Celebrating Holi as a woman in Varanasi

My experience celebrating Holi as a woman in Varanasi, India, and tips on how other lady travelers can stay safe and have fun during Holi in India. Check out this post for general tips on playing Holi in Varanasi.

 

“Don’t go outside before 12.”

“Don’t celebrate on the streets with people you don’t know.”

“Find a home stay and celebrate with the family in their courtyard.”

In the days leading up to Holi, I was convinced I’d be sexually assaulted the moment I stepped out the door and into the color.

Everything I read proclaimed Holi a man’s holiday, at least where public celebrations are concerned. Internet denizens said the holiday had devolved into groups of dangerously drunken men wandering the streets, grabbing women under the guise of “celebration” (not unlike Christmas in Goa). Indians, both male and female, advised female travelers to stay inside until the color celebrations were over, for fear of their being groped, assaulted, or even raped. I devoured post after post of warnings and horror stories, trying—and failing—to gauge the reality of celebrating Holi in Varanasi as a woman.

Celebrating Holi as a woman in Varanasi - Colored powders for Holi on sale - Lost With Purpose

It was confusing, and a far cry from the image of Holi the media had painted for me. What happened to jolly rainbow people? Explosions of color? Dancing in the streets? Beyonce being bossy AF?

By the time Holi rolled around, I was effectively psyched out… but equally stubborn. Though everyone from our guesthouse owner to some of our Instagram followers had warned me to stay inside, I couldn’t handle the idea of passively sitting and waiting while the men finished playing their colorful games. Fuck that.

Armed with a selfie stick-cum-baton in case anyone got too frisky, Sebastiaan and I ventured out onto the streets of Varanasi, ready for anything and everything.

Heading to Varanasi  outside of Holi? Check out Quirky Wanderer’s first impression of Varanasi for more info!

 

Celebrating Holi in India is something on every traveler's bucket list... but many are not aware that it's mostly men celebrating Holi on India's streets! If you're a female traveler looking to celebrate Holi, read on for my experience celebrating Holi as a woman in Varanasi, and tips on staying safe during Holi.

 

This ain’t so bad

At 9 in the morning, the streets were beginning to fill. Groups of aunties scuttled by, glowering at anyone who dared to come near their fresh new Holi saris with colors. Handfuls of young girls lurked behind doorways, eyes glittering deviously as they waited for the next unsuspecting target to pass within range of their water artillery.

But aside from the occasional demon damsel and irked auntie, everyone on the street was most definitely male.

Celebrating Holi as a woman in Varanasi, India - Groups of boys dancing during Holi in Varanasi - Lost With Purpose

Men – many. Females – 0.

Initially, it wasn’t much of an issue. Boys were hanging out in packs as always, but when they came over to wish us happy Holi and put color on us, they were respectful and asked for permission.

Though they were drunk, no one was too drunk. If a boy’s Dutch courage was at the tipping point, his friends would shoo him away from me or other foreign girls around, and put him in his place. I shook plenty of hands, got dozens of handfuls of color to the face, and even received some non-gropey hugs.

Celebrating Holi as a Woman in Varanasi - Friendly men on the streets during Holi - Lost With Purpose

Not nearly as bad as people made things out to be!

 

Walking targets

As time passed, though, the average level of sobriety in the crowd began to dip. The number of boys on the streets swelled, and they all became more boisterous. There was more jeering and shouting, more and more hands reaching from behind me to smash color in my face without warning.

Celebrating Holi in Varanasi as a Woman - A group of foreigners for safety - Lost With Purpose

Safety in numbers, right?

By this point, Sebastiaan and I had joined forces with a small group of foreign tourists, four boys and one girl. It quickly became evident that the girl and I had the biggest targets on our backs. While the boys in the group had a decent rainbow dusting, the girl and my faces and shirts were beginning to blacken with the amount of dry and wet colors being forcefully smeared on our faces. I often spotted the girl running away from grinning boys, covering her face as they ignored her shouts to stop.

Celebrating Holi in Varanasi as a Female - Boys dancing in the streets - Lost With Purpose

This guy got a little too frisky with my female compatriot

What began as good fun quickly became tiring. I was constantly having powders and sludge mashed into my nostrils, my eyes, my mouth. When I stopped to clear my vision, I’d be pelted with water balloons or buckets of water—some colored, some not. Sometimes more chivalrous men would jump in to stop the endless assault, but the young boys were relentless, and would often ignore their shouts. Still, we carried on, unwilling to let the frustrating few spoil the fun.

 

Boobs, please

Things escalated around Gowdolia Chowk, one of the central roundabouts in Varanasi. We encountered a friendly group of boys, and got talking. As they were moving to leave, they asked to hug us, and we acquiesced. Each of them gave me a politely distant hug, with a “Happy Holi” before moving on.

Everyone except the last boy, that is.

He moved in for the hug a bit too eagerly, and before I could do anything, I could feel his fingers grabbing at my (nonexistent) breasts.

Aw hell no.

Before he could move away, I grabbed him by the scruff of his shirt, hit him in the face, and starting shouting all kinds of threats at him. But rather than look remorseful or scared he just looked a bit confused, so I added a kick to the balls for good measure.

Alas, at this point, a crowd was gathering and shouting at me to stop—go figure—so his friends ushered him away as Sebastiaan and I moved on, Sebastiaan chuckling gleefully at the boy’s chastisement.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t the only instance of unwanted attention. Another boy grabbed at my breasts as his friend drove him by on a motorbike… but I caught them at an intersection, strangled the boy, and gave him a verbal licking. Resolved.

Celebrating Holi as a woman in Varanasi, India - A mob of dancing men - Lost With Purpose

This mob went from fun to fail in about 0.2 seconds

Half an hour later, when we were walking down one of the market streets near the main ghat, a drunken man approached me, forcefully trying to put color on my face. The next thing I knew, I was surrounded by a mob of boys, grabbing at me from every which way under the guise of putting color on me. Luckily, someone fished me out of the crowd and other boys on the street angrily pushed the mob away.

 

Is it a bad idea to celebrate Holi as a woman in Varanasi? 

This isn’t to scare you away from Holi, but rather to give you a balanced idea of what to expect, both good and bad. Remember, every person experiences something different—this is just an account of what happened to me.

Though I was groped and swarmed by creepers, I had far more positive interactions with men on the streets. Many were happy to see us out enjoying Holi, and stopped to chat and tell us a bit about the holiday. Other boys stopped to make sure I was okay, and to warn me of particular areas where I was likely to encounter dangerously drunken mobs. Dozens of men approached politely to wish me well, shake my hand, and take a photo with my blackened face.

Celebrating Holi in Varanasi as a Female - Jolly drunks on motorbike during Holi in Varanasi - Lost With Purpose

Jolly drunks (… on motorbikes…) not creepy drunks!

In the end, celebrating Holi as a woman in Varanasi was still a fun experience, despite the occasional lecherous monkey. I’m a firm believer in not letting men get in the way of my fun, and encourage other ladies to do the same. Don’t miss out on the holiday simply because some men can’t keep their hands to themselves!

Celebrating Holi as a woman in Varanasi, India - A very painted face - Lost With Purpose

Up next: scrubbing for hours

There are some more tips below on how to stay safe during Holi, just in case. Whether or not you need them, safe travels, and Happy Holi!

 

Tips on staying safe while celebrating Holi as a woman in Varanasi

  • If you’re traveling India solo, go out with a group. You can find people in a hostel or guesthouse, or join up with people on the streets.
  • Wear something under your white clothes. You’re going to get wet.
  • Don’t be shy about refusing hugs (or colors on the face). Just say “no hugs” when someone is approaching.
  • If a man touches you inappropriately, beat the shit out of him.
  • Don’t enter crowds of dancing men.
  • Don’t walk alone into alleys filled with groups of guys.
  • If drinking, don’t drink so much that you can’t handle yourself if something happens.
Celebrating Holi as a woman in Varanasi, India - Boy with water gun - Lost With Purpose

Thug.

  • Carry a water gun so you can blast creepers in the face. Lead paint to the eyes is totally acceptable punishment.
  • Head out early, around 8 or 9. People get drunker as the day goes on, though the police will make them go home by 1 or 2.
  • If you’re not comfortable going out onto the streets, many hotels and hostels have Holi parties in their compounds, and you can always watch from a rooftop. Stops Hostel is famous for being a good place to celebrate Holi as a foreign tourist.

 

Celebrating Holi in India is something on every traveler's bucket list... but many are not aware that it's mostly men celebrating Holi on India's streets! If you're a female traveler looking to celebrate Holi, read on for my experience celebrating Holi as a woman in Varanasi, and tips on staying safe during Holi.

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Alex

American by birth, British by passport, Filipina by appearance. Addicted to ice cream. Enjoys climbing trees, dislikes falling out. Has great fondness for goats which is usually not reciprocated.

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22 thoughts on “Celebrating Holi as a woman in Varanasi

    I’m not surprised by what they did to you but, what seems incredible to me is that all those people who grabbed at your breasts, they probably did it in front of Sebastiaan, right? What was his reaction? I am also traveling with my girlfriend and, in Palestine, some Arabs try to flirt with my girlfriend, asking for her phone number and sometimes, even asking for a kiss! In front of my face! I’m always like, dude what the fuck?

    Alex says:

    It’s disturbing whether or not I’m accompanied—it shouldn’t make a difference if there’s a boy with me.

    I think Sebastiaan’s presence wards off a lot of unwanted advances, but we’ve also had problems with men propositioning me while he’s standing by. He’s usually quick to retaliate when he sees something happening, though men in India can be uncharacteristically subtle with their groping at times. This time, though, he was right there with me shouting at the offenders 😛

    Ellie Cleary says:

    Great writeup Alex (as always)! Agreed there are so many warnings, information and opinions about women celebrating Holi in the media it can be hard to know what to do. Particularly it can be hard to gauge what is risky and what isn’t risky in different cultures, especially in a huge country like India where everyone has a different opinion and experience. Like you, I resent being turned into a paranoid traveller but equally staying safe is important. I found that a constant balancing act in India. So thanks for this balanced post – it clearly shows that just as 95% of people out there are wonderful, welcoming, friendly and respectful, there will be those that will try and take advantage. I don’t think I would risk venturing out on my own at Holi, but I would as part of a larger group – as you suggest. It also sounds like it’s better to go out early and go home early before the drunkenness deteriorates too much. Stunning pictures…. hope you’ll include these in the print gallery :-).

    Alex says:

    You hit the nail on the head. There’s plenty to be concerned about as a female traveler in India, without a doubt. But staying inside and hiding from it all is a much bigger loss than having to deal with some unsavory characters every once in a while! Though you’d know that better than I by now 🙂

    The gallery is (slowly) coming. My god we have so many photos! India photos might not be up for a while… 😛

    *sigh*…. why is it so hard for people to just be normal and civil? This kind of thing annoys me in every country – leaves me shaking my head and saying “What is wrong with people?!?!”.

    I’m glad you got to have some fun while you were there, and I’m sorry to hear about your experiences later in the day. Thank you for writing this up – I’m glad you tell the truth about it, and not just that it’s something to be avoided at all costs. For the most part, it seems like a lot of fun.

    Alex says:

    We often wonder the same. Is it that hard to act like decent human beings?! It’s certainly not a “cultural thing” to not act like a lecherous twat (to use official terminology).

    But never fear, it was all well and good in the end of the day! I would still recommend it to other lady travelers.

    Shabbir M says:

    Wow! I admire your ‘not throwing the baby with the bathwater’ attitude. Not discounting the good in the face of bad. Most people like to generalize all on the basis of a specific few. Few remember the fact that human nature transcends class, culture and geography at times. It pains me to learn about your unpleasant experiences (and doubly so, and coupled with shame since it was in my motherland that you had to endure such sexual predation). Sad that the land that gave the world the Kamasutra is also the one that is presently universally known for sexual depravation and its subsequent manifold manifestations). However kudos to you for venturing out unfazed and genuflections to your indefatigable spirit for travel experiences in the true sense of the word. And yes you do inspire people when seek experiences with an open heart and an open mind, and share it likewise. And Sebastiaan, apologies on behalf of my neanderthal countrymen, that you had to experience Alex’s ordeals. Sincerely.
    All the best for all your subsequent travel. ENVY lit large (literally, as you can see) as I sign off.

    Thank you for the nice comment. We love the word genuflections, and commend you for using it. Sebastiaan gladly accepts your apologies, and we both know that for every one scumbag there are 10 extremely friendly and welcoming people 🙂

    Jill Bowdery says:

    Fabulous balanced post, Alex, thank you! I’d still like to experience Holi one day – I arrived the day after it a few years back! – so the advice will be well taken on board!

    That’s a shame. Hopefully you can experience it in the future.

    Kelly Ann Duhigg says:

    Thanks for the honest take on Holi. It had become so sensationalized that I think it’s important for people to remember the realities of celebrating and how to stay face. Great post.

    Thanks a lot. It’s definitely one of those things that’s completely different from how it’s portrayed in advertisements and music video clips. Almost to a comedic extent 😉

    Kyntra Strickland says:

    Experiencing Holi is something I would love to do, thank you for being so honest about what you experienced. I love that you went despite being told not to go and I’m so glad that you didn’t just let them get away with unwanted attention. Thanks for sharing your experience!!

    You’re most welcome. Wouldn’t dream of giving scum the satisfaction and *bragging rights* they’re after. Pretty sure they were the laughing stock of their friend groups for days.

    It isn’t uncommon to experience what you just did! And while I myself have never faced something like that, to avoid such incidences we never played on the streets, we went to a ‘Holi Party’ or played within the apartment premises, no difference in experience just a lot of people who usually do not end up behaving stupid. Awesome of you to give back though…and glad you had fun nonetheless X

    Doesn’t that bother you, though? I mean, how will men ever learn to behave if there is no one telling them their behavior is wrong, and if women don’t make a stand to celebrate the way men do? I understand going to a Holi party makes more sense-although that option isn’t really available to foreigners- but it doesn’t address the underlying problem of men misbehaving and thinking it’s normal.

    Course it does bother me…and I definitely do my bit when something isn’t right. But the thing is celebrating the way men do isn’t necessarily playing with strangers. India is huge and many celebrate in different ways. Mostly even if we do not attend a party and play on the streets (I’ve done that too) we stick to the group and do not walk or throw color on strangers…not cool for almost all the people I know. Foreigners can definitely attend a party but I undersatnd you may need some local friends to tell you abut them maybe. Men definitely do misbehave and it’s never cool, unfortunately foreigners are targeted because many assume they’re ‘cool’ and ‘open-minded’ and wouldn’t mind anything!

    Charlotte Karp says:

    This is probably the most realistic Holi post I’ve read. There are so many sites that talk about how much fun it is, and how everyone has a great time, ect, but the safety aspect is severely undocumented. My experience in Varanasi was just like yours – I was with a group of people, and was still cornered, groped, and ‘hugged’. And sure, I was warned against that, but like you, I didn’t want to let all that stand in the way. I still had a good time, but there’s something really unsettling about women not being able to celebrate a day of ‘equality’. This was a great read! Glad you enjoyed the festival regardless 🙂

    Great that you found it accurate! That’s why I wrote it—everything I read beforehand was either YOU WILL DIE BY RAINBOW RAPE or OMG SO MUCH FUN<3, with nothing in between. Not particularly helpful.

    I'm glad you, too, didn't let the warnings scare you away and make you miss out on the holiday. The creepers are annoying, but in the end, it was a positive experience 🙂

    Ashish Tiwari says:

    wow Alex ! Awesome blog .. i was glued to it. What you wrote is absolutely correct. I am from Varanasi.. my hometown and I know this. Earlier like 10-15 years back.. very few ladies use to come out and play. But things have changed now.. I have seen group of ladies coming out and playing and wandering. There are few assholes who would make the experience bitter but yes, being BOLD on the streets would make lot of difference. It’ goes same with Boys. Some drunks can rip off the clothes of males as well… why? Because they are Drunk!! I am glad that you dared and came out… otherwise you would have missed the bliss of the festival.

    Alex says:

    That’s cool to hear that things are changing! If more girls start coming out to the streets and are forceful about exerting their right to celebrate in public, it’ll be harder for the problematic guys to do as they do 😉 And yes, we learned that men can be victims, too! There were two American boys in our guesthouse who had their clothes ripped off of them while dancing with a group of drunken guys nearby. It’s insane!

    But, like I said, the chance to witness the celebrations far outweighs the negatives or risks, in my opinion 🙂

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