Thursday, 19 September 2013

Varanasi, India - celebrating Holi

Happy Holi - the children chime as I pass in the street.

Happy Holi - the adults greet with enthusiasm and grabbing your hand to shake, smiling all the while.
And this is 2 days before the festival. 

Holi is full of colour and appears to be a cross between Christmas and Halloween and Bonfire Night all thrown together. It's about family, friends, community, welcoming outsiders, religion, colour, happiness, and a lot of face paint. I had been warned in Varanasi that it is the most vibrant place to experience Holi - and potentially aggressive.

The day before celebrations kicked off, I purchased a cream linen top to make the most of the impending colour. Whilst walking the alleyways children approached me hands-clapsed with coloured powder decorating my face and dusting my hair. These vibrant blues, greens, reds, pinks, purples are aluminous.

By nightfall the parties commenced, by 10pm it was time for me to call it a night. Most the men were stoned or drunk and the party was getting a little out of hand for my liking. So I looked forward to an early start of the next day’s festivities.

Early on Holi the event starts wet! No more dry powder, it's now become coloured water bombs, water pistols filled and barrels line the streets containing buckets of colour. I set off, as midday approaches I was advised to stay away, this is when the adults become a little drunk, stoned and overly excited. But In my experience walking alone is not safe! Try to avoid it at all costs.

I walked a long the Ghats and was colour-attacked several times by young children, to me this seemed reasonably quiet. Becoming brave, I decided to head into the alleyways - here it was calm and infact rather empty. Hidden in some corners were children ready for attack. I headed for the Main Street for the sunlight and feel more secure, I didn’t need any more hidden colour-attacks. It was eerie, some people gathered in the streets and children played. I walked, taking it all in - no cars, no bikes, no rickhaws, nothing - just people! The hectic markets of the day before had vanished. It was like 28 Days Later, or visiting London during Christmas Day. Then suddenly, from out of nowhere a group of 20 kids start throwing paint bombs at me and firing cannons of coloured water. At this point, I ran and escaped, just a few hundred feet later  to encounter a group of 15 teenagers charging towards me. Suddenly my fear envelops me, they are not just firing coloured bombs this time but also aggressively demanding money, pushing me into a corner and touching up my pockets.  Sense of survival prevailed, as I ran to escape, losing my treasured Vietnam cap in the instance.

At this point it was time to turn back. I headed to return to the Sahi Riverview Guesthouse, I didn't feel safe, I felt alone, I felt vulnerable.

On returning to the guesthouse I met a group of pristine white tourists ready to head out. I warned them of the dangers as they excitedly invited me along, not one to be out done and the option of being part of a pack of 5 made the prospect more appealing.

That was it! 5 against the world…well not quite. It was time to Rock! Holi. We had a wicked time - exploring the city, becoming absolutely soaked to the bone in colour staining our bodies with reds, purples greens and yellows. We danced with holy men, and partied with the locals, and you could easily feel the mood of the atmosphere change as more of the men became aggressive. Being sensible we all concurred to head back to the hotel to shower and attempt to remove this dye from our bodies.

20 minutes of scrubbing and I still have colour stained on my skin - purple back, pink neck, red eyebrows, purple finger nails, yellow calves. I give up and sit in the sun to dry . 

Lunch at Lotus Lounge and we then set out across the now quiet neighbourhood of Varanasi - much is closed and it’s suddenly a different city again - a peaceful place. By 5pm we wander the alleyways coming across families emerging from afternoon religious ceremonies; all clean, wearing their pressed “Sunday finest”. It's a different world to the mess we were confronted by earlier in the day.

We make our way to Lotus Lounge, a rooftop overlooking the Ganges. Here we watch sunset and dine lounging on cushions and exchanging friendly banter. I then head back to the guesthouse to for a taxi to catch my train to Agra.