We left South East Asia bound for the Indian subcontinent.
First step, New Delhi. Arriving on the 23h flight from Kuala Lumpur, we pass through passport control without incident, having arranged our visas three months ago.
Time to spend our first rupees, we take a taxi to our guesthouse ideally located next to Central Station. We chose the location in order to make the journey from Delhi to Mathura in the morning via the 6:15 train, arriving in time for the beginning of Holi, the Festival of Colors.
Each year in early March, the full moon marks the beginning of the festival.The country turns into a playground where people spray themselves with colored powders and paints: green for harmony, red for power and love, orange for optimism …
There are a lot of legends about this festival. Some say it symbolizes the victory of good over evil, others say a Hindu character was proud of the complexion of his wife, and put the color on her face to look more beautiful. But whatever the real story, the key is to have fun. A few days earlier, the country began to prepare. Cities display beautiful decorations and merchants sell all kinds of colored powders. Everything must be ready in time. The purpose of this festival is of course that everyone gets colored from head to toe! Nobody will be spared, especially not those who have no color on their clothes.
Having researched the location several months in advance, Thomas had decided to spend the festival in Mathura which is the epicenter of the festival, region of birth of Lord Krishna. It is precisely there, and in Vrindavan, in the Braj region located in northern India, that the festival is celebrated with most fervor. Hindu pilgrims and hindu tourists flock by the thousands to this small country town. Mathura town, because there are only 300,000 inhabitants. In India, the word “city” is only used from 1 million people. The metropolis of Mumbai, for example, one of the most populated cities in the world, has over 22 million people.
We arrived at 9:00 in Mathura. The station is crowded, and we are the only white people getting off the train. All eyes are on us, with our two large backpacks. We had booked a hotel in advance. Once there, the hotel is completely different from the pictures posted on the site. The room is in a deplorable state. Hair on the blankets, stains on the sheets, black marks on the walls. Ok, this is the second visit of Thomas in India and though he tried to mentally prepare Anne-Marie for the contrast with home and South East Asia, for the price we paid (about 25EUR per night, well beyond our usual budget) we expected something better, to at least begin our stay in the best conditions. The site posted: showers and wifi. Instead we had AC, no internet or showers. Rather a tap, a bucket and a small bowl. It was not worth complaining, the staff barely speak English and the room was already paid.
We decided to go for a stroll in the direction of the market to find scarves to protect our faces during the festival. Barely making 100m beyond the hotel, we are “attacked” by a dozen children, ages 8 to 15, armed with plastic bottles filled with blue paint. Needless to say we were not prepared. Our clothes were painted over. Anne-Marie’s face and hair were also graffitied. This is too much and we decide to return to the hotel. It must be said that after the short night of sleep (4 hours), the train ride, the dirty room, getting attacked by children and being (so far) the only whites in a city where foreigners are seen so rarely, it was not the best start to our indian adventure.
We returned to the hotel, we needed a hot shower and fresh clothing after the assault. If there was ever a time to appreciate a hot shower it was now, alas we had only the traditional mandi (jug and bucket) in our executive suite! Thomas stepped out into the melange again to try and get our bearings, and find some western faces who could point us in the right direction.
Along the way he met Yosh, a Japanese professional photographer, traveling for two years. Yosh toured war zone and conflict areas of Africa and sub-Sahara such as Egypt, South Sudan and Somalia, and had just arrived in India hoping to take great pictures for the magazine that employs him. We made plans with Yosh for the next morning, accompanying him to Vrindavan and Banke Bihari Temple, dedicated to Krishna.
The night went pretty well, the bed was quite comfortable, we had many Bollywood movie channels on our tv and a traditional Indian breakfast (masala chai and paratha), a good start to Holi day.
Wearing old clothes (they will be unusable later) and with the camera well protected, we met Yosh at his hotel at 8.00 and took a tuktuk to Vrindavan.Along the way, the festivities have already begun, some bags of multi colored paints were hurled at our speeding tuk tuk. Lots of people were already covered with colors from head to toe. It was carnage at the holy town, the streets were packed with clouds of colored powder obscuring our view. Standing still to try and get our bearings, we were covered with colored powder, really we we sitting ducks! Gatherings of 10 to 20 people formed around us. Some want to hug us and pose for photographs, others to shake our hands and say “Happy Holi”, while most want to touch us and put color on our foreheads. We tried tirelessly to force our way through the crowds to reach the temple of Banke Bihari, the winding narrow streets were full of highly colored people celebrating like crazy. Fortunately Anne-Marie is equipped with protective goggles on her eyes, although perhaps it made her more identifiable!! Most colors used are natural but some contain chemicals and can be very harmful to skin and eyes.
We finally arrived at the temple entrance amidst swarms people. After removing our shoes, we entered inside where it’s total madness, people sing, dance and splash themselves with flowers and colored water. Someone invites us to follow him upstairs to get a better view and take pictures. The atmosphere is unique and it’s hard to realize what is happening and how lucky we are to witness this event. Thomas took a short video you can watch below.
After half an hour of intensity, people start to calm down and away from the temple. The second ceremony of the day is scheduled for 14:00. This is the most important but we, as foreigners were advised not to attend, especially women travelers. Some of the younger people celebrating at the festival drink copious amounts of alcohol and a drink containing marijuana known as bhang lassi. Encouraged by the drugs, these men push their hands through the crowds and attempt to grope the women. Anne-Marie experienced this a few times as were leaving the temple. It was very uncomfortable, shouting into the crowd did little to prevent it’s occurrence and even Thomas’s towering presence did little to ward off the grabbing. We escaped to a small restaurant, a chance to recover over a thali lunch.
We returned to Mathura early in the afternoon. We met four, rainbow colored young Americans on the way who were students at the University of Varanasi. We decided to accompany them to their hotel. Once there, we are warmly welcomed by staff. Cold drinks, Indian delicacies, smiles and “Happy Holi”. The hotel staff advise to stay away from the street until late afternoon, indeed their gate is bolted shut and two security men guard access. We spend the end of the day on the balcony of the hotel sharing our travel stories, Thomas taking more pictures of the people on the streets of Mathura.
We eat in the hotel restaurant in the evening, it’s packed with locals. The menu specializes in Northern India style: murgh Musala (grilled chicken in a mixture of tomatoes and onions), Gosht Korma (lamb curry spiced with saffron, mace and cardamom) and mutter paneer (peas and cheese). We returned to our hotel at 8.30 and had an early night, as we had yet another train tomorrow to Agra. The Indian train ticketing system changed in February and now requires both a local phone number and credit card to reserve seats online. We reserved our tickets at the station the day before, Thomas had a confirmed seat and Anne Marie was wait listed! We were assured it was not a problem and that we would both travel on the same train.
The train was busy and on time for the one hour journey to Agra and we were seated in the same carriage. We came to Agra to admire the Taj Mahal. Our guesthouse, Tourist Rest House organised a tuk tuk, Vikram to meet us at the station. The Taj Mahal is closed on Friday, so were forced to return the next morning.Vikram knows his city inside out and is someone who loves his city and wants to share it in the best way for tourists who cross his path. With him we visit among others the Red Fort and the tomb of Itimad-Ud-Daulah (also called the Baby Taj because of the similarity).
We ended the day with a view of back of the Taj Mahal at sunset, on the other side of the river Yamuna.
The next morning we got up early to arrive in time for the opening of the west gate of the Taj Mahal especially for sunrise. Once there, the queue is already long, at least 100 people are lined up for tickets and thrice that number waiting outside the door. It takes 1.5 hours to purchase tickets and get through security and the sun is already shining in the sky as we enter the precincts of the Taj Mahal. Regardless, the building is dazzling, this is the second time that Thomas has visited but it has the same effect as the first. Despite the large numbers onsite at early morning we are able to take many photos and admire the building up close. Anne-Marie is impressed with the floral motifs carved in white marble, the detail on a building of this size is truly impressive.
Agra is much noisier than Mathura. Cars share the road with thousands of tuktuks of rickshaws and elephants! Luckily we were staying in a small guesthouse away from downtown. Double bedroom, bathroom, shower, small communal garden for 10euro. That evening Vikram brought us to a great little restaurant where we enjoyed a beautiful candlelit dinner on the roof top.
We leave tomorrow for Rajasthan and Jaipur city, starting a small path that will take us to Pushkar, Udaipur and Ahmedabad, among others, before leaving to join Kerala, the southern tip of India. We unfortunately had to skip the northern region of Himachal Pradesh and the villages of Manali and Leh in the Himalayas, where temperatures are around -5 degrees.