Holi: India’s Festival of Colours

By Iain Manley Mar 22, 2011

Holi revellers with Virupaksha Temple's gopuram in the background in the Two days ago, the Times of India’s Delhi insert included an article on the “ten dirtiest things crazy revellers had played Holi with.” It was impenetrable, like so much in India’s English newspapers, unless you knew something of the article’s context. The title was in Hindi, with a single English word: dirty. The article referred repeatedly to ‘playing colours’ with exotic substances like pakka rangchoona and dal. Anu, a Jain, told the story of being hit by an egg. ”I cannot even describe what I felt. The smell was disgusting and my clothes were soiled, but apart from that, I couldn’t bear to touch it. It was with great difficulty that I washed it off and disinfected my clothes.”

But, unlike just about everything else in the Delhi insert, Holi was familiar to me. I read about people smearing and slooshing beer, chocolate syrup, hair dye, Maggi noodles and shoe polish onto each other, when coloured powders and dyed water had run out, and understood. Claire and I were in India during Holi once before, among the ruins of Vijayanagara; the festival gave life to the historical wreckage, and stunned my senses so completely it was days before I felt like myself again.

Holi, I knew, was the Festival of Colours: a riotous, sensual carnival and day long abandonment of social mores, when people drink bang lassis and dance in the street. More than anything, it is an excuse to touch strangers: to rub colourful powder through another person’s hair and pour water over somebody else’s skin. Like the Christian Carnival, it is a day of sanctioned passions celebrated close to the spring equinox. Sin, during Holi, is ceremoniously burnt at the stake. The evening before the festival, all over India, drummers march through streets lit by a full moon. Wood and old furniture is collected in wheelbarrows at the households en route, and with every stop the procession grows. Men dance to the beat’s quick slap-slap-thwack and children cavort between their legs, some already coated in powder, their faces a mess of pinks, yellows and blues. The pile of wood is eventually built into an enormous bonfire and on it, a Guy representing the demoness Holika is burnt.

The rainbow nation

In the morning, the drum beat is revived. The procession begins again, and moves forward in a fever. Although a Hindu festival, Holi is celebrated by all Indian communities. Step out onto the street and you are fair game for children with water pistols, gangs of teenage boys with cans of colourful foam and lecherous men. Few women join the public celebrations; they celebrate privately, among family and friends, and even then complain of molestation. Their absence isn’t as noticeable as it should be because India – on its trains and in its restaurants – is almost always a country of men. Being surrounded by men, pinned and roughly coated in powder, with hands running over your eyes and into your mouth, is something that terrifies and enrages at first, when you fight back. But the men soon pull back, shout “Happy Holi!” and ask innocently for a flash or a snap.

Holi in Hampi

Four years ago, Claire and I were in Hampi, the ruined capital of Vijayanagara. A Hindu empire, it checked the advance of Islam in South India for three hundred years; when it was overwhelmed in 1646, Hampi was abandoned. Its land was carved up by farmers, its temples and palaces left to crumble. It is today what Rome’s forum would be like if the city had been completely abandoned a century after its peak: a surreal ghost town being slowly reinhabited, because tourists have come. It is close to Goa, not far from Kerala and accessible by overnight bus. The hippy crowd have made it a base, encouraging hotel owners to invest in hammocks and room service offering multi-cuisine.

We met friends made in Athens there, and together sent a boy to the next town to buy water pistols when we found out about Holi. On the day of the festival, the water pistols were useless. We had all drunk large bang lassis so thick with cannabis we were forced to chew. I was overwhelmed by the drum beat, contact with the sweaty crowd and a gopuram towering in the distance. I did little but stare, and was soon convinced that my water pistol would be more useful to a skinny boy, tugging at my shorts. He ran off as soon as I gave it him, to arm himself with blue water flowing through Hampi’s drains.

At midday, the drumming stopped. The crowd moved slowly to bathe in the river and as it thinned, three men with gold paint stopped us, to smear a final coat of colour onto our faces. “You are Indian now,” they said, with gold hands on our gold cheeks, and it felt true. The scene at the river was primeval: the entire town was bathing, washing off the day’s excesses in the brown water.

A big thanks to Anderson and Liz Muth for dredging some of these photos from the archives at short notice.

Holi in Delhi

A boy sits unhappily behind his stall, after 'playing colours' for the morning

The article about Holi’s dirty revellers was in the Times of India’s Delhi supplement on the day of the festival. Holi in Hampi and in the capital were two very different things: alcohol wasn’t sold in the former, and is a problem in the latter, particularly on Holi, when it leads to traffic deaths and disappearances every year. On top of that, we were – and are – staying in Majnu K Ka Tilla, an area referred to as the Tibetan Colony. A new prime minister of the community’s government in exile was being held on the same day and we assumed – correctly – that people would not be playing colours in our neighbourhood.

I did cross the highway separating Tibetan Majnu Ka Tilla from the suburb’s Indian community early on Sunday afternoon, worried that the festivities might already be over. I had just entered the area, and was walking hurriedly down its narrow market street, when boys shrieked “Holi!” and accosted me, coating my hair with yellow powder. My walk then became a difficult balance: I tried to take photographs while protecting my camera from attacks with buckets of water and packets of powder emptied from second floor windows. Just half an hour later, I emerged with a green face and luminous pink hair . The Tibetans I walked past, returning to my hotel, found me very amusing.

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9 Responses to “Holi: India’s Festival of Colours”

  1. Aah, these pictures make me laugh every time – what a crazy festival! Iain spent ages putting them all together and would love to spread them around so if anyone uses Stumble Upon, please give the story a thumbs up! The fastest way is to go directly here: http://ow.ly/4jCPX

  2. Liz Biggs says:

    I really enjoyed reading about Holi. In fact I would definitely rather read about it than experience it. All those colours, smells and textures offset by loud, continuous drumming. Must be totally overpowering for the senses. It makes a Grateful Dead concert pale by comparison, lol.

    • Iain Manley says:

      India is tough on the senses everyday, but its festivals are an assault. Claire and I were in Trivandrum for Attukal Pongala a month ago. In the course of the day, we cried buckets from wood smoke, drank a remedy stuffed with chilli and ginger, received an ear pounding from short walls of blaring speakers placed everywhere – I decided that India must be where amplifiers come to die – and were covered in a fine coat of dust that didn't prevent us from getting sunburnt. We watched hundred of boys circumambulate through a temple to the beat of drums, sniffed in the incense burning everywhere and tried to steer clear of the brahmins flicking holy water into the crowd. The beer at the end of all this tasted good.

  3. Frank says:

    Cool Article.Think I`ll become a "Hippy Pippy" in India

  4. Heather says:

    I want to try a bang lassis

  5. Heather says:

    lassi (singular). Actually lassis is probably correct. Remove "a" – I want to try bang lassis (plural).

  6. Becky says:

    Wow the colours look amazing. This is definitely on my bucket list!

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