Through the camera viewfinder it looked like a scene from an inner city riot. Fires were burning at every road intersection. Occasionally people would approach the fires and throw something on motorbikes and scooters continued to wiz past blaring their horns and treating the fires like roundabouts and this being India they would go around which ever way they wanted. The sound of drums, horns and paper trumpets filled the air. It was the evening before Holi. The fires were offering thanks to the gods and as we went further and further into the inner maze of backstreets that made the Pink City people became friendlier and friendlier, encouraging us to join them and giving us corn seed so that we could throw it on their fire and make our own offering, We were told the gods will be pleased with us and we would be blessed.
The next day the colourful part of the ceremony began. We had seen the bags of vegetable dye being marked up for transport the previous week at the Delhi Spice market. Now each of those sacks had been split and split again and those vivid colours were on sale on the street corners. What vivid colours they were, unbelievably rich and saturated. The stuff of children’s colouring book dreams.
Traditionally Holi is something that families celebrate together in a structure that seems a bit like the English Christmas. Its essentially a family thing but with a lot of recognition within the wider community. So, just as the English would go for a walk, wishing any passers by “Happy Christmas”, having a few impromptu celebrations before gathering together as a family for the main Christmas celebration so people were acting here, Wandering around, wishing people “Happi Holi” and then going home for the main celebration.
The town had identified an area for a public celebration, likewise some hotels had arranged their own celebrations on the rooftops. These arrangements seem to have been made for two reasons. Firstly, many Indian families were staying at our hotel specifically for the Holi celebrations therefor a hotel celebration worked well for both them and the tourists. The second reason is that Holi can, and does, gey out of hand. What starts out as a traditional spreading of colours on peoples faces degenerates during the day goes on. Some of this is fueled by alcohol and some by plain bullying and inappropriate touching. We started Holi early at the hotel, went into town and wandered around for a bit and then went to the extended family of our Tuk Tuk driver. It was all great fun.
We decided to go back to the hotel in the afternoon as the town was getting a bit iffy. One view is that it was just hi jinks and people getting carried away another is that some people try to hijack the festival and use it for other, other more selfish purposes. An Australian group returned to the hotel the same time as us. One of the young men said “ we decided to come back because some of them were getting a bit handy with the girls”. Ah I thought, it is just like Christmas in the UK. At one stage I did get a rather fierce facefull of green thrown in my face in a way thet made me wonder if tourists were getting special attention, but as Rudyard Kipling would say, “that is another story”.
For the rest of that day, and the next, everything was covered with fine saturated particles of colour from the festival. Beds, clothes, food, floors, shelves and us.. it took three days to wash of our skin. It was all splendid, splendid stuff.