(GoPro pictures by George Wilson and Mathijs Klingers)
Holi is perhaps the most iconic festival of India. Pictures of vibrant powders and huge joyous crowds fill the internet and make everyone filled with wanderlust add it to their travel list. The festival of colors is a celebration of winter ending and spring starting and a time to forgive and love one another.
Just as travel can break down negative expectations and open your eyes to embrace other cultural practices, it can also cut through romanticized notions and expectations. Holi, as it turns out, was much different than smiling pictures of colorful children had led me to believe. Like much of India, it would be easy to have the festival leave a bad taste in your mouth, but once you accept its complicated nature, it can give you a truly remarkable experience.
The most authentic way most Indians celebrate Holi would actually be difficult for foreign travelers to experience. Holi is an intimate affair in the majority of homes, to be celebrated with small groups of family and friends in a backyard or rooftop. People ‘play” Holi by gently smearing colored powders on each other, most commonly on the cheeks with one or both hands. People, especially children, also fill up water bottles and spray guns with colored water to dose the unsuspecting with. This family celebration is sweet and joyous.
The Holi that foreigners will most often see in pictures- huge crowds swathed in colorful dust, people on the street covered head to toe in a hundred hues- this is an altogether different event. Firstly, those who celebrate in the streets of Holi are almost exclusively male. This is actually a holiday many local women actively avoid, staying in their homes for the entire day. Once I started to read up on Holi after we arrived in India, I found the most common advice online for tourists and especially women was to not participate. Find a group of other tourists and just play Holi with them, within the shelter of your hotel.
The reason for this advice, and the largest problem with Holi, is that the festival is used as an excuse by many Indian men to behave in any way they desire, including sexual and physical assault. “But it’s Holi!” is the common mantra. Police turn a blind eye (or risk being beaten by crowds, one local told us) and all outrageous behavior is simply given a tsk-tsk. It’s the worst manifestation of ‘boys will be boys’ and is frankly, infuriating. I read account after account of other women travelers who had ventured out in Holi and had been molested in some way or another. I had come to India with grand visions of photographing Holi, but heard how having a camera will just make you a bigger target. Holi is also a very popular time for the local men to consume lots of alcohol and Bhang Lassi (drinks made from very potent pot), which of course leads to extra rowdy behavior.
The worst abuse of Holi we witnessed was in the days leading up to the actual festival, on March 13th, 2017. In the desert town of Jaisalmer, our last stop in Rajasthan, Holi is locally celebrated for five days, so it is common to see color spatters on the ground and little kids with water guns even before the main holiday has begun. The incidents we witnessed involved two groups of boys and men mugging people on the street in the name of Holi.
The first group we saw while eating breakfast on the rooftop restaurant of our hotel. We were situated right next to a large, two-lane road and saw a group of about 12 or so young boys and teenagers standing on the side of the road with liters of plastic bottles filled with red-colored water. They would target a motorbike or pedestrian and call for them to stop. Then, they would surround their victim, point the bottles at them, and demand money in exchange for safe passage. Most people gave them money and were sent on their way. If a bike or even cars refused to stop, the boys would play chicken with them, standing in the middle of the road, daring the drivers to risk hitting them. Sometimes they would throw large branches in front of vehicles to make them stop. Once the unwitting driver had slowed down enough, the gang would hold on to the various parts of the bike, or lean on the front of cars. Once, a boy even opened the passenger door of a car to crawl in and we watched the poor driver scramble to push him out and slam the door closed. It seemed innocent (if not obnoxious) enough, threats of color in exchange for a few rupees. But it turned cruel quickly, the color forgone for physical violence as we watched in horror as the gang got ugly with one passerby who refused to pay, hitting him hard until he ran away down the street. We did notice that this extortion was reserved for local Indian men, either single or in groups of two or three. They left alone couples and passing local women.
We met a similar gang the next day, in a guided tour out to the desert to ride camels. Our jeep sped down an empty desert road until a group of men, not boys, came into view. They surrounded the car and David and I stiffened. These men didn’t even bother with colored water or powder. Our guide/driver talked with them through the open window and quickly gave them some money. They argued a little bit and we could tell they wanted more. But he held his ground and they eventually let us through. He told us that these groups will actually break cars and beat people up in the three days before Holi. The police will not interfere and it is good business for the gang who can rake in 15,000 rupees a day. “This is not our culture,” he implored to us, disappointed.
David and I started to feel dread that we would be in India for this celebration.
We chose to stay in a hostel, knowing the chance of meeting other travelers who would want to privately play or be a comfortably safe group would be high. Sure enough, within a few hours of arriving at the hostel, we had made friends with six other people from various European countries who were game for all experiencing Holi together. We expressed our safety concerns to our hostel manager, a young Indian man who offered to organize a Holi outing for us. He understood that the streets were risky for the girls in our group, so he proposed that we play Holi on the hostel rooftop, take a private car around the streets to witness the chaos from the safety of the vehicle, then drive a little out into the desert to play Holi with each other there. This sounded very reasonable to us, so we all agreed.
The next morning, we got an early start painting each other with powders and making sure we each had an equal distribution of the various colors (for artistic value, of course). From the roof, we could see that the streets around the hostel were surprisingly quiet. I had forgone my camera for the day, to give myself one less thing to worry about and just focus on the experience. It was on the roof that we witnessed the very first of ‘no doesn’t really mean no on Holi’ as a few local friends of our hostel staff joined us and some declined to play. We Westerners respected those who wished to not get color on their clothes, but the other locals took their requests as an extra challenge to get them as painted and wet as possible. At Holi, you have no choice.
After breakfast, we all were crammed into a jeep to see the streets of Jaisalmer during Holi and play a bit out in the desert. Our driver went down one empty street, then quickly turned away from town and out into the open desert. David, myself and the others started to question our destination and what exactly the plan was. Were we going to see Holi in the city at all? The driver said we would be going to a little desert village 20 km away to drink chai. I asked him if the village played Holi, to which he responded, 'not really'. David and I exchanged glances. It’s very easy as a tourist in India, to have people try to haul you around wherever they please, like a white sack of potatoes and you have to fight for what you really want. We wanted us to have a safe Holi, but sitting around in a poverty-stricken village that wasn’t celebrating while we were covered head to toe in color isn’t how we wanted to take in the culture. The whole scheme was starting to stink of a scam too, as letting yourself being dragged to any mystery location in India almost always results in being guilted into buying something you don’t want, to the effect of a nice commission for whomever brought you there. It was already 10:30am and Holi is a morning event, ending around 1pm (and getting more rowdy thereafter, once many of the men are drunk and high). We were running out of time.
David took charge of the mutiny, demanding our driver to take us back to the city. After some arguing, eventually he complied and we ditched the jeep back at the hostel. The streets were actually quite empty and I felt emboldened to try our luck experiencing the real thing. The frustration at our morning being almost wasted fired us all up. We had seen other tourists venture into the fray and so, with the understanding that we would all stick together and watch out for the girls especially, we headed towards the heart of where the action would be, Jaisalmer’s towering sandstone fort.
A couple blocks towards the fort and so far so good. The local men filling the street were friendly and innocently joyous, wishing us well and respectfully rubbing powder on our cheeks as we passed by. The member of our group who got the most attention was in fact a Frenchmen who towered at 6’8” and fascinated all the locals. Our group stopped by an impromptu bar area that had formed in front of a small liquor stand and we got a few beers to share. It quickly became obvious how terrible an idea this was, as powder would soon be flying into the beers and chaos would make it impossible to stop and take a sip.
This chaos began to form as we got close to the fort entrance. Rows of men would shower us with powder and we soon saw how the traditional practice of smearing powder on cheeks was warped into men grabbing our faces with both hands, shoving powder over our mouths and eyes, and using every excuse to hug the women. I was prepared for this and had read an account of one girl who said it was possible to refuse the hugs. I quickly discovered that, at least here, there was no refusing anything verbally, so I quickly took to just sticking my hands out and pushing men away as they lunged at me, arms open. David also served as an impeccable hug guard, since he was especially worried about my safety today. He developed the hilarious technique of jumping in front of rabid huggers yelling, ‘hug me instead!’ As it turns out, most Indian men do not want to hug David and would try to veer around him to get at me again. David would then forcibly, enthusiastically hug them as I made a quick escape. He must have hugged over thirty smelly, drunk guys on Holi. Truly, my hero.
Inside the fort we quickly found that the best way to avoid getting mobbed was to keep moving. If we tried to take a breather in a quiet corner, men would quickly notice and coming running over to surround us. It was what I imagine trying to outrun a zombie horde is like….catching your breath until one walker notices you and then they all come ambling over to eat your brains or throw colored powder down your shirt or whatever.
The most intense encounter happened while we were all standing in a group, taking a break behind a row of parked cars. A nearby horde had spotted us and was hurrying over with powders piled in their outstretched hands. Suddenly, I felt a man come up behind me and grab me hard, clamping his hand over my mouth. It was not a playful gesture and a sea of colorful faces swam around me as powder was rubbed into my face and more hands were clutching and grabbing. I struggled against the man, pushing his hand away from my mouth and shouted, “Get off me!!” Instantly, David and the other guys in our group were there, shoving him off while I broke free. Then, instinctively with the subconscious power of a hundred Hollywood rom-coms, I spun around and threw the beer I was holding in the man’s face. I’ve never thrown a drink on anyone before, so I would be lying if I said I didn’t get any kind of self-defensive thrill out of this. In any case, it had the desired effect and he stood frozen, startled while our group made a quick escape.
Undeterred, we continued on and ended up turning around and leaving the fort after not too much longer. It was the most wild inside and it was absolutely exhausting avoiding groups, pushing away hugs, getting the disgusting chalky powder in our mouth. I got groped a few times, which I was expecting, and we had to avoid men trying to deliberately put powder in our eyes. This may all sound awful and scary, but in the dichotomy of India, it wasn’t actually a negative experience. It’s exhilarating and challenging and crazy and every wild adjective you could think of. It’s a suspension of rules and social norms, for better or for worse and being a part of it is unlike anything else. Plus, once we left the fort, that’s when it truly became fun.
We headed down a side street, in the direction of a blaring boom box and a small crowd formed around us and the music. This group though, was much more friendly and well-behaved, headed by an enormous man who decided to start an impromptu dance circle. He would pull us girls in the circle and we all danced together as powder and spray from water guns flew about around us. Then, like a mini parade, we all worked our way down the street, trading powdered cheeks with locals. One of our girls accidentally stepped in a cow pie on the road and a playful laugh went up. “It’s good luck!!” the enormous man exclaimed.
Down the streets, people thinned out more and more until encounters became blissfully avoidable if we felt like it. Consent had meaning again. More of the men here were very gentle in their powder application upon our cheeks- almost reverent- and after the fort, we felt a sincere appreciation for this. We started to see mothers with their children, who would be clutching a small bag of powder and hoping to get in on some of the action. These scenes were very reminiscent of American kids being chaperoned around for Halloween and we were always happy to lean down and play Holi with them.
Eventually, we concluded our Holi adventures at a lake surrounded by picturesque temples and people relaxing after the hectic morning. We stiffened up a little when a small group of men covered in purple approached us, but they ended up just plopping down next to us, worn out from the festivities. They turned out to be a really great, funny group of guys, just interested in chatting with us about where we had visited in India, what we liked, didn’t like, etc.
One guy enthusiastically exclaimed, “You have to go to Goa! There are bitches everywhere! So many bitches!”
We smiled politely at him, understanding his meaning through his thick accent, but his friend wasn’t so quick to let it go.
“Dude! Beaches, not bitches! BEACHES!!”
Everyone cracked up and eventually our gathering devolved into another dance party, as all things should.
I mention this group of men we met at the end because again, India is never black or white or simple or predictable. I had both bad and good experiences playing Holi. Just when I thought we were sick of being around groups of Indian guys, one of those groups delights us. In India, it’s impossible to stereotype or predict people and during Holi was no exception.
Despite all my initial reservations, I would recommend travelers to try and celebrate Holi if you are in Northern India during spring (it is celebrated less in the South). If you are female, be aware of the dangers and go with a group. Be easy-going but firm and understand that a lot of choices will be out of your hands. I would also suggest carrying a bottle of water as the powder will taste truly vile in your mouth and you’ll want to rinse it out. Don’t wear anything you’ll want to wear again, unless it’s a dark color that won’t show the color staining after a few washes.
Above all, have a positive attitude and it can still be the joyous event it’s meant to be. This is truly a cultural celebration unlike any other. Happy Holi!