It smelled like a marshmallow roast and looked like a psychedelic bonfire. As the bamboo sticks popped and you could feel the heat of the flames on your forehead, airborne ashes sparkled in the twilight and cascaded onto a crowd of more than 5,000 who gathered on the Mall last night to watch three 45-foot Indian demons get torched.
According to Hindu myth, it all started a few thousand years ago, when the good god Rama slew the 10-headed, 10-armed demon Ravana. Rama did it with one fiery bow and arrow, shot Rambo-style, into the belly-button of Ravana.
"Year after year, the same emotions are evoked. They weep, they cry, they identify and they overcome this certain fear of evil ," said one of the Indian craftsmen. Every fall, Indians celebrate the victory of good over evil in a 12-day re-enactment.
They did it all in one night yesterday, as part of the Smithsonian's 19th annual Folklife Festival. The crowd gathered around three, mustachioed, paper-faced demons, with blue- and pink-hued skin, swords and shields, and wide, black eyes. As the drums banged and the bells clanged, they cheered when the demons began to blaze.
Festival-goers Vivek Srivastava caught some demon ashes in his frisbee and Blythe Colon remarked, "I think it's fantastic, beautiful."
Before the twilight torching, the crowd of Americans and Indians blended in an interesting collage of videotape machines and turbans. Many snacked on blankets spread out near the Monument, with the smell of cigarettes competing with the aroma of tangy Indian-barbecued chicken.
It took three weeks for a team of Indian artisans to construct the monstrous figures. Although they are not as big as the ones in India and yesterday's evening display lacked the traditional fireworks, the demons were still exotic and imposing figures.
A blue donkey sat on Ramava's head. According to myth, which varies in each Indian village, the ass swallowed the bumblebee that contained Ramava's soul.
If Ramava needs a soul, his evil brother to his left badly needs a shower. Kumbha Karan sports a blue tan because he hasn't cleaned himself in six months. He's a very heavy sleeper, according to legend, and needs to be stomped on by elephants to be aroused from slumber.
For Kay Khandpur of Reston, the festival offers an opportunity to show Indian culture to her family. One of his relatives, Harmeet Singhj, a 10-year-old born in Houston, said he couldn't remember seeing anything like the figures.
But once they started to burn, another 10-year-old, Harsha Shrivastav, found the perfect metaphor. "It reminds me of a forest fire."
Not more than five minutes after three Indians fired arrows into the hearts of the demons, flames engulfed and destroyed the colorful creations.
Daniel Singhal of Silver Spring remained nonplused. "I liked it some," he said, somewhat disappointed that the exhibition lacked the traditional Indian fireworks.
When asked if he had any interest in Indian culture, Daniel shrugged, equally unenthused.
"Hey, look," his mother Cheryl interjected. "We had chicken curry last night. What more can you ask?"