Our third loop left New Delhi and returned to Agra, because we were with a new Intrepid Travel group -- but again it was just Gill, which was great! I could visit the Taj Mahal daily and not be able to fully appreciate the beauty of the place. We then headed south and east toward Varanasi (Banares), which I’d been told years before was the most Hindu of India’s cities. Our trip leader this time was Muslim, which was helpful, as he was able to show us how careful Muslims must be when traveling and living in India.
Our itinerary on this loop included Agra, Khajuraho, Allahabad, Chanderi, and Varanasi. Khajuraho is known for its monuments that include many erotic carvings. If you want to see them, just Google the town’s name. After touring Khajuraho, we spent the night in Allahabad, the home of India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. The city was recently renamed by Modi’s all-Hindu BJP government as Prayagraj, apparently to woo Hindu voters for a 2019 election. It’s not clear whether this political move will erase 500 years of Hindu-Muslim cooperation and comity. Also near Allahabad is the confluence of three important and holy rivers: the Yamuna, the Ganges, and the Saraswati. This is where the largest kumbh mela festival is held, the largest gathering of people in the world (24 crore or 240 million people in 2019).
Confluence of the Yamuna and Ganges
On the way to Varanasi, we stopped in the city of Chanderi, where we were hosted by an excellent man nick-named Kali Bhai (Black Brother) and invited to celebrate the Hindu holiday of Holi. Many traditions are associated with Holi, but all emphasize the triumph of good over evil. To celebrate, Hindus “play colors”. Piles of talcum powder and water tinted in rainbow colors are sold in preparation for the holiday. Holi’s also one of the rare times that many of the social walls are broken down. Being a foreigner is no defense against involvement in “Playing Holi". Everyone is armed with bottles and bags of color and everyone is both a target and an “attacker”. Everyone.
Our day started with Tom reading on the front porch, having left his contacts behind for the day. Our Indian host came out the door, looked and gasped, "Gandi-ji!" And he was right.
We bought a bag of each color of talcum powder and, as advised, also bought sets of cheap clothing, because we’d never be able to wear them again. And boy, was that good advice.
We walked from our lodging to a private secondary school, where we were given the rare honor of celebrating with the students and teachers. As we walked, a young boy began to follow us, carrying a bottle of colored water. He looked very uncertain about whether he should throw his water on these foreign visitors, especially the white-haired man dressed all in white. I poked Tom, who quietly put his hand into his bag of green powder, turned, and threw it at the boy. A huge grin and a spray of purple water later, the war was on.
Just seeing the school was an education. The oldest children learned in a room with one chair (for the teacher), a small blackboard, and a jar of water. No desks, chairs, computers or books. Tom was honored with the teacher’s chair, and the children stood or sat politely while we were introduced. Just then, the headmaster walked in and plopped a big pile of pink powder right on top of Tom’s head. The children were amazed and delighted, and the day began.
I spent much of my time with the women teachers, while Tom became part of a crowd of adolescent boys. By the end of the day, our clothes were colored, our skin was colored, our hair was colored, and we’d been interviewed (in living color) by an all-India TV station about celebrating Holi in Chanderi. I’ll remember that day for the rest of my life.