The Holi Festival in India
The term Holi or Holi Festival maybe isn’t in your everyday vocabulary, but you have most likely seen some breathtaking photos from the “Festival of Colours”. Originally celebrated mainly in India, this festival has spread across the globe in many forms and attracts many visitors every year.
But do you know the history behind this festival? What traditions it involves? Or why it is known as “the Indian carnival”? We will address these questions and more within this article.
General Information about Holi
How and why is it celebrated?
Holi is one of the oldest festivals in India and Hindu culture. It is also alternatively known as the “Festival of Colours”. In India, the name of the festival depends on the region you’re in. For example, it is also sometimes referred to as Shimga, Shigmo, or Kamadahana. The length of the festival, the traditions, and how it’s celebrated are also dependent on the region. However, most of the time it lasts between two and ten days.
Holi has a strong connection to Hindu mythology and history. The main celebration is the burning of the demon Holika, whose death signified the triumph of good over evil. But that is only one of the many fascinating stories surrounding Holi. If we were to mention them all, they would fill an entire article!
In nature, you can see the triumph of good over evil with the onset of spring at the end of winter, thus the name of the German holiday Frühlingsfest (spring festival). For this reason, Holi is also celebrated from the first full moon of the month Phalgun according to the Indian Solar calendar, which is usually around February or March for us.
Where in the world is Holi celebrated?
The festival originated in India. It is mainly celebrated there and in Nepal, as both of those countries have a large population of people who follow Hinduism. Apart from that, large celebrations still take place in places with big Indian populations. This includes Bangladesh, Pakistan, South Africa, Malaysia, the USA, Canada, and the Fiji Islands.
Many of these countries and more celebrate festivals that originated from Holi, but concern themselves much more with the fun, music and colour rather than any of the actual traditions behind it.
Events, traditions, and clothing
On the first day of Holi, a fire is lit at night and a straw figure representing the demon Holika is burnt. This ritual is usually associated with prayer, and often takes place in public places and parks. In addition, typical traditional dishes such as gujiya are often served. Gujiya are sweet dumplings that can be packed with various fillings, such as dry fruit, nuts, and cardamom. On top of that, Bhang is a common drink used for toasts. It consists of milk or yoghurt mixed with the flowers of a cannabis plant.
On the second day, colour is quite literally brought to life. People pour either coloured water or the traditional powder, Gulal, over themselves. Water pistols and water balloons are also often utilised. There is traditional music, songs, dances, and drummers. Alcohol is technically forbidden, but this is becoming increasingly ignored during the celebrations.
Another important tradition is the renouncement of all conflicts and disputes, as reconciliation alone should prevail during Holi.
There is no required clothing for the Holi festival, but the women often wear green or red Saris for traditional reasons. Instead, clothing that is okay to be ruined is worn, as the colours usually stain permanently. Most of the time, white clothing is worn, even if they are to never turn white again. White symbolises truth, and it also allows for the bright colours to really stand out.
The meaning behind the powder “Gulal”
The meaning of the coloured powder comes not only from mythology but is primarily intended to cover up people’s skin colour. Through this, everyone looks the same, and this is why all class and gender boundaries are abolished during Holi in India. In the Iranian variant of the festival, known as Nouruz, the citizens take over the “power” via symbolic acts. That is similar to the USA’s Mardi Gras celebrations and Germany’s Karneval, which is why Holi is often nicknamed “Indian carnival” in Germany.
Furthermore, the colours used are sacred and are to this day usually consecrated on an alter beforehand. People also usually pass on their wishes and blessings at this ceremony. In the past, the colours were extracted from plant substances such as flowers, roots, and herbs with medicinal properties. However, nowadays they are often made from harmful, synthetic dyes. Inform yourself beforehand about what kind of colouring is used in the particular place you’re celebrating.
The colours also have their own specific meanings: red symbolises love, fertility and honour, blue represents Krishna, and green symbolises the new beginning.
The Holi Festival in India
There are variations in the celebrations for every region, but there exists an underlying universal sequence of events. The South Deli Holi Moo Festival is one of the best places for tourists to celebrate. It is a modern version of the Holi Festivals with non-toxic colouring, dancing, music, street food, and thandai (a yoghurt drink with different spices).
The “most luxurious” festival takes place in Udaipur. There is a spectacle with a royal band and decorated horses, followed by drummers, songs, cocktails, and dinner.
Varansai has a special tradition when it comes to the celebrations: all attendees must cover their bodies in a paste, known as ubtan, and then throw this in the fire. They believe that this ensures good health for the rest of the year.
In Agra, Barsana, Vrindavan, and Mumbai there is a tradition known as Matki Phod. In this, a handmade container is filled with buttermilk (or another milk product) and hung in the street. Men climb on top of each other’s shoulders and backs and build a human pyramid. The man right at the top then smashes the containers. To complicate things further, they are also bombarded with colours by the singing and dancing women and girls below.
Holi Festivities Around the World
Nepal is home to the second-highest population of Hindus after India, which is why the celebrations here are just as big. On the first day, the wooden poles, known as chir, are decorated with colourful fabrics. In the evening, they are burnt and act as a symbol for the end of the year. Women usually wear red Saris to this event. Apart from this, the celebrations are exactly the same as in India.
Holi in Mauritius is also celebrated in an exuberant way, similar to India itself. A week before the festivities even begin, everything is already decorated in rainbow colours. The display of colour then takes place in parks, streets, and even on the beaches. It is accompanied by singers and musicians who play traditional songs.
In addition, the people of Mauritius often visit their families and present them with gifts. Holi in Mauritius is a particularly beautiful sight, as around the time it is celebrated, the flowers bloom and the fields shine in a lush green.
In Spanish Fork, a city in Utah, you will find one of the biggest celebrations worldwide in Sri Sri Radha Krishna temple, just outside the city. Every year it rakes in 70,000 visitors from all over the world. The coloured powders are made from colourful corn starch and are thus completely harmless and easy to wash out. Other activities include yoga, dancing, traditional food experiences, and a fire in which the Holika is symbolically burnt.
In New York City, almost everyone celebrates Holi, regardless of ethnic background. Apart from the displays of colour, there are yoga courses, food stands, and many other traditional Indian events.
Leicester has many inhabitants with Indian heritage and is thus known for its Indian festivals – particularly Holi. It is mostly celebrated in parks throughout the city. The displays of colour also take place within the parks, with a separate section for families with children. For the big fire in the evening, there are coconuts which have been blessed and cracked open prior to the ceremony.
Since 2012, the Holi Festival of Colours has been celebrated in Germany. It takes place in over thirty cities and draws in thousands of visitors. DJs play music and there are colour countdowns, after which everyone throws the coloured powder into the air.
Another festival is the Holi Farbrausch Festival, which has only taken place in a handful of cities as of 2022. This is a music festival with colours, live Indian artists, and a stage show.
Australia celebrates Holi in many cities, but the most authentic and well known is in Melbourne. The visit is worth it, particularly for families, as alcohol is banned. There is lots of music and are many performances like Bollywood dancing, Indian drummers, and a host of other activities for children.
The Holi festival is unbelievably colourful, engaging, and a lot of fun. However, the profound traditions at the heart of Holi are unfortunately the least well-known part. Here, we have introduced you to some places where Holi is celebrated in its most authentic forms.
There are of course many other places too, but we couldn’t fit all of them into this article. But there’s no harm in looking if there is a festival near you or planning a trip to one of the destinations we suggested. It will definitely be a once in a lifetime experience, and if you want a truly unique time, nothing can top Holi in India!