Celebrating a Happy Holi in Odisha

Bhubaneswar, a city in the North Eastern state of Odisha, was our first stop in India. We’d never heard of it before – a lot of people we spoke to hadn’t either – but we’d been brought there by an impromptu invitation to a Hindu wedding.

We arrived late the night before the event with nothing to wear. I set the alarm early for the next day and planned to head straight to the nearest saree shop – a short walk from the hotel – and get my garb for the ceremony. The wedding didn’t start until seven o’clock that evening, so the task seemed an achievable one. However, as with all last-minute plans, it was a terrible idea. The day of the wedding happened to be Holi – a Hindu Spring festival also known as the festival of colours. As we left the hotel and began traipsing down the huge main road towards a small parade of shops, we saw people tearing past – three or four to each motorbike – covered in smears of brightly coloured paint. How exciting, we thought.

Within two minutes, a group of boys of around twenty stopped their motorbike and began gesturing at us with large carrier bags. Unsure of what was about to happen, we froze. Yet giant grins adorned their faces and they asked us if they would be able to wish us Happy Holi. They reached into their bags and pulled out handfuls of bright yellow powder. They daubed it on our faces. They pulled out their phones and posed for selfies with us. They hugged us and shook our hands and then it was back onto the motorbikes and speeding off down the road. We continued on our walk to the saree shop, with a light dusting of yellow paint. Seconds later, we were stopped again. More celebratory spirit. More coloured powder. More selfies.

We were only able to take a couple of steps at a time before a new set of well wishers ran up to us on the pavement or stopped their vehicle and ran over to us. At one point, a speeding car must have seen us a bit too late. It screeched to a halt about fifty metres away and reversed back down the three-line highway to stop right where we were walking. A group of men flung open the doors and ran over to us, chatting urgently. They daubed us in flourescent pink. They rubbed it onto our faces and into our hair.

At another point, we drew a crowd of what must have been thirty people – men, women, children, all insisting on rubbing the intensely coloured powder onto our faces and into our hair. “Happy Holi!” they greeted us, and a million selfies were snapped.

I felt the grit of the powder in my mouth and, when I smiled, my teeth had turned sludgy purple.

Over an hour later, we eventually made it to the parade of shops. Obviously, it was closed. Each shopfront had its shutters down and was totally devoid of life. We visited three different shopping centres. All locked up for Holi. Some people said they would be closed all day, some said that they would open again in the afternoon. We didn’t really have any other option to try again as late as we could, pushing the timing dangerously close to the start of the wedding.

After visiting a couple of nearby temples in the blazing heat and being interviewed on Indian TV, we went back to the hotel. Under a hot shower, the water ran thick with rainbow colours for several minutes as the paint powder was rinsed from my skin. Most of the colour. With increasingly frantic scrubbing, I realised that whilst most of the colours were washing away easily, the purple and pink had stuck fast.

The six of us exchanged frenzied texts. Is anyone else dyed permanently pink? Yes. Everyone.

I scrubbed with three different kinds of soap. I applied coconut oil. I used an at-home chemical peel I’d found in a supermarket in Indonesia. If anything, I became pinker.

One of us went downstairs to ask at reception: “Is there anything that will get this off?” The receptionist replied: “Yes. It’s called tomorrow.”

So we did what we could and we got ready for the wedding. I’d managed to borrow a saree, but the accompanying blouse was several sizes too small. With immense bicep strength, it could be fastened, but it left me unable to breathe or move or eat. Unthinkable for an Indian wedding. With one hour to spare, we left the hotel and headed to the nearest shopping centre and I bought a gold blouse several sizes too big from what felt like was India’s answer to Matalan.

I watched several YouTube tutorials on how to drape a saree and I might as well have been trying to pitch a tent. The bride came to the rescue and sent the woman who had helped her to dress to our hotel rooms where she spent a significant time creating beautifully intricate pleats in our sarees and making us look more than respectable. Then it was just a matter of applying several layers of foundation to hide the fluorescent staining on my face and I was good to go.

As we entered, we were ushered onto a small stage where the bride sat on a deep red velvet couch in bright lights. She looked bridal-magazine-beautiful in a wine coloured sari embellished with gold. Photos were taken. We left the stage and headed towards the buffet that lined either side of the room.

At the far end of the room, there was a low stage set up in the centre with a canopy and coloured lights on all four corners. Chairs surrounded on all sides. A priest sat in the middle organising his paraphernalia. The rituals began late in the evening. As far as we could observe, they involved bananas, flowers, leaves and long string being wound round and round some form of pagoda. The groom appeared to be being blessed and/or interrogated by the priest for an hour. Then he left and the bride came along. Then they swapped again. Unlike a Western wedding, it was much less of a spectator sport. The rituals seemed to focus very much on the couple and their close family. They spoke and chanted quietly. The ‘audience’ drifted around, chatting amongst themselves, occasionally stopping to watch the proceedings, but never for very long.

We asked one of the bride’s friends what was happening. Apparently there were a series of stages of defined rituals: the father in law welcomes the groom into the family, the bride’s father prepares the daughter to join a new family. Over the course of the evening, the room emptied and went from being around two hundred people to around twelve. We went to bed just after one o’clock in the morning when the groom was sat on a chair off the main stage wearing a hat resembling a peacock and having herbs flung at him. Apparently the ceremony went on for another three hours.

I had always imagined Indian weddings to be full of dancing and food and, yes maybe elephants. This was a more relaxed affair. Apparently it was just one stage of a multi-day marathon wedding. Each stage had a different guest list, new rituals and distinct duties for the couple getting married.

We left in awe of the endurance of the bride and groom, and a new-found respect for the commitment of Indians to their ceremonies. Here, apparently it’s normal to be invited to over a hundred weddings a year. With that many, it must be hard to keep up and to maintain enthusiasm for the proceedings.

“Do people ever attend weddings just for the food?” someone (not me) asked the bride’s friend around midnight as we watched what appeared to be a giant cat’s-cradle constructed around the groom.  “Of course!” she replied. “It’s a great way to get a free meal!”


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