Varanasi can be an idyllic slice of serenity in the (jam-packed) wholesome cake of India. Take a walk along the ghats at sunrise or gently boat along the Ganges (300₹ each for 2px) and watch as the hazy atmosphere gets a dusting of soft pink and baby blue icing.
This spiritual place is where Hindus hope to be cremated. When the deceased are brought here, first they’re washed in the holiest river in the world, The Ganges – alongside locals who repetitively dip their heads under the water to rid of their sins.
Then, once their bodies have been presented to the God’s as a final sacrifice, they are turned to ash at the Burning Ghats during ceremonies that are made public to all. Lastly, their remains are scattered in the sacred water. It’s an unbelievable sight to behold!
In the old town, cars cannot cram and beep down the narrow backstreets and the locals are used to tourists, so you can walk in peace as you venture towards the famous Blue Lassi shop or dart in and out of the little shops that hang ornaments of gold and flowing fabrics from the entrance.
The main street is waaaaaay more hectic which can be the ultimate shock to your senses. My ears were full of street children’s cries as they gripped my hand and begged for milk and my eyes widened as I scanned the constant cars and bikes – watching carefully to avoid stepping out at the wrong time.
We zipped into one of the fancier restaurants a floor above the chaos just to escape and refuel before stepping out into the madness again (luckily the food is always pretty cheap despite the establishment in India). Our hostel, Stay Inn hostel, was less chaotic being tucked away near Assi ghat; down a quiet street where cows roamed in packs looking for rubbish to munch off the floor.
The two sides to Varanasi – the calm and the crazy – made us excited for our decision to spend Holi festival here…
If you’ve ever seen photos from this unique festival, you might have seen vibrant colours of red, turquoise, yellow, and purple splattered across the smiling faces of men and women and babies – a real sight of harmony to celebrate the love that Radha has for Krishna in the Hindu religion.
Sounds like a joyous unification, right?
If you witness the spectacle yourself, you’ll struggle to find the love that started it all. Firstly, how can there be love without women? Instead of equal numbers, the streets are overloaded with rowdy Indian men with one masculine mindset… ANYTHING GOES. The ONE Indian woman that we came across was down a quiet back alley inside the frame of her door, throwing coloured water at us from a distance with her young child. She didn’t dare venture out of her home.
We made an Indian girl friend at our hostel who explained how it’s really not safe for women to be outdoors during Holi and sadly how it isn’t safe for them either when their husbands stumble back, drunk and sometimes pumped with drugs, to “torture them”. Those words stuck with me…TORTURE. At the festival of love in this beautiful city of serenity, it’s heartbreaking that some women have to worry about being sexually assaulted and physically harmed by those who took a vow to love and protect them 😥.
Us Western women, being the independent and fiery bunch that we are, were also warned against leaving the hostel… but we wouldn’t let the men scare us away from seeing what we came to see. Luckily, we had a big group of us, so after partying in our hostel and being caked in colour (to prevent ourselves from being easy targets), we ventured out around 1pm. We were informed that before midday is the peak time for craziness, so to prevent harassment and the lads having their clothes ripped off (seriously), we decided to listen to the hostel owners advice and chill until it died down a little…
But it was still pretty nuts 👀.
From the second we entered the ‘real’ Holi festival, we had men gathered around us. We were an attraction to them and they touched our faces without warning, smearing handfuls of colour over our skin rather than throwing the powder from a distance like we expected. Some men wanted to touch our hands or give us a hug but once you allowed one to, you soon had a queue of touchy men all wanting to get close.
Our mission soon became clear: To keep moving and stick together…
We passed stumbling men, screaming men, men in full-faced masks, men with sticks, men in wigs, men with silver robot skin, men with smiles so stretched, they looked almost inhuman… and they acted it too. It was like Halloween on steroids. Bikes were beeping and whizzing past, some with the driver so drunk, you’d cringe as they wobbled past. I was forced to walk down the street with my arms covering my breasts after one guy on a motorbike fiercely made contact with my nipple. After that, another bike nearly went over as his mate reached out to grab me; I can’t deny that I laughed as they struggled to steady themselves, nearly hitting the floor. After about 20 minutes of walking the main streets and along the ghats, we were keen to get back to safety – and we definitely got back at the right time…
Gangs of shirtless young men, unrecognisable and unpredictable as a result of this, took to the streets of our hostel. We watched from the balcony as they intimidated with hockey sticks and flamboyant behavior. Clearly intoxicated, they’d slam up against Tuk Tuk’s, grab bike drivers to a halt and rip off their shirts, drag bollards into the roads to stop cars from escaping, do press ups on the streets to show off their ‘masculine’ bravado🙄…. but I suppose that’s what you get when a load of ameteur drinkers come together once a year to party. Honestly, it was embarassing to watch.
But luckily for us Europeans, Aussies and sensible Indians (we had the sickest group), we know exactly how to drink, our limits and how to make the best out of an unexpected situation🙏.
We still watched the spectacle unfold; eyes wide like saucers with an open-minded attitude towards their customs. We enjoyed the opening ceremony too, which took place around 11pm the night before. A bonfire was lit, music was blared and colour was thrown at us as we danced, like really danced, Hindi style, around the fire with groups of locals of all ages (my favorite being the cheerful old woman that was too fragile to even spin 💗). It was an incredible, authentic experience of Holi which we all loved, but even then, we had to leave prematurely once we started attracting too much attention.
We were lucky to have our hostel owners looking out for us over the two days, and I must say that they did all that they could to ensure the festival was a safe and pleasurable experience for us all! They put on games, provided colour, hosted water fights on the roof, took us out to the bonfire and gave us sound advice from start to finish to help us to make sensible decisions to prevent any trouble🤙!
Before attending, I had this impression that Holi festival was going to be a harmless non-stop party upon the streets of Varanasi. I thought I’d meet hundreds of locals and have an enlightening experience of their culture which would make me fall in love with India. Although I’m not denying that I had fun (I actually had a blast) and made new friends (in the hostel, sure, but still) – the experience was completely different to my expectations. I came away from Varanasi finding the city fascinating and beautiful, but its male occupants left a sour taste in my mouth.
In light of International Women’s Day yesterday, I wanted to post this honest account to raise awareness of the issues going on in our world. To all of the local women I’ve met here who are expected to stay indoors and endure; to keep quiet and accept their husbands hostile degrading behavior towards them like good little wives, YOU DESERVE BETTER! The culture over here is very different to ours in the West – but that does not mean that I, as a female traveller exploring these parts of the world, have to keep quiet and pretend like it is okay or acceptable for men to behave in this way towards women.
I can not ignore the grey cloud that looms over the Festival of Colour. When women support eachother, incredible things can happen and I want all of the strong beautiful females of India, and across the world, to bathe in colours as bright as their souls 💗!
Thanks for reading…