The end of winter, the coming of spring – the welcoming of abundance.
The triumphant victory of Gods over Demons. Good over Evil.
Whatever Holi festival represents, there is no better portrayal of the beating heart of India, colourful, decadent and innocent, and predictable decline into excess. A writhing intoxication and masculine turgidity that never learned when to stop. It’s childish fun, with all the danger of playing peek-a-boo with a crocodile.
Having just experienced the meticulously curated timelessness and authenticity of Rajasthan’s major fort cities, the contrast to the narrow streets, heaving in the festival frivolity, couldn’t have been more bewildering. We had picked one hell of a day to visit Pushkar…
Urgent repairs to the bike delayed my departure from Jaislamer by one day, but there was still plenty of time to reach Pushkar for the festival, and it would be a much less distressing ride knowing my rear suspension had been reattached.
Adrian and I had already planned to book a hostel in Ajmer, a large city only twenty minutes away, but not subject to the same ridiculous holiday price hikes as Pushkar. Honestly, we weren’t going to pay 30USD for a hostel dorm bed closer to the festivities when I had a bike we could ride in on. The only downside was Ajmer didn’t offer a lot for the seasoned traveller, so I’d kill a day visiting the rat temple in Bikaner rather than arriving early.
It was meant to be a pretty inconsequential pit-stop, something that changed as I eventually reached the Bikaner homestay after half an hours backtracking through the shoulder-with labyrinthine streets which flowed like deltas away from the old market.
“Oh, you’re perfect!”
I could only blink back at the suave, maybe too suave, gentleman who’d jumped out of the doorway to greet me.
“You what, mate?”
“Yep. You’re perfect.” With a flick of the wrist he beckoned me to follow him into the house. I took my time unhooking my rucksack and wondered whether it was a good idea to stay here. I didn’t want this guy, this time tomorrow, to be wearing my face as a mask and dancing around his candle-lit torture dungeon. I wondered what else I could be perfect for. The guy definitely eyed me up and down as if wondering which part of me to eat first…
I did the only sensible thing, and followed him into the house.
Sanjay showed me to my room, explaining how he and his father were both artists. Perhaps then, I’d be used as human paint? The kind of deep red you can only get if your paint had been killed slowly. Just as the thought crossed my mind, I passed a room where an attractive, young white woman – the most quintessential murder victim I’d ever seen – sat humming on the edge of the bed. Maybe, just maybe, Sanjay didn’t want to kill me after all, else this pretty thing would be in a black refuse sack somewhere in a lake already. I continued to wonder what, then, would I be perfect for?
“We’ve been looking for more extras all day.” Sanjay’s eyes flicked, measuring my shoulders. “I think you could be our British army officer.”
“Come again?” I’d survive another day it seemed.
“They’re shooting right now, up at the fort. It’ll be closed off for tourists while they’re filming. This is the only way you’ll be able to see fort if you’re planning on leaving early tomorrow.”
I declined. I was flattered, but I didn’t give a shit about the fort. I was also pretty tired and very hungry.
“They’ll have food there for you when you arrive, a full buffet usually. Oh, and they’ll pay you two thousand rupees for just a couple of hours work.”
It was only twenty pounds. I’d lose my afternoon (which I definitely didn’t want to spend in a fort) but the buffet was convincing me. I finally agreed, took the directions and headed out into the late afternoon warmth.
There was no buffet.
People dressed me as an officer, scrubbed up my fancy boots and introduced me to the other soldier extras. At no point was there a buffet. I started to become hangry, walking around like a spare part, no sign of when we’d be called to do our thing. The courtyard was strangled with the dust from the thumping hooves of twenty horses. As far as I could tell they were the good guys and we, the British, were the villains. Go figure.
Night broke over the sandstone complex, without so much as a scrap of buffet becoming available and, whilst the sun had rounded the horizon, the night was all the more hot and humid in our stifling uniforms. A few of my fellow comrades, including one of those famous ‘Mexican British soldiers’, couldn’t give less of shit about the movie and were getting frustrated by the lack of progress. A few others had siphoned themselves away from the group to rehearse their movements (no one had any lines). At some point I was demoted back to a regular soldier, replaced in seniority by a massive hipster with a classic old-army handlebar moustache, but in the end (after about 5 hours of waiting) this turned out to be no bad thing. They gave me a loaded gun and not the officer. Along with the other soldiers I stood in a firing line and shot what seemed to be the movie’s protagonist.
And like that, after five seconds of film, our involvement was over.
I couldn’t help but think the budgets for these films, which was colossal by the way, could have been significantly reduced if the sets had been properly managed, if they were managed at all. Twenty of us, each paid twenty pounds, waited all day for just five seconds of film. Tomorrow they’d need another twenty for another five seconds, no doubt. Or maybe because the budget was so colossal they didn’t care.
I didn’t care. They had opened up something that looked like a buffet.
With all the accidental drama of the night before, the rat temple had a lot to live up to. Unfortunately for all its mystery and mythology (a temple built to house the males, all reincarnated as rats, of one cursed but popular family), it was just a small space with a few rats and a lot of rat effluence melding into the soles of your bare feet. I just needed to get out of there.
With a few more roadside repairs and the headlight nearly falling off while riding, I made it to Ajmer with most of the afternoon to spare. Adrian had been in charge of booking, found a shared dormitory right at the back of a claustrophobic street dedicated to the wholesale of medicines and pharmaceuticals. Parking a bike as big as the bullet was an exercise in patience and ingenuity, but over time I slotted it into a space and hauled the bags up to the room. It was spartan, with perhaps a hundred or more beds, mostly empty, filling up a cavernous room, but it was cheap and it was home. Besides, we weren’t here to stay in a nice room, we were here to party. Adrian hopped on the back of the bullet and we rode the mountain pass to Pushkar for some food and exploration.
I parked up in a small square where it would be easy to find the bike later, having successfully scared Adrian half to death on the winding roads to get there. Like most bikers or myself, he’s no good on the back either. From there, we meandered around the small roads, grabbed some cheap local curry and hung out in the tranquility of nearby bathing pools. Locals, obviously of the more corrupt and entrepreneurial variety, were leading fresh meat tourists down to the water to offer Puja to the gods in exchange for a blessing. Lighting candles, making small baskets then floating them on the water below was only part of it – obviously there was also a fairly heavy donation involved right at the end otherwise there’s a curse. A surprising number of people handed over a surprising amount of money to these crooks at the pools. Like you’d bother appeasing a God who practices entrapment in the first place. Anyway, their charitable donations weren’t harming the sunset, which was fiery and spectacular.
Adrian and I began to make our way back to the bike, finding the square we’d parked in already bustling with people and a small crowd building an eight foot tall bonfire. We jostled into position as the fire was built up and built up, a trickle of local businesses picking through to the front of the crowds where they’d sit cross-legged with their offerings and metal vessels. Oils, dried cow manure, saris and floral garlands were all thrown atop the pile of dry grass as the crowd grew in size and restlessness. The crush to be near the front was formidable, but that soon changed as the mountain was finally ignited.
Roars went up from the crows as tongues of fire licked around the hay and were whipped into spirals by the gusting wind. The heat intensified, the crowd’s ranks broke and dived for shelter. I removed my rucksack and held it before my head like a shield, the plastic softening with the searing spikes of heat, as others fell in behind me for protection. It was a furious fire, but hadn’t been built for longevity. Within minutes it crumbled in on itself and turned to ash. The locals clambered across each other to ensure their metal containers were filled with the smouldering embers, before heading back to their homes, sweating, with their blessing. The pyre is good luck, symbolising Holika, the demon who died in a fire trying to destroy her own holy nephew.
Some friends of mine from Varkala and Goa had been watching the onslaught from a nearby rooftop bar (although Pushkar is supposedly a ‘dry’ town…) and saw Adrian and I battling the heat in the crowd below. We caught sight of their waving and headed up for a couple of beers and a strange walk into the depths of Pushkar and the beginning of the madness we could expect for the next two days.
Sporadically in those dark, cramped streets someone would have set up a few speakers to blast out psytrance into the night and we’d have to navigate around icebergs of young indian men dancing ecstatically. Eventually we reached another square, about the same size as the first, with a professional stage and yep, more psytrance blaring out into the dark blues and greens the light show was casting over the crowd. We were already crammed in like sardines, but the enthusiasm at which the young guys wanted to greet us and encourage us to dance with them was typically Indian – a little too physical. I was off the alcohol so I could ride home and Adrian didn’t understand the lures of the music without at least another skin full of beer in him, so we left the maddening crowd early to dig the bike out from under a crowd of revellers who had been perched on it, drinking from their plastic cups.
It had all felt a little intense and I was glad to be out of the town, riding into the night. But we’d have another thing coming if we assumed that was all the crazy Pushkar could offer. It was only the beginning of the chaos, after all.
Not wanting to take the bike back into the square, Adrian and I went looking for a reasonably priced taxi and somehow ended up sharing a large tuktuk with sixteen other big guys. That’s nineteen people in one tuktuk including the driver. While we were rattling along, squeezed into the back, the driver slowed, stopped and went back towards Ajmer. He was tipped off about a police road-block and obviously, with eighteen passengers and no license, he would have been stopped and fined. Instead he drove us to the middle of fucking nowhere, ‘the long way round’, where we met another police checkpoint anyway. I was encouraged to get out, along with the others, and some tense negotiation between the checkpoint guards and an army officer we’d been travelling with ensued. The taxi driver was sent back with a slap and, against the guard’s earlier judgement, we were all allowed to pass and make our way into Pushkar on foot – all about four miles away through some bleak, burning desert. I wasn’t in the best of moods for some reason, and this definitely wasn’t helping.
After our long hike we reached the outskirts of Pushkar and small, playful kids who used every trick in the book to try to soak us with water and douse us in coloured dye. It was lighthearted and innocent, so we grabbed some of their colours and threw them back, before graciously accepting the first “Happy Holi” of the day, accompanied with a smear of dye somewhere across your face or body.
It was quiet then until we reached the main artery through the town, where things instantly intensified. In a swirl of dye and colour a man emerged from the crowd, grasped Adrian’s top and began to tear it straight off. We’d heard about this last night, so I’d already tied mine to my rucksack out of harms way – I was quite looking forward to owning a genuine memento. Surprised, he took it well, relinquishing his garb to the pavement alongside many others.
So we pushed and we pushed, inching our way through a thickening, congealing mass of human limbs, slowly moving towards the square that hosted last nights bonfire, and the source of the loudest music so far. A living cloud of colour clung heavily in the air, refreshed by gleeful handfuls being thrown in all directions. The closer we got, the touchier the crowd, the hotter the air, the more dizzying the music. And then we reached the center.
It was intoxicating even without intoxicants. The wild concoction of tastes, smells, sights and sounds overcooked the senses faster than a chillum, and Adrian and I danced our way into disorientation before dragging each other to the safety and sanctity of the holy bathing pools. After being chased away by an insane man, violently wielding a stick at the crowd of people and screaming shrilly, we decided we couldn’t beat them and had to join them.
A bottle of rum settled us into cycles of wild raving and retreating to the shadows to relax. Somehow, during one of the livelier moments, Adrian and I ended up climbing up onto the roof of one of the buildings, skirting narrow ledges and making jumps for railings to haul ourselves up with. As our world became purple, the composite of each vibrant colour mashed together, we went to a nearby hostel to shower the worst off (though I’d be purple for days yet…) and relax on the rooftop terrace. Adrian, being a few more stops along on the drunken train, slept while I caught up on the beers before heading back into the fray.
That night we outlasted the DJs with our dancing and Adrian and I ended up catching a ride back to Ajmer atop their over-stacked lorry, balanced precariously twelve feet in the air, swinging over each hairpin bend.
It dawned on me, under the beaming glow of the full moon, riding on top of that truck, that this was the milestone of my India trip. Within just a few days I’d be in Delhi again, have to part with my motorbike and figure out where I’m going next.
I didn’t feel sad. I didn’t feel anything (other than maybe a little cold). I knew that India would almost certainly turn my last few days into an adventure in their own right. I’d stayed so long here, it was only right that mother India should put up a fight to keep me a little while longer.