varanasi demands a lot from its visitors even on normal days. Pedestrians, rickshaws and cars jostle past each other in the streets and alleys of the city of Ganges in northern India. Noise, heat and dust reach the limit of tolerance.

Until Fähnders

Political correspondent for South and South-East Asia and Australia.

But the situation took a turn for the worse during the Hindu festival of Holi on Monday. A walk through Varanasi becomes like running a gauntlet on this day. Water bombs rain down from roofs and balconies, sometimes even a full stream of water comes down from a water bucket. Projectiles are also thrown from the side and explode at passersby. Children shoot brightly colored water from plastic guns. Young men dance to the music playing from the loudspeakers. They film themselves with their cell phones up.

“It's on fire, the color has run into my eyes”

But what would Holi be without its bright colors: purple, red and blue clouds of powder rising above people jumping to the music. Neon yellow and orange shine on the cheeks, poisonous green clings to the hair. The paint is thrown or, in most cases, smeared on the face with a gentle hand movement. After a short period of time, the bright tones on many faces have blended into an undefined over-colored tone. White t-shirts now look like a painter's oil palette. Wet clothes stick to the body, paint drips down the faces.

On the side of the road, Polish Mariusz Burzyinski rubs his eye with a damp cloth. “It burns, the color has run into my eyes,” says a tourist who has been traveling in India with his partner for several months. The Holi stop in Varanasi was planned from the start: “It was a must!” he says. The mood is even better than expected.

People wearing masks of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi pose during Holi celebrations in Varanasi on March 25, 2024.

People wearing masks of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi pose during Holi celebrations in Varanasi on March 25, 2024.

Image: AFP

After a few hours, many tourists retreat looking a little haggard, while the locals continue to party hard. Most of the time, visitors are warned by their hotels: it is better not to venture out for Holi at all. Because not only tens of thousands of people participate in the celebrations. Often they also change in a row. In the next class, face paint is aggressively applied, women are groped, men's clothes are torn off. There are even quarrels. “Yes, people beat you, violently tear your clothes,” says journalist Utpal Pathak. Some would break all the rules “in the name of religion”.

Singaporean Nicholas Ng can also report this. His mobile phone was stolen during Holi celebrations. “The pushing was so intense that I lost my shoe,” says a tourist from the city-state. While he was looking for his shoe in the crowd, someone pulled his cell phone out of his pocket.

Criticism of Holi becoming a loud, colorful spectacle

On the other hand, crossing borders is also one of the customs of Holi. The social walls between upper castes and former untouchables, men and women, rich and poor come down for the colorful spring festival. As in many religious myths, the ultimate purpose of the festival is the victory of good over evil.