Running the Gauntlet
How I survived Holi, the Hindu festival of color
By Brad Miller
With a loud crack a water balloon exploded at my feet. I never knew balloons could be so loud, but of course, I had never had them lobbed at me from six stories up before.
As I dodged flying projectiles and ducked underneath overhanging balconies, I reflected that just a day ago I had been looking forward this. Just a day ago I had heard about the Hindu celebration Holi, which involves throwing water and dye at strangers.
Just a day ago my hosts warned me it could be rough, and exchanged dubious glances when I told them I wanted to be in the thick of it – to get good pictures and experience as much as I can. I didn’t understand why they all opted to sit out and stay home.
Now I understood.
It all started about nine in the morning.
I had been told to stay on the market road. While most of Holi is good fun, there are some who celebrate, in the words of my hosts, “bad Holi.” They use it as an occasion to get very drunk and may throw eggs or assault people. With most people clearing the streets, the protection of crowds was diminished.
And why do they clear the streets? What I discovered is that, for all practical purposes, Holi is celebrated as a giant public water fight. And if you’re on the streets, you’re fair game.
So to the streets I went. Clutching my camera I was determined to be part of the holiday.
Click here for a behind-the-scenes look at how I waterproofed my camera.
The streets were nearly empty, and quiet. Suddenly, a balloon exploded at my feet. I looked around. No one. Then I looked up, and up, and up. From the top balcony of a four-story apartment, the grinning face of an eight-year-old girl peeped out, already armed with another balloon.
I decided it was time to pick up the pace.
It didn’t take long to feel like I was being hunted. Narrow roads framed on either side by apartments means dozens of potential attackers at any point. Children crouch in side alleys, armed with squirt guns filled with dye, ready to ambush any passers.
After getting surprised a few times, and narrowly escaping a large bucket of dye dumped from several flights up, I discovered the trick was to watch the road, not the windows. Dry road – no attacks. Wet road – somebody is hiding. Road red with dye and paint – abandon all hope ye who enter here.
After making it to the market road and chatting with some revelers, I decided it was time to turn back. I went back the way I came, expertly avoiding the concealed ambushes I had discovered earlier.
But in the time it had taken me to walk, more children had awoken and joined in the game. At the narrowest point in my journey, where an hour earlier it had been clear, I discovered a river of red. Streets and walls drenched in dye. Lining up along the balconies on either side were entire families armed with balloons, squirt guns, and buckets.
I had discovered the Gauntlet.
And it was the only way back home.
Cue Theme Music
Like any good photographer, my first instinct was to stay put and photograph other people being drenched. Eventually though, I knew I had to stop stalling and make my move.
Ducking into an open garage, I got as close as I could without exposing myself. Peeking up at the first armed balcony, I saw one of the kids had spotted me. She had a small bucket in her hand and a big grin on her face.
It was now or never…
I took off down the alley, hopping over puddles, balloons exploding on either side. There was a showering crash as a bucket-load of dye landed right behind me. For the briefest moment, I was Indiana Jones, running down the passage with darts shooting from the walls all around me.
Out of the corner of my eye I caught sight of a small boy with a water cannon. As I blew past him I knew this wouldn’t be good.
The boy fired and I felt the cold spray soak my back and run down into my sandals. I was “this” close to escape, but no one celebrates Holi without getting colored. Not even Indiana Jones.
A Holi-day to remember
As I made my way back home, exhausted, tie-dyed, my sandals squishing beneath my feet and my face and arms a peculiar combination of red and blue, I couldn’t have felt happier.
Only a day ago I didn’t know about Holi. Now, I’m never going to forget it.