KAPOORS ON THE ROAD
In India people don’t colour eggs for Easter, they colour each other for Holi.
We could have easily lingered in Rajasthan (after all, there are plenty of forts we haven’t visited yet) but we wanted to be back in Delhi to celebrate the Holi Festival once again. This was my third Holi (once before in 1995 and again in 1999) and I looked forward to the fun associated with this unique event.
Holi takes place at the full moon during late March or early April. This year it coincided with the Spring Equinox, the Christian Easter and the Muslim Eid. Everyone in Northern India was looking forward to a well-deserved long weekend break. Holi marks the return of warm weather and is celebrated with coloured powder, water fights and special sweet treats. It’s a time for families to gather and enjoy each other’s company. There is no formality of visits to temples or puja ceremonies performed in the home. New clothes are purchased and worn and a special drink called bhang is permitted. Bhang is a milk drink laced with marijuana and is probably responsible for much of the outrageous antics witnessed on the streets of cities and villages alike.
No one ‘plays’ Holi like the people of Braj southwest of Delhi. Braj is a cultural centre rather than a political entity. It includes Mathura, the birthplace of Krishna some 12,000 years ago, Vrindavan where Krishna cavorted with the gopis (cow maids), Barsana, the hometown of Radha and several other communities. There is a sense of expectancy as Basant Panchami (Spring Festival) approaches and the men of Nandgaon village arrive in throngs to play Holi with the women of Barsana, the village of Radha, Krishna’s consort. For the next forty days, the revelry hardly ceases. Time does not seem to have lessened the authenticity of the celebration, tourists rarely come and when they do, it’s not to participate but to watch from the margins.
The men are greeted by stick-wielding women with their faces concealed by veils tied tightly over their faces. The men carry wooden shields or baskets to ward off the blows. The ‘battle’ occurs in a narrow lane that allows onlookers above to pour buckets of coloured water on the ‘warrior’ below. The word Holi is derived from the word hullar which roughly translates as ‘playing rowdy’. The men are all dressed in white kurta-pajamas while the women are dressed like the ancient gopis in vivid lehnga-cholis with bright odhnis (headscarves) covering their faces.
The following day, the people of Barsana return the favour by descending on Nandgaon, men, women, and children singing and frolicking all the way, for another day of hullar. For the next forty days, Holi is played in many ways, from the bizarre to the beautiful. Each celebration is a reenactment of some piece of Krishna lore. By the end of the forty days, not a stone is left uncoloured in Vrindavan, not even the stark white saris of the widows. For a while, traces of colour remain to remind people of the spring festival, but eventually the relentless sun and the enveloping dust turn the streets back to their simple Indian appearance.
Even if you were a newcomer to the Holi Festival, you would probably notice vendors sitting in front of mounds of shockingly bright coloured powders and would wonder what these are used for. They are purchased in great quantities for throwing on friends, relatives and neighbours. Water plays a major role in the festival too and now water soakers have joined the squirt guns to help in the fun. The Holi festival takes place in a small way over the course of a week, but the major action occurs on the last day of the festival and people need to be aware that if they venture out of their homes, they are fair game.
People usually wear old clothes because not all of the colour washes out. In the past, faces, clothes and even stray dogs and wandering cattle were often stained for days afterwards but new powders on the market seem to be just as bright but not as permanent. Like many playful festivals worldwide, recent years have seen a rash of nasty pranks entering the scene. There have been reports of harsh chemicals and even cow dung thrown on unsuspecting revelers. The government has undertaken major advertising campaigns to encourage safe Holi activities and recipes for natural colours are printed in the papers so that people can avoid the artificial powders that can cause damage to eyes and skin.
We all woke up late on Saturday morning and sat quietly drinking our first round of chai (tea) and wondering if and when someone would start things off. None of us were particularly keen to get drenched in powder and we peeked out of the windows and watched the children in the housing complex having a great time with colour and water. We decided we would just let things slide after all and settled in to have a late breakfast. Holi is usually over by late morning, kind of an unspoken rule of the festival. It means that most people can get out on the streets again in their good clothes without having to worry too much about having their regular clothes spoiled.
It was just about 11:30am when the doorbell rang and Ajay and Neeta went to see who it was. They are new to this complex as Ajay just retired in November 2007 and they moved here five months ago. We heard them laugh and then they entered covered in red powder. The couple from next door had arrived with sweets and ‘played’ Holi on them both. Well, that was enough to get the fun started. Anil and I felt we couldn’t be left out and we asked for a dab or two ourselves. As you can see from the photos, we ended up with more than a little colour ourselves. Dhriti arrived from upstairs and got into the act and then finally Tanuj ventured out from his bed for some fun. We really have the neighbours to thank for getting us started because I’m afraid it would have been a complete dud if the matter was left up to us. We never got into the water play, that seems to be something the children enjoy and the adults join in only if they get soaked by the kids.
Adia and Raj really enjoyed Holi when we were here in Delhi in 1999 and now, I can hold up my red and green head and not have to hide from the ribbing we would have received if we had let Holi pass without colour. At the end of the fun, we all enjoyed some gujjia, the traditional sweet pastry Neeta had made for us to enjoy.