India: Jodhpur #6: Charlie The Babaji and The Unforgettable Sticks and Stoned Festival
Imagine a whole town of stoned people, half of whom are running around armed with big long sticks beating the hell out of all those who aren't... and everyone's having a blast.
Of all the great times we've had here in the city of Jodhpur, April 19th, The 10th Day of our whirlwind festival and sports celebration, was, by far, the most fun of all. That was the night we celebrated the Beth Mar Festival, a festival that, according to our local friends, is only held here in Jodhpur and nowhere else. It was definitely the most incredible festival out of all the incredible festivals we've experienced over the past three and a half months here in India – yes, even better than Holi, that fabulous Festival of Colors.
This Beth Mar Festival didn't really get going until around 10 PM, which was perfect because it allowed us to come back from soccer and basketball, get cleaned up and then eat dinner before heading back out into the excitement on the streets. There were lights hanging throughout the alleyways of the Old City, which basically mapped out a walking circuit for everyone to follow. And this route passed right in front of our guesthouse's doorway, so we spent a large part of the night just sitting outside the door watching everyone go by – and running away from women wielding long, hard sticks!
Yes, at its core Beth Mar is basically just a festival of women walking around town hitting men with sticks. If you’re a young single man then, supposedly, you want to get hit as much as possible since they say the more you get hit the sooner you’ll get married.
There were many temporary shrines set up along this festival walking route, all featuring a statue of Gangur: the Goddess of Marriage. And each shrine also had many bright lights, lots of flowers and loads of “prasad”, which was handed out in generous amounts to everyone who passed by.
Now “prasad”, it must be noted, is a snack that, at least at this festival, was laced with “bhang” (i.e. marijuana, pot, dope) and everyone, it seemed, was indulging heartily. It was definitely an integral part of the festival. However, walking back from the university to our guesthouse earlier in the evening after basketball and soccer we were yet to know anything about this secret ingredient. In fact, we didn't even know what prasad was yet. So, when we came across one of these shrines and they not only gave us some tika (red paint on the forehead), but also some prasad, we were soon to find ourselves feeling pleasantly surprised.
And, as you can imagine, it wasn't long before the whole town was high, ourselves included. But bhang is not considered a drug in this context; rather, it’s just thought of as part of a religious ceremony - it is the religious shrines and temples handing it out, after all. Whatever you want to call it, it sure made everyone very happy and silly. But, unlike if the whole town were to get drunk, I didn't see any fights or aggression whatsoever; well, besides the women whacking men over the head with sticks. That, I guess, could be considered aggressive, but it was all just part of the fun. Even if it left bruises.
In a world, here in Rajasthan, where women are usually half visible at the best of times, and nearly completely invisible at night, it was sure wonderful to see thousands of women all dressed up in their best sarees (or even, in some cases, costumes) walking around town laughing, talking and having fun in the middle of the night. I suppose once a year is better than never.
And I should tell you that some of these women, especially the older ones, REALLY hit us hard with those sticks. I’m already married, but being one of only 3 foreign men we saw all night (and one of only four foreigners, including my wife Sonoko) I was a popular target. They even hit Sonoko a few times too, especially those older women. I guess they figured any foreigner was fair game.
We were not only hit, however, we were also mobbed all night long by throngs of friendly people wanting to talk to us. No exaggeration: I must have been asked at least a thousand times “Hello. What’s your name?” and I must have shaken about a thousand hands as well. Then there were the multiple variations of Question #2: “Which your country?”; “Where you come?”; “You from where?”; “You country?”; “Where you live?”; “Come from?”; “What your country?”; and, my personal favorite, “Where you?”. It was only when we met the Maharaja (the former king or prince of Jodhpur – the guy who still owns the spectacular fort up on the hill) that we heard, for possibly the first time here, “Where are you from?”. Even the Maharaja, it seems, couldn't resist Mandatory Question #2. In all the commotion I forgot to tell him “Hey, your 250 rupee fort entrance fee is a total rip-off!”. Oh well, next time. People were pretty excited that we had spoken with the Maharaja, but to me he was just another guy asking one of the same old Mandatory Questions, albeit in perfect English for once.
We spent most of the first couple of hours of the festival, from 10 PM till midnight, just sitting outside the Saji Sanwri Guesthouse doorway together with Indu, the guesthouse owner, and her family watching the crowds go by in the brightly-lit alley. Of course, that time also involved a fair amount of dodging stick attacks and running away. I felt a bit like Brave Brave Sir Robin in "Monty Python and the Holy Grail": "Running away, chickening out, brave brave Sir Mike”. And, of course, even while running away and chickening out, we found ourselves answering the Mandatory Questions over and over again, sometimes even coming from the very people attacking us. We did venture out for a couple of excursions with Indu and her two sons, Manoj and Lokesh, to watch Rajasthani folk dancers dance on a stage together with a live band. And we also visited a few more shrines and received lots more prasad. And, hey, I'm telling ya, you really gotta love that prasad!
Then, in the middle of all the fun, we suddenly found ourselves being interviewed by a TV news crew from ZeeTV, one of the two biggest channels in India. We never saw it, but one of our basketball friends said he did when it aired about a week later and he told us all about it. I don’t know if it aired all over the country or just here in Rajasthan, but, either way, it was our first TV interview in India.
Later on, back at the guesthouse entrance again, Charlie The Babaji, the only other guest staying at our guesthouse, and one of the only other foreigners in town, returned from a two-hour trip into the crowds. He returned battered, beaten and bruised... and extremely happy.
Now Charlie, you must understand, is a really great guy and, like our man Babaji back in Varanasi a few weeks ago, he has the whole Babaji look down pat: Wild messy long hair, long beard, hippy clothes (an orange top just like that of a sadhu no less) and a big happy smile. But Charlie is no Indian, Charlie is from France.
And, it should be noted, that big happy smile of his became bigger and bigger as the night progressed and, if I’m not mistaken, there was a direct correlation between that smile and each shrine visit Charlie made. We (Sonoko and myself) get a lot of attention here, but the crowds especially loved Charlie. It may have had something to do with his very stoned happy look, but I’d say it was more to do with his whole hybrid French Artiste-Indian Guru look. Either way, he sure was a big star.
Together with Charlie and Manoj, Indu's youngest son and our soccer and basketball buddy, I went out on a long one-and-a-half-hour adventure through the alleyways, starting from around 2 AM (Sonoko had a headache and had already returned to the room to sleep). Now this may sound like an exaggeration or maybe even a prasad-induced hallucination, but I swear it’s true: As we walked through the streets on this long 1.5-hour walk of ours people actually clapped and cheered for Charlie, as if he were a big movie star coming through town. And he obliged them with his trademark smile and a big wave. Some even shouted out “Baba” as he passed by, which is how he became known (and loved) as "Charlie The Babaji".
I took some more of the offered prasad at a few of the shrines/temples along the way, as did Manoj, but Charlie The Babaji was like an Indian Holy Cow taken to a green field of grass for the very first time (pun fully intended). They really pushed the prasad at these shrines/temples and while I’d take one handful or, after a while, be a bit rude and say “No more thanks”, Babaji was taking 2 or 3 handfuls at each and every shrine! He was flying! Besides the prasad, they were also handing out free ice cream and I must have had about 5 or 6 of those. Hey, it was the munchies, man.
We arrived back at the guesthouse at around 3:30 AM, as the crowds on the streets and in the alleys were finally starting to thin-out and quiet-down a bit. I sat downstairs with Babaji, Indu, her sons and her nephew. Indu had been eating some prasad too (“Only a little”) and she was even happier than her normal outgoing self, but definitely a bit more laid-back than usual. At 4 AM Charlie went and crashed, not to rise again for exactly 12 hours - no joke. A bit too much prasad perhaps? I, however, stayed up talking, laughing and joking with the family and, at 4:30 AM, I had an especially good laugh when they decided it was time for a huge feast. I had a bit, but I just wasn't all that hungry after eating all those ice creams. For this I got in trouble from Indu: “What? It’s not good? You don’t like it?”... “Well then, eat more, eat!” And so I ate.
Then, suddenly, for some unknown reason, Lokesh, Indu's elder son, brought out his commerce and economics textbooks and tests and proceeded to show them to me. But I was totally high – how the hell could I possibly comprehend such things stoned and barely awake at 4:30-5:00 AM?! Why would I want to?! Luckily I was magically saved from that when the power went out at just after 5 AM. We then sat in the dark talking until some candles were found. Finally, at 5:30, I went to bed, still very much stoned. What a night! Definitely one of the best of my life. No doubt about that.
That was without question the greatest and the most fun festival I've ever experienced here in India, possibly anywhere. And, no, not just because of all the free prasad and the fact that everyone was so happily stoned, though that was definitely part of it. Even without the prasad it would've been a night of fun, happiness, beauty, positive energy, fascinating culture, singing, dancing, sticks, free ice cream and Charlie The Babaji. What more can you ask for from a festival? All the women were out at night for once and they were all looking cheerful and beautiful in their sarees of many colors. Many even talked with us, which they never usually do here in Rajasthan. The women here are usually quite reserved when they’re out in public, but this festival allowed them to let loose and show their real personalities a bit, which was nice to see for a change. We were definitely the stars of the festival, us and the Maharaja. But not even the Maharaja could compete with Charlie The Babaji for pure star power.
So, what more can I say? I've never been on the streets where EVERYONE was stoned before. It was one big party and I loved it. A couple of nice cold beers would've been nice, but, hey, you can’t have everything, right? Forgetting about the lack of cold beer, it was pretty damn close to perfect.
And that was The Unforgettable 10th Day. Hit by sticks. Stoned by prasad. Blown away by Charlie The Babaji. It simply doesn't get much better than that!
Mike Cowie (Oredakedo)