCON temple is leading the trend in the Western world. The Sri Sri Radha-Krishna temple in Spanish Fork, Utah started holding Festival of Colors in 1997 with 100 people. In 2007, the event reached a new level with 3,000 guests. This year, an unbelievable 80,000 people attended, most of them young, white Americans.
But Jaya Krishna Das wants to make sure other ISKCON temples get on board too, before business people see an opportunity and turn the ancient spiritual festival into a commercial venture.
“This event is a wonderful opportunity to present the Holy Name of Krishna in a way which attracts everyone,” he says. “But we need to take it up within the next 12 months—if we don’t do that, it’ll be gone.” Jaya Krishna isn’t just talking the talk. On Saturday September 15th, over 1,000 people—mostly very inquisitive young, white American students from local universities—attended New Vrindaban’s first-ever public Holi celebration.
“We already hold twenty-eight festivals a year in New Vrindaban,” says Jaya Krishna. “But they’re all attended by devotees and Indian congregational members. We wanted to open a new field for reaching out to Americans. And when Yugala Kishora, our head preacher, returned from a visit to Utah and told me about his experience there, we knew we had the answer.”
New Vrindaban devotees set a date of September 15th for their Holi festival, and although they only had six weeks to plan, they did their very best to get the word out.
A promotional team of about half a dozen devotees contacted deans of student activities in twenty-two high schools, colleges and universities within a 150-mile radius of New Vrindaban.
Altogether, deans helped put up 1,000 posters advertising the festival on campuses all over West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Ohio.
Devotees also distributed 34,000 flyers, sent out 150 press releases to newspapers and TV and radio stations, and ran Google ads for their website nvfestivalofcolors.com, which received 225,000 hits, and 9,000 individual visitors. On the day of the festival, 1,084 people paid the nominal $3 entrance fee to attend the event. Many also purchased the $25 package deal, which included one t-shirt, one vegetarian meal, and five packs of powdered colors imported from India.
The paying festivalgoers were joined by thirty volunteers from Cincinatti, Rochester, and Pittsburgh, as well as New Vrindaban community members, making a total of 1,200 people—a hit for New Vrindaban’s very first Festival of Colors.
Festivities ran from 11:00am to 6:00pm on the beautifully landscaped lawn in front of Prabhupada’s Palace of Gold, a memorial built for ISKCON’s founder that has been a tourist attraction for many years.
Five bands rocked the youthful crowd with back-to-back ninety-minute sets, headed by ISKCON legend Titiksava Karunika and his Namrock band, and Jai Krishna Das and his Ananda Groove.
Both headliners sang only the Hare Krishna mantra.
“The audience looked a little lost at first, when the bands started to chant Hare Krishna,” says Jaya Krishna. “But within a few minutes, their minds were transformed, and they took it up, dancing and chanting the Holy Names with great enthusiasm. It was incredible.”
Colors were scheduled to be thrown into the air every two hours. But the students just could not wait. Bursting with anticipation, they tore open their color bags, playfully hurling the contents at each other, dashing about the field, and snapping photos to put on Facebook and send to their friends.
Then they went to buy more colors.
“We had to change the schedule to throwing of the colors every hour, and then to every half hour, because no one could wait,” Jaya Krishna says. “Clouds of color were exploding into the air, and cascading down all over everyone as they jumped for joy and chanted Hare Krishna.”
Festivalgoers continued to show that they were embracing Vaishnava culture at lunch time. Although a variety of food stands at the event sold vegetarian burgers, “Not-Dogs,” and tacos, visitors instead went for the samosa snacks and Indian-style prasadam feast served.
Meanwhile others, taking a break from throwing colors, paid to take a tour of Prabhupada’s Palace of Gold, where they viewed devotional art, learned about the ISKCON founder, and saw his murti form.
While wandering around the beautiful Palace grounds, with its lotus pond, rose garden, and gazebos, many expressed their interest and asked deep questions about Krishna consciousness.
“Palace caretaker Purnima Dasi recalls bumping into five different groups of young Americans during the day, who all asked her, ‘Who’s Krishna? What is your faith all about? What do you do here?’” Jaya Krishna recounts.
The fun, carefree nature of Festival of Colors, he feels, helps make ISKCON more attractive and relatable to young local people.
“It breaks down the walls between us and our neighbors, and creates a new image for devotees, showing that we are nice and easygoing and like to have fun just like them,” he says.
Sure enough, all the feedback at New Vrindaban’s first Festival of Colors was positive, with guests all promising that they would tell their friends and come back next year.
Next year, Jaya Krishna plans to start promotions six months, rather than six weeks, before the event, and hopes to draw 5,000 visitors.
The Festival of Colors will be a way for New Vrindaban devotees to make and strengthen connections with local young people, in preparation for a College Outreach program that they hope to start soon.
But Jaya Krishna hopes that he’s not the only one to take advantage of Holi’s draw.
“All ISKCON temples should take it up,” he says. “We should even have a Festival of Colors tour in North America. It’s a perfect way to attract young, inquisitive, enthusiastic Americans and give them an experience of chanting, dancing and prasadam—while creating a completely new image of our Society in the process!”