Travelling India has been a strange and grounding experience, and celebrating Holi Festival in India was no exception.
Something that has really surprised me over my time in India is that Indian men will not swear or talk about the thing that happens when men and women hug each other in a very special way, in front of women.
Often people will look at Chris when a swear word or something to do with sex is about to be mentioned and say, “I can’t say it in front of her, but, you know…”, and sometimes when we’re in temples, I’m told to go elsewhere while the guide shows Chris ‘man carvings’.
Given the way childbirth works, it’s safe to assume women are pretty aware of the ways of the world.
Nevertheless, that’s the way it is in India. Of course, this isn’t the case with everyone, but my experience has been that men run the show, and women are secondary. The Hindu Holi festival is the perfect example.
Also known as The Festival of Colour, Holi celebrates the triumph of good over evil. The tradition of throwing coloured powder and water is believed to originate with Krishna, the Hindu god depicted with dark blue skin. The story goes that he complained to his mother about his girlfriend’s (Radha’s) fair skin, so his mother suggested he smear her skin with paint, so now there’s a tradition of smearing your loved ones with paint.
And folks, that’s what happens. Only it’s not just loved ones that get smeared with paint. It’s absolutely everyone.
You can’t walk down the street without people throwing fists of of dye in all directions, and you’ll probably find yourself in the middle of a water-bomb battalion, getting drenched by children with water buckets on rooftops, and running from people who are running for your face – arms outstretched, hands full of dye.
Men roam the streets with gold and silver faces, little boys scream and sprint at anyone and everyone –armed with water pistols loaded with blue. Alcohol, bhang, and opium is quickly consumed, in vast quantities, behind closed doors. Women are nowhere in sight.
After being told the festival was potentially dangerous for tourists in Varanasi, we met up with a few people staying at our hotel, and decided to spend the festival with them. Having stocked up on dye the day before, we armed ourselves with our own festive weaponry, and stepped outside.
After about 10-minutes, it was clear tourists were the primary targets.
Men ran from far and wide to cover the eight of us in colour, mash our faces with pink, scream ‘Happy Holi!’, and turn handshakes in to hugs. This became too popular, and we ran towards the ghats, bumping in to an impromptu water-side rave.
There were large speakers in the middle of the street blasting out the latest Hindi hits, with silver and gold-faced men and boys thrashing to the heavy bass lines, squirting dye at no one in particular, and throwing dye into the air like they just didn’t care.
We ran on, hoping to avoid more crowds, until we bumped in to three more tourists our festival companions had arranged to meet. They had organised to spend the festival with an Indian family who had a place overlooking the ghats, and so we waited. In the open.
Again, we were surrounded by hoards of silver faces, unidentifiable men, shaking our hands, hugging us, trying their darndest to isolate the women of the group.
I want to look back at this experience as some wonderful event where I had the greatest time dancing around to music I didn’t understand with locals, tourists, booze, and loads of dye.
And for the most part, I did.
But I can’t shake the feeling that some things were a bit off. No matter how much fun I had, or how differently I try to think about it, it doesn’t change that the festival isn’t safe for women.
It’s not like the crowds hide their intentions –rules go out the window for Holi and the police can’t intervene because: “it’s Holi festival, where everyone is equal”.
But they’re not. There are just no consequences for anything that happens.
The Indian family we’d been waiting for showed up pretty soon after and whisk us away to their rooftop terrace.
From there, we had a great time. It was a large family: two young kids (ruthlessly throwing dye at everyone from the rooftop), two older girls (around 18), three older boys (16-24), and a few cousins.
From their rooftop we were able to properly partake in the festival. We hurled water bombs to the ground floor, tipped buckets on everyone, narrowly avoided being bombed by freakishly strong children on an adjacent rooftop, and watched the festivities unfold. The family blasted some tunes, sprayed everyone with colours, threw water buckets around, and danced Bollywood-style in to the afternoon.
Then we looked out from the roof again, and things were looking pretty different. Too much alcohol, no food shops open for business, no corner stores selling water, and no one with any kind of authority to relieve the situation.
It was just hoards and hoards of drunk men fighting each other. That’s why there were no women in the streets. That’s why those sisters the family we spent the festival with weren’t able to celebrate equality and the triumph of good over evil.
Had this been Australia, people would have celebrated in to the night (or tried to – looking at you Sydney!). In India, the drunken festivities were over by 2pm.
Aside from loads of dye, abandoned t-shirts, piles of rubbish and the usual cow faeces, the streets were empty, and the shops had reopened. So we took that opportunity to have breakfast/lunch/dinner (we hadn’t had a meal all day), bought some beer, and headed back to the hotel with our Holi companions to rid ourselves of festival remnants, and generally debrief, before Chris and I jumped on a train at 2am to Nepal, and spent the next 17-hours travelling on various modes of transport.
Aside from being exhausted after a whole day dancing and escaping, the issue was not only that dye wasn’t really designed to come off skin, but that we didn’t want to get changed for fear of being attacked again and ruining another set of clothes.
So off to the station we went, festival clothes and all. The thing to remember is that while there are lots of bright colours being thrown around, the immense amount of water being tossed about lifts the dirt and excrement from the ground, so you’re not only covered in dye.
By the time we got to the border of India and Nepal, we looked like haggard lepers. Had I been at border control, I wouldn’t have let us in to the country for fear of some contagious tropical plague. But they did, and we caught another bus to Lumbini, before finally washing my hair and making bets with myself as to when my back and face would finally lose their pink and blue hues.
Did you have a different Holi Festival experience? Comment, or tell me all about it!
All photos (except feature and the last four) courtesy of Ruth Anna Photography.