Known as the festival of colours, Holi in India is a spectacular occasion and should be on every traveller’s wish list. But, it’s not without it’s difficulties, especially for female travellers. After my visit last year in Rishikesh, I decided to put together a guide with some of the tips and tricks I picked up – from locals, fellow travellers, and from my own experiences. This is my girl’s guide to Holi…
In 2017, Holi will take place on March 13th, with the Holika Dahan festival on the night before, March 12th.
Holi isn’t just a big water fight with coloured powders! Take the time to understand the true meaning of Holi, and be a participant instead of a spectator.
The night before the colour play is Holika Dahan, the more spiritual side of Holi, where a bonfire is burnt to symbolise the triumph of good over evil. This all comes from the legend of Holika and Prahlad.
This colour play the next day comes from another legend about the blue-skinned god Krishna and his love for fair-skinned Radha. Krishna despaired that his blue skin would stop Radha loving him, so his mother told him to colour her face using jets of water. He did, making them equals, and the pair became a couple.
If you want the Holi experience you’ve seen in the photographs then you need to choose where you go carefully. It’s not the same all across India. Some places have huge celebrations, while in other towns its a small event that’s all over by midday, and others don’t celebrate at all. These are a few of the best places to see Holi in India…
Delhi – From what I hear from other travellers, Delhi has a jubilant celebration, but you might need to head to a specific event to get the biggest and brightest experience. Some people I spoke to said that most of the events were just organised for tourists, though, so there’s a chance this won’t feel like the most “authentic” experience.
Rishikesh – This is where I was last year, and it’s considered to be one of the best places to celebrate Holi in India. A holy city, Rishikesh has a huge celebration with a really welcoming and fun atmosphere. It’s also quite a small city so the colour play and water fight takes over almost all of it. Read more about my experience here.
Varanasi – The spiritual capital of India, Varanasi is another great place to have an authentic and slightly more spiritual Holi experience. But that’s not to say there won’t be plenty of fun, too. Read more in this fab blog post from Make My Trip.
Mumbai – My friend Tay has celebrated Holi in Mumbai, and says it’s crazy, with celebrations all over the city. “The streets were full of people, mainly in the morning – men selling coloured paint powder from stalls and people dressed up in zombie outfits and riding past on bikes and throwing powder at each other.”
Unfortunately, being a girl in India (especially a foreign girl) can lead to lots of unwanted attention. During Holi, when the streets are crowded and everyone is pretty fired up, there are sadly a few men who use this opportunity to attempt sexual harassment. For the most part, this is pretty mild, but it can put a downer on an otherwise fun day.
People from smaller villages and rural areas often come to the larger cities for Holi, and many of them have never seen a foreign woman before. Unfortunately, some of them have the wrong idea about Western girls and will go for a boob grab, bum pinch, or even a kiss if they see a chance. Its annoying, but its mostly fairly innocent so try not see it as a threat. These are just men who think very differently to us, so educate them – by getting angry if you have to. Be careful, stay in populated areas, and only go to places where you can see local women celebrating too. Here are a few more tips for solo female travellers on Holi…
Go with a Group
Find a group to hang out with, preferably one with a few boys in it. I was staying at Bunk Stay Hostel in Rishikesh, and most of us went out into the streets together. Try not to get separated and don’t go off on your own. Normally, I hate giving the advice “stick with boys” to a solo female traveller as I think we should feel empowered to be independent. But this is a bit of an extreme case, and it is definitely easier if you’re part of a mixed group.
There’s a lot of hugging during Holi, which is mostly a sign of welcoming and togetherness. But some guys get a little too enthusiastic. My advice is to avoid hugging men, and push them away if you don’t feel comfortable. .
There’ll be more on this in a second, but the best way to avoid being groped is to dress well. Cover up as much as possible and avoid clingy or revealing clothes as these are really just asking for trouble. And remember that white will likely go see-through once it’s wet, so layer up!
By coincidence, I happened to be wearing a very padded sports bra because it was the only bra I didn’t mind getting dirty. As it happened, this was so thickly padded and rigidly supportive that anyone who was groping me didn’t really get to feel anything! If you really don’t want to have your boobs squeezed, strap them away behind an armoured strength sports bra (I was wearing the Panache Wired Sports Bra) and you’ll have an extra layer of protection.
Steer Clear of Bhang
If you haven’t tried it before, I’d advise you to steer clear of bhang on Holi. Bhang is an edible form of Cannibis and is popularly served in the form of bhang Lassi or as snacks like bhang pakoras. It can have mixed results and affects some people quite strongly, or it could just make you really sleepy causing you to miss the fun of the day. If you’re not sure – steer clear. And if you do take bhang, remember it can be pretty slow to take effect, so wait a while before deciding you need another lassi!
(Thanks to Desi Traveler for this tip.)
Please don’t take the above warning too extremely – the few boob gropes and butt grabs I experienced were not enough to ruin my day or make me think that solo female travellers should avoid Holi. It’s not dangerous, but there are dangers out there – so you need to be aware and take precautions. Definitely go to Holi if you get the chance, throw yourself into the celebration, meet locals, and have fun. It’s an incredible occasion and one that should not be missed.
As mentioned above, it’s important to dress appropriately for Holi. Not just to avoid attracting unwanted attention, but also to avoid having your clothes ruined or feeling uncomfortable. These are a few of my tips on what to wear for Holi…
Wear white. On Holi, it’s traditional to wear white, mostly because this way the colours will show up best. Many shops will sell white clothes in the run up to Holi, including cheap second hand stuff so you don’t mind it being destroyed.
Your clothes will probably be destroyed! So don’t wear anything, even underwear, that you particularly care about.
Cover up. Be respectful of local culture by keeping your shoulders and legs covered.
Cotton is the best choice of material since it’s breathable and lightweight.
Avoid clingy or transparent clothes. And remember that white has a tendency to go see through when wet, so pop a vest top underneath.
The Best Holi Outfit
- Kameez or kurta in white cotton. Loose fitting and preferably with long sleeves. The more skin you cover, the less chance of staining!
- Long shalwar trousers or white leggings.
- Vest top.
- Rubber flip flops (the cheap-o bathroom kind) are the best footwear for Holi. Avoid leather, which stains easily.
- Sports bra (as mentioned in the section above).
- Sunglasses or swimming goggles to protect your eyes.
The powders and dyes thrown around during Holi can stain, big time, especially if you have lighter or blonde hair. Mine was very light bleached blonde when I attended Holi in Rishikesh last year and I was really scared of staining – but I managed to come away unscathed thanks to three layers of protection. Here’s how I did it:
Layer One: Oil
Yes, it’s gross, and yes, you’ll probably look like you’ve wandered off the set of an am-dram Greece production, but I promise it’s worth it. Slick your hair back with a nice, thick layer of oil and the dye just won’t stick to it. I used coconut oil and it worked like a charm, so that’s what I’d recommend. But you could also use hair serum, leave in conditioner, olive oil, Vaseline, or basically anything else that you have to hand! It’s also worth coating your hairline with a line of Vaseline to add an extra layer of protection here, in case the next two layers slip out of place slightly.
Layer Two: Shower Cap
Not winning any fashion awards at Holi, was I? Next onto my head was a cheap shower cap which I picked up from a nearby pharmacy. Not particularly attractive, but it did the job!
Layer Three: Headscarf
Last but not least, I hid it all with a nice, white headscarf. You can tie it in different ways to make the look a little more stylish, and opt for one with a pattern or a bit of colour if you prefer. But I recommend you completely cover your hair with it. Tie it well, because mine came undone throughout the day and wound up looking like the mess you see in the above picture!
All this might sound a little over cautious, but I know people who still had pink bits in their hair several weeks – even months – after Holi. If you have blonde hair it’s especially important to cover it up, unless you don’t mind waiting for a multicoloured mess to grow out!
Unfortunately, a lot of the colours thrown at Holi are cheap, chemical-filled dyes that can be pretty bad for your skin. So it’s worth taking a few steps to protect yourself:
Buy organic colours. Not everyone will, but at least you can.
Don’t wear makeup (or go easy on it, at least). Especially because you’re about to get soaked and have it all washed off anyway.
Moisturise. What most local ladies do is use a light layer of oil to moisturise their skin before Holi, as this stops a lot of the colour from sticking.
Wear suncream. On top of the moisturiser or oil, apply waterproof suncream all over.
Wash off the colours immediately after Holi to reduce contact time. Try to avoid soap and instead use a gentle cleanser, in case there is any reaction with the chemicals.
Your lips can get stained more easily, so use a good moisturiser or some Vaseline to keep them protected. Top it up throughout the day.
Again, nails tend to stain more easily – my fingernails were still multi-coloured weeks later. Paint your finger and toenails a dark colour to keep them protected, and remove it after Holi for clean, untarnished nails.
Wear sunglasses to keep your eyes protected from the dyes which will be flying everywhere. If you wear contact lenses, note that these are semi permeable so they won’t protect your eyes. A pair of cheap sunglasses (mine are still stained!) will do the trick, but they’re not perfect. If you really want to avoid getting nasty chemicals in your eyes, you could wear swimming goggles. It might feel a tad dorky but I promise you won’t be the only one!
Honestly, the best way to protect your stuff is to leave all of it behind. Unfortunately, crowded events like Holi can attract pickpockets and thieves, so there’s a chance you could lose your valuables – especially if you’re drinking or taking bhang with the locals. Plus, there is a lot of water and paint being thrown around – even journalists carrying DSLR’s weren’t safe. So, leave anything you don’t need at home and avoid wearing jewellery.
I just took a small amount of cash and a bottle of water in my bag. If you have a GoPro or waterproof phone case you can take that, but keep it attached by a wrist or neck strap and be very careful of it. Some people wrapped their DSLR’s up in plastic bags, but personally I don’t think it’s worth it. There’s always someone who won’t hesitate to empty a bucket of water on you, camera or no camera.
If you want to be extra careful of your valuables, you could use an anti-theft bag with slash-proof straps and a lockable zip. Read my review of the Travelon range for more information.
Taking Photos at Holi
If you really want to take some photos without destroying your camera, do it from somewhere high. Lean out your hotel window, or better still, from a roof terrace, to get some street shots. Avoid taking your camera down to street level unless you have some very good protective gear.
Have you been to Holi in India? Scroll down to share your tips in the comments and help your fellow travellers out.