You’ve seen the photos and now you want to go to India and have the real experience for yourself. But, there is more to Holi festival and getting the most out of the experience than is at first apparent. This is our guide to help you learn from our mistakes and maximise the fun!
Holi Festival has been on our bucket list for sometime. In fact, it was one of the only events that we planned our trip around before even arriving in Asia a year ago.
After much deliberation we opted to spend Holi in Jaipur, Rajasthan. From researching on the internet you always see the best of everything. We had a fantastic time at Holi but there were a lot of misunderstandings about exactly what to expect. Finding an authentic experiences, or the biggest party was not as easy as you may think. But we did alright.
Watch the video of our short, but sweet morning at Holi festival and then read on below for our top tips on how to get the most out of Holi for 2015 and beyond.
This is the information we wish we’d realised in advance so we could have got the most out of Holi 2014. Hopefull it will help you to have the best Holi possible for the future.
1. Street Parties are not what you’d expect
After attending Songkran and Thingyan for the Buddhist new year, we’d gained incorrect expectations that Holi would be similar and people would be celebrating everywhere en mass. They are celebrating all over, but only in small groups. A couple of residential streets full of families all colouring the pavement. Groups of men and boys riding around on motorcycles throwing paint.
It’s localised pockets of revelry, especially in Jaipur, and unless you are a local, it is not easy to know where to go. We were lucky that our tuk-tuk driver took us to his little suburb after driving through empty streets for 30 minutes.
As our driver explained, Holi is a holiday. People go home, all the shops are closed. Areas of the city that you’d expect to be bustling, are full of tumbleweed. Even temples in Jaipur were devoid of life. Forget your assumptions and ask the locals where the real party is.
2. It’s all over by Lunch time
It’s easy to assume that because Holi is officially one day, that all the photos and videos online are from the day of Holi. They’re not. In some towns, like Varanasi, Holi starts days before in a minor way. In Kolkata, we were told that there major celebrations would be the day/night before. The images you see of colourful people raving into the night are almost certainly from the night before.
The day of Holi itself finishes around 1pm. Then everyone heads home to clean up and get changed. That’s not to say there are not still people covered in colour – that stuff stains! Or that cheeky/drunk people won’t continue to harass you on the streets. But, Officially it’s all over by lunch time – so get up early and make the most of the morning.
3. Choose the right city for the experience you want
This is harder than you think. Locals we spoke to in Jaipur stated “Rajasthanis know how to play Holi!”. When we eventually found some action, they were certainly excitable. It wasn’t quite the pandemonium we’d expected based on the hype though.
Some of the top candidates are:
It is certain that North India, rather than South, is the place to be, but Jaipur was a little tame. Mathura is famed as the wildest location, which had been our first choice until we changed to Jaipur because of many other misleading internet reports… Such as:
4. There are no Elephants at Holi, Jaipur
Like almost every other foreigner we met throughout our few days in Jaipur, we’d come to enjoy the Holi elephant festival. This normally takes place the afternoon before Holi and is said to be quite a spectacle. A google search will reveal multiple images and articles of hordes of elephants, covered in hindu artwork.
The reality is that in 2013 the Elephant festival was cancelled a couple of days before Holi. This is due to complaints by animal rights group PETA, stating that the paints used were toxic. In 2014, once again, a couple of days before the festival, it was cancelled.
Call me cynical but:
- If the paints were toxic in 2013, why did they not just use non-toxic paints for 2014 so that the festival could go ahead?
- If the council knew it got cancelled in 2013, it seems suspicious that they would fully promote it for 2014 and then cancel again a couple of days beforehand. Perhaps the tourist board didn’t want to kill off Jaipur’s main draw card for Holi…
Something fishy is going on. If your main reason to head to Jaipur for 2015 is because of the Elephants, don’t count on them being there.
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5. It’s not all in India
Because Holi originated in India it’s easy to assume that all the photos online are from India. Further investigation reveals that a lot of them are from other countries. From San Francisco to Paris and all over the world, Indian communities come together along with other foreigners to celebrate this sacred Hindu festival.
In India, you can celebrate anywhere and hence there is no need to have one designated place where thousands of people congregate. In Paris, the police might not be to happy to find people running amok and throwing paint all over the champs elysees. In India, that is expected. Nowhere is safe.
The point is, a lot of the biggest parties are outside of India where people have to celebrate in a single location.
6. Be Careful
Getting the authentic experience, rather than the policed, tourist filled party, means putting yourself out there.
What our video above does not mention is safety. The warnings about Holi are not exaggerated. Solo females should really avoid wandering the streets alone. Women will get groped, or worse. Almost everyone we met had been that day, including everyone in our group.
One of the girls we were with also had her face smeared with motor oil, rather than colour. Whether this was a prank for Holi, or pure jealousy because she was blonde and getting a lot more attention than the Indian women, we’ll never know. The fact remains that it happens, and furthermore, it’s common if you are not careful.
If you want to get out of the tourist bubble and enjoy the real Holi, just be aware of your surroundings. When the action heats up – we were quite literally mobbed at one point by kids and adults – it’s time to move on, quickly. In general people are just being friendly but it can get out of control.
Our final stop of the day was the official Jaipur tourist association party. Effectively this cordoned off area was fully cared for by the police. They refused any locals who looked drunk, any groups of Indian men and admitted mainly foreigners, families and women who could then enjoy the colour in safety.
They also had a very strict “one strike and you are out policy” for all men, we saw a lot of people being thrown out. This is all well and good, but it was just some speakers in a field playing mostly international (and surprisingly highly sexual) music for tourists to dance around to.
It’s not the ideal environment for a real, local experience but for solo travellers, it’s a nice option to have.
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Did you go to Holi Festival?
Tell us about your experience or tips for having the best time possible.