Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Holy Holi!

(Written in Arambol, March 21st)

India, in some ways, is an amazingly tolerant country.  There are a multitude of religions in this nation, which all seem to co-exist in relative harmony; there are trouble spots between Muslims and Hindus (mostly in the north, near Pakistan), but Indian newspapers would have you believe that those woes are all caused by rabble-rousers from the other side of the border.  (I take no position as to whether or not that’s true.)   It wasn’t always so — a million people died on both sides of the border in massacres, when India and Pakistan were partitioned — but for the most part, today, people seem to accept whatever faith you choose to adopt.

80% of the population is Hindu, but every other faith seems to be represented as well.  The Buddhist world is centred here, with the Dalai Lama living in India in exile, and Sikhs, Parsis, Jains, and Zoroastrians also share space with believers of the majority faiths.  Christianity is even well-represented, having been in India, according to legend, since 52 A.D., when St. Thomas the Apostle arrived in Kerala in the south.  Catholicism, of course, was spread throughout Goa by the Portuguese (who didn’t quite subscribe to the Indian attitude of tolerance, as they brought an Inquisition with them as well).  

Hinduism, the primary faith, believes that there are many paths to the divine, and has cunningly incorporated aspects of rival religions to hang on to their majority.  (Buddha, it was decided, was one of the incarnation of the Hindu Lord Vishnu, so, really, Buddhists are just Hindus.)  It seems to be more a way of life and a philosophy than strictly a religion, with a whole pantheon of gods, or, more correctly, many different manifestations of the one divine consciousness.  

God, to a Hindu, is G.O.D.:  Generator (Brahma), who created the world; Operator (Vishnu), who runs the place; and Destroyer (Shiva), who is in charge of destruction and reproduction.  There are many representations of each divine force, and devout Hindus seem to pick which they choose to worship, depending on their specific needs; each “god” and “goddess” (as well as the big three, there’s Ganesh, Krishna, Lakshmi, Parvati, Kali, Hanuman and a host of others) stands for one aspect of the divine.    The temple where I was blessed by a Hindu priest (who was terribly distressed by my single state) was dedicated to Hanuman, the monkey god.

I've decided, though, that my personal favourite is Ganesh (or Ganesha).  He’s the elephant god, and brings good luck, prosperity and new beginnings, as well as being the patron of writers.  A statue of him is meant to be placed at the entrance to your home to bring these blessings to your guests.  He’s an all-around good guy, I think, and besides, the little elephant god statues are just so cute.  A shopkeeper in town told me that Holi is a festival honouring Ganesh, but as he was attempting to sell me statues at the time, I’m not sure I believe it.

Carol's been Holi-ed!
But Holi has become my favourite Hindu holiday anyway ... although I hadn’t actually realized till I walked down the street yesterday that it was happening.  I’d heard about this particular festival, but only knew it was that day when I got doused in all the colours of the rainbow by people flinging coloured powder and dyed water on passersby.  It ushers in the spring each year, according to the lunar calendar (which happened to coincide with the Western start of spring for 2011).  Hindus of all ages take to the streets with water guns or bags of dye to mark the occasion.  

In Arambol, they seemed to take particular delight in decorating foreigners, coating some of them in a wealth of colour from head to toe.  (I got off relatively lightly, but it still took me forever to wash all the damn dye off again before I went to sleep!)  The one street winding through the town literally ran with colour as the partying got into high gear.  In some parts of India, apparently, the Holi traditions also involve women beating men with wooden sticks, but that didn’t happen here (more’s the pity, as there’s an obnoxious man or two I’d happily chase down!).

It pre-dates Christianity, and traditionally the coloured powders are made from medicinal ayurvedic herbs, to bring good health with the changing of the seasons.  Nowadays, of course, the powders are usually synthetic, but the spirit is still there:  it seems to be all about having a good time, celebrating a bit of that old spring fever.  Kind of like the Hindu version of Mardi Gras, or Carnivale.

And it’s definitely used by Indian men as a reason to give hugs to every Western woman they encounter.  Hey, anything for an excuse, I suppose ...

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