Where better to celebrate India’s famed festival of colors than in its whitest city?
Up front, I’ll admit to overt romanticization: the deeply pigmented hues of India leave me completely mesmerized, and the photos I’ve seen of people playing underneath clouds of colored powders in celebration of the coming spring convinced me I was headed for pure sensory delight. In the days preceding the festival, locals greeted us with a cheery “Happy Holi!” and scenes like this reinforced my anticipation:
The pre-festival of Holika Dahan
The night before, I began to sense I might be getting more than I bargained for. Most of Udaipur had converged on the central square in front of the Jagdish Temple to watch dance performances (some in drag) and light a huge bonfire celebrating Lord Vishnu’s mercy on a young devotee when a wicked demoness tried to burn him alive. The music vibrated throughout the narrow city streets, feet were tapping, and the anticipatory mood felt like Christmas morning.
Yet I could feel our local friend Yash keeping a close eye on us. As the bonfire was lit he urged us far back from the square. After all, this was no ordinary bonfire. Earlier I had asked him about the pretty papers covering its main, 25-foot central log, thinking dreamily that they might be prayers or hopes for the coming season. I was wrong: they were all firecrackers. The square was set to explode, with plenty of low-hanging electrical wires nearby (in our next installment we’ll share video footage).
The evening was thankfully uneventful, and soon after the lighting the crowds began to disperse. I started to wonder what all the fuss was about.
“The day of Holi is wild,” locals told us repeatedly. “Totally wild.” An Indian tour guide staying at our hotel said that whenever he was in his hometown during Holi, he instructed his mother to tell his friends he was away. But the descriptions remained ambiguous: wild, crazy, over-the-top. Surely they were exaggerating, we speculated. And besides, we were prepared….
Preparing for Holi
We had long since purchased a supply of colored powders and searched out disposable clothing. What we found looked something like a nurse’s uniform, though it prompted one local to ask if we were with the group of traveling missionaries. “Don’t worry,” Yash consoled. “When people see you on the day of Holi, they’ll know you’re ready to play.”
All-out Holi war
Ah, what can I say about Holi? Except that it was … wild.
No powder is wasted floating through the air; it gets dumped directly on a target or smeared forcefully on the face and neck. Water pistols are loaded with a mixture of water and color, and sticky pastes are “applied” for better staining effect.
The crowning moment came when Yash had us line up for a photo … and before we knew what hit us, his friends had dumped buckets of water from above.
This is one of the few times you’ll see widespread use of alcohol, likely accounting for some heightened joviality and a lot of lowered inhibitions. As we drove from site to site, heavy water balloons rained down from stories above. Friends engaging us cordially in polite conversation suddenly erupted in ambush. Our status as unarmed foreigners long since dry on ammunition earned no mercy; punishment was doled out with wet-towel lashings and dyes specifically concocted for deep-staining power.
The bottom line?
Everyone seems happy during this springtime holiday, and it’s a fun time to be in India. But let’s tell it like it is: playfulness is a relative term, and what I experienced could be categorized as pranks, not play. If you reminisce fondly about terrorizing your younger brother, no warnings are necessary. But if not, get ready for physical pain and unrelenting attacks from all directions … all in good fun, of course.
Top tips for surviving Holi…
1) Cover yourself in coconut oil before you begin to help protect against staining, and cover your fingernails in clear polish.
2) There are two types of powders: synthetic and natural. If you’re unlucky enough to be around the synthetic colors, you’ll be stained for weeks, and if you’re blonde, it might never fade from your hair.
3) Even if you try to cover your hair with a scarf, someone will pull it off. Besides, once the powders are dissolved in water, the color will bleed straight through fabric. Be prepared to be colored head-to-toe, and to dispose of your clothes, shoes, and underwear.
4) NOBODY can be trusted.
5) Keep your mouth closed. The water used to dissolve powders won’t be bottled, and you can easily swallow a mouthful when someone catches you unaware.
6) Although throwing colored powder is romantic, it’s ineffective. Carry a squirt gun filled with a solution of water and powder so you can deter people long before they get close!
7) No matter how hard you scrub afterwards, it won’t help remove the dye. (The natural dyes will fade away in a couple of days, and the synthetic in a week or two.) You might as well be gentle on yourself – you’re the only one who will!
I’d like to extend my thanks to Flight Centre UK and G Adventures for making this trip possible and to the Narayan Niwas, Udaipur for providing accommodation and a place in which to rekindle my romance with India.