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Posts Tagged ‘Indian festivals’

It was like a battle.  That was the first thing that came to my mind.  In the middle of the abandoned-dirt-plot turned fairground, people dressed in saris and dhotis and a few camera-handed tourists pressed into a ring.  At its edge, people balanced on their tiptoes and fathers with toddlers on their shoulders lifted up their chins for a better look.  All eyes were fixed on the drummers.  Lined up four men across and four men back, they wore their leg-length drums at their hip, hanging from a sash across their shoulders.  The drumsticks were curved back at the ends from hitting tight animalskin at full muscle force again and again.  You could see it on their faces, and in the sweat that poured down their chests and soaked into their white rib necked vests.  They were warriors.  Their battle was in their beat- aggressive and competitive, but contained and controlled.  Their purpose was in their eyes and in the quick flash of a smile; they were there to have fun.

The elephant festival happens once every year, and the drummers always lead the march before the elephants.  Hardly like a conventional American balustraded parade, the elephant march went through Varkala’s streets with an air of controlled chaos.  When the drummers stopped, people pressed in around them.  When they started marching again, some people randomly joined the parade followed behind them.  This was a religious festival, including a procession of floats with statues of Hindu gods, but it easily could have been Saint Ubaldo in Jessup or the Halloween Parade in Greenwich Village.  Regardless of culture or religion or reason, the energy felt the same.

Now this may seem like I’m getting totally off topic here, but stay with me.  I’ve gotten into the habit of reading the Indian newspapers every morning.  Just like the rest of the world, India’s media is focused on covering ‘the Economic Crisis,’ usually in the light of what the U.S. is doing.  Despite an editorial love of Obama, it’s not American citizens who have won recent praise.  It’s the French.  An editorial in The Hindu this morning praised French citizens who took to the streets on March 19th in protest of their government’s shady response to financial woes.  I won’t rehash the details, because I wasn’t there.  It was well covered in The New York Times and The Washington Post.

While the French are being praised for standing up against bad policy, on the next page of The Hindu is an op-ed from The New York Times.  It’s Paul Krugman’s piece about Obama’s Bush-esque, sure to fail (according to him) bank bailout plan.  As the world is looking us with patient expectation, wondering what our new president will do differently, maybe now’s the time for us to make sure that he does it right.  I’m not saying that we should emulate the French, but maybe we can learn from them.  And perhaps a mixing of Indian and French is the way for us to go.  We can tap into that energy that comes from mass gatherings–whether it’s a parade of elephants, Saint Ubaldo, or crazy costumed New Yorkers–and attach a message to it.  Parades and festivals are not foreign to us.  The idea of protesting doesn’t have to be scary.  Read about the issues, get your stance straight, and then figure out what to do next. The point is to do something.  Or at the very least start talking about what we need to do.

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yep, that's the path

yep, that's the path

There were people pressing in all around me. The streets were full of men and women and children who were pushing through the mass, or patiently scuffling along with it. A young girl to my right jumped over the open sewage canal (there was just dried garbage at the bottom of it) to take a few steps along the wall of a shop, jump onto its front steps, and then push her way back into the crowd. She grabbed her mother’s hand and glanced down at the canal, careful not to fall into it. To my left was a long line, roped off by a yellow chord, leading into one of Gokarna’s many temples. People were wrapped around the block waiting in it, like thrill seekers standing in line for a roller coaster.

Yesterday Gokarna was throbbing with an influx of pilgrims who came from all over India to celebrate Shiva’s birthday. I’d left my haven of Om Beach to take the costal path into Gokarna—a three hour hike that was much more than I’d bargained for. There was a fork at the beginning of the path where an Australian man nicely suggested that I take the road because the foot path got ‘a bit rugged’ further ahead. My response was to chuckle, tighten my Tevas, and stick to the coast. To make a long story short, let me just say that never did I think the skills gleaned from climbing the rock wall in Palladium so many times my Freshman year would be so useful. At one point I had to use vines to pull myself up the side of an embankment because the way on the ocean rocks ended with an unclimbable vertical rock face. At another point I lost the path entirely and had to push through picker bushes and picker trees (which I was surprised to see existed) in the woods. I quickly learned to watch where I put my hands as well as my feet. And that when an Australian says ‘rugged’ he really means it.

My main reason for going into town was that I was running low on cash and there aren’t any ATMs out on these beaches, but I also wanted to see what the festival would be like. Tarps and big pieces of fabric were slung across the tops of the buildings to shade the people waiting in line to pay homage to their god. There was another time in my life that I had been in a river of people like this, but it was in the shade of skyscrapers instead of tarps—it was in midtown Manhattan, right around Christmastime. I was still in high school and, being new to the city, I was in awe at the number of people. A lane of the road had been shut to cars to make room for walkers, and I was still pressed up against the person in front of me.

Although these pilgrims in Gokarna were there for worship, and the shoppers in New York were there for good sales, I couldn’t help but see and even feel the similarity. It was a tradition, something to be excited about, something to do with the family. Our traditions just center around a different god- theirs Shiva, and ours the Dollar. But I think this can fall under the category of one of those ‘it doesn’t have to be that way’ things. After all, it’s the excitement of so many people being in one place all for the same reason, and the individual journeys that brought them there that really matters. The question is; why do our traditions tend to center on such a transient thing as money?

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