Holi is a Hindu festival celebrated around March each year in India and Nepal, to mark the beginning of Spring. The new year is welcomed and demons from the old one are banished in a riot of chaos and colour.
I know ‘chaos’ and ‘colour’ are two words used heavily by anyone describing India. So much so that they can lose meaning. But Holi is celebrated in a literal riot of chaos and colour, and for that reason it has always topped my bucket list…
We had planned to stay in Udaipur for Holi. But, like Christmas trees popping up everywhere much too early in the run up to Christmas, we began to see the first paint stalls appear everywhere weeks before the March full moon. We could feel the excitement in the air reaching a boiling point and street festivities and dances started to happen spontaneously on many evenings. This one in Pushkar was the weirdest…
Also whilst in Pushkar one evening, dressed up to go out for hotel dinner with our friend Shawn, we ended up covered in powder after bumping into these beautiful ladies who had decided to quite literally paint the town red a week early.
Anyway! Beautiful romantic Udaipur.
It was the night before Holi, and all through the house… no, I’m serious, not a single creature was stirring anywhere throughout the city. It was so quiet, and we assumed that much like Christmas eves back home, it was a time to be indoors with family.
No such luck. This is India! The waiter in Rainbow Restaurant where we usually ate (amazing views of Lake Pichola and great value) excitedly told us, when we asked him why even the usually bustling establishment was so quiet, that everyone was gathered in the tiny square – more of just a junction – outside Jag Mandir temple waiting for ‘the fireworks’.
He explained to us, that on the night before Holi, known as Holika Dahan, a giant bonfire is lit. On the bonfire sits a statue resembling the evil demon Holika, and locals dance around it, cheering and singing as she burns until the early hours. Then he pulled out a large bottle of whiskey and produced three glasses with a grin on his face. No chance of us getting a early night and plenty of sleep in time for the festivities the following day then.
After we inhaled our Aloo Paneer (cheese and tomato curry is not a sensible pre-session stomach liner, blergh), we hurried down and pushed our way through the heaving crowds. It was hands down the craziest party I’ve ever been to.
A huge stage had been erected and was full of dancers, and speakers surrounded the steps up to the Jag Mandir entrance. Jai Ho and other Bollywood songs with ridiculous drums and bass were blasting and excitable teenage boys were everywhere, throwing themselves around with the same enthusiasm we all had when we were sixteen, five ciders deep into a Pendulum concert. Bursts of confetti and ribbon rained down on us all.
“Matt,” I nodded in the direction of the still unlit bonfire, which resembled a giant tree with branches. “What are those boxes strung around the wood? They look like little packs of candles…” Matt shrugged. “Maybe incense?” Good guess.
The strings of mystery boxes trailed off of the bonfire at the bottom, and along the ground for twenty or so metres down the road. Soon after our exchange, someone lit the end. Pandemonium broke out. It was a string of fireworks, igniting themselves like a line of dominoes!
The entire bonfire exploded, with the rockets slamming off the surrounding walls, creating too much beautifully coloured smoke for anyone to see much of what was happening, and all the while, people running around the thing like maniacs, with not a safety barrier in sight and a few too many babies for my liking being held up towards it so they could see.
By the end of the night we were covered in paint, my lungs ached from the exertion of dancing so much and Matt was just really stressed from happening to have his expensive DSLR camera and girlfriend on him in such a tumultuous crowd.
The next day, we felt apprehensive. We sat on the rooftop of our hotel wondering if and when we should leave, whether we would be ambushed straight away, and whether or not it was safe to take our cameras out with there being so much water thrown around. But Holi is a once in a lifetime thing, so we did, and I’m so glad!
I loved seeing old men sat reading the news or just conversing, and entire families whizzing through the crowds on bikes, all covered head to toe in the rainbow, as if it was just another normal day.
We ended up celebrating for a few hours before ducking back into our hotel to shower and get changed: it was physically impossible for our clothes, hair and skin to hold anymore coloured powder. However we couldn’t resist round two and soon ran back out to do it all over again once we’d managed to get the first load off our faces.
After a few more hours of what soon descended from joyful revelry into downright carnage, we ended up being very overwhelmed much too quickly. We both got paint thrown in our eyes. Matt’s eyeballs were purple. He was so grumpy and we started to blame each other for the mess we were in. People were throwing paint bombs and buckets of water from the top of three story buildings.
Sitting down on a step, chin in my hands, I pondered on how we were going to make it back to the room alive. Then I felt a gentle tap on my shoulder. A lady in a gorgeous red sari was offering me a jug of water on a tray with two cups. Then she poured the water onto a cloth and helped me wash my face. Before long, another lady came out of the tiny hole in the wall where they lived with fresh chapatis for us both, motioning for us to eat.
Before we knew it, we were sat in their home with two extremely drunk uncles, politely drinking the moonshine whiskey they kept pouring us and eating the tastiest home-cooked curry the ladies had cooked for us. The chapattis were dripping with salty gee, the chai they gave us was so sweet I could feel it rush to my head! Only one of the men, who’s name I’ve typically forgotten, spoke English well enough to talk our heads off, asking us about our lives back home and offering us beautiful gems of advice such as, “LIFE IS AN ICECREAM… YOU MUST EAT IT ALL BEFORE THE MELT!”.
The other guy only knew two sentences of English, and dutifully patting both our heads, kept declaring in between swigs of whiskey, “You, are my daughter. And you, you are my son.”
At the time, we were so overwhelmed by their hospitality and felt so honored that they’d invited us inside their extremely humble digs, I was too shy to take a single photo. The girls especially seemed too reserved to want to have Westerners pointing their cameras at them in their tiny, cluttered (nevertheless spotless) home. I noticed there was only one bed between so many adults and youngsters, who were out enjoying the celebrations: what looked like a large block, possibly an icecream freezer topped with a mattress. I felt embarrassed that I could barely string two words together in Hindi. How were we to thank them for their kindness? Were we to give them money? Visit again in future? In the end, we returned to sample the juices at the juice shop they ran before letting them show us around some of their friends shops so they could get a small commission.
I’ll never forget that family that we’re so indebted to for saving us, and for making our Holi in Udaipur so much more special.
Tips for the best possible Holi experience, and what to expect:
- Be in the North of India. Anywhere South of Rajasthan doesn’t celebrate it as much. Some of the best towns to be are in the Uttar Pradesh region, specifically Mathura, where Krishna is said to have been born.
- If you’re after an authentic experience, stay away from larger tourist destinations such as Udaipur and opt for villages or towns with religious significance such as Mathura. There were a fair few over-excited Europeans and Westerners (ourselves included) dotted around, getting in peoples photos in central Udaipur and I can imagine in places such as Pushkar, we may have even outweighed the Indians!
- Book train travel well in advance using a website such as Cleartrip. Seats fill up during the public holidays.
- Purchase special all white clothes such as a traditional white cotton shirt from any local market, cotton trousers and flip flops before the celebrations begin; there’s no washing the ink out!
- Ask around. Ask your hotel manager, waiters, shop keepers and other travellers: basically anyone in the town, about the best places to celebrate and see the action. If it wasn’t for us asking our waiter, we’d have never known the amazing Holika Dahan party was happening!
- Try to stay in a family run guest house who will be celebrating on the morning when you wake up, and won’t mind the mess afterwards! Below is the aftermath in Udai Haveli who offer beds for 300 rupees (£3) a night.
- Do not hide away indoors or try to watch from a distance. You’ll only be attacked in the end anyway. I saw more than a few tourists try and do this and was completely baffled as to why. You’re in India! Drink up the experience! How are you going to tell people when you get home you purposely sat out on Holi when they ask?
- If you’re female, cover up. Even more than usual! There is a lot of drinking and over excitement on Holi day and some men will see any exposed flesh as an open invitation. Sadly, you are very likely to be grabbed or groped at some point throughout the day if you put yourself in the thick of the revelry. You need to try to limit the possibility.
- Be sober and aware. Nobody needs to be drunk on a day like this anyway!
- Stay near families with young children – they’ll care for you.
- Return back to your hotel at midday – a lot of youngsters drink throughout the morning meaning things can turn very rowdy by lunchtime.
- Wear sunglasses to protect your eyes from paint being thrown in your face.
- Be prepared to be stained red, pink or purple for up to two weeks after the celebrations!