Pushkar, India, on Holi. That color-blind husband of mine really enjoys getting into the local culture. He digs in with great passion, even when the event is all about colors.
At the start of Holi, he went to the main square in the evening to watch the bonfire being lit and the official festivities begin. He may have been one of the oldest Westerners there, but he was there.
In his words:
How often do you get to stay in a former palace on the edge of one of the most sacred lakes in India? And how often do you get to stay there during one of the most important festival events of the year in India? Namely, as Jo described it in her previous blog entry, Holi. And we’re just a few streets away from the center of the action? I’m thinking not too often. So, I decided to embrace the opportunity, despite the potential dangers involved.
This was unusually intriguing because I found an internet rating of the five best “kick-ass” locations for celebrating Holi, and Pushkar was one of them. Apparently, there are thousands of foreign visitors here for the event. We were told that it has a particular attraction for Israelis. It’s interesting to see signs around town with Hebrew translations and the hoards of people packing into the falafel stands that are clustered together in one area of the market. (We were told later that the Israelis used to favor Goa but when the Russians moved in, the Israelis moved onto other places, like Pushkar.) There were also a lot of French, Italians, Spanish as well as those Americans in their tie-dyed T-shirts and dreadlocks. Needless to say, elaborate tattoos flourished as well.
The dangers with this particular festival begin with the preliminary ritual at sundown of the first day of the celebration when a large bonfire is built with dead branches (symbolizing the end of winter?) and loaded with tons of flowers on top and around (symbolizing the beginning of spring?).
This bonfire was erected in a small square in the middle of the town. The crowd kept perilously close to the unlit bonfire – me included — while preliminary loud music and dancing that mostly consisted of jumping up and down with arms raised. Most people of my age group and ethnicity were safely perched in cafes, restaurants and walls that overlooked the bonfire location. But, me? Nah. Let’s get as close as possible packed in with a crowd that was about 95 percent young Indian men – all chanting and taking selfies.
After much chanting and loud descriptions of what all this ritual meant which, of course, I did not understand a word, the fire was finally lit by some specially selected people. Before the fire was started, the police came around and tried to get the crowd to step back and to clear the area where I was standing. I had secured that spot about an hour before and, like the guys standing around me, we refused to give up this prime location.
Well, the fire started and very quickly things got really hot and a stampede followed to get out of the way of the spraying embers. I was in the middle of that stampede and I suddenly remembered stories of past news stories from India where hundreds of people were trampled to death during similar “celebrations.” To be honest, it was pretty terrifying.
The accompanying video of the lighting of the fire ends abruptly when I was pushed along in this crowd while praying I would not fall to the ground to be crushed to death by the weight of throngs of Indians – even if it meant a shortcut to nirvana. The experience, by the way, cured me of any interest in running the bulls in Pamploma.
I was able to fight my way back through the crowds to the palace hotel to prepare for the dangers of the next day. The Holi festival of colors. Supposedly, this is to celebrate good harvests and land fertility, plus bringing all the various castes of people on a single level. I’m not sure that was what was in the mind of the people on the streets tossing handfuls of colored powder on one another. And not just throwing these powders but rubbing it onto to faces, into hair and on all parts of clothing or bodies, if at all unclothed.
To prepare for this, I bought a pure-white two-piece Holi outfit ($5) that I could throw away after the event. Also, I was told it would be best to slather myself with coconut oil – skin and hair – which would make getting the stuff off more easily. Yesterday, there were countless stands selling bags of different colored powders. The other feature of the fun were high-powered squirt guns. Just in case, I guess, the colors you were wearing hadn’t fully blended together for that living tie-died look.
As you can see, I started my stroll through the color mayhem with a crisp white outfit. It didn’t take long for all that white to attract the attention of someone intent on showing the fun of the day by flinging a handful of red powder across my chest. I welcomed it. This was part of the deal.
Some of the young people were a little hesitant to approach me with the powder. Many older people and shopkeepers were able to absent themselves as powder targets. But after it became evident that I was a willing participant, I was a constant recipient. I noticed that instead of the aggressive flinging of powders – and squirt guns –the powder applied to me was mostly done on my face, my head and neck and sometimes on my shoulders with a kind of caress and with the word “uncle.” A sign of respect for the old? Notice, however, that I was not referred to as “grandfather.” So, that was some comfort. I did realize that the powder applied to me was done with the same reverence as it was to the sacred cows roaming the street. So for me and the cows, sacred is sacred, OK?
At the end, as the after picture shows, I felt like a decorated Easter egg. And in a way, I suppose, it expresses a similar thing. The celebration of spring with bright, fresh colors.
All in all, a “kick-ass” event.