As I got into a local bus heading towards Dauji temple in Mathura, I wondered whether I was prepared to go witness the Huranga Holi. Most articles I had read online had asked solo women travelers to stay away from Mathura and Vrindavan during Holi because some people in the crowd usually get nasty and molestations were a common occurrence. Yet, I was there on my own.
I took a seat in the bus, paid for my ticket and thought about why I had travelled so far to Uttar Pradesh for Holi.
I had wanted to go to Mathura for Holi ever since a friend mentioned to me about the photography opportunities during the celebrations. Well, I’m no photographer and the only camera I use is the one on my old phone. Despite this, the idea of travel during the festival interested me. I had felt that anything which provides opportunities for great photography also provides great experiences to the human eye. So, I had wanted to witness the festival from the place it is best celebrated.
I checked Google maps on my phone to see how much more time it would take to reach my destination. I also looked around to ensure no one watched me as I checked the maps. I didn’t want to look like an outsider who didn’t know the city and was vulnerable. I put up a confident look on my face hoping to hide any fear that I had developed after hearing many people tell me that it was a bad idea to travel to this place during Holi.
I thought about how I ended up travelling alone.
The frustration that sets in when you’ve to coordinate with many people to plan a trip had me wanting to travel alone again.
I only had an ‘open’ flight ticket which meant that I could travel on any date but getting a boarding pass was subject to availability of seats on that day. With that uncertainty and no real plan or bookings of any kind, I went to the airport in Pune. Soon, I found myself on a flight to Delhi, then on a train to Agra and, on a bus to Mathura the next day. I wondered if I was way too crazy for my own good.
“This is where you’ve to get off for Dauji temple”, said a stranger who looked like he was in his early twenties,
getting off from the bus himself. I got off next.
“Have you come to watch the Huranga?” he asked. I gave him a one word reply in the affirmative and looked at him with a little more attention wondering whether I should be scared. My internal alarm bells didn’t go off so I believed it was alright. I walked ahead towards the temple.
This stranger walked along side me and tried to strike a conversation. I asked him a few questions as well. I learnt where Mukesh was from, what he did, etc. He mentioned that he had come there to visit his aunt who stayed near the Dauji temple and to also play Huranga. Only locals are allowed to play Holi at the temple but he would be allowed to too because he had family there.
As we entered the temple, I checked the time. It had not turned 8:30 yet but there already was a huge crowd of
photographers sitting on the first floor equipped with their cameras and large lenses which were guarded with waterproof
covers. “I don’t think I’m going to find a place to sit”, I said. “I believe so too”, he replied leading me up the
stairs to the first floor. With some difficulty, we found a spot where I could stand behind a row of people seated on
the parapet. With more people expected to come in, I knew this wasn’t going to be comfortable.
Mukesh left to meet his aunt.
As I stood there in the crowd, my eyes kept searching for women. To my relief, there were a few. None of them looked like they had travelled alone, but ‘there at least were women!’, I thought to myself.
After some 30 minutes of inactivity, a group of travelers arrived. One lady stood near me. She was tiny and carried a
big camera just like all the other photographers. From where she stood, her height didn’t permit her to have a good
view. She asked me whether I could swap places with her since she’s short and won’t be able to get a good shot from
where she stood but could get a decent one from where I stood. I am not very tall either. But I decided to entertain
her request because I didn’t have plans of clicking a lot of pictures and I felt I wouldn’t miss out on the experience
by moving just one place. She was very grateful to me.
We struck a nice conversation and she handed me an energy bar that she had. It was only then that I realised how hungry I was and finished the bar in no time.
Huranga celebrations started at 11. As expected, a big crowd had gathered and there was a lot of pushing. I had my bag
on the back so that no one from behind could ‘fall on me’ with an intention of ‘feeling’ me. We were all enjoying the
colours and celebration that were happening below until I felt an arm from the back pinch my hips. I initially pushed
the hand away assuming it was unintentional. But, it happened again. In that crowd, there was almost no way of knowing
whose hand it was. I had a split second to make a choice. I could either push the hand away again and hope it wouldn’t
repeat or confront the person. I, somehow managed to hold the person’s hand, and turn around. Then I shouted with anger
and a lot of self-confidence, “Who’s hand is this?” The man jerked his hand out of my grip. I didn’t know who he was or
what he looked like. But there was no touching again after that incident.
I’m glad I felt bold enough at that time to handle the situation the way I did.
After all the festivities were over, I waited for the crowds to clear and then started walking towards the bus stop. I met Mukesh again. He asked me if I would want to grab something to eat from the local shops before heading back. “Absolutely!”, said I, and he took me to some famous chaat shops and we both ate stomach full.
We walked to the bus stop and waited for the bus to arrive. I had had plans of heading back to Agra to my hostel and he
to his home close to Vrindavan. I asked him if I could manage to visit Janmasthan temple in Mathura and then head back
to Agra before dusk. With genuine concern in his eyes, he said, “It is possible. But jiji, you really shouldn’t have
come to UP alone.”
“If you want to go and don’t mind me coming along, I could take you to the temple. I am from this area and I know the route. And I would request you to not travel around here alone.”
I didn’t want to cause him any trouble but he insisted on me not going there on my own. He almost sounded like an elder brother even though he was at least 5 years younger.
We took the local buses, shared autos and walked to reach the temple. We also went to a few other famous temples nearby. I’m sure I wouldn’t have been able to see all those places so quickly without this young local guide.
We went to the bus stop and I, after thanking him for all the help, took a bus to Agra. After over an hour in bus, I reached the stop closest to my hostel - which itself was around 10 kms away. It was a dark already. I crossed the highway where the bus had dropped me and asked the only auto driver I could see whether he would drop me to my hostel. He said, “That’s not where I want to go. But you are like my daughter and I wouldn’t want you to stand here alone waiting for an auto in the dark. So I’ll drop you.” I thanked him.
I reached my hostel and sat in bed thinking about the day. I had probably taken unnecessary risks. I had travelled alone to a place that is known to have notorious men who could be a threat to women, I had trusted a complete stranger and gone to various places with him, I got back to Agra a lot later than I had initially intended to and could have been stuck somewhere on the highway at night. “Not cool at all”, I scolded myself for my immaturity and bad judgement.
But then, my fears were a result of all that I had read about this place. Yes, those articles are true and are very disturbing. But negative news is all I had been listening to or reading. I had almost lost all hope in people because I saw only one side of the story - the negative side.
I did encounter a person who tried to take advantage of me during the Huranga celebration. But I also met the helpful auto driver, the sweet lady and Mukesh. Yes, maybe I got lucky this time. But these three people have rekindled my faith in humanity. They made me believe again that there are genuinely nice people in this world - even in UP. And now, from my own experience, I understand the ‘dangers of a single story’.
PS: Chimamanda Adichie’s Ted Talk called ‘The danger of a single story’ was an inspiration to write this post.