For a moment, I thought about just writing, “AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHH!!!! WHAT IS HAPPENING????!!!!” and posting a bunch of pictures, which in a certain way does sum up the experience of having a massive fireball filled with explosives threaten to fall on you, and is also what I screamed at least twenty times this evening. The whole thing was kind of exhilarating and amazing, and shoes were lost and a little stampede broke out, and things were exploding from all angles. But I think I should at least try to do this wonderful holiday justice and describe the whole experience you.
Admittedly, I know very little about Hindu holidays, and even my minimal research on Wikipedia still leaves it unclear about exactly what Navratri and Dussehra are, other than that they are about the triumph of good over evil, and involve the god Rama, his wife Sita, and Rama’s brother, Ravana.
I first realized there was something holiday-like going on last Monday, when I took a rickshaw to Chittaranjan Park, where my teacher, Gaurav, lives. There were people in brightly colored and wildly sparkly saris everywhere, walking freely through the streets (in way larger numbers than usual – which is saying a lot, considering that I hardly see a main street with less than twenty people on it on a regular day). I realized later that Chittaranjan Park is one of the most happening areas for this particular holiday.
My teacher’s wife asked me to join them on Wednesday to go to a mela (huge outdoor tent) that had been put up right across the street from their block. There was a huge statue of the goddess Durga, set up inside. It was beautifully crafted and beautifully presented, adorned with garlands of marigolds. People said prayers to it, as well as gave offerings of food and sweets (I think it somehow works that you give it to the goddess, she blesses it, and then you get it back to eat yourself… not positive about exactly how it works…).
But the nature of this holiday isn’t like the religious holidays I grew up celebrating – in addition to the statue of the goddess, there was a stage set up with a live band singing Hindi and Bengali film songs, stalls with all kinds of tasty street food, children running through seas of legs, and colors and lights everywhere. There was much less in the way of solemn reflection and more in the way of colorful and ecstatic celebration.
Also, I can’t help mentioning that there were definitely a few people (both children and adults) wearing light-up devil horns, which I’m pretty sure were not intended to mean what we associate them with in the west, but was still pretty hilarious to see at an essentially joyful festival.
By the time we came out of the mela, around 10PM, the streets were as crowded as the sidewalks in Times Square. Not a car, a rickshaw, or even a motorbike could get through the hordes of people that crowded the streets until late into the night. There was an even bigger mela down the street from where we were with an even bigger and more elaborate statue of Durga, and a line hundreds of people long. My teacher’s family kindly invited me to stay with them that evening, because, as I immediately realized, there was literally no way to get out of their neighborhood!
This afternoon, the various Durgas were taken to the Yamuna River and bade goodbye. From what I’ve read, it seems that the statues are made of clay from the riverbed, and even the process of making the statue is a holy ritual. When the goddess returns to her home, she disintegrates back into clay. While my western mind thinks about how sad it is that all that hard work to build these beautiful statues is lost, I also appreciate the economy of it: this is a culture in which very little is wasted, even in celebration.
Early this evening, Devin and I went exploring around Lajpat Nagar (where we live) and were surprised to find about ten huge effigies (each perhaps 30 feet high) of Ravana, who is the antagonist in the story of this holiday. His image ranged in interpretation from something looking like The Count from Sesame Street to a curly-mustachioed man, to something almost resembling an African mask. But one thing was for sure: he was the bad guy, and, come dusk, he was going to burn.
The statues were made out of thin paper on top of a stick scaffolding held together with rope. We managed to catch one lying down as they were putting it together, and saw little pouches of explosives on the inside of the statue. Hmm. Each statue was held up by four ropes tied to random balconies, and there was a sparkler attached to its chest. We were instructed to come back around 8PM for the burning of the effigies.
Before the burning, we happened to catch a huge parade as it made its way through Lajpat Nagar. There were lots of white horses, two bands, trucks with strings of marigolds hung around them, and many people with elaborate costumes and face paint that I think must have been playing characters from the story. There were a variety of plays that were probably telling the story of the holiday (it was incredible to watch, but hard to understand if you didn’t already know the story, which I’m sure everyone besides me did). Again, I’ve been to (and even been in) various nativity plays, but these are so different in nature: there was a troupe of entertainers hired to lead the crowd through the story with plenty of dancing and even some head-banging.
And finally, it was time for the burning of the effigies. I don’t know how to describe what happened, because, to be honest, I was screaming and/or running for a lot of it. I don’t know why I thought it would be a slow burn, like a log on a fireplace, but it was the exact opposite. The sparkler on the first statue’s chest went off, and a few things inside the statue exploded, and all of a sudden it was just hundreds of explosions as the whole effigy went up in flames. About two seconds after that, it started to fall towards us, and Devin, David and I started running in the other direction in what was basically a stampede. Devin lost her shoes (though she miraculously found them later), and I could see huge pieces of burning stuff falling as we ran with hundreds of other people.
And that was only the first one! It happened three more times, and those times I was ready for it. The fourth one was beautiful — it literally just vanished instantaneously in a burst of flames and explosives. And bear in mind that this whole time there were fireworks going on that were about twice as close to us as the ones in America. This definitely would violate every safety code ever in existence in the US, but I have to say that it was just absolutely incredible to see something like this up close. I had an adrenaline rush that didn’t wear off until after we had reached home.
After all the effigies were burned and people started clearing out, we decided to go to Bikanerwala (one of our regular food places) for some dessert, and I was so excited to see them making jalebis outside!!! I haven’t had a proper jalebi since coming to India, and it was wonderful to watch them make them fresh outside the store and then take some home and eat them just minutes after they were made. Crispy outside, and oozing sugary sweetness with every bite. The perfect ending to a crazy, crazy day.