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3rd December 2019
You are unlikely to stumble across any festival more exuberant, more joyful or more messy than Holi. The famous Hindu festival of colour is an assault on the senses, a raucous celebration of spring and good conquering evil. Multicoloured powder flies through the air, water pistols blast constantly, participants dance and everyone exclaims ‘Happy Holi!’
Here’s the lowdown on the story of this renowned Indian festival, what to expect and where to join in.
There are numerous theories about how the festival of Holi began, but what is clear is that it has been celebrated for more than 1,500 years, as it was referred to in 4th century texts. There are whole array of motivations for the colourful festival, including spring and it’s related ideas of fertility and fresh beginnings, but the most significant reason is the triumph of good over evil.
The mythological Hindu fables which are thought to represent the origins of Holi are many and complex, but here’s a brief introduction: A king named Hiranyakashyap conspired with his sister Holika to lure his son Prahlad to a fiery death for worshipping Vishnu. Holika was in fact a demon and wore an enchanted cloak which would protect her from the fire as she tricked Prahlad into the flames, but Prahlad invoked Vishnu as he entered the fire, and the protective cloak whirled over him, saving his life while the evil Holika perished.
Holi is a two day event which falls on the second full moon of Phalguna, a Hindu lunar month. This corresponds to the period between mid February and mid March. The first day, known as Holika Dahan is the more religious and profound day of the event, often involving the lighting of bonfires representing the story of Prahlad and Holika, and the dominance of good over evil. Prayers are repeated asking any evil to be banished.
The second, most famous day of the celebrations is Rangwali Holi, the day when flamboyant colour and explosive abandon take over. The colourful powder, known as gulal would have traditionally been turmeric and dried flower extracts perfumed with sandalwood, but these days the brightly hued powder is synthetic and the water contains dyes. Crowds of euphoric locals dancing and hurling clouds of colourful paint, rubbing it in each other’s hair and generally enjoying themselves is the norm.
Be warned that it’s impossible to visit as a passive observer - if you are in the vicinity you are more or less guaranteed to get dragged into the festivities, covered in water and powder and swept along with the fun. Even if you aren’t planning to get covered from head to toe, prepare to be! Wear clothes you don’t intend to keep and make sure cameras, phones and other tech are protected in plastic bags. A local trick is to apply thick moisturiser before you join the party as this makes removing the paint from your skin that much easier at the close of play.
India comes out to play for Holi, and across the nation there are countless places to join in the party. Where to go depends to a certain extent on what kind of experience you are looking for. More restrained celebrations take place at temples all over India, whereas some of the more extravagant events involve modern music, plentiful bhang consumption (a paste containing cannabis) and large scale street parties. Here are five very different locations to consider if you are considering joining in the fun next year.
Mathura and Vrindavan
This is where you can join in a very traditional celebration, with festivities beginning a week before official Holi dates. Vrindavan is the historic town where Lord Krishna grew up, whereas Mathura is the site of his birth, and both are important sites for the Hindu faith. Both places have significant events on the first day of Holi, procession in Mathura and a colourful water fight at Bihari temple in Vrindavan and at Dwarkadheesh temple in Mathura.
Barsana and Nandgaon are villages near Mathura in Uttar Pradesh where the Holi festival takes a different form. Instead of throwing colourful powder around and rubbing it in each other’s faces, the Lathmar Holi celebrations involve the women of the villages showing their strength by whacking the menfolk with big sticks! The celebrations here take place around 6 days before the official date for Holi.
Holi on the streets in Delhi is quite frantic, with children happily hurling gulal around with abandon. Holi Moo runs alongside, and it's one big (ticketed) music festival with dozens of performers and the added sideline of the colour throwing and bhang. It’s a very popular and busy event which has fairly well left behind its religious roots but is full of fun and hedonistic vibes nevertheless. The neighbourhood of Paharganj is the hub of Holi in Delhi.
The enthusiasm with which this Rajasthani city celebrates Holi is impressive and infectious. The city really gets into the swing of the festivities on the eve of Holi itself, and the party continues into the following morning. As well as authentic celebrations through the streets and suburbs of Jaipur, there are a number of parties laid on for visitors who can party secure in the knowledge that there is a police presence and a happy, safe environment.
In the Punjabi region, Anandpur Sahib hosts a Sikh version of Holi known as Hola Mohalla. This festival is itself 300 years old, and has merged with the Hindu celebration of Holi to create a unique event which has more emphasis on athletic competitions than tossing gulal around. Watch Sikh participants battle it out to prove who is the best wrestler, the most accomplished swordsman and the fastest turban tier, as well as who is the most skilled at martial arts.
Make it happen
Holi is an intense and unforgettable time to be in India. How will you choose to celebrate it? Plan your itinerary around this most colourful of festivals and make the most of your time in India. Our local experts can design a bespoke trip just for you, all you need to do is send them some details of your party and they will get to work on some ideas for your dream India trip. To speak to someone in the TravelLocal office please call +44 (0)117 325 7898.