One of our all time favorite holidays in India is the Festival of Colors, better known as Holi. After 9 years of celebrating it in the streets of India (and 4 in Los Angeles), we have become experts on how to celebrate it safely and to maximum effect!
Holi is a Hindu holiday, but is celebrated widely in (mostly northern) India and Nepal. In Mumbai, the entire city practically shuts down for the main day of Holi. It doesn’t matter if you are rich or poor, Hindu, Christian or Muslim, Holi is the one holiday that brings everyone together in a colorful day of celebration.
Holi is celebrated for several days every year in March, specific dates dependent on the moon cycle. Festivities include pujas and bonfires, with the main event being the final day of throwing color. Adults and children alike take to the streets to throw gulal (powder) and spray dyed water (from water guns, buckets or water balloons) on everyone they can find. If you think India is chaos on a regular day, wait until Holi! Its anarchy! As a foreigner, you will be targeted often, so expect to end the day covered in color. Also, don’t be surprised if you are hit with stray water balloons in the days leading up to Holi. I have been shocked and surprised by splashes of water while riding in open rickshaws during this time of year.
Holi is celebrated in many ways throughout India. Residents of some buildings hire water tanker trucks to spray water down from the roof simulating rain, while in other areas, neighborhood kids fill balloons with dyed water joyfully tossing them at people walking by. Some families hold small celebrations in their building, carefully touching color on each other’s cheeks. No matter how it is celebrated, everyone agrees it is a great way to welcome the coming spring.
Where to Celebrate
My advice is to avoid the large gatherings in the center of towns and cities, and seek out local neighborhoods instead. Look for areas where there are lots of families and children playing. You will get an authentic experience without as much chaos.
In middle class and upper class neighborhoods you might find that most people celebrate inside their apartment compound, but you can still find revealers in the road who won’t be as wild as in more condensed neighborhoods. India being India, it is likely you will be invited to join in some of the private celebrations as well! If you are in Mumbai, we love celebrating in Bandra and Khar.
Try to celebrate with a group of people (foreigners or others from your hotel). I would not recommend going out as a solo female traveler. The streets are filled with many more men than women. Find a group or tour to join if you are traveling on your own. Either way, unfortunately, expect to be eve-teased or groped if you are a female. In India this comes with any public celebration that brings out people from all walks of life. My advice is to call the men out when they do it – yell at them loudly and embarrass them.
If you have spent much time in cities in India, you will know that many things don’t get going until close to 10 a.m. Holi is the exception. This is the one day of the year that you want to be out and about early in the day. We typically leave the house by 9 and return home before noon. Once the day begins to wear on, you will run into more and more intoxicated (on bhang or alcohol) people which always brings more chaos.
If you begin to feel the energy shift, move to a different neighborhood, look for a local party to join or head home. Also don’t be afraid to ask people to go easy on you. Learn a few local words such as “aram se” meaning relax or “bus” which means enough or stop. Knowing a few words will help you calm situations down as even small children get overly excited when they see foreigners to cover in color!
Prepare for the Color
Some people in India recommend oiling your hair or your skin. I feel part of the fun is getting crazy colorful and wearing the badge of honor for the next few days. What is the harm in having colored streaks in your blonde hair or patches of purple on your cheek for a few days? Indians will love to see that you participated in their most beloved holiday. Although, my one caveat is, if you are celebrating in smaller towns or villages, most of the colors used tend to stain badly. In that case, I would recommend putting oil in your hair if it’s blonde.
[box]Tip: Wear your hair up if you can. This will minimize the color that gets soaked up into it. Also, you can wear a bandana or hat. The color itself doesn’t usually stain too much, but once it’s mixed with water, it becomes potent! Shake it out of your hair if you can before you get drenched with a bucket of water![/box]
If you don’t want to get powder in your eyes, the best protection is to wear sunglasses. This has protected my eyes more than once and is now a must for everyone in our family. If you will be celebrating in a big public space (beach or village square), you might also consider having a bandana to cover your mouth as the colors used in India are not always safe and can contain toxic metals.
[box]Tip: Carry a ziplock bag with wet wipes. This will come in handy if you get color in your eyes, need to wipe off your sunglasses or phone or even your hands![/box]
Wear Old Clothes
If you are in India in advance of Holi, find a local shop to purchase a white salwaar kameez. It is what many locals wear daily. At local shops you can find an entire outfit for less than $5 USD. The white makes it much easier to see all the fantastic colors. I recommend getting a long sleeve top if you can. This will reduce the amount of exposed body parts to be covered in colors (or to be groped!). The only caveat with women wearing white is that your shirt will become see through and increase potential eve-teasing or groping. In this case, I suggest wearing a black tank top underneath which will not show the color stains too much and will keep your body protected from view!
If you don’t have time or money to buy new clothes specifically for Holi, wear something old that can be ruined. I often wore an old cotton shirt that was light and flowy and was not see through when wet. Remember to keep your shoulders and cleavage covered.
Keep in mind that whatever you wear underneath your clothes will also be stained and ruined – bras, undies, socks, etc. For women I typically recommend wearing an old white (because it’s easy to bleach or black) tank top underneath (sans bra, unless you really need one – then use an old one or a dark color). Leggings are a great choice for women and light shorts are great for men.
Wear old tennis shoes or flip flops that are easily washed off. My go to Holi shoe while in India was a pair crocs! Waterproof and the color washed off easily.
Also remember that any bags or purses that you carry will be covered in color as well. Take something that is easy to wash, hides color well or can be thrown away.
Sample the Bhang Responsibly
The main drink of Holi is thandai, which is a milky drink often mixed with cannabis. If someone offers you this on the street, I recommend declining. If you would like to try it, ask around on where you can purchase your own. Often many restaurants will have a stall set up outside selling their homemade bhang. If you get some, take it back to your room/house to sample it. The bhang is made differently at every home or restaurant, so you never know just how strong it might be. My first year in Mumbai I saw many passed out revelers on the sides of the road, from what I assume was very strong bhang!
Protect Your Camera
Of course you want to take photos of this colorful event and you must! The fine colored powder wreaks havoc on cameras though, so prepare your camera in advance. You can cover the entire camera with ziplock bags and duct tape, leaving only the glass of the lens exposed. This will protect your camera from all the tiny particles floating around as well as from the splashes of water that will surely come your way. Here is a good how-to if you aren’t sure exactly how to protect your camera.
If you don’t have the supplies to protect your camera or are still worried about taking your expensive digital camera out, take your phone instead! I often use my iPhone with it’s lifeproof cover. You will still get great quality photos without the worry.
[box]Tip: Avoid getting the water sprayed on you in your mouth! Much of the water used on Holi comes from less than stellar sources and are full of bacteria! I will never forget the smell of the water thrown on me from the local slum area by our house!![/box]
Have you celebrated Holi in India? What are your top tips to enjoy it safely?
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