Holi came and Holi went. I’ll be honest by saying I have no idea why this festival is celebrated or what the greater significance the throwing and smearing of colored tikka powder is.
I don’t even understand why Holi is called Falgun Purnima on my calendar. I can say, though, that it was a lot of fun.
Basically, people—meaning adults and children—take tikka powder and throw it, smear it, dilute it in water and dump it on people, et cetera, all day long. The idea is to get your friend (or stranger) as colorful and/or wet as possible.
I really can’t correlate it to any other holiday I have celebrated, since I can’t think of a holiday when it’s OK to throw water balloons at random people, staining their clothes, and expect them not to get angry.
Last year I really didn’t celebrate Holi because I was distracted by training and trying to learn Nepali, not to mention being a bit nervous about being in Nepal. Or maybe I was hesitant to ruin my clothes. But here I am: A year later, a bit freer, and a bit more willing to walk around in stained clothes.
Allow a small digression. In Nepali, when you ask someone if you can smear them with tikka powder, you should say, literally translated,
Do you want to wear tikka?
I thought about how I’d ask the same question in English:
Do you want me to put tikka on you?
I think the language says a lot about how the cultures differ. Nepalis ‘wear’ colors, whereas English speakers have to ‘put (colors) on,’ suggesting two different things.
One more note on Holi. In Birganj it’s celebrated for two days. The first day is when the Terai of Nepal celebrates Holi, which is the day after Falgun Purnima, when it’s celebrated in Kathmandu. The next day India celebrates Holi, and, so the other PCVs in Birganj told me, true and complete bedlam.
Holi, day 1
Alayne had come from Narayanghat to celebrate the Terai Holi in Birganj. The first thing we did before we stepped outside was figure out what to wear.
I thought first to wear dark clothes since I’d be more likely to get out the colors afterwards; however, after being out on the street for a few minutes I realized that white is the preferable color, since it’s colored more easily.
The streets seemed quiet and I wasn’t really sure when the mayhem would begin. I said this to Alayne just as a mob of children dropped around five gallons of vermilion colored water from the second or third floors of a building over our heads, as well as the rickshaw driver’s.
Thus we were playing Holi. Children, previously hesitant to ‘color’ the foreigners, quickly changed once they saw us in varying hues and shades of orange and pink, throwing tikka, and smiling as we got our comeuppance.
Basically, this is what happened. I would walk down the street and some kids would be waiting along the street with a bucket of water and a water gun. We’d squirt one another for a while and then I’d smear their faces with tikka powder. The adults and big kids (myself included) mainly stuck to the powder instead of water.
The rest of the day followed a similar pattern of walking down the street, getting colors rubbed all over, maybe throwing some water, having buckets or balloons thrown on me from above. By 3:30 p.m., I’d had enough and made my way back home, got clean, and stopped worrying about things falling from above.
Holi, day 2
Why bother cleaning? I knew that the second day would be more intense than the first, so you have to wonder why I bothered. It really didn’t matter since the side of my chin was going to be blue for the days to come. After wandering around Birganj and running amuck with children for half a day in the sun, I was beat by midday the day before.
Alayne left for Narayanghat (and work) early in the morning. It was barely light out when I went downtown to get some coffee and a little food. I hadn’t been sitting long just as the sun was rising when I heard the thunderous stomping of feet. Many feet.
Just out in the street in front of where I was sitting a kid, maybe 14 years old, came running, only to stop and be immediately tackled by his friends.
I watched for a moment, knowing what would happen. They were laughing and while they seemed to have been playing Holi, I didn’t see that they had any tikka or water. Why was the kid running?
As I was starring in curiosity drinking my coffee, a lumbering ten year old came into view, precariously hoisting above his head a large jug of maybe 10–15 gallons of bright pink water. Holi.
When Luke showed up just after 8 o’clock in the morning, he looked like I did the day before at 2 o’clock in the afternoon. This was all just on his way to breakfast.
I started to feel less and less playful or more willing to wall myself up in my deraa and watch the action from a distance; yet a part of me wanted to play. I felt I should.
After wandering the neighborhood for maybe half an hour and getting properly tikka‘d, I thought to pop by Helen’s for a break. She was holed up, but soon we were lazily filling balloons I’d brought while we had tea and biscuits.
We sat on her third floor balcony and lobbed water balloons down upon unwitting people below, oddly, much to their delight. There’s something terribly satisfying (and juvenile) about the splatter of a water balloon on someone’s head.
This only lasted as long as our balloon supply before we were forced to venture out into the streets. We visited some friends and it was more of the same from the day before, but mixed with alcohol.
Obviously, the average age of people playing had gone up from around 12 years old to 27. Many people fast during the Terai Holi, which is part of the reason folks celebrated both the Terai and Indian Holi.
Our last stop for the final day of Holi was at Rajesh’s, my old landlord. As Helen and I approached my old place we could hear the howling and music, somewhat indistinguishable. Rajesh and his brothers were dancing just outside of their house.
The music was so loud that the speaker and the window it was below were both violently vibrating seemed to add a friendly, but bizarre, edge to a potentially intimidating scene. Rajesh, his father, and his two younger brothers were pretty done up, both in color and intoxication.
They were cooking sakuti on an open grill. It wasn’t long before we were dancing with glasses of whiskey in our hands. As the song ended I stopped to sip my drink, noticing that a fair amount of green pigment powder in the bottom of the glass.
The brothers saw me pause and then they paused. Their father came and put his arm around me, looked at my glass and then at me, silently wondering what I was going to do. Tension hung in the air, as if my displeasure would ruin their day.
Then just as the music came on again, I took a gulp. The men threw up their arms in the air, dancing and clapping. A didi watching from the balcony, clapped and belted,
Woo-hah! as she dumped a bucket of blue water onto my head, into my glass, and down my pants.
Smoke was billowing, everyone was dancing, tikka powder was flying, and beer was being poured on my head. It was time to go home.
After I cleaned both myself and my deraa, I found that I had left several packages of balloons unused. I turned up the music and sat outside my place, passively listening to the Beck’s Sea Changes and making water balloons.
After making balloons for almost an hour I was tired, but re-energized by thoughts of bombing people from afar. I made coffee and took some biscuits atop with me and sat patiently waiting for hapless people to pass below.
After a moment or two the house servant, Parbati, came to see what I was doing. I gave her a biscuit or two and we shared the balloons. I’m constantly frustrated with my inability to socialize with girls, women, since that’s a part of my culture I’ve really taken for granted.
I could go through and tell you about each person we hit with our balloons but this entry would go on for much longer.
Instead I’ll tell you that the best part of my Holi was getting the chance to celebrate it with Parbati, who never has a chance to play or be a kid.
Watching her throw balloons at the neighborhood kids and cackle madly as they splattered over the kids below was the funniest part of Holi. Either that, or dumping a bucket of red water over her head.