Today, Udaipur is a treasure trove of Mewar architecture, notably a number of palaces, of which two were built on islands in Pichola Lake. Early in the morning, together with three friends, Ann-Christine and Hans Lomosse from Sweden, and Søren Lauridsen from Denmark, I roam the streets of this interesting city, watching it come alive.
Holi is a spring festival, celebrating Hindu god Krishna, and the victory of good over evil – a gay festival, in which people – regardless of caste – pelt each other with red, yellow, purple, or green powder, or with water, dyed with this powder. For this reason, Holi has been dubbed ‘Festival of Colours’. In Charbhuja and surroundings, Holi is a very important festival, which lasts no less than 15 days, during which period the various villages of the area are host by turns. Sohan Lal intends to go to his ancestral area to participate in the conclusion of Holi, and Ann-Christine, Hans, and I gladly accept his offer to take us along. After the festival, we intend to make a visit to Khumbalgarh Wildlife Sanctuary, situated near Charbhuja. We have heard that you can stay in a former Maharaja palace near the sanctuary.
Some of Sohan Lal’s friends join us in the car – a merry crowd, who is talking, laughing and joking during the entire journey. Late in the afternoon, we pass several motorcyclists, who brighten up the landscape, as they are covered in red dye from top to bottom – an indication that we are approaching Charbhuja. Worried, my Swedish friends ask Sohan Lal, if he thinks that we’ll get our share of the dye, but he assures us that he will be able to find a safe place for us.
We park our car at the outskirts of town, walking along its narrow lanes to a Vishnu temple in the centre. The streets are covered in a thin layer of red powder, with a splash of purple and green here and there, and all the people we meet, have had their fair share of the dye on their clothes, and in their face and hair. Sohan Lal brings us to a house opposite the temple, and from its balcony we are able to watch the fun and take as many pictures as we want. The square in front of the temple is packed with people, and several men are dancing on a small platform, accompanied by drums and tabla. At the entrance to the temple, the air is filled with red dust, as a couple of young men throw dye on each and everybody, entering or leaving the temple.
It doesn’t take long, until people below catch sight of us, and a girl, sitting on a platform across the lane, starts throwing small balls of dye at us. Suddenly, the door of the balcony is opened, and an elderly man, carrying a small bag in his hand, enters, commencing to throw dye on us. The Swedes flee into the house, while I merely hide my camera on my back. The man now takes a handful of dye, smearing it into my hair and beard. Calmly, I let him do it, as I feel that if you want to participate in the fun, you must take the rough with the smooth!
The girl across the street continues to throw balls of dye at me, and finally I think I have to step in. I run down into the street, grab a little powder from a person, passing by, and throw it into the face of the girl, resulting in everybody throwing dye at me from all sides. My camera is hidden under my T-shirt, but nevertheless it looks awful, covered in powder. Luckily, it still works!
The merry crowd invites me to join them into the temple, where I am met by a fantastic sight: the women are sitting at one side, dressed in their best finery, while the men are sitting at the other side, almost all of them wearing a red or yellow turban. The atmosphere here is great, the temple resounding with music from drums and cymbals, and red dust filling the air. My spirits are high, when I return to join Hans and Christine, but on seeing me they declare that I look terrible!
We meet the owner of the hotel, a son of the former Maharaja. I didn’t have time to take a bath, so I am still smeared in red dye from the fun in Charbhuja. In a rather arrogant tone of voice, he informs us that we can have a room for three persons – for the tidy sum of 350 Rupees! And our dinner is going to cost 50 Rs. per person. Meanwhile, it has become pitch-dark outside, so we feel that we have no choice but to stay here. A servant brings us to a very spartan room, which, anywhere else in India, would have cost 10 Rs. per person, with 20 metres to the bathroom, in which the drain is blocked, and the toilet is unable to flush.
Despite the primitive facilities, we have a refreshing shower, before we go to eat our dinner. Before the meal, we have a conversation with the Maharaja’s son, sitting in a much nicer room. Yes, he can easily arrange a car for us to go into the reserve at 6 o’clock. His knowledge of the wildlife of the sanctuary is quite good, as his father used to own the area, using it for hunting. The conversation mainly takes place between him and the Swedes, as he seems to be of the opinion that my humble self is outside his sphere of interest, despite the fact that in the meantime I have had a bath and am now wearing clean clothes. However, he pricks up his ears, when the Swedes (untruthfully) inform him that I am collecting information to write a guide book on Rajasthan. This makes him change his tune, as he needs larger focus on his hotel, not having enough guests to maintain his palace. He now shows us a beautiful and tasteful room, which is adorned with an enormous canopy bed, offering us this room for the same price as for the dump we were given earlier. Somewhat carelessly, he admits that this room is in fact staff quarters! Our meal is eaten in a huge hall, adorned with weapons and family photos, yellowed with age. The food is not something to brag about, but we are very hungry and fall to.
Our Ambassador is a coughing wreck, and when the road gets steeper, it almost comes to a standstill. We must leave the car and proceed on foot the rest of the way to a Forest Resthouse, beautifully situated at a dammed lake, in which various birds are feeding, among these little cormorant (Phalacrocorax niger), pond heron (Ardeola grayii), and striated heron (Butorides striata). Walking further along the road, we notice birds like grey junglefowl (Gallus sonneratii), plum-headed parakeet (Psittacula cyanocephala), and slender-billed vulture (Gyps tenuirostris). We see no mammals at all.
Rather disappointed with the result of our trip, we return to the palace, where we complain to the hotel owner. He maintains, however, that it had been impossible to rent a jeep, which we find odd, as we saw several of the kind in Ghanerao the day before. Following further discussion, he agrees to charge us only a total of 300 Rs. for our stay, including the meal.
He informs us that this evening, in the neighbouring town of Sevantri, a huge festival will take place in a Vishnu temple, celebrating the conclusion of the old Hindu year and the beginning of the new one – according to the Hindu calendar year 2049. In his car, we go to Sevantri, and beneath a huge banyan fig (Ficus benghalensis), he commences cooking enormous amounts of food. People, passing us on their way to a nearby temple, are very friendly, greeting us with nice smiles.
Having enjoyed a delicious meal, we sit beneath the fig tree for some time, talking with Sohan Lal, and after dark we go to the Vishnu temple, where the New Year is celebrated with music and dancing. My Swedish friends are immensely relieved when they learn that no more throwing of dyes is going to take place! Inside the temple, a group of men are performing a stick dance, in which the rhythm is dictated by a man, beating an irregular measure on a drum, while another man is beating a regular measure on a large brass cymbal, once in a while accompanied by a huge, twisted horn, producing a braying sound. The speed is slow in the beginning, and the men, in twos, walk in circles, in and out between each other, beating their two sticks simultaneously on their partner’s sticks, and on the sticks, belonging to the men behind them and in front of them. This procedure produces a rhythm, which can be expressed thus: ’clack’ – step – ’clack’ – step – ’clack-clack-clack’. The speed is slowly increased, the dance getting wilder and wilder, as more men join the ring, which now occupies most of the temple hall. Spell-bound, we join the rhythm, stomping our feet and clapping our hands. Sohan Lal informs us that the purpose of this dance is to produce sweat on the entire body, allowing the accumulated sins of the old year to leave the body.
The evening is concluded in the Vishnu temple in Charbhuja, where a group of women are singing in front of the Vishnu image. A priest now ignites numerous candles and places them in a large tray, which is then moved up and down and left and right in front of the image, while a man is beating a drum furiously, another one a cymbal. We participate in a puja (worship), in which we march past the priest, who hands out sugary water to everybody, of which a small part is drunk, while the rest is smeared into your hair.
Tired, but happy, we return to the ashram, where we immediately fall asleep, despite a noisy puja taking place in the Hanuman temple across the road. The following morning, numerous people arrive from near and far, wearing their finest clothes, to celebrate New Year in the temple. At the temple entrance, people are dancing around, accompanied by various instruments. The noise produced is incredible. As usual, we are invited inside the temple, where several elderly priests receive us most courteously. It is very pleasant to participate in a festival, where you don’t feel as an intruder, but as a welcome guest!