India at its manic, crazy best

BEN GROUNDWATER
Last updated 05:05 21/11/2013
India Landscape
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FESTIVAL OF LIGHT: A dancer dressed for the Diwali festival. There's nothing like India in festival mode.

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You have to feel sorry for Bill, the Vietnam veteran. It's a little heart-breaking, actually, watching him flinch every time an explosion rings out, his hands coming up to aim an imaginary gun.

This was the worst possible time Bill could have come to India. For someone prone to shock at the sound of crackles like gunfire, or booms like mortars, this was a very poorly timed holiday.

"I'm getting by," he smiles. "But yeah, it's not ideal."

We're sitting on a rooftop in the city of Udaipur, watching the sun fade and the sky glow orange, while down below us on the street the explosions ring out, echoing off walls and soaring into the air.

Bang, crackle, fizz.

Bill sits nervously, fists clenching and unclenching.

This is not supposed to be a time for fear. But Bill's feeling it and I am, a little bit, too.

It's Diwali in India, the religious festival celebrated across the huge sub-continent, embraced by the masses.

There are various ways in which Diwali is marked, but the most public and most obvious is the firecrackers.

Everyone is selling them - and everyone seems to be in possession of them, from the youngest child to the oldest man.

Some set their wares off in a responsible manner, but the vast majority just want them to explode in the most public and entertaining way available to them.

That can sometimes mean setting them off near unsuspecting Western tourists.

I've lost count of the number of times I've been innocently wandering the streets over the past few days, taking wide-eyed views at India in festival mode, when, bang! A cracker explodes near my feet.

By the time I've recovered from the shock, I'm surrounded by giggling kids pointing at me.

What can you do, except laugh at yourself. (And keep a better eye out for the next one.)

If you think India is a crazy place any time of the year, then wait until you see it in festival mode. There are plenty of chances.

There's Holi, the festival of colours, when people run around dousing each other in bright dye; there's Govinda, when devotees form huge human pyramids; there's Durga Puja, when statues are immersed in the Ganges River; and there's Diwali, a festival for Hindus, Sikhs and Jains to get dressed up in fancy clothes and make things go boom.

It's India at its manic, celebratory, crazy best. And what better place to experience it than Rajasthan?

The ancient state is a place of forts and castles, of brightly coloured cities and a vibrant living history.

Over the past few days the already teeming streets of cities like Jaipur and Jodhpur have become even more frenzied, as locals flock to the shops to stock up for the big festival.

It's not just explosives to drive away evil spirits and - as a side benefit - scare foreigners, either, although that's a big part of it.

They're also here to buy clothes, new sari silks and neatly pressed shirts. They're buying sweets and good food. A big part of Diwali is wearing a new outfit and entertaining guests, which makes the markets of Rajasthan incredibly interesting places to be as the big festival looms.

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I was in Jaipur a few days before and was almost drowned by a sea of people and colour; being constantly offered chai, and silks at very good prices, and the well-wishes of millions of instant friends in festival mode.

And now I'm in Udaipur, the "White City", a place of lakes and rivers and small streets lined with palaces and beautiful old buildings.

Diwali is now in full swing, the sense of anticipation coursing through Udaipur's streets having blossomed into a proper party.

The streets are filled day and night with gaudily dressed Rajasthanis enjoying the local New Year. As with so many parts of Indian life, Diwali celebrations are held mostly in public, and you can't help but be swept up in it.

I might not have any fire crackers but I'm still part of this festival, posing for photos with families, refusing offers of food, laughing as other tourists have the explosion trick played on them.

And then I'm up on the rooftop with Bill and his wife, taking sanctuary in the night, avoiding the press of the streets while viewing the expensive fireworks above and listening to the cheap ones crackling below.

Bill's still suffering from nerves but he's trying to put a brave face on it.

"This is the sort of stuff you'll never forget," he reasons as the sky glows with artificial light and the celebrations rage below. It's India in party mode.

It's worth the odd scare.

The writer funded his own travel.

What festival experiences have you had while travelling? Share your stories below.

- FFX Aus

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