You’ve probably heard about Holi before, to many foreigners (myself included) it’s just that
massive festival in India where people throw paint at each other in the
streets. And while that is definitely a big part of the fun, ‘playing Holi’ as
the Indians would put it is just the culmination of days of worshipping and
As I felt that this spectacle was too big to put into words myself, I’ve enlisted the help of my
friends James and Lizzy who have both written small but compelling accounts
from our time in Jaipur. Lizzy’s account focuses on her experience as a tall
blonde white Australian she stuck out easily in the crowd and quickly became a
target for some of the Indian men and their ever present barrage of selfies. James has given an account of ‘Fire Holi’ which occurs on the night before ‘Colour Holi’. Unfortunately I was lay on the couch watching the cricket so I wasn’t able to experience or shoot the bonfires he describes, but I think his words alone do it justice.
James Baxter - Fire Holi
A sacred tradition,
a touristic undertaking, a drunken celebration, an annual cleanse.
I do not know how the 4 million people in Jaipur defined the 24hrs of the Holi
festival. Frankly, I do not know which category I would put myself in. Perhaps
I simply ebbed and flowed through them
all as the day progressed.
With the intention
of pure observation, I set out alone in hope I would stumble across a bonfire
in the neighbourhood. I had not been told the reason why there would be a
bonfire the night before Holi. Admittedly, I was grossly unaware of the
significance of the 24hrs to Hindus as I perceived March 2 as merely a date on
the calendar to drunkenly fling colours at people on the streets. Although I
had based my entire schedule around this day, I hadn’t prepared myself for the
underlying meaning of the proceedings.
The fire erupted
quickly just two blocks from our hostel. Within seconds the flame erupted two
storeys high and everyone, the entire neighbourhood, quickly began pacing
around the fire. I was pulled in, swiftly and quickly, and was instructed to
walk four laps.
Four laps down and the entire neighbourhood stood around the flames as a sombre
silence fell upon the onlookers. We were all immediately given a small plate
with a customary fruit and chocolate based dessert and the welcoming ambience
implored me to find out more. The man who pulled me into the ritualistic march
seemed to be the leader of the group so I politely strolled across to be
He spoke with the wisdom of an elder but had the look of a businessman. His
voice had an enthusiastic formality as many gathered to hear the story they had
grown up with being told in a different language to, essentially, a blank
canvas. I do not know whether it was the story or the environment I was in but
I felt like a schoolboy with sensory overload - the combination of the flames
and the beaming of the wide-eyed onlookers illuminated the teacher. He went
into great detail. To say ‘I won’t bore with you the details’ is giving the
grandeur of the tale an unjust reputation. However, the crux of the story
centres around the son of the devil denouncing his father and instead praising
Vishnu, a principal deity of Hinduism. The sister of the devil, Holika,
attempts to murder the boy, Prahlad, in a fire before he is rescued through the
power of prayer to Vishnu.
As the story developed, one by one, men would peel off from the group, grab a
traditional shrub-like plant, light it in the fire to burn the seeds and pace
on up the street to their home. Enquiring about the lighting of seeds, the leader
stated that by burning them they were making an offering to their god, and by
returning these burnt seeds and eating them in the confides of your own home is
to let god in.
As the numbers trickled down, the gentleman, who had been standing next to me
the entire time, realised that it was his time to disembark, tapped me on the
shoulder, bent over, touched my feet, stepped back, bowed, smiled and left.
Before I had time to take in the immensity of his gesture, he had gone. He
didn’t want to speak to me, he didn’t want me to know about his life, he didn’t
want anything. We had not interacted, yet he still felt so powerfully inside
that he should show me the deepest sign of respect. I was taken aback. In India
this act is generally reserved for a ‘master-servant’ relationship - I had
never felt the power, and shame, of being born white until that moment. The
leader could tell I was, although touched, quite uneasy that I would be viewed
on such a pedestal. He went on to reassure me that the man was trying to
communicate that he was so filled with pride that a foreigner wanted to learn
about his culture that he felt obliged to thank me for being so inquisitive and
The bonfire signifies triumph of good over evil and is largely unknown to
visitors. In a split second act of gratitude from an Indian man, Holika Dahan
washed away evil for millions of Hindus and taught an Aussie boy the universal
good that lies within open-mindedness.
A White Woman’s Experience - Lizzy Reynolds
Holi is Indian life in its boldest and purest form, a glimpse into a world often hidden to
outsiders. It’s a day where communities come together and join their neighbours
in a celebration of colour and joy.
It is chaotic and overwhelming with alcohol fuelling actions and hands straying where they
shouldn’t, but that is no different to the rest of the world. What Holi posses’
that city clubs or late night bars lack is moments of giving back to the people
and beliefs that have supported people through life.
Even as foreigners we were welcomed into temples and embraced by new friends, the colours becoming a masquerade to overcome the stigma of human touch, something that is rarely seen in India.
People greeted strangers with open smiles, smearing bags of colour on each other’s cheeks
while repeating “Happy Holi”. As bodies pressed uncomfortably close and more
hands threw colours into your eyes it was hard not to feel a moment of
vulnerability. These overwhelming seconds would be broken by a tug at your
shirt as a small hand reached up to smear colour on your skin, the child’s
smile growing wider as you reciprocated the greeting.
Holi is not only about the colours, it is also a day filled with water balloon fights and
backyard cricket until sunset when the locals reappeared in their finest
clothes to pray at the temple. People who were unrecognisable hours before
joined their families to pray and sing with other worshippers. It was the first
moment all day that I felt I was intruding into a private moment of the Hindus,
However, the Indians didn’t follow this belief and again we were welcomed with
warm smiles by people who were more than happy to share their faith.
As the procession finished I shook hands with an Indian man, a smile appearing on both our faces as he summed up his love for his culture: “Holi is a chance for us to be