The Holi festival commemorates the victory of good over evil, particularly the burning and destruction of a demoness named Holika. This was made possible with the help of Hindu god of preservation, Lord Vishnu.
Holi got its name as the "Festival of Colors" from the childhood antics of Lord Krishna, a reincarnation of Lord Vishnu, who liked to play pranks on the village girls by drenching them in water and colors.
In parts of India, Holi is also celebrated as a spring festival, to provide thanksgiving for an abundant harvest season.
When is Holi Celebrated?
The day after the full moon in March each year. In 2019, Holi is on March 21, with Holika Dahan on March 20. The festival takes place a day earlier in West Bengal and Odisha. In addition, in some parts of India (such as Mathura and Vrindavan) festivities commence a week or so earlier.
Find out the Holi dates for future years.
Where is Holi Celebrated?
Traditional Holi celebrations are the biggest at Mathura and Vrindavan, about four hours from Delhi, where Lord Krishna is believed to have grown up. However, safety issues are a concern for women there, due to the rowdy behavior of many local men. So, it's best to travel as part of a guided group tour.
Holi celebrations happen in most areas of India. However, they're more exuberant in some places than others.
Rajasthan is a popular Holi destination for foreign tourists, particularly places such as Pushkar and Jaipur. Many backpacker hostels organize Holi parties for guests there. Rajasthan Tourism also holds a special Holi festival in Jaipur.
How is Holi Celebrated?
People spend the day smearing colored powder all over each other's faces, throwing colored water at each other, having parties, and dancing under water sprinklers.
Bhang (a paste made from cannabis plants) is also traditionally consumed as part of the celebrations.
Special Holi events with music, rain dances, and colors are organized in large cities across India—particularly in Delhi and Mumbai. It's possible to celebrate Holi with a local Indian family in Delhi and in Jaipur.
What Rituals are Performed?
The emphasis of Holi rituals is on the burning of demoness Holika. On the eve of Holi, large bonfires are lit to mark occasion. This is known as Holika Dahan. As well as conducting a special puja (worship ritual), people sing and dance around the fire, and walk around it three times. In some parts of India, people even walk across the hot coals of the fire! Such fire walking is considered to be sacred. One place where it happens is Saras village near Surat in Gujarat.
The destruction of Holika is mentioned in the Hindu text, the Narada Purana. Holika's brother, the demon King Hiranyakashyap, apparently wanted her to burn his son, Prahlad, because he followed Lord Vishnu and didn't worship him. Holika sat with Prahlad in her lap, in the burning fire, because it was thought that no fire could harm her. However, Prahlad survived because his devotion to Lord Vishnu protected him.
Holika was instead charred to death.
A priest in Falen village, near Mathura in Uttar Pradesh, says his village is where the mythological tale of Holika actually took place. Apparently, local priests have been walking through the raging fire unscathed there for hundreds of years. Since they don't get hurt, they're considered to be an incarnation of Prahlad and blessed by him. The priest admitted that he undertakes a lengthy period of meditation and preparation before the remarkable feat though.
Unlike most other festivals in India, there aren't any religious rituals to be performed on the main day of Holi. It's simply a day for having fun!
Holi in Odisha and West Bengal
Similar to Holi, the Dol Jatra celebrations in West Bengal and Odisha are dedicated to Lord Krishna. However, the mythology is different.
The festival celebrates the love that Krishna is believed to have expressed to Radha on that day. Idols of Radha and Krishna are carried around in procession on specially decorated palanquins. Devotees take turns swinging them. The idols are also smeared with colored powder. Of course, colors are thrown at people on the streets too! Festivities actually begin six days beforehand, on Phagu Dashami.
What to Expect During the Celebrations
Holi is a very carefree festival that’s great fun to participate in if you don’t mind getting wet and dirty. You'll end up saturated in water, with color all over your skin and clothes. Some of it doesn't wash out easily, so be sure to wear old clothes. It's also recommended that you rub hair oil or coconut oil into your skin beforehand, to prevent the color from absorbing.
Holi Safety Information
As Holi provides an opportunity to disregard social norms and generally "let loose", males commonly take it too far and act disrespectfully.
Single women should avoid going out alone in public places during Holi, as inebriated young Indian guys often pose a safety threat. These males, who have consumed excessive amounts of bhang and other intoxicants, will inappropriately touch women and make a nuisance of themselves. They are usually in groups and can be very aggressive. Incidents of rape also do occur, which makes it important to take proper care during Holi.
If you plan on going out into the streets on Holi, do so early in the morning. Be back in your hotel by midday before the men get too inebriated. Many hotels hold special Holi parties for their guests in a safe environment.
Expect to have colored powder and water rubbed and thrown onto your face, mouth and ears. Keep your mouth shut and protect your eyes as much as possible.