Saturday, March 22, 2008

Adventure 11: Holi

The day started out pretty slowly – I woke up, way later than my normal standards, got ready (which included brushing my teeth… and that’s it, and I’ll tell you why in a second), and went to breakfast at around 9:00 AM. Today was Holi, which is the popularly known harvest festival where water and colors are thrown at each other, making everyone look like artwork at the end of the day, or color-throwing session, whichever happens to come first. Holi signifies the end of the non-harvest season, as it happens to be getting warmer at this time of year. And when I say warmer, I mean HOT.


Once upon a time, thousands of years ago, there was a little boy named Prahalaad, whose father, Hiranyakashyap, was a ruthless tyrant. Hiranyakashyap demanded that everyone in his kingdom worship him as god, for he believed himself to be even greater than the gods. He had received several boons by penance enabling him to be virtually indestructible, for he could not be killed by any mortal, inside or outside, on the ground or in the sky, during the day or during the night, or by any weapons (why he didn’t just ask to not be able to be killed at all goes beyond my limited capacity for reason and logic. Maybe it was against the rules of asking boons, so he wasn’t allowed to? Maybe he just didn’t think of it? Maybe he wanted to make his invulnerability sound really cool? It is truly beyond me. If it were me, and I wanted not to die, I would have just asked for invincibility. Period. Or immortality, whichever came into my head first at the time). Prahalaad, however, was a devotee of the god Vishnu. Hiranyakashyap was very jealous and tried in many, many ways to make Prahalaad switch over (yes, conversion happened even then) and worship him. However, Prahalaad had perfect faith in lord Vishnu, or Narayan, as he is known as in the story. So Prahalaad worshipped Narayan, against the wishes of his father, and when the father knew he could not convert his son, he decided to kill him. To make a long story short, I will just say that Hiranyakashyap tried to kill Prahalaad using many methods, one of which was his sister, Holika, after whom the festival is named. Holika had a boon that she could not be burned by fire. So the idea was, take Prahalaad in lap, sit in fire. Prahalaad burns, Holika does not. On said date of burning, Holika took Prahalaad up in her lap, and sat in the fire. Prahalaad took the name of Narayan, and closed his eyes. Holika burned, Prahalaad did not. Thus on the night before Holi, many huge bonfires are started, representing the night that Holika burned, and the one who had faith in the lord was saved.


Anyways I would get on with details about my day, but I’m guessing some of you want me to finish the story of Prahalaad first. So what happened was, to keep the long story short (it’s not that long anyway, but to make a short story even shorter), the final way that Hiranyakashyap tried to kill Prahalaad with was a red hot pillar. He wanted to tie Prahalaad to the pillar, and let the boy die because of the heat. When he was about to do it, the pillar burst open and a half-man-half-lion creature erupted out of it. This was one of the avatars of Vishnu, called Narasimha. Nara means man, and simha means lion, so the name is rather fitting. Since Narasimha was not wholly a man, and not wholly an animal, and thus also not a mortal, he fulfilled the first criteria for killing Hiranyakashyap. Next, he took Hiranyakashyap to his palace and brought him into its great doorway. Thus they were neither inside nor outside. He placed him on his lap, thus letting him neither be on the ground nor in the sky. It was evening-time, so neither day nor night. And finally, he unsheathed his massive claws, which weren’t weapons of any kind, and ripped apart Hiranyakashyap’s belly. Thus ends the story of Prahalaad.


Around 9:45 AM, Kalpana and I departed from our breakfast location where we were greeted by Reeta Didi’s daughter Nishita. She put some color on both of us and we on her, and then we made our way to the other side of the Varuna River, where the kids of the Rajghat Besant School (RBS) were supposed to be playing Holi from 9:00 AM to 10:30 AM. We arrived there around 10:15 AM or so, and when we did, it was the most spectacular sight. Kids covered with all different colors on the edges of this HUGE amphitheater pit that they have at RBS, and in the middle was the largest mud fight I have ever seen. I had not taken a bath yet for this reason alone – I was going to get super dirty, and I knew it. So we started to walk down towards the pit. As we were walking down the steps, we were greeted by teachers first, got some color on our faces, and then we were greeted by the youngest kids. The progression was kind of funny – teachers first, then youngest kids, and then onwards up until the high schoolers. The youngest kids greeted us with some water and some color, squirting us with baby water guns and such. It was really cute, but when we moved on from there it became a true brawl. I made my way into the center of the amphitheater, and there the older kids were playing, including the kids that I teach music (a cappella, what else) to there. They saw me and basically loaded me up with water and color. I don’t know what happened to Kalpana after that; I was lost in the crowd of kids, as was she. And we were all slowly becoming the same color – mud.


I was watching the mud fight for a while, and during that time I got a lot of water and color thrown at me (and threw a lot at others as well)… but the mud fight looked so fun. I wanted to be part of it, but did not know how to join, as I had never been part of a mud fight before. Finally Shayur, who was also there, pushed me into the center of the mud puddle and I slipped and fell. And it was the best feeling ever. And it tasted good… The very second that I fell into the mud, about 10 kids from the 7th grade (and probably other grades too, though the 7th graders are the ones I know, because they are the ones I teach) piled up on me and smashed mud on my head, my neck, and basically every part of me that they could see. It was probably the most fun experience I have had, for many reasons. One, the ground was so soft that no matter how many times you fell it didn’t hurt. Two, it was mud, so when you ended up being submerged in it, it felt so natural… Three, it was all kids, and kids really know how to have fun. Nobody felt left out at all, and every single person was having fun. Including me. And nobody got hurt. When I got up again, I looked like everyone else – essentially a mud monster. And from then on until about 11:00 AM, when they finally stopped playing, I was as much a part of the fun as anybody else, and it felt so… good. I felt free, because I had nothing on me but my clothes, and I was so dirty (and when I say dirty, I mean covered with dirt… not dirty as in unclean, but take it how you will) that it didn’t matter what I did – I would still look and feel the same. So, without any inhibitions, I plunged into the festivities. At the end, I was soaked, covered in mud/color, hungry, exhausted, and indescribably happy. We climbed up the steps of the amphitheater and as soon as we got up there they served us chai (tea) and snacks. It was so hot and sunny outside that the mud that was all over my body started to dry up right away. I was thankful to be eating and standing in the sun.


From there, Shayur, Kalpana, Kevin, and I made our way to the guest house where we met Hema Aunty and Swamiji. We chatted for a bit, and then decided to bathe in the Ganga. The night before, we had made our way to a sandbar in the middle of the Ganga near Raj Ghat in a boat and spent some time there observing the many bonfires lit up along the banks of the river, because the night before Holi it is traditional to light a bonfire to symbolize the time when Prahalaad was saved from the fire by his faith in Narayana, and Holika burned. The sandbar was so nice and peaceful, and in such a perfect location, that we decided that was exactly where we would go to bathe. However, it had taken us one hour by boat to reach the sandbar. We decided to walk, as we discovered that there was a path by land as well, though not directly to the sandbar, but close enough where one might just be able to wade the last part of the walk towards it. So we started walking, and made it to the closest point (about 40 or 50 feet) away from the sandbar. Shayur and I saw some people bathing in the river there, and he told me “the safest thing to do when in a foreign land when it comes to getting into a river is look for where the locals bathe” so we started the journey through the water there. The locals there told us that we wouldn’t be able to make it across, it was too deep. Fortunately we are among those lucky few who know how to swim, so we started to swim across the river. Interestingly, we noticed as we looked back, we had a whole group of locals following us in a line, right where we had crossed. Our crossing, we assumed, gave them enough confidence to cross themselves. Anyways before they made it across, Shayur and I went to the other side of the sandbar and started to explore the water there, to see if it was indeed safe enough to bathe there. It was, and we got into the water.


I went to another location on the bank of the sandbar, and found a place where the meeting of sand and water had not been disturbed in what seemed like ages. I started to explore this little area, a world all on its own… with creatures I had never seen before, and the creatures of which were probably specific to this little formation only. The water was clearer than on the bank that we had come from at least, so I didn’t feel too bad about entering it. I played with the tiny fish that came up to explore my leg, dug a little sand with my foot and enjoyed the feeling of the sand giving way to my foot as it went deeper and deeper down, letting Mother Earth speak to me through her amazing grace. I called Shayur over, and we explored this world together, discovering more creatures we had never seen before, and becoming like little kids as they perform their experiments with nature formations they have never experienced before. We saw a little creature, about the size of my thumb, that resembled a lobster mixed with a grasshopper, with fins instead of wings. Though it was easy to catch, we decided to play with it a little. In playing with it we discovered that when it tried to get away from our hands, instead of swimming in the normal fashion with fins or even with a back-and-forth movement like a fish, it would barrel-roll away from our hands in the water, which apparently propelled it. This sort of movement was particularly fascinating, probably because we had never seen it before. This, I felt, is the definition of a true adventure.


We had to get back for lunch but none of us knew the time, and since judging by the sun it was just about lunchtime, we started to head back. On our way back we took a different route towards the KFI Rural Center Guest House where Kalpana and I would have our lunch. Shayur and the two uncles that came with us would then proceed from there to the KFI Main Guest House. On our way to the Rural Center, we walked through a village (which I had never seen before, surprisingly… despite the proximity to where I stay). In the village, the two uncles and Kalpana went on ahead because Kalpana was feeling a little nauseous. Shayur and I walked a little slower, taking in the village sights. It was truly fascinating, the transformation as we walked from total rural village (like you read about in the books) to semi-village with shops and whatnot, to something like township and finally to a brick road that would lead us back to the guest house.


On our way through the village a boy of about my age started talking to us, with slurred speech and a sway in his step. He put his arm around my shoulders and started to walk with us, and said his name was Sagar and he was pleased to meet us. He asked me where I was from, and I got away with saying “I’m from Delhi” (in these parts it is not the safest thing to announce that you are from another country, because people can flock you and are sometimes dangerous in numbers). His breath smelled strongly of something, but I couldn’t place the smell exactly, but I figured since it was Holi he was probably drunk on bhang. Bhang is a natural opiate that is a popular substitute for alcohol in India, though bhang can be found in almost anything, even food, especially on days like Holi and other religious holidays. It is good advice to not eat or drink anything from outside a trusted home base (if you don’t want bhang, that is) on or around such days.


We finally made it back to the brick road that would lead us back to our base, where Sagar left us and we continued on our path. At the crossroad where one path would take you to the guest house and one to the other side of the Varuna River, Shayur and I parted ways. I continued on towards the guest house to have lunch, and after lunch took the longest and most relaxing (and of course, most needed) bath I have ever taken.


watersquash said...

this is sooo cool! wow, what I would give in order to experience Holi in India (when it's NOT nearly freezing outside)! How ridiculously amazing!

Also, one of the dance performances that I was in, we played out the the story of Prahalaad. It was such a powerful drama...and it was so long ago, thank you for reminding me

mary said...