Playing Holi in Delhi

Originally posted March 22nd, 2014

Celebrated in the north of India to show joy about the coming spring, Holi is one of the oldest Hindu festivals and an incredibly distinctive one. More about fun than religion, Holi starts the evening before with bonfires and on the day is celebrated by raucous and playful behaviour; pulling pranks and, of course, the iconic throwing of coloured powder and paints – then hugs all around and wishing everyone a “Happy HOLI!”. Still, this holiday does of course have its roots in Hindu mythology. I couldn’t actually get anyone to describe what these roots were, so I looked it up.

Apparently the term Holi comes from the name Holika – the legendary sister of a power-hunger king with a very long name I can’t even begin to pronounce who wanted to be worshiped by all of his people. When his son Prahlad worshiped Vishnu instead, this king told his sister to kill the boy. She had the power to walk through fire without being burned (I can’t say I would find this a very useful power day-to-day, but I guess it’s cool) and so walked into a fire with her nephew in the hopes that he would perish. But of course he was saved by the Gods and she died instead. This is where the bonfire tradition comes from. Then when it comes to the paint-throwing, apparently this is attributed to Krishna who, as a child, threw coloured water over milkmaids as a prank. Fairly loosely related as far as I can tell, but there you go!

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I’ve read that Holi is a time where anything goes; where rules and conventions are put on hold and everyone can participate in the fun equally, regardless of age or gender. This is what some sites wrote about Holi:

“Everyone gets involved – with no distinctions between caste, class, age or gender.” BBC

“Women, especially, enjoy the freedom of relaxed rules and sometimes join in the merriment rather aggressively.” About.com

I’d say this is a pretty misleading and simplistic description when compared to how Holi actually plays out in most places around India. Based on my own experience and what I’ve heard from others, the very fact that rules are relaxed and chaos encouraged leads to incredibly apparent challenges for women. Maybe this is a holiday where men and women are allowed to leave social conventions behind and play by the same rules – or rather, lack of rules in this case – but this is India and in much of the country men and women simply aren’t equal here for 364 days of the year and this mindset doesn’t suddenly vanish on Holi. So on that one day where anything goes, obviously the effect isn’t equal for both genders.

Maybe in places like Naddi Holi is equally participated in and enjoyed by all involved, and maybe that’s what Holi is supposed to be, but what I experienced was very far from the descriptions I included above. There wasn’t one single Indian woman in sight in Delhi. And for good reason – most young Indian men used this festival as an excuse to touch women, some more innocently with lingering hugs and others more overtly. It can also just be very aggressive – water balloons are thrown from rooftops, coloured foam is sprayed in your face and powder forcefully rubbed into your hair. Often all of this is happening simultaneously and with all the anonymous hands grabbing at you at once it’s incredibly disconcerting and overwhelming. Most of the people I talked to who had been in India for Holi before stayed locked in their hotel rooms all day this time around. It’s the kind of thing that most people tend to do once to experience and then spend every other year avoiding.

In fact, I even read that in 2012 in Delhi, International Women’s Day fell on the same day as Holi and any activities planned had to be held days earlier because women were too reluctant to leave their homes.We also talked to a shop keeper the day after Holi who, when we asked him if he’d enjoyed the celebration, replied that he’d stayed inside all day. He said that young people these days use Holi as an excuse to get immensely drunk, harass people in the street and pick-pocket. He claimed that this is quite a recent change, and I’m sure that it’s far more common to manifest itself like this when celebrated in city streets among strangers than in small communities of relatives and friends – how it was traditionally celebrated.

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Still, I had a pretty great time all things considered and I feel very lucky to have had the chance to participate in such a unique holiday during my time here in India. I took an overnight bus to Delhi with some friends the night before, arriving in the city early in the morning on the day itself. We checked into a hotel, had breakfast, and as soon as I stepped outside to make a phone-call, it began. There were quite a few of us interns from Naddi, Rajol and Punjab and it was fun walking around as a big group and seeing everyone transform throughout the day.

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