The day of Holi is an important holiday in India, but it is certainly unlike any religious festival I have ever seen before.
We inadvertently ended up first celebrating this festival of colour a couple of days early. The wonderful guest house we were staying at in Jodhpur, Durag Niwas, is also home to a charitable project working to empower local young women. I wandered upstairs to see what they were doing and join in with the games. Led by two nice European girls named Franzie and Nora, it felt a bit like Girl Guides, but with women of all ages and everything happening in Hindi, lending it the inevitable craziness of all that happens in India. Before I knew it, I was changing into my oldest clothes and being dragged out the door by one of the girls, to be met with a hosepipe and multiple people smearing purple all over my face and arms. For the next hour or so, all was chaos as girls threw coloured powder at each other, rubbed it into our faces and ran around yelling ‘Happy Holi’. They took especial delight in attacking us; by the end of it Franzie, Nora and myself looked more purple than white, and P’s previously pale blue shirt was a mixture of pink, yellow and green. He kept saying that it was ok, the liquid colour that had soaked me purple was just powder mixed with water, but I thought otherwise. I discovered that the small tin used with the hosepipe was labelled something along the lines of ‘100% Chemical: Industrial Dye’. Even our underwear was saturated with the stuff, and as for my skin/nails/lips/hair, after a good half an hour of scrubbing I was still decidedly rose-tinged. Govind, who runs the guest house, said that this was just a tiny percentage of what Holi proper would be like, but we thought that it really couldn’t get much crazier than the colour my skin was already.
Oh, how wrong we were!
For Holi itself, the water had developed from single hosepipe into a giant vat of water accompanied by numerous smaller buckets, bottles and water pistols. Powder abounded not just in purple, yellow and green, but every shade imaginable. And the industrial pink dye was joined by a dark greeny-blue, to ensure maximum staining of the skin to improbable colours which will last for the next week or so. Instead of a group of sweet young girls, the guests (including a couple of Brits, an Aussie, some Californian girls from next door, as well as Franzie, Nora and ourselves) were joined by a motley crowd of Indian men, mostly friends of the guest house family. Things started slowly, but soon developed into the largest, most colourful water fight P and I had ever seen! Not content with merely throwing water, the guys soon began just picking up the screaming girls and dunking us straight into the tub of pink water – I had this repeated no less than four times. The men didn’t fare much better; once they had been thoroughly soaked and covered in powder, a mob descended and literally ripped off their shirts in order to smear handprints across their skin. With the remains of a ragged shirt hanging from his arms and a complexion ranging from dark blue to fluorescent yellow, P looked more like an extra in some sci-fi film than a tourist. I resembled some kind of alien, with a huge navy streak down the centre of my face and hair matted with a kaleidoscope of coloured dust. The end of the street turned into an impromptu party venue, with everyone dancing in the road and sipping on drinks – as long as you could keep your beverage safe from the various missiles that invariably sailed through the air towards the unwary.
After an hour or so of carnage, we were loaded into various vehicles and driven to another family’s house, where we saw how the women had their fun. After they had been liberally hosed down by their husbands, brothers and cousins, the feisty female force too their revenge in the form of wet T-shirts, fashioned into makeshift whips and used to literally beat the men into the muddy ground. This colourful convoy continued on around the neighbourhood, causing carnage well into the afternoon, while the slightly dazed tourists were returned to the guest house to recover and begin the attempt to regain a normal skin tone.
From my multiple ‘holi-days’, all I can conclude is that Holi is the most aggressive and yet the most welcoming of festivals; everyone is included but everyone is a therefore target. No-one is safe, from the smallest child to the eldest grandmother. Even the dog had a maroon dusting to its coat by the end of the day.