Mathura is not on the tourist beat but it is the birthplace of the Hindu God Lord Krishna, which makes it the top spot for Indians to go and celebrate the world famous Holi Festival. Even if you have never heard of the festival, I am sure you've seen the photos of people throwing powdered paint at each other in the streets. That, is Holi and I had been waiting a long time for this moment.
Mathura is definitely, in no way, a touristy destination and lacked a lot of the common amenities that the more well visited locations in India have. It was quickly apparent that we had found ourselves in the 'real India' and it was definitely more in line with some of the feedback we'd received from others before arriving in India.
We were extremely tired from our long travel day, so we found some food and got ready for an early night. But first we had a happy reunion with one of our friends and guides from Breathe In Life who was on a scouting mission to see if Holi in Mathura would be a good addition for their next guided trip.
Day 257- We woke up early and excited with anticipation for Holi festival. We dressed in ready to throw-out clothing and joined the madness of the colour celebration.
Our experience was one of conflicting contradiction. What I mean by this, is that we would have moments of fun and joy mixed with moments of appallingly offensive behaviour that scarred my view of this controversial festival. Straight out of the gate I realized what I had to look forward to for the rest of the day. As we hailed a tuk tuk, a small group of Indian boys came over to share their colours with us. While we were trying to get into the tuk tuk, one or two of the boys literally smashed me in the face with the colourful powder. Afterwards, the same guy furiously rubbed some black ink on my face. I grabbed his hand, twisting with all the force I could muster and told him to 'never do that again!' I will admit that this didn't start me off with the best impression but I was ready to get to the temple to take some pictures. As we walked down the long street towards the temple, the festival was in full swing. All around us colour filled the sky and people could be heard saying 'HAPPY HOLI' to one another. I had read a lot about holi prior to going and although I read many warnings about women and their experiences at the festival, I still wanted to see it for myself. However, I did take some of the cautions to heart and made sure to cross my arm over my chest when hugging the locals. You see, as a custom of the festival, people who are playing holi, take the coloured powder and wipe it across another players face, they then hug the individual who was blessed, twice, moving their head on one side, then on the other. (similar to how the french kiss on each cheek)
Although my arm crossing manoeuvre gave me peace of mind, it didn't stop locals from trying to aggressively grab a feel when they hugged me. You could feel the wild mob mentality of the place and it had our senses on full alert. We realized that we would need to be careful and secondary to my defensive arm crossing manoeuvre, we quickly developed another defensive strategy. As I had mentioned before, Indians love taking photos of themselves, so this was our second defensive tactic. Anytime things would get too aggressive or the group surrounding me was too large, I would hold my camera out and say 'stop stop let's take a photo'. It worked.
Okay, let's take a selfie everyone... it worked again. Although the man beside me squeezed my backside while taking this photo... no not Mike, that wouldn't be so offensive.
Our third defensive manoeuvre was used when we needed a break from the festival. By standing with Mike and staying with our backs against the wall, we were able to take small timeouts as we tried to make our way down the street. It was the only way to keep from getting attacked with powder as the 'bad ones' would always come from behind while you were surrounded by a large group of locals. I was still trying to enjoy myself and not let the inappropriateness ruin a day that I had long awaited. I was definitely happy to see how colourful we'd become.
As we would step back out into the street, it wasn't long before I'd disappear amongst the crowd and left Mike looking around anxiously trying to spot me within the coloured group. It's crazy how quickly you get separated with so many people and it was unnerving. Everyone gets powder rubbed in their faces... that is part of holi... but it was very clear that women, especially foreign women, got more than the usual treatment. Mike and I would get stopped by some men who would begin by throwing/rubbing powder in our face and within seconds we would be surrounded by a mob of locals, all taking their turns much more aggressively forcing the powder into my mouth and eyes and passing me from man to man to get hugged, sometimes with ill intentions. The issue is that some of the locals are not inappropriate so you want to keep playing but that would just leave us open to more poor behaviour... We had had enough.
I didn't have the patience or the ability to be ok with the behaviour... not that I should have needed to and I wanted to get out of there. I asked a store owner if I could go to the roof of the building overlooking the front of the temple and he agreed.
Once upstairs, a woman invited us over to her balcony where we could watch the spectacle below.
Loved seeing all the men drive by on their bikes just covered in colour. How they could even see I don't know.
It was during our stay on this balcony that my opinion of Holi changed completely. We watched foreigner after foreigner get pounced by men and we saw their reactions each time they were groped. We were also able to pick out the men who would continuously target the women, waiting with paint in hand to strike. At one point, a group of beautiful Indian women, dressed in clean sparkly saris were making their way to the temple to celebrate this religious event. It was obvious that they were not playing holi but it didn't stop the men from dousing them in dyed water and coloured powder. The women literally ran for safety while trying to cover themselves with their scarves.
In the next photo the women are huddled together trying to enter the temple from the ladies side and the boy at the bottom right is throwing blue dye on them. The truly alarming observation was that the locals adults were not reprimanding this behaviour. In fact, some of them were joining in. It is a very scary thing to see a large group of people acting in this way and an even scarier thing when they aren't even trying to hide their poor behaviour. It was clear that society had given a pass to its members on this 'Holi' day.
The lovely woman, from the home we were hiding in, offered us some lunch while we waited for the madness to extinguish. This was a great surprise as we had not eaten the entire day and it was almost 3 in the afternoon. Most store owners close on Holi, which made it difficult for us to feed ourselves... so we just didn't.
The woman was so kind to invite us into her home and wanted nothing more from us than a few photos! haha Indians love their photos.
She also shared her opinion of the festival. She said, 'although the religious aspect is sacred, she does not partake in the colour portion as it is not safe'. She also mentioned that her son called her from down the street, where we'd begun our walk to the temple and said a foreigner had had her clothes completely ripped off and she was crying. That was it for us. We were done with Holi.
It is very hard to write this post because by looking at the photos, it looks like a great, fun time. And I won't say that it was all bad. I love my photos and being able to capture this festival on camera was my entire motivation. However, after seeing how myself and others were treated, it makes it difficult to support such an event. If a woman asked me if she should go to Holi, I would say absolutely do not go to Mathura. I would recommend going somewhere more touristy and peaceful like Rishikesh or Goa. Unfortunately the authentic experience isn't always the best. In this case, Mathura doesn't see a lot of tourism. When you combine that with alcohol, drugs, a removal of moral standards and a reason to touch and hug women, the outcome will never be a positive one. This was only my experience and my opinion but I hope it can help others who have aspirations of attending Holi one day.
Day 258- We took the train from Mathura back to Delhi and enjoyed the excitement of the general class seating for a cheap $5 ticket.
The locals on the train were just as excited to have us on there with them and many of the men sitting across from us took turns coming over to shake our hands. They even sent their youngest son over for a hand shake... Our celebrity made no sense to us but we were happy to hang out.
The men across from us were Muslim and handed out pieces of paper to those sitting around them. The paper wasn't in english but I had figured it had something to do with sharing their religious views. The men sitting below us were Hindu and the two groups engaged in a friendly conversation about religion. I would catch a word or three every once in a while, so I knew the reason for the conversation. At one point when Mike stood next to them, the muslim man grabbed his attention and asked "who was the first man on earth?" Mike responded with a carefully crafted answer, "well, in my opinion, the first man on earth was Adam", the muslim guy said "HA" with triumph to the hindu gentlemen he was discussing the matter with. Haha It was as if Mike was the aficionado on the matter and they turned to him to to settle their disagreements. Mike, knowing politics and religion can be touchy subjects always gave very politically correct answers but whatever he would say was accepted by both parties as 'the truth!' It was hilarious.
So.. a muslim, a catholic and a hindu walk onto a train...
We thoroughly enjoyed our general class train ticket back to Delhi. Once we arrived, we went straight to the shopping mall in Gurgaon where we spent the day writing post cards and the blog and enjoying some other lovely amenities that can only be found at the mall. That night we hopped on a train to what would be our last taste of India.