Towering stacks of vibrant coloured powders can be seen lining the streets in the days before, children are fervently snapping up pichkaris (water-guns) ahead of the big day, while the more mischievous may look to acquire some bhang. This is Hindustan’s party. This is Holi.
On Friday, India will once again stop for their annual festival of love, celebrating the arrival of spring and the triumph of good over evil – or more namely, Prahlada’s triumph over Hiranyakashipu. A chance to spend time with family and friends, one of the country’s most important customs.
I was lucky enough to play Holi last year in the Pink City of Jaipur, during my tour of Rajasthan and two-month excursion of India. It was the most memorable moment of the trip by a stretch – usurping the Amber Fort, the Golden City of Jaisalmer, and even the iconic Taj Mahal. An almost exclusive diet of paneer and vegetables didn’t always sit well, but it was an acceptable sacrifice for this mesmeric journey.
The locals, plastered in the most vivacious hues, while dancing unburdened around the forts, palaces, and gardens. For one day, this city and countless others halted to rejoice in unrivalled happiness. “Bura na mano, Holi hai!” (Don’t be upset, it’s Holi!) you’ll be told, as someone splatters you.
There are plenty of parties organised for tourists offering the chance to play “safe Holi”, but the real fun – albeit somewhat more boisterous – takes place on the streets. Things get wild, and from afar it can seem rather intimidating, but you have to go with it. A couple of hours dancing Bollywood style, drinking, and throwing colours before the kids proceed to soak you with their pichkaris will leave you looking like a modern-art canvas and probably knackered, but koi baat nahi. It all comes out in the wash.
It’s not always fun and games though. Holi has come under fire for not being safe for women and a few have even labeled it a “festival of groping”. Too many bhang lassis (a cannabis-infused drink) can lead to some pretty sleazy behaviour but many of the offenders appeared just to be opportunists. In truth, as a male, it wasn’t an issue I gave much consideration at the time. As to all travelling, the usual advice of “keeping your wits about you” applies.
Predictably, light-skinned tourists stand out and regularly attract attention from the inquisitive – which is most people in India! – although it is nearly always harmless and in fact, quite welcoming. Conversation is an underrated art, and one technology is endangering. Indians are extremely proud of their country and as people, things aren’t perfect, far from it, but at times you could be forgiven for thinking they were.
Things are changing. Jaipur’s traditional Elephant Festival didn’t take place last year after pressure from animal rights groups although it looks to be going ahead this time around.
Holi has become a more international experience over recent years. I was one of many Western people who had made the trek, some had come solely for the festival. Europe and America have also attempted their own imitations. But they are just that. Imitations. Only the frolicking and intoxication remains. They are glorified paint parties with a pretence of cultural enrichment that reek merely of commercial gain. You can take India out of Holi, but you can’t take Holi out of India… Well, it’s big in Nepal too.
No, to immerse yourself and truly understand the magic you have to bite the bullet and go. For all the pictures that utilise the whole spectrum, nothing beats being there. And as I look at the paint-stained shirt hanging in the wardrobe, I long for the day I can return and do it all again.