Holi - The Festival of Joyful Abandon
The Hindu festival of Holi marks the start of spring with a joyous and messy party. Known as "the festival of colours", the Hindu celebration of Holi marks the coming of spring and the fertility of the land, but also has deeper roots in Hindu mythology. There once lived a king who demanded everyone in the kingdom worship him. On discovering his son bowed to a gentler god, the king tried to have him killed. When several attempts failed, the king's sister Holika - after whom the festival is named - intervened. Holika believed she was immune to fire and coaxed her nephew into a burning furnace. She burned to death, but the prince was left unscathed. And so, for one day each March, the people of north India shower each other with "gulal" - coloured powder mixed with water - as a symbol of energy, life and joy, and the triumph of good over evil.
In 2008, The Guardian commissioned Anita Kaushal to write a piece on Holi.
It is not the first time I have woken up to find make-up smeared down my face after a late night, but on this morning the colours were rather more virulent than usual. I peered at my reflection with its smudges of bright pink and luminous green. It took a moment for my brain to register the reason for this colourful mess. We were on holiday in north India to celebrate the Holi festival and my husband had, in a pre-emptive strike, daubed my face with coloured powder as I slept.
We were staying at Rohet Garh, a 40-minute drive from Jodhpur airport, with our children, Milli, 7, and Manav, 4, and two friends and their daughter Maya, 7. Rohet Garh is a palace heritage hotel with rooms dripping in miniature paintings, ornate mirrored panels, silk fabrics and family photos and mementos, and set around a manicured lawn complete with strutting peacocks. But the real pull is the presence of the Maharaja Sedath Singh and his family who still live at the hotel. It feels like the home of an old family friend, albeit a very flamboyant one. We were greeted by a brass band and marigold garlands, and the Maharaja took our children by the hand and introduced them to his grandchildren.
Known as "the festival of colours", the Hindu celebration of Holi marks the coming of spring and the fertility of the land but also has deeper roots in Hindu mythology. There once lived a king who demanded everyone in the kingdom worship him. On discovering his son bowed to a gentler god, the king tried to have him killed. When several attempts failed, the king's sister Holika - after whom the festival is named - intervened. Holika believed she was immune to fire and coaxed her nephew into a burning furnace. She burned to death, but the prince was left unscathed. And so, for one day each March, the people of north India shower each other with "gulal" - coloured powder mixed with water - as a symbol of energy, life and joy, and the triumph of good over evil.
We had decided to celebrate Holi in the confines of the hotel, rather than on the city streets, where the fun can descend into a free-for-all and be intimidating for young children. The morning started off calmly enough with the customary act of a little powder self-consciously smeared on each other's faces but became more raucous as the day wore on, as guests grew more competitive, spraying water guns and lobbing balloons filled with coloured powder at each other. Dressed in white sheets to protect their clothes, the kids ran riot, firing red, green, pink, yellow and orange goo. They couldn't believe their luck, being allowed to make such a mess safe in the knowledge they wouldn't be told off.
Narrowly dodging yet another powder missile, I heard the sound of drums, bells and people singing. The din grew louder until we could see groups of 30 or so villagers coming through the palace courtyard. There are 12 sub-villages in and around Rohet which fall under the jurisdiction of the Maharaja, and it is traditional for the villagers to pay their respects during Holi. The maharaja greeted each group with the customary embrace, smearing colour on cheeks and exchanging sweets. The older members of each village sat on the marble floor beside the maharaja who passed around a hooka, while the younger men and children joined the fun outside.
Come evening, the Maharaja, his family, friends and guests gathered in the courtyard to watch the entertainment by the villagers. First up was a young magician who sat cross-legged on the floor and kept the kids enthralled. Next, dancers whirled fire batons to the sound of fast and furious drums. Finally, there was a special performance for the night of Holi in the form of gair, a Rajasthan folk dance. The children were so excited by this point, they decided to put on their own show, starting with a recital of an AA Milne poem, and finishing with a first-class Bollywood number.
We were staying at Rohet Garh for three nights and could quite happily have spent the entire time relaxing in its gardens or lolling by the pool. But we were lured out by the prospect of a picnic at the hotel's outpost, a camp in the Thar Desert. Open-top jeeps arrived to drive us through the lush countryside to a lone tent billowing in the gentle breeze. Three men dressed in starched uniforms and white gloves waited with chilled Kingfisher beer, champagne and juice. There were grilled meats, lentils, chapatti, salads, and even pasta and chips for fussy children. After lunch, we settled down on bolsters as the guide entertained the children with myths and legends, and let slip that Madonna once stayed at the hotel and ate on the very same spot: "She little moody, but Mr Ritchie, very nice man."
After lunch, we set off for a guided tour of the village of Rohet, stopping first at a peacock-blue stone house (denoting a Brahmin family residence) in which a group of 15 or so men were sitting cross-legged around a small stove. The head of the house indicated to our guide to bring us closer and offered us an opium-laced drink, a regular post-lunch ritual for the men of the village. I had visions of slumping into a corner to wake some time the next day, but the heavily diluted, the bitter liquid was no stronger than my morning Starbucks. The children looked on with complete disinterest but perked up when we moved to the kitchen where the women smiled and handed them dough to knead.
We moved on to a second nearby community, visiting the home of the original green warriors, the Bishnoi. The Bishnoi live a simple life advocated by their guru, Jambeswar Bhagvan, born in 1451 in one of the warrior sects of Rajasthan. He formed religion of peace based on 29 ("bish", 20; "noi", nine) principles, including compassion for all living beings, cleanliness, devotion, a vegetarian diet and truthfulness. We visited the home of an elderly man who talked, through our guide, with a gentle conviction of the benefits of looking after the earth and its people. As I looked around the villages, I imagined my mother as a child, walking these fields, cooking in these kitchens. I felt the pangs she must have felt at leaving her small, sheltered community to spend weeks on a ship bound for England to settle down with a man she had only recently met and married.
Our next stop was Jaipur, where we were staying at Shahpura House, well insulated from the bustle and chaos of the city but only 10 minutes from downtown. Again, the owners, the Singh family, still live here, giving it the feel of an upmarket guesthouse rather than a hotel. Rooms are decorated with frescoes, stained-glass windows, brass ornaments and lanterns.
We decided to treat ourselves to dinner at Rambagh Palace. Built in 1835, it was once a royal guesthouse and hunting lodge but was converted into a palace in 1925, when it became the residence of the Maharaja of Jaipur. It remained the home of the Jaipur royal family until 1957 when it was converted into a luxury hotel. Rooms here can cost hundreds of pounds a night, but dinner for four - eating on the veranda overlooking the manicured gardens and fountains - came in at £60, including wine.
The next day we headed to the Amber Fort, once the summer palace of the Maharaja of Jaipur. We arrived early, not wanting to miss the morning elephant ride past the time-ravaged, rugged walls that lead to the fort. Once inside, the children spent time exploring the miniature paintings and jewelled walls, but their favourite room was the stunning Sheesh Mahal, covered entirely in mirrors.
Culture and history covered, we devoted the afternoon to shopping at the famous town of Sanganer on the Tonk Road, about 16km from Jaipur. Renowned for its crafts, hand-printed textiles and handmade papers, Sanganer is easier to navigate with children than the teaming bazaars of Jaipur. We visited a small mill where the children tried their hand at block printing and watched a craftsman weaving a rug, which would take some nine months to complete.
That evening we visited Chokhi Dhani in the suburbs of Jaipur, a sort of Indian theme park in the style of a Rajasthani village, set in 18 acres. It's a strange concept for foreign visitors but hugely popular with Indian tourists. We were showered with flower petals and guided to rows of terracotta huts housing henna artists, palm readers, face painters, fire-eaters, snake charmers and toy sellers. The fun-fair rides included a big wheel, not very big at all, operated by two lanky men, one to gauge the size of the 20 or so children lined up to take a ride, ensuring their weight was evenly distributed, the other to turn the wheel. Not as fast as Alton Towers, but the children loved it. Almost as much as they loved throwing coloured goo at each other."
It's Holi and what better explanation than to look back at an article written by Anita; our Co-Founder for The Guardian newspaper some years back.