Every year, just as India steps into spring, thousands gather in the narrow bylanes of north Kolkata, clutching fistfuls of gulal (coloured powder). The atmosphere is wildly festive as a procession rolls down the neighbourhood of Burrabazar, with loudspeakers blaring spiritual songs of devotion. The celebrations invoke the spirit of Holi, a Hindu religious festival symbolic of the triumph of good over evil, where people traditionally smear each other with colours to mark the beginning of spring.
But in the bustling lanes of Burrabazar, it’s not just people who are doused in decadent colours. The main attraction out here is a vintage Rolls-Royce car that once belonged to the writer Rudyard Kipling. Yep.
Decked in flowers and other finery, the nostalgic Rolls-Royce leads the celebrations down the streets of Kolkata, attracting massive crowds of revellers along its journey. The car doubles as a chariot, with a throne on which sit the icons of the Hindu god Krishna and his beloved Radha. There are many legends associated with Holi, one of which celebrates the divine love between this cosmic pair.
“We have been seeing this Rolls-Royce on the streets of Calcutta (Kolkata’s former name) since childhood,” Shrivardhan Kanoria, a vintage car collector and the founding president of the Eastern India Motoring Group, told VICE.
Kanoria explained that Rudyard Kipling used the car for six years, before selling it to Kumar Ganga Dhar Bagla in 1927. Bagla came from an influential family that owned estates in the province of Calcutta that was then a major British settlement and once the capital of colonial India.
Since coming into the hands of the Baglas, the car became an integral part of the city’s legacy. “This car with the chassis number #6UE was a rare variant of the Rolls-Royce that was altered into a chariot for the ceremonial procession, and has become a moving temple,” said Kanoria. The Bagla family’s estate included a Satyanarayan temple in which the idols of Radha-Krishna are housed, which led them to dedicate the car as a symbol of their devotion to the temple. Today, the temple is the main organiser behind this celebration. However, no one could seem to tell us exactly how and why Kipling's car became the chariot of the gods.
Kipling, the first British writer to win the Nobel Prize in literature, was born in British India, and cultivated many of his iconic stories around his experiences here. Also a poet and journalist, he is best known for the story collection The Jungle Book.
Today, Kipling’s Rolls-Royce has emerged as a one-of-a-kind religious symbol for Hindus in India.
“It’s surreal to see women flocking to it holding thalis (plates used in ritual worship) and people throwing colour on the car to pray to the gods,” Rana Pandey, a photojournalist who attended the procession last year, told VICE. The car is rolled out twice a year, once in the days leading up to Holi, which this year takes place on March 18, and again during Janmashtami, a Hindu festival dedicated to Lord Krishna.
“This car took part in the first Statesman Vintage and Classic Car Rally in India in 1968, and continues to crawl through the streets of Kolkata, now as a noble act of devotion,” said Kanoria. The classic car restorer added that this particular model has transcended time to become an intrinsic part of the city and its peoples’ lives.
“You will see thousands of people dancing, driving around and throwing gulal,” Pandey noted. It’s a unique atmosphere.”