Also known as the festival of colors, Holi (pronounced Ho-lee) is a Hindu religious holiday that celebrates the victory of good over evil and is one of the most well-known festivals in India. The festival celebrates the feelings of love and pure joy with a chaotic countrywide colored powder fight.
Holi 2023 falls on March 8th. The main celebrations last 2 days from March 7th. March 7th is the day when most of Holi's religious rituals will take place, such as Holika Dahan — the ritual bonfire. March 8th is the day of the color fights, when the whole country head to the streets to celebrate.
Holi is celebrated by Indians all around the world, but being in India during this festival is a truly once-in-a-lifetime chance to experience the country at its most joyous and captivating.
Why is Holi Celebrated?
The first question we should answer is: what is Holi?
While most people know that it's an Indian holiday that involves a giant colored powder fight, there's much more to the festival than that.
Holi is an ancient Hindu festival that is meant to express the pure joy of the triumph of good over evil. It also represents the arrival of spring, falling in love, and forgiving others for past wrongdoings.
This is a particularly special holiday in India because although it began as a Hindu celebration, today it is celebrated by most Indians regardless of religion.
The name Holi comes from the legend behind the holiday in which the demoness Holika was sent by King Kiranyakashipu to kill his son Prahlada. Holika tried to trick Prahlada into burning to death on a pyre, but because her intentions were evil, she was the one who was burned and killed.
Now we know why Holi exists, but where does the color fight fit in?
The color fight actually comes from the legend of Lord Krishna, a Hindu god who is also worshipped on Holi. According to the stories, Krishna was well-known for playing pranks and being mischievous. One prank he played on the village girls involved dousing them in colors and water.
Over time, putting colors on others came to represent a way to express joy and the story of Krishna transformed into the tradition of the joyous color fight we see today.
How Is Holi Celebrated in India (Typically)?
In India, the celebration of Holi lasts for two days although preparations can start weeks in advance. The main events of the celebration are the burning of Holika that takes place on the first evening of celebrations and the color fight that occurs the next day.
Celebrations also include delicious food, religious rituals, holiday greetings, and visiting friends and relatives. Below are the four main ways that Holi is celebrated in India:
1. The Bonfire of Holika Dahan
The first day of the celebrations is Holika Dahan, also known as Chhoti Holi or little Holi, and is when the religious rituals take place. The main event of Holika Dahan is a large bonfire where an effigy of Holika is burnt to symbolize the destruction of evil.
The building of the pyre for the Holika fire can start weeks in advance. Normally a large log is placed in a community space in every neighborhood. Then leading up to the festival, people bring sticks and other combustible materials to add to the pyre until it becomes a large pile.
It is common for young boys to act like Krishna and be mischievous during the building of the pyre. They may steal small items from those gathered and place them on the fire to be burnt. This is seen as harmless and playful.
The bonfire of Holika Dahan will take place on March 7th in 2023. The rituals do not begin until the sun sets and the full moon is visible.
When the ceremony starts the effigy of Holika and Prahlada is placed on the pyre. Normally the effigy of Holika is made from combustible material whereas Prahlada's is made from noncombustible material to represent the holiday"s mythological origins. When the fire is lit, the ritual begins with the chanting of holy versus.
Many people will come to watch the fire and sing and dance around it. It is common to see people walking clockwise three times around the fire which is known as parikrama and is a common method of prayer.
The next morning, the ashes of the fire are collected because they are considered to be very auspicious.
2. The Color Fight
The morning after Holika Dahan, on the day of Holi, is when the color fight begins. This part of the festival isn't about religion at all and is focused on just having fun and experiencing the joy of spring.
People take to the streets to celebrate with their neighbors and friends armed with colored powders, liquid colors, water guns, and water balloons. The color fight is a true show of equality between men and women and people of all social backgrounds, meaning that everyone is fair game whether they are young kids or little old ladies.
If you go outside during the color fight, you can expect to return drenched and dyed. The colors are likely to ruin anything you wear so make sure to only wear old clothes.
While most of the celebrating takes place in the streets, you can also find large crowds at Hindu temples. Temples that are dedicated to Lord Krishna are especially beautiful places to be during the color fight as they draw large crowds and religious figures. Jaipur's Govind Dev Ji Temple and Vrindavan's Banke Bihari Temple are good examples.
The colored powders, or gulaal, can be bought in most Indian markets leading up to the celebrations. We recommend only purchasing natural Holi colors or making your own using colorful spices and organic powders.
Many cities across India also hold special Holi events or parties that include live music, dancing, and color fights. Delhi, Mumbai, and Goa are well-known places to go to attend color parties.
3. Lathmar Holi (Stick Holi)
Braj area (Vrindavan, Mathura, Barsana, Nandgaon, Govardhan, and Gokul) in Uttar Pradesh was Lord Krishna's hometown. Besides color flight, people in this area celebrate Holi with much more ardour and exclusive festivities, such as the famous Lathmar Holi (Stick Holi). The most popular places to attend Lathmar Holi is Barsara and Nandgaon.
Lath means ‘stick’ and mar means ‘to beat’. The legend is that Krishna was poisoned by a demon’s milk during childhood. Rather than killing young Krishna, the milk had the unintended effect of turning his skin to its characteristic dark shade of blue.
Krishna, living in Nandgaon, was ashamed of his blue skin and didn’t dare to profess his love to Radha, who lived in Barsana. Following the advice of his mother Yashoda, he went to Barsara and simply colored the skin of Radha and her friends. Though Radha fell in love with Krishna because of his charming personality, she and her friends chased Krishna with sticks at first.
To memorialize the love story of Krishna and Radha, Holi celebrations in Barsara have fun and happy traditions of colors and sticks.
Men from Nandgaon go to Barsara to throw colors on the women. And, playfully, Barsara women chase the men with sticks. The man who is caught will hold a shield on top of his head. Don’t freak out! It is just for fun.
4. Sweet Treats and Festival Drinks
Sweets, desserts, and street foods are a large part of any Indian festival and are especially important on Holi. During the color fights, you'll find street food vendors selling tasty snacks like papri chaat and samosas to feed the celebrating masses.
It is also customary to exchange sweets between friends and family during Holi. Some of the most popular Holi sweets include gujiya (sweet fried dumplings filled with dried fruits), barfi (a condensed milk and sugar cake), and malpua (a sweet pancake made from fruits).
Another treat that is traditionally consumed on Holi is thandai, which is a cold refreshing drink made from whole milk, almonds, rose water, fennel seed, saffron, cardamom, and peppercorn.
During Holi, thandai is often laced with cannabis paste (bhang) because in Hinduism it is thought to bring people closer to the gods.
It is important for travelers to be very cautious when consuming bhang thandai because it can cause unpleasant feelings, anxiety, and poor judgment if taken in excess.
On Holi, visiting your friends and loved ones is an important part of the celebrations and typically takes place in the evening after the color fight. Families often gather to eat large meals or greet each other to spread the festival joy.
For travelers, there are a few Holi phrases and greetings you can learn to impress locals and wish them a happy holiday.
The first one is "Happy Holi" which many people in India will say to each other in English. If you want to try the Hindi version you can say:
- Holi mubarak (pronounced: Ho-lee mu-bar-ak)
Another important phrase you"ll hear everywhere during the celebrations is: "Don't worry, it’s Holi!" which is typically said to remind others to have fun and in Hindi is:
- Bura na mano Holi hai (pronounced: Bu-ra nah man-o ho-lee hey)
Where to Celebrate Holi?
The most important thing to consider when choosing where you want to celebrate Holi is what type of experience is best for you. Some travelers prefer traditional Holi while others prefer a more laid back and controlled version of the event.
Pushkar is one of the safest cities to celebrate Holi because the color fight is closely monitored by local police who throw out anyone who misbehaves.
Udaipur is a great place to learn about the cultural side of Holi as it has unique celebrations and the local royal family joins in the rituals.
How to Plan a Trip to India During Holi
Now that you know more about Holi, its time to start planning your dream trip to India.
When visiting India for Holi, it is best if travelers have at least 7 days for the journey. This way you can spend two days celebrating the festival and the rest of the time seeing the iconic sights of India such as the Taj Mahal in Agra or the Red Fort in Delhi.
While Holi is a beautiful celebration, in some cities it can get too chaotic and can even be dangerous for participants. Because of this, it is important to do a lot of research when choosing where you will celebrate the festival.
It is also a good idea to book a hotel that offers private celebrations for its guests so that you can head out to celebrate in the early morning then return to your hotel to continue the celebrations before the streets get too rowdy.
Learn more about how to experience Holi in India and how to plan your trip.
Tips for Enjoying Holi and Celebrating Safely
When visiting India for Holi Festival, many travelers will be faced with the same worry: is Holi safe to celebrate in India?
Because of the anonymity that the color fight creates, there have been safety issues in the past during Holi that range from petty crimes to more serious offenses.
Most of the crimes are committed by groups of young intoxicated men. To avoid these groups, we recommend celebrating Holi in the early morning and returning to your hotel before the peak hours of the color fight.
It is also very important to protect your skin from the colored powders. The colors can not only stain your skin and hair but may also contain harsh chemicals that can cause irritation or dryness.
Learn more about how to celebrate Holi safely in India as a traveler.
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