melanie ball

feet first travel writing
Happy Holi (India) by Melanie Ball 

Think pink if you will be in India for Holi, because of all the powders thrown and water splashed during this free-for-all festival of colour, red/pink is the longest lasting. Sacrifice some old clothes, or buy a white shirt and pants, and accept that you will sport punk-pink hair at any business meeting or social event scheduled within three weeks, for Holi is as fun as India gets and should not be missed. Fourteen travellers from Australia, New Zealand, America and England, we are weary and a bit wary when our sleeper train pulls into Jaisalmer.  But the western Rajasthan city is quiet and shows no hint of the revelry to come.  It is the calm before the storm. A fairy-tale cluster of yellow sandstone surrounded by desert, the Golden City of Jaisalmer is smaller, and centuries older, than Jaipur, Udaipur, and Jodpur, the other three cities on most Rajasthan itineraries. The heart of the city is Jaisalmer Fort, a maze of paved alleys lined with shops, palaces, and the homes of several hundred people, and resting against its high walls like drift sand is the “old city”.  It is from our old-city hotel, Nachana Haveli an 18th-century merchant’s house owned and run by a minor royal family, that we bravely emerge four hours after arriving in town.  Noted in pre-Christian religious works, Holi festival is linked with several Hindu stories.  Legend suggests its name comes from Holika, sister of demon king Hiranyakasyapa, who ordered her to kill his son Prahlad for refusing to renounce Vishnu. Possessing the power to walk through fire, Holika set alight a pyre beneath herself and her nephew, but she was burnt to ashes and Prahlab left unscathed.  A three-day celebration of the victory of righteous forces over demonic ones, Holi also celebrates the coming of spring and the new harvest.  Starting on full moon in March, it takes on different forms across India. In Rajasthan the first day is for preparation, the second for bonfires (many people burn Holika effigies) and the third for letting fly with green (compassion, purity and harmony), yellow (energy, intellect and awakening), orange (happiness, joyousness and optimism), and red (vibrancy, energy and love) powders. My friend Jane and I are covered in colour within minutes of leaving our hotel and it is everywhere, including between our teeth and in our ears, when we return. Welcoming men wipe colour down our cheeks and sprinkle it on our heads, one removing our hats to decorate our hair.  “Happy Holi!”  Children fire coloured water from syringe-like pumps, somehow controlling their trigger fingers when we have a camera in hand.  “Happy Holi!” Youths gathered at the fort gates and in the alleys beyond challenge us to run the gauntlet and while several female friends later complain of being groped at every turn, Jane and I are luckier.  (Most Indian women stay indoors for this part of Holi.) Having survived several ambushes by children as we explore the labyrinth of alleys, we come to a dead end at the fort wall.  There’s a sweeping view of Jaisalmer and the Great Thar Desert from the top, where a Swiss woman joins us. She comes to Jaisalmer every year to stay with the family who live in the house behind us, two storeys of stone built in the 1400s and listed by UNESCO. The Holi-daubed uncle of the house taps on a large, flat drum while we drink marsala tea. From there we backtrack and turn off to a cluster of Jain temples. Jainism is the oldest continuous monastic tradition in India. The temple we enter is full of arches and columns carved with voluptuous women. We exit just in time to join the powder-tossing crowd thronging around the King of Holi, a man wearing a red turban and accompanied by a uniformed boy. Unfamiliar to our Indian guide, this annual coronation seems to be a Jaisalmer tradition. Three hours of mayhem paints Jaisalmer red and everyone on the streets multiple hues - even the sacred cows are splashed and striped. But calm is returning as we start back to our hotel, and by dusk most restaurants and shops inside the fort have reopened. Rajasthan carpets and mirrored clothes spill from doors locked earlier, and the air smells of curry and pizza. I can’t believe it is the same city.  Then I step into a puddle of pink water. 
“Happy Holi!”
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