After an invite from a new acquaintance in Jaipur, and some finagling with the farm manager, it looked like we were joining the Holi party in Pushkar. Holi, which is becoming widely known and celebrated worldwide, is an Indian festival to honor the end of winter and beginning of summer. People throw colored powder at each other in the streets and also burn bonfires and make offerings. Another aspect is the forgiveness of grievances between people.
The Rajasthan town of Pushkar, about 100 kms from Jaipur, is a center of festivities with many foreigners present to join in. And so we found ourselves bumping along the road in the desert with our Rajput host Nitim, a French guy, two Canadians, and an awesome lady traveler from Wisconsin. We met other’s once we arrived in Pushkar.
The town itself is gorgeous, framed by desert mountains and full of temples and wandering streets with bazaars mostly aimed at tourists. There is a unique temple there, dedicated to the Hindu creator god Brahma, one of very few worldwide. There is a large Israeli tourist population, and has been for some time, which was explained to me as a result of young people seeking to recuperate from their mandatory military service there. Yoga and other spiritual and healing experiences are advertised in the town. Holi tourism, though, is of a rowdier flavor.
There were at least two plazas with muscular sound systems and the accompanying DJs. Colored powder and water guns were for sale everywhere. Clothing stores sold discounted Holi outfits- either white or semi-disposable or both. You don’t wear your favorite shirt during Holi!
Nitim had put together a group of foreigners, mostly through couchsurfing and volunteers from his NGO for schools in Jaipur slums. His daughter and my kids were the youngest of our group. So we were a somewhat wholesome group interested to check out the scene.
The night before Holi, we heard drumming near the hotel and went to investigate. In a dusty empty lot, we saw a pile of straw and a large group of locals with men on one side and women on the other. Two drummers with marching band style drums were making a raucous rhythm on their instruments. Individuals were stepping up to the pile and making prayers and offerings. After a few minutes, a man set the pile on fire and stepped back. People continued to make offerings of coconuts and flowers in plates as the fire grew then waned. The drummers continued for a while, then walked off to the next bonfire. Booming dance music played on giant speakers replaced the drumming. It was a little jarring to me, but the modern mixes with the ancient here and the sacred with the ordinary. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a shrine in a dance club, come to think of it. As the fire burned itself out, people approached with metal dishes on the ends of handles. They collected coals from the fire on the dish and walked away, holding the burning coals on the dish carefully in front of them as they walked away. I couldn’t tell where they were going. There were other bonfires like that one all over town. We saw the remains, heard the dance music, and saw fireworks at some of them!
We walked down to the town center, and there was more mayhem. A stage was set up and the drummers were there. A mosh pit of sorts was in the middle, but the funny thing was it was all men, rather than 20-something concert-goers, they all looked middle aged! The men here have a certain way of kind of jumping in place with their arms up in the air, hands twisting a little, and it looks raucous and oddly charming, like a kind of folk dance. Meanwhile, fireworks were being set off nearby on a low roof. We had never been so close to the explosions. We got hit by sparks. At one point, an official got on stage and welcomed everyone in Hindi and english. He had the lush Rajasthan mustache, which I took to calling a ‘Rajastache’, you can thank me later LOL, and a turban and local outfit of long shirt and blousey pants. It was hard to understand, but I could make out he was saying no alcohol or drugs are allowed and men are not allowed to grope women and police are around to keep everyone safe. Holi would be played 8-2 tomorrow and stay inside if you don’t want to play. Then he introduced some international street performers who did fire juggling, hula hooping, and other entertainment on the stage. We wandered away from that crowd and into the bazaars with their colorful scarves, glittery wall hangings, perfumes, jewelry, etc. all sparkling in the night. The shops would be closed the next day for Holi, so owners could celebrate and also probably to protect merchandise from the colored water being sprayed about. We heard an odd clacking of bamboo sticks down one alley and went to investigate. We saw a circle of men moving around a drummer. Each man had a bamboo stick in each hand and would hit sticks with the man in front of him, then turn around and do the same with the man behind him. All the time they tried to keep time with the drummer and keep moving in a circle, with varying success. We watched for a while, then had dinner at a restaurant on a roof with views of the town, its many temples and holy lake, and the fireworks still going off.
We could see spotlights at a different plaza not too far away, and of course the constant thumping bass of club music. After dinner, we moved back through the crowd past the stage and away from the chaos to the relative quiet of our hotel.
The next day was Holi. We headed out, ready for some color. We doused each other first then walked back to town, where the party was roaring in full force. On the way there we passed many vendor tables selling bags of colored powder.
We were approached by many people saying ‘happy Holi!!’ and coloring us with water guns, throwing powder, or just approaching with a gentle smear of color on the face. It was mostly groups of young men, children, and foreigners, raucous but harmless in my experience. But I could see why local women, very modest and somewhat segregated generally here, did not want to be around the scene. I read that at least one town had a women-only Holi so the ladies could frolic without fear of men taking advantage of the craziness and groping women or worse. Anyway, back at the stage was the mosh pit in full swing.
Everyone was many shades of color, powder was thrown in the air randomly, and men were taking off their shirts and throwing them on electrical wires above. It was a rave or concert scene, pulsating with color and sound right there on the town square. It was 10am in a Thursday morning! We walked around and became a mixture of every Holi color. The kids gave as well as they got and had a wonderful time in the madness. I could not believe the scene around me, I’ve never seen anything like the local middle-aged men dancing, the strangers anointing each other with color, the closed shops and swirling colorful pandemonium.
We stayed for a while then returned to the hotel for an attempt at showering and getting ready to leave Pushkar. We were all shades of color, mostly a fuchsia hue. It reminded me of a used watercolor set with the colors mixed together. The shower water ran pink, and sometimes blue. We packed and left back up the hill to Ajmer, from where we took a bus to Jaipur. My family ended that crazy and colorful day back at the farm under the quiet stars.