Two days ago was the Muslim festival of Muharram. On the tenth day, Shia Muslims observe the martyrdom of Hussein ibn Ali, the grandson of Muhammad, and the battles leading up to it, which can get pretty literal judging from the photos I found later on Google. In Varanasi, this day is celebrated with a series of mock-battles, often between 10 year old boys, wielding (real) machetes and swords and the occasional hockey stick. The kids had trained for 10 days, I was told, (which doesn’t seem like much when machetes are involved).
The JK Orchestra sat on a donkey cart blaring out their teeth-grating music through sixteen three-foot-tall silver trumpet-speakers. The crowd occasionally reeled backwards as blades swooshed inches from their noses. A group of Thai monks looked on with a range of expressions from amused to gob-smacked. I’m sipping chai under a poster of a sun-splashed waterfall. It reads “If you have faith in the cause and the means and in God, the hot sun will be cool for you.” I’m half-wondering what it means, while the co-owners, Rakesh and MdCuddu, explain the state of Hindu-Muslim relations in Bihar, which according to them is somewhere between friendly and cordial. Rakesh is Hindu and MdCuddu is Muslim. They were childhood friends and now run the restaurant together. “It’s a very powerful festival,” says Rakesh, while a boy who can’t be more than 9 narrowly avoids a head-whacking from his opponent.
The procession continues to tumble through the clogged back streets of Bodghaya. Eight boys push a hay cart carrying a giant orange generator, that vibrates so violently it threatens to explode in front of what I can only describe as two enormous party hats on wheels. The festivities ascend through a series of increasingly dangerous twists, now with performers breathing fire and sparring with large flaming torches. One guy caught his jacket on fire and 10 people jumped on it to put it out. He took a victory lap around the inner ring of the crowd, clearly pleased with himself.
I couldn’t help wonder what the Health & Safety folks back in the UK would make of it all. Where would they begin, I wondered? There must be 50 violations in every square foot. India is a far-cry from the Nanny State unless your Nanny is a minor with a machete.