Saturday, 11 August 2012

Crazy Dahi Handi Human Pyramid Festival

There are a lot of festivals in India and I was excited that this would be the first one I would experience since arriving in Bombay.  And having now seen it, I can not imagine there is a more crazy celebration than Dahi Handi.

Dahi Handi or Govinda is a "sport" organized on the birthday of Lord Krishna (a mischievous little god-fella). Although celebrated across India, the best place to see the spectacle is in Mumbai where the festival originated.

Here's how it works: all over the city, Handis - earthen pots filled with buttermilk are strung up on ropes across the road at varying heights (the limit being 40 feet).  Participants, known as Govindas or BalGolpals, gather together under a Handi to make a human pyramid with the aim of reaching and breaking the pot to release the liquid. Those around may try to throw water at them to thwart their efforts. The sport is based on the legends about mischievous Krishna stealing makhan (butter) or dahi (curd) from handis.

"Handi" (earthen pot filled with buttermilk and strung up high above the road on a rope)

These days the stakes are much higher - you don't just get buttermilk slopped on your head, the teams are all in with a chance of winning serious money. In fact we heard that prize money for one particular Dahi Handi in Thane district was set at a whopping 50 lakh! (5 million rupees or around £62,000!).  The money comes from private companies and political parties who use the event to promote their campaigns. Because of the high stakes, the many participating Govindas will practice for several months on the run up to the event.

Yesterday, there were around 2,000 Govinda troops out and about in Mumbai, competing for around 4,000 Handis (Note: I am not sure about this number, different sources state different figures). I have also since found out that the World Record for a human pyramid was broken when a Govinda troop from Jogeshwari in Mumbai reached 43.79 feet with a 9 level human pyramid. Well done those Govindas!

As there were plenty of Handis strung up in Bandra where we live, Mr Jules and I went to investigate by foot.  A festive atmosphere pervaded the streets which were buzzing with crowds of people and loud music. We hung around several street corners waiting for Govindas to pass through whilst at the same time trying to dodge oncoming traffic. The teams mostly get about the city in trucks and on mopeds - travelling in cavalcades from one Handi site to the next with the aim of cracking as many of the pots as possibe.

A team of Govidas arriving by truck - seemingly supported by one of the policitical parties

Below is a sequence of photographs I managed to take, demonstrating the pyramid going up and the Handi finally being reached by a small boy (the usual technique from what I could tell). 

What you can not see from this is the crashing down of the pyramid afterwards! Of course, as is the Indian way, there is no regard for health and safety (save for the small boy at the top wearing a crash helmet). I also read in the paper today that sadly, one 19 year old boy died falling from a six storey pyramid and 40 others were injured across the state.  You won't see any crash mats or St Johns Ambulances at these events!

Here are some more photos:
Those near the bottom of the above pyramid - covered in buttermilk,  The successful spilling of the liquid over everyone in the pyramid is an important element of the sport as it signifies unity of the team.
The broken Handi

A team of Govindas passing through to the next Handi location.  Some of the teams are very organised and wear T-shirts with logos.

Approach to the Pali Hill Handi

A group of street kids - inspired to make their own mini-pyramid

The scene on 33rd Road, Bandra.

A fully formed pyramid

....and another. The team has to 'hold the pose' for at least 5 seconds to be in with a shout.
The boy at the top of the pile...I would say about 7 years old.
Good of them to give him a crash helmet though.(I have since read that the youngest Govinda to take part was three years old) 

But these Bandra Pyramids looks so amateur compared to this one I captured off the TV!

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