India holds the annual Holi festival to celebrate the triumph of good over evil, specifically when the demon Holika was burned and destroyed thanks to the people’s undying devotion to Lord Vishnu, the Hindu god of preservation. It’s also known as the “Festival of Colors,” a name given by Lord Krishna (one of Lord Vishnu’s many reincarnations), who was fond of playing pranks on little girls by soaking them in water and all kinds of colors.
The festival also marks the culmination of the winter season and beginning of spring as well as the anticipation of the harvest season.
When is Holi celebrated?
There’s no fixed date for the Festival of Colors. Rather, it’s based on the lunar calendar and held one day after the full moon in March. In 2018, for example, Holi happeedn on March 2. A day before that is called the Holika Dahan, when bonfires are lit on the eve of Holi. In future years, the dates are as follows:
- 2019: Holi on March 21, Holika Dahan on March 20
- 2020: Holi on March 10, Holika Dahan on March 9
As an exception, the states of Odisha and West Bengal celebrate the Holi festival as Dol Purnima or Dol Jatra, which is the same day as the Holika Dahan. This practice is quite similar to Holi in that they are dedicated to Lord Krishna. The difference, however, lies in the mythology behind it.
Where is it celebrated?
The festival is actually celebrated in most parts of India, with some places having more prominent celebrations than others. The main day of Holi is mostly spent celebrating – the religious rites and more serious activities are performed in the days before. Here are some places definitely worth visiting during Holi:
- Barsana: The women of Nandgaon and Barsana celebrate Holi by beating men with sticks. This is a ritual known as the Lathmar Holi. This happens a week before the date of celebrating Holi.
- Mathura: 40 days before the main day of Holi, the temple towns of Vrindavan and Mathura already celebrate the festival. These locations are significant because Lord Krishna was born in Mathura, while Vrindavan was his childhood town.
- Shantiniketan, West Bengal: The idea of celebrating Holi as part of the spring festival or Basanta Utsav started when Rabindranath Tagore, a famous Bengali poet and a Nobel Laureate, introduced it to Vishva Bharati University after he was inspired by the colors of Holi. During this time, students don spring colors and host lively cultural programs for visitors to enjoy. It is an occasion that attracts many tourists.
- Purulia, West Bengal: Yet another Basanta Utsav festival, this one runs for three days, leading up to the actual day of Holi. Here, tourists sing and play with the locals and are exposed to a wide selection of local folk art. Tourists can come here by train from Kolkata and get to stay in tents during the whole celebration.
- Anandpur Sahib, Punjab: This is where you can experience Holi as originally intended by the Sikh Guru Gobind Singh. Instead of throwing around colors, they celebrate Holi by a show of physical prowess, such as martial arts, wrestling, acrobatic exercises, and mock sword fights.
- Udaipur: The Mewar royal family observes Holika Dahan in a way that only royalty could. Those who go there will witness a magnificent procession going from the royal residence to the City Palace in Manek Chowk. This will all be concluded by the ceremonial burning of an effigy of Holika.
- Mumbai: In spite of its image as a slum, Dharavi celebrates Holi as a community that tourists can be a part of. There, visitors can tour the community in a safe and friendly environment that’s filled with colors and music. Worthy of note is the fact that 80% of the proceeds from the celebration are used to help the Dharavi locals.
- Delhi: If you want to experience Holi at its liveliest, go to Delhi, where simply going out on the day of the festival will get you covered in colors from the moment children or shopkeepers see you outside. You might also want to join the Holi Moo Festival (formerly the Holi Cow Festival), which is filled with colors and music by both local and international groups. It’s all safe and the colors are non-toxic, so go ahead and enjoy the celebration with locals and tourists alike.
- Jaipur: Celebrate Holi with elephants as the people of Jaipur host elephant beauty contests, tug-of-war games between elephants, and more. There are also folk dances and other attractions. Although the pressure from animal rights groups has reduced the number of elephant-related activities, you’ll still be able to see these enormous creatures during the Holi season.
There are many places where Holi is celebrated prominently. But because Holi is mainly a festival of North India, most of the celebrations are held there. In South India, Holi is more focused on religious rites held within temples, except in Karnataka, where the whole town gets festive during the morning before the people wash off the colors at the end of the day.
Some helpful tips:
- If you’re out to enjoy Holi, you’re sure to get soaked in many colors, so try to wear old clothes or the kind you can afford to get discolored, since some of the paint might be impossible to wash off.
- Because Holi is a time when people loosen up, some of the local men tend to go overboard. Women should be careful as they might be harassed by men who are already drunk. If possible, avoid going solo.
- Go out during the day and try not to stay out too late. Don’t worry, most hotels host their own special Holi celebrations to give their guests a safe place to celebrate at night.
- Make a habit of protecting your eyes or keeping your mouth shut so you don’t accidentally get any colored powder in your mouth. While most of the paint and coloring are non-toxic, it’s better to be safe by protecting yourself.
You can only learn so much about India’s Holi festival by reading about it. The best way to understand their culture is to experience Holi yourself.