Over the last few years, Dipesh has transitioned from his IT career to hospitality. He is a passionate, self-taught baker, cook and photographer. Apart from working as a hospitality consultant, he is now the Chief Baking Officer and Bread Coach at The Enthu Bakers teaching people to bake artisan breads. When not in the kitchen, you will find him travelling on his motorcycle looking for a muse for his camera.
Editors Note: Dipesh’s journey has had stops in several cities around the world. In this column he shares with us his unique interpretation of them through his special lens tinted with the colours of food, redolent with the spice of adventure. Join him as he travels down memory lane, the best way to travel in Corona Times, to revisit Holi in Bikaner.
We are now in the 4th month of the Covid-19 crisis. The last trip I undertook was to Bikaner for Holi in March. We came back to a lock down. I can’t help but think about how this changes the way we celebrate our festivals, all of which are highly social.
If you really want to know India, go celebrate a festival in a small town. It can be a life-altering experience. The celebrations are more honest. I say honest because festivals in a city usually mean a holiday – reason to drink, dance and party or to get out of town for a break.
Not so in a small town or village where lives revolve around community, culture, tradition and rituals followed during festivals, weddings and funerals. There are also numerous local nuances with a lot of, if not meaning and purpose, then a great story behind them. Plus, there is drinking, dancing and partying too.
There are famous well-marketed Holi celebrations of Vrindavan and Varanasi and they have become tourists’ “bucket list” items. One can’t just witness Holi you need to participate in it. I don’t mean getting into a crowd throwing colour around and getting high on bhang; you can do that in your residential society in any city.
A few years ago I moved to my hometown Bikaner from the USA, opened up a pizza cafe and lived there for 4 years. I have a large extended family there and I made many friends and became for all practical purposes, a Bikaneri. We lived in a modern or suburban part of Bikaner, which celebrates festivals like any other city – Holi parties with alcohol and a DJ. To partake in the traditional celebrations, one goes to the old city within the fort.
The fort city of Bikaner is over 550 years old. There are 7 entrances to the fort; 3 main gates and 4 smaller gates. The lanes of the old city are too narrow for cars. Residents who own cars park them outside the fort and either walk it home or take a rickshaw. Most residents commute on a scooter or motorcycle. This is a rich community of jewelers and traders who live humbly as a close-knit family.
A few people, especially of the new generation, have left the old city to build modern houses in the suburbs, abandoning their old beautiful homes. In many cases the parents stayed back; they do not want to leave their community. A few Havelis are empty since the owners live abroad or have moved to Bombay, Calcutta, and Madras – the three favourite destinations of the Maarwari. Some are now tourist guesthouses or heritage havelis and hotels.
The festivities in the old city start a few days earlier and every neighbourhood or “Mohalla” has their own party going. Each Mohalla has a “Chowk”, much like a village square which usually has a small temple and a large wooden platform under an old Peepul or Banyan tree where people get congregate in the evenings for gossip and general catching up.
A few days prior to Holi is the “Bhaang Mahotsav” (the Great Bhaang Festival) aka “International Bhaang Competition”. I kid you not! Almost every Mohalla has a team. Yes, a Bhaang drinking team that drinks bhaang competing in the International Bhaang Competition. It is not a new phenomenon. Apparently it’s been going on forever but it became “International” after foreign tourists started showing up. There is lots of bhaang drinking, eating, singing and dancing. The Bhaang Festival is held every year at Mohata Chowk, famous for its kachoris, rabri and Bhujiya.
Small temporary mithai and snack stalls pop-up all over the city. The metros are experiencing pop-up restaurants for the last few years – we’ve grown up enjoying pop-up street food and mithai-walas during festivals.
Bikaner is known the world over for its bhujiya. If you have a Bikaneri friend you know that we eat it all the time and with everything. We have it as a part of breakfast, lunch, tea, dinner and mid meal snack; with roti, rice, toast, or add chopped onions with a squeeze of lemon. While you can enjoy packaged bhujiya, it pales in comparison to freshly fried bhujiya. There are primarily 9 kinds of bhujiya identified by a number, which is the size of the sieve mesh through which the batter is poured in the oil to fry. Each is also usually a different flavor. On Holi, you also get bhaang-laced bhujiya.
After the Bhaang event there’s groups of people singing folk songs to the beat of a “Chang” – a large shallow circular disc shaped drum. There’s lots of excellent street food, some laced with Bhaang, which is considered Prasaad (holy offering) and a part of the festive tradition. You’ve got to be careful even though everybody tells you if there’s bhaang in the food they’re offering you. Small temporary mithai and snack stalls pop-up all over the city. The metros are experiencing pop-up restaurants for the last few years – we’ve grown up enjoying pop-up street food and mithai-walas during festivals.
The next couple of evenings are best spent hanging out in the old city. Bikaner is a desert town, sweltering hot in the long summer and bone chilling cold in the short winter. This time of the year is the most pleasant. It’s the perfect weather to ride a bike or walk around the narrow lanes among spectacularly beautiful havelis adorned with intricate stone carving and frescos. Womenfolk watch the festivities from jharokas (balconies and windows) and rooftops and the children play and run around in the streets below. There’s revelry at every Chowk of every Mohalla.
You stop to listen and someone will notice that you’re not from around and will start a conversation, welcoming you to his Mohalla and usually offer you something to eat. There’s lots of really good food. In the background you can hear chimes of the temple bells. There’s pride, happiness and laughter in the songs they sing – of Gods and past Kings and Queens, of their valour, beauty, sacrifice, love and joy. The giddiness of bhaang makes everything so surreal. It’s glorious.
Every mohalla makes their own bonfire for Holika Dahan. The largest one is lit at Salle Ke Holi. The Holi here is so famous that the Salla Mohalla is now called Salle Ki Holi. The bonfire is about 800 kgs of wood and its flame rises 4 storeys high. The first time I went to Salle Ki Holi I rode my motorcycle and parked my bike in front of my friend’s house from whose terrace we were watching the event. He forgot to tell me to move the bike, which was about 50 yards from the fire. The taillight melted; the heat is so intense.
The pyre is lit at sunset and as the blaze becomes strong, the singing turns to folk songs and traditional dancing. The heat is intense and the spectators move back. I was on the 4th floor terrace taking pictures and couldn’t stand the heat even from that distance. I had to keep running back to hide behind the stairwell after each picture.
Every household in the Mohalla will take burning coals from the pyre and cook something at home that evening. Usually people roast papads and distribute them. This is the time to again mingle around in the Chowk . Food cooked on those coals, again a lot of it laced with bhaang is freely distributed as Prasaad. The singing and dancing to the Chaang beats goes on till late in the night.
There’s tons of colour and food, usually a potluck. There’s everything from Ker Sangri, Gatte, Kaanji Vada, Kadhi, Khichdi and all local sweets. I say this with a lot of pride that in all of Rajasthan, the best food is in Bikaner. The leftovers of Holi last a few days.
There’s a Hanuman temple in the city near Mohata Chowk and right across that is a family who has been making the best Rabri in the world for over half a century, but in a very limited quantity. That evening, there’s copious amounts made and you have to make a pit stop for a couple of helpings before you head home. A satiated stomach, contented soul and a bhaang-induced mind ensure a good sleep that night.
The next day is Holi. The morning is spent at home playing holi with the family and neighbours. Chang players will stop by to sing a few songs for some money and mithai. Post noon there is usually a host where the entire family and the neighbors descend. There’s tons of colour and food, usually a potluck. There’s everything from Ker Sangri, Gatte, Kaanji Vada, Kadhi, Khichdi and all local sweets. I say this with a lot of pride that in all of Rajasthan, the best food is in Bikaner. The leftovers of Holi last a few days.
This is the day the bhaang thandai and mithai comes out and the Holi anthem “Rang Barse” from Silsila is played or sung on loop. In the old city its live folk music and in the suburbs it’s a DJ belting out the latest Bollywood numbers. You’ll enjoy both. It’s usually all over by late afternoon and everyone stumbles homeward. The evening (and the next few days) is spent trying to get the colour off your skin and hair. In 2015, I left for Mumbai the day after Holi for business meetings. I attended those meetings with pink-purple hair. Everyone understood.
Almost everyone has an ancestral ‘hometown’. People will regale their city friends with stories of traditional Holi celebrations back home when they were children.
In Bikaner the next day too is a holiday. Not to nurse your hangover. Its called “Holi Ki Ram Ram”. Greeting people with “Ram Ram” is a common in North India. It’s the day where a member of the family goes around town visiting relatives and friends for Holi greetings and blessings. There is food and sweets for the guests but no more bhaang. Now it’s time to sober up to prepare for Akhaa Teej – the kite festival, which is around the corner and it is also Bikaner’s founding anniversary.
Will our Holi, Diwali, Eid, Christmas ever be the same again? I am sure they will and this situation is temporary. In fact my belief is that now we will celebrate with more vigour, revive more tradition have larger gatherings of friends and family. If anything, the Covid pandemic has made us realize the uncertainty of everything. We must live life to the fullest, at all times and not wait to tick off bucket lists. Almost everyone has an ancestral ‘hometown’. People will regale their city friends with stories of traditional celebrations back home when they were children. I wish more people would go back to participate and keep the culture and tradition alive. If you do not have a hometown to go to, find a friend who does. You absolutely must participate.
We must celebrate.
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