Holi is one of the most colorful festivals to be found anywhere in the world and this celebration of good over evil in India is a bucket list event for many travelers. The huge Hindu event draws in visitors from across the world, who join millions of locals on the streets across the nation to welcome in the spring, to shed off the darkness of winter and to have a fantastic time in the process.
The Festival of Color sees celebrations, eating, drinking and merriment, but of course, Holi is best known for the street parties and for the festival-goers ending the event covered in bright and vibrant paint and colors. It’s a once in a lifetime event, and to help you to plan your trip to the festival, here’s our guide on how to celebrate Holi in India like a pro.
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Why Is Holi Celebrated?
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Before you can realize how to celebrate Holi, you might want to know just why exactly Holi is celebrated in the first place. Why are people throwing paint around and decorating everything and anything within sight in the brightest colors they can find?
Holi is a Spring festival. After the darkness of winter begins to draw to a close, Hindus want to celebrate the start of Spring and that’s where the color of Holi comes into play. Essentially, as a battle of good versus evil, Holi is simply a way to bring more light and more color into the dark world. Holi is much more than this too.
The festival has its roots in ancient Hindu legends that date back thousands of years to the first written epics on the subcontinent and there are a great many cultural and religious ceremonies associated with the event.
In Hindu tradition, the demon goddess Holika has vanquished in a fire thanks to a belief in the goodness of the god Vishnu. The night before the celebrations, bonfires are lit across India to represent this. The colorful element is said to have arisen from a separate legend, whereby the god Krishna, colors the face of his lover Radha blue to allow them to be together.
When is Holi Celebrated?
The exact timing of the festival can vary, as its date is based not on the western calendar, but of course, the festival generally falls around March, just as Spring ends.
The Holi festival lasts 2 days and is an official national holiday in India, such is its importance. If you are wondering how to celebrate Holi in 2019, then this year it falls on March 20th and March 21st. In 2020, the festival will fall on March 9th and March 10th. In 2021, Holi will be held on March 28th and March 29th.
The exact date is always dependent on the occurrence of the full moon in March, and the dates are calculated to ensure no misfortune befalls worshipers by getting the timing wrong!
Preparations for Holi
Holi is perhaps the biggest festival of the year in India, and preparations for the event begin far in advance of the day itself. You will find shops and markets begin to stock the famous dried paint which is used to bring color back into the world. The more colorful, the better, and so people will begin to stock up on these supplies weeks in advance.
As a national holiday, Holi also sees huge migrations of people across the country as people return home to celebrate with loved ones. You can expect trains and buses to be incredibly busy this time of the year so try to arrange your own trip as far in advance as you can, to ensure you can get where you want to be and that you can have some accommodation during the festival itself.
Stock up on your own paint, find some clothes you don’t mind getting plastered with color and find a good group of friends to celebrate with.
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How is Holi Celebrated in India?
Celebrations can vary from region to region in India, but the general idea of Holi is not only to vanquish evil before spring arrives but to have a fantastic time doing so. The streets become full of revelers, from all castes and classes of people, and locals and visitors alike will be found enjoying themselves together.
Although it is primarily a Hindu festivity, other religions join in the fun too, making it a great way for the diversity of India to find common ground for a few days.
The festival sees lots of eating, drinking and lots, and lots of dancing, so be prepared for an incredible, if a chaotic day out. The main thing to know about how to celebrate Holi, is that the festival is split into two main segments, over two days. These are Holika Dahan, which is followed by Holi and the color festival itself the next day.
Holika Dahan represents the death of the demon Holika in a bonfire and the triumph of good over evil. The Holika Dahan ceremonies all occur in the evening before Holi, and yes, there is a lot of fire involved.
Huge bonfires are prepared in advance in communities that celebrate Holi. As the sunsets, the bonfires are lit and rituals performed. The next day, ash from the spent fires is used in rituals by worshipers who may paint their own bodies with it as a form of evil cleansing.
Holi and the Festival of Color
After Holika Dahan, with evil purged, it’s time to celebrate the triumph of good and to splash some color into life after winter. As soon as the sun rises, people will begin to crowd the streets of the cities and towns, armed with their paint and ready to celebrate. If you really want to know how to celebrate Holi like a pro, then just remember that the color explosion is merciless.
Nobody is spared from the rainbow of colors that will soon descend upon India. Enjoy the festivities, make friends with the locals, and don’t be afraid of getting absolutely covered in paint.
As well as the color festivities, you will find that each community will have its own customs too. Throughout the day, you will see musicians and bands in the streets, drumming and playing their instruments to add to the noise of the celebrations. Many different rituals can be observed and you will soon find yourself caught up in a beautiful cultural exchange in the paint drenched streets of India, making for an experience like few others in the world.
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Best Places to Celebrate Holi in India
When deciding where and how to celebrate Holi in India, you can rest assured that wherever you are, with the festival being a national holiday, you will enjoy some incredible festivities. Holi is celebrated across the nation but, some cities celebrate more intensely than others.
Holi is celebrated most fanatically in the predominantly Hindu regions of India and in particular, the north, Delhi, and parts of the west such as Mumbai. Here are a few unique destinations to travel to celebrate Holi.
Mathura: Mathura is a holy town in north India and it’s the birthplace of the Lord Vishnu, who plays a prominent role in the death of Holika. This is one of the most well-known destinations for Holi, and a very popular pilgrimage for many Hindus, particularly during the festival.
Barsana: Barsana is a village close to Mathura, in Uttar Pradesh. The village is known for its unique traditions, which sees women beating men with large sticks throughout the day and being allowed to do what they please to them during the festival.
Udaipur: The city of Udaipur in Rajasthan sees a wonderful procession during Holi, as the local royalty take to the streets and march in unison to the festivities. You can expect enormous bonfires and much revelry in the city.
Anandpur Sahib: In Punjab, you can enjoy Holi from a Sikh perspective. Anandpur Sahib is a destination known for its warrior traditions and during Holi, they combine the color with traditional warfare demonstrations in a particularly unique festival.
Jaipur: This is where we celebrated, mostly due to our travel schedule. Jaipur had massive street parties with music followed by several private parties where you could participate in traditional games. With the unique streets of Jaipur as a backdrop, it’s a great place for Holi photography opportunities too.
Our top recommended tours of Holi Festival:
- Holi – Colour Festival Tour – Golden Triangle with Mandawa
- India’s Treasures featuring Holi Festival (Delhi to Agra)
- Holi Festival of Colors
- Braj Holi Festival Tour Package
Safety During Holi in India
Holi is a huge event, and while for the most part, it is a safe event to attend, it can have its dangers and annoyances. You will be covered in color, but try to moisturize your skin beforehand and to keep yourself hydrated – the water guns are part of the festival for a reason! – to avoid too much irritation of your skin.
As the day goes on, it’s inevitable people will be drinking. Try to keep things cool and collected, don’t go all out on the drink if you are new in town or on your own. Most people are friendly during the festival, but some may try and take advantage. You may be offered other intoxicating substances as part of the festivities. It’s common for Bhang to be taken during and after ceremonies for instance. Just be careful and don’t take anything you aren’t sure of.
Something to keep in mind is that the festivities last all day, starting mid-morning. If you want to experience the local side of Holi in the streets, it is best to do it when it starts. As the day progresses, so does the use of Bhang and the situation on the streets can deteriorate as the day goes on. We opted to celebrate on the streets in the morning, then after lunch, we went to one of the private festivals.
As a female experiencing Holi, be on the aware and do not attend any festivities alone. I would be lying if I told you not to worry. I was encountered by local men on many occasions who would harmlessly put color on my face and then attempt to rub color on my chest. This happened constantly. This is not harmless, it is an attempt to grope you. Be aware and do not allow them to do it. If it happens, say something to them and then leave.
Keeping Your Camera Gear Safe
This is a major challenge when attending Holi in India. The color powder that is used is very fine and gets into everything. It will ruin your camera, so proper precautions must be taken. Plastic camera covers and duct tape are your friends here. I also recommend taking a GoPro with you, as you will be able to get more action shots without potentially compromising your good camera gear.
To protect a DSLR, I recommend investing in a plastic rain cover, like this one from OpTech (my personal favorite), because it has a hole in it for your viewfinder. Place the plastic sleeve over the camera, make sure to line up the hole over the viewfinder, if you get a different kind of sleeve then cut a small hole there so you can see what you are shooting.
Be sure to place a lens hood on your lens, this will not only help deter the colored dust from getting on your lens but also give you a place to tape the plastic sleeve. Secure the plastic sleeve to the lens hood with duct tape. You can use another tape, but personally, duct tape actually sticks and will seal the camera safely. On the other end, twist the rain sleeve into a knot and secure it to the bottom of the camera with duct tape.
Hot tip: Leave room to zoom with your lens! Also, leave some room so you can move the plastic around the back buttons when changing settings.
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