At a colorful festival, a celebration of understanding

“There was a big, diverse crowd. They were playing with it, throwing it at each other, throwing it at us,” Carlos Bernate said of the festival. MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Carlos Bernate

Until this summer, photojournalist Carlos Bernate was only dimly aware of the Hare Krishna movement in his home country of Colombia. When he attended college in Bogotá, he sometimes saw members of the Hindu branch soliciting donations or seeking students for its yoga or meditation classes. However, Bernate’s understanding of the religious group deepened when he pulled up to the gates of one of its communities and stepped inside.

“They call it a little piece of India inside the Colombian mountains,” said Bernate, who relocated to Richmond, Va., in 2017. “And to be honest, it looks like you are entering a new country.”

The Varsana Eco Yoga Village, about 30 miles south of the capital city, had invited Bernate to photograph its Holi-inspired festival in July. The ancient Indian celebration is traditionally held in March, on the cusp of spring. Despite the date change, the essence of the event was the same, honoring the triumph of good over evil. The main activity was also identical: Participants released colorful powder that flew into the air like a flock of liberated paradise tanagers.

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When Bernate arrived at the property, he was surprised to discover a fantastical kingdom just beyond the Camelot-style archway. “I expected a small building and a community center,” he said late last month by phone from Virginia. “But when you get inside, you face this huge palace. It was surreal. I have never seen architecture like that before in Colombia.”

Participants throw colored powder into the air and splash them onto others during a Holi-inspired festival of colors at the Varsana Eco Village. MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Carlos Bernate

Bernate had free rein to explore and photograph the multifaceted compound, which included a community garden where members grow their own food, the kitchen where they prepare their vegetarian meals, the accommodations where they sleep, and the temple and halls where they meditate, pray and practice yoga. Out of respect, he did not enter a sanctuary where people were meditating.

During his wanderings, he spoke with some of the roughly 20 residents about how – and why – they ended up at Varsana. Sadananda Swami Das, whose name translates to “the one who is always happy,” told Bernate that his previous career-centric life had left him physically exhausted and spiritually depleted. He said he found purpose and fulfillment after renouncing the trappings of mainstream society and dedicating himself to the Hare Krishna faith. (According to the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, the movement arrived in Colombia in 1973 and has about 5,000 devotees and four major centers, including the Varsana enclave, which started in 1980.)

The entrance to the community, which is located about 30 miles south of Bogota. MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Carlos Bernate

“We talked about why he decided to leave everything he had,” said Bernate, who acknowledges the group’s past improprieties. “I was able to relate to him, to his values and his ideas. I wouldn’t do that, myself, but I can understand why some people would.”

In the early afternoon, the blended company of visitors and residents, children and parents, and couples and friends grabbed bags of colored powder and lobbed the contents like a gentler game of paintball. The rainbow-hued joy was contagious.

“There was a big, diverse crowd. They were playing with it, throwing it at each other, throwing it at us,” Bernate said. “We were really scared that the powder would get in our lenses, but we put bags over our equipment and we started throwing powder.”

After the dust settled, Bernate shook himself clean and headed back to Bogotá, the gate behind him closing on a world that was in, but not necessarily of, Colombia.

“Right now, Colombia is not going through one of the best times. The pandemic life has been really rough on top of an already unstable country,” he said. “It was so beautiful to put that aside for this experience. We didn’t care who you were, what you were or what you believed. We just cared about sharing a moment – to be us, to be a community.”

Bernate captured the experience in a photo essay that reflects the spirit and bonhomie of the event.

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