If there’s one thing that I’ve been looking forward to since well before I came to Nepal, it’s the Holi festival AKA the Festival of Colors. At first, I was just excited in a general way but hadn’t really starting thinking about taking photos during or even what I was going to do. But there’s this Netflix series called Tales by Light where each episode follows a different photographer. One of them followed a guy as he photographed a Holi celebration in India. After seeing what he came away with, I resolved to take as many photos as possible when Holi came.
Then the question arose of how to protect my camera. I don’t have any sort of cover and I wasn’t content with sitting on the sidelines so I could safely take photos. On the morning of Holi, I had initially decided to leave my camera and just experience the day. I thankfully decided that was a poor decision. So I went to the bakery down the street, bought a cinnamon roll in a plastic bag, emptied the bag and put my camera in it. Then I covered every exposed part with gaff tape, duct taped the camera to my hand, and was ready to go.
What is Holi?
Holi is a Hindu holiday that began in India and Nepal. It’s also primarily celebrated in these two countries (with some differences), as well as among Hindu diaspora across the world. In Nepal, it’s celebrated during the month of Phagun on the Nepali calendar and falls on the same date as India’s Holi.
Along with Dashain and Tihar, Holi is one of the biggest holidays in Nepal. It’s celebrated to commemorate the arrival of spring, and to celebrate love and color. Holi begins on the night prior to the big festival, where people make bonfires to pray and perform rituals to destroy their inner evil like how the demon Holika (hence the name) was burned in a fire. This night is called Holika Dahan.
The next day, called Rangwali Holi, is a much less introspective occasion. In Nepal, it’s a national holiday so most people don’t work. On Rangwali Holi, all barriers are broken down. Usually, Nepal has a caste system. Though it’s not as strict as India’s, the system exists nonetheless. But not on Holi. All of Kathmandu comes together to party and celebrate in every corner of the city with vibrantly-colored powder and water. Musicians wander and perform traditional music throughout the day, until slowly the crowd dissipates as people leave to gather with their families.
The Holi Slap
Though Holi is celebrated city-wide, there are certain hotspots where the celebration is especially wild. These are usually the various Durbar Squares, such as Patan or Bhaktapur Durbar Square. However, everyone agreed that the best place to be was Kathmandu Durbar Square, also called Basantapur.
Because this was my first Holi (and possibly my only Holi in a Hindu country), I wanted to go straight to where the action was. We took a taxi to Newroad, which is already one of the most crowded places in the city. It’s a straight line down the main street of Newroad to Basantapur, so as soon as we got out of the taxi, we were in the party. I already had some color on my face that was given by a passerby while I waited on my taxi to come back with my friends (and my camera) after leaving me behind the first time.
As we walked through Newroad, the street was almost completely filled with people all heading to Basantapur. Every so often, someone would yell “Happy Holi!” just before smearing colored powder on our faces. No one is safe on Holi, particularly not us wide-eyed foreigners who came to brave the crowd.
The closer we got to the square, the thicker the crowd became, until we hit a near standstill at the entrance. After this, it was a slow push to get in as we were moshed back and forth, occasionally taking a slap to the face that exploded into clouds of pink, red, yellow, and green on impact.
Standing Room Only in Basantapur Durbar Square
It’s hard to put into words just how crowded Kathmandu can be. On a normal day, much of the city is already shoulder-to-shoulder in narrow alleys and on the minimal sidewalks, squeezed against the walls as buses zoom past with razor-thin margins. But Basantapur on Holi is another level. It’s a perpetual mosh pit where you’re squeezed like everyone is pushing to get closer to the stage. Except it’s the entire square. And Basantapur isn’t small.
This photo is only about half of the square. Behind the white palace is another equally-large and equally-crowded expanse. We spent hours pushing our way back and forth through the crowd, crossing the square several times. All the while, we each gained ever-thickening layers of powder on our faces and clothes, often in exchange for photos.
As the day progressed, we began to learn the signs that someone was getting ready to give another Holi slap. First they’d make eye contact and approach, slowly raising a handful of powder. As soon as they’d get close enough, there came the telltale “Happy Holi!” followed closely by two handfuls of powder smeared onto our faces. Taking photos of groups often meant enduring several pairs of hands aggressively coloring my face simultaneously.
We continued to make laps around the square, often stopping to take photos of the different people we came to meet. At times, we’d just stand and let people come to us, and at other times we’d brave the crowd and push our way to where it was thickest. Throughout the square, people chanted Ha-ppy Ho-li and cheered whenever a puff of color came up above the crowd. Lining the square were rows of tourists with telephoto lenses, continually emitting a faint but steady flurry of shutter clicks.
Because I’m usually very apprehensive about asking people for photos, I spent the day doing nothing but. The atmosphere of Holi is incredibly open and welcoming, which makes it easy. Everyone is decorated differently and gives their own set of poses for whatever camera that passes by. Usually, people would take their own photos with me after I took theirs. Holi is a photographer’s playground. So I’m just going to stop talking and show you, starting with this ridiculously photogenic group of friends and then some other Humans of Holi. The rest are a scattering of photos from all over the square and the surrounding alleys. I took close to 500 but came away with 30-something usable photos.
I’ve done a lot in the seven months I’ve been in Nepal, but Holi is easily the coolest thing I’ve seen so far (and that’s including trekking in the Himalayas). It’s something that I’ve wanted to experience for a long time, and it did not disappoint.
In a way, it felt like a reward. It’s been a rough winter. I’ve had bad food poisoning three times, been quasi-arrested, crashed my scooter, and spent months bathing out of a pot of boiled water with a ladle when my building had no hot water (which was always). But today, I got Holi — a constant string of distinct and authentically human interactions.
Special Pick of the Day Pt. 2: The Second Single By My Brother’s Band
For all you who have been to amazing places and have returned feeling like they left a piece of themselves in that place, this is the song for you.
4 thoughts on “Slapped By Hundreds of Strangers on Holi”
Joe—you and your blog continue to amaze me. So proud of you and your ability to seize adventure!!!
Was it you that took the photo from above the square?
Yeah — from a rooftop nearby.