Find yourself in India’s capital at a certain time of year and you’ll be in for a rude surprise. New Delhi may be the subcontinent’s most ordered metropolis—a planned city of wide, tree-lined boulevards and arterial roads, yet such cosmopolitan tidiness is subverted somewhat in the month of March. You’ll notice it in the blue dogs that wander the Chandni Chowk market place and the pink hair of the older folks sitting in front of the modernist Lotus Temple. You’ll certainly notice it when a total stranger approaches you outside the beautiful Red Fort and pours a bucket of bright orange gloop over your head.
The Hindu Festival of Color, known as Holi, is a riot of paint throwing and water splashing. Paintballs, squirt guns, and buckets are all used as neighbor turns on neighbor in a violent explosion of color letting. Mounds of vibrant powder sit in front of market stalls as vendors take advantage of the population’s 2-week obsession with paint and pigment. Musicians bang on drums while dancers take to the streets in what is an exuberant celebration of the coming of spring. Gangs of youths high on traditional marijuana flavored milkshakes wander the streets with armories of dubious colorants looking for a victim. Foreigners are not immune to their attentions, so do what the locals do and don some old clothes. Many of the dyes are permanent so it is also a good idea to cover your hair and face. Harmless dried flowers were the traditional source of color for centuries, used with flour and water. However, rampant urbanization in the region means there are fewer flowers, so poorer people are using synthetic dyes of dubious origin with serious concerns regarding toxicology. One year it was discovered some villagers were dousing each other in asbestos powder and other dyes used reputedly induced asthma, blindness, even cancer.
Holi is celebrated throughout India, Nepal, and Bangladesh, and the Hindu diaspora around the world. It is especially intense in the northern region of Braj, where different villages and towns have their own traditions, usually associated with the myths and legends of the Hindu god Lord Vishnu as the area was reputedly his youthful hunting ground. One such ritual is the Lath Marholi in the town of Barsama. There, thousands gather to reenact a piece of mythical domestic violence. Women beat men around the head with large sticks while the males respond with lewd and provocative songs. Not all of it is play acting. The entire countryside lights up with thousands of bonfires to celebrate the triumph of good over evil. In the town of Vrindavan, revelers gather at the tall, red, bullet-shaped temples to Krishna to throw orange petal water and sing the Hindu folk songs known as hori. From here you can make a 1-day trip to the Taj Mahal, that monument to love amidst this celebration of color.