While our friends in America might still be struggling to dig themselves out of the snow, here in India it’s already spring! This week we celebrated the festival of Holi with a trip to Bakkhali beach.
There are numerous stories and traditions surrounding the festival of Holi, also known as the Festival of Color and the Festival of Love. Holi derives its name from the Hindu legend of Holika and Prahlad, a story of treachery and devotion, where good triumphs over evil. Krishna (who is always depicted with blue skin in Hindu mythology) is said to be responsible for the tradition of coloring your beloved during Holi as an expression of love, as he used to enjoy putting color on Radha to make her more like him.
Another popular game is to hang high a pot of buttermilk over the street, and then form a human pyramid to climb up and crack it with a coconut. This tradition is also associated with Krishna, “who [as a baby] was so fond of butter milk that he used to steal it from every accessible house in the village. To hide the butter from young Krishna, womenfolk used to hang it high. All in vain!”
We left home at 6:30 am to get to Sealdah station and buy tickets for the local train to Namkhana…after waiting in line for what seemed like forever (with a lot of other impatient travelers), we finally collected our tickets and boarded the 7:15 train with only a couple of minutes to spare.
Anthony and I love taking the local trains because they are very inexpensive and a great way to see the places you are travelling through. The train covers 112 kilometers in 3 hours for only 25 rupees each, and I recommend snagging a spot in the doorway if you want take in the views of life in the country unfolding on either side of the tracks.
The train only goes as far as Namkhana, from the station you can either walk or take a group bicycle rickshaw to the ferry which takes you across the Hatania-Doyania River.
When we arrived in Namkhana, we were instantly targeted by the Holi merry-makers; being the only Non-Indian people in the area, we attracted a lot of attention. By the time we made it to the ferry crossing, we were pretty colorful. Traditionally, Holi powders are made from natural materials like flowers from trees that blossomed in the springtime, beet juice, neem leaves, tumeric, and so on. Unfortunately, the night before, we had looked up what some of the modern-day synthetic Holi powders are made of, and the truth was a little scary: an investigation conducted in 2001 found that the “black powders contained lead oxide which can result in renal failure. Two colors were found to be carcinogenic: silver, with aluminium bromide, and red, with mercury sulphide. The prussian blue used in the blue powder has been associated with contact dermatitis, while the copper sulphate in the green has been documented to cause eye allergies, puffiness of the eyes, or temporary blindness (Wikipedia 2011).” Learning about these findings made us a little anxious, but I was still determined to get the full Holi experience, consequences be damned. Luckily, we emerged unscathed (as far as we can tell).
By this point we were also starving, so we decided to get some lunch before taking the hour-long ride down the road to Bakkhali beach. Anthony had taken the local train to Namkhana once before and of course knew what the best (and possibly only) local cuisine was to eat: gubri. Or at least that’s what they told us it was called…however, we’ve been unable to find any trace of its existence on the Internet. In any case, it’s a mixture of puffed rice, chana, onion, cucumber, green chili, various spices, and while you’re eating they’ll fry up an egg to throw on top. SO good.
We then hitched a ride in an electric autorickshaw to the sea. It was a very pleasant, almost silent ride (compared to the noisy engines and noxious fumes of the autorickshaws that we are used to in Kolkata, which are usually powered by diesel, CNG, or petrol) down very well paved roads, punctuated only by the occasional water balloon or fistful of Holi powder lobbed at us by the locals, young and old alike. Sometimes our driver would slow down or even stop so that we could be anointed with color by the crowds celebrating in the streets who would then sometimes demand a 10 rupee donation– to what I don’t know, but I think it must be very bad manners to refuse their offerings of color, as they represent love and brotherhood, as well as the celebration of the triumph of good over evil, so of course we just went along with it! Unfortunately, I didn’t get any pictures of the revelers, as we never knew when we might be bombarded next. :)
When we finally made it to Bakkhali, we made a beeline for the beach.
Some ladies were setting up beach umbrellas with chairs under them for the holiday-makers. We gladly paid the 30 rupees asked to get our own little oasis out of the scorching sun. After a bit of a rest, we started getting a lot of attention again (mostly people coming up and asking to take our picture), so we decided to take a walk along the beach. From the area where the umbrellas were, the beach seemed to stretch outwards as far as the eye could see, with little sand bars and wading pools. We thought we’d see if we could walk out all the way to the edge, where the beach ends and the sea actually starts.
We walked quite a long way it seemed, and at times it felt like we were in the desert. You could almost imagine that the pools of water all around were just mirages.
After a bit of walking, we discovered the red crabs that the beaches of Bengal are famous for. All of sudden, there seemed to be thousands of them everywhere, all around us! It is so beautiful to see the huge casts of them covering the beach. I spent a bit of time chasing them around trying to corner one to get a good picture. They’re very shy and they kept running away.
After chasing red crabs for a while, we were starting to get pretty hot and worn out. Like I said before, the sun was blazing and there was not a cloud in the sky. We decided to head towards the trees on the beach to catch some shade, as we had walked pretty far east of the umbrella area. We had no idea what we would find hidden inside the forest: a magical shady cactus grove! We were absolutely enthralled, and it was a nice way to walk back.
We made it to Namkhana just in time to catch the sunset and the 5:35 pm train back to Kolkata. All in all, it was an exciting and beautiful Holi Day!