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Cupid’s Cudgel

During Holi, a bash on the head can be a demonstration of true love

Author Arun Bhatia Illustration Peter Oumanski

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INDIA – In a sun-streaked courtyard in the western Indian village of Nandgaon, Anu Devi, a middle-aged mother of three, is bonking her husband on the head with a bamboo stick. The husband doesn’t seem too fazed by the assault, exchanging wry smiles with other men receiving the same treatment. “All the girls are hitting their husbands on their heads!” Anu Devi says, squaring up for another whack.

The previous evening, these villagers were gathered around bonfires, singing and dancing, celebrating the coming of spring and Holi, which is known as the Festival of Colors due to a raucously messy tradition in which people across India take to the streets to hurl colored powder or water at each other.

Lathmar (“Hit ’Em With a Stick”) is a regional addition to the festivities. It recalls a tale in which the young Lord Krishna teased some girls in the neighboring village of Barsana, who chased him away with sticks. Today’s ritual is supposed to have the men of Nandgaon reprise Krishna’s misadventure. What the original myth doesn’t suggest, though, is that the men should receive another beating when they get home—this part seems to be a more recent improvisation.

There are political undertones to this tradition. In a male-dominated society, Lathmar represents a fleeting and symbolic opportunity for women to settle the score. But, like everything to do with Holi, the ritual is essentially a celebration of love. The wives often pad the business end of their sticks with cloth, Anu Devi explains, adding that she has opted for an additional precaution. “I made him wear a thicker turban today,” she says.

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