x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Bright and colourful Holi days

Feature India is in the midst of the Holi festival, where cities are literally painted red - and blue, green and yellow - and the country, regardless of caste, is united.

All photographs: Florence Leeuwenberg / TCS
All photographs: Florence Leeuwenberg / TCS

India is in the midst of the Holi festival, where cities are literally painted red - and blue, green and yellow - and the country, regardless of caste, is united. Jurrian Teulings reports on the story and meaning behind the celebrations. All across India fires are lit as the light from the last full moon of the Hindu calendar bathes the land. The fires burn in the streets, temple grounds and gardens - a joyful symbol of the triumph of good over evil.

There is a crackling energy in the air, as the roaring of the flames mingles with the shouting of children and the songs of praise sung by devout Hindus. Tonight winter is coming to an end. Holika, the evil sister, will be consumed by fire. And Prahalad, the pious son of a demon king who devoted himself to the god Vishnu, will be miraculously saved from the flames. It is the eve of the most colourful festival on Earth: Holi.

The religious aspect of the Holi festival has its origins in an age-old saga about good and evil. In the story, pure evil is embodied in the form of Hiranyakashipu, king of the demons, and his malicious sister, Holika. The king is virtually immortal: as a result of a divine blessing, he cannot be killed by night or by day; on the ground or in the air; neither inside nor outdoors; and not by a weapon or by a proverb. The king arrogantly abuses this immunity by ordering his subjects to worship him alone and to forsake all other gods.

Pure good is embodied by his pious son, Prahalad, who in spite of his father's commands continues to worship Vishnu. The tale is long and complicated, but in essence what happens is this: Hiranyakashipu and Holika hatch all kinds of plans to kill Prahalad, and they fail every time. When it seems that neither poison, nor a herd elephants, nor a roomful of snakes can harm Prahalad, Holika lures him, through trickery, on to a burning pyre. She possesses a magical cloak, which protects her from the flames, but once in the sea of fire the cloak ends up by a divine miracle on Prahalad, leaving Holika to burn. Then Vishnu appears and makes short work of Hiranyakashipu. He comes as an apparition (not a person, nor an animal), at twilight (neither day nor night) and tears at the king with his claws (neither a weapon nor a proverb), having pulled him on to his lap (not on the ground nor in air). Thus Vishnu gets around all the conditions that made the king immortal.

Holi also celebrates both the New Year in the Hindu calendar and the start of spring. It begins on the day that the northern hemisphere tilts towards the sun, the date moving with the lunar calendar - this year's Holi festival fell on Monday - and the celebrations can last for up to 16 days. It is a time for feasting, for joy and a form of release: for one day, the strict hierarchy of the caste system dissipates into clouds of brightly coloured powder and paint.

Holi is celebrated throughout India. In the south they focus more on the religious rituals, and the celebrations are relatively subdued. But in Jodhpur, in the northern state of Rajasthan, the festival brings the city to a standstill. Jodhpur is colourful to start with: the quarter where the Brahmins live is painted bright blue, giving the city its nickname, the "Blue City". Women brighten the streets in their multicoloured saris. From a distance they seem like walking confetti. In the markets and streets, electric blue gods sit on innumerable altars, beside kaleidoscopic rows of cashmere and silk. A huge fairy-tale fort that seems to have grown straight out of the rock towers above the city. This is where Jodhpur's maharajas once held court. Inside, the rooms are elaborately painted, covered with mother-of-pearl and adorned with glittering mirrors and inlaid glass. It is not difficult to imagine how a culture so colourful would embrace Holi so enthusiastically.

The celebrations resemble a massive custard pie fight. From taxi driver to maharaja, from the proud Bollywood star to tourists taken by surprise, nobody is safe. In the mayhem, race, skin tone and status all disappear in a puff of shocking-pink smoke. Or azure. Or canary yellow. And so on: clouds of paint powder in all colours of the rainbow billow through the streets and gardens. Jets of inky water from pichkaris (a kind of squirt gun) arc through the air over the heads of women in saris. A group of joyfully shrieking children is set upon by a group of men, already coated from head to foot in paint by their families. The maharaja is lifted up by his people and plunged unceremoniously into a deep red bath. It is believed that the combination of different colours take all sorrow away and make life itself more colourful.

No one is safe. Tourists are a popular target. Dutch couples in trekking trousers and Spanish women in snow-white safari suits have no chance. Some don't know what is lying in wait for them on the street; most thought they did but simply underestimated the onslaught. With a misleading "Hello mister!" children grab their attention, and before they know it they are under siege. They are coated from head to foot, bombarded with buckets of paint. No longer bystanders, they have no choice but to join in with the mob.

Anyone foolish enough to appear in the streets during Holi in their best clothing will become a real "fashion victim". And whatever applies to clothing applies even more to expensive camera equipment: a photo shoot amid this frenzied festival is an extremely risky venture. That's why photographer Floris Leeuwenberg took these pictures in the (relative) safety of a Vishnu temple, the god at the centre of the whole celebration. In the Hindu pantheon of Hindu gods, Vishnu represents continuity, care and protection. On this occasion, he seemed to take care of Floris.