We are in Rajasthan for the Hindu festival of Holi, a celebration of Hindu spring also known as the “festival of colours”. Holi signifies the victory of good over evil, the arrival of spring, end of winter, and for many a festive day to meet others, play and laugh, forget and forgive, and repair broken relationships. It is also celebrated as a thanksgiving for a good harvest. The festival starts with the full moon and lasts two days.
Udaipur buzzes with pre-Holi activity. Piles of straw and truckloads of wood arrive. Tall wooden poles are erected in various locations, wood is piled at the base, straw stacked close by. Mobile sound stages show up. Shops are selling bags of coloured powder called gulal, fire-crackers and fireworks. There’s a palpable fission in the air.
The loudspeakers, fire-crackers and fireworks suggest it’s going to be a noisy night. The powder is a dye that gets thrown around. We’re warned to put vaseline on our skin and hair so we can wash it all off and told to buy special white cotton clothing.
We’re told that effigies of the devil will be burned on wooden stakes in order to drive evil out of the land. Another version is that one of the kings, who thought he was god, had a son who worshipped Krishna rather than the king. He planned to burn him in a fire along with his aunt, who was apparently fire-proof. Krishna intervened, burned the aunt and saved the boy.
Our Holi celebration starts with cocktails on the roof of our hotel. The full moon rises. We are just finishing appetizers when the hotel manager signals it is time to move to the alley behind the hotel.
A ten foot pole, studded with dried cow patties and firecrackers, it’s base stacked with straw and wood, is lit. The flames shoot high into the night sky. The firecrackers bang loudly and continuously, frightening the dogs, little kids and me. I take cover behind a crowd of saris. One woman pats my hand reassuringly.
Sparks fly as the effigy continues to burn. I’m sure an ember is going to land on my head and torch me. The heat, the crowd, the noise all add to the drama.
Chai, mango juice and sweets are handed around. Women with metal pots of water circle the fire, a ritual seven rounds, pouring water on the flames. It’s still burning when we return to the roof for dinner. Explosions, fires, firecrackers, music and shouting fill the air as other neighbourhood effigies are lit.
The largest, just down the street from us, has yet to be lit. We watched it being constructed earlier in the day and can’t decide if our fear is greater than our curiosity. Curiosity wins out. We arrive in time to find a perch high on a rock wall. Shortly after 10 the fire is lit. This one is full of fireworks that are launched sky high as the fire burns. It’s a spectacular, albeit dangerous, show.
The next day, early, we take the train from Udaipur to Ajmer. Sunny meets us with the van, and we drive to Pushkar, arriving for the “colour” part of Holi. In full swing! Everywhere young men are covered in gulal, the coloured dye.
Once we are in the city proper the streets are clogged with traffic, both pedestrians and scooters. We notice a fair number of drunks and a few fights. Sunny drops us at the hotel with the warning to not go out on the streets. “Very dangerous for you” he says.
By the time we have lunch and unpack and head out, the party is mostly over. What’s left is an ugly purple mess. Garbage and discarded garments, coloured powder an inch deep on the street, dazed cows, small groups of revellers, and a few elderly shopkeepers with brooms trying to clean up.
Later, after dark, the street lights illuminate the scene, making it look garish. We feel like we have wandered into a post-apocalyptical movie. Quentin Tarantino could not have dreamed up a more macabre set.
Over dinner talk turns to our impressions of Holi and we agree that the modern interpretation degrades rather than exalts the celebration. It’s as though the younger generation of scooter-driving Indian men, along with the European backpackers holed up in Pushkar, have fetishized Holi in a way that we are quite certain the gods would not approve.
The next day we see a different city. Clean(ish) and full of pilgrims. We spend four days here, during one of the holiest weeks of the year for Hindus. Not surprisingly the stories and photos and numerous, so stay tuned for another blog on another amazing adventure in India.