Sunday 12th March – Much like small children on Christmas day, we were awake and ready to celebrate before most people had even got out of bed. Heading out in our old white clothes we were greeted by… not a lot. At 7:30am people had not yet taken to the streets to celebrate Holi; the festival of colours celebrated in India, but crucially also in Nepal one day earlier than the Indian version.
Thankfully we found at least one open cafe, and after a leisurely breakfast we set off towards Durbar Square where we were assured the celebrations would be particularly lively once they had got going. On the way we began to encounter people with painted faces and water pistols. Some wished us a Happy Holi as they smeered coloured paint on to our faces.
As we approached Durbar Square we came across more and more people with colourful powder on their faces and clothes. We hastily purchased some colours of our own and joined in with the celebrations putting colours on passers by and wishing them a happy Holi. Soon Philipp was approached by a wild lady. He went to wish her a happy Holi and put some powder on her face, but as she jerked ended up putting a handful of his green powder in her mouth. The lady gave a loud cackle and ate the powder, then went for the rest of Philipp’s powder toppling him over in the process. She then half danced, half run around us triumphantly holding up a bag of emerald powder. She was very keen to have photos taken of her and seemed to want to obtain more of our powder, but we were extra carful after seeing what happened to Philipp. In the background we could hear that nearby people more were celebrating so we headed towards the commotion, in the process managing to leave the over enthusiastic lady behind.
At the main square a smallish group of people gathered and were throwing powder at each other and jump around holding arms. We joined in with the fun. Initially we were par of a small group of celebrating people surrounded by a crowd of friendly and fascinated Chinese tourists, snapping photos of us on expensive DSLR cameras meticulously covered in plastic for protection from colourful powder and water. Gradually more and more people joined in with the celebrations and soon the whole square was heaving with joyful people. To get a bit of a rest and a better vantage point of the celebrations we followed in steps of the others and climbed on a building resembling a wide pyramid of sorts. From there we had a great view of the celebrating people below us. Then a percussion band appeared and marched through the crowd banging out a tune on their big drums, cymbals and other instruments. The crowd went wild and started dancing to the rhythm provided by the newly arrived band. We climbed down the pyramid and joined in with the dancing. Philipp picked up Alicia and David picked me up on his shoulders. The atmosphere and vibe was fantastic. The people were friendly and we had so much fun, that when we realised what the time was and how late it got, we were very sad to have to go. We needed to return to our hotel to shower of the colours before heading to the airport for our flight back to India.
It was on leaving the festival giddy and excited that disaster struck. Having just exited the crowd I patted my pockets, expecting to feel the familiar lump of my phone on my left. Feeling nothing but cloth we pushed back into the mass of people and started frantically looking and asking around – perhaps the phone had merely slipped from my pocket and been picked up by a kindly stranger. This never seemed very likely: the pocket it was in had been secured – admittedly only by velcro, but enough to make an accident rather unlikely.
What followed was an absurd trip around Kathmandu – with only just over 3 hours until we were due to fly to Delhi. We were desperate to find a police station and report the phone stolen in the hopes that we might be able to claim against insurance. Clad in flip-flops and soaked head-to-toe in paint we marched out from Durbar square, only to be sent back that way, then out in a different direction by the successive instructions of policemen. Eventually we found our way to a station, where the officer on duty summoned a truck of tourist police, who after talking to us summoned another small truck of police, who drove us to another police station where we filled out a report and were rewarded with a tiny scrap of paper for a receipt. It didn’t look like something any insurance company would ever accept.
We now found ourselves in conundrum – we were a long way from our hotel where Philipp and Alicia were waiting with our luggage, we had no money for a taxi, and little idea of how to get there. To make matters more difficult the streets had transformed from the quiet of the morning into a full scale warzone, with water balloons flying from all directions, and buckets being emptied from the rooftops above. Somehow we muddled our way back to the hotel and jumped into a taxi for the airport. Of course we were still covered head to toe in paint, and had to rush through immigration and security in this manner. Luckily the officers on duty were more amused than anything else and all wished us a Happy Holi with grins. We made the flight with little time to spare, and on the plane carefully read the terms and conditions of our insurance – phones were one of the few items not covered. Our mad trip around Kathmandu we could only chalk up as experience.
Holi in New Delhi was very different to our experience in Kathmandu. Unlike in Kathmandu we had not located one main area were people congregated to celebrate. We did read about organised, paid-entry celebrations across the city but we did not go for any of them. Instead in the morning we met up with the friendly local family who invited us over to their house for tea the night before, after seeing us admire a massive bonfire on the street and striking a conversation with us. The bonfire was huge and very near to the electricity wires hanging over the street – we were rather amazed the fire remained contained.
The next morning we bought some Indian sweets and visited the friendly family. From their balcony we watched a rather intriguing game where a group of men clambered on top of one another with and goal of grabbing a clay pot with a coconut in it, hoisted up by string held by people from their windows on opposing sides of the street. The pot wobbled some 5 to 6 meters above the spot where the previous night the fire raged. To make things more interesting for the onlookers and harder for the participants, locals attacked the participants with water from hoses and water guns. Eventually the clay pot was captured and smashed and the game was over. We had some masala chai with our hosts and then left to celebrate on the streets.
For hours we wandered the streets around our hotel and took part in celebrations. The weather in Delhi was slightly hotter and dryer than in Kathmandu. Almost everyone out on the streets carried their bags of colours and approached strangers of the street to wish them a happy Holi. For most part the celebrations were friendly and the people we encountered polite. We exchanged many hugs and wishes with strangers. However I also encountered first hand what David read about on the internet and in the newspaper available at our hotel. Namely that majority of the people celebrating on the streets were men and many of them used the Holi celebrations as an excuse to inappropriately touch the ladies, with numerous men ‘accidentally’ grazing my bosom or butt with their hands. The other minor complaint was how hard the water balloons were thrown at my head by people (mostly kids) on the streets and from rooftops and balconies. Forgetting these two things and the loss of David’s phone I really enjoyed the Holi celebrations.
Eventually, exhausted from a day spent mostly aimlessly wandering the streets we returned to the hotel for a break and a wash. We had hoped to find some sort of party to celebrate Holi in the evening as well, but most bars in the area were actually closed for the day. We found some open places at Connaught Place, however these were pretty dead – although they were intriguing trendy places with loud music pumped throughout we saw no more than a couple of people in each place. Apparently Holi really is a daytime public celebration, but the evening is reserved for family time – by late night the chaotic streets of the day became serene and quiet, a real novelty in India.