10 Tips to Prepare You for Holi as a Foreigner and a Photographer
Holi in India is truly special, and something you should experience at least once …
But it can be incredibly overwhelming if you’re not prepared. Read on carefully to get the most out of the experience.
Holi, otherwise known as the Festival of Colors, is a very special celebration that takes place in India for two days during the last full moon of the Hindu luni-solar calendar to honor the triumph of good over evil, and the transition from Winter into Spring. There are multiple meanings and stories behind the origins of Holi, and while those meanings vary slightly between different parts of India, there are two that are most prominent. The first is of the demon king Hiranyakashyap who tried to burn and kill his own son Prahlad with the help of his evil sister, Holika Dahan — Holika burned in the fire instead. The second is of the antics between Krishna and Radha who would throw colors on each other and play pranks around the villages. In a more general sense, Holi is also meant to remind us of the role of color in our lives, and the frequencies they emit. Our chakras are represented by different colors, and spreading these colors on one another during the full moon raises our energies in the same way it raises the tides.
While Holi is truly a special experience, it can really be overwhelming if you aren’t ready for it and you don’t know what to expect. Here are my 10 tips for making the most of your first Holi experience.
1. Wear goggles and masks.
While the powders are pretty to look at, they are very bitter to the taste and can be irritating to the eyes. The powders used to be derived purely from natural plant sources, but reports have shown that there are now a multitude of synthetic ingredients mixed into them, some that could even potentially be toxic. That said, I didn’t experience any serious skin or stomach irritations at all from getting it in my mouth, so it seemed fine! When it does get in your mouth, though, obviously do your best not to swallow, and prepare to spit out what looks like a thick paint for minutes until the powder is mostly gone from your mouth. When choosing the right mask, do better than I did and try to find a waterproof or water-resistant mask to go over your mouth, unlike the one I used. The last thing you want is for the water and powders they throw on you to hover over or around your mouth just waiting to be ingested. My eyes are extremely sensitive to pretty much everything, so I definitely couldn’t risk any of the powder getting into my eyes because I knew it would ruin my experience. These protective goggles that I found on Amazon were perfect and kept the powder out! To top it off, since they’re huge and there’s a lot of surface area, it made it so that no matter how much powder and water people threw on me, the goggles were never fully covered and I could still see!
This is me looking a big distraught after a group of men that asked to take photos with me ended up grabbing my neck and pulling my jaw as we posed for the pictures. But I quickly separated from them and continued on with the festivities!
2. Tie your hair up.
Once you actually touch your hair after playing Holi, you’ll notice it feels a lot like a thick, drying clay. Tying your hair up helps to prevent it from getting into every single little crevice. It’s not terribly hard to get it out of your hair, it’s actually harder to get it off of your skin and scalp, so just make sure you bring a good shampoo and conditioner. Also try and shower fairly quickly once you’re done so you don’t give the powders too much time to settle and stain your skin.
3. Move with the flow of the crowds, or prepare to get pummeled. You’ll likely get pummeled regardless, even if you do move with the crowds.
I’m a small human, so it’s generally fairly easy for me to get pushed around in large crowds, but this is an extremely pushy and aggressive environment. Even my boyfriend who is 6’1“ was getting thrown around. There are obviously points where you’ll to have to cross the flow of foot traffic or even move against it, but for the most part, try to not resist the flow for the sake of your own sanity.
4. Don’t be afraid to let people rub powder on your face.
It’s totally natural to be a bit apprehensive when there are countless hands coming straight for your face with heaping piles of powder, but this is all part of the celebration. When people do this, just share the experience, smile, make eye contact, and greet them with a “Happy Holi!” I guarantee you this will make you feel more welcome within the large crowds, and add value to the experience. The locals love seeing foreigners excited to celebrate with them.
5. Be ready to be grabbed, pulled, and maybe even groped. And be ready for tons of locals to ask to take photos with you.
Once you accept that this is just going to be a part of the experience, you get over it pretty quickly. There was a point where I was posing for a photo with some of the local men, and a couple of them were clamping onto my neck and jaw areas really tightly, and it made me really uncomfortable. At this point, I just grabbed their hands and gently forced them to loosen their grip a little, took a couple photos and quickly moved on. A key thing to remember is just that people are really excited during Holi, and they likely don’t mean to be really aggressive, it’s just misdirected excitement. As a woman, you might feel men grab you from time to time (I’m pretty sure men get groped as well), which is typically unacceptable, but because you are in large, highly congested crowds, this is one of those situations where you just have to shake it off and keep it moving!
6. Rubbing oil all over your skin and hair before playing Holi helps to prevent the powders from sticking to your skin.
One of the locals taught us this trick a day too late (we had already played Holi the day before), but apparently this is what they do in order to make it so it’s much easier to wash off when the festivities are over. Any oil should work — vegetable, coconut, olive, etc.
7. Wear light colors, and materials that won’t become transparent with water. Also, wear clothes that you won’t mind throwing away afterwards.
To allow for more Instagram-worthy photos and to avoid just looking dark and murky, wear light clothes so that the colors saturate your clothes vibrantly. Darker clothes just end up looking dusty. Also, since people will be throwing buckets of water and spraying hoses and water guns, try to avoid clothes that become translucent when wet. You didn’t sign up for a wet t-shirt contest!
8. Absolutely protect your camera with a waterproof bag, or at the very least, a tightly sealed ziploc bag.
If you’re like me and you want to photograph Holi but you don’t want to bring a full blown waterproof housing, there are several ways to protect your camera effectively without weighing your luggage down or breaking the bank. For my Canon 5dMkIV, I just bought this waterproof bag on Amazon, cut out the plastic part at the very front that protects the front lens area (because my lens was too long to fit in it), and then resealed it with some extra plastic and gaffer tape. To protect the front of the lens where I cut the plastic, I just used my UV filter since it’s removable and easy to clean.
9. When photographing people, use your discretion in figuring out who to capture.
Judging from my personal experience, for the most part, almost everyone was excited about being photographed and would often jump in front of my camera when I’d hold it up. However, there are a few locals who are a bit more conservative and get uncomfortable when a camera is pointed at them. Use your discretion and your best judgement to ensure you are respecting the locals by being mindful of every moment your camera is pointed at someone!
10. Have some fun! You’re playing Holi!
I know this long list of tips might make you apprehensive about experiencing Holi, but seriously, it’s something you should do at least once. Yes, it’s absolutely exhausting. Yes, it can be a bit irksome when someone seemingly targeted you and your mouth to throw a huge chunk of powder into. Yes, you get wet and you get pushed around. Nevertheless, it’s a special experience, and it’s a wonderful crash course into the way holidays are celebrated within Indian culture. Just be sure to stay safe, protect your belongings, stick with your group, and don’t hold back! Celebrate!