Groove Getaway: Bodhgaya, India
BODHGAYA, India — Bum ba dum dum dum, ba dum dum dum. “How long have they been drumming?” my wife asked. “Seems like days.”
“Surely they can’t keep that pace up all night,” I said.
It was roughly one in the morning and my wife and I were lying in what we were told was a bed; the two of us were cozily tucked into our undoubtedly one-man mosquito net, inhaling the mosquito coil smog that we had created. Bum ba dum dum dum, ba dum dum dum; although irritating at the time, this simple little beat would ultimately become the soundtrack for our Holi experience. Unable to fall asleep I went to the window to evaluate the party below, in attempts to see if the partygoers were showing signs of stopping. I cracked my window to get a clearer view. The drumming pulsed on, echoing off the clay walls that made up the small maze of an alley. My vision was obstructed and I couldn’t see anybody, but shadows dancing around on the walls told me that Holi was an experience I would never forget.
The next morning we awoke to a sun filled room and the drumming had stopped but was replaced by similarly boisterous laughing, chanting, and singing. Our guesthouse owner, Mohammad, a short, stout, jovial man, ran into me downstairs. After greeting him I asked for a little crash course on Holi. He told me that things were going to be safe for me.
My wife on the other hand, with blond hair and blue eyes, may draw some unwanted attention from the rambunctious men around town. Mohammad admitted that most men on the streets were probably pretty loaded as they had been partying all night. He let me know that social norms did not hold true during Holi and me walking around toting a camera would quickly draw a crowd. He even told me of a saying often heard during the holiday: “Holi mey bura na mano, Holi hai!” (“Don’t feel offended… it’s Holi.”) In other words, don’t get pissed if you get hit with a face full of colored powder. After the etiquette section of Mohammad’s lesson he moved on to the all-important matter of nourishment, and he informed me that most businesses—restaurants included—would be closed for several days. Mohammad’s wife cooked for tenants upon request but because of the holiday she would only be making breakfast, so if I wanted anything that resembled a meal, now was the time to capitalize. I ordered two of the only breakfast offering that day, coconut porridge, and then made my way back up to my room.
As we enjoyed our porridge I told my wife about Mohammad’s concerns about us going out and walking around. As she had already been groped several times earlier on this trip, she wasn’t too keen on the idea of standing around a bunch of unpredictable celebrants, and chose to stay inside for some relaxation.
I told my wife where I would be taking photos, grabbed my gear, then set off. As I stepped out of the guesthouse the aroma of bread filled the air. I still was unsure if I wanted to be painted with Holi colors, but wore old clothing that I wouldn’t mind parting with, just in case.
I had been walking around for nearly 10 minutes when I crossed paths with a mutt embellished with blue and pink spots. The dog, unimpressed with me, went to lie down in the dirt. As the dog made his downward movement I noticed some of the Holi powder on him slide off… it was fresh. My curiosity piqued, I headed in the direction I saw the dog come from. I turned a blind corner and there they were, a group of young men all sporting Holi colors in fantastic fashion. The contrast between the color of their skin and the Holi powder was surreal and looked like something a Merry Prankster would be proud of. The guys quickly noticed me and my lack of color then shot each other grins to confirm what was already going on in their heads.
I could either run back the way I had come to seek shelter with my canine comrade or accept this inevitable fate. For me the choice was easy; I quickly tucked my cameras away and readied myself for attack. The sea of Day-Glo faces closed in on me, demanding conformity. “Happy Holi!” They all screamed. I shut my eyes and mouth as tightly as possible as they applied generous amounts of the gritty powder. As I shook my head to discard any loose powder I slightly opened my eyes, sunlight bounced off of the mist and I was entranced by the beauty. Holi celebrates the arrival of spring; it is a time of renewal and rebirth, a time to abandon winter’s icy grip and spread joy amongst friends and family.
After making my portraits and enjoying the jubilation, the group and I exchanged pleasantries and handshakes again, wishing each other a happy Holi. I assumed the group’s assault on a foreigner would have caused a lull in the festivities, but the men carried on partying just as I had found them, lost in their Holi bliss. I took a couple more photos then began to walk away, just then the maestro queued the band and a smile came across my face…. Bum ba dum dum dum, ba dum dum dum.
Citizens throughout India (and other countries such as Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka) celebrate the Holi festival. It is on the day after the full moon in the Hindu month of Phalguna (March). Holi honors many things; primarily it is to celebrate the arrival of spring but its origins are deeply rooted in Vaishnavism, a discipline of Hinduism that worships Vishnu. Hiranyakashipu, the King of Demons, had a son, Prahlada. Prahlada was extremely devoted to Lord Vishnu, which his father did not like. Hiranyakashipu tried several times to kill his son but all attempts failed. In the final attempt Hiranyakashipu ordered his son to sit atop a cremation pyre on the lap of his demoness sister Holika. Prahlada asked Vishnu for protection and obeyed his father’s orders. Onlookers watched as Holika went up in flames. Prahlada was unharmed. Thus the burning of Holika signifies the start of Holi. Holi is originally believed to celebrate bountiful harvests and fertile land.