Wow...I just experienced the coolest festival of my lifetime! Well, tied with Navratri that is. It's called Holi, a day where everybody goes nuts and attacks everyone else with colored powder and water balloons filled with plain or colored water. This is a picture of me and Depu, the maid at my friend Michel's house. Don't we look good? It's a total free-for-all, and because I'm lazy I'm going to copy what I wrote in my journal...
March 4, 2007
Wow-best holiday ever! When else can you attack random people in the streets with colored powder and water balloons and not get in trouble?? Yesterday, all the exchange students met at Michel's house for a mini Holi party in his neighborhood garden. Why do people in the US only use plain water in their water balloons? This is way better. Miho and I returned home, our arms, clothes and faces a rainbow of colors, took showers and went down to the courtyard of the apartment building for the Holi puja (prayer).
Apparently the story behind Holi is this: there was once a prince who was a very devout Hindu, and would pass the day saying nothing but "Shri Krishna, Shri Krishna" (the name of a god) all day for 24 straight hours. This angered his father, the king, who told the prince, "Krishna is not your god, I am your only god. You must worship me instead!" When the prince (naturally) refused, the king called in his sister Holika to do the prince in. A prophecy had been made about Holika that she would not die in the day nor the night, so she was considered invincible. She took the prince and set herself and him afire. Most unfortunately for her, however, this all took place at dusk, ie neither day nor night. But fortunately for the prince, God saved him as he was such a religious man, while Holika was burnt to a crisp.
So now at dusk on the day before Holi, a puja is held with a big bonfire which symbolizes the burning of Holika and represents the burning of all bad thoughts and actions. (For the record,I have no idea how the color extravaganze fits in with all this.) When we came down to the courtyard, there was a big bonfire of straw, wood and dried cow pies (shudder) prepared, and all the women from the apartment building with their little puja trays sitting around it. A Hindu priest walked around the (unlit) bonfire, chanting prayers and giving instructions to the women on the correct puja procedure to be followed. It involved making a little packet of a betel leaf filled with a betel nut, flowers dipped in red tikka paste, holy water, etc. Then the bonfire was lit, and everyone moved forward, tossing the remaining contents of their puja dishes (rice, chhola, color powder, etc) into the fire, as well as a coconut for good measure. Then the men and women walked around the fire in pairs, the women carrying her pot of holy water and spilling a little at each step. Some men standing by knocked the coconuts out of the fire after a while, cracked them open and distributed the meat to everyone.
Then today, Miho and I went back to Michel's for some more Holi this morning. It was crazy...this time, it was his entire neighborhood, rather than just the 5 of us, getting in on the action. For the first half hour or so, everyone had bags of colored powder and we went around smearing it on each other's face, neck, arms, hair, etc saying "Happy Holi!" By the end we were all wearing powdery, brightly colored masks - I felt like one of those guys that paints their face for a football game. Only mine was way better of course.
After all this, the water fight started with a vengeance. Kids were running around with water guns and balloons filled with every color imaginable, and some guy had turned on the hose and made a huge mud puddle in the grass. I had no idea that a mud bath was part of Holi, but we were all made to sit in it while everyone splashed the murky water on us. Yuck...but in a few momentswe were out and it was the splasher's turn to wallow in the gunk. After that, a quick rinse with the hose, and then straight to the balloons. Our group was sadly lacking in any colored water, so we filled up our balloons with the brown water from the big mud puddle. Disgusting? Definitely. But today is the one day when anything goes, and hitting people with brown-water balloons is totally acceptable.
Now I'm back home, after a pretty ineffective shower - I've still got little streaks of pink on my face and a dab of green on my nose - and sitting looking out of the window. Everyone going by in rickshaws, 2-wheelers or walking (extremely dangerous, especially while walking under apartment buildings - full of kids just waiting for someone to bomb with their water balloons) is covered in color. Pink seems to be a favorite. Some people riding on the backs of 2 wheelers have bags of powder and are throwing handfuls as they pass people. The best part is that nobody gets angry at these random attacks - everyone expects to be completely covered in color by the end of the day, so one more balloon or handful of powder doesn't matter. What a holiday.