Diwali – the festival of lights


I’m writing from the train, where we’re just beginning our 18 hour journey down to Mumbai en route to the south. It feels a bit like the post-Christmas blues; we’ve just had a great party complete with brightly coloured lights and fireworks, eaten sugary and richly flavoured foods to our heart’s content, and are once again leaving the familiarity of a place we know for the adventures of the future. On the other hand, it isn’t freezing cold, there isn’t mind numbing Christmas muzak blaring from the shops, and there are beds for 84 people packed into just this carriage!

Just before we returned to Jaipur for Diwali, we stopped for a couple of days at Sawai Madhopur, gateway to the Ranthambore National Park (and not much else except a few hot dusty streets). The National Park is famous for its tigers and billed as one of the best places to see the country’s dwindling striped cat population. Alas, it was not to be for us, with fresh tiger prints in the dirt road the closest we got to the park’s 35 ginger inhabitants – although we did see plenty of deer and peacocks as well as a water buffalo and blue bull (which we both thought was initially some variant of the bluebell flower).

We did however manage to get tangled in a farcical piece of Indian red tape on our way to see the hiding tigers. We were in an open top bus (called a canter) with 18 other tourists, most of whom were Germans in a tour group from a luxury hotel. Our place had warned us to bring passports, but it seemed theirs had not. So when we arrived at the gates to the park, instead of ‘spot the tiger’, a game of ‘spot the German’ ensued, in Hindi. The park security person came onto the bus, and proceeded to do a role call, but didn’t have full names for people. We were able to cope with identifying ourselves as ‘Laura’ and ‘Simon’, but between the poor pronunciation, quiet voices and lack of complete names, most of the German group were unable to identify themselves, and took to shouting a response of “forename or surname?”, which didn’t help since nobody knew. On the odd occasion that a link was established between face and name, they would be asked for their passport, at which point they would usually shrug and say ‘hotel’. The person calling the register would look bemused like this had never happened before, scribble something on a bit of paper and the game would begin again. Occasionally they’d also shout the name across to the bus nearby with the other half of the German group on board, but to no avail. After a while, they’d apparently get fed up and leave, only for someone else to come on 10 minutes later and start afresh. I think we played five rounds of ‘Ranthambore Guess Who’ before someone somewhere in officialdom finally conceded and we were waved through. Note to anyone wishing to play themselves – as we found out, the game is best experienced when you’ve paid a fortune to visit somewhere for a fixed timeslot, which is rapidly running out! We did briefly wonder if they were simultaneously subjecting the tigers to the same rigmarole on the other side of the fence and it was actually stress (“Where’s stripey? Forename or Surname? Passport?”) and not poachers causing numbers to reduce. Unfortunately we didn’t see any to ask!

Diwali is known as the festival of lights, and in terms of significance at least it’s probably best thought of as an Hindu equivalent of Christmas. Buildings are decorated with strings of colourful lights, families and friends come together to celebrate, sweets and rich food are shared, and everyone seems to be in a good mood.

We were staying in a fantastic rooftop room at a guesthouse – with windows on four sides (if you include the bathroom), and our very own bit of roof from which to watch the city. Jaipur is famous for its Diwali celebrations – almost every building seems to be decorated with bright lights, and the city holds a competition for the best. The streets themselves are also adorned with colourful lights and decorations – including lots of tinsel, which glitters brilliantly in the daytime sun. And as if that isn’t enough to make the place festive, loudspeakers everywhere are blaring out Hindi music, and there are all manner of stalls – with sweets, nuts, garlands of flowers and sugar cane juice.

The festival lasts five days, and we were in town for the two biggest days in the middle. At the start, the floor outside people’s houses is decorated with painted motifs in red and white, and we also saw chalk versions of these in the streets. It really gets special when it gets dark, as alongside the strings of lights, hundreds of small oil lamps are lit – tiny clay pots filled with oil with a wick burning through the night. Diwali literally means ‘line of lights’, and their twinkling glow marked out the perimeter of every walkway and rooftop around in a beautifully simple and romantic way.


Diwali’s also the time when people traditionally get new clothes and then wear them out for the first time on the main night, Amavasya. Laura took the chance to do exactly this, and we spent an exciting afternoon Sari shopping, which she wore that night to much acclaim – I’m sure she’ll tell you all about it!

Dressed up for the evening (I wore a shirt for the first time in ages!), we joined what felt like the rest of the city on a walk around the old town and bazaars to admire the lights and be blown away (fortunately only figuratively) by firecrackers. The colourful neon decorations on some of the bigger shops in town were amazingly kitsch, and the highlight in the centre was a couple of detailed freestanding facades made from fabric and scaffolding, brilliantly illuminated in ever-changing colourful floodlights. Coupled with an effervescent atmosphere filled with yelps of excitement from children and frequent pops from garlands of bangers, it really was something special.

We concluded our festivities – and time in the north – sitting out on the roof of our guesthouse and marvelling at the continuous firework display rising from the city around us. I don’t think either of us have experienced anything quite like it – probably 5-10 fireworks going off every second illuminating the panorama. We joined in with our own sparklers on the rooftop, followed by some delicious indian sweets (truly meeting the description ‘sweet’), before drifting off to a sleep punctuated by sounds of firecrackers and sirens from fire engines visiting the less fortunate participants of the evening’s fire show.

So we bid goodbye to the north of India, and begin a long journey south. It’s strange to think now that a few weeks ago we were even thinking of abandoning India early – and that we have only a little over a week left before moving on to Vietnam.

Seeing all the fireworks made me realise that a world away back home, it’s nearly bonfire night – so all the best for the 5th November to everyone back there, and especially those of you gathering in Lewes – I’ll be thinking of you!


Forts and festivals


We had two hopes for our time in Jodhpur – that it would live up to the moniker ‘the blue city’, and that we would catch sight of the famous horseriding trousers in their place of origination (they were invented here for an English gent during the times of the British Raj, and he started a fashion trend). Sadly only the first came true, although the festival we discovered shortly before we arrived more than made up for the lack of riding leather!

The fort here is simply magnificent! I thought that after the last two I had perhaps run out of fort superlatives, but this really deserves credit and is a real highlight of our visit to India so far. Firstly, it’s massive, dominating the skyline above the expanse of the million-strong city beneath, and providing commanding views for miles around. Secondly, it has the best audio tour ever (and it’s included in the price).

Titbits picked up include the sad tale of the man who volunteered (although we’re wondering quite how optional it was) to be buried alive in the foundations of the fort to rid it of a curse from the former occupant; the handprints of queens past who in their final departure from the palace would make a vermillion imprint by the door before joining the king on his funeral pyre in the (thankfully now banned) practice of sati; and the cleverly disguised decorative alcoves up high in the king’s reception chamber which provided a place for female royals to listen in to the advice he was receiving so they could later provide a helpful comment or a counterpoint. In light of recent moments of amnesia Laura believes this is actually because the women could remember what was said!

The palace in the fort was also brilliantly beautiful, with the soft light coming through the brightly coloured stained glass shining on the smooth sandstone walls. There were a couple of rooms that made Laura actually gasp with delight when they came into view, including a bedroom – complete with slightly out of place Christmas baubles – that we would have gladly swapped for our hotel room at almost any price!

The rich history of the fort was told with an emphasis and nuance missing from so many of the guides we’ve had so far on our travels, and this was complemented by the views over the city below. Many more than in the pink city, Jodhpur’s walls are frequently painted in light blue to serve two purposes – apparently as cooling during the hot summer months (not quite sure about the physics on that verses the usually preferred white), and as a natural insect repellant (again, not quite sure about the biology there…). Still, it looks great, with the cube-shaped houses of the old city rich in colour to match the fort’s history.

We’d started our day by seeking out the Marwar Festival, an annual celebration of local culture, and found something altogether bigger and more energetic than the drab tourist-targeted flop we’d imagined. There were marching bands! And camels! And actually, a marching band on a camel (the only one in the world)! And we got invited to join in! Ok, so we sat on a cart for a bit, but we were part of the procession through town for a few amazing minutes! The camels were brilliantly dressed, with red rugs fringed in orange, and their necks covered with a glittering web of mirrors and balls of brightly coloured fabric.

As the camel-pulled carts wound their way through the old town, they (and we) were showered with flower petals, most raining down from above, but a few thrown more vigorously directly at us at point blank range (and these were still attached to the flower heads). We’re certain there must be an age-old saying somewhere that you’ve never really experienced local life until you’ve been pelted with flowers and have bruises to show for it!

The afternoon of the festival consisted of what was to all intents and purposes an unlikely combination of school sports day, summer fete and military pageant at the local football pitch. There was a marching band competition, of which the highlight for us was the prisoners from a nearby prison. We weren’t quite sure if perhaps it was all part of some elaborate escape bid on their part – an incongruous combination of badly out of tune bagpipes, shaking of tambourines, and drumming that would have been better placed in a samba club. I’m sure there’s a movie in there somewhere once their escape makes the headlines! This was followed by the presentation of prizes – most memorably for best turban, and the highlight – best moustache. The photo speaks for itself, but I’ll just add one thing – the secret is to coil it round your ears for storage!

The Border Security Force is the army unit responsible for border control in India – which is a pretty sensitive and important topic given frequently frosty relations with Pakistan. So we were amused to find they were the providers of the final two pieces of entertainment. The BSF choir was pitched as ‘the way the soldiers keep themselves entertained during their time in the barren desert’, and was India’s answer to stomp. Plastic containers, pick-axes, helmets, ammo casings, anti-aircraft missile*, they were drumming on whatever they could lay their hands on – and making quite an impressive sound. We initially thought it must have been a romantic song about leaving one’s sweetheart at home when you went to war, but all was revealed when the true nationalistic chorus kicked in and the audience started cheering: “BSF, march to the sound of the BSF”…

To cap it off, there was a BSF Camel Tattoo. Some members of the Kazoo travelling team (who shall remain nameless) thought this was going to involve permanent camel imagery being etched on our midriffs in black ink – and so we were relieved to find twenty five camels with owners marching in various impressive formations, then with acrobatics, and finally with fire. And who says that border patrol is a boring job?!


*ok, so perhaps not, but you get the picture!