From psychedelic buses with flowers hung from the dashboard to rainbow-coloured temples housing colourful depictions of Hindu Gods, India is dripping with colour and it’s this vibrancy that makes India so alluring to an outsider. It felt like I’d been living life in black and white before coming here. But the streets of every village, town and city from Delhi to Dharamshala got splattered with even more kaleidoscopic shades last month during Holi, the Hindu festival of colour.
Every year, I see photographs in the newspapers and national geographic about Holi and fantasise about going to this photogenic pigment-throwing street party. Like the tomato throwing festival, Rio carnival and Mexico’s day of the dead, it’s been on my travel bucket list for a long time so experiencing it in one of India’s most spiritual cities was a dream come true. However, there are a lot of precautions you should take to ensure you stay safe when participating in one of the most chaotic and unpredictable cultural events I’ve ever witnessed.
Stock up. Everything closes on the day of Holi as it’s such a big holiday so buy any beer, snacks and food you want a couple of days in advance (shops sell out of supplies quickly and prices inflate to reflect the demand). If you’re that way inclined, you can buy weed and bhang lassi (a potent maruijana infused yoghurt shake) legally at Government owned bhang shops on the streets of Varanasi. Look the part – buy silly wigs, masks and hats and stock up on water balloons, bags of coloured powder, water pistols and metallic paint. Go hard or go home I say.
Preparation is crucial. Throwing packets of colourful powder at one another might seem like great fun but it’s toxic stuff that stings your eyes, ruins your clothes and leaves your hair and skin looking like you’ve smothered yourself in melted Skittles. I’d advise you to wear shoes or trainers you’re happy to bin afterwards (not flip flops as it will take weeks for the colour to get out your toe nails) and buy some cheap clothes especially for Holi as it will all end up being thrown out afterwards. Long sleeves and long trousers are crucial. You’ll be soaked through in pigment but it will give you a little bit of protection from the sun drying this colour into your skin. My friend wore shorts, a vest and flip flops and looked like she’d drunk too much Sunny Delight for days afterwards. Holi colour is not fun when it gets in your eyes so rinse them immediately with clean water and swill out your mouth before you swallow the stuff – it’s pretty potent.
Your hair will never be the same again. If you’re blonde in particular, Holi is a nightmare. I smothered my skin and hair in coconut oil as I was told this would help protect it from being permanently dyed but it did very little. My hair was streaked in grungy shades of pink, orange and green for weeks afterwards despite the fact I wore a wig and my friend had to dye hers dark brown as it simply wouldn’t come out. The best precaution is to wear a shower cap throughout but if someone rips it off or you get coated in colour regardless, here’s my advice on getting dye out of blonde hair:
- Rinse it first in cold water before trying to use hot water and shampoo.
- Anti-dandruff shampoo is apparently the best thing for stripping colour from hair so I bought a bottle of this.
- Don’t be too alarmed, 10 days afterwards mine still looked terrible but preserver with regular washes, being in the sun to lighten the intensity of the colours and swimming in chlorinated pools definitely helps strip it.
- Eventually you’ll concede defeat and go to the hair dressers (although there’s very little they can do apart from dye it chocolate brown) and you’ll probably vow that this will be your first and last Holi!
Be vigilant. Every responsible guest house, hotel and hostel will issue you advice to stay indoors to celebrate Holi and for good reason. The streets are anarchy and men high on bhang lassi roam around in menacing packs so foreigners, especially women, are likely to be targeted for over-amorous hugs. And it’s not just the girls, I watched in horror as a male foreign photographer got grabbed by a drunk reveller who proceeded to simulate sex acts on him – amusing for them, less so for him. This is obviously an extreme case and not reflective of how most Indians behave during Holi but things do get out of hand quite quickly.
It’s quite hectic in the thick of it so if you do want to experince in first hand, try and go later in the day when things are winding down and stay to open areas of the ghats rather than the claustrophobic back streets where things get REALLY hectic. There are lot of sexually charged young men acting foolishly and various locals approached us warning us about the situation and urging us to turn back to our guest house. Perhaps naively, we ignored them and wandered down the ghats for a few hours late in the morning when things were cooling down, and the most trouble we encountered personally was a few gropey hugs.
Be sensible. Don’t take anything valuable with you or if you insist on taking a camera or iphone then make sure you buy a waterproof casing for them (those zip lock bags that you can have around your neck, which people use for sailing are perfect). That said, it’s the most photogenic street party I’ve ever experienced so it would be a shame not to get a few snaps (even if just in your guest house like I did) to document the anarchy that is Holi.
Join in. The best part of Holi for us was playing it with the neighbouring families to our guesthouse. Only men will celebrate Holi on the streets but women and children still get involved at home – we hurled water balloons of colour at the children on rooftops across the street and got buckets of colour poured on us the minute we came out for breakfast. Some locals joined our festivities and the family running the Banaras Paying Guesthouse, where we stayed, made sure we all had a great time.
Holi was one of the most memorable parts of my 4 months in India and I still have rainbow-coloured hair as a reminder of this chaotic festival. Without a doubt, this is one of the craziest parties you’ll ever partake is and definitely one to put on your travel bucket list.