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All about Holi: the festival of colours

celebration of Holi in India

India is rich: rich with flavour, rich with history, and rich with religion. We all know India for the bright elegant sarees, the flavourful curries, the saffron robed sadhus, and the gods and goddesses of Hindu mythology. But when we think of India we immediately think of colour – and colour plays an even more important role in India in March as this is when the nation stops to celebrate Holi.

Whether you’ve always wanted to experience Holi for yourself, or you just enjoy learning about other cultures and mythologies, read on to get all the info there is on India’s festival of colours: Holi!

What is Holi?

Holi is the festival of colours. It’s a Hindu holiday celebrated in spring towards the end of March, and it takes place in India and around the globe. In fact, it’s one of the biggest and most celebrated festivals in the world!

Holi traditions vary throughout the country and the origins of the festival derive from Hindu mythology. Certain parts of India celebrate Holi as a thanksgiving for an abundant harvest season, but it’s also considered a time to come together and end any conflicts you may have in your relationships with others.

The origins of Holi

In many regions the festival is associated with the legend of Hiranyakashipu: a demon king in India. He enlisted the help of his sister Holika, to kill his son, Prahlada, who was a devoted worshipper of Vishnu, another Indian god with whom Hiranyakashipu was entangled in a war. Attempting to burn Prahlada, Holika sat with him on a pyre while wearing a cloak that was supposed to protect her from the fire. However, the cloak protected Prahlada instead, and Holika burned. Later that night Vishnu succeeded in killing Hiranyakashipu, and good triumphed over evil.

Hindu mythologies share another story about the origins of Holi. In other places, the story of Krishna and Radha is the tale behind this festive holiday. The story says that Krishna, another Hindu deity, fell in love with a milkmaid Radha. Krishna was embarrassed that his skin was dark blue, and hers was fair. To change this, he coloured her face during a game with her and the other milkmaids. This is thought to be the reasoning behind the playful use of coloured powders and water during Holi.

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When is Holi?

Holi takes place on the full moon of the Hindu month ‘Phalguna’ (March). The festival begins with ‘Holika Dahan’ on the night of the full moon (referred to as Purnima) and ends with the throwing of water and colours the following day (Holi). The festival happens a day earlier in West Bengal and Odisha, and other parts of India such as Mathura and Vrindavan celebrate the festival a week earlier.

How is Holi celebrated?

The two-day festivity begins ‘Holika Dahan’, and everything kicks off at dusk when bonfires and pyres are lit to burn the statues of Holika. Rituals and prayers play an integral role in this part of the festival. The following day, Holi is the main event and begins in the early morning. The streets transform into a riot of colours, and the water fights begin.  

Water is thrown around to symbolise washing away the past, and preparing you for a fresh start. It acts like a glue for the coloured powders as well, so they’ll stick to you better. If you’re colourless during the Holi festival it creates a target over your head, especially for the cheeky children who will chase you down with their water guns, follow by their coloured powders – so beware!

Throughout history this holiday has been celebrated by all as a symbol of good triumphing over evil,and societal hierarchies such as caste, gender, age, and status are renounced in the spirit of celebrating together. 

The mornings are spent by celebrating in the cities, towns, and villages. Holi is celebrated in urban parks, local temples, and throughout the streets. In the afternoons, the festival is celebrated among friends and family with music and rain dances to welcome in the season of harvest. People spend the whole day smearing coloured powder all over each other’s clothes, bodies and faces. It starts with water, followed by colourful powder clouds and the streets are lined with the coloured dust for days. 

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The colours

The colourful powders of Holi represent the Hindu gods and vibrant colours of nature. When Holi was first celebrated, the powders were made at home using local flowers, leaves and herbs that were dried in the sun and then ground into powder. Certain colours are used during Holi celebrations for their symbolism in Hindu religious texts.

For example, yellow signifies turmeric; a sacred condiment in Hindu culture. Blue represents Lord Krishna for his blue skin. Green symbolises the start of something new and harvest season. And lastly red is used to symbolise fertility. Today, Holi is celebrated worldwide and variations in colours are used throughout the festivals and celebrations. The popularity of the festival has led to the expansion of tones included, so you’ll often see photos of purple and pink powders as well.

The food

Like all major festivities around the world, food and drinks are an important part of Holi celebrations and traditionally shared amongst friends and family.Bhang, a paste made from the cannabis plant, is traditionally consumed as part of the celebrations and is added to sweets and drinks.

Family and friends share delicacies together, such as thandai: a creamy spiced milk drink, gujiya: sweet dumplings filled with dry fruits, and kachoris: puffed pastry balls filled with lentils and fragrant spices. Alcohol is also consumed during the festival, but the vibrant activities start to die down in the afternoons and everyone heads home to freshen up for a peaceful evening.  

Where is Holi celebrated?

Traditional Holi celebrations are the biggest in the Braj region of Uttar Pradesh, just a short 3 hours from Delhi. Though you may not know it, you’ll almost definitely have heard of the state of Uttar Pradesh before, as it’s home to three of the most well-known UNESCO Heritage listed buildings in India: The Taj Mahal, Agra Fort, and Fatehpur Sikri. 

Uttar Pradesh is where Lord Krishna is believed to have grown up, so it makes sense for festivities to take place here. Mathura and Vrindavan are at the centre of this region and, here, the festivities can last for more than a week.  

The state of Rajasthan is also a popular Holi destination for foreign tourists, especially Pushkar, Udaipur, and Jaipur. Many venues organise parties for guests here. Delhi and Mumbai will throw huge events which require tickets, though many people attend these events and if this is your first Holi it could end up becoming a little overwhelming.

Experience Holi

If you want to experience Holi for the first time without getting overwhelmed, Contiki will take you! Our Eternal India trip runs over the festive period of Holi, and armed with an expert Trip Manager and local guide, you’ll feel right at home. Plus, you’ll get to share this experience with your new friends from all over the world – and you won’t have to worry about a thing! 

Top tips

Despite Holi being a Hindu celebration, you will find that a majority of the country gets involved for this carefree festival whether they are practicing or not. As long as you don’t mind getting wet and dirty, Holi is so much fun! But we do mean it – you WILL end up 100% saturated in water and stained with colour.  

My top tips to survive Holi are: 

Holi is a festival that brings people together, spreads joy and happiness and celebrates the victory of good over evil. It is a time for people to forget their worries and embrace the spirit of the season, to come together and celebrate friendship and love.

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