Jaipur: the Elephant festival and Holi

Trip Start Feb 29, 2004
Trip End Nov 24, 2004

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Tuesday, March 16, 2004

... in which is described the first use of that wonderful invention, the train, and a report of the holi and elephant festival...


I spotted my first slums just 10 minutes after the 06:10 Shatabdi (Arrow) Express train pulled out of New Delhi station. It was just like in the geography books that they gave us to read at school when I was 15. In between the railway sheds and the tracks stood small self-constructed houses. The residents were just waking up, and wandering around brushing their teeth and shitting or pissing openly between the tracks, with the train rolling by. Still, despite some scruffy children they were not badly dressed and seemed to have something to do for the day, though I'm not sure if it was normal jobs they went to.

In the copy of the India Today magazine I brought along, there was an article about the average of 10 unidentified bodies that are found every day on the streets of Delhi. That's 3500 people per year that die in Delhi without being missed. Many of them, the article says, are poor rural people who live on the streets of Delhi and work occasionally in odd jobs, or make a living as a rickshaw driver. They usually send money home to their families every month, and unfortunately are not missed by their families until the flow of cheques stops, by which time they have been cremated in one of the eerily-named state electrical crematoria. Private organisations have sprung up to give these unidentified ones a decent passage to the afterlife; the ashes get strewn into the Ganges river.

Quite a difference with the high life rolling on in the train carriage. We were on blue plastic reclinable chairs, and the staff were scurrying around to keep us happy. The 500 rupee (10 euro) ticket not only gave us 350km of travel at the Indian lightning speed of 80km/h, but the two Indian Rail staff in our air-conditioned carriage started off handing out two newspapers to all passengers, followed by cookies, teabags and a thermos of hot water. 20 minutes later they walked through the aisle again, stacking all the trays up high and handing out the meal that is included in the ticket; I had indicated I wanted a vegetarian meal when I booked the ticket online, and got an airline-type meal, but tastier.

After passing the last suburbs (with quite decent-looking apartment blocks), the landscape outside Delhi is mostly flat. It has farms dotted around, small towns and villages with people waiting for commuter trains into the city, and more people doing their morning shit along the tracks. After a few hours we passed a dry hill range, and we pulled into Jaipur, the capital of the state of Rajastan, India's largest state.


I expected to be surrounded by hotel touts when I got off, but was left all alone, and after looking at the map and memorising the general direction of the hotel that I had booked, I strode out to face the rickshaws. My tactic is always to avoid the first line of drivers, and pick up whoever is at the back. They're more likely to offer reasonable prices, though less likely to understand English. (More than once, I agree on a price and it tuns out 200m further on that the driver has no idea where I want to go).

After being passed by a camel cart (I had to stop walking to have another look - these animals are really big), a passing bicycle rickshaw driver agreed on a good price. Without telling me the hotel had just burnt down, turned bad, was booked full or whatever other lies exist to get me in a hotel that gives drivers comissions, he brought me straight to the Arja Niwas. It must have been the best place I have ever paid to sleep; a large building with high shady porches where the guests could look out over a green lawn and flowers. The rooms all faced quiet courtyards, had fans, mosquito quaze on the windows and were very cool compared to the heat outside - Jaipur is on the edge of the desert.

The following days were spent lazily reading on the porch and talking to some Canadian travellers who arrived on the same train and checked in at the same time. Jaipur has a huge old centre, surrounded by high red walls and with several impressive city gates. It's a big city, and completely geared for trade; when you see Indian shops in the West selling clothes, bags, scarfs etc, it's most likely the goods were bought here.

All the wide streets are lined with hundreds and hundreds of small shops that stock anything from saris to boxes with socks. Literally hundreds of small alleys between the main streets have even smaller shops with boxes and goods stacked high. Business is done all day long, from early in the morning till about 22:00 when the shutters go down.

The shops usually have a handful of staff who are busy spreading out cloth or other products in front of some Indian men or women who critically discuss what's on show. In the back, the better shops have a seperate room where the real business is done. Many people in my hotel were not just tourists, but also had some business to do in Jaipur; buying hundreds of shoes, $20.000 of Indian-style clothes, etc.

But I had come to Jaipur to see the famous elephant festival, which had been started up as a tourist-puller 25 years ago. A procession of 20 fabulously decorated elephants walked through the city centre, followed by bands and traditional musicians. On top of the elephants were the mahouts (owners) and usually a bunch of westerners who would pay them for that. I preferred walking along, and got some good pictures and sound recordings on my minidisc.

The procession headed to the polo and cricket stadium, where the tourists were allowed to sit under a large awning; the police stopped the Indians at the doors and directed to the uncovered seats around the rest of the stadium. All foreigners in Jaipur must have been present, maybe 300 in total.

The afternoon had a parade along the tribune, an elephant doing a painting (more Pollock than Van Gogh), elephant races, a beauty contest (six elephants had been decorated beautifully with paint, coloured cloth and silver and gold), diverse music performances and fireworks.

Highlight of the afternoon for many was the elephant polo match, where two teams of three elephants tried to hit a small ball throught the goal. It was slowed down quite a bit by the fact that the elephants had no idea what they were doing, and that the players on top op the elephants often could not see the ball as it disappeared under the fat beasts. The game was further delayed twice when the elephants stood on the ball, causing it to pop.

My favourite part of the show were the feeble attempts of the Indian police (out in force and equipped with nasty-looking sticks) to keep the people of the pitch. They were completely innefective, as they were more interested in looking at the elephants too, instead of keeping order. Only when their fat commader shouted at them they started shoving people off the field, though never with much result. The elephant that enthusiastically strayed off the path during the races did a much better job of getting people out of the way.

The best performance was of a tribal group from Rajastan, consisting of musicians making droning traditional music, and three dancers: two men dressed as women and a small boy (he must have been five or six years old) who was dressed as a monkey - he only wore underwear with a long white tail and had cotton wool stuck all over his body. He danced in a spastic, jolting way, as if he were in a trance or on drugs.

The fireworks at the end of the day startled a colony of dozens of huge bats with a wingspan of perhaps 60-70cm. I'd never seen such big ones; the way they flapped around reminded me of TV scenes how prehistoric birds must have flown.

On the way back to the hotel, people had started celebrating the Holi festival, the party that marks the beginning of the summer, and in a way, a new year too. On the streets, people had been selling bales of hay that day, and now these were being burnt on the streets, as a way of burning off sins and past troubles, and starting off the new summer clean. It did not do much to improve the air quality of Jaipur - what was already a polluted city now also was enveloped in thick smoke from the fires. The few streetlights were off and the shops had closed, so the walk back to the hotel with all the fires and happy crowds felt very apocalyptic.

The next morning was the main time for Holi celebrations. As it's a festival of colours, the tradition across all of north India is to buy bags of coloured powder (usually meant for dying clothes), and smearing it on each others faces and clothes. Some people also mix it with water and use plastic water pistols to 'paintball' each other.

Unfortunately, it's well known that many young guys get too excited and get a bit rough, and foreigners should not go out on the streets alone this morning, but in small groups. Also, some nutcases put itching or acidic things in the water, which can cause problems. The colours can be pretty hard to remove: I'm writing this a week after Holi and still now there are people, dogs, cows and even camels with Holi colours still on them. The party started at the hotel, where the guests were treated to live music and a first smearing of colours; it went on afterwards on the streets.

My dad's old shirt and trousers were put to good use, as I turned out blue, red, green, pink and purple. I watched the hotel owner being approached by all his employees: they first kissed him on both cheeks, then touched his trousers near his knees (a sign of respect), and then smeared paint on his face, wishing him happy Holi. Very interesting. At noon it was all over and all the Indians went off to bed to rest from the all-night partying, and the city went quiet.

My last day in Jaipur was spent on the sights; the world's largest stone solar observatorium was built here by a star-crazed Maharadja. All kinds of instruments made of stone and marble (the largest 30 metres high) measured all aspects of the sun, and could predict the time to the second.

Next to it stood the palace complex; a beautiful set of courtyards with cool marble pavillions. The royal families of India often still own and live in their palaces, though since Indian independence in 1949 they have lost ruling power and have become normal citizens. Still, they are highly respected (and well-monied) and now head NGOs, funds and trusts that protect, restore and promote their heritage.

The last sight I visited was the Palace of Winds, which is a building with dozens of windows, that stands along a road that was used for processions. Noble ladies could watch the processions from the latticed windows while being protected from the "lustful stares of the men" down below (something that modern-day female travellers still have to contend with).

After that, it was off to do some shopping; I needed a blanket for the nighttrain, and a shirt with long sleeves for in the desert. In a modern-looking shopping centre I found what I was looking for: a sheet block printed with blue elephants, and a stripey Jaipur kurta shirt.


Next: the desert town of Bikaner, and the wonderful camel safari.

Mood: happy to have survived Holi
Weather: hot, sunny
Stomach: Still holding strong
Sign of the day: 'Jesus is guiding and navigating this vehicle' (sticker on a car in Delhi). If that's so, Jesus is a crap driver and urgently needs to take some lessons.
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