Evening aarti being performed by priest at a ghat in Varanasi
Westerlies in the North Indian plains are considered the harbinger of spring. This subtle change in the wind direction becomes an emotion for someone whose biological clock is set to seasons and the movements of the sun. Every year when westerlies start and there is a profusion of flowers all over — mango trees blossom and butterflies moult in abundance — I am reminded of the way Pachhua was celebrated back home in Banaras. There is another local name for westerlies — Fagunahta, meaning Faagun winds. Falgun or Fagun is the month of Holi by the Hindu calendar.
In fact spring is celebrated with a string of festivals in Banaras. It starts from Basant Panchami, then comes Shivratri when the Shiva devotees offer scented gulal to the Shivling as a ritual. Shivratri is the day when Shiva married Parvati and the city celebrates the communion of Shakti with Shiva. This is the time when the world famous ‘Dhrupad mela’ is organised to celebrate the season of new colours and fragrances. Raag Khamaj reverberates in the air during this time as music lovers congregate from all over the world and listen to the ragas of the season. The playful Horis waft in the air if you walk along the Ganga ghats. It won’t be a surprise if you hear some boatman singing Hori in the most rustic yet soulful way. Hori and Phagua are the names for the Holi songs sung in semi-classical traditions. You have to be in the old city of Banaras if you want to experience the festival of Holi with all your senses. In fact there is a name for the euphoria induced by the season, Faag, almost synonymous with a drunken state of mind. There is indeed a real hallucination of bhaang as well. The tradition of bhaang and thandai on Holi is because it was the favourite drink of lord Shiva and is considered prasad on the day. Bhaang ke pakode is a Holi specialty in Banaras.
Rang Bhari Ekadashi welcomes the festival in full force when lord Shiva brings his new bride home to Kashi and devotees welcome the happy couple with colours. Holi is a season in Banaras and between Rang Bhari Ekadashi and the day of Holika dahan, there are several celebrations indicating the welcome of spring and ritualistic burning of all the bodily sins. The full moon day after Holika dahan is the day when everyone wears new clothes and there are community feasts and colours.
The colours for Holi, back in the day, were prepared with real flowers and other aromatic substances. In fact people in Banaras offer gulal and ittar together to Shiva during the Shivratri rituals. The season of Holi concludes with a folk festival called Budhva Mangal, where some elderly music lovers congregate on large houseboats and music performances, poetry recitals and bhaang parties happen with gay abundance.
Bhaang ki Pakodi
Bhaang: 100 gm
Green chillies (minced): 4-5
Besan: 200 gm
Rice flour: 50 gm
Salt: ½ tsp
Turmeric powder: ½ tsp
Mustard oil: 200 ml
Method: Rinse the bhaang leaves and chop them fine. Mix with all the other ingredients except the oil and pour 80-100 ml water slowly to make a batter. Heat the oil, drop spoonfuls of the pakodi mix in the hot oil and fry till they become golden brown and crisp. Serve with chaat masala sprinkled on the hot pakodisp.
Sangeeta Khanna is a food consultant and writer