Details of Life on the Road: Street eats, cheap sleeps, budget travel experiences

Celebrating Holi In Vrindavan, India

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During my travels I usually find myself having just missed a festival, or leaving just before a festival is supposed to happen. This time around, however, I found myself in India during one of the most famous Hindu festivals: Holi, the festival of colours. Finally, I was going to experience a festival, an Indian one at that!

Holi fell on March 6th this year (2015). I was doing a Vipassana meditation course in South India from Feb 18th – March 1st and so had to get a move on to North India as soon as possible after that. Of course you can celebrate Holi in the the south of India as well, but I heard the most extravagant gatherings are in the north. I traveled to New Delhi and thought I might celebrate there with an Indian friend. Unfortunately, he was too busy and so I decided to go elsewhere. I knew two friends, both of whom I had previously met in Varkala, who were going to be in Pushkar so I had debated going there but I wanted to avoid trance music and overly crowded backpacker destinations in order to have a more authentic experience. I also thought of going to the holy city of Varanasi to experience Holi but I didn’t want to move east too quickly. Thankfully I learned about a town called Vrindavan, which is said to have the biggest and most elaborate Holi celebrations in all of India. Indians and tourists alike flock to the town in order to get colorful. Vrindavan is said to be the birthplace of Krishna, and so it’s a sacred and important town of Hindu pilgrimage making it a hot-spot to be for the famous festival.

I took a train from Delhi to Mathura (close to Vrindavan) on the late morning of March 5th, arriving around 1:00pm. I met Raj, from India, and Pravati, from Italy, at the train station and so we all shared a rickshaw to Vrindavan. Raj was 28, very polite, spoke English very well, and like many other Indians in Vrindavan, had come there solely for the purpose of Holi. Pravati, perhaps in her early 50’s was a Hindu from Italy. She referred to herself as a dancer, yoga teacher, artist, and performer. During the ride to Vrindavan she told us that she only had 12 rupees (about $0.20CAD). Uh-oh, you’re not getting far with that, or… are you?

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All three of us had heard about ISKON (International Society for Krishna Consciousness), a revered temple in central Vrindavan which also had a large guesthouse. It was fully booked. So were the next two hotels we visited. Fourth time’s a charm, we found one a few blocks away for a decent price. I had a bed to myself, and the others shared the second bed. I was a little skeptical of leaving my bags with strangers, but hey, I do it every other day. My company seemed nice enough.

I knew that, unlike other places in India, Holi in Vrindavan was celebrated for 7 days. What I didn’t know, however, was that the 7 days were leading up to and including March 6th, rather than starting on the 6th. My stomach was growling after arriving at the hotel and so I went out in search of some food while the others settled in. I went to ISKON to check out their popular restaurant but it was closed. However, their little bakery was still open. I bought a little pizza there (I know, I know, not like me to eat pizza in India!) to hold me over until I made it to the main street a mere 50 meters away. The main strip of tarmac in front of ISKON was already covered in pink (the cheapest coloured powder). I followed my nose across the street and dug into some street food. I had aloo tikki and a lassi. Hmm…. Yes, there’s still room in my stomach which must soon be occupied. I approached a young Indian guy and asked if he knew of any restaurants. He knew of one nearby and he too wanted to eat. The word ‘style’ is often used by Indians to describes someone’s, well, style. “Are you going for the hangover style?” he asked me while wobbling his head and smiling. Oh, God. Right away I knew what he meant. It wasn’t the first time I’ve been referred to as looking like Zack Galifianakis. No offense to Zack, he’s not a bad looking guy, but Huge Jackman is a much better comparison for my confidence. Similarly, I’ve also been told I look like Tom Hanks (Castaway), James Morrison, Emile Hershe (notably from Into The Wild), Jake Gyllenhaal (don’t ask me…!), and my favorite to date, “you look like Bollywood actor.” But hey, what about Joaquin Phoenix during his clever retirement stint a few years ago? Okay, back to the story. Me and my new friend chowed down at an open-aired joint, I had chana masala and naan. I was full, and honestly a little disgusted that I just inhaled that much food. Now, unknowing to me, it was time to get my paint on.

And it started. Friendly young Indian males approached me and carefully dabbed the middle of my forehead in red, green, yellow, orange, pink, and so on. I was stopped by one guy who wanted to tell me a little about Holi’s history and why it’s “played”. He talked for some time – I’ll let you do your own research on the subject. But briefly, Holi is a Hindu festival celebrating the victory of good over evil, the arrival of spring, and much more. It is a time when love and peace fill the air. A time when everyone is happy, and people from any background are frolicking together in the colourful fun. You’re not meant to throw powder with aggression (throwing into the air is fine), but rather gently dab some on a person’s forehead and greet them with a hug.

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I walked around Vrindavan for a couple of hours, not wandering far from the main strip. I quickly found myself in a dance party with a dozen Indian men. “One dance!?”, they asked. Why not. I tried my best not to look foolish but I was miserably unsuccessful. Who cares though, I was there to have fun! On the evening prior to the main day of Holi, there are supposed to be bonfires called Holika which are actually large piles of burning dung. Mathura, near Vrindavan, is said to have the biggest bonfire in all of India, in fact in of all of the world. That statement should probably be researched. On my way back to the hostel I stopped at ISKON. There was a giant queue of people waiting to get inside. I went around the side entrance and slipped right on in. There was a ‘party’ happening inside the temple. Percussive sounds and singing resonated between the temple walls. Hare Krishna songs were being yelled and chanted, and on and on they went. I quite liked the music actually. It was happy and groovy, and I love percussion. Hare Krishna devotees, with their distinctive forehead markings, white attire, and for the males, bald heads except a small patch of hair at the back, were practically moshing to the music, swaying back and fourth, hands in the air. One thing I couldn’t help noticing is that devotees are…. seemingly crazy at times. Sweets, snacks, and fruit were offered to Krishna, and were left on the stage, accessible to everyone but priests. Like hungry wolves, people starting pushing to the front, throwing their hands out in front of them hoping to receive an offering. People literally pushed others out of the way, elderly women and children in the midst. Some of the faithful visibly saddened after not receiving anything. Madness I say! I put my hands out, and luckily (luckily?) a piece of papaya fell my way. I looked around and ate it up, doing so with a little guilt.

Raj and Pravati were at the hostel waiting for me. Witnessing Holika was something that Raj wanted to do. Apparently I had the times wrong (everyone had the times wrong), so I cleaned myself up and we all went out in search of a fire. A few minutes into our rickshaw drive I quickly heard Raj say “close your eyes!”, but it was too late. I took a handful of pink powder (for the second time that day) directly in the eyes. If Holi was going to be like this it wasn’t going to be my glass of chai. I couldn’t even suffer a glimpse through my eyelids, I just asked for water and waited with my eyes closed. After cleaning pink goo out of my eyes for about ten minutes I was good to go. We asked about Holika at every corner – This way, that way, no way, right, left, later, earlier. We managed to find one fire which had been burning for a while, no trace of celebrations. That was good enough for us. We watched the burning pile of shit and then carried on.

We all woke with enthusiasm, ready for the day. Raj and I got ready in 5 minutes and then we waited for Pravati to put on, what seemed to be, endless amounts of makeup. All this just to get it washed off and covered with other powders in a matter of minutes. I had a couple of quick street eats and we were off. The streets were eerily quiet around 8:30am, but they suddenly came to life in the blink of an eye. Banke Bihari is a famous Hindu temple in Vrindavan. The temple and the narrow winding lanes in its vicinity are where most of the action happens. During the madness while navigating through the narrow corridors we quickly lost Pravati, but Raj and I carried on to the temple. The streets were vibrant and filled with joy. Colour was filling the air, literally. Songs were sang. Hugs were given. Nothing and no one was safe from the chaos. Buckets of water were being dumped from the rooftops, hoses were being pumped onto the masses, water balloons were being thrown from unsuspecting children, squirt guns tainted with water colour were being fired in all directions. The streets quickly became a pasty, colourful, goo-coated slip and slide, covered in pinkish red.

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We followed the rainbow of people to the temple. How were all of these people going to get inside? Through sheer force. No rules here, just push and shove until you’re in. We left our sandals in the mess of others and entered. It was fully and completely going off inside. Pure chaos. Everyone singing and chanting, dancing, smiling, completely covered in pinks, reds, greens, purples, oranges. There were a few newscasters and professional photographers on the second level balcony overlooking the crowd. I paid 200 rupees backshish (bribe) in order to go up and take some photographs. Raj and I found ourselves on the backside of the balcony facing the ceremonial stage. All of the sudden someone launched for my camera. And then two people were going for it. I held it as tightly as I could. I wasn’t sure what was happening. Even Raj, a native Hindi speaker, was confused. I was led to the office by a couple of men, during which all I could think about was not losing my photos. That’s what they wanted, for me to delete them. I tried to be ignorantly strategic. I sorted through, as they watched me, and deleted a couple of photos of bad quality, and then I just kept sorting through without deleting anymore. Turns out that no photos of their God were allowed, and they thought I had taken some controversial photos since I was facing the front. All was good. Back down to the main floor again.

Raj and I made our way outside of the temple. Somehow only few people were leaving but hoards more were entering, with the assistance of a bamboo beating stick, of course. The elderly, children, young men and women all racing to enter. Often trampling right over each other. I couldn’t find my sandals in the painted heap – another pair bites the dust. And so I was barefooted, might I add, like many others. I wasn’t too joyed about this – all the spit, all of the garbage and litter, all of the cow dung, cow urine, human urine, probably human dung, and everything else mixed together to cake on the ground and make a sloppy and colourful paste coating the pathways.

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We journeyed back to one of the most happening streets. I climbed up some stairs, accessing a rooftop in order to get some interesting photos. Two policemen were working up there. They filled a large trash bin with water and took it to the edge. I imagined them trying to dump it and, due to its weight, having it slip from their grip and knocking out some innocent partaker below – just like in those Ice Bucket Challenge videos. They dipped in with smaller buckets, however, and soaked the passersby. I took part in the fun, feeling the madness enter my body which was surely apparent in my enthused face and eyes. I will get you!

We walked around the surrounding streets for a while longer as I wanted to take more photos, which was turning out to be a dangerous and difficult task. Dust seemed to get everywhere, and that’s when my camera started acting funky. After a few more selfies, and a few more group photos which I was cheerfully tugged into, we started the long walk back to the hotel, feeling the paint cake on my skin under the burning sun. Most people portrayed overwhelming happiness. Most were dancing, many were singing, everyone was participating in one way or another, and few were arguing. There’s bound to be party-poopers even during the most loving and peaceful of festivals. It was nice to see some of the hunched over elderly women taking part, now that’s commitment. The children were going wild and throwing everything they could get their hands on, and that meant, unfortunately, waste water from the street drains.

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I had read that widows would celebrate Holi in Vrindavan for the first time in years. The streets were full of women in Vrindavan. However, I was told this wasn’t the case in other areas. Unfortunately, being a solo women, or even a women in a group of women (or men) can prove uncomfortable and potentially dangerous. I heard from some female travelers that the groping just didn’t stop. This saddens me. I imagine that the local women have to suffer similar abuse, but I’m not sure. What’s for sure is that women put up with the brunt of “playing” Holi. Foreign women were coated in colour, no part of their skin visible. Each and every Indian man made sure to slap some powder on them (mostly in a purely fun manner), mostly on their face (which is common). Local women seemed to have it just as bad, or worse by times. When the day seemed to be winding down, people started taking rickshaws to their destinations. Everyone on the street would whip the toxic powder into the open-aired taxis. No women were out of harm’s way, no exceptions. They had to keep their faces between their hands, sometimes tucking their heads between their legs. Often, the tuk-tuks looked like a passing ball of dusty colour, leaving a cloudy trail behind. It didn’t seem at all right, or even fun in some instances. I spoke to some people who had celebrated in Varanasi and said local women were not seen anywhere, only a few foreign women were out on the streets. There were blunt signs suggesting that women stay inside during the whole festival.

I was looking forward to getting to a vacant area, free of colour. The air was foggy in most of the town, remnants of the powder floating around. It definitely wasn’t good to be breathing that all in. What’s worse are the spray cans of coloured foam. You can smell their toxic remnants well down the street. I felt like days were being ticked off of my life each time I inhaled the gas from one of the cans, which was basically every other second. Oh well! Living kills us. This type of colour also stained clothing and skin alike, whereas the powder washes off more easily. My clothing now looks tie-dyed. All in all it was one of best experiences of my traveling career. I had an absolute blast being in the the midst of things, in the middle of the crazed streets with devotees, having colour wiped on my forehead and doing the same to dozens of others. Everyone, it seemed, was happy on this day. Caste disregarded, class forgotten, genders equal (as things should always be, of course).

Most people went for my face, attacking my beard with hands full of powder, which I later found out was common with all bearded travelers. It took a lot of washing do get (most) of the dye off of my skin and out of my hair. Days later, my toe nails are still memorably pink. Holi is celebrated in different ways in different areas of India, and I hope to be back and experience this wonderful festival again. It was the most colourful event I’ve ever attended. I would imagine that in Vrindavan alone, thousands of pounds of powder was thrown.

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Here are my tips for having fun and staying safe during Holi:

Wear long sleeves and pants: Coloured powder and water colour are going to get everywhere. The powder is probably highly toxic and isn’t something you want all over your skin. It will stain your skin as well, making you look like an Oompa Loompa.

Use coconut oil: I heard that many people rub oil on their exposed skin. Doing so will make washing the colour off much quicker and easier and won’t allow for the colour to stain your skin – as badly.

Celebrate with friends: Fun is meant to be shared, right? You’ll have fun if you’re by yourself, but even more fun with good company. This is also a safety precaution, too – even more for solo female travelers. If you’re a solo female traveler I strongly suggest joining a group of people.

Carry few possessions: This way you don’t have to worry about things getting dirty and wet. Nothing will get stolen, dirty, or broken.

Wear sun glasses: I wore a pair of sun glasses up until I lent them to someone and then that someone disappeared. Glasses will prevent powder from getting in your eyes which is pretty much bound to happen during this festival.

Wear disposable clothes: Chances are your clothes will be ruined within a matter of minutes.

Have fun: Let loose! Don’t worry about about getting messy! Dance a little dance! Give hugs! Be happy! If you’re in Varanasi be careful of the bhang lassi (a yogurt drink laced with legal marijuana).

Have you experienced Holi in India? Leave a comment and let me know what it was like! I can’t wait until the next festival I’ll be able to attend.

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One Response to “Celebrating Holi In Vrindavan, India”

  1. Emma says:

    It saddens me that I’ve read several blogs mentioning the groping of women during Holi. Holy has been near the top of my bucket list for several years, but as a female solo traveller, I fear that it just might not be safe enough for me to experience. Thanks for the post – great read!

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