Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Festivals, fun and games

Diwali will shortly be upon us again. It was once my favourite festival in the world, because it was the world’s most aesthetic: there’s nothing to match a city emerging out of a moonless night garbed in millions of tiny twinkling flames. The idea of a king returning to a kingdom so bejewelled was positively thrilling.

Then diyas got replaced by bulbs, and sparklers by volcanic smoke-spewing anaars and ear-splitting bombs. Now we get tarted up in gaudy strobing lights, and the air, never in the pink of health, becomes a toxic swamp, and heart patients keel over from the shock of sudden loud noises. Diwali has become another way in which Delhi expresses its brash, unaesthetic self.

But then, people all over the world are peculiar or horrifying in one way or another, and when they’re in the mood to celebrate, whether over a major religion or over a drink, they are capable of all kinds of things—some interestingly odd, others just plain odd.

In the Italian town of Ivrea, they hurl oranges at each other every February. It all goes back to a 12th-century aristocrat who liked to steal and deflower brides before their wedding day; that was known as jus primae noctis (law of the first night) or droit du seigneur (the lord’s right), and is one of the reasons the medieval period is so, like, over. Eventually one such fed up virgin bravely beheaded the old goat, inspiring her fellow-citizens to mutiny. The orange fight, which ends on Shrove Tuesday, represents the stoning of the aristocrat’s guard. Developing world sensibilities might cringe, but the oranges are the excess from the harvest and under EU agreements would have to be destroyed anyway. The Spaniards have a variation on this theme, throwing overripe tomatoes at each other every August in Buñol.

Then there are the annual wife-carrying championships in Sonkajärvi, Finland, every July. This too celebrates a libidinous baddy, the 19th-century hoodlum Ronkainen, who stole sleeping women from their bedrooms and hoofed it to the hills to ravish them. Today’s participants have to carry a female partner of at least 17 years and at least 49kg, down a rough track in exchange for her weight in beer. The Finns also have contests in sauna-sitting, mosquito-swatting and mobile phone-throwing, which would explain the great success of Nokia.

The famously proper Japanese let the whole libido thing hang out, quite literally, at the Hounen Matsuri, or fertility festival, celebrated in March at the Tagata Shrine at Komaki. It involves getting good and drunk on free sake and then parading a highly realistically-carved 8ft-long wooden phallus through town on a float carried by men all aged 42 (because it’s an unlucky number and this apparently helps), followed by smaller phalluses carried by ladies all aged 36 (same reason). Along the way, people who want healthy babies rush up and caress the tips.

The world also celebrates life by cow-tipping, parrot-shooting, and cheese-rolling. There is no end to the weirdness. But the most outlandish fun I’ve ever heard of has to be the sport of dwarf-tossing, in which a suitably padded and helmeted person of alternative height serves as the projectile in a distance-throwing competition. This one originated in the bars of Australia and the United States, though the UK apparently excelled at it. As you can imagine, this little game did not last long, even though a disgruntled dwarf named Manuel Wackenheim appealed against the UN human rights committee ban on it, which he said deprived him of his livelihood.

So as I make my way through another festive season, expletives choking in my throat, I’ll try to think positive: better to have to be an unwilling participant in Diwali than in Cotswoldian shin-kicking.

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