The Friendly War Of Color
April 2009

by Klavs Bo Christensen and Carsten Snejbjerg

It was morning. The sun was still low and the light very good. It was remarkably quiet outside our hotel and the gate to the street was locked with a big chain. What was that about! We looked at each other quizzically and didn't quite get the meaning of what was happening. All shops were closed and everybody on the street walked around frowning at each other. Looking for victims.

© Carsten Snejbjerg/WpN
Inside the Banket Bihari temple in Vrindavan, India, colored powder is thrown from the stage over the audience during the Holi Festival, on March 9, 2009. The colorful festival of Holi is celebrated on Phalgun Purnima which comes in late February or early March. Holi Festival has an ancient origin and celebrates the triumph of 'good' over 'bad.'
It was our third day in Mathura, India, the epicenter of the Holi Festival. And this was the day when the celebration of Holi peaked.

Holi is an ancient festival of India and was originally known as 'Holika.' References to the festivals are found in a detailed description in early religious works such as Jaimini's Purvamimamsa-Sutras and Kathaka-Grhya-Sutras. Historians also believe that Holi was celebrated by all Aryans but more so in the Eastern part of India.

It is said that Holi existed several centuries before Christ. However, the meaning of the festival is believed to have changed over the years. Earlier it was a special rite performed by married women for the happiness and well-being of their families and the full moon (Raka) was worshiped.

The two of us had gone directly to this center of the Holi Festival. Together with Vrindavan, Nandgao and Barsana, Mathura, in Mathura province of Uttar Pradesh, is the place to go to celebrate the Holi Festival. The Hindu festival is celebrated all over India but the culmination is in the area of Mathura. Before we took off from Denmark we had some idea about the conditions we would be working under and we discussed how to get very close to the celebrations while at the same time protecting our equipment.

© Carsten Snejbjerg/WpN
Boys getting sprayed with even more colored powder and water outside the Banket Bihari temple during the Holi Festival, in Vrindavan, India, March 10, 2009. The colorful festival bridges the social gap and renews sweet relationships. On this day, people hug and wish each other "Happy Holi."
Most of the pictures we had seen during our research had been photographed at a distance with long telephoto lenses and zoom lenses. We wanted to get closer and we knew we probably would take a big risk of ending up in an inferno of colored powder and colored water. We were right.

We considered protecting our cameras with plastic bags, camera armor, diving bags and many other things. But none of these approaches would give us the perfect possibility of moving and working fast with the cameras. In the end we wound up using gaffer tape to protect our Canon 5D mk2's. In the morning a fully charged battery and a 16 GB flash card were loaded into the cameras. After the cameras were turned on, they were completely covered in gaffer tape. We both used a fixed 35mm/1.4 lens that was now not possible to change during the day. Even though the camera was completely covered in tape, we could still use the most important buttons and operate the camera.

© Klavs Bo Christensen/WpN
A saddhu, holy man, praying at the Bankey Bihari Temple during the Holi Festival in Vrindavan, India, on March 9, 2009. The Holi Festival is a Hindu festival held every year to celebrate the coming of spring and to celebrate life.
The guard at the hotel unlocked the gate and let us out. He very quickly closed and locked it up again. Weird! We stepped just out of the gate and quickly understood the precautions. We got powdered. Everybody on the street came up to us and wished us a happy Holi and threw colored powder on our heads and bodies. We found an auto-rickshaw that could take us the 8 kilometers (about 5 miles) to Vrindavan. Along the 200 meters (656 feet) down the road we began to understand the scope of Holi. All along the road people stood and waited for others – like us – to pass: we really got attacked with colored powder and water. The day had just begun and by the time we arrived in Vrindavan our clothes were soaked with water and we were completely covered with bright colors.

Vrindavan was insane. Pilgrims had a longer walk through town to get to the temple Bankey Bihari, one of the most holy temples in town. All along the crowded streets the citizens of Vrindavan and many visitors bombarded passersby in all directions while people were throwing water from the rooftops. It was raining colors.

© Carsten Snejbjerg/WpN
People pray to Krishna inside the Banket Bihari temple during the Holi Festival, Vrindavan, India, on March 11, 2009. The Holi Festival has an ancient origin and celebrates the triumph of 'good' over 'bad.'
Nobody was forgotten. We had a very hard time trying to photograph this completely insane inferno of color. Our cameras did not make people leave us in peace. Quite the opposite. If we stopped to take pictures, happy smiling people threw powder in our faces and attacked us with water guns. We had powder in our eyes, mouths, ears and noses, all the while constantly cleaning the lenses of the cameras.

On our way to the temple, we lost each other. Klavs had found a place on the streets with a wonderful light and Carsten continued to walk toward the temple. Klavs tried to convince the people on the street to let him photograph in peace but this was impossible. After half an hour he gave up and also walked to the temple. At the same time, Carsten was having a really hard time--he got a nose full of powder and needed a break. We had been on the streets for one hour and we were ready to go back to the hotel. Carsten made himself a turban to protect his face against the toughest attacks and used the camera as a shield whenever possible. Both our cameras got more and more covered in colors and were dripping colored water. By now we thought our brand new 5D's were ruined (later at home in Denmark, Klavs' camera has severely malfunctioned). The streets were so covered in a thick colored substance that even now, three weeks later, our toes are still many colors.

Outside the temple we found each other again and we found some small, quieter streets to get a little break. We looked like something from outer space and our cameras didn't look like cameras anymore. We found a small shop and a place in the shade to drink a cola. Carsten's nose was running with thick, blue mucus and Klavs shook his head over his brightly plastered camera.

© Klavs Bo Christensen/WpN
A musical march during Holi Festival in Vrindavan, India, March 11, 2009.
This year's Holi Festival was close to an end. Krishna had to rest in the afternoon. The powder and the colored water stopped and the shops opened in the afternoon. What a contrast. People came out in their finest clothes, smiling. Nobody threw powder anymore. We went back to the hotel and threw our clothes out in the garbage. We looked at our cameras that would forever carry some of this Holi Festival and the war of colors in Vrindavan. Our job in Mathura and Vrindavan was over. Did we get what we came for? Did we get the photographs we wanted? Maybe, maybe not, but we certainly have a better understanding of how to work under extreme circumstances with constant heavy pressure.

The water from the shower swirled with our colorful and fantastic experience. Happy Holi!

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© Klavs Bo Christensen and Carsten Snejbjerg

Danish photographer Carsten Snejbjerg (born 1966) works freelance for various magazines and newspapers agencies worldwide. His images have appeared in Vanity Fair, Newsweek, Fortune magazine, National Geographic, Der Spiegel, GQ and the Smithsonian magazine. [This current dispatch came through World Press News]. Snejbjerg lives in Copenhagen with his young family.

To see more work, his Web site addresses are:

Danish photographer Klavs Bo Christensen's work is based on social and cultural issues in his local neighborhood of downtown Copenhagen and has been exhibited in various museums and galleries around Denmark. A few years ago he decided to do more work on stories of international interest but still with a focus on cultural, social and political issues. These have taken him to Iran, Egypt and Syria. He began working with WpN in January 2007.

To view more of Christensen's work, visit his Web site: or

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