Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Happy Holi!

In some places in India, there are more festivals than there are days of the year. In fact, life in India is pretty much one big festival and they certainly know how to celebrate it.

Though I've experienced lots of little festivals in three months, I'd been looking forward to experiencing one of North India's biggest festivals: Holi.
Holi is a Hindu festival celebrated on the full moon day of the Phalgun month (usually February/March). There are so many legends surrounding Holi that is difficult to get a clear grasp on the events. As one legend has it (in a very short summary), someone was thrown into a fire but spared his life because he prayed to Lord Vishnu.

For weeks ahead, I was trying to pinpoint an ideal location to spend the color festival. The festival sounded to be comparable to the fun of Thailand's Songkran festival, except warnings to exercise extreme caution on Holi. I've heard some Indians describe how they've seen Holi transform into a “rude holiday,” with excessive drinking and public molestation of women.

Incidents of rowdy groups of Indian pulling off the clothing and groping foreign women was repeatedly brought to my attention as a warning. Unsure if I'd be traveling alone or with friends at this point, I was anxious to find a place that I could stay safe without having to sit in my guesthouse all day.
Varanasi has a big and bold celebration of it's own, but I was itching for something less chaotic. I decided to head to a small village near Bodh Gaya where I'd be volunteering earlier than planned to experience how the real India celebrates Holi.
Holi war begins on the streets of Bakrour village
Here in Sujata-Bakrour village near Bodh Gaya, I've been treated like royalty and looked after as if I was their own. Village life and volunteering at the NGO deserve its own post another time.

On the first of two days of Holi, I joined some Japanese students in celebrating village-style with some orphan boys from the Niranjana Project. The morning color fight got a little too messy for my taste, with mud and I don't even want to know what kind of mysterious liquids and cow shit from the village streets. We were quick to shower before contracting too many diseases, and emerged again past noon for the color-only celebration.
Mud and color soaked with some Japanese students
studying abroad in India and boys from the orphanage
I shadowed Siddhartha, the NGO project director, around the village visiting his friends and family. The tradition among locals to wish one another a Happy Holi by exchanging powder streaks on each others faces (or feet, if they are of a higher caste or age). In every home we visited, we were colored and force-fed chai and traditional Holi sweets.

I couldn't have imagined a better way to spend Holi - in a place where I could both partake in the experience and observe how the village people enjoy their holiday. I was under strict instruction not to go outside by myself and especially to avoid the 10-minute walk to Bodh Gaya city during the two-day holiday for one reason only: drunk, reckless Indian men.

It is in the big cities that Holi has gotten the reputation of becoming an ugly festival. Even in Bodh Gaya, a smaller Buddhist city, there was rumored to be a murder of an Indian fellow as the outcome of a drunken brawl. Even the safe compound of the village was not free of overly-intoxicated men, as Holi is one of the only days in India without limits.
I didn't get a picture when this drunk man had two bottles of
whiskey tied on a rope around his neck all day
I discussed with Siddhartha, as someone who has spent time in both America and Japan, why is it that excessive drinking on Holi causes so many problems in India? In America, we too, have the custom to drink large quantities in times of celebration. Sure, poor decisions sometimes go hand in hand with too much to drink, but here, in this sexually repressed country where alcohol is forbidden on most days, men drink themselves into a stupor erasing all morals. But that, too, is another topic for another time.

In any case, the relatively censored version of Holi that I experienced was a beautiful blending of colors and friendships.
Some village children asked me if we had a similar festival in America.
I could see the pity on their faces when I told them we do not.
Siddhartha and village baby

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