Un-Holi and Un-safe in Vrindavan, Uttar Pradesh
I was born in Lucknow and grew up in Bareilly and so, there is no doubt about my perfect UP roots. I did choose to leave UP, as I had enough of eve-teasing and living in the constant fear of my safety. However, I decided to go back to visit Barsana and Nandgaon (near Mathura) to cover its famous Holi celebrations. The festival is famous for its thousand-year-old traditions and photographers from across the world come over to capture the beautiful faces immersed in colors.
Being a photographer, it was something that I always wanted to capture and was even planning to organize an all women photography tour from next year onwards. However, after what I saw and faced here, I wouldn’t encourage any woman to go and experience it. I have been a solo traveler for the last 4 years and have traveled in more than 21 states of India, and there hasn’t been any place (except Kasol in HP to an extent) where I have personally felt unsafe or have been discouraged to travel as a solo-woman.
Like always, I was fully prepared covering my camera gear to protect it from water and colors and I was dressed as locally as possible in the traditional dress of Salwar-kurta and a dupatta. However I was not prepared for the nakedness of the mentality of people there. As soon as I entered Nandgaon , accompanied by two other photographers, I was surrounded and alienated by a group of men on the stairs. One after another buckets of color were poured over me, the pichkaaris were specifically targeting my breasts and posteriors and before I could understand what was happening, someone gave a pat on my bottom. That’s when I shouted back, my eyes were filled with Gulaal and I had no clue who did it. One of the photographer guys helped me escape or else there would have made more advances.
I found a safe place for me to sit on the roof of the temple at Nandgaon and I was almost shaking in fear. Each female there a perfect target whether she was an 8-year-old kid or a 60-year-old woman. Surrounding a girl in a group and drenching her from top to toe; targeting her assets from their pichkari was the routine for them there. It all looked so obscene as a viewer for me, and I was in same situation just a couple of hours ago.
The women were panicking, a few mothers had their babies with them as well and somehow a few photographers found this situation as a perfect opportunity to photograph panicked girls instead of saving them. Such a bizarre society we live in, a society that finds these acts perfectly all right. The foreigner women were the most preferred targets, and I was wondering what impression would they carry about India and her hospitality. I didn’t move from my place for hours and waited for all this to be over, soon the police vacated the rooftop and I came down.
I was standing among four photographers shooting the transgenders who were dancing in front of the temple. Suddenly a hand came from behind and groped my breasts. I managed to catch the hand and saw two young boys, half my age, giggling. I shouted in my full capacity and questioned them on how dare they touched me? And the reply was “You are standing here in Holi, what do you expect?
I was in utter shock and then I looked around to find police; I saw that they were far away guarding the entrance of the temple. I wish someone could make them understand that it’s the women there who need to be guarded more than anything or anyone else. There was no announcement about women safety, not even once policeman came in to ask the boys to control their behavior. Apparently they were all following the age-old tradition when Krishna teased Radha and her friends on Holi and many stories and songs were written about them. But I am sure Krishna wouldn’t have grabbed, groped and outraged the modesty of Radha and her friends!
So Holi was a perfect opportunity for them to touch women, and wouldn’t they do it any other day if they get a chance? I have been invited by UP Tourism twice in their annual conclave, which I haven’t been able to attend due to other commitments but I would surely be going next year to address the issue of women safety. As a women traveller we don’t need hot-air balloons flying over the Taj, we need safety and assurance for traveling in UP, else it has been and would always be avoided by women travellers.
Update: After I shared my account, hundreds of women came forward to share their horrific story about mass molestation in Nandgaon. I have always endorsed solo travelling for women, but now I am at loss of words. There are few places un-safe for women for travelling, but the list will keep growing if we don’t do anything about it. What kind of society are we building for our future generation? Lock up the girls at home, as it is not safe to go out!! Don’t speak up about molestation, as it is shame for the family. It is high time to think and act now.