I believe that celebrating Holi in India is on every traveler’s bucket list. It certainly was on mine. The colors, the fun, the game, the tradition, … it all sounded amazing.
When I got to India, absolutely everybody, Indians and tourists alike, told me that Pushkar was the best place to celebrate Holi. Apparently, it was also the safest, especially for a woman. In big cities, I was told not to go out alone during Holi, and that even in a group I was in danger of being touched in the wrong places, or worse. I also heard tales of violence, of people throwing things way more disgusting than powder and water, and of every Indian being generally high out of his mind on “special lassi”.
So I decided to be reasonable (for once) and made my way to Pushkar a few days before the Holi Festival. There, all the guesthouses were completely booked and the streets full of tourists. I had stayed off the beaten path for the first part of my Indian trip and was shocked to see them all at once. It looked like everybody traveling through India at that time had converged on Pushkar. Suddenly, my days were filled with white girls parading in mini shorts, hippies going around barefoot, a hundred stalls selling “pashmina” and shopping as the only activity on the menu. I was a bit lost.
In the nights before Holi in Pushkar, there were always things happening in the main square : a show with dances, music, fireworks, … the atmosphere was amazing.
On the morning of Holi, I went out early with my colors in my hands and some old clothes. The first Indian I met spread powder on my cheeks, wishing me a “Happy Holi”. I did the same thing to him, smiling.
As I kept going towards the main square, the street was growing more and more busy. Soon enough, I could hear the music, and I was stopped every few steps and color spread on my face. When I got to the main square, the sight was as crazy as I expected. A huge crowd was dancing on trance music in a cloud of pink powder. Now and then, someone would throw some powder in the air, making the scene completely unrealistic.
I got out of the crowd a few minutes later, already exhausted and covered in colors from head to toe. I rejoined my group of friends to go wander in the streets. Only the kids were throwing powder and water at us, laughing and having fun the way I imagined Holi would be. All the Indians (only men) that were there always insisted to touch our faces.
It was harmless on its own, but it was not traditional : Holi as an Indian festival is only about throwing powder, never touching. And I sometimes found myself in the middle of a group of Indians all trying to put powder on me at the same time, which was just too much. Some were even so obsessed with touching me (and maybe a little drunk), that in their haste they would put powder in my eyes (which burns like hell).
I understood after a while : Pushkar is the best place for Holi for us tourists. The entire experience is tailored for us : trance music, party, shopping, safe streets, … But some Indians coming here for Holi are using our tourist status and lack of knowledge to once more satiate their curiosity for white people. (If you’ve ever been to India, you’ll know this curiosity is a thing, and really not a racist comment on my part). During the two hours I spent outside that morning, I was touched on the face by countless people, and figured in countless photos (sometimes they would ask politely, sometimes not).
I know this is all a rather negative review, but the truth is I was disappointed in Holi. I wanted to play, to run down the streets, to throw color to people, to laugh, … and instead I felt like I was in a very loud and crowded night club. I’m sure some people enjoyed it very much, but that’s not my kind of thing. I don’t think I saw anything of the real Holi as it’s meant to be.
I asked a lot of questions to the other travelers I met on the rest of my trip to try and figure out where was really the best place for Holi, but everybody I met was either in Pushkar or in a bigger town like Jaipur where they only participated in the Holi organized by their guesthouse because it was “not safe” to go outside.
It’s too bad that this day “for color and joy” that’s so much advertised is now only an excuse to do everything that’s not permitted in every day life : get drunk, violate girls, fight, … Would Holi be better without Indians? Where could I have found an “authentic” Holi? Maybe it’s just one more way for India to make it difficult for the traveler to understand her. Why should I be surprised? This country is so complex, it doesn’t give anything away easily.
Some advice for celebrating Holi: wear clothes you can throw right afterward, including underwear and shoes (plastic shoes are good, or some people wrapped them in plastic bags before going out). In the morning, put oil everywhere. You can find almond oil in any store in India. Don’t forget your face, hands, feet if you’re wearing sandals, back and chest (the powder goes down the collar of your shirt).
With the oil, it’ll be way easier to wash afterwards. If you have long hair, put them in a bun and apply oil also. For men, don’t bother wearing a shirt, they’ll be ripped out by the locals. Carry with you as little as possible. If you really want a camera, get a waterproof case. Finally, most of the celebration happens in the morning, so don’t sleep too late!