Monday, May 9, 2011

Ram Navami

Ok, so the good news is – I'm not dead. And I haven't even been laid up in hospital this time being interviewed by local camera crews. No, the reason for the radio silence over the last few weeks is that I've had a holiday. A lovely, lovely, long holiday. What's this, I hear you ask? Holidays? Fun? Isn't this voluteering thing about seriousness and hard-work? Well yes it is, but it's about seeing some of the world and not working 6-day weeks for a year too. So there.

But first, something completely different. In mid-April there was a festival in Hazaribag. That in itself is not that unusual. Every couple of weeks there's a puja or something similar. But this one was a bit different. It's called Ram Navami and I want to give you a bit of a description....

I knew something was coming up the weekend before to be honest – most of the time the view from my balcony doesn't look like something out of Disney World, but all of a sudden all of these appeared:

To be honest, it was pretty cool. I think they were pretty much all there by Sunday. On Tuesday there was quite a crowd, and a stage, so I decided to wander down and take a look. Obviously I got the inevitable stares and questions, but it seemed like pretty much the whole neighbourhood was out to see what turned into basically a version of “Hazaribag's Got Talent” (I assume, having never actually watched a whole episode, but there you go....

There was lots of dancing, there was acting, singing, lots of laughter. For me the stars were a group of 4 lads who were probably about 16-17 and who did an entire dance act. Very professional they were. Simon Cowell will probably sign them up. Most disturbing was a girl (?), probably 18ish, who looked too tall and man-like to be a girl, dancing in what seemed to be a very provocative way for India. At first I thought it was a man in drag, but that seems unlikely in general out here, and no-one was laughing. Luckily the giggle loop was avoided and I didn't embarrass myself.

I'd assumed that was going on across Hazaribag, but apparently not. In fact, the actual festival was on Wednesday. At around 8pm, myself and one of my colleagues walked into town. There were police everywhere. Unusual. There were also “volunteer policeman”. Allow me to compare and contrast the UK vs. India approach to volunteer law enforcement. I feel able to do this as my friend Sam is a volunteer policeman in London (good on him, too!).

In the UK you are packed off on a full training course. You must learn the law from textbooks. You are given a full uniform (complete with helmet!). In short, everything is very official and organised. In India, you turn up with your weapon of choice (I saw a number of hockey sticks) and wander round threatening anyone who looks like they might cause trouble. I wish I was joking.

So, Ram Navami then. We walk around town a bit, there are a fair few people there, mainly sitting by the sides of the road and amusing themselves. There are food stalls everywhere and people milling around. We see a huge float get pulled past with lots of people dancing around it. I begin to assume this is going to be a standard parade.

I could not have been more wrong....

We come across a rather large crowd by another float. This time there is a viewing platform for the dignitaries. My colleague decides that being white qualifies me for this and the armed-policeman thankfully agrees. We climb the stairs to the top of the platform, where I see something I hadn't really been expecting.

Some of you will remember a video on YouTube from a few years ago called Star Wars Kid. A fat American kid pretending to be Luke Skywalker or someone in his garage with a “light-sabre”. Ok. Imagine that. Now put a real sword in his hand. Surround him with hundreds of other lunatics with swords. Add a fair amount of alcohol and absolutely no sword training. You now have Ram Navami.

Honestly, it was insane. Everyone was standing in a circle and taking turns to jump into the middle and “fight” a dozen imaginary enemies. Every couple of seconds the crowd would have to jump back to avoid being hit by the swords. They might be blunt, but they'd still do you an injury – they're proper metal and heavy!

I saw some extroadinary stuff. A kid of about 6 or 7 holding a dagger and pushed into the middle by his (I assume) father. I saw one person do a “fight” weilding a tube light strip, a demonstration he completed by smashing the tube over his head. One man was so obviously drunk he managed to hit himself in the face and had to be led off with a bloody nose.

I could have watched it all night, but we decided to move on after 20 minutes or so. We passed more floats and more dancing groups. Bizarrely the parade itself starts around 11/12pm and goes on until 5am. Why this is necessary wasn't really clear. In fact, when asking for the history of the festival people were fairly sketchy with details.

Time for a bit of web research. The festival celebrates the birth of Rama. There is no obvious reason I can see why this is connected to acting like a drunken-monkey-ninja, but I'm sure it's in there somewhere.

Unfortunately I was due to travel to Kolkata the following day (12hr journey) and therefore didn't fancy staying up until 5am watching more of the lunacy, but as we walked home I managed to get some pretty good shots of some of the other floats and groups of people walking through the streets.

Anyway, enjoy the pics. Over the next few days I'll be giving details of my trip over the last few weeks (Kolkata – Darjeeling – Kathmandu – Annapurna Base Camp and the Himalayas – Phokara – Suzie visits Hazaribag and back to Kokata for a bit of IPL action). Are you excited yet?!?

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