The Holi Colors on Fire

Photos and texts by Gui Galembeck

The Holi Festival is one of the largest and most traditional festivities in India. It happens once a year, always between February and March celebrating the arrival of spring and it fills every corner of this huge country with strong and vibrant colours, mixed with bhang and contagious religiosity. As a traveller, this is one of the most difficult situations in India, requires preparation and a good dose of insanity.

It all started weeks earlier, researching lots of blogs of photography and traveller’s websites. Since the beginning, I noticed a lot of people had gone through bad experiences during the Holi days, which made me very apprehensive and cautious. We were travelling as couple and it's really hard being a foreign, especially woman traveller during the Holi days. A friend just said, stay on the hotel or look for some private party.

We were in the epicentre of Holi, one of the largest and most photographed colour celebrations, in Matura region between Delhi and Agra. The small town of Vrindavan is considered a sacred city and place where god Krishna spent his childhood. Although the Hare Krishna religion was founded in New York in the 60’s, the city receives foreigners from all over the world for their spiritual retreats. The most effervescent colour festival happens at the Banke Bihare temple, representing Krishna's jokes with colours, and it has become one of the main features of the entire festival.

The day before, we set out for the village of Barsana, where traditionally women beats with huge sticks and wet clothes on men's back, some of them defending with wooden shields. This is called Lathma Holi and the crowd goes crazy with bhang, an alcoholic beverage based on marijuana, heavily consumed on religious festivities. It's not common Indian people to drink out the streets and there are some rules on this, but during Holi days everything is allowed. We heard stories about tourists becoming a target for the numb crowd, and suddenly, inserted on the crowd things just got out of hand. Anything could happen and they started with liquid paint, the target was mostly my wife. We had an infernal day, my cell phone just disappeared and we were highly disrespected. At the end we were rescued by a group of people who realised the problem and took us out of there.

Back to the hotel, I swore not to see the street until it was all over. We did not photograph the important celebrations of Banke Bihare and little or maybe nothing saved from Barsana. Total disaster. Those problems put me in a defensive position and I was simply no longer interested in any fucking festival or photography. We waited that euphoria ends up and on next day, we hit the road and left this city. Our natural course was Rajasthan, India's most iconic state. Changing our plans, we must spend the official Holi days over there.

The story begins the day before with the Holika Dahan, when people set fire to the streets. Pyres are lit during the sunset, what symbolizes the burning of Holika and the salvation of Prahlad.
This legend is the main story of the Holi Festival. On every street and dark alley, the fire illuminates the Jaipur night. The official Holi had begun and for us it was more of a concern, because we did not want to go through the same difficulties again.

Even so, we created courage, loaded our cameras and dressed some old clothes, called the Tuk Tuk driver at the hotel and ride through the pink city, where people were literally crazy and colourful, throwing paint everywhere. Motorcycles, cars and bicycles. Women and children were all targets for that crazy crowd.

Gradually we got used to this madness and great photos began to materialise in front of us. At that moment we were already walking pile of colour powder. So we decided to take the risk on the streets and leave our driver to go walking. When we least expected we were in the middle of a crowd again, but fortunately, this time there was respect and joyful, we gave back smiles, good photos and lots of colour powder.

At the end of the day, we asked the driver (he was very worried waiting for us at the meeting point) to take us out to farthest districts. We wanted to see small parties trying to understand it in different ways, so he drove us out of the centre and asked if he could do some visits. In the evening, after sobering up, people dress up and visit friends and family as part of the Holy custom. Them he started to visit his relatives, one by one asking for blessing and good luck, starting with his mother, his brothers, sisters, uncles and some friends. Every house he stopped, every corner he knows someone, we were toasted with smiles, colours and happiness.

Hours later, the man just parked outside a small house and asked for a few minutes. We kept outside photographing the neighbourhood revellers. Soon he comes back with a smile, asking if we would like to know his house, his wife and children. Surprised, we walk inside and soon we were toasted with a salty Lassi, they just had milked. The family have a cow in the backyard to provide their daily milk. They could not understand a word we said, but they just loved to receive us at home and treated us as part of their family.

At this point we realised that we had left the hotel fearing the Indian insane crowd and now we went inside their houses, dropping colour powder at their living rooms, meeting their families and drinking their milk. We were feeling at the skin the Indian culture duality. At this point, We understood that Indian Gods can create life and also destroy it, being evil or extremely good at the same time. Suddenly things were making sense for us, we were at home now. Happy Holy !

Curiosities about the Holy Festival:

  • The festival signifies the victory of good over evil, the arrival of spring, end of winter, and for many a festive day to meet others, play and laugh, forget and forgive, and repair broken relationships, and is also celebrated as a thanksgiving for a good harvest.
  • Holi is an ancient Hindu religious festival which has become popular with non-Hindus in many parts of South Asia, as well as people of other communities outside Asia. In recent years the festival has spread to parts of Europe and North America as a spring celebration of love, frolic, and colours.
  • There is a symbolic legend to explain why Holi is celebrated as a festival of colours. The word "Holi" originates from "Holika", the evil sister of the demon king Hiranyakashipu. The festival itself is believed to have origins from the Prahladpuri Temple of Multan in the Punjab region. The original temple of Prahladpuri is said to have been built by Prahlada, Hiranyakashipu's son.
  • Days before the festival people start gathering wood and combustible materials for the bonfire in parks, community centers, near temples and other open spaces. On top of the pyre is an effigy to signify Holika who tricked Prahalad into the fire. Inside homes, people stock up on pigments, food, party drinks and festive seasonal foods
  • Outside India, Holi is observed by the minority Hindus in Bangladesh and Pakistan as well in countries with large Indian subcontinent diaspora populations such as Suriname, Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago, South Africa, Malaysia, the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, Mauritius, and Fiji. The Holi rituals and customs outside South Asia also vary with local adaptations.
  • On Nepal, it is also known as the festival of colours or the festival of sharing love.