Holi

The mad warriors of Holi 2013. Ellisbridge, Ahmedabad, Gujarat. They pounced on me like vultures swooping on fresh carrion.

On the night before Holi, my aunt and her two daughters-in-law gathered silver matlas filled with water, and a thali with popped dhana and a few coins. The sun had already set and we walked in the darkness to what was – surprisingly, in the urban density of Ahmedabad – an empty field next door where an adolescent-sized bonfire about eight feet high licked towards the sky. People were already gathered around the fire and my relatives exchanged subdued greetings with them. What was just neglected urban pasture a few hours earlier was now holy ground, a place where good was beating back evil.

The story goes that Hiranyakashipu, the great king of demons, was granted a boon by Brahma that he could not be killed “during day or night; inside the home or outside, not on earth or in the sky; neither by a man nor an animal; neither by astra nor by shastra.” (I’m not sure exactly why a God would grant such a power to a demon king but perhaps it was all part of the let’s-all-get-along movement among the divine and the damned at the time.) Anyhow, Hiranyakashipu began to think a little highly of himself, as one  might since even death did not now have power over him, and demanded that he be worshipped as a God. But his son Prahlad refused. He was a devotee of Vishnu. So Hiranyakashipu  ordered that his son to be put to death by fire. Prahlad would be held on a pyre in the lap of his sister, Holika, who herself had a boon that fire could not harm her.

Instead, because of his devotion Prahlad was saved while his sister burned. Thus, the beginning of the “Holika dahan” that takes place each Holi eve. Small effigies are placed in the bonfire to represent the siblings, one made of highly flammable material while the other is fire-resistant. This was a darker side to a holiday I knew only as a light-hearted frolic when we would throw colored powder and water at each other.

The colors come the day after, on Dhuleti, and mimic the frolics Krishna had with milkmaids, known as gopis. Today, people go from house to house, color-bombing and throwing buckets of water on friends and family. We had set out for another cousin’s house yesterday only to find when we got there that he had run away! So, sporting our shades of hot pink, purple, green and yellow, we zipped along Ahmedabad’s unusually quiet streets for a food stall and enjoyed vada pav.

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Patan, carved

Patan was built in 745 as the Solankis solidified their Indian empire, and it was a major center in the kingdom that stretched much beyond Gujarat’s current borders. It remained a capital through Moghul rule until Sultan Ahmed Shah moved the capital to Ahmedabad in 1411. Even as Patan exchanged hands from the Solankis to the Sultanate to the British, Patan has become a major center for Jains and home to nearly 200 temples, both major derasars and neighborhood shrines tucked amid homes in the smallest of pols. P.S. is a Jain and showed me several temples, pointing out the iconography in elaborate mirrorwork and wood and stone carvings.

Patan is also home to the Rani ki Vav, or “Queen’s stepwell,” an elaborately carved stepwell that was built in 1063. It was commissioned by Queen Udayamati, the wife of Solanki King Bhimdev I and has more than 800 carved sandstone images with the 10 incarnations of Vishnu as the central team. P.S. and I spent more than an hour gazing at the various reliefs. She has been coming to the vav since childhood and knew many of the panels by heart. Among her favorites – and now mine – are of the apsaras, the buxom courtiers who are shown bathing, wearing earrings or just from the bath, unknowing that a scorpion has nestled itself onto the robe she is about to wear.

Off the grid in Gopnath

Our itinerary read “Gopnath Beach,” a place not found in my guidebook or on any map I had. “Gopnath beach is known for its scenic beauty, limestone cliffs, natural surroundings and fascinating flora and fauna.”

We drove up to windswept cliff over the Gulf of Khambat and the driver stopped in front of a faded Dreamsicle-colored one-story building. No one came out to greet us. There was no sign, no lobby of any sort, nothing to suggest that this is rest-stop for travelers and, yet, the driver said this is “Gopnath Bungalows,” where we were to stay. I wondered if we were being dropped off at someone’s house, a friend of the travel agent who wanted to make some money off of  gullible clients.

DSC_9408Dad and I exchanged “where are we?” looks and after, a few minutes, a man came out to the car. He looked sleepy, like we had woken him from an afternoon nap. He and the driver exchanged greetings and they both began to unpack our belongings from the car. Ramesh, that was the sleepy man’s name, we found out, sat on a plastic chair behind a desk on the sun-filled porch. He opened a cracked “guest register” – the spine had been taped over to keep the book together – and he wrote down “Kiran Shah.”

There was no one else about. He opened the door to room #3. Monastic, and not in a good way, came to mind. Thin mattresses were set on marble platforms attached to the wall. No rugs covered the cold tile floor. A peek into the bathroom confirmed my next suspicion: the 12-inch tall geyser would mean a cold shower or no shower at all.

Ramesh came by to say that lunch would be ready shortly so we waited outside, sitting on the porch steps, lazing like cats in the sun, and lowering our expectations regarding the meal. But we were jolted. Our food was delicious. The Katiawad menu set up on the plastic table was bountiful, hot and perfectly spiced. Through a doorway off in the corner, I spotted a small kitchen where two older ladies were making fresh rotlo on a cast iron griddle.

IMG_2411We returned to the courtyard after lunch, this time taking our plastic chairs with us. There is a playground in the middle and on the far left, cliffside, is a large wooden bungalow, faded and paint-cracked from seasons of salt air and monsoon. Built in the 1940s, it served as the beach house for Krishna Kumarasingh Bhavasingh, the then ruler of Bhavnagar. I got up and urged Dad to come with me and poke around. The house itself is locked but we walked through the yard and upstairs to the roof terrace. I stood near the balustrade – careful not to lean against it as it didn’t seem very stable – overlooking the sea and imagined royal parties here. Like many of India’s heritage sites, it’s in desperate need of upkeep. It looks far older than its 70-plus years.

We returned to our chairs and sat and talked, our voices the only noise to disturb the sound of breeze, waves and birds. After about an hour, the driver motioned us to the car. We were going into “town” to visit the local temple. Built around 700 years ago, it is one of the few, if not the only, temple to host two flags: a white flag signifies a temple devoted to Vishnu. The saffron flag denotes a shrine to Shiva.

DSC_9396Gopnath is also the place where it’s believed that Narsinh Mehta, a 15th-century Gujarati poet-saint, attained enlightenment. His poem, “Vaishava Janatho,” was Mahatma Gandhi’s favorite.

Vaishnav jan to tene kahiye je [One who is a vaishnav]

PeeD paraayi jaaNe re [Knows the pain of others]

Par-dukhkhe upkaar kare toye [Does good to others, especially to those ones who are in misery]

Man abhimaan na aaNe re [Does not let pride enter his mind]

Vaishnav…SakaL lok maan sahune vande [A Vaishnav, Tolerates and praises the the entire world]

Nindaa na kare keni re [Does not say bad things about anyone]

Vaach kaachh man nishchaL raakhe [Keeps his/her words, actions and thoughts pure]

Dhan-dhan janani teni re

We returned to the “hotel” at sunset. The weather had changed; the wind had turned cold and it was getting brisk. Dad and I intended to read and get to bed early – not much else to do in a place without even phone service – but we ended up talking until midnight, bathed in Dreamsicle-colored light, until the howl of high tide reminded us it was time we got some rest.