Sunday, April 10, 2016

Holi in Jaipur

Many of you very nice people have reminded me that I have yet to blog about India.  "I want to see pictures!" you say.  And so, I give you pictures. Some of my favorite pictures of the trip, since they tell the story of our Holi celebration.  (Because I'm giving myself reasonable expectations for blogging and I am going to go by story priority this time instead of in chronological order.)

For me at least, Holi, the Hindu festival of spring and colors, was the entire reason to go to India over spring break.  It's been on my To Do list for some time, but I just figured I'd wind up playing colors in Utah at some point.  To have the festival align with my break dates was sheer providence, and I wasn't going to pass an opportunity like that up.

If you'd like the tl;dr version of this tale, our Holi experience is pretty much summarized in this clip from our ride around the city:

But if you want the details, by all means keep reading.

We arrived in Jaipur on Wednesday, and our haveli (former mansions turned hotels in India) greeted us with carnations:

Holi is actually a two day festival, with a bonfire and festivities the first night and the color games on the second day.  Our hotel, eager to offer "safe" celebrations for their guests, encouraged us to join in at the bonfire that night.

They greeted us with red and gold thread wristbands, dots of red on our foreheads, and handfuls of popcorn:


It was a fairly tame celebration, and we turned in for the night shortly thereafter.

Thursday morning we donned our Holi clothes and headed out on the town.

It occurred to me that this is an excellent opportunity to pull out my Thai monastery clothes.  We also put the waterproof iPhone cases Jason put in our Christmas stockings to good use.

Problem is, we weren't quite sure how to go about finding festivities.  Our hotel was hosting a Holi celebration that included a buffet lunch and "safe, organic colors."  This sounded unappealing to me.  I didn't want to spend Holi in India behind the garden walls of a hotel surrounded by other tourists.  I wanted to be out in the town!  See the real thing!  Be accosted by and celebrate with strangers!  Warnings from guidebooks, websites, and our hotel hosts be damned, I wasn't going to waste this holiday in sheltered safety.

And frankly, we were absolutely fine.  We met lovely people, had a blast, and aside from some lingering hugs from a few guys and one unexpected enthusiastic groping (which I'll tell you about in a moment) I was not harassed or treated inappropriately in the least.

A big part of the success of the holiday we owe to this guy:

That's Shiva.  We met Shiva when we stepped outside the walls of the haveli and he pulled up in a tuk-tuk.  "You want a driver?" he asked.

We hesitated.  We didn't have a plan yet; which if you know any of us you know means we were all feeling a bit wary, exposed, and overprotective.  Still, this is what I wanted, isn't it?  So let's go for it.

"Sure," we said, climbing in.

"Where to?" Shiva asked.

"We want to see Holi," we said.  And suddenly, we had a plan.  Or at least Shiva did.  He assured us that we were in good hands, put a bit of color on us to get the party started, and we were off.

We drove for all of one block before Shiva stopped next to a group of people at the start of color play.

It was a mix of foreigners and locals, and at least the locals seemed to know Shiva.  He greeted the group as if he was friends with all of them.  The other foreigners seemed a bit shy like us, but they gradually started patting colored powder onto our faces.  Shiva thrust a bag of color into Jason's hands so we could repay the favor, and soon we were exclaiming over the vibrant colors and happy atmosphere.

It wasn't long before Justin broke out those dance skills he honed at BYU:

and even Jason acquiesced to getting messy; although I think his expression in this video shows just how big a concession that was for him:

Soon Shiva suggested we move along, so we waved goodbye to the revelers and hopped back in the tuk-tuk.  

Shiva took us through the city, showing us parts of Jaipur and stopping at one of the many stands to get each of us a bag of color of our own:


He also stopped to get himself the turban he's modeling in that first photo of him.  We didn't buy any of the hundreds of water guns we passed at similar stands, but we did get attention from passing revelers.  They'd point at us, wave, call out "Happy Holi!" and, if we were at a stoplight, they'd hop off their motorcycles to pat color on our cheeks and receive color from us in return.

One fellow sidled up next to me at a stop and asked, "Selfie?"

"Okay," I said, and smiled for his camera.  I held up my phone to indicate wanting a photo of my own.  He nodded enthusiastically, then swooped in:

We heard loud music thumping up ahead and soon came upon a group of men partying.  Shiva pulled the tuk-tuk over and encouraged us to hop out and dance.

Jason and Justin jumped into the crowd, but I hung back to get a few photos.  Well, the photos were mostly an excuse since dancing's always a bit intimidating for me.  Soon Shiva gestured for me to join in, Jason called out to me from the throng, and I reminded myself that I was there to celebrate Holi, dang it.  I tucked my self-consciousness deep down, picked up my skirt, and started dancing.

The men cheered.  It wasn't long before they were taking turns dancing alongside and/or with me.  A few of the braver ones would take my hands or pretend to grind while their friends cheered them on.  One fellow plunked a turban on my head and snapped a few photos of me in his headgear.  Another worked up the courage to stop dancing, hold out his arms and say, "Hug?"  Laughing, I hugged him as the surrounding guys hooted and called out, "Lucky!  Lucky fellow!"  Next thing I knew, they were coming in for hugs from all directions.

We decided to move on not too long after I got an accidental mouthful of color powder.  As I rinsed and spit out bright pink water over and over again, Shiva shook his head and counseled, "When playing colors, eyes closed, mouth closed."

After looping around the city in his tuk-tuk, Shiva invited us to go back to his house to see how the locals celebrate.  He had explained that families all celebrate at home and the public revelry is really just the guys who want to go out and get drunk.  Indeed, we had yet to see any Indian women out in our adventure, so I was eager to see a family celebration.

Shiva is also a liaison for an international volunteer organization, so we swung by their dorms to pick up a teenager from Bogota who's been under Shiva's care for a few months; then headed back towards the hotel to Shiva's neighborhood.

He parked near our haveli, next to the entrance to an alleyway.  There were some other tuk-tuk drivers and tourists there, and after we all did the compulsory color-patting on each other, Shiva led the way between the buildings.

"This is where my family lives," he said cheerfully.

"How many people?" we asked.

"About 1500," he said.

We encountered more and more kids as we went further in, some of whom were brave enough to say, "Happy Holi!" and put a bit of color on the foreigners.

At one point, one of Shiva's friends (cousins?) grabbed my wrist and announced, "Women this way," pulling me into one of the homes.  There I met a group of women who were in the midst of cooking lunch.  They greeted us and we exchanged colors.  The cousin pulled an older woman up from the floor of the house and insisted that we give her some color.  We refused at first, she since was obviously telling him quite sternly that she did not want to get messy, but he told us to do it anyway.  "It's Holi!" he said.  "It's expected!"

I held out my bag of color and the woman dipped her hands in and patted my cheeks green.  I dipped in a finger and brushed a dot onto each of her cheeks.  She beamed at me, then gracefully turned to repeat the ritual with each of the ladies the cousin had pulled inside.

We rejoined the rest of the group and Shiva led us through the maze of dirt paths between cement and pink and white-washed walls to his house.

 Shiva's wife poked her head out of the kitchen when he called a greeting, then came out smiling shyly.  Pros by now, we greeted her with pats of color.  She used our color bags to put a bit of powder on Jason and Justin's cheeks.  She patted my cheeks as well, then grinned cheekily and shoved her hand down my shirt.  "Happy Holi!" she shouted as she flapped her hand between my breasts, covering my stomach and chest with color.  I exclaimed in surprise and had barely caught my breath when she grabbed another handful and lifted up my shirt from the bottom to clap even more powder on my stomach.

By this point, we were certainly colorful messes:

Shiva introduced us to his kids, who ran up to the kid from Bogota and quickly covered him in color.

They obviously knew him well, and when Shiva's daughter came at him with a bowl of muddy-looking colored water, he stopped looking as shy and uncomfortable as we seemed to make him and joined in the fun, grabbed her as they both squealed and giggled:

 Shiva fetched a blanket from inside and spread it on the ground for Jason and Justin to share, then found a small plastic stool for me to sit on.  Shiva's wife came out with a plate of food we passed around and sampled.

The yellow stuff on the right tasted sweet and coconut-y while the nut mix on the left had some kick to it.  Shiva brought out a photo album to show us pictures of his kids, of his family, and of the various travelers he's met.  At every picture of a foreigner, he would tap the photo, tell us his/her name, and proudly announce what country they were from. 

Someone turned on some music and soon the alley was packed with people.

I was chatting with two girls from Australia when a man showed up with a small metal bowl of spicy yellow rice.  The man (Shiva's brother, perhaps?) went to each of us in turn and insisted we try the dish "because it's Holi!"

 Jason got away with taking his sample with his fingers, but the fellow scooped up a big helping with his wee metal communal spoon and pushed it directly into my mouth before I could object.

As the party seemed to be winding down, we excused ourselves to head back to the haveli for a late lunch.  We called out farewells, I was force-fed another spoonful of rice, Shiva walked us back out, and we made plans to meet him again later in the day for another excursion.  We paid him, thanked him, hugged him, and walked to our hotel just down the path.

After the exuberance of the street celebrations, the hotel's affair looked so much the quieter.  We picked up some food from the buffet and took a seat in the large dining tent.

We were certainly not the only tourists covered in powder, but I think we may have had the most layers.

We took turns in the bathroom trying to scrub the color off our hands, but as I ate speckles of red and purple kept falling on my plate from my face. I ate around them the best I could; then figured that if I was going to die of color poisoning, the mouthful of pink from earlier is what would do me in.  (That's homemade cinnamon ice cream in a banana leaf cup Jason's enjoying, btw.)

As forecasted, the celebrations were pretty much wrapped up by then, about 2:00 in the afternoon.  We weren't quite done yet, though.  There were two elephants in the driveway of the hotel, and we were going for a Holi ride, dang it!

The attendants got all three of us up the ladder onto the elephant on the left, and once we were settled we took off for a loop around the driveway.  The attendant took my phone at one point and shot about 600 photos of us on our 8 minute ride.

When the elephant returned to the tent, the attendant instructed Jason and Justin to step on the elephant's head and hop down:

I scooted forward to do the same, but both attendants flapped their hands and insisted I wait.  And so I sat on the elephant waiting.

And waiting and waiting.  It was long enough for me to wonder if they were going to let me get down or if I was going to get a bonus ride.  It was also long enough for both of the elephants to let loose phenomenal amounts of urine, which actually made me glad that I was a good nine feet or so above the splash zone.

Eventually, they brought a ladder to the elephant so I could climb down from my elephant as a lady should.

The hotel had put out giant barrels of water in the garden, so we stopped there on our way to our room to try to get the worst of the powder off.  Justin wasted no time stripping off his shirt and soaking his head.

I meanwhile was a little less sucessful getting the color off:

We took turns in the shower, gingerly avoiding touching anything until we had sloughed off the worst of it all.  Even with a lot of soap and scrubbing, my skin stayed pretty pink.  Well, except for my belly which, thanks to Shiva's wife, stayed pretty green.  It took a couple of days for the pink stains on my face to fade, and my scalp stayed pink long after I got home.

I tossed out my skirt and garments but kept the t-shirt and bra, which I now fondly think of as my Holi bra, streaked with pink, purple, and brown as it is.  Relatively clean, we headed back out to meet Shiva for some shopping, which is a good enough story to merit its own post.

And that was Holi!  It was an absolute delight and one of my favorite things I've ever done while traveling.  I am happy that we didn't stick to the safety of the hotel, and I am really grateful that we met Shiva, since he made the day what it was for us.  It's fun to think that in Jaipur there's a photo album that I'm sure now includes a picture of me, which Shiva will point out to his future guests and say, "This is Amanda.  She is from America."


  1. I love this story! What an amazing day! It looks as beautiful as I always imagined it would.

  2. Wow! What an experience.

  3. I loved every second of this post!

  4. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  5. I loved every second of this post!