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Everything You Need to Know About Holi, India’s Festival of Color

By Nikhita Venugopal

02.01.19

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The Hindu festival of Holi brings color and revelry to the Krishna temple in Nandgaon, India.

Courtesy of Shutterstock

The Hindu festival of Holi brings color and revelry to the Krishna temple in Nandgaon, India.

Before you set off on a trip to India to partake in its storied festival, check out this 101 on all things Holi.

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Every year, before the heat of the summer months set in, parts of India literally burst into color, thanks to Holi (pronounced “holy”), one of the country’s most popular and famed Hindu festivals. The festivities, which are celebrated by Indian communities across the globe—with a particular fervor in northern India—are most famous for their vibrant scenes of revelers covered in colored powders and drenched in water. And while you should absolutely expect to become a colorful mess in India’s version of the celebrations, the motherland’s iteration also places a strong emphasis on themes of community, tradition, and honoring ancient Hindu teachings. Here’s a primer on Holi to get you revelry ready, stat: 

The town of Barsana, in northern India, explodes with color and tradition during Holi.

When is Holi celebrated?

Holi is celebrated in February or March every year during Phalguna, a month in the Hindu calendar. The dates vary based on the lunar calendar, and in 2019, Holi occurs on March 21. The eve of the main celebration (March 20, 2019), known as Holika Dahan, holds its own traditions, too.

What is the history of Holi?

Holi is deeply rooted in Hindu mythology and there are several legends associated with the festival. The best known of these stories is that of Holika, who was the aunt of Prahlada, a devotee to the Hindu god Vishnu. Hiranyakashipu, Prahlada’s father and Holika’s brother, ordered his son to stop worshipping Vishnu, but Prahlada refused. Because of his dedication to Vishnu, Holika and Hiranyakashipu hatched a plan to kill Prahlada. Although the story varies with each retelling, one popular version recounts that Holika attempted to drag Prahlada into a bonfire with him on her lap, believing she would not be hurt by the fire because she was wearing a protective shawl. However, Prahlada emerged safely from the fire due to his devotion to Vishnu, while Holika perished in it after the shawl flew away from her. As a result, the night before Holi features the lighting of bonfires after sunset, symbolizing the burning of Holika and the triumph of good over evil.

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Another Holi tradition comes from a different story of Hindu mythology involving the god Krishna. It’s said that Krishna, while courting the Hindu goddess Radha, smeared colored powder onto her face because of her fair complexion. Regarded as a bit of a prankster, he would also throw flowers and colored water onto the gopis, a Sanskrit word for female cowherders. Krishna’s practices spawned the festival tradition of “playing Holi,” in which revelers mimic his color-spreading actions.

The unique mythology-inspired Lathmaar Holi tradition sees townswomen in Barsana and Nandgaon pretend to hit the townsmen with lathis, or sticks.

How is Holi celebrated?

Due to its related mythologies, major festival themes are the bonfires on the eve of Holi and Holi day festivities during which gulal, or colored powder, and water are thrown and sprayed onto everyone in a tradition referred to as playing Holi. Other Holi celebrations include visiting friends and family at their homes and consuming sweets and traditional foods (like bhang thandai, a spiced cannabis-infused drink—and, yes, you can expect a bit of a high from it, too).

Where is Holi celebrated?

Holi is so popular that related festivities have become major annual events around the world in such cities as New York, Melbourne, and Berlin.

In India, Holi celebrations are particularly visible in New Delhi, Jaipur, Udaipur, and a multitude of other cities and towns throughout northern India. You’re bound to find parties large and small across the country, though in southern India, there’s generally much less frenzy surrounding the festival (where other versions of springtime fests prevail).

For one of the best and most distinctive interpretations of Holi, head to the holy city of Mathura (just over 100 miles from New Delhi), a city strongly associated with the Hindu god Krishna. Its streets and temples overflow with a weeklong cultural spectacle of processions, music, dance, mythological reenactments, and, of course, color. “The whole city descends onto the streets,” says Siddhartha Joshi, an Indian travel photographer who’s covered the event.

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Also notable and near Mathura is the town of Barsana (about 25 miles northwest of the city), which practices the unique Lathmaar Holi tradition. Inspired by the story of Krishna being chased away by the women cowherders for throwing color on them, the townswomen pretend to hit the men with lathis, or sticks, to send them back to the nearby town of Nandgaon (where the same tradition unfolds, but with the women chasing the men back toward Barsana). Don’t worry: Nobody actually gets hurt and it’s all in good fun!

There’s no avoiding it: Attend a Holi festival in India, and you’ll be covered from head to toe with celebratory colored powders.

What do I need to know before I go?

First and foremost, expect color everywhere: Locals won’t hesitate to fling colored powders and waters at you. “It’s unavoidable,” Joshi explains. “There’s no one who escapes this.”

Traditionally, Holi colors were made with natural products, such as flowers, spices, and herbs, but nowadays, many of the synthetic colored powders manufactured for Holi have been found to contain contaminants and toxic substances that can cause irritation and inflammation through contact with skin, eyes, and even the respiratory tract. When buying Holi powders yourself, be sure to check the ingredient list to avoid chemical-based substances. However, when you’re at a public Holi celebration, you surely won’t have a choice in the kind of powder flung at you. As a precaution, wear old, long-sleeved tops and long pants to prevent contact with your skin (and note that the dyes can also be very hard to wash out, so don’t wear anything you couldn’t bear to part with).

For female revelers, it’s advisable to take precautions at larger Holi celebrations, where more men tend to participate, and which have been known to create an unsafe environment for women (via unwanted touching and sexual assault). Female participants should consider attending as part of an organized group to avoid being pulled into the frenzy without consent.

Finally, photographers should take heed: Festival-goers won’t care about keeping color off your camera and gear, so it’s up to you to buy protective covers and to stay cautious while shooting. “Camera protection is very important and I would recommend using cling film to protect the camera,” says Srivatsan Sankaran, a Chennai-based photographer, who has covered multiple public Holi festivities; he also recommends using rain protective gear as an alternative.

Yes, Holi can be a raucous and perhaps daunting experience for newcomers. But so long as you’re prepared, keep an open mind, and come with an appreciation for the festival’s rich tradition and culture, you’re in for one unforgettable, colorful ride.

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