Celebrating Holi: From Southern India to Nepal
My first attempt at celebrating Holi —usually referred to as the Indian festival of colours, but in fact a Hindu festival that is celebrated primarily in northern India and Nepal sometime in March—didn’t go so well. I was in Hyderabad, India, conducting research, and meant to be meeting up with my partner, who was flying in from Australia. The day before Holi, in the middle of the night, I received a text message from him saying he’d missed his flight and was stuck in Melbourne.
My phone had run out of credit, so I couldn’t try to contact him until the morning. When the morning came, I wandered around the quiet streets looking for an open shop to sell me a recharge card. Because of the holiday, nothing was open except for the central Post Office. I went in there looking for a phone, and when I was told there wasn’t a public one anywhere, I broke down in tears, feeling stressed and out of options.
A kindly man took pity on me, miserable-looking creature as I must have been, and let me use his office phone. It didn’t actually allow me to call an Australian cell phone, but I appreciated the gesture. It’s these acts of kindness that happen all the time in India that make me refuse to believe the worst about all Indian men.
I didn’t see any of the wild colourful fun that is supposed to ensue, nor—thankfully—the vicious groping that apparently bombards women on this day in certain cities.
I had lunch at my favourite dosa restaurant, which I’d been visiting every day of my two-week stay in Hyderabad, and noticed that the upholstered seats were all covered in thick plastic sheeting. Now and then customers would come in looking a little dishevelled. In fact, I asked a waiter if there were any Holi celebrations nearby, and he just shrugged, saying maybe earlier in the morning there had been.
I was in India and I had missed Holi. I didn’t see any of the wild colourful fun that is supposed to ensue, nor—thankfully—the vicious groping that apparently bombards women on this day in certain cities. In fact, I later learned that Holi isn’t much of a big deal in the south of the country anyway, and in Hyderabad I was on the cusp of central and south India.
A few years later I was living in Kathmandu, Nepal, and determined to make up for my missed Holi celebrations. My flatmate worked for the United Nations, so most of the other expats I hung out with in Nepal were European, North American or Australian UN staff. The stories of Holi celebrations were legendary: every year, this one house puts on a Holi party. Different people live in this house each year, as the UN crowd is transient, but they know that it is their duty to host The Party.
Why this house in particular? Because it is in a nice neighbourhood with a lot of Nepali children who like to play Holi with the foreigners, but also because it has a lot of balconies, and all of the floors are stone (making for easy post-party cleaning!)
Kathmandu shuts down on this one day in March, and if you don’t want to get wet or doused in coloured powder (or both) then don’t leave your house or hotel.
Holi is a festival that welcomes in the warmer months: because South Asia does not really do ‘spring’ as Europeans or North Americans know it, the festival celebrates the passing of the cold and the arrival of the warm—or the extreme heat, in the case of Northern India. Kathmandu’s winter is not long or especially brutal, as the cold only lasts for one to two months, but with crippling power cuts that are at their worst in the dry winters, these months are a psychologically difficult time for Kathmandu’s residents. So Holi in Kathmandu really feels like the joyous celebration that it is meant to be, whether you’ve grown up with the tradition or not.
Kathmandu shuts down on this one day in March, and if you don’t want to get wet or doused in coloured powder (or both) then don’t leave your house or hotel. My flatmate and I were ‘attacked’ before we’d even made it into a taxi. Then again as we left the taxi and dashed into the house. And then for the rest of the day, too.
Everyone had stocked up on beer as well as water balloons, water guns, buckets, coloured powder (don’t think too much about the chemicals in that stuff!) and other necessities with which to fight the neighbourhood children (and some not-children, too!) The house’s large three-storey balcony was, indeed, a prime spot from which to pelt water bombs. It was most fun to throw them at people who hadn’t seen us up there.
Celebrating Holi: From Southern India to Nepal
The stone floors though, mixed with excessive amounts of water, were treacherous. A friend called up from the street that he needed backup supplies (yes, this was a battle zone) and I ran along to help. As I was thinking I should be careful on the stairs, I slipped, slicing open my foot on the railing.
It sobered me up quickly, and I was entertained by the inebriated first-aid that I received. But I had to sit out the rest of the day, watching everyone else get increasingly colourful, in the literal and metaphorical senses of the word.
I suspect that celebrating Holi, for me, is a little bit cursed. But as it farewells the winter—at least for another year—I’m OK with that.
Celebrating Holi: From Southern India to Nepal photo credits by Elen Turner.