By Briana Seftel
The Hindu celebration of Holi may be the only time where throwing colorful powder at complete strangers isn’t just okay, it’s encouraged. Across India, this two-day spring festival is among the most unforgettable experiences you can have on your travels. Before you unleash your inner child, here’s everything you need to know.
History & Tradition
Holi is a Hindu festival marking the beginning of spring and celebrating the triumph of good over evil. It’s also known as the “festival of colors” and the “festival of love.” The most common belief is that Holi celebrates Krishna, the god of compassion, tenderness, and love. Drawing on the legend of Radha and Krishna, it is said that Krishna was embarrassed of the color of his skin, so he playfully painted Radha’s face the same color as his.
During the festival, revelers light bonfires, throw brightly colored powder (known as “gulal”), eat sweets and listen to traditional folk music. While everyone is familiar with powder throwing, that part of the festival is actually the second half of Holi known as Rangwali Holi. On the evening of the first day of Holi, known as Holika Dahan, a public bonfire is held, commemorating the burning of Holika, the devil spirit. The next day is when the real celebration begins.
The timing of Holi varies every year in accordance with lunar cycles, but usually takes place anywhere between late February and late March. Festivities last for two days beginning with Holika Dahan and ending with Rangwali Holi.
Celebrations are held all over the Indian subcontinent - north to south, east to west. Over recent years, the tradition has spread across the globe with celebrants eager to participate in this joyous occasion. Below are some of the most-well known Holi festivals around the world so you can start planning!
Holi in India’s capital is one of the largest and safest celebrations in the country. Head to South Delhi’s residential neighborhoods for a warm welcome as you join the locals in chanting "Holi hai!” (meaning “It is Holi”). You can also take part in the cleverly named Holi Cow Festival, a modern-day celebration complete with yummy street food, thandai (a yogurt drink with spices), non-toxic colors and live music.
Mathura and Vrindavan
A three-hour drive from Delhi, the towns of Mathura and Vrindavan are considered the birthplace of Holi. Celebrations last 40 days and include a special puja (a prayer ritual) and other traditions to worship Lord Krishna, who was born in Mathura and raised in Vrindavan.
Home to the largest Indian population outside of India, it comes as no surprise that England and its capital of London go big on Holi. Several small celebrations are held throughout the city, as well as the massive Festival of Colors, a Holi-inspired paint party that draws thousands.
Spanish Fork, Utah
Utah might not be the first place you think of when you think Holi, but it in fact holds one of the largest celebrations outside of India. Known as the “Festival of Colors,” the tradition started from the local Radha Krishna Temple and grew to attract over 60,000 people from around the country. At the festival, visitors can enjoy food, yoga, mantras, live music and of course plenty of color throwing.
Do’s and Don'ts
Do: Put oil in your hair
Putting hair oil, olive or coconut oil in your hair will make washing out powder much easier and protect your hair from harsh colors. You may also apply oil to other parts of your body that will be exposed, like behind your ears and on your nails.
Don’t: Get annoyed if someone throws powder directly at you
Holi is meant to be a freeing and uninhibited, so don’t be alarmed if people get in your face (or literally rub powder on you). Have a good laugh and throw some powder right back at them!
Do: Where long-sleeved shirts, pants, scarf and sunglasses
You might think to wear a tank top and shorts, but it’s actually better if you cover up as much as possible to minimize skin staining. Find old clothes in light materials that will dry quickly, and try to cover your skin as much as possible. You should also avoid wearing contact lenses.
Don’t: Go alone if you’re a woman
It is advised that solo female travelers in India do not attend Holi alone. Inebriated young Indian men can get quite inappropriate, especially when drinking bhang lassi (more on that below). If you must, celebrate in the morning to avoid any raucous celebrations later on in the day.
Do: Find high places to take photos
While bringing your precious belongings to Holi is a risk, if you’re really set on taking photos, find a high place away from the crowds. Keep all of your gear in sealed plastic bags, don’t change out your lens, and always ask permission before taking photos of people.
Don’t: Drink too much Bhang Lassi
Bhang lassi is essentially drinkable cannabis, so be very careful when consuming this sweet drink. Made with yogurt, nuts, spices, rose water and ground cannabis, the drink is an ancient tradition of Holi and has been drunk for thousands of years.