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All about the Holi Festival

The Holi Festival - otherwise known as the Festival of Colors, Festival of Love, Phakuwa, or Basantotsav - is a major Hindu festival celebrated near the beginning of Spring in any area with a large Hindu or Indian population. If you're heading to any of these areas while the celebration is underway, then wear something you don't mind getting dyed - the name's not just for show.

The Holi festival is celebrated on a different day every year in India. In most of India, it is celebrated the day after the full moon during March each year. But in some areas such as West Bengal it is celebrated a day earlier.

  • In 2015, Holi is on March 6
  • In 2016, Holi is on March 23


How It All Began

The full legend is far too long to relate here, but according to Hindu lore, the Holi festival began after Holika - the evil sister of the wicked King Hiranyakashipu - tried to burn her nephew alive. She tricked him into entering a fire with her, but the magical fireproof shawl she wore wrapped around the nephew's body instead and protected him as evil burned.

At least, that's one version of the legend - as with many Hindu stories, multiple versions of the tale exist, but they share a common idea of good triumphing over evil. Indeed, one version even states that Holika was a good woman who knew what was happening was wrong, so she sacrificed her own safety to protect the innocent. For those not of the Hindu faith, the reason for Holika's death is less important than the message it represents.

Nowadays, the Holi Festival serves as a time to embrace new beginnings, repair relationships, end conflicts with others, and forgive debts. The festival is often considered to be the true start of spring (though the actual date varies each year), and reliable records indicate that it has been celebrated at least as far back as the 7th Century.

The Festival Itself

Holi begins weeks before the celebration proper as merchants start selling various dyes to ensure that everyone has as many colors as they want. Children are often drawn to liquid colors - balloons filled with dye, spray canisters, and the like - while elders often prefer using a dryer method to smear each other's faces with color once the festivities begin.

The festival truly gets underway the night before, when the Holika Bonfire (alternately: Holika Dahan or Kamudu pyre) is lit, symbolically imitating the burning of Holika. It's not uncommon for an effigy of Holika to be put in the middle of the flames, nor for locals to contribute wood and other burnables that can be stacked together to create the pyre.

Celebrations get underway the next morning as people wake up and begin gathering together. Unusually, there's no tradition of prayer during the day - it's a time of pure enjoyment, with everyone who's out and about (including visitors!) considered a fair target. However, there is one place of shelter: Inside any building, only dry pigments are used, so you won't have to worry about being splashed once you're there. Water-soluble dyes are given preference since they're easier to clean up, and the party often continues all day as people come and go.

Finally, as evening comes around, people start cleaning up and gathering with friends once more, exchanging sweets and greetings. The day after the Holi Festival tends to be a quiet and relaxed one, as people sober up and settle down.

Advice For Visitors

The Holi Festival is one of the most fascinating events on India's calendar, and well worth experiencing if you're going to be in the area. However, it's not an event you should attend without a bit of preparation, so here's a quick guide on the things to remember:

The dyes used are typically water-soluble, but that doesn't guarantee they'll wash out. We cannot emphasize this enough: wear things you don't mind getting splashed with a new coat of color.

Consider attending the festival as a group. The Holi Festival is difficult to truly experience if you're wandering around by yourself, whereas you can actually get involved if you purchase your own dyes.

Talk to some of the locals before you begin, and explain what you plan to do during the festival. They can tell you if any of your plans would be considered inappropriate - few things would be more unfortunate than getting arrested for harassment in the middle of a celebratory festival, and a little preparation can go a long ways.

Be extraordinarily careful with any forms of technology - cameras, phones, and so on. You may want to put them in a completely waterproof container for the duration of the event, and only take them out from the safety of an indoor area.

Practice good manners and try to avoid dripping dye onto the floor of any home or business you visit. When in doubt, ask your host (the homeowner, a store employee, etc.) before visiting - though you should also remember that few stores will be open during the festivities, and of those that are, they're likely to be restaurants.

If you're not sure when you'll be returning to your hotel, consider bringing a full change of clothes in a dye-proof bag or backpack - personally, we're fond of plastic bags as long as they're thick enough to not get torn.

Some of the foods and drinks made available are intoxicating - spiked with alcohol, cannabis, etc. This is a normal part of the festival. Don't eat anything unless you know what's in it, and be doubly cautious about giving any local foods to children - you may want to bring your own meals.


Written by Luke Duggan — February 17, 2015

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