Photo: Steven Gerner/Flickr

My Experience at Holi (Festival of Colors) in India

Holi, also known as the Festival of Colors, is perhaps the most famous traditional festival in India. Every year newspapers and magazines around the world display those entrancing photos of people in India getting so doused and splattered with paint that you can hardly discern their actual hair or skin color. This year I traveled to India to take part in this iconic festival. It was full of color, tradition, energy and culture. Most of all, it was full of joy.

I met up with a group of other travelers at the Delhi train station. We purchased train tickets to the city of Mathura. Mathura is hailed by many as the best place to celebrate Holi. The city is believed to be the birthplace of the Hindu god Krishna and the origin of the Holi festival.

On the way, I learned that riding general class in an Indian train is not for the faint of heart. By definition, you’re not assigned a seat. You’re not even assigned a particular train. There is a statement printed on the ticket indicating it is valid for three hours and therefore you are allowed to get on any train to the indicated destination during that time period.

Since nobody is assigned a seat or even a particular train, it is a free for all. This results in many people cramming themselves into the car to the fullest extent possible.

Despite this, the trip was short and tolerable. We arrived in Mathura and piled into a hotel, about four people to one room. We shared rooms to save money because, as tends to happen anywhere in the world when there is a huge event or celebration, the price of hotels in Mathura and Vrindivan increase drastically during Holi.

Additionally, I was only able to locate a decent and reasonably priced hotel with the help of an Indian friend. I had tried to book a hotel myself but my bookings were repeatedly met with an email stating that hotel didn’t accept foreigners. This surprised me as I had visited three different cities in India previously and never had this issue before.

The next morning we wasted no time in diving into the celebration, which was in full swing. We took a bus to Banke Bihari in Vrindivan, another small city a short distance from Mathura. We began the walk to the temple of Banke Bihari. As we started walking down the dusty street towards the temple, the temple struck me almost as a black hole.

Not in the dark, negative sense of the word, but in the sense of something that has such a strong pull nothing can resist.

We bought paint along the way so we could participate in the spreading of color. While some people carry cans of liquid paint, most people use powder of all different shades. I had purchased a long white shirt the day before that was specifically designed to be cheap and disposable and therefore ideal for Holi. Unfortunately, I had neglected to button the collar of the shirt; when the first Indian came up and put color on my face, the whole purpose of buying the shirt was rendered completely null and void as the powder fell inside it.

I felt a degree of hesitation at first. I cringed inwardly when strangers came and used their hands to put color on face. I was reluctant to reciprocate. However, there was so much joy in the air. Young people were dancing exuberantly. People of literally all ages were casting colors left and right and proclaiming “Happy Holi!” or “Hare Krishna!” There was a smile on every mouth.

I was usually offered a handshake while my male traveling companions were often pulled in for an embrace. Little children who might otherwise have been asking for candy or money went around asking for powder so they could participate as well. It was as if some momentous event had occurred like the success of a great revolution.

Little by little, I felt my internal wall come down. I not only welcomed the application of color to my own face but enthusiastically began to apply it to others.

Paint was distributed with varying degrees of energy. Some would simply dip their thumb in the paint and apply a fingerprint to your forehead. Most would take some in their hand and wipe it on your cheek. Others would toss it at you from a distance. Still, others would take an entire handful and rub the whole thing all over your face. Truthfully, powder got in my eyes, nose, mouth and ears, but I welcomed all of it with a sincere smile and a “Happy Holi.”

The mass of humanity became increasingly denser as we drew closer to the temple. I have lived in China for a couple years, so my tolerance for pushing and shoving was set pretty high, but this was beyond anything I’d seen before. I was instructed to remove my shoes before I entered the temple. Removing your shoes before entering sacred enclosures is normal in India, but in this case there was no secure place to store them, and I was simply directed to put them in a big pile outside the entrance. I prepared myself mentally for my shoes to be gone by the time I got back.

I entered the temple. And let me tell you, you do not know anything near the definition of “packed” until you have been inside Banke Bihari on Holi.

It was truly the heart of the galaxy where the mass of humanity became so dense that space and time was bent. While claustrophobes should probably steer clear, to me there was something almost mystical about that space. The temperature inside increased. The air was transformed from all the color. At various moments, people inside started chanting and raising their hands for reasons unclear to me.

Later the celebration moved to Mathura. We hung out on a street and waited for the Holi parade to begin. There were lots of color as before. This time, however, there was also music, Indian music. I don’t like to dance, and I practically never dance in front of other people; but, there, in the middle of a full street, the joy was intoxicating.

Before I knew it, I was shamelessly and happily moving my body to the music.

My awkwardness returned slightly when a thin old man with a grey moustache, a slight hunch in his back and a childish smile came up to me and began swaying his body next to me. A few minutes later a young guy came up with a very large handful of orange powder and smeared it all in my face. I said “Happy Holi” as he walked away between trying to spit out bits of paint that had gotten in my mouth.

The thin old man never opened his mouth, but his small face gave a disapproving look. He shuffled over to me, pulled out a rag and offered it to me. I accepted it gratefully and wiped my mouth. He then dipped his finger in some purple paint and very gently put a line of it on my forehead.

I felt another wall come down.

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I grew up in the Pacific Northwest and went to California to get my first bachelor's degree. I am currently living and working as a teacher in China while studying the University of North Dakota's online bachelor of Communications/Journalism program.

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My Experience at Holi (Festival of Colors) in India

Holi, also known as the Festival of Colors, is perhaps the most famous traditional festival in India. Every year newspapers and magazines around the world display those entrancing photos of people in India getting so doused and splattered with paint that you can hardly discern their actual hair or skin color. This year I traveled to India to take part in this iconic festival. It was full of color, tradition, energy and culture. Most of all, it was full of joy.

I met up with a group of other travelers at the Delhi train station. We purchased train tickets to the city of Mathura. Mathura is hailed by many as the best place to celebrate Holi. The city is believed to be the birthplace of the Hindu god Krishna and the origin of the Holi festival.

On the way, I learned that riding general class in an Indian train is not for the faint of heart. By definition, you’re not assigned a seat. You’re not even assigned a particular train. There is a statement printed on the ticket indicating it is valid for three hours and therefore you are allowed to get on any train to the indicated destination during that time period.

Since nobody is assigned a seat or even a particular train, it is a free for all. This results in many people cramming themselves into the car to the fullest extent possible.

Despite this, the trip was short and tolerable. We arrived in Mathura and piled into a hotel, about four people to one room. We shared rooms to save money because, as tends to happen anywhere in the world when there is a huge event or celebration, the price of hotels in Mathura and Vrindivan increase drastically during Holi.

Additionally, I was only able to locate a decent and reasonably priced hotel with the help of an Indian friend. I had tried to book a hotel myself but my bookings were repeatedly met with an email stating that hotel didn’t accept foreigners. This surprised me as I had visited three different cities in India previously and never had this issue before.

The next morning we wasted no time in diving into the celebration, which was in full swing. We took a bus to Banke Bihari in Vrindivan, another small city a short distance from Mathura. We began the walk to the temple of Banke Bihari. As we started walking down the dusty street towards the temple, the temple struck me almost as a black hole.

Not in the dark, negative sense of the word, but in the sense of something that has such a strong pull nothing can resist.

We bought paint along the way so we could participate in the spreading of color. While some people carry cans of liquid paint, most people use powder of all different shades. I had purchased a long white shirt the day before that was specifically designed to be cheap and disposable and therefore ideal for Holi. Unfortunately, I had neglected to button the collar of the shirt; when the first Indian came up and put color on my face, the whole purpose of buying the shirt was rendered completely null and void as the powder fell inside it.

I felt a degree of hesitation at first. I cringed inwardly when strangers came and used their hands to put color on face. I was reluctant to reciprocate. However, there was so much joy in the air. Young people were dancing exuberantly. People of literally all ages were casting colors left and right and proclaiming “Happy Holi!” or “Hare Krishna!” There was a smile on every mouth.

I was usually offered a handshake while my male traveling companions were often pulled in for an embrace. Little children who might otherwise have been asking for candy or money went around asking for powder so they could participate as well. It was as if some momentous event had occurred like the success of a great revolution.

Little by little, I felt my internal wall come down. I not only welcomed the application of color to my own face but enthusiastically began to apply it to others.

Paint was distributed with varying degrees of energy. Some would simply dip their thumb in the paint and apply a fingerprint to your forehead. Most would take some in their hand and wipe it on your cheek. Others would toss it at you from a distance. Still, others would take an entire handful and rub the whole thing all over your face. Truthfully, powder got in my eyes, nose, mouth and ears, but I welcomed all of it with a sincere smile and a “Happy Holi.”

The mass of humanity became increasingly denser as we drew closer to the temple. I have lived in China for a couple years, so my tolerance for pushing and shoving was set pretty high, but this was beyond anything I’d seen before. I was instructed to remove my shoes before I entered the temple. Removing your shoes before entering sacred enclosures is normal in India, but in this case there was no secure place to store them, and I was simply directed to put them in a big pile outside the entrance. I prepared myself mentally for my shoes to be gone by the time I got back.

I entered the temple. And let me tell you, you do not know anything near the definition of “packed” until you have been inside Banke Bihari on Holi.

It was truly the heart of the galaxy where the mass of humanity became so dense that space and time was bent. While claustrophobes should probably steer clear, to me there was something almost mystical about that space. The temperature inside increased. The air was transformed from all the color. At various moments, people inside started chanting and raising their hands for reasons unclear to me.

Later the celebration moved to Mathura. We hung out on a street and waited for the Holi parade to begin. There were lots of color as before. This time, however, there was also music, Indian music. I don’t like to dance, and I practically never dance in front of other people; but, there, in the middle of a full street, the joy was intoxicating.

Before I knew it, I was shamelessly and happily moving my body to the music.

My awkwardness returned slightly when a thin old man with a grey moustache, a slight hunch in his back and a childish smile came up to me and began swaying his body next to me. A few minutes later a young guy came up with a very large handful of orange powder and smeared it all in my face. I said “Happy Holi” as he walked away between trying to spit out bits of paint that had gotten in my mouth.

The thin old man never opened his mouth, but his small face gave a disapproving look. He shuffled over to me, pulled out a rag and offered it to me. I accepted it gratefully and wiped my mouth. He then dipped his finger in some purple paint and very gently put a line of it on my forehead.

I felt another wall come down.

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