It’s staggering to think that my previous 18 visits to India had never coincided with the Holi festival. So this year I decided that had to be put right, and if I was going to experience Holi, it had to be to be at a place where they really don’t hold back !
Rajasthan seemed to the region I should head for, and having seen quite a bit of Rajasthan in previous trips I decided to head for Jodhpur, and specifically stay in the old city where I could immerse myself in the thick of it :-).
My account of Holi will be in three blogs, primarily because it’s hard to reduce over 1,000 photos into a manageable size for a single posting ! They will be :
- Day 1 – Holika Dahan
- Day 2 – Rangwali Holi
- Day 3 – How to protect your camera and yourself for Holi
What is Holi ?
Holi is a Hindu festival celebrated on the full moon day in March, and essentially celebrates the victory of good over evil, the start of Spring, and the hope of a good harvest that year.
The name Holi comes from an evil queen called Holika, whose brother was a demon king named Hiranyakashipu. He was a power crazy king with aspirations to become a God, and earned a boon from Brahma that made him virtually indestructible.
His son however, Prahlada, was devoted to Vishnu and refused to only worship his father. Despite his father’s attempts to change this, by torture and even attempted murder, Prahlada remained steadfast in his beliefs.
Eventually, in steps Holika to try and assist her brother. She tricks Prahlada to sit on a pyre with her in the hope of burning him to death. To save herself, Holika wore a shawl that protected her from the heat and flames of the burning fire. But at the critical moment, the shawl flew away from Holika and wrapped itself around Prahlada. He survived, and Holika perishes.
In an alternative narrative, Holika only has the ability to withstand the fire if she is with someone else on the pyre. Prahlada prays to Lord Vishnu who saves him, leaving Holika alone to burn to death.
The legend with its alternative endings amount to the same thing – good winning over evil.
Holi Day 1 – Holika Dahan
As soon as I stepped out onto the narrow streets of Jodhpur old city that morning, you could sense the day was different to any other day. Everywhere preparations were being made for the evening festivities and the following day. Shops were selling a vast array of powders in every colour imaginable together with water pistols, water guns, balloons – and clearly it was going to be a good day for business.
But perhaps even more noticeable than that was the sheer volume of people selling two specific items; a stripped branch painted with white and pink bands, and stalks of wheat. Both these items, used for rituals that evening, were sold in pairs.
I love how things can change so quickly in India. The previous afternoon I was walking the exact same lanes and there was not a hint that any of this was going to occur the following day, I didn’t see a single painted stick/branch or stalk of wheat. As if by magic, the next day you simply can’t avoid it !
I headed to the Shri Gangashyam Maharaj Mandir (temple) which was nearby where I was staying. This is a busy place at the best of times, with a vibrant temple and market area, the perfect spot for some street photography.
What I didn’t expect was for there to be some Holi colour liberally coated on people during today, I thought all of that was reserved for the second day of Holi. There was no sign of any of this happening on the streets, and it seemed to be all coming from within the temple.
I hadn’t yet protected my camera for any of the Holi colours (and water) that I knew would be happening the next day, so I wanted to play it a little safe. I did quickly venture into the temple, and sure enough, colours were being thrown. I retreated back outside and positioned myself next to a flower seller…a somewhat tactical move as I knew nobody would throw something at me that would end up all over the flowers. Tomorrow I wouldn’t mind any of that, but it wasn’t for today.
Heading back through the streets of the old city in the late afternoon, preparations were well underway for the evening. At almost every convergence of a street or lane, a bonfire was being built with wood, twigs and dung. Holi colours were decorating the floor, wishing people a “Happy Holi”, and the air was filled with anticipation.
I had heard about the lighting of bonfires on Holika Dahan, but for whatever reason I assumed these would be huge affairs similar to what happens on our Guy Fawkes night (bonfire night) in the UK.
So my thoughts were initially that I’d have to go down to centre of Jodhpur near the clock tower to see any of this. I couldn’t have been more wrong, the bonfires were everywhere…within 100m of where I was staying there were at least four, and possibly more. They were very much built by the small local communities, each one attracting 10 – 100 people.
The bonfire of course symbolises the burning of Holika and that triumph of good over evil. After sunset, at around 7 – 8pm, the rituals begin.
Puja’s are conducted around the bonfire, throwing flowers and oils, before it is lit.
People started dancing and singing, burning their wheat stalks, and poking the end of their painted stick/branch into the fire.
The bonfires are not all lit at exactly the same time, so I ended up floating around a number of them capturing things as they unfolded. It’s quite chaotic, but an amazing friendly atmosphere.
As the bonfires started to die down, many people were taking some of the embers and ashes away with them. Historically the day after the burning of Holika people would ritually apply the ashes of the bonfire on their foreheads in celebration.
This does still often happen today as the ashes are believed to have medicinal properties, but it’s been largely replaced now by the application of coloured powders in a far more enthusiastic way 🙂
It doesn’t take long for the fires to die down and people start to retreat to their homes for dinner. Although quite something to experience, you sense this is the calm before the storm…
Tomorrow is the big day, tomorrow is Rangwali Holi. I return to my haveli to have dinner, and to prepare the camera and myself for what the day holds in store for me…
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