The Holi Festival is one of the craziest holidays in India. It is a celebration that marks the coming of spring and the demise of the wicked spirit Holika. Otherwise known as “The Colour Festival,” during Holi, men and women gather to throw coloured powders at each other and hug in the streets. The celebrations usually start a couple days before the Holi date, with vendors selling powders in the streets and a few hardcore fans wandering around looking very pink for a few days prior.
This festival has been on my bucket list for years. I have been trying to celebrate every major world festival in its original place. The Holi Festival, which 1.6 billion Indians celebrate every year, had to make the cut. It is the reason we flew to India during the hottest time of the year and it is the reason we ended up in the city of Mathura.
Mathura is considered the birthplace of Krishna. Usually just a nothing little city, Mathura hosts the largest and craziest version of Holi. Masses of locals come from around the country to celebrate the festival here. We had been told for months that Mathura was “the place to be” if we wanted to experience the festival in full force… Who could turn that down?
We stayed at a place called the Hotel Sheel Gopal just a 15 minute walk from the main Krishna temple in Mathura. The men who worked there were a little strange (and that’s being polite). Their English was almost non-existent and their sense of appropriate social queues and situations was even worse. They stared and gawked and awkwardly watched as we ate lunch and dinner in the restaurant. A few of the men stood next to us, holding out an empty cup when we sat out on the patio wanting a glass of our whiskey. It was like a battle to see who could outlast the other: the staff members pointing at their empty glass and our bottle of whiskey or us shaking our heads and telling them to leave. By the third night we found putting the whiskey in a water bottle and telling them we were just drinking coke worked the best (who knew high school tactics still fooled people). The staff drank our booze, on the job, well into the night and then decided to do housecleaning at ridiculous times of the day. The first night, Kelsi and I forgot to lock our door. We woke up to Lurch (the nickname we gave one guy) standing over our bed with fresh towels: it was 6:00am. We kicked him out only for him to come barging in 5 minutes later with soap. In the end he exchanged our two towels for one and our one bar of soap with eleven. Dealing with these people was like dealing with children on drugs. I had no idea what was going on, but our door stayed permanently locked from the inside from that point forward; yet even that didn’t stop them from trying. At all times of the day they would ring the buzzer and try to open the door handle to get in. It nearly drove me mental.
Luckily however, we had friends for Holi Festival! My friend Myles and his mother came to join us for the festival and on the second night, Myles’ friend Ian found his way up from the South to join us on the final day of celebrations.
The first day of pre-Holi celebrations was on the 26th. We dressed in our newly purchased white outfits and hit the road in search of trouble. Before we’d even made it around the corner we were met with the first Holi celebrators.
“Happy Holi!” They shouted to us. A couple old, blue men came up to us, smeared blue paint on our faces and gave us a hug. It is apparently the tradition here to do this. Coloured powder (although this was mixed with water which makes a staining paint that never comes off your skin… Thanks a lot guys) a handshake, and a double embracing hug: first to the right, then the left. Side note: it’s weird to hug to the right… I never noticed until Kelsi pointed it out, but the whole world hugs to the left. Of course India would be backwards.
Now blue, we wandered down to the ghats for a big thali breakfast at the Agra Hotel. The ghats were beautiful and a lot quieter than the ones at Varanasi. We hopped on a boat that would take us up and down the river for an hour. The ride would have been peaceful if it weren’t for this blabbering idiot that jumped on the boat last second. He wanted to act as our tour guide (probably for a tip) along the way. He didn’t stop talking snapping and clapping for the entire 40 minutes.
“Look over there!” He would say “Look! Look! Look!” he snapped his fingers in our faces until we turned to see. “Very famous temple.” He would explain. We ignored him as much as we could. He ruined the otherwise beautiful and calm boat ride down the river. The driver dropped us 20 minutes early claiming it had been the full hour. (Everyone will rip you off here). Even though we knew it wasn’t time, we wanted off the boat.
When we arrived back on land, the celebrations had begun. We bought some coloured powder from a vendor and joined in. Everyone was pretty careful about not throwing powder on people who were dressed nicely. But if you already had colour on you, then watch out! We tried to stay as clean as we could until we made it to the hotel to drop off our cameras and valuables. Nothing was making it out alive in this chaos. Still, by the time we reached our hotel my hair was neon pink, and all four of us were 50 shades of Holi. When cameras were dropped it was time for the big guns. We filled up litre bottles and added powder to colour the water. We cut a small hole in the lid so we could squirt the stuff out the top. We bought a shade of colour each and then went to town. Kids were excited to see us tourists in full Holi mode. They threw powder but then ran away giggling, as if afraid of our retaliation. Within blocks we were covered. We were the biggest spectacle in the city. Four white people (there were zero tourists in the city. We maybe saw 6 other people over three days, but they never walked the streets of Mathura covered in colour) loaded up with ammo and completely destroyed with coloured powder. We not only had photos taken of us, we had professional photographers and video cameras following us at one point ( I can only imagine what newspaper or television program we ended up on). We were so exhausted by the time we hit the city center, that we needed to take a break. Along the main stretch of road we came across a group of young hooligans throwing paint in the streets. They were a completely dark blue mess of wet when we found them. They didn’t just throw coloured powder and shake hands, these were the hardcore guys. They tossed 10 litre buckets of blue-black water on top of each other’s heads. Their hair, clothes, face, arms and teeth were all stained by the colouring. They danced around as the water was poured over them, probably high on the popular Bhang lassis that are so common around Holi Festival.
We tiptoed around them. No one wants to be fully blue on Holi. That would stain your skin for weeks. No thank you. We managed to escape with only one large bucket being sprayed across us. If it weren’t for the fence going down the middle of the street, we would have been annihilated. We grabbed a cold drink and sat on the steps overlooking a small water tank. Although we drew a crowd of stares and beggars asking for money, it was still somehow relaxing.
When we were ready to go again, we grabbed a cycle rickshaw to head to the parade. We had no idea what “the parade” meant, but we were willing to check it out. The rickshaw drove us back towards the ghats that we had been at earlier. But this time the city streets had transformed. Huge parade floats full of people with coloured water and foam and powder moved in procession down the streets. Music blared, people yelled, cars honked, and a giant camel strolled down the street, covered in pink and blue. We jumped in with both feet and started throwing powder. Immediately we were attacked from all sides. The people on the floats poured down onto us, and groups of men in the streets crowded around to spray us. People from their homes in apartments above soaked us with buckets of water, powder, water balloons and squirt guns full of colour. It was madness. The powder got into your eyes and blinded you. I had a huge chunk of it go into my ear and I couldn’t hear out of my right side for ten minutes. People rammed into you at all sides, yelling and shouting “Happy Holi” in celebration. We moved off to the side of the road for a breather. People came to shake our hands, but otherwise the worst of the attack subsided. It was crazy, but we were having a great time!
Unfortunately, as the parade continued, people started getting rowdier. I went to take a group photo of Myles, Liz and Kelsi when five more boys jumped in the shot. As they posed the boys started grabbing at Kelsi and Liz. We shouted at them to stop, but it only provoked their mob mentality more. More people joined in the inappropriate groping until we decided to leave the parade. We were having so much fun until some guys began to ruin it. We needed a drink.
Unfortunately, all the liquor stores closed and none of the restaurants sell booze. So we left for dinner in the main square to wait for Ian to arrive.
We had a quiet night playing cards and trying to wash all the colour out of our hair and skin. We looked ridiculous by the time we came home. Not a square inch of our bodies was white anymore. My hair was a rock hard matted mess of caked on powder and paint. You couldn’t even feel my head under the mess of it all. I can’t believe this was just the beginning… Pre Holi celebrations complete: real Holi celebrations commence.
The next morning Kelsi and I wandered downstairs for breakfast in our now dyed pink outfits from the day before. It was about 9:00 and we were unaware of the outside world. We ordered food and watched 5 mice skitter around on the floor as we waited for our meals. Great.
Before the food came out we saw Myles poke his head in the restaurant door. He and Ian had apparently gone to the train station to book tickets for the following day. The masses of Holi celebrators had already began and they were mobbed with colour on their way there and back.
Myles was covered in a pink dust.
“Oh my god” he said “today is a totally different day. It’s insane out there! Everyone is already in full force.”
Then Ian walked in and Kelsi and I burst out laughing. We was about 10 times worse off than Myles. You couldn’t even tell what colour his shirt and shorts originally were. In fact, you could hardly tell he had a beard with the amount of powder that covered his face. Welcome to Holi.
We all sat down to eat as we mentally prepared for the day. It was going to be carnage. Ian had managed to steal a potato sack full of pink powder off some kids that attacked him in the streets (All’s fair in love and war and Holi) so we had sufficient ammo for a little while.
When breakfast was over we braved the outdoors. We hadn’t made it half a block when we came across our first batch of hooligans: a group of young men throwing colour at each others’ faces just around the corner. When they saw us they all stopped: fresh blood. They came running at us with colour. Throwing it in our faces and blinding us. Ian and Myles went in full-fledged with water bottles and the sack of powder. They entertained a few of the boys while the rest came after Kelsi, Liz and I. The difference between boys and girls at Holi is simple. When the men see Myles and Ian, they see it as a challenge: throw powder on them more than they can throw back. Beat the white men! They laugh and fight as boys do. When they see us women, however, the men see it as an opportunity to grope and grab at our chest, pinch our asses while blinding us with colour. That’s when we realized that there are no women at Holi festival. Occasionally there is a woman or a young girl standing by the door of her house with a handful of colour, but never in the streets. Probably because they know something we don’t… Like Holi in Mathura is dangerous for females. Well thanks for letting us know.
The groups of men we ran into in the streets weren’t huge. Usually it was three or four people, and occasionally we would see a group of ten or so together. But five white tourists wandering the streets of Mathura was like dragging a magnet through lead filings.
We would pass three guys, then they would start following us. Four more would go by, then change direction to follow the previous three. Soon enough we had a mob of fifty or sixty men behind us… There was no going back.
The smaller groups were easier to handle.
“Happy Holi!” They would shout coming towards us. They shook hands, put powder on our faces, gave us a hug, then dragged their hands across our chest grabbing at us as we pulled away. Sometimes people would come at us from behind and do the same thing. Myles and Ian stood beside us like brotherly figures watching each guy as he hugged us. When they were there, men behaved, but as soon as they turned their heads the grabbing began again. This infuriated us.
Kelsi and I don’t get shy and upset about things like this; we get angry. If some guy things he can get away with that, he’s in for a surprise. We called out the perverts, shouting and swearing at them. I grabbed hands that pinched at my ass and twisted their arms around at a violent angle. The most infuriating thing was that they didn’t care. They grabbed at us, then walked next to us with a blank expression like nothing happened.
Larger groups were worse. The boys couldn’t watch all three of us at the same time. At any given time, one of the three of us was being grabbed at. As a mob formed around us, Kelsi and I started fighting back. Kelsi cracked some guy in the jaw with her elbow while I yanked one guys hair until he smashed heads painfully with another guy. Our following was getting larger, and we couldn’t stop at the side of the road for a break this time. I was blinded by paint, and flailing my fists at anyone that came by. One guy saw how angry I was, and pulled out a cane to fend off the hoards of men. Then all of a sudden litres if cold water came splashing over my head from an apartment above. My clothes became so waterlogged, that I had to hold up my pant to keep them on. My sandals were so slippery from the wet, that I couldn’t move out of the crowd. Ian and Myles were literally throwing people around, as well as the random local guy with the cane. Kelsi and Liz ran ahead but were attacked by young guys with blue paint. Liz got the paint in the eye and couldn’t see. When I had finally made it up to join them, a guy in a motorcycle stopped to talk to us “hey, don’t go that way” he warned “people heard you guys were here and they are so many of them coming this direction.”
All of a sudden the police showed up. Liz still couldn’t see and we all looked like drowned purple and brown rats. They called us a Tuk Tuk and sent us out of the city.
“No! We just want to go to our hotel” no one spoke English and no one seemed to have heard of the Sheel Gopal hotel either. Eventually, we made our point and directed the Tuk Tuk driver back home. Exhausted, angry and violated we went to our rooms for showers. We had lasted one hour in the streets. It was the longest hour of my life.
Kelsi and I were still furious. We’d fought back, but no one can take on 100 men against 5. We spent the afternoon recovering then ventured out when the festivities had finished to grab dinner. Hours later Liz still couldn’t see out of her eye. Myles grabbed her some food from a vendor while Ian, Kelsi and I wandered around some festival in the park nearby. We walked around a little looped path in a large garden. One young boy came up to us, “happy Holi!” He said and hugged us. We flinched, but hugged him anyways. Then everyone saw us. People came running from across the garden, leaping over bushes to see us.
The ringing of that phrase will forever be burned into my memory. Boys came rushing towards us in a hoard, shaking hands, pulling us in for hugs and asking for kisses.
“Go away” we shouted “no kisses”
Then it started all over, the boys started grabbing at our chests as we walked past. Even all covered up in traditional clothing we were targets. We ran out of the crowd while Ian held back as many as he could.
We stuck to quiet streets and avoided crowds are we made our way towards the much needed liquor store. Kelsi and I walked around like abused dogs, jumping at every “Happy Holi” cry we heard in the streets. We made it to the bottle shop and bought ourselves enough whiskey and beer to forget about the days events. We went back to the hotel and drank away our anger well into the night.
All in all the Holi Festival has been my least favourite of the world festivals, which is really unfortunate. The first day was so much fun! Throwing colour and getting into the spirit of it was all amazing. It is the men here that ruined the experience. We ran into a couple other tourists that had celebrated the festival in Mathura. All the girls we talked to gave us the same story: they ended up running away in tears from the groups of men.
Fortunately, not everywhere in India has a Holi festival like this. Even Vrindavan, the neighboring town, had a much more family oriented celebration. An Irish couple we met at the hotel said they celebrated it there and had a wonderful time.
So my recommendation as a woman: don’t go to Mathura. Celebrate Holi somewhere else, or avoid India all together and celebrate in Los Angeles. Their version looks exactly like how I was expecting Mathura to be.
Either way, mission complete, and another world festival down! Thank you India.
PS. 2 weeks later and my hair still has bright pink streaks through it.