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.
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. Screw 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!
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.
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.
Not nearly as bad as people made things out to be!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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 crap 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.
- 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.
Want more on India? Here are 10 things nobody told me about travel in India.
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24 thoughts on “Celebrating Holi as a woman in Varanasi”
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.
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 🙂
Thank you for writing such a great blog. What to say about the Holi of Varanasi?