Holi, the festival of colour, is an ancient festival in India. Some sources place this as a festival that is over 3,000 years old. Others believe that it is 2,000 years old. Either way, it is an ancient festivals.
There are many legends around this festival, the most popular one being around Prahlad, his demon sister Holika and his evil father / uncle. His father / uncle wanted only that he would be worshipped in the kingdom, and when Prahlad worshipped one of the forms of Vishnu, he asked Holika to sit in the fire with Prahlad in her lap. Holika had been given a boon, that if she went into fire alone, she would be unharmed. Sadly, she went in with Prahlad, and was burned. Holi, literally, means 'burning'.
The other legend, particularly in the area where I was – Braj Bhoomi – the legends surround Krishna and Radha.
I was in three towns and villages – Vrindavan, Nandgaon and Barsana. Radha, his main love, spent her childhood in Barsana, even though Vrindvan is considered to be her town. Krishna spent a few years of his childhood in Nandgaon, which is named after his foster father.
As per legend, he and his friends sneaked into Barsana one Holi, and ran off with the clothes of the girls. They were caught, and whacked. This have birth to the tradition of the 'lath-maar' Holi. 'lath' means 'stick', and 'maar' means 'hit'.
Holi in the Braj Bhoomi area goes on for ten days. I was there for only three this time.
On day one of my visit, in Barsana, the men from Nandgaon come to Barsana and get whacked, and on Day Two, the reverse visit takes place.
On the one hand, Holi has become very commercial here, with the state government putting out advertisements to drive tourists to the area. So, the places are crawling with photographers. It is virtually impossible to get a clear photo in, without someone else's lens being jammed into your frame.
Having said that, once you get over the initial shock (even as an Indian!) over the extreme crowd situations, the best is to let your hair down and have a blast! Join in, talk to the people, and don't just be a photographer, shooting as though the locals are like monkeys in a cage.
Barsana has a 'dry' Holi, where they use dry colours. NandGaon, where the Holi is altogether wild, is where they use wet colours. I ended up with a red face, and this is cool. It took about 3 weeks to get the colour out of my hair.
In Vrindavan, they open the gates of the Banke Bihari Temple in the evening, and then you experience the surge of people as they rush inside. Abusive temple staff and priests keep screaming at you not to photograph. Photographing 'God' is prohibited. However, getting a clean picture is just a matter of chance. That is all
During the day, pilgrims make a circuit around Vrindavan. This is called a parikrama, and some do it on their bellies, while the manicured priests sit smugly in the temples.
Yet, despite the commercialisation of the festival, it is one burst of riotous colour and celebration. The local people are just there to celebrate an ancient tradition before the summer bursts upon the Indian plains, and it is this spirit that you, a photographer/tourist/writer, must focus on, and nothing else.