This post is full of cellphone quality photos. Sorry about that. Friends! Surprise! I was in India!
Believe me when I say that I am as surprised as you are. There were times during my first trip here a few years ago that I said (possibly out loud to anyone who was within earshot) that I would never come back. Not if you paid me one thousand samosas. Funny how after enough time passes you forget about puking in a Mumbai bathroom. This was a totally unexpected trip that I booked on Christmas morning after waking up to a friend’s text telling me that Etihad Airways was offering roundtrip airfare from New York City to all sorts of cities for less than it would cost to get from Denver to Florida. I spent the next two hours trying various combinations of days and destinations and ultimately booked a trip to Delhi with my travell-y friend, Nicole. Someday I’ll hyperlink her name so you can see her blog. When she starts a blog. Someday.
Then I watched Amy‘s family open their fancy Christmas gifts while I daydreamed about delicious curries and palak paneer, which I will never eat again as long as I live. FORESHADOWING! In addition to just being in India, the point of the trip was to experience Holi. And experience it we did.
First, below is a really quick explanation of Holi. If you’re looking for something more detailed, check out this website which will give you all sorts of interesting facts including how to make the colored powder that was still in my hair a week later. (NOTE: The best part of this site is the description of the children. Had I read this before Holi I might have expected small children skipping through streets gently tossing yellow in my direction. The reality involved boys ranging in age from what i have to believe was 4 to 16 pelting us with full water bottles which felt like bowling balls to the spine. They were mean and a bit gropey.)
What is Holi? Holi is an annual festival that takes place during the full moon in the lunar month of Phalgun which typically falls during our February or March. While it’s considered to be a celebration of the coming of Spring, it also celebrates the triumph of good versus evil stemming from the Hindu legend of evil brother, King Hiranyakashipu (we’ll call him “King H”) and his uncool sister, Holika. King H had special powers which made him immune to just about every sort of danger. As a result, he felt pretty badass and demanded that everyone worship only him. His son, Prahlada, disagreed and continued to be devoted to Vishnu. This made King H and his sister angry. Despite tons of persecution, Prahlada remained completely resolute in his belief in good versus evil. In a final attempt to punish him, Holika tricked him into sitting on top of a burning pile of wood with her (NOTE: I laughed out loud while writing that because TRICKERY!) knowing that she was wearing a cloak that would keep her safe. Unfortunately for Holika, she underestimated the power of the cloak. It flew off of her and onto Prahlada. Holika died, Prahlada lived and Vishnu appeared and killed King H. The Eve of Holi, known as “Holika Dahan,” celebrates the triumph of good over evil and is marked by lighting bonfires on the side of the street near intersections. That’s your Holi lesson. It also teaches us another valuable lesson. Never, under any circumstances, should you sit on a pile of fire with your evil aunt. Actually, don’t do it with anyone. Just to be safe.
I’m not sure what I was expecting. Lots of colors being thrown in the air making everyone look like one of those rainbow parachutes? I probably wasn’t expecting quite so much trance. And I definitely wasn’t expecting to taste powder throughout the following day. But, overall I think it exceeded any expectations that I didn’t have. If someone has no expectations for Holi, did they get groped and covered in colors? Hard to say. If this sounds SUPER philosophical it’s because it is. I’m writing from the banks of the Ganges in Rishikesh where I am attending the daily satsangs of the teacher, Mooji. More on my enlightenment some other day. Where to Celebrate Holi: After considering Delhi, Varanasi or Rishikesh we decided on Pushkar. We were warned against the tiny alleys of Varanasi by a girl who became stuck in a crowd and had an entire fist shoved in her mouth. How this happened is still not clear, but she reported being “a little bit freaked out.” With its beautiful, holy lake Pushkar became a pretty easy choice for Holi. While it’s not an actual game, we learned that you “celebrate” Holi by “playing Holi.”
Seems it was an easy choice for lots of people because when we arrived after 17 hours on the train from Varanasi there were no rooms to be had. Luckily, for 200 Rupees, we were invited to sleep on the roof of the Rising Star guesthouse. I can’t recommend this place and the family that runs it enough. They went out of their way to make sure we were comfortable and warm and they worked around the clock. I know this because I required lemon, ginger, honey tea around the clock and I was never without it. In total, there were seven of us sleeping on the roof on mattresses that were placed side-by-side. The five others had booked rooms at Hotel White House across the street, but were left without rooms when they arrived due to some sort of internet booking issue. We met two other people who ran into the same issue at Hotel White House, which gave a good reminder to have an idea of a backup in case something like this happens during a huge holiday and you’re not into rooftop communal sleeping. What Happens on Holi: First, it’s referred to as “playing Holi.” It’s not an actual game and there are definitely no rules, but to “celebrate Holi” you’ll be “playing Holi.” Nicole and I ventured out early just to check things out before actually heading out with a larger group. In the 7 minutes we were outside, we were covered from head to toe in color and water and looked like this:
Holi is so much more rambunctious than just colored powder flying through the air. Though my perspective comes from celebrating in Pushkar, I’m certain that it’s similar in all Northern towns and cities that really get into it. There’s music and dancing and things generally feel like a huge party in the streets. When we finally decided to brave the streets again we ended up in a huge throng of people near the lake. Along the way people screamed “Happy Holi!” while rubbing our faces with colored water. Some would wind up as if they were going to throw powder and wait for a reaction. The more fearful we looked, the more dramatic the final throw. The best way to explain it is to say it’s like a trance festival with clothes hanging from sagging powerlines.
The little town center on Main Market Road was full of locals and tourists, most with no shirt. People were standing on top of ledges, on rooftops and leaning out of restaurant windows. There was screaming and dancing and jumping and throwing. The only way to get through it is to be a part of it, so we found any powder we could and threw it into the air. We jumped along and danced along and let complete strangers rub our entire heads.
The whole thing is an experience, but it all happens so fast. At 2pm, almost exactly, the entire thing ended. The DJs packed up, revelers jumped off their ledges and everyone wandered away covered in color. The shops began to open, people afraid of being attacked finally came out of hiding and it was as if the whole thing never happened. Everything was business as usual later that afternoon. Except that everything looked like this:
Playing Holi means much more than throwing colored powder. There are water balloons, water guns, bottles filled with water, jugs filled with water and entire bathtub-sized buckets that get thrown from rooftops. Sometimes this water is mixed with the colored powder making a liquid that stays on your skin for a week and in your hair for some TBD amount of time.
We were told to slather ourselves in oil to avoid being covered in color for days, but learned that all oils are not created equal. Apparently, the magic oil is mustard oil which you can buy in almost any store that sells that sort of thing. I found it (conveniently, a few days after Holi) at all of the Himalaya Wellness stores I was in. I also recommend wrapping a scarf around your head if you’re worried about your hair. The powder and water made my hair feel like an adorable pony (a broom might be another way to describe it) for a few days and if you’re blonde your hair will stay whatever color finds its way to you. If you’re worried about that, it might be best to keep your distance during Holi.
Where (Exactly) to Celebrate Holi in Pushkar: The hub of all the action is the small town center near Holkar Ghat on the lake in the Choti Basti area. Head to Main Market Road and follow the music. You won’t be able to miss it. There are rooftop restaurants surrounding the plaza where you can (sort of) escape the action and watch things happen from above.
At some point I’ll post a few tips for playing Holi. Things like, “don’t go if you have to look nice in front of people in the two weeks afterwards” and “don’t be uptight, be cool about people touching your face and possibly shoving a fist in your mouth.”