Welcome to Holi, the Festival of Colors, India’s most vibrant and exhilarating holiday! As 2024 approaches, travelers and digital nomads in Asia are gearing up to dive into this rainbow-colored celebration, a festival that’s as rich in cultural significance as it is in fun.
In this post, we are answering common questions like “What is Holi?”, and talking about its cultural and historical roots, uncovering its myths, exploring its traditions, and giving you insider tips on how to celebrate it in India like a local.
Whether you’re planning to be amidst the lively crowds of Mathura, the historical streets of Udaipur, or anywhere in between, get ready to immerse yourself in a world where colors aren’t just thrown but are embraced as expressions of joy and unity.
So, grab your sunglasses (you’ll need them!), and let’s step into the vibrant world of Holi 2024 in India – a festival where every color tells a story, and every face in the crowd is part of a living, laughing canvas.
Suggested Read: Top 10 Unique New Year’s Celebrations Around the World
What is Holi?
Holi, fondly known as the Festival of Colors, is one of the most vibrant and jubilant festivals celebrated in India. Its roots go way back to ancient times. It’s mentioned in early religious texts like the Puranas, the Ramayana, and the Mahabharata. This story is a classic good-versus-evil tale where good, of course, triumphs. It symbolizes the victory of good over evil, of devotion overcoming power and arrogance.
Fast forward to medieval India, and you’ll find Holi in the royal courts of the Rajputs and other kingdoms. It was a grand affair, with festivities lasting for days. Even the Mughal emperors, like Akbar and Jahangir, embraced the spirit of Holi, throwing elaborate parties and celebrations.
Over the years, Holi evolved, absorbing various cultural influences. From being a royal festivity, it transformed into a popular festival celebrated across social strata. It became a canvas for showcasing local folklore, music, and dance, turning into a vibrant cultural melting pot.
This festival usually falls in March, coinciding with the arrival of spring, and it’s a time when the social barriers just drop, and people of all ages, genders, and social standings come together, armed with colored powders and water balloons, ready to paint the town.
In 2024, Holi falls on March 25th
How is Holi celebrated in India?
The Holi celebration actually kicks off the night before the color-throwing extravaganza with an event called Holika Dahan. People gather around a large fire to perform religious rituals, praying for the destruction of evil, just like how Holika, the evil sister of the demon king Hiranyakashipu, was burned in the fire. It’s a time for purifying the soul and celebrating the triumph of good.
The next day, people chase each other with dry powder called ‘gulal’ and colored water, turning everyone into walking rainbows.
At least in theory, It’s a day when old grudges should be forgotten, and friends and families come together to laugh, dance, and feast. Traditional foods like ‘gujiya’ (a sweet dumpling), ‘thandai’ (a spiced milk drink), and ‘chaat’ (a savory snack) are devoured with gusto.
Culturally, Holi is a reflection of India’s spirit – vibrant, inclusive, and full of life. It represents unity, where the diversity of India’s cultures and traditions blend as seamlessly as the colors on Holi. The festival also embraces a sense of renewal, encouraging people to let go of past errors and create new bonds and memories.
Holy Celebrations Across India
The way Holi is celebrated across India changes from region to region, each adding its unique hue to the festivities. Let’s embark on a colorful journey across India to see how this tapestry of celebrations unfolds.
North India: The Heartland of Holi
In the North, Holi is the king of festivals. In places like Mathura and Vrindavan, where the love story of Radha and Krishna originated, Holi is celebrated with an enthusiasm that’s almost palpable. Here, the festivities last for over a week! Temples are adorned, and there’s a playful, romantic air with traditional songs and dances. The highlight is the Lathmar Holi in Barsana, where women playfully hit men with sticks while the men protect themselves with shields. It’s like a colorful, joyous battle out of a fairy tale.
West India: A Flavor of Royalty
In Rajasthan, Holi gets a touch of royal elegance. The traditional ‘Gair’ dance in Ajmer and the famous elephant festival in Jaipur add a regal flavor to the celebrations. Elaborately decorated elephants perform in a parade, with folks dressed in their festive best and music filling the air.
South India: A Blend of Culture and Devotion
Moving south, Holi is celebrated with a slightly different twist. It’s more about religious and cultural significance than the wild color play. In states like Tamil Nadu and Kerala, the focus is on religious observances and temple rituals. It’s a more subdued affair but equally meaningful.
East India: The Cultural Canvas
In West Bengal, Holi, known as ‘Dol Jatra,’ is a display of the state’s rich cultural heritage. Here, the focus is on music, with Rabindra Sangeet (songs of Rabindranath Tagore) setting the tone. Idols of Krishna and Radha are taken around in processions, and the colors are mixed with a lot of cultural fervor.
Central India: The Folk Fusion
In the heart of India, states like Madhya Pradesh celebrate Holi with a delightful mix of folk traditions. It blends vibrant colors and rustic charm, with folk songs and dances adding to the festive atmosphere.
Northeast India: The Tribal Touch
In the Northeast, particularly in states like Assam, Holi merges with the local Bihu festival, reflecting the unique tribal cultures. It’s fascinating to see how Holi is interwoven with indigenous traditions, making it a distinct experience.
Holi in Modern Urban India
Holi is a day of uninhibited joy in modern places like Delhi and Mumbai. It’s a break from the fast-paced life, where communities come together in public spaces or apartment complexes, drenched in colors, with Bollywood songs adding to the vibe. It’s a day when social barriers dissolve, and people connect with a spirit of joy and camaraderie.
Top 5 cities to celebrate Holi in India
Wanna join? Check out this 6 day Holi tour in India that will make your travel dreams come true!
1. Mathura and Vrindavan – The Heart of Holi
Okay, I’m cheating a bit here by clubbing two cities, but trust me, there is a reason for it. These towns are the birthplace and playground of Lord Krishna, making them the epicenter of Holi celebrations. Vrindavan’s Banke Bihari Temple hosts a week-long fest, while Mathura’s colorful processions and the exuberant show at Dwarkadheesh Temple are the biggest and most traditional in the country.
2. Udaipur – Royal Holi
Ever wanted to experience Holi in royal style? Udaipur is your answer. The Mewar royal family hosts an elaborate celebration at the City Palace, complete with a royal procession, folk dances, and the traditional lighting of the Holika bonfire.
3. Jaipur – The Pink City’s Colorful Makeover
Jaipur takes its nickname ‘The Pink City’ to new heights during Holi. Famous for its Elephant Festival, which fortunately has been discontinued to promote animal welfare, the city still bursts into a spectrum of colors. From themed parties at private venues to traditional celebrations in the walled city, Jaipur offers a regal Holi experience with cultural performances and a dash of glamour.
This tour here takes you on a 3 days trip to Jaipur during Holi, hotel included.
4. Barsana – The Land of Lathmar Holi
Barsana, a small town near Mathura, gives Holi a unique twist with its Lathmar Holi. Here, women playfully hit men with sticks, and the men protect themselves with shields. It’s all in good fun and rooted in the playful antics of Radha and Krishna. This tradition gives a whole new meaning to ‘playing hard to get’!
5. Shantiniketan, West Bengal – A Cultural Holi
Founded by the Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore, the celebrations in Shantiniketan are known as Basanta Utsav, which means ‘Spring Festival.’ It’s a cultural event where students dress in spring colors and put on a grand show of music and dance inspired by Tagore’s songs. This Holi is more about cultural richness and less about the wild color play, offering a serene yet joyful experience.
The Meanings of Each Color in Holi
Each color used in Holi carries deep significance, reflecting various aspects of life and culture.
- Red: The most prominent color in Holi symbolizes love and fertility. It’s a color that resonates with the heart and emotions, reflecting the love story of Radha and Krishna, central to Holi’s mythology. In a broader sense, red is also a sign of marriage and prosperity in Indian culture, making it a color of celebration and auspiciousness.
- Blue: Blue represents the divine, a nod to Lord Krishna, who is often depicted with blue skin in Hindu mythology. It’s a color that symbolizes the vastness and depth of the universe, reminding participants of the infinite nature of existence and the mystical power of the divine.
- Yellow: Derived from turmeric, Yellow signifies health and happiness. It’s also a symbol of knowledge and learning, reflecting the importance of wisdom and intellect in life.
- Green: Green is the color of nature and symbolizes new beginnings and the rejuvenation of life. As Holi heralds the arrival of spring, green represents the new life and harmony that comes with the season.
- Pink: Often seen as a softer shade of red, pink represents hospitality. It’s a color that welcomes and embraces, reflecting the spirit of Holi where people come together, forgetting their differences and grudges.
- Purple: This color is often associated with magic and mystery and represents the mystical aspects of Holi. It’s a color that encourages introspection and spiritual growth, reminding participants of the deeper, mystical aspects of life and the magic that surrounds us.
To take the colors off your skin and hair, just wash it with mild soap or body wash and gently massage your skin or hair. Some colors, especially the darker ones, might take a few days to fade completely. Don’t panic and overwash; just continue your routine, and they’ll gradually fade away.
Traditional Holi Foods: A Feast for the Senses
When it comes to Holi, the food is just as important as the colors. This festival brings with it a smorgasbord of flavors that are a true feast for the senses. Let’s take a gastronomic tour and explore the traditional foods that make Holi deliciously memorable.
- Gujiya: Gujiya is a crescent moon-shaped pastry stuffed with a sweet mixture of khoya (dried whole milk), nuts, and dried fruits, deep-fried to golden perfection. This is Gujiya, the undisputed sweet star of Holi. No Holi celebration is complete without this delightful sweet.
- Thandai: Thandai is to Holi what eggnog is to Christmas. It’s a refreshing, creamy drink made with milk, sugar, and a blend of aromatic spices like fennel seeds, cardamom, and saffron. Sometimes, it’s given an extra kick with a dash of bhang (cannabis), making it a heady, intoxicating beverage. Thandai is not just a drink; it’s an experience, a burst of flavors that’s both exhilarating and soothing.
- Puran Poli: In the western parts of India, Puran Poli takes center stage. It’s a sweet flatbread filled with a mix of chana dal (split chickpeas) and jaggery (unrefined cane sugar). Cooked to a golden brown and oozing with ghee (clarified butter), Puran Poli is comfort food at its best. It’s like a hug for your taste buds.
- Dahi Vada: Dahi Vada, or yogurt fritters, is a popular Holi snack made of spongy lentil fritters dunked in creamy yogurt, topped with sweet and tangy chutneys, and sprinkled with spices. It’s a mix of flavors – tangy, sweet, spicy – all in one bite.
- Bhaang Ki Pakori: Bhaang Ki Pakori, fritters laced with cannabis, are a traditional Holi snack in some parts of India. They’re like regular pakoras, but with a twist that can give you a mild euphoric high. It’s a controversial yet integral part of Holi for many, adding an extra layer of cheer to the festivities.
- Malpua: Malpua is an Indian pancake made from a batter of flour, milk, and sugar, fried in ghee, and soaked in sugar syrup. Each bite of Malpua is a heavenly mix of crispy and soft textures drenched in syrupy goodness.
The Cultural Use of Cannabis in Holi
The traditional Indian beverage made from cannabis, known as Bhang, has been a part of Indian culture for centuries, deeply rooted in ancient practices and religious rituals. During Holi, bhang is consumed as a part of the festivities, and its use is steeped in mythological and cultural contexts.
Its use is often linked to Lord Shiva, one of the principal deities in Hinduism. Shiva is frequently associated with cannabis, as per Hindu mythology. It’s said that Shiva himself enjoyed bhang, and hence, it’s consumed by his followers, particularly during festivals like Holi and Shivratri.
During Holi, bhang is seen as a symbol of festivity and camaraderie. Its consumption is not just about the intoxication; it’s more about breaking down social barriers and inhibitions. People from different walks of life come together, share bhang, and celebrate the joyous spirit of Holi, creating a sense of unity and togetherness.
While it’s an age-old tradition, the legality of cannabis varies across different regions in India. However, during Holi, its use is generally accepted and integrated into the festivities, seen as a part of the cultural fabric of the festival.
Safety Tips to Enjoy Holi in India
Holi is a festival of joy, and keeping these safety tips in mind ensures that it remains a happy and healthy experience for everyone.
- Use Safe, Natural Colors: The star of Holi is, undoubtedly, the colors. Opt for natural, eco-friendly colors instead of synthetic ones that may contain harmful chemicals. Natural colors are gentler on the skin and the environment. They are easy to find as they are sold everywhere in India, so no excuses!
- Protect Your Skin and Hair: Before stepping into the color battleground, slather on some oil or moisturizer on your skin and hair. It’s like giving yourself a protective shield, making it easier to wash off the colors later. Don’t forget to apply sunscreen, too, because the sun won’t be taking a holiday!
- Dress Appropriately: Wear clothes you don’t care about – think old, comfortable T-shirts you can just throw away after the party.
- Be Mindful of Bhang Consumption: If bhang (edible cannabis) is on the menu, consume it responsibly. It’s easy to get carried away, so pace yourself.
- Respect Consent: This is a big one. Always ask before smearing color on someone. Not everyone might be as enthusiastic about getting drenched in colors.
- Avoid Crowds: Especially for women, this kind of celebration in India can often get out of hand as the crowds tend to get huge. I witnessed a few cases of sexual harassment during Holi, and staying in a place less crowded helped to avoid this situation. The morning of Holi day is usually more chill, and the party gets more intense by evening.
- Protect Your Belongings: Keep your electronics and valuables in waterproof bags or leave them home.
To ensure safety and an exclusive experience during Holi, consider going on a private tour with the Royal Family. Click here for more details.
FAQ about Holi
Holi, often called the Festival of Colors, is a jubilant Indian festival marking the arrival of spring and the triumph of good over evil. It’s a time to play with colors, mend relationships, and indulge in festive foods!
In 2024, Holi will be celebrated in March. Yes, the date changes as it’s based on the lunar calendar, typically occurring on the full moon day in the month of Phalguna.
bsolutely! With common sense and basic precautions like wearing old clothes and protecting your eyes, tourists can safely enjoy the festivities.
Mathura, Vrindavan, Jaipur, Udaipur, and Barsana are top picks for an authentic and vibrant Holi experience.
While the main Holi event is a day-long affair, celebrations in some places like Mathura and Vrindavan can last up to a week!
Bring a sense of adventure, wear clothes you don’t mind getting colorful, pack a waterproof camera, and most importantly, a big smile!
Editor of Yes, Summer! I am a Brazilian journalist, writer, and digital nomad. I have been traveling the world, telling stories, and tasting local beers since 2010. I am the co-founder of 360meridianos, a reference in travel writing in Brazil, and author of the newsletter Migraciones. On social media, I'm always reachable at @natybecattini.