Jaipur’s Elephant Fest and Holi

Jaipur’s Elephant Festival’s timing with India’s Holi Festival is no coincidence. It’s an explosion of colour… literally! The Elephant Festival kicks off on the Saturday night and is followed by Holi the following day… so it is a preview of the festivities to come. I was surprised when we arrived at the Polo Field grounds that it wasn’t packed with people. It’s a free event so I expected tens of thousands of people, mainly residents of Jaipur, but instead there was maybe a thousand people total and most were tourists. We sat down on the grassy field just a few minutes before the parade began – elaborately decorated elephants painted with colourful designs, dressed in rich fabrics, metal belts, plumes of feathers and beads, even ‘socks’ of embossed metal. The drivers sat atop the huge beasts in traditional Rajput clothing, looking like royalty as the crowd cheered them on, scrambling to take the best photos and videos.  There were a few police security trying to keep the crowd back but they quicly lost control as photographers ran back and forth across the elephants’ path. Next were beautifully decorated white horses, not painted but still wearing rich fabrics with metal accents and ‘jewellery’. Their riders whipped them into dancing on their hind legs for the crowd, a sad sight to see. Then the camels ambled up, wearing ‘dressed up’ saddles. There were marching bands and Rajput musicians and dancers all parading around the perimeter of the field, lining up in the centre when they were done. That’s when the crowd made its move, rushing to centre field to get up close with the animals and their riders. The announcers kept telling the ‘foreign guests from every corner of the world’ to please leave the centre field so the program could continue. That didn’t happen so eventually they just staged the events with the spectators crowded around them. There were dance-offs by the folk dancers, the elephants were judged on their costumes (the one with its’ eyes painted to look like tigers was the very deserving big winner). There was also a tug-o-war between Indian and foreign tourists and then as the sun began to go down the Holi celebrations began. A few select tourists were invited to hop onto the backs of the elephants and engage in a paint fight, throwing handfuls of brilliantly coloured dry paint powder on each other and the crowd around them. Clouds of pink, blue, yellow, green and red dust filled the air and everyone on the elephants was covered from head to toe. Unfortunately things got a little out of hand, the crowd was getting too exuberant, crowding the elephants as more and more powder flew through the air. The drivers had to try to keep control of the elephants who were getting a little freaked out, by hitting them behind the ears with sticks that appeared to have spikes attached. It was awful to witness. I understand that for the safety of the crowd it was necessary to keep a tight rein on the elephants but it put a damper on the festivities. Most of the people were there because of their love and fascination with the elephants and many didn’t realize their exuberance was causing the animals enormous stress and pain. As the paint fight died down cannons of paint powder were fired off along with giant sparklers. It was a beautiful and colourful kick-off to Holi, and when the last cannon was fired the crowd calmly left the field, heading home or to their hotels. We went next door to the spectacular Rambagh Palace Hotel for dinner with friends. It is one of the most magnificently designed hotels I have ever seen (and was voted one of the top hotels in the world by Conde Naste readers). It literally was a palace transformed into a hotel (part of India’s Taj Hotel chain). We dined under the night sky in a courtyard with a small band of folk musicians and dancers performing with a brilliant full moon overhead. It was the perfect cap to our day, but when the bill came, our jaws dropped at the $400 tab for the four of us… not a lot in a North American or European restaurant but in India it was a fortune and the most expensive meal I have had on this trip. We made it back to our hotel for some sleep before Day 2 of our Holi experience. And what an adventure it was.

We had a few hours before the official tourism party started so we drove out to the Monkey Temple (my second visit) and on the way through Jaipur we saw motorcycle and bicycle riders and pedestrians absolutely covered in colour. People were out with their noise makers like New Year’s Eve and everyone was smiling, laughing and having a great time. When we arrived at Kasa Kothi with our boxes of Holi paint powder, there were already several tour buses in the parking lot and as soon as we walked through the gate to the park, people were already unrecognizably, covered in paint powder from head to toe. Strangers would come up to you with a handful of paint powder (every coour under the rainbow), wish you a ‘Happy Holi’ and then smear it on your cheeks, forehead, your clothes, hair and anywhere else they could find that wasn’t already covered in it, and within minutes we were walking rainbows of brilliantly colours, in our ears, noses , mouth… you name it. There were Rajput bands playing music, dancing with tourists and locals, everyone enjoying the holiday. It was a weekend experience full of memories to last a lifetime. When we got back to our hotel we took turns in the shower trying to scrub it all off, and for the most part it worked, except for our chests, mine half green and half red/purple that wouldn’t come off no matter how hard I scrubbed. It will be a reminder for the next few days of the fun we had enjoying the colourful festival of Holi.

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