Will Thierbach braves the colourful frenzy that is Jodhpur’s annual Holi festival.
Photos by Will Thierbach
I was finally headed to Holi! After two years of scheduling challenges, I was finally on my way to India’s Holi festival, travelling with Gary Tyson of F8 Photography (f8photography.com.hk), a good friend and talented professional who runs great photography workshops throughout Asia. Jodhpur and Holi promised to provide some of the most spectacular subject matter imaginable and I was ready to go with an arsenal of weather-proofed camera gear, extra batteries, charcoal pills and mosquito spray.
After a brief respite in Delhi, we trundled off to the train station for our overnight carriage to Jodhpur. We specifically chose the train over a short flight; while 12 hours in a 2nd class sleeping car held little promise of sleep, it was certain to deliver plenty of fun and great photo ops as we prepped for Jodhpur. Indian train stations deliver their own special magic; families traversing the massive country, people commuting to work, tourists getting lost, and local life simply unfolding in the most beautiful ways. I was advised to watch for travellers leaping through emergency windows (the only ones without bars) to board massively crowded train cars as they pulled away from the station and I wasn’t disappointed.
Somehow I managed a few hours of sleep and awoke to the stark landscape of the Thar Desert. Jodhpur, the second largest city in the Indian state of Rajasthan, is located in the arid northwest of India. A popular tourist destination featuring palaces, forts and temples, Jodhpur is known as the “Sun City” for its year-round warm and sunny weather. However, I had come to know Jodhpur as the ‘Blue City’, a colourful nickname derived from the distinctive blue buildings that dominate the cityscape.
This sea of blue was thought to have emerged due to India’s caste system; Brahmins, the priestly class as the top of the caste hierarchy, would paint their homes blue to set them apart from those of the lower castes. However, over time, many non-Brahmin homes also turned blue, leading to one theory postulating that the Indigo dye was a strong defense against termites, thus weakening the caste system argument. Regardless, at sunset, while enjoying a cold beverage atop one of the city’s many rooftop cafes, the beautiful blue vistas evoke wonder and joy, with little thought as to how or why.
Upon arriving in Jodhpur, we were met by our hosts from the wonderful Indrashan Homestay (www.indrashan.com). Chandra and Bhavna Singh have turned their beautiful private home into an urban oasis.
Authentic décor and generous rooms enhanced with family heirlooms provide the perfect retreat from the heat and chaos. Mrs. Singh runs the kitchen and also teaches the secrets and mysteries of Rajasthani cuisine to eager guests; I promise you won’t leave hungry.
In addition to the amazing Holi experience, Jodhpur is a wonderful place to explore on its own. Chief among its many charms is Mehrangarh Fort, one of the largest forts in India. Built around 1460 by Rao Jodha, the fort sits high above the city and is enclosed by imposing thick walls.
Seven gates must be crossed to gain access to the fort and you can still see remnants of cannonball strikes on the second gate from when the armies of neighbouring Jaipur attacked the city. Today the fort is a sprawling museum that is home to myriad exhibits depicting the history of Jodhpur, its artifacts, rulers and culture. The many palanquins, carvings, arms, costumes, paintings, courtyards and decorated period rooms are not to be missed.
We had come via plane, train, automobile and tuk-tuk to experience Holi, a Hindu spring festival in India and Nepal, also known as the ‘festival of colours’ or the ‘festival of shared love’. Celebrated during the month of Phalgun, on full-moon day, which comes in late-February or early-March according to the Hindu calendar, Holi has an ancient origin and champions the triumph of good over evil. Casting aside the caste system, the vibrant festival crosses social and economic boundaries, renews relationships, and spreads love and joy as people hug and wish each other “Happy Holi”.
In Jodhpur, the observance starts the evening before Holi with the reenactment of Holika, a Hindu demoness, being charred to ashes by Vishnu. Large pyres are assembled with wood, cow dung, fertiliser, coconut husks, flowers and other items from the spring harvest and lit ablaze. The eldest individual in the gathering lights the fire and leads a cacophony of music, shouting and dancing into the evening.
The next day is the colour festival, when the streets teem with children, teens and adults wielding water balloons and neon-coloured powder ready to wage the happiest war you will ever experience. With my camera gear wrapped up as safely as possible, I donned my local garb and headed out at sunrise to begin the day. Morning light in Jodhpur is simply intoxicating; colours seem to glow and it was also the perfect opportunity to visit the families that I spent the previous few days getting to know. If you show some consideration and kindness, the Indian people are immensely gracious and generous. They will invite you into their homes, feed you and attempt to ply you with bhang, a milky drink infused with cannabis. Young men in particular, consume bhang with abandon during the celebrations, getting higher as the day goes on. Bhang-induced revelry aside, nothing I’ve ever experienced seems to incite such wild abandon, solely in the pursuit of fun and happiness.
After a quick stroll amongst the alleyways and a light breakfast at a rooftop café, it was time to dive into the fray. By midmorning, the chaos is in full swing; groups of children and teens face off in water-balloon fights, stalking unsuspecting passersby from hidden doorways and rooftops (you need to keep your head on a swivel, both for great photo opportunities and to prevent becoming an easy target). Being forewarned, I sought out strategic locations hoping to capture the action. Well, that didn’t work, so instead, I walked right up to the first frenetic group I found, got summarily doused and enjoyed my wet, colourful and happy Holi inauguration.
It was game on!
There is no holding back; the teens literally assault you with cups of water, water balloons and coloured powder. Of course, if you politely request that they hold off, most will let you pass unscathed I chose full immersion, literally. Once I was fully soiled, my inhibitions fell aside and I spent the rest of the morning in revelry with the locals, taking pictures, being “painted” and simply feeling the joy of Holi course through me. It was incredible.
Gary warned us that some of the powders would be more difficult to remove than others. One precaution was to cover any exposed skin and hair with a generous application of baby oil, in which we all partook. While it did help a bit, it was a full two weeks before all of the colours washed away, which only served as a welcome reminder of a magical week. So while the colours did fade, my Holi memories remain bright and I can’t wait for my next visit to the Blue City.