India: Holi – The Festival of Colours
If, unlike the entire alumni of the Ashy Bines Bikini Body Challenge, you actively choose to not participate in The Colour Run (you know, that event featuring gals covered in all the colours of the rainbow that clogs up your Instagram and Facebook feed for several days) because of its complete and utter pointlessness and cultural insensitivity, yet you still feel a pang of jealousy that you missed out on what appears to have been THAT much fun, I suggest popping over to India for the more authentic version: Holi.
Holi is basically a Hindu festival that marks the beginning of spring, among a list of other dissimilar religious back-stories. The famed colour-throwing element is a symbolisation of nature casting away the gloom of winter, and is what gives the festival its more affectionate name, The Festival of Colours. One legend also suggests the colours have a much deeper meaning. The Lord Krishna (an incarnation of a god – Vishnu, sort of like how Jesus is an incarnation of the christian god) had this whinge to his mum Yashoda about why this chick that he frothed – Radha – was so fair and he was so dark. Then his mum was like, “Oi Krishna – just put some colour on her face and then on yours and you’ll be like the same, so it won’t even matter.” So in conclusion, it’s pretty much just about no prejudice and everyone being the same, etc. So during this time, it is not uncommon to see locals running around the streets stripped of their social norms, coming together as one despite caste, sex, status and age. It’s somewhat okay to become a loud, obnoxious psycho come Holi; it’s sort of like a reward for the whole year of politeness and strict routine the majority of Hindus endure. In most places, the festival lasts for three days but if you head to Krishna’s birthplace in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh early, you can get a whole two weeks more Holi in!
The two major towns in the area are Mathura and Vrindavan, and are only about 25 minutes drive from each other. Stay at the Mayapura Vrindavana Trust Ashram in Vrindavan for an extremely authentic and enlightening experience; book in advance to avoid disappointment, as the Holi season is a busy one. To get here, catch a train to Mathura. Once there, clamber across the tracks to the looks-like-it’s-going-to-collapse station building and prepare to be swarmed by a horde of star-struck rickshaw drivers who will all claim they will get you to Vrindavan the cheapest. The ride shouldn’t cost more than 100-200rp, so don’t stop haggling until you get there. The ashram itself is a gated complex that includes a pretty impressive layout (read about it here). When you arrive, don’t be shocked when Western pilgrim women in their 50s with names like ‘Samahdi’ or ‘Ashtara’ greet you by saying, “Hare Krishna.” Even though it might seem like they only think they know what’s going on, they actually do: in this region, it’s extremely common for people to use “Hare Krishna” as a greeting.
The ashram is connected to the largest temple in Vrindavan – the International Society for Krishna Consciousness Temple – and during Holi season this place is to Vrindavan what the Main Stage is to Big Day Out. Pilgrims from all over India and the world can be seen inside the temple smacking a drum or letting their vocal chords get lost in a “Hare Hare Krishna Krishna Rama Rama” trance. It is highly encouraged to join in the party no matter how unreligious you are – this Krishna lad seems to be really welcoming. You can jump up and down, dance all around and after about an hour you will definitely know the four lines of the mantra off by heart. Side note: Hare Krishnas are not to be confused with hippies/stoners. One of the only four regulative principles of the Hare Krishnas is a strict abstenince from intoxicants. For these folk, elevation and joy are derived from chanting God’s holy name, not sucking a bong. It’s entirely up to you how long you stay in Uttar Pradesh, however, there is not a lot more to do around the area apart from this fun activity, so I would recommend no more than fourish days.
Next, catch an overnight train to Jaipur (you may have to transfer trains once or twice) making sure you arrive here two to three days before the actual day where the colours go everywhere so that you have time to explore. Jaipur is known as ‘The Pink City’, and is one of the 10 most populous in India. There is so much to see in Jaipur, but the reason you have come here at this time is the Elephant Festival, held the evening before Holi. It consists of a profusely painted elephant parade, a decorated humans extravaganza parade and a bunch of other parades all tied into one. Make friends with a rickshaw driver and invite him to come to the festival with you; this way, when it’s finished, it won’t take you a thousand years to find someone to get you out of there. This is some kind of super family event, and when you first arrive it looks kind of lame because of the barricades and giant crowds you have to squeeze past. Soon enough though, once the parade has come through and the elephants are all in place, no one takes any notice of the barricades and you are free to roam around and get up close and personal with everyone and everything. At the end of the parade, the officials set off these giant colour cannons followed by a pretty dismal fireworks display, and this is when the whole stream of inspirational photos begin and everyone starts going crazy and throwing colourful powder at you. Some impatient little shit kids will be doing this well before the cannons though, because apparently a two-hour parade is just too long to wait to harass tourists. Now, as soon as it’s over, get your driver friend and get the fuck out of there quickly; the traffic is gonna be horrendous for the next hour or so.
Admittedly I stayed in Jaipur the next day for the actual Holi festival. If you are looking for this ultimate Holi blowout experience, I wouldn’t recommend it as there is no single central place where everyone gathers to throw shit at each other. But apparently you just get abused if you go to any of those places anyway, and if you’re a chick, men rip your clothes off and stuff. There is no set recommendation for what you should actually do on the day – this is not a timetabled event. But here is my Holi Day story. It was a lot of fun and we got totally sloshed with our rickshaw driver who came to pick us up the next day. He took us to his family home for lunch where his kids and nephews and nieces all gawked at us like gods, but then in great tradition once we were colourful took a great liking to us. We had a drive around town and threw colours at everyone we passed, then drove out to a run-down temple where we hung out with the driver and his friends and drank a ridiculous amount of beer.
After the temple, he dropped us off in the city and we walked through town all the way back home, meanwhile shouting, “Happy Holi!” back and forth to all the cheerful Jaipurians. Prepare to be somewhat harassed – locals take this day as an opportunity to kind of punch you in the face without actually punching you: more of a hand-cupped-full-of-colour whack. Before heading back to the hotel, we climbed to the top of an abandoned building in the middle of the city with a couple of beers and watched and listened to everything bustle below us; the occasional cloud of colour would arise from buildings near and far.
Although the day wasn’t exactly what I’d imagined – crowds of people moshing in a sea of colour – the best thing about the whole experience was to actually just be surrounded by happiness for an entire 24 hours. It’s not that often in the world today that you can act like a complete dickhead, run around a busy city and scream at people with no prejudice at all, in fact actually be hi-5’d for it. And this, not how many likes you will get on Instagram, is exactly why the Holi festival is an extremely worthy event for your bucket list.
Oh yeah P.S. wear clothes that you don’t care about. I got some of those baggy hippy pants ‘cos I was trying to be cool and wore them on the day. I sent them back to my family as a sort of, “Wow look how cultured I am and how colourful I got,” thing, and my mum thought they were rubbish; not a shit present or something – like actual trash. So yeah, you’re gonna get really dirty and it won’t come out.