Volume 76
Number 4

The Uncommon Common Man

Indecision 2000

Fire and Water

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launch the festival of Holi in cities and villages throughout India, and

people have only begun to celebrate. We are in Banaras, one of the

oldest and most sacred of Indian cities. It is the city of the deity Shiva,

considered by many Hindus to be the origin, center, and final end of

the universe. Thousands come to Banaras to die each year to achieve

spiritual liberation from the continuing cycle of rebirth, and more

than a million pilgrims—Hindu, Moslem, Buddhist, and Jain—visit the

myriad temples, shrines, and holy teachers of this city and bathe

along a three-mile length of steps (known as ghats) that lead into the

sacred Ganges river.

It is difficult to recognize such sanctity amidst all the revelry on this particular day. The storefronts are boarded up. Roving bands of drunken young men have taken over the neighborhoods–dancing, wrestling, and shouting insults at one another. Women and children have retreated to the safety of their homes to watch the spectacle from balconies and rooftops and to throw colored water on the crowds below. The only semblance of order in the neighborhood, a lone policeman, is so intoxicated he can hardly walk. It would seem as if this holy city has been turned upside down.

Indeed, it has.

Holi is a popular Hindu festival that occurs each year on the full moon concluding the lunar month of phalgun, usually corresponding to March of the Gregorian calendar. Its origins are most likely prehistoric, a rite of spring celebrating fertility and a new harvest. While this festival embodies many different legends, the dominant folklore in Banaras concerns an evil female rakasha (demon) named Holika, who conspires with the King to have a pious young prince killed for his belief in Krishna. Taking a secret potion to protect herself, she jumps into a bonfire with the young boy. Yet because of the strength of his faith, the prince emerges unscathed while the evil Holika is consumed by the flames. Symbolic bonfires begin the first phase of Holi at midnight, when they are ignited in neighborhoods throughout Banaras. Young men gather to revel and dance around these bonfires, which can rise as high as thirty feet. Families visit the pyres as well, performing a ritual prayer known as puja and circumambulating the flames to purify themselves of sins from the previous year.

This rite of purification is also a significant rite of reversal in which society briefly turns its rules upside down; during the second phase of Holi, many social taboos are temporarily suspended. The idea is to bring the year’s dirt and sin out into the open so it can be washed away. Hence, the debauchery. This presents a special opportunity for people at the bottom of India’s social hierarchy to unleash their frustrations and tell the upper classes exactly what they think of them with (relative) impunity.Because the rules of social hierarchy are particularly restrictive in Banaras, it is not surprising that the second phase of Holi would be all the more rowdy in this city. It is also more colorful, as women and children squirt each other and passersby with pichkaris, long syringes filled with colored water, and bystanders and celebrants alike are pelted with water balloons, buckets of dyed water, and occasional cow dung patties throughout the morning.

There is little if any official regulation of these activities; nothing prevents this festival from escalating into a full-scale riot save the unwritten rules of the culture itself. Yet it would seem that culture alone is adequate, for by noon the streets of Banaras grow quiet. The men return to their homes, discard their old clothes like an outer layer of skin, and literally wash away their sins. They don new white kurta pajamas and return to the streets with their families, hugging each other affectionately and gently applying a colored powder to the cheeks of friends, neighbors, and loved ones. Students pay their respects to their teachers; children to their parents. Most Hindu families host visitors well into the night and serve traditional pastries called gujiya. The time-honored order is restored and reaffirmed.

Such is the nature of this rite of reversal, which not only acts as a kind of cultural pressure valve but also reestablishes the cultural norm by way of its exceptions. Such rites are not unique to Holi; similar examples can be found in Mardi Gras and the Carnival of the Americas, large-scale festivities of uninhibited excess just prior to the austerities observed by Catholics during Lent. In recent years, the antinomian edge of these American celebrations has been blunted as they have entered the mainstream of popular culture. This also is occurring among practitioners of Holi as India becomes increasingly westernized under the influence of the global marketplace. Yet many places in India continue to celebrate Holi in the more traditional way. Banaras is one such case, a city torn between the competing forces of old and new in post-independence India. It is therefore both ironic and appropriate that one of India’s holiest places is also one of its Holi-est places.

Ron Barrett is completing his Ph.D. dissertation on stigma among leprosy patients in Banaras. Victor Balaban’s work has appeared in Life and Emory Magazine. Barrett and Balaban documented the celebration of Holi in part with funding from the Emory Program in Asian Studies. These photographs will be part of an exhibition in the Schatten Gallery of the Woodruff Library, August 20—October 15, 2001.




© 2001 Emory University