The Festival of Colors celebration in the East Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn last week was a vibrant Holi celebration. In Hindu tradition, all of the festivalgoers were asked to toss their multicolored powder into the air before the sun completely set and in doing so, the little daylight left alongside the stage lights set the blending colors of powder aglow. I had been looking forward to the festival for weeks after reading about it online. The location, which was simply a fenced parking lot in the middle of East Flatbush, one mile from the nearest train, wasn’t announced until a few days before the festival. Once I knew where to go, I took photographer Ben Britz with me and he snapped this photo. The night was filled with dancing, drinking and conversations with strangers – the kinds of conversations that are bound to occur when you’re all united in an effort to (harmlessly) ruin each other’s clothing and spread cheer.
Have you ever landed in a place to find out you arrived just after the town’s can’t-miss event of the year? Well, hopefully that won’t happen again this year. Gadling bloggers racked their brains to make sure our readers don’t overlook the best parties to be had throughout the world in 2013. Below are more than 60 music festivals, cultural events, pilgrimages and celebrations you should consider adding to your travel calendar this year – trust us, we’ve been there.
Above image: Throughout Asia, Lunar New Year is celebrated with lantern festivals, the most spectacular of which is possibly Pingxi. [Photo credit: Creative Commons]
January 7–27: Sundance Film Festival (Park City, Utah)
January 10–February 26: Kumbh Mela (Allahabad, India)
January 21: Presidential Inauguration (Washington, DC)
January 26–February 12: Carnival of Venice (Venice, Italy)
January 26–February 13: Battle of the Oranges (Ivrea, Italy)
February 3: Super Bowl XLVII (New Orleans, Louisiana)
February 5–11: Sapporo Snow Festival (Sapporo, Japan)
February 7–12: Busójárás (Mohács, Hungary)
February 10: Chinese New Year/Tet (Worldwide)
February 9–12: Rio Carnival (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil)
February 12: Mardi Gras (Worldwide)
February 14: Pingxi Lantern Festival (Taipei, Taiwan)
February 24: Lunar New Year (Worldwide)
Several cities in India and Nepal increase tourist volume during Holi, when people enjoy spring’s vibrant colors. [Photo credit: Creative Commons]
March 1-14: Omizutori (Nara, Japan)
March 20–April 14: Cherry Blossom Festival (Washington, DC)
March 27: Holi (Worldwide, especially India & Nepal)
Many Dutch people wear orange – the national color – and sell their secondhand items in a “free market” during Koninginnendag, a national holiday in the Netherlands. [Photo credit: Creative Commons]
April 11-14: Masters Golf Tournament (Augusta, Georgia)
April 13–15: Songkran Water Festival (Thailand)
April 17–28: TriBeCa Film Festival (New York, New York)
April 25–28: 5Point Film Festival (Carbondale, Colorado)
April 30: Koninginnendag or Queen’s Day (Netherlands)
Up to 50 men work together to carry their church’s patron saint around the main square in Cusco, Peru during Corpus Christi. [Photo credit: Blogger Libby Zay]
May 15–16: Festival de Cannes (Cannes, France)
May 20: Corpus Christi (Worldwide)
May 23–26: Art Basel (Hong Kong)
May 24–27: Mountainfilm Film Festival (Telluride, Colorado)
May 25-28: Sasquatch Festival (Quincy, Washington)
May 26: Indianapolis 500 (Speedway, Indiana)
2013 marks the 100th anniversary for the Tour de France. [Photo credit: Creative Commons]
June 13–16: Art Basel (Basel, Switzerland)
June 14–16: Food & Wine Classic (Aspen, Colorado)
June 21: St. John’s Night (Poznan, Poland)
June 24: Inti Raymi (Cusco, Peru)
June 28–30: Comfest (Columbus, Ohio)
June 29–July 21: Tour de France (France)
The annual observance of Ramadan is regarded as one of the Five Pillars of Islam. Visit Istanbul, Turkey, at this time and see a festival-like atmosphere when pious Muslims break their fasts with lively iftar feasts at night. [Photo credit: Creative Commons]
July 17: Gion Festival Parade (Kyoto, Japan)
July 18–21: International Comic Con (San Diego, California)
July 19–22: Artscape (Baltimore, Maryland)
Festival-goers get their picture taken at a photo booth during Foo Fest, an arts and culture festival held annually in Providence, Rhode Island. [Photo credit: Flickr user AS220]
August 10: Foo Fest (Providence, Rhode Island)
August 26–September 2: Burning Man (Black Rock Desert, Nevada)
August 31–September 2: Bumbershoot (Seattle, Washington)
More than six million people head to Munich, Germany, for beer-related festivities during the 16-day Oktoberfest. [Photo credit: Creative Commons]
September 5–15: Toronto International Film Festival (Toronto, Canada)
September 13–15: Telluride Blues & Brews Festival (Telluride, Colorado)
September 21–October 6: Oktoberfest (Munich, Germany)
October 5–13: Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta (Albuquerque, New Mexico)
October 10–14: United States Sailboat Show (Annapolis, Maryland)
During Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), family and friends get together to remember loved ones they have lost. Although practiced throughout Mexico, many festivals take place in the United States, such as this festival at La Villita in San Antonio, Texas. [Photo credit: Blogger Libby Zay]
November 11: Cologne Carnival (Cologne, Germany)
November 28: Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade (New York, New York)
TBA: Punkin Chunkin (Long Neck, Delaware)
The colorful holiday of Junkanoo is the most elaborate festivals of the Bahamian islands. [Photo credit: Flickr user MissChatter]
December 2–3: Chichibu Yomatsuri (Chichibu City, Japan)
Varanasi, City of Death, City of Passage to Worlds Beyond.
Founded by Lord Shiva on the banks of the holy Ganges, Varanasi (once known as Benares) occupies the most sacred land in India, and is a reputed tirtha (passage point to the Other World). For at least 3,000 years Varanasi has drawn India’s dying, specifically those dying Hindus seeking release from Samsara, the burdensome cycle of birth, death, and rebirth in which all beings are karmically rewarded or punished for their deeds on earth with a new round of existence, accordingly torturous or pleasant. However, if you expire in Varanasi, have yourself cremated in a pyre beneath the handless clock of Manikarnika Ghat, and have your ashes consigned to the Ganges, you achieve moksha, the highest release possible, the most munificent mercy of all: freedom from Samsara, everlasting surcease of suffering and dispatch to the ethereal Void beyond the world of the flesh.
Well-read travelers to India probably know this much about Varanasi even before arriving. But Varanasi is not only a citadel of mortal passage and spiritual relief. Soot-stained, chock-full of crumbling temples and hostels for the moribund and screeching monkeys, reeking of incense and sandalwood and less salubrious odors, ostensibly holy Varanasi is also home to some 3 million human beings with entirely mundane, even profane, proclivities. I found myself with an unexpected chance to see this for myself during my third sojourn there, two years ago, during the springtime Hindu festival of Holi, when people ritualistically splash each other with colored dyes and ignite corner bonfires in celebration of the deity Prahlad´s escape from the flames into which the demoness Holika had cast him. There are other rites associated with Holi, but for some youths celebratory antics have recently taken more serious turns involving drunkenness and debauchery, the groping of female tourists foolish enough to wander the streets, even assault and rape.
All of which prompted me to wish for Holi’s end even before it had started. As it was, an undercurrent of violence seemed to flow through the city, born of overpopulation, caste-related violence in the surrounding countryside, and desperate poverty. My Varanasi-born Indian friend, whom I will call Rajiv here, to protect his identity, sensed my trepidation, and invited me to festivities he was arranging for later in the day.
“Holi out on the streets is one thing,” Rajiv said. “But I will show you another.” He winked slyly. “If you attend my party, I promise you will not regret it.”In his forties, Rajiv was a landowner and builder with money and status — an Indian Big Man, as it were. He was erudite and earthy, devoted to his gods, and a man of inestimable good humor who nevertheless managed to succeed in Varanasi´s challenging environment of violence and corruption. He was also generous, perhaps to a fault.
“I’m throwing a Holi party for our laborers” — mostly migrants from Uttar Pradesh state who led lives of unimaginable penury and deprivation. “I will show them a good time. One like they never get a chance to see.” He winked again, and smiled slyly. “A real good time.” The local district administrator would be there, along with a high-ranking official from the state security services. Big Men all. My safety, he said, was “guaranteed.” Which seemed to indicate it could be dangerous indeed. Just dangerous enough to intrigue me.
“What time should I be there?” I asked.
The day waned and darkness fell, but the March heat hardly abated. I was not to walk the Holi-stricken streets of Varanasi alone. One of Rajiv’s servants pulled up to my doorway on a motorcycle and I hopped aboard for a rumbling, tipsy-turvy ride down yard-wide, serpentine streets, to one of Rajiv’s properties, a three-story cement building, stained with ashes from Varanasi´s endlessly burning cremation fires. The event he was staging would call for privacy, so it would be held on a rooftop enclosed within walls.
The party was already on. With a pistol stuffed in his belt, seated behind a table, dressed in a sweat-blotched sleeveless t-shirt, Rajiv was ministering to his flock: some twenty pencil-thin men in robes and turbans squatting above paper plates piled high with steaming dhal and vegetables, which they scooped up and ate with their fingers. His brother, a powerful fellow who had received training in hand-to-hand combat, was also in attendance and seated behind the table, armed with a handgun as well.
“Get up!” Rajiv commanded his guests, pulling a bottle of English whiskey from a box packed with more of the same at his side. The workers arose, and with downcast eyes, formed a line. Rajiv handed each one a plastic cup, which he filled to the brim with booze. “Keep it moving!” he said. The laborers applied his command to their elbows. They upended their cups of whiskey, burped raucously and shook their heads, walked on, and straightaway got back in line. This was no doubt the first time anyone had treated them to whiskey, a proscribed substance in Hinduism, and illegal within the sacred precincts of central Varanasi.
Soon the administrator and the security chief arrived, pot-bellied men in plaid shirts, well-coiffed, splashed with cologne, their collars starched, their cheeks immaculately shaved. They nodded greetings to me, without a smile. Rajiv pulled another bottle of whiskey — higher-grade hooch reserved for Big Men — and poured us honorary Big Men cupfuls. I sniffed it. I don’t usually drink whiskey, but this was fine stuff. We all downed our shots and pulled up chairs by Rajiv. Soon I broke into a sweat, and felt the whiskey burn its way through my capillaries. Mists were now drifting over the rooftop, the humidity was rising, the workers, a few already drunk, were talking louder and louder. The whiskey high hit me fast and hard. How fine it was to be in India! I proposed a toast to my host, who was showing me there was nothing to fear, and, indeed, much to enjoy, in Holi.
But Rajiv was struggling urgently to keep up with the workers and their outstretched hands. “Keep moving!” he shouted, pouring the wondrous bronze elixir into their wobbly cups. Slackers were not allowed; each continuously drank his share to the dregs and returned to the end of the line. Intentionally or not, Rajiv was prompting them to drink much, and rapidly. He turned to me. “I’m doing these fellows a good deed. They don’t get a chance to drink whiskey in their villages. So they will never forget this Holi!”
In other circumstances, I might have ascribed all sorts of abstemious virtues to these impoverished laborers. Knowing little of their lives, but having many preconceptions about India, I would have doubted whether they would drink alcohol, even if offered it for free, or engaged in other vices. Now I saw the truth.
It might seem wrong to some to watch villagers being debauched, but a certain amount of vice keeps people human, whatever their social status. I noticed that the administrator drank at the same pace as they, and soon was leaning into my face, belching whiskey fumes and trying to tell me something of great apparent significance. The security chief kept to himself, working his elbow up and down, his eyes slowly losing focus. All livened up when someone popped a cassette tape into a boom box, and raucous Indian dance music blared forth. Instants later workers were leaping about in frantic sloppy duets, their turbans unraveling, sweat spinning off their foreheads. Men all, drunker and drunker, they began hip-thrusting belly dance moves with each other, with the occasional fall onto the concrete floor.
At some barely perceptible moment, when ragged clouds drifted over the moon and a fetid stench arose from the streets, the party’s mood shifted. Sweating profusely, the security chief slumped in his seat, babbling incoherently. The administrator lifted his finger, as if to make an announcement of momentous import, but staggered past me, vomited onto his shirt, and collapsed. Shouts arose — the workers, bleary-eyed and soaked in perspiration, were berating their sloggered Bihari supervisor, who lashed out at them with his fists. Those still dancing took to shoving one another and cursing. A melee was erupting.
Rajiv jumped to his feet, brandishing his pistol, as did his brother. Both grabbed the workers and started breaking up the squabbles, shouting violently and calling for order, their commands drowned out by the music. The Bihari hardly appreciated any of this. He fell onto a chair, vomited into his lap, and then collapsed onto the cement. Finally, even I was called into service as a bouncer of sorts.
The administrator and the security officer had had enough. They staggered to their feet and leaned on the shoulders of their own servants, who walked them carefully to the stairwell. A half-hour later, we had herded the laborers back out onto the streets and were alone on the rooftop amid puddles of vomit, crushed dhal-splattered plates, soiled turbans, and broken plastic cups.
Whatever Varanasi was, it was above all a hive of humanity, with only a superficial layer of sanctity that covered its multi-faceted identity. It was not as it seemed, which accorded perfectly with the Indian concept of Maya, the veil of illusion shrouding the realities of our world, realities common to India and the West.
“Happy Holi!” Rajiv said to me, wiping sweat from his brow. We boarded his motorcycle. Glow from the pyres of Manikarnika Ghat reached into the skies, and we bounced off into the serpentine lanes leading back to his home.
Jeffrey Tayler is the Moscow-based correspondent for The Atlantic and the author of numerous books, including Siberian Dawn, Facing the Congo, Glory in a Camel’s Eye, Angry Wind, and River of No Reprieve. His most recent book is Murderers in Mausoleums. He is also a contributor to Conde Nast Traveler, National Geographic, Harper’s, and Smithsonian magazines.
As the big win of Slumdog Millionaire has moved out of the top story category, here’s another version of India, one that I experienced, but without all the choreography and singing. Today is Holi, a holiday celebrating the triumph of good over evil. I forgot about it until being reminded by this Intelligent Travel post. Here’s a happy Holi experience for you.
If you watched Season 13 of the Amazing Race, you may remember part of it occurred during Holi. Some of the team members were totally covered in powder. If you have blond hair, good luck getting out the green. When we went to a Holi celebration, one of my daughter’s friends, a fair-haired, fair-skinned girl, looked like she was related to Shrek for about three days.
Holi, also known as India’s Festival of Colors, begins on the Phalgun Purnima, or the night of the first full moon in late February or early March. For those of you who haven’t looked up at the night sky recently, that means it’s this weekend.
Believed to have originated as long ago as 300BC, the legend-soaked event celebrates the arrival of spring and the promise of fertile fields. It also scares away laziness and sickness in the lives of Hindus. As part of the celebrations, Hindus enjoy bonfires (to kill bacterias in the body), throw brightly-colored powders in the air (to invoke the richness and bounty of spring), and drink and eat bhang (um…just for fun). In other words, it’s sort of like Mardi Gras for Hindus. Except without all the ta-tas.
Don’t understand what’s so fun about throwing around colored powder? Check out this ecstatic, exuberant clip from Mangal Pandey: The Rising and marvel at all the kaleidoscopic color.
Can’t make it to India this weekend? Apparently, Queens hosts an Americanized version of the event this Saturday and Sunday. FYI, don’t eat too much hot buttered bhang and collapse on your mother’s clean sheets. This is certainly not the time.