India’s Festival of Colors, was tops at my list of travel experiences when I planned my RTW trip back in 2008. The rainbow of colors streaking radiantly happy faces during Holi just stuck a cord and a little research showed that Jaipur hosts the annual Jaipur Elephant Festival the day before Holi!
Rajasthan acts as the epicenter of the most intense Holi action although the Festival of Colors is celebrated throughout India and even Nepal. The Holi celebrations actually fully take place over several days and involve the households all over the country purging the dark and negative from their homes with bonfires in the streets on the last night of Holi and right before the Festival of Colors.
Elephants Decked Out and Parading at the Jaipur Elephant Festival!
Jaipur holds itself unique as holding the longest running elephant parade in the country, literally running for hundreds of years…and the Elephant Festival is certainly the most colorful elephant event! The pulse of energy shoots like electrical current through the current Elephant Festival and crowds from all over the region pour into Jaipur’s Chaugan Stadium the evening before Holi. The entirely festival is run in true Indian style and chaos and a touch of mayhem ruled the event…making it a little lack luster in some regards…the Lonely Planet oversold the event just a tad by rating it a must see – it is fun though and the elephants are beautiful if you’re in Jaipur.
Allegedly there was going to be a parade of elephants at the Festival, then some dancers, musicians and the tourist verses elephant trainer tug-of-war. And though all of this happened – it was an event completely in line with what I have come to expect of India: there was absolutely no order – the announcer couldn’t get people off of the field for long enough to perform any of the planned dances and the once the field was a bit cleared, there was still no way you could see what was happening because the crowds simply refused to stay seated – I took quite a few gentle elbows to my gut and pressure on my shoulders as the shorter Indian stature made it hard for many to see over my head when I joined the crowds in standing/shoving for better views.
The funny thing about the manhandling is that they don’t even see what’s wrong with literally pushing someone out of the way, or standing directly in front of someone seated, so that they themselves have the better view – even if that means that their turban is completely blocking your entire line of sight…it’s just the way it’s done here.
And unlike in most of the Western world, there is no malevolence when they are doing…they fully anticipate that if you care enough you will push back and also jostle for the better view. Sometimes you learn that you just have to stop trying to rationalize it and go with the flow, surrender to the India-ness of it all.
Speaking of surrendering to the experience, the height of my Elephant Festival activities actually peaked when I attempted to shove myself through a small four foot gap leading into Chaugan Stadium. Our tuk-tuk driver took the craziest route imaginable with wildly unpaved streets that jostled and bounce my cousin and I like popcorn in a popper. This route was apparently a quicker way into the Stadium was all we could get from the tuk-tuk driver…well perhaps he meant the more interesting way into the stadium.
It’s important to note that the festival is free, which we knew was the case and which is the main reason a look of shock registered in my jaw when our driver indicated that we were at the back of the stadium and needed to crawl through a hole in the chain-linked fence.
All I could think was “Why are we sneaking in?’ As luck would have it though our rickshaw driver refused to drive us to the entrance so we wedged our much-larger-than-his western bodies through the hole into the “backstage” area where the performers and elephants get ready for the parades and shows. As we were climbing through the fence one hilarious yahoo informed us that the event was over and we should go home – for about 30 seconds we believed him…then heard more cheers, music, and crowds and realized he was joking.
Entering via the backstage area gave us a gradual view of the stunningly decorated elephants – even without the formal decorations this off-duty elephant has a delicately drawn mosaic of colors adorning his trunk and ears.
The decorations only got more elaborate as we entered the field and the dancers and elephants were decked out in ornate and heavy costumes that must have seemed like lead weights to the performers. The event ended with a bit of police crowd control and chaotic scattering so I slipped back out of my secret fence and caught a rickshaw home to rest up for Holi festivities!
Smearing Paint for Holi, The Festival of Colors
As for Holi itself – we were amply warned by heaps of people that there is absolutely no way that we should venture outside of our hotel during the morning hours of Holi. Instead, our hotel hosted a safe Holi event for all of us tourists to play and have fun. Some of the dangers outside of our walls were: drunken men groping tourists, chemical paint spray guns (instead of the safe dyes they provided), and literal mobs of people who wouldn’t be able to contain their excitement if they saw a Westerner. Protected by the walls of our hotel for the main hours of Holi, we had a blast.
The owner at the Krishna Hotel started the event off by smearing my face with the most vibrant shade of pink powder you can imagine. I, naturally, was willing to dive right in and give back as good as I got, I don’t think that any amount of pictures and stories can prepare you for the chaotic fun of smearing others with sweet-scented colors that may or may not wash out of their skin. Some of the other tourists were a bit more shy and had to be coaxed onto the patio so that we could play Holi on them.
It was all very tame though really for us and the nature of the event is not to tackle the other person and coat them with color, but rather we were always politely asked before color was smeared onto our forehead, faces, arms, necks and into our hair (Helen protected her naturally gorgeous red hair with a scarf since we were warned the dye is fairly permanent on light colored hair – me though? as a brunette now, I was like, BRING IT ON!).
The real fun came when the water-guns and buckets of water were brought out – that really makes the color matte into your skin and it unified the giant brilliant colored blobs of pink, purple, green, blue, orange, and red powdered dyes.
What’s with all the buckets of water?!
The hotel owner and his son took particular pleasure in dousing me in a huge bucket full of water no fewer than six times – then the five-year-old neighbor boy ventured into our courtyard and similarly went on the attack with a huge water-gun. The whole event was a community celebration even for those of us stationed in one house. Roving bands of musicians trotted into our courtyard, played some rousing tunes, and then headed onto the next house (with some generous tips of course).
The hotel-owner’s friends also came by with baggies of powered color to give Holi smears and hugs to their friends and family, and all of us now vibrant and multi-colored Westerners. There was a point at which Helen was just sure that the paint was so thick on my face that no more would adhere to my skin…well, no worries there. Within a few minutes a bucket of water was dumped on me from behind (thanks to some of the other tourists) and my face was primed and ready for some more pats of powdered dye.
After a few hours the hotel owner deemed the streets safe-enough for us tourists to venture out so I attached myself to a two blokes from England to act as my protection should any of the Holi revelers get a little gropey.
To be truthful, though 90 percent of the people we met we completely, joyfully, and merely gave hugs and smeared untold coats of paint on my face, there were definitely some drunk ones… and….well, I just had to perpetually be on the offensive and was forced to eventually stopped giving hugs after a few less than pleasant encounters. But even though some Holi revelers were not in the proper spirit of the festival, I had an absolute blast. Why don’t we have a holiday like this?!
I am having these hilarious imaginings of kids in the US going completely nuts and busting out the Super Soaker 10,000s (not sure the latest models of these as I haven’t seen one in maybe a decade) to dose entire neighborhoods in color!
After an hour or so of wandering the town, and when I had had enough of the Holi revelers on motorbikes screeching to a halt by the road to dose me in more color, I headed back to hotel for what was one of the lengthiest showers of my life. And, wouldn’t you know, that even after scrubbing myself with five different types of soap, I am gloriously, horrendously pink. My face is an alarming shade of fuchsia and, as luck would have it, tomorrow Helen and I are headed to the Taj Mahal. I actually think it’s a bit of a riot that years from now, as I look at pictures of me in front of this magnificent UNESCO World Heritage Site, I will have the most peculiar pink hue to my skin! Helen doesn’t yet entirely see the humor in this situation…but I am certain she will come around once she realizes that, well, there is pretty much nothing we can do at this point but pose, smile big, and laugh at the memories later.
As for me right now, after all of that revelry it is time for one last scrub and a good sleep so that we can catch our 6am train to Agra tomorrow! This was such a great time to be in India and I am truly grateful that I had the opportunity to celebrate this major festival and have that bit of added insight into this culture. Boy do they know how to have a party!