Monday, March 01, 2010

Holi in Kathmandu.

On Sunday the 28th, I was awoken at 8am by mayhem in the streets. I looked out the fifth-floor window of my bedroom, and was met with the sight of rooftops full of crazed children pelting water balloons at every passersby.

Holi, the festival of colors, is an impish affair.

I went to the roof of my guesthouse, rolled up my sleeves, borrowed some balloons from a Nepalese girl in my building, and together we took aim at the rascals who had been shooting at us all morning.

Water balloons were just the beginning. Later in the day, the children brought out colored powders of every hue - green, blue, yellow, red - mixed it with water, filled up balloons and shot them with water guns. Only the truly insane would venture outside their buildings.

Nobody was safe. Especially targeted were females, the well-dressed, and foreigners who weren't aware of the date. The mischief wasn't confined to just throwing water, but also approaching strangers and directly smearing colored powder all over their clothes and faces.

Holi is also the day for adults to get stoned out of their minds. Bhang, made from the leaves and buds of cannabis, is traditionally mixed into drinks and food starting early in the morning. When I peeked outside at 10am, there were men stumbling around everywhere and some who had already overdone themselves and passed out on the streets.

It was like a warzone out there. All the shops were closed and dark, and the streets were empty except for young boys, dirtied and garishly colored, all yelling and launching water bombs at each other.

By late afternoon, the chaos subsided and I walked towards Durbar Square, the 'downtown' area of Kathmandu. In the middle of the square was a tall pole, decorated with layers upon layers of colorful ribbons. The pole was erected when the week-long celebrations of Holi began, essentially giving kids the green light for practicing their aim a few days before all hell broke loose on this day.

It is easy to forget that Holi is not only a day for children. It is foremost a significant religious festival for Hindus, and is celebrated by people from all religions in Nepal. The story behind Holi is that of a young man named Prahlad, whose devotion to Lord Vishnu miraculously helps him to escape the fires that the demoness Holika set around him.

I sat in Durbar Square for a long time waiting for the ceremonial burning of the pole which was to take place later that night, and which is meant to celebrate Prahlad's escape. Fire is the central theme of Holi.

The square was bustling with activity, even more so than usual.

All around the square were stands where people could purchase offerings, including incense, ghee, flowers, and small ritual fire lamps as shown here. Cow dung lay around in piles, perhaps waiting to be burned in the bonfire later that night.

Here, hordes of women came with spools of string and wove them around this structure in the middle. I still don't know what the significance of this action was, but I saw that the structure was burned later on.

The most concentrated hub of activity was around the base of the pole of ribbons, where a long line of women dressed in their best red saris (red being the color of celebration) put down plates of offerings in a large pile.

Finally, around 7:30pm, the pole was taken down and a great bonfire was started. The smoke was too much for me, so I observed from afar the burning of all the ribbons. There was a mad scramble to snatch the ribbons from the pole before they went into the fire, as it is said to be extremely lucky to get one. A friend from my guesthouse managed to save me a piece, and I still wear it around my wrist.

And with the burning of the pole, Holi was officially over. It was both good fun and a colorful cultural experience, and I was happy to have spent it in Nepal.


Rochelle said...

Awesome! They banned the colored powder at our celebration of it at school, because it made such a mess last year.

Jon said...

Hehe one of my coworkers told me about this festival and how they would cause lots of troubles celebrating it. I didn't know they used water balloons; I thought the color was mostly dry powder. Splat Splat Splat!

Stacy said...

I just finished watching 'Born into Brothels.' So good! Very sad though.

How's being home?

Teresa said...

Wow, love your travel photos! The photojournalism is great. It makes me feel like I'm there!