Stefan Gates takes part in feasts and festivals around the globe. In India, he attends an expensive Rajasthani Hindu wedding and experiences the bewildering festival of Onam.
Browse content similar to India. Check below for episodes and series from the same categories and more!
I'm Stefan Gates.
I'm on a journey to immerse myself in some of the most extraordinary feasts and festivals on Earth.
From the palaces of Rajasthan
to the graveyards of Mexico and the ancient temples of Japan,
I'm hoping that by joining in these mass celebrations
I'll be able to conquer my inhibitions
and get under the skin of people and cultures around the world.
This is India, home to some of the most spectacular feasts and festivals on the planet.
There are hundreds of boats.
It's a massive, massive spectacle.
But under the surface of this vast and complex country
there are deep conflicts rooted in wealth, religion and caste.
India has some of the richest men on Earth.
But it's also home to a third of the world's poor.
I'm heading to Kerala for one festival that is supposed to transcend these barriers.
Every year, 32 million Keralans try to set aside their differences
during a huge ten-day celebration called Onam.
I want to find out if feasts really have the power to bring people together.
But first I'm going to an unashamedly elite celebration
that clearly shows the divides of class and wealth.
Seat of ancient mogul emperors, home of the most spectacular forts in the world
but one of the poorest regions in India.
This entire state feels like one huge film set.
I'm in Jaipur, in Rajasthan, Northern India
and I've been invited to a huge Hindu wedding,
and quite apart from being excited about the prospect of witnessing one of the world's great spectacles,
I'm hoping that this is going to be an opportunity to understand modern, emerging India,
in the course of three extraordinary days.
The marriage is between two powerful families from the emerging industrial classes,
the Sonthaliyas and the Mittals.
Traditionally, Indian weddings have been huge displays of wealth
establishing a family's position in the social pecking order.
But these families are the modern elite,
so I wonder if they'll still feel bound to follow the more rigid traditions.
So this is it, this is the gold palace where the wedding's going to take place
and it's an absolute hive of activity,
there are hundreds and hundreds of workers putting up tents and making dioceses
and Lord knows what this is over here,
and it's like they're constructing a large funfair.
There are loads of different stages and different sort of arenas.
Over a thousand guests are expected for three days of feasting.
But the guests are outnumbered by an army of caterers, construction engineers and performers
all working like mad to get everything ready on time.
And in charge of this small army is Sarita, the wedding planner
and possibly the most stressed out woman in Rajasthan.
So you're in charge of all this?
-This is a huge production, isn't it?
How long have you been working on all this?
On this wedding we've been working for the last six months.
And is it all defined by the bride's family?
-Yeah, the bride's family, definitely.
-The groom doesn't have much say?
No, the groom also, the groom's side also have a say but it's mostly the bride's side.
-Yeah, because the bride's side is paying.
-Yeah. THEY LAUGH
Well, more accurately, the bride's father, Sadesh, is paying.
BAGPIPES AND DRUMS PLAY
But there's also a human transaction involved.
In India a wedding symbolises the handing over of the woman from her father to her new husband.
And the man about to take delivery of this new bride is 24-year-old Rahul, a businessman from Calcutta.
Over the next three days, Rahul and his family must be treated like royalty.
And to welcome him, the family's hired a band of dancing bagpipers.
It's their first attempt to show off in front of their new in laws.
So that was the groom arriving amidst a cacophony of sound
so I would imagine he's feeling quite pleased with himself
or possibly slightly terrified.
I was thinking what a fantastic display,
and a couple of people next to me said,
"Oh, my God, that's really tacky."
But from where I was standing that looked quite spectacular.
The feast is the most important part of the wedding and it's used to signify a family's wealth.
To ensure that no one's left in any doubt as to the bride's prosperity,
474 dishes are being prepared over the next three days.
Today there was supposed be a brunch.
Brunch is over now, now people are asking for lunch.
There's so much food to cook, the caterers had to erect a make-shift tent city
hidden from view of the guests.
Oh, I get it.
Can I try doing it?
No, it's running away!
I'm desperate to find out what they feel about cooking for India's super rich, but it's a touchy subject.
I guess if you can control something as out of control as this then you must be a master chef.
Do you think that the staff here sort of resent the fact that they're all these rich people over there
in a slightly different world, and they're working so hard for it?
-Fair enough. See you later.
That evening the bride, 23-year-old Nidhi, arrives.
She's a Cambridge university economics graduate,
but Nidhi must now play the role of a traditional Indian bride.
She'll spend the next three days plastered in jewels,
maintaining a meek and demure silence,
whilst she's inspected by the groom's family.
The workers are also closely scrutinised, as Sarita takes them through their final briefing.
It's crucial for the honour of the bride's family that everything's perfect.
TRANSLATED FROM HINDI
It's quite exciting, all the waiters are set out, the lights are on, the bride's off getting ready.
It's going to kick off in about an hour so I'm going to go and smarten myself up.
Wow, look at this.
The wedding officially begins tonight with the mendhi, when guests have their hands painted with Henna.
The theme for the first night is a street carnival and it's an incredible display of affluence.
Thanks very much.
Sarita's team has prepared luxury versions of street food usually eaten by India's poor.
So you're not eating anything, you're too nervous to eat?
You know it's good already!
And then, the bride and groom arrive.
I've been told that they met when they were studying in Britain and fell in love.
But I was warned that I mustn't talk about this.
Hindu tradition dictates this must be an arranged marriage.
And love must have nothing to do with it.
Nidhi's father Sadesh tells me the tradition of arranged marriage is so strong
that HE was forced to give up his first love to save his family's honour.
-So you were in love with somebody and then you had an arranged marriage?
-Wow, that must have been difficult.
INDIAN DANCE MUSIC PLAYS
I'm joined by my guide Neelima.
She's been to dozen's of posh Indian weddings herself,
so I want to know if this amazing spectacle is out of the ordinary.
So far, is it a traditional wedding?
Is this what you expected to see?
Well, it's strangely a lot of tradition
but also a lot of break away from tradition.
Normally in a traditional Hindu wedding the groom meets the bride
when he come in a procession on the wedding night.
-So this is a bit naughty, really?
Because there's quite a few old women here who are quite stony-faced.
They look a bit...
-I'm sure they disapprove.
-Do you think they're thinking, "What are they doing?"
Is it their job to be a bit disapproving?
Sort of, and find fault.
With everything - with the food,
with whether you didn't do this properly. It's the done thing.
But you know they play a valuable role because they keep tradition going.
Day Two. Time for the next big event.
Hindu weddings symbolise the transferring of the bride from one family to another,
but also those two families coming together.
But before these mergers and acquisitions take place,
there's a chance for one last boardroom battle - a cricket match.
Is it traditional to have a cricket match?
The cricket match is not traditional but it is traditional for the two families.
It's an alliance between two families - weddings -
it's a good ice breaker.
It's a lot of leg pulling and teasing, it's just to break the ice.
Whilst a wedding is about enhancing everyone's social status,
it wouldn't do for anyone to get ideas above their station.
It would very bad form for the bride's family to win.
He's really grumpy.
They may just be very bad at cricket,
but I suspect that Nidhi's family
HAVE to give their wickets away
to ensure the groom's honour is preserved.
And Rahul is allowed to be hero of the hour by taking the final wicket.
To the surprise of...
absolutely no one, the Mittal family lift the trophy.
Tonight is the last night Nidhi will spend with her parents as a daughter.
Tomorrow she will officially become a wife and join Rahul's family.
I want to find out how she's feeling about leaving home forever.
But with several outfit changes and hundreds of relatives competing for her attention,
I can only sneak in for a quick chat.
Wow, look at you! Fantastic.
So has does it feel to be on the verge of a whole different part of your life?
-Nervous yet exciting.
What things do you think are going to change for you?
A new family so there's going to be a lot of change because of that.
How are you feeling right now?
Everybody at the wedding enjoys other than the bride and the bridegroom
because they're all so heavily loaded.
Look at her, she's still looking so pretty and elegant
and she'll have a good time until the end of the evening and I'll be like, "OK..."
Before eating also I'll think about my lipstick.
So it's like that.
I've been wondering if Nidhi will keep up the facade of this being an arranged marriage,
or break with tradition and admit to being in love.
You've known each other for a little while. Do you already love each other?
-You already love each other?
-Even though it's an arranged marriage, you're in love?
-Yeah, we've spent a lot of time together
-for the last one year.
-Lots of people get married in ten days of arrangements,
like ten days and still they love each other, and the love continues ever after like our parents.
They just met and they got married in 22 days and they're together, touch wood, for 25 years.
-It must work.
Behind the scenes the social hierarchy is maintained.
To ensure the guests want for nothing, an army of waiters has been employed
to look after their every need.
And then there are those whose job it is to serve the servers.
It turns out that there are two kitchens -
one for the guests, and an entirely separate kitchen purely to feed the hundreds of workers.
One of those preparing the backroom meals is Vishram, who is busy making hundreds of parathas.
Do you ever get to join in any parts of the wedding?
You went and had a dance, last night?
Does everybody go and have a little dance?
The bride's father has been saving up for this for years.
Was it the same for your bride's father?
But in my country we celebrate important events
but we don't make anywhere near as much of a big splash as you guys do.
It's probably true!
When Vishram has finished cooking he and his fellow workers must keep themselves hidden from the guests
who are enjoying yet another meal.
It's difficult not to notice the huge divide between their worlds, but it's nothing new.
The Indian caste system has maintained a divide for 3,000 years.
The barriers are slowly coming down, but at moments like this
the difference between rich and poor is still plain for all to see.
Day three. Today is the day Nidhi and Rahul will actually get married.
It's the day the bride's family will put on the ultimate display of wealth.
But first, I have to get myself looking presentable.
Wow! I'm ready for anything now.
In an elaborate entrance, Rahul arrives dressed up as a prince on top of a white horse.
Hundreds of family members come accompanied by musicians.
And in a silver-plated sedan chair carried by four servants, here comes the bride.
After months of planning, the bride and groom are officially presented to the guests.
In more traditional times, this would have been the first moment the couple would set eyes on each other.
Unlike a Christian wedding ceremony, this service will last into the night.
The bride and groom are very much on display throughout whilst their guests get to eat and chat.
Their elaborate costumes are beginning to look decidedly uncomfortable.
PRIESTS CHANT IN SANSKRIT
After three long days, the big moment arrives.
Three Brahmin priests chant in Sanskrit, and then it's time for the Hindu equivalent of saying "I do".
Nidhi and Rahul walk around the holy fire seven times
promising to protect and befriend each other for all of their married lives.
Finally, when the paint is marked on each other's foreheads, they're married.
APPLAUSE, PRIESTS CHANT
It's time for one last extraordinary feast.
Oh, my God!
'Nidhi's parents have built an exclusive VIP tent purely for Rahul's closest family.
'Wedding planner Sarita has been working so hard to make it perfect she hasn't slept in days.'
-You're looking a little bit tired.
How much sleep have you had?
I have lost my voice, you can see that.
-You've been shouting at your staff too much.
This is a special sit-down meal,
for the special guests.
-Who are the special guests?
The bride's father is paying and yet it's the boy's family who gets pampered.
Yeah, and he's giving his daughter also.
Nidhi's father and the rest of his family must now roll up their sleeves
and physically stuff food into Rahul's family's mouths.
It's the ultimate act of servitude and humility.
Finally, it's the end of the evening, and the moment Nidhi has to say goodbye to her mum, dad,
brothers and sisters.
From now on, she will be part of Rahul's family and can only return home for short visits.
As only one per cent of all couples get divorced in India, there really is no going back.
I have to admit, at first glance the wedding seemed little more
than an extravagant display of wealth and social hierarchy.
But at 2am, there's suddenly genuine emotion after all the pomp and ceremony.
Nidhi's family finally drop their guard and show genuine sadness
as their daughter leaves the family forever.
As Rahul and Nidhi fly off on their honeymoon, I head down south to the tropical state of Kerala
in search of a different side of India.
The wedding reinforced the traditional hierarchy of Indian society.
But I'm on my way to a place where these rigid social divisions are said to be dissolving.
I'm going to the Onam feast, where millions of people come together
for ten days of celebrations across the entire state.
I arrive in Kerala with the festivities just about to start.
Kerala has been hugely influenced by trade with everyone from the Portuguese to the Arabs.
I've heard it's a place where boundaries are more flexible.
Kerala is lucky, people came here to trade.
'I meet Ramesh, a local businessman.
'He has a theory as to why Kerala is so different from the rest of India...'
Kerala, luckily, does not have the politics of religion.
In every other state religion is a strong political tool,
here it's a social way of life.
It's live and let live. And it carries on that way.
You'll see many places where there's a church and a mosque and a temple, side by side.
Perfectly all right.
There is something else different about Kerala.
Here, the women are in charge.
We also decided that because it's the mother who gives birth to the child,
the family hierarchy and line is through the woman and not the male.
There's no where else in the world which has an absolute matriarchal society. We are the only ones.
I don't know, in my house...
And you see now here, the wearing of white.
Onam dresses. Very beautiful.
Ramesh tells me the abundance of fish is another reason for Kerala's traditional harmony.
The cheap, accessible food here removes one of the main causes of social unrest.
This is a kingfish.
The test is always the gill.
You open the gill...
This is absolutely fresh.
-What have we got here?
-That's a red snapper!
They're lovely. HE LAUGHS
That is extraordinary. I've never seen one that big.
You can come here, buy yourself a small fish, he'll clean it and they'll cook it for you.
Just grill it with butter and garlic, it's great.
-Can we do this now, is the guy here?
After eating so much exotic food at the wedding feast, it's great to have something that's simple.
That's fantastic. It's really good.
-The main thing is you can tell how fresh it is.
-Yeah. That's right.
This is my last chance to enjoy Keralan fish.
Onam is a vegetarian feast.
Even the fishermen will be putting away their nets to celebrate.
With just one day before the start of the festival, there's an air of anticipation all over Kerala.
Onam celebrates the return to earth of the mythical King Mahibali,
who's coming to check that his people are still living in paradise.
Looking like a half naked Father Christmas, there are signs of him everywhere I go.
Every Keralan must show the King that for ten days, at least, they can live as equals and in harmony.
As I make my way to the celebrations,
I'm wondering if an entire state really can pull together for a public display of unity.
It's almost a cliche now but India really is a land of huge contradictions.
There's extreme wealth side by side with extreme poverty.
There's ancient idols and then people in shop fronts with flat screen computers.
But Kerala is actually quite different from any part of India I've ever seen.
There seems to be a lot fewer...
beggars on the streets, the houses seem pretty decent.
There seems to be a little bit more general wealth.
My driver Abdul soon gets bored of me pontificating about Keralan society.
To shut me up, he offers to let me drive the rickshaw for the rest of our journey.
This is not Abdul's best idea.
That's the clutch.
Hop in the back.
That's the brake.
Do we need the brake?
We don't worry about the brake. OK.
Little, little. Slowly, slowly.
Where's the hooter, which one's the hooter? That one there?
Do you make a lot of money?
500, that's good.
How do I...?
Am I supposed to put my arm out?
I guess you're supposed to avoid the bumps.
Oh, there's a big one, oh, there's a big one.
Am I going a bit too fast?
How am I...? Am I good?
Would you give me a job?
Oh, hand signal.
I feel like I'm in power.
# I'm a happy auto rickshaw driver! #
It was going really well.
It's about 8am.
It's time for the Onam festivities to start
and it's just about to bucket down, again.
Because it's the end of the monsoon season so there's a few lingering clouds of rain.
Amongst all the celebrations, there are two main feasts during Onam.
I've been invited to spend the first with a local family.
Chako is a taxi driver.
The family is cooking a special feast for about two dozen relatives.
Chako's wife Elsie is in charge of the preparations.
OK, so what are you doing?
Ah, sort of skinning it?
Is there a lot of pressure on you as the head woman of the family?
This family is Christian.
But like most people in Kerala, they fully embrace this traditionally Hindu festival.
Outside, the kids have been busy.
-So this is your pookalam?
It looks brilliant.
It's a flower design, a sort of Keralan version of a Christmas tree, made of fresh petals.
OK, what can I do?
-You can put it here.
-In this area here.
I notice I'm the only grown-up on the job.
Is this something that children do, rather than adults?
Am I being a bit naughty coming to play?
What is the reason for making a pookalam?
What does Mahibali look like?
A big fat guy.
But my modest attempt at flower arranging may have angered King Mahibali.
As soon as I finish helping it starts to rain again.
A bit of a disaster here. The flood is coming.
We might have to build a dam!
The house is beginning to fill up. There's kids crawling around everywhere.
We'll check on the nerve centre of the operation.
Elsie and her sisters are still hard at work.
'Her father is also busy, making his speciality.'
Can I taste it?
Can I taste from the spoon, is that OK?
Wow! That's the sourest thing I've ever tasted in my life.
It's ginger and cardamom.
A drink of water.
After a lifetime of backbreaking work, Elsie's mum and dad are now looked after by the family.
Chako and his father-in-law bring me to their well.
It's Onam tradition to have a ritual bath before the feast to wash away the sins from the past year.
As we bathe, I can't help but notice the physical difference between these two men.
100 million Indians have been pulled out of poverty in the last 15 years,
and this change is plain to see.
Chako grew up in relative comfort in a more modern and prosperous India
whilst his father-in-law, struggled doing hard manual labour just to get by.
Everyone puts on new Onam outfits for the feast.
A banana leaf is used as a plate.
There used to be over 60 dishes served during Onam.
When one leaf was finished a new leaf was simply placed on top.
There's a procession of food coming in.
'There are now fewer dishes but the banana leaf remains.'
Eleven dishes are served, and must be eaten in a specific order.
The food is meant to be symbolically pure, so it's cooked with very little oil.
It's very mild, I thought with all those chillies it would be really, really hot.
It's an extraordinary mixture of
really bland flavours and some absolutely mind-blowing fiery flavours.
Suddenly there's something that wallops you in the mouth.
Keeps you on your toes.
Onam isn't just celebrated in people's living rooms.
Every year entire communities also come together for huge public feasts.
TRADITIONAL MUSIC PLAYS
We've come to a local temple to have a look at the preparations for the big feast.
There's a whole troop of extraordinary elephants over here covered in gold jewellery.
Over here there's some amazing dancers with flowers for heads.
There's a real air of anticipation here.
'Most Hindu temples organise Onam celebrations
'where they throw the doors open to everyone. I'm on my way
'to meet the head of the temple organising this huge event.'
Hi, I'm Stefan.
President of the temple. The big man!
Your today's most important man.
Can you show me around?
'Onam marks the start of the harvest.
'It's traditional to cook vast amounts of food
'to show King Mahabali that Kerala is still prosperous.'
Lady finger, Okra we call it.
Has everyone here been working all day?
Are you the choppers?
So what is this?
So you are the coconut people?
This is the biggest saucepan I've ever seen in my life.
Can we try and pick one up, I want to see how heavy it is.
Wow, blimey, that's big isn't it?
You could fit my whole family in here,
which is probably not a good idea.
Brass! That's an expensive bit of kit.
There's such a lot of money involved in all of this,
how does it all get paid for? Who pays for the meals?
That's a very nice thing to do.
Onam only, after Onam back to the usual way!
LOUD DRUMMING MUSIC
Next morning the entire state of Kerala bursts into life.
Legend has it that the Gods were jealous of King Mahabali
for being so popular amongst his people.
They banished him to the underworld,
allowing him to return just once a year to visit his subjects.
So every year, rich and poor alike
pull out all the stops to welcome him back.
I return to the temple to find the celebration in full swing.
So today is the big day. This is Thiruonam, the big feast day.
Everyone's pouring into the temple grounds.
There are thousands of people here already.
The monsoon's cleared for a little while.
The sun's come out. I'm going to go and check up on the cooks
and see if they survived the mayhem and chaos of last night.
'The ground's littered with exhausted workers.
'It's clear everyone's been working flat out.
'Despite his lack of sleep, the Vice President is in high spirits.'
-Good morning sir. How are you?
So how are the preparations going?
How many people will that pot serve?
6000 or 8000 people!
How many people will this feed?
-200 people? That's rice for 200?
Have you had any sleep yet?
You must be exhausted. Why do you do it?
Satisfaction and money. Two days 2,000 rupees.
-That's pretty good.
Will you teach me how to do it?
So I need to flip them round?
Stand back. OK.
-Ow, that hurt.
After weeks of preparation, the hard work is about to pay off.
What's extraordinary is that this is exactly the same meal
as Chako's family had prepared with huge amount of love and dedication.
But on a massive scale for 7,000 people.
Then, as the guests arrive, the inevitable happens.
It's extraordinary. Five minutes ago it was completely blue skies, baking sunshine.
Then the monsoon starts falling which could be disastrous
because there are very few covered spaces so the big worry is
that the thousands of people who are expected won't actually turn up.
But the sun soon comes out along with thousands of guests.
Before the queues get too big I head out to meet Chako and his family.
-How are you?
-Very good, how are you?
You all look beautiful. Fantastic!
So smart! More new clothes.
Is this the start of the queue?
How long do you reckon to get down there?
-Two or three...
'After 60 years of independence
'the Indians have kept one British tradition alive...queuing.
'Groups of 400 people are let in at each sitting.
'They have just 15 minutes to eat, so the clock's ticking.'
People are relatively quiet.
For a room full of 400 people there's just a light hum.
Everyone's concentrating on eating.
What's absolutely amazing is the idea that
millions of people across the whole of Kerala
are sitting down at the same time to exactly the same meal.
Maybe that's something to do with why Kerala has this legendary sense
of tolerance and unity because things like this
bring people together in a really extraordinary way.
'This is a world away from the wedding feast.
'Here, I can see rich and poor,
'Christian and Hindu all sitting eating together.
'This equality and harmony is what Onam is all about.'
This is the best bit, isn't it?
It's all that cardamom.
Elsie, it's exactly same as the one that you cooked.
'Suddenly, I realise that everyone else has finished.'
OK, we better be quick.
I'm suddenly feeling a bit out of place sitting here and eating.
Chako, thank you very, very much.
It's been a real privilege spending Onam with you.
Thank you very much.
Have a great rest of Onam. OK.
Onam lasts for ten days,
so there are constant spectacular celebrations across the state.
It's about time I got well and truly stuck in.
I'm on my way to a town called Thrichur
for a part of the festivities called Pulikali.
Now, this could be one of the great high points of my life.
It could also be one of the great low points of my life
because for Pulikali you dress up like a tiger.
Not just dress up like a tiger,
you have full body paint and you perform a ritual dance.
Obviously my concern is that
I'm going to look like a complete pillock,
making a mockery of a wonderful and beautiful ceremony.
I suddenly feel sick with, I don't know if it's fear or excitement,
or something, but they're practising drumming down here
and it's some sort of primal sensation you get from the drumming.
I suddenly realise that I kind of thought this was fun
a little while ago, but now I'm thinking this is actually
a really important part of somebody's culture.
It's not something to be messed about with.
'By the next morning, I'm still feeling well out of my depth.'
God, What am I doing?
'The tiger dance is a competition between local neighbourhood teams.
'This year there'll be 800 tigers on display.
'I'm going to be the first foreigner to take part.
'The first stage of my tiger transformation is a full body shave.
'Without any shaving cream.'
-Is this an important part of it?
Why can't the tiger have a little bit of hair?
My wife quite likes this.
It feels like any second you're going to slice my nipple off.
Not that as well!
It feels a bit like a layer of skin's being taken off,
leaving you somehow slightly purer in a funny way.
Maybe because it looks like I'm 14 underneath this!
Word gets out that a pasty British guy is about to take part.
The news crews begin to gather.
A real tiger? I've got a little way to go but I hope so.
It's very exciting.
-Are you going to get your belly out?
Come here! Come on, let me have a go.
I thought it was going to be funny.
There's a huge hole in the floor and I pushed him down it!
Was that live?
'It appears I'm missing something to make my tiger a total success.'
So the big belly is better?
'Perhaps it's a slow news day, but the cameras keep on coming.
'I'm keen to fit in with my team.
'Maybe a coat of paint is all I need.
'The dancers bring pictures of the style they're after.
'I just ask for a basic tiger.'
A bit of household matt emulsion.
After they shaved me and left the skin all raw on my chest,
the paint seems to be seeping into the raw skin.
'I'm not the only one feeling the pain.
'But the guys have a remedy - local brandy.'
'My team come from all different walks of life
'lorry drivers, accountants, businessmen.
'But we all seem to be getting along incredibly well.
'Perhaps a little too well.'
There's a strange sort of male bonding going on.
It's slightly disturbing at the same time.
Maybe it's just me!
And then he tickles my nipples!
'It's one thing to be painted like a tiger, but this is a competition.
'And I have just half an hour to learn how to dance like a tiger.'
There's too many things to do at once.
THEY LAUGH AND CHEER
Time to earn my stripes.
I feel as though I've really bonded with my team and I want to do them proud.
I'm obviously not going to be the best tiger dancer on the planet,
but what would be really, really nice is if I had my mask on,
just for a moment, that people didn't know
that I was the weedy English bloke that turned up earlier on.
Our team of 50 men are competing against the other neighbourhoods.
Everyone's turned out to wish us well.
I'm ordered to go to the front but I still feel like I'm blending in,
a bit too much for some.
I keep wanting to put my mask down, but they keep coming and putting it back up again,
saying that they're more likely to win
if there's an English guy in their troupe.
I carry on regardless, in a an increasingly desperate attempt to prove that white guys can dance.
It's like being back in the '80s, like some crazy rave.
Getting carried away with some beat I know nothing about!
Hundreds of thousands of people turn up.
After my self consciousness fades,
I begin to lose myself in this intoxicating communal celebration.
I've been dancing for about three hours.
It's the same dance, pretty much all the time.
The weird thing is, I never see a sign of a judge.
It doesn't even feel like there's a competition going on.
But it is an extraordinary experience.
It was amazing because you're there in the middle of it,
there's all this stench of fumes and petrol
and stench of sweat from all of our bodies as well.
And you can see all the crowds shouting and waving their hands
along the side of the road as well in time with this monotonous beat.
And they're just all enjoying it because they're together doing something all as one.
Now I'd really like to get the paint off.
I'd really, really, really like to get the paint off.
But there's a problem.
The one guy that we know of who can take this stuff of with some kerosene is very, very drunk.
He refuses to help.
It looks like I'll have to stay painted as a tiger for the rest of my trip.
But the neighbours take pity and start scraping my flesh with their finger tips.
It's absolute agony but I'm so grateful for their help.
They rub kerosene into my skin until the paint finally starts to come off.
After two hours of intensive and painful scrubbing, I shed my skin.
Feeling raw and tender the next day,
I go to relax with the papers in my local tea shop.
But my attempt to blend in with the crowd has amounted to nothing.
Everyone's staring at me.
Overnight I've become a Keralan superstar.
This morning's papers are quite interesting.
That's me, twice, giving a bit of a roar there,
doing a little bit of a dance in that one.
It gets better. There's me actually looking quite aggressive,
which I'm quite pleased about as I didn't think I quite managed it.
There's me, looking a little bit bored.
This is very nice because Will, the cameraman,
managed to get on the front page as well.
I've got my eyes closed but, there you go.
I kept on talking about how it was so wonderful
that there were all these different religions and castes coming together for Onam,
that might sound fluffy, but in fact these things are really important to India.
In the same paper there are lots of reports about religious violence.
Here's a report about Christian groups retaliating after they were attacked by Hindus.
There's lots of reports of inter caste violence,
and a few days ago 12 people were killed in a bomb in Delhi.
There are problems bubbling under the surface in India,
and so I'm just beginning to realise now how important events like Onam are,
events that bring people together.
Today is one of the last events of the Onam festival,
and the communal spirit lives on.
I've come to Pathanamthitta to see the spectacular snake boat races.
Hundreds of years ago local leaders brought the Onam harvest down the river as a ritual offering.
Now those journeys have been turned into a celebratory race,
where thousands of people come to end Onam with a bang.
Men from all walks of life wear traditional dress
in boats decked out with ancient symbols of wealth.
They don't seem to be putting much effort in.
They're having too much fun on the boat.
Just before they started, the announcer said,
"It's very much like the Oxford and Cambridge boat race, but better."
I have to say it's a hell of a lot more fun.
Waves of boats set off down the river, singing their team anthem.
I've been wondering what this insane, huge, shared experience says about India.
And the one thing that's surprised me more than anything else,
that I didn't really expect to find, was the enormous sense of fun here.
I kind of thought Onam would be a relatively formal affair,
that it would be about religion or culture or history.
I'm sure those things are sunk deep inside here but everybody here is just having a laugh.
As the boats come down here, there are two right next to each other
and they're trying to draw, rather than trying to win.
They're trying to cross the line as a dead heat,
which is an extraordinary thing.
I don't think you'd get that in Britain.
But everybody here seems to be in great spirits.
There's now, I don't know, a hundred thousand people stretched along a couple of miles of river.
They're here for a party, more than anything else, and there's a sense of joy.
It's an expression of quite pure celebration.
India as a whole may suffer from the deep divides reinforced at the wedding feast I'd been to.
But Onam was different.
Ten unforgettable days when an entire state came together
in a series of extraordinary, massive celebrations.
That's the power of a feast.
The people of Kerala are unique in their ability to put aside class or religious differences,
all in the name of making their old King Mahabali proud.
And you know what?
I think he would have been.
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
E-mail [email protected]
Series in which food writer and presenter Stefan Gates immerses himself in some of the most extraordinary feasts and festivals on earth. By joining ordinary people in these strange and wonderful distillations of their culture and beliefs, he hopes to gain a revelatory insight into how the world thinks and feels.
Stefan makes a journey across India to discover how feasts and celebration divide - and bring together - a turbulent nation that can be riven by religious tension and extremes of wealth.
He is shocked to see how much extravagance and social engineering there is in an expensive showpiece Rajasthani Hindu wedding, yet how little emotion is actually expressed. These events are spectacular, and the scale is terrifying for a father of two young daughters.
In Kerala, Stefan experiences the bewildering festival of Onam, a Hindu celebration that brings this massive state of millions of people together, Hindu and Christian, rich and poor alike. Over several days he joins almost all of the entire 32m population in sitting down to exactly the same meal - an 11-portion feast eaten with fingers from a banana leaf.
Stefan joins in the Pulikali, the tiger dance, and is apparently he first westerner ever to take part. It is the most physically uncomfortable, gruesome day of his life. He has his body hair shaved off with a dry razor, then spends five hours being painted with several layers of household gloss paint, holding on to two sticks to keep his arms outstretched as he dries out. He is then covered in a sweaty, sticky mask and a pair of bordello pants, and packed off into the streets to join his team in dancing like a maniac around the baking-hot streets of the city of Thrissur for four hours.