Sunday, March 4, 2007

Royal Holi Crashers

It was only upon reaching Rajasthan that the full magnitude of Holi began to dawn on us. After returning to Jodhpur, our hotel manager told us that the renowned Mehrenger Fort was closed until 2:00 pm the next day in observation of Holi. He also strongly advised us to buy some cheap clothes to prepare for the festivities since the odds were high that we would be splashed by local color.

After finding a local department store, National Handloom Corporation, we were surprised by the ease of the buying experience. We simply uttered two words – Holi and cheap – and were immediately shown men’s and women’s white kurta-pyjamas that represented the de facto uniform for the event. For less than 200 rupees each ($4.50), we were both outfitted in style from head to toe. Vik splurged further by also picking up a pair of $0.95 rubber bath slippers.

That night, we headed to the Taj Tari Mahal hotel for a nice dinner out. While killing some time in the hotel lobby, the night manager (thinking that we were hotel guests) invited us to join the hotel’s Holi celebration the next day. We were pleased to learn there might be a way for us to participate in the fun in a relatively-safe and controlled manner (Kaberi’s Mejomaima had warned us that sometimes Indian men use Holi as an excuse to do a little groping, and Kaberi is very protective of Vik).

In the morning, cheerily decked out in our impeccable white Holi attire, we decided to visit the second and more majestic Taj property in Jodhpur, the Umaid Bhawan Palace. The colossal and opulent palace in the outskirts of the city took 16 years to construct and required the efforts of 3,000 laborers. Originally serving as the private residence of the Jodhpur royal family, it has been subsequently divided into thirds to accommodate a posh hotel and a museum in addition to the royal quarters.

Vik’s father had encouraged us to visit the Umaid Bhavan (primarily because it was here where Elizabeth Hurley was due to wed her semi-Indian fiancĂ©e, Arun “She Dropped Steve Nash For This Guy?” Nayar, in a few days). Before setting out, we had been forewarned that there was a steep cover charge just to enter the Palace (1,650 rupees per person, which translates into roughly $35 apiece), but hoped that our source was either misinformed or prone to exaggeration.

After being dropped off at the hotel in modest form (a particularly noisy auto rickshaw), we mentally prepared ourselves to be verbally accosted by the doorman. As it turned out, we serendipitously happened to be wearing the exact same costumes as those issued to all Umaid Bhavan hotel guests – pure white kurta-pyjamas. We capitalized on our luck by acting the part, and soon were welcomed to join the Umaid Bhavan’s Holi celebration, for free.

Not questioning our good fortune, we wandered across the grounds in the direction of the event preparation. Time seemed to slow to a crawl as we nervously waited for the commencement of the festivities. Not wanting to draw any undue attention to our questionable presence, we went to great lengths to keep to ourselves – including murmuring quietly whenever hotel employees wandered by and avoiding eye contact with the friendly, roving hotel general manager. In the next half-hour, we noticed that more and more hotel guests were arriving in the same, standard issue white outfits. Our cover seemed to be solid. Unfortunately, the start of the party was taking forever. We weren’t exactly sure what was holding things up.

Around noon, an unimposing gentleman who looked to be in his late 50’s walked in and was immediately greeted heartily by a number of the Indians present. For the first time, the large, neat bowls of colored powder on the lawn were handled. We watched with rapt attention as several men patted each other with the powders on the head, face and chest and then warmly exchanged hugs. The entire process proved very effective in smearing a healthy amount of color on once-pristine shirts. All of the participants looked like they were having much more fun than the docile hotel guests (who Kaberi cattily suggested were bystanders in Jodhpur’s version of Waiting For Godot). Impatience got the better of us, and we eagerly ambled over to the crowd in the hopes of being absorbed into the pageantry.

We literally marched right up to the alpha male of the activity, the unimposing gentleman mentioned previously, who greeted us in turn with a slight bow. He had been standing off to the side and his casual manner and informal friendliness helped alleviate our nervousness. We ended up talking with him for the next 10 minutes about the significance of Holi, after which he patted us with brilliant red powder and wished us a Happy Holi. We responded in kind, embracing him slightly and lacing his face and shoulders with colored powder (Kaberi using pink and Vik using orange). Before stepping away to mingle with other guests, the gentleman asked us our names, which we happily supplied him. Kaberi asked the same of him, and he paused ever so slightly before simply replying, “Mr. Singh.”

Following our cue, the rest of the hotel guests joined in on the fun. A couple of the older American men (in a blatant and transparent ploy to chat up Kaberi) told us that we were their inspiration for joining in. In no time flat, we ended up completely covered in powder, much of it originating from the hands of well-heeled hotel guests. Quickly, and as Mr. Singh had predicted, the party escalated from the harmless throwing of colored powder to forcible dunkings of captive partygoers in tubs of colored water. Careful to stay far away from the folks dripping wet with pools of pink, red and orange in their wake, we decided to avail ourselves of the complimentary chaat buffet and open bar.

While Kaberi went to the restroom, Vik unwisely attempted to secure a third free drink for himself. By the time Kaberi returned, she found her husband dripping from head to toe, flushed in a very bright shade of fuchsia. Vik had been accosted from behind by a pail-toting ruffian and had a gallon of liquid poured down his back. With a large pink stripe running from his neck to his ankles, he would spend the next two weeks looking like a radioactive skunk.

Later in the day, after a shower back at our hotel (from which Kaberi emerged impeccably-clean while Vik emerged with a backside pink enough to earn him comparisons to a red-butted baboon), we caught a rickshaw to the Mehrenger Fort. The Fort was impressive in itself, with vast latticework covering its standstone walls, but even more so in its scale and perch. Jodhpur is known as the “Blue City” and our vantage point high atop the Fort allowed us to appreciate the cluster of indigo-blue-washed houses in the town center. We also learned that the Fort was once in a state of considerable disrepair before being fully restored by Jodhpur’s current Oxford-educated Maharajah.

The Maharajah was one of India’s Midnight Children (born at the exact moment of India’s independence from Great Britain) and took office at the age of 4. Today, the Maharajah enjoys a reputation as a great patron of local architecture and arts. As we finished the tour and perused the gift shop, an overenthusiastic art student showed us a photo of the Maharajah at the dedication of the art school. Our jaws dropped. It was Mr. Singh -- actually Mr. Gaj Singh II – the man whose face we had smeared with colored powder earlier in the day. To our amazement and embarassment, we had inadvertently crashed the Jodhpur Maharajah’s private Holi celebration.

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