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Coughing through the cloud of vibrant hues, Barun and I managed to escape the furious, reddened vendor. It was hard to blame this boy from Kolkata for his cycling misadventures. Navigating through the historic streets of Jaipur on the eve of Holi was challenging. The bustling capital of Rajasthan was getting ready for the festival. Unlit holikas (bonfires) started mushrooming at every street corner, which drastically cut down road space, which was further diminished by the pedestrian traffic of last-minute shoppers and street vendors. Tomorrow, every store would keep its shutters down. The boisterous celebrations were to be enjoyed on the streets, not inside.
The Indian festival of Holi is a celebration of the victory of good over evil. According to Hindu mythology, the demon King Hiranyakashipu, wanting to be worshipped as God, was enraged when his son, Prahlad, an ardent devotee of Lord Vishnu, refused this decree. He sought his sister’s help in punishing the young lad. Holika, immune to fire, was set ablaze with a young, praying Prahlad on her lap. Prahlad’s devotion saved him, while fire-resistant Holika burned to ashes. To commemorate this legend, huge bonfires, called holikas, are lit all over India, especially in Rajasthan. The following day is celebrated as Holi, a rambunctious festival where people throw colorful dyes on each other with abandonment. Enlivening this scene is the liberal consumption of bhang, an Indian marijuana drink, making one a bit less inhibited sexually as well as socially.
Fully aware of just how uninhibited people tend to get around Holi, I decided to head out of this hectic city. The next bus out was in the evening, a four-hour journey to Nawalgarh, a village in the heart of the Shekhawati region of Rajasthan. My bus, as all buses in India are mandated to be, was completely full. The enterprising bus driver refused to leave until every inch of floor space was covered, either by fleshy butts or leathery baggage. The reveling had already begun; men on the bus staggered not due to the vibrations from the uneven road, but rather due to alcohol-induced loss of balance. The bus swerved dangerously on the country roads, falling victim to the bus driver’s attempts at avoiding beer spillage.
Shekhawati, situated in northeast Rajasthan, is famous for its painted havelis (mansions), and holds the title of “an open-air art gallery.” From the mid-1700s to early 1900s, the wealthy Marwari (people of Shekhawati) merchants who amassed fortunes by taxing traders along the Silk Road route, commissioned countless havelis. These grand mansions were adorned with colorful and detailed frescoes of varying motifs—mythological themes, Western items such as cars, trains, parasols, and at times a fusion of the two where the mythological god Krishna took his consort Radha out for a spin in his brand new automobile.
That night, on the eve of Holi, Shekhawati was a different kind of gallery. From the dust-stained window of my mobile death trap, the spluttering bus steered by a drunk driver, I could see halls filled with men dancing the lively gindar, a folk dance indigenous to Shekhawati where the men dance in a circle, holding a branch to symbolize a sword. At Nawalgarh, the desert landscape was painted with unlit holikas around every corner waiting to be set ablaze.
It was a dark night; the full moon took cover behind the darkened clouds, a rare sight in the desert. In the absence of streetlights, it was difficult to navigate through this sandy village to get to the neighborhood holika.
“A few years back,” my guide Rajesh informed, “Nawalgarh had only one holika. All the villagers would come and celebrate together. But, as the village grew, the crowd got larger, and with alcohol and bhang, fights would break out. Finally, each neighborhood built their own holika, and now we celebrate it separately.” I wondered at the consequences of this loss of community and the resulting effect on the intimate village culture.
Villagers started congregating, carrying garlands of dung patties and spades. The garlands were heaped around the unlit bonfire, and at exactly 2 a.m., the auspicious hour, the main pundit of the neighborhood, an old, balding man, shrinking in height, with four rotting teeth in his paan-stained mouth, set the pyre ablaze. Firecrackers destroyed the tranquility of the desert night. Veiled women, decked in their best finery, gathered around the blaze, their throaty folksongs lingering on the cool breeze.
A young teenager grabbed a branch out of the flames, circled the bonfire three times, and then took off running. Bewildered, I looked to Rajesh, who responded, “He wants to get married, and has requested the gods to find him a good bride. If the fire lasts till he gets home, he will be married before the end of the year. Do you want to try?” he asked, smirking as I hastily rejected the offer.
Next, a group of women followed suit. “In our culture, the first Holi after marriage is spent in the father’s house,” my helpful guide explained. “This young girl was just married a few months ago, and she has come back to request a long life for her husband and many healthy sons. The women around her are the bahus, her father’s daughters-in-law.” What about daughters, I thought. What about wanting them? What about stopping female infanticide?
Finally it was time to go back and Rajesh, like the others, spaded in a bit of the fire “to purify the home.”
That night rain pitter-pattered incessantly on the thatched roof of my hut. Thunder rolled furiously as it traveled through the dark skies. Sparks of electric charge streaked the heavens. Yet, none of these could dampen the holi festivities in Nawalgarh. Throughout the night, the local town hall blared regional and Bollywood music as if they were keeping the evil spirits at bay. Come dawn the music would give way to laughter and merriment as people painted each other with vegetable dyes, giving holi its label of “Festival of Colors.” Some day, I would join in as well. But this time, I would sit on the bench, basking in the fresh desert air, happy to stay clean and colorless.
Freelance writer Rinoti Amin travels in search of cultural adventures.