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Author David Abram reminiscences about his first taste of Holi, India’s vibrant spring festival.
One of the great things about India, at least from a first-time visitor’s point of view, is the regularity with which you’re confronted by the unexpected, or inexplicable. Sometimes these little novelties can come in the form of pleasant surprises. Sometimes they’re frustrating. And sometimes, India can seem just plain surreal.
Take, for example, the first time I encountered Holi, the Hindu spring festival of colour. I was a teenager on a gap year, wandering around wide-eyed on a budget of about £3/day, bemused and enthralled by the unfamiliarity of it all. ‘Weird’ had become the new ‘normal’. Why is that man sitting up to his neck in river sand, with ash smeared over his face and marigolds in his hair? What are those boys doing sprinting down the beach with a buffalo on a rope? Where’s that loud singing and drumming coming from at this hour of the night?
On the morning in question, I’d been travelling by local bus through Madhya Pradesh, heading for the temples of Khajuraho. We’d pulled into the square of some dusty, two-bit town for a chai stop, and I noticed lots of the locals were milling around excitedly. Most were covered in bright pink and blue paint. “Here we go again” I muttered to myself.
Now – quite why I decided to take a closer look, I shall never know. But for some reason I stepped off the bus and headed for a gang of lads about my own age standing nearby. Seconds later, all hell broke loose. Bucket loads of dye were flying through the air, along with clouds of canary-yellow powder and day-glow green sludge. Someone dressed as Rambo was even using a bicycle pump to spray me with purple pigment.
By the end of it, I looked like a contestant from some masochistic Japanese game show. And the sight was drawing a huge crowd. It was time to beat a retreat.
The bus driver was gesticulating wildly from his cab. “Jaldi! Quick . . “ I leapt aboard just as the old Tata was lumbering into second gear, pursued by a volley of paint bombs. One flew through the open window of the bus, hitting the gentleman next to me in the side of the head and sending a cascade of crimson over his crisp white shirt.
He brushed ineffectually at the mess with a handkerchief, and looked at me, eyebrows raised in a gesture of infinite resignation: “Holi hai” (“It’s Holi”). Which is how I first found out about the Hindu festival of colour.
Celebrated all over the country in the full-moon phase of Phalgun month, which usually falls in late-February/early-March, Holi marks the arrival of spring. Bonfires of dried leaves and logs are lit the night before; and on the morning itself, families and friends gather to plaster each other in brightly coloured ‘gulal’ powders.
In homes and hotels, the event is thoroughly good natured, even demure. But wander into the local bazaar and it’s a different story. Holi traditionally turns social and gender norms on their head. Anyone and everyone is fair game, especially females and foreigners. Suffice to say, women travellers and anyone of a sensitive disposition are best advised to watch the mayhem from a safe distance, or at the very least, don a set of old clothes.
Three decades on from my first brush with Holi, I’m still no clearer as to what it’s really all about. I know the celebration has roots in Krishna worship and ancient Sanskrit drama, and that there’s supposed to be some connection with sublimated desires and fertility. But that doesn’t fully explain the fervour with which it’s followed in places such as Vrindavan and Mathura, in Uttar Pradesh, where shrines associated with Lord Krishna and his curvaceous consort, Radha, are reduced to a seething mass of multi-coloured delirium, like a cross between an Ibiza foam party, Valencia’s Tomatina festival and a rainbow parade – with the saturation and volume sliders set to ‘max’.
My clothes never did recover from that first paint bombing on the bus. And to tell the truth, neither did I. The experience, like a lot of others since, got under my skin and now forms part of the mysterious force that keeps pulling me back to India after all these years.
Only these days, I’ve come to expect the unexpected.
Experience Holi for yourself with our special Glimpse of India Holi departure on the 4th March 2012.
The tour includes a traditional Holi lunch in Agra and a chance to join in the festivites by playing Holi in, as David mentioned, a 'thoroughly good natured' way.
Plus we're offering 10% off if you book before 31st January 2012.